Norm Geras returns to a leftoid cause celebre:

A man appealing to freedom as a universal value, and thinking that freedom is the gift of God Almighty, and seeing the cause of freedom in Iraq as right eternally, might have been expected to regard the torture of a human being as in violation of a most compelling, indeed a sacred, value, and torture as – what it is – an absolute wrong.

The only valid absolutism is that absolutism is always wrong.

This is especially true as regards moral absolutism, because no such thing exists. We moderns of the West regard child labor, subordination of women, and slavery as moral wrongs. Not just other societies, but our own ancestors, do and did disagree mightily, supporting that disagreement with strong arguments based on their morality. Moral relativists do have one thing correct: anything you can find substantial disagreement to is not “absolute”.

We can pass lightly over the incongruity of a sociopolitical movement that, on the one hand, places moral and cultural relativism near the core of their doctrine and, on the other, declares the existence of moral absolutes. To the extent that substantial agreement on moral issues exists it is the legacy of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, for whom resource allocation was a vital issue. We no longer live in hunter-gatherer tribes, and the industrial society we do live in requires compromise, even contradiction, of the moral values impressed upon us by multiple millenia of evolution.

Where moral relativists fail is in their denial that there is a valid ranking system for different moralities. Morality is the basis of survival of the society; it follows that that moral system which produces wealth, well-being, and strength in the society is better than the one which does so in lesser degree, or fails to do so at all. By that standard Western morality is greatly superior to any other that currently exists — but it contains many strong contradictions to our ancestral morality.

Consider private property. By hunter-gatherer standards the very concept is utterly immoral; a person who sequesters needed resources for himself alone, denying them to the other members of the tribe, puts the very survival of the tribe in danger. However, when we examine modern industrial (and agricultural) societies around the world we discover a curious fact: those societies which incorporate and enforce the concepts of private property are invariably wealthier and stronger than those which do not, almost in direct proportion. The mechanisms by which this occurs are of great, even vital, interest, but only secondarily. Simply by observation, we can conclude that private property is moral for an industrial society where it is immoral for a tribe of hunter-gatherers.

Torture goes the other way. In a primitive society, torturing the proto-capitalist into disgorging the sequestered goods bids fair to be a moral absolute (and, indeed, we find that the modern Left enthusiastically, even avidly, supports that notion, albeit at second hand). To a modern society torture is repugnant, in large part because it denies that autonomy of the individual which lies at the root of the concept of property. Torture is immoral in a modern industrial society because the success of such a society is the vector sum of the success of the individuals that make it up, and neither torturer nor victim contributes in any way to the wealth, and therefore the success, of the society. The torturer engages in unfruitful, even destructive, activity, thus denying to the society both the increment in wealth he might have provided by constructive behavior and the contribution the victim might make.

But what if he does contribute in a negative sense? Destruction of the goods and chattels of an industrial society, and even more of the confidence by which the members of that society may go about the business of contributing to it, is immoral; prevention of such destruction is a moral absolute in that society. If there are individuals whose declared intent is destruction, they must be frustrated — it were immoral to do otherwise — and the defender is placed in a moral quandary. Survival of the society is paramount; its success is only just less so; the defender must weigh the relative importance of one immoral act against that of another, and must come down in favor of societal success.

George Bush clearly saw that moral dilemma:

I knew an interrogation programme this sensitive and controversial would one day become public. When it did, we would open ourselves up to criticism that America had compromised our moral values. I would have preferred that we get the information another way.

Compromise of moral values is inevitable in any society, even primitive ones. The Eskimo had to weigh the relative contributions of age and experience against the resources consumed by the aged, and in their resource-poor society concluded that leaving old people to die in the snow was the morally superior alternative. We resolve the dilemma in the other direction, because a wealthy industrial society is not, in large, short of resources — but the dilemma still exists, as can be seen in the debates of the NHS and American indignance at “death panels”.

Faced with a moral dilemma, the best that can be done is to make an honest assessment of the relative values involved and act accordingly. There is no evidence that Bush failed to make such an assessment, and every indication that he not only did so but found it excruciatingly difficult. Second-guessing his decisions is an act of cruelty based on political ideology, itself immoral.

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