The Immorality of Moral Universalism


Pas de liberté pour les ennemis de la liberté! No liberty for the enemies of liberty has always been the revolutionary principle, ever since Saint-Just (“The Angel of the Terror”) pronounced the phrase in Paris in 1793. Because Islam is now widely seen as an existential threat to liberal values the speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week, saying that the introduction of sharia law was both inevitable and desirable, and that idea of a sovereign state with a single law for all was “problematic” because it is not pluralist and tolerant enough, has inevitably caused a storm.

The speech did not come entirely out of the blue. For many decades now, clerics including in the Catholic church have espoused nothing but a tepid brew of secular left-liberalism. People used to say that the danger of people believing in nothing was that they would start to believe in anything. But as Paul Gottfried argued some years ago in his excellent book, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, the secularist project merely causes theological forms of behaviour to erupt into the political realm, often in a particularly nasty and deformed way. When priests stop talking about morality, other people start talking about it instead.

This was illustrated on 12th February in a speech by the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He called the speech “The Democratic Imperative”, perhaps an unconscious allusion to “the categorical imperative,” the centrepiece of the moral philosophy of the man who did most to introduce secularism and to banish God from the public realm, Immanuel Kant. Miliband’s view is that the democratic states of the world have a moral duty to intervene, including with military force, to support democracy around the world.

Miliband’s debt to Kant is very great, since he invokes the concept of moral universalism, but it is perhaps greater to his mentor, Tony Blair, who advocated the same thing at the height of the Kosovo war in 1999, in his speech entitled “The Doctrine of the International Community” and greater still to Leon Trotsky and V. I. Lenin, the men for whom his grandfather fought in the Red Army, and who, like Miliband, also believed in enforcing world revolution by military might.

The Foreign Secretary marshalled three arguments which, he said, are counter-arguments to “the democratic imperative”. Although he claimed to demolish each one in turn, he in fact failed to address the single most important counter-argument to interventionism and its claim that promoting democracy is “moral”, namely that, on the contrary, interventionism is deeply immoral.

This is not difficult to show. Kosovo is about to declare its independence. Naturally there will be a lot of crowing about how the NATO war of 1999 was fought for universal values and about how it therefore showed the rightness of interventionism. Yet you do not have to accept that the original war was evil (as I believe it was) to see that the subsequent administration of the province has been catastrophic. As Matthias Brügmann reported in Handelsblatt on 2nd February (“Das Scheitern der Welt” – “The World’s Failure”), and as I know from my own bitter experience, Kosovo is a hell-hole. The United Nations administration there has ruthlessly sacrificed its own institutional self-interest to that of the Kosovo people; it has consumed tens of billions of dollars without providing for any of the basics for civilised life – there is no proper electricity supply and there are power cuts all the time; and the place is run by the Mafia, the former KLA leader Hashim Thaci having been Prime Minister since 2007. Unemployment is nearly universal and the place is a sump of corruption and violence. What is moral about that?

Anyone interested in reading more on this would do well to consult the terrible indictment published in 2006 by two well-meaning former officials in the UN administration in Kosovo, Iain King and Whit Mason, Peace at any price: How the world failed Kosovo. Even the European Commission’s annual progress report on candidate states admits, Kosovo government is “weak an inefficient” while corruption remains “widespread” [pdf].

I have written elsewhere about the immorality of supporting the independence of Kosovo while denying it to Flanders, Northern Cyprus, Republika Srpska, Transnistria or any of the other numerous territories around the world which do not want to belong to the states they are in. David Miliband says that one of his ideological enemies is Realpolitik, but what other word can there be for supporting the independence of those countries you like, while denying it to those you do not?

The only other possible word which describes such an approach is “double standards” and these are the opposite of moral. Yet they are precisely what another interventionist, Robert Cooper, once wrote (in The Post Modern State and the World Order were what should guide the foreign policy of the West: “We need to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of state outside the post-modern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception.”

Similar theories have been advanced, for instance, by Robert Kaplan, another interventionist, in his apology for brutalism, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership demands a Pagan Ethos.

On one level, Miliband’s and Blair’s invocation of morality in justification of horrible acts of war is simply the sign of a psychotic personality – what one Iraq expert called to advise the then Prime Minister before the invasion of Iraq, “a strange combination of moral fervour and cynicism”. At a deeper level, however, I believe that double standards and hypocrisy are the inevitable results of any policy based on abstract, universal values. Appeals to universal values will always lead to hypocrisy because values cannot be apprehended in the abstract, only in the concrete. The only way to appreciate the value of something is by comparing it to something else.

We need to renew, therefore, with the ancient tradition of justice and morality, formulated by Cicero and Aristotle and transfigured by St. Thomas Aquinas, according to which justice is the administration to each of his deserts. It is the role of the state to establish such deserts and administer such justice, but, more profoundly, it is the role of the polis to provide a forum in which such values can be publicly apprehended and judged. The state is also the forum by which accountability for the wielding of power is ensured: international power, by contrast, is structurally unaccountable because there are literally no mechanisms by which decisions are subjected to any sort of democratic scrutiny or approval.

Miliband’s approach, therefore, is to deny the state its noble role of providing a forum for the establishment of value, and, in the name of an morality which is as capricious as it is abstract, to argue for nothing less than the right to wield power without responsibility.

Very Powerful Conclusion

Mr. Laughland is excllent on the inherent capriciousness of universal morality.  The movement in contemporary Europe is to replace politics with abstract administration; the concrete with the disembodied.  Any claim that is "exclusive" loses legitimacy; anything cuched as universal can be pulled-off as humanitarian.  Therefore, for people like Miliband and Blair, the directives of an unelected but "inclusive" body that speaks of universality are morally superior to the simple wishes of their physical constituents.  Physical reality is so vulgar.