It’s important to understand morality. For example, once we finally grasp the fact that it exists solely as an artifact of evolution, it may finally occur to us that attempting to solve international conflicts in a world full of nuclear weapons by consulting moral emotions is probably a bad idea. Syria is a case in point. Consider, for example, an article by Nic Robertson entitled, From Sarajevo to Syria: Where is the world’s moral compass?, that recently turned up on the website of CNN. The author suggests that we “solve” the Syrian civil war by consulting our “moral compass.” In his opinion that is what we did in the Balkans to end the massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo. Apparently we are to believe that the situation in Syria is so similar that all we have to do is check the needle of the “moral compass” to solve that problem as well. I’m not so sure about that.
In the first place, the outcomes of following a “moral compass” haven’t always been as benign as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo. Czar Nicholas was following his “moral compass” when he rushed to the aid of Serbia in 1914, precipitating World War I. Hitler was following his “moral compass” when he attacked Poland in 1939, bringing on World War II. Apparently it’s very important to follow the right “moral compass,” but the author never gets around to specifying which one of the many available we are to choose. We must assume he is referring to his own, personal “moral compass.” He leaves us in doubt regarding its exact nature, but no doubt it has much in common with the “moral compass” of the other journalists who work for CNN. Unlike earlier versions, we must hope that this one is proof against precipitating another world war.
If we examine this particular “moral compass” closely, we find that it possesses some interesting idiosyncrasies. It points to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with using military force to depose a government recognized as legitimate by the United Nations. According to earlier, now apparently obsolete versions of the “moral compass,” this sort of thing was referred to as naked aggression, and was considered “morally bad.” Apparently all that has changed. Coming to the aid of a government so threatened, as Russia is now doing in Syria, used to be considered “good.” Under the new dispensation, it has become “bad.” It used to be assumed that governments recognized by the international community as legitimate had the right to control their own airspaces. Now the compass needle points to the conclusion that control over airspaces is a matter that should be decided by the journalists at CNN. We must, perforce, assume that they have concocted a “moral compass” superior to anything ever heard of by Plato and Socrates, or any of the other philosophers who plied the trade after them.
I suggest that, before blindly following this particular needle, we consider rationally what the potential outcomes might be. Robertson never lays his cards on the table and tells us exactly what he has in mind. However, we can get a pretty good idea by consulting the article. In his words,
Horror and outrage made the world stand up to Bosnia’s bullies after that imagination and fear had ballooned to almost insurmountable proportion.
Today it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin whose military stands alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Together they’ve become a force no nation alone dares challenge. Their power is seemingly set in stone.
It would seem, then, based on the analogies of Bosnia and Kosovo, where we did “good,” that Robertson is suggesting we replace the internationally recognized government of Syria by force and confront Russia, whose actions within Syria’s borders are in response to a request for aid by that government. In the process it would be necessary for us to defeat and humiliate Russia. It was out of fear of humiliation that Russia came to Serbia’s aid in 1914. Are we really positive that Russia will not risk nuclear war to avoid a similar humiliation today? It might be better to avoid pushing our luck to find out.
What of the bright idea of replacing the current Syrian government? It seems to me that similar “solutions” really didn’t work out too well in either Iraq or Libya. Some would have us believe that “moderates” are available in abundance to spring forth and fill the power vacuum. So far, I have seen no convincing evidence of the existence of these “moderates.” Supposing they exist, I suspect the chances that they would be able to control a country brimming over with religious fanatics of all stripes without a massive U.S. military presence are vanishingly small. In other words, I doubt the existence of a benign alternative to Bashar al-Assad. Under the circumstances, is it really out of the question that the best way to minimize civilian casualties is not by creating a power vacuum, or by allowing the current stalemate to drag on, but by ending the civil war in exactly the way Russia is now attempting to do it; by defeating the rebels? Is it really worth risking a nuclear war just so we can try the rather dubious alternatives?
Other pundits (see, for example, here, here, and here) inform us that Turkey “cannot stand idly by” while Syria and her Russian ally regain control over Aleppo, a city within her own borders. Great shades of the Crimean War! What on earth could lead anyone to believe that Turkey is our “ally” in any way, shape or form other than within the chains of NATO? Turkey is a de facto Islamist state. She actively supports the Palestinians against another of our purported allies, Israel. Remember the Palestinians? Those were the people who danced in the streets when they saw the twin towers falling. She reluctantly granted access to Turkish bases for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS only so she would have a free hand attacking the Kurds, one of the most consistently pro-U.S. factions in the Middle East. She was foolhardy enough to shoot down a Russian plane in Syrian territory, killing its pilot, for the “crime” of violating her airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds. She cynically exploits the flow of refugees to Europe as a form of “politics by other means.” Could there possibly be any more convincing reasons for us to stop playing with fire and get out of NATO? NATO is a ready-made fast track to World War III on behalf of “allies” like Turkey.
But I digress. The point is that the practice of consulting something as imaginary as a “moral compass” to formulate foreign policy is unlikely to end well. It assumes that, after all these centuries, we have finally found the “correct” moral compass, and the equally chimerical notion that “moral truths” exist, floating about as disembodied spirits, quite independent of the subjective imaginations of the employees of CNN. Forget about the “moral compass.” Let us identify exactly what it is we want to accomplish, and the emotional motivation for those desires. Then, assuming we can achieve some kind of agreement on the matter, let us apply the limited intelligence we possess to realize those desires.
Morality exists because the behavioral predispositions responsible for it evolved, and they evolved because they happened to promote the survival of genes in times radically different than the present. It exists for that reason alone. It follows that, if there really were such things as “moral truths,” then nothing could possibly be more immoral than failing to survive. We would do well to keep that consideration in mind in determining the nature of our future relationship with Russia.