Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Cohen, Burma and Consequentialism

Mel was kind enough to link to me regarding a mail I sent him on Nick Cohen's piece in Sunday's Observer. I did mention in his comments that there is an interesting and largely sane comments thread on the piece at Crooked Timber.

Mel's line on the issue follows his thoughts on accountability and responses to terrorism as outlined in Michael Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil. I'm not so sure that I agree with him on the Burma issue, however.

Cohen's piece is a bit of a rant, though I'm not sure that Mel does him complete justice is in his reading of the article. Cohen does seem to be saying that (as Mel puts it)
What Cohen seems to be arguing, however, is that efforts to get aid and assistance to the Burmese people ought not to become an obsession given the nature of the Rangoon regime and its efforts to maintain a wall of silence around any information that reflects badly on life in Burma.

The game, as Cohen puts it, may not be worth the candle. That said, I'm not sure that Cohen is saying that we should abandon the people of Burma. Rather, I think he's saying that getting involved in trying to help the people of Burma might aid the regime to the detriment of the people. The aid would be used by the junta to its own advantage, not to help those affected. Moreover, misused aid might help stabilise the regime, thus consigning the people to more years of repression.

Of course, there are lots of empirical issues here that I am not au fait with, and so can hardly comment on. What I do want to discuss is the juncture between deontological approaches and consequentialist approaches that hard cases such as these provide (for more a detailed discussion of consequentialism, see here).

It strikes me that a deontologist would give priority to the duty to do all that one can do in the wake of catastrophic events, seeking to prevent further deaths and to aid the living in rebuilding their lives, over the principle that one should not have dealings with repressive regimes. The needs of people must take priority over the longer term imperative towards political freedoms. (This claim probably requires more work than I'm willing to do. If you want to be less lazy than me, I'd be delighted!)

This is all beginning to look very very straw-mannish, but a deontologist will have regard for consequences in the following manner. After all, the duty as I outlined it above (roughly speaking, save lives) is action oriented, even if I omit the 'all that one can do' bit. The question raised by Cohen is whether the action will have the consequences that it is intended to have, namely saving lives and helping the living. In a certain sense, the calculation of consequences is about whether the action one takes is the action one intends to take, or whether it is another action altogether.

If it is another action altogether (one that benefits a vicious regime and does little to assist the people) then it does not comply with the duty that one is trying to follow.

So, the consequences orientation of a deontologist works as follows: one's moral duties guide actions, but they do not necessarily suggest the appropriate action in hard cases. In order to figure that out, one must say something about the consequences of the various actions one might possibly do.

Back to Cohen and Mel. It strikes me that if collaboration with the Burmese junta was merely the lesser evil, compromising the 'don't engage with repressive regimes' duty in following the more important 'save lives' duty, then fair enough. If one's actions will do nothing for the 'save lives' duty but will nevertheless undermine the 'don't engage with repressive regimes' duty, then things become more difficult.

As I said in commenting on Mel's thoughts, this may seem like an obscene opportunity to engage in a revery about moral principles, but I do think that there are very important issues at stake here. The two duties I've outlined are of crucial importance. While events will get in the way of our arriving at a definitive balance between the two, some thought about negotiating is essential.

Although I've no idea where to start...

No comments: