Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

This report (quoted below) from Friday’s Independent, has quite rightly attracted the opprobrium of several bloggers including Justin (Chicken Yoghurt), Jeremy (My Way Of Thinking) and Mark (Longrider).

A day earlier, Mr Blair had told MPs: “We do not agree with the use of torture.” Pressed over whether that was an absolute rule, Mr Blair added:

“I mean absolute in this sense, that you say ‘Look, it is simply the civil liberties of the suspect, or simply the liberties of freedom from terrorism’. You have to balance those two things.”

He went on: “Of course there are absolute rules that we have about torture, or about the death penalty for example … I do not accept that the anti-terrorist measures that we have been introducing transgress that.”

A statement that Justin quite wonderfully satirises as:

What a whacky topsy-turvy world the Blair household must be. “Fish for tea, Tony?” “Absolutely, in the sense that that you say ‘Look, it is simply fish for tea, or simply pork chops for tea’. You have to balance those two things.” “Oh darling, you are a card!”

Torture has been widely debated by a number of bloggers in recent weeks and, unsurprisingly, turns out to be one of the those subjects which generates a clear consensus across the blogosphere – not only is it wrong but wrong in a way what demands its absolute and non-negotiable prohibition (damn our unrepresentative liberal/libertarian hides, yet again) – a position with which I am, of course, in full and unequivocal agreement.

In considering Blair’s comments, however, I must beg to differ with my esteemed blogging colleagues on one specific point; I suspect there’s rather more to Blair’s views here that his simply indulging in bit of moral flexibility and/or moral relativism when it comes to torture.

There’s been rather an upsurge of interest in morality and ethics of late; one driven to a considerable extent by ‘The War Against Terror’ (T.W.A.T), Iraq and, most recently of course, by the July 7th terrorist attack on London. The shifting patterns of global conflict from Clauswitzian warfare conducted by professional armies to post-Clauswitizian asymmetric warfare has, so it seems, turned us all into moralists; having slaked his thirst on the battlefields of two World Wars, the apocalyptic horseman has decided that its time he started to make a few house-calls to the obvious discomfort of the politicians and civilian populations of the industrialised West; for whom war has been something that happened somewhere else for more or less the last half century.

So we find Kantian notions of ‘moral agency’ re-entering mainstream political discourse to challenge the dominance of realpolitik, albeit that much of this has come in form of reams of self-exculpatory nonsense from supporters of the 2003 invasion of Iraq who, stripped of a legal justification for war by the failure of the US/UK governments to find evidence of WMDs, have spent the last couple of years flailing around for an intellectual/philosophical rationale to put in its place in the hope this might get them off the hook.

Much of the overt influence, and attraction, of moral absolutes is that they tend both to rule out and, in the minds of those wielding them, negate any possibility of opposing viewpoints. Things become a matter of black and white, right and wrong, ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ – we are, after all, doing what is ‘morally right’ and consequently cannot be blamed or held responsible if this results in a little ‘collateral damage’ along the way. It must be remembered that you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs along the way.

While it is tempting to see Blair’s obvious equivocation on the use of torture as a lapse into moral flexibility/relativism, in truth there is nothing either flexible or relative about the moral stance which underpins his opinions. On the question of torture, as with Iraq, terrorism and indeed his whole approach to law, order, security and civil liberties/human rights, Blair’s values, like those of his US counterpart, George W Bush, are shaped by a clear belief in a specific set of moral absolutes, albeit a different set of absolutes that that we have come to expect from politicians in such circumstances.

As an atheist, humanist and existentialist I rarely deal in absolutes, moral or otherwise and yet, like everyone else, I find myself needing a moral/ethical base for my personal system of values, a solid platform upon which to construct a worldview that allows me to function effectively in wider society. For me that base, the foundation that underpins my personal values, is justice. It is the one absolute, blind though it is and always should be, that forms a part of my everyday life, the one value on which I can accept no compromise, imperfect though it often is in practice.

In my world, the world as I see it, moral authority derives from and should serve the principle of justice. That, in a nutshell, is the fundamental reason why I am, and always have been, opposed to the death penalty and to the use of torture; both run contrary to my sense of justice and, as such, I take the view that a society which makes use of either loses its moral authority to sit in judgement over those who transgress its rules. If, as a society, we are to countenance the use of torture and the execution of prisoners by the State then who are we to sit in judgement of anyone?

Those are my personal values, and without wishing to presuppose matters or project my own views on to others, I would strongly suspect that these are values that are widely shared by many of those bloggers who have condemned the seeming equivocation of the likes of Bush, Blair and Cheney which it comes to the use of torture and the use of information obtained through torture. It is why I disagree fundamentally with Blair when he dissembles in the face of questions about the absolute prohibition of torture.

Blair, on the other hand, is a Christian and despite periodic claims to the contrary, most notably Alistair Campbell’s assertion that ‘Tony doesn’t do God’, it is apparent that his personal beliefs do play a significant role in shaping aspects of government policy – hence we have a legal prohibition against discrimination in employment on grounds of sexuality which, conveniently, doesn’t apply if discrimination is based on the religious convictions of the employer and evangelical Christian wingnuts, like Sir Peter Vardy, running flagship City Academies amongst other things – the withdrawal of plans to repeal existing blasphemy laws when outlawing religious hatred that had been ‘trailed’ as a likely inclusion in the Bill springs to mind as well.

Read any of Blair’s recent speeches and comments where he touches on the question of ‘rights’ and it should be obvious that his personal view of civil rights draws a very clear distinction between the rights of those he sees as ‘innocent’ as opposed to those he perceives to be ‘guilty’.

This is there, quite obviously, when he talks of a balance between ‘the liberties of freedom from terrorism’ and ‘the civil liberties of the suspect’ just as it is when he discusses law and order and makes reference to the persistent and misleading trope of ‘the rights of the victim’, or indeed in his efforts to rewrite history and sell the invasion of Iraq as a ‘moral act’ – its been conveniently forgotten along the way that even the ‘Blair Doctrine’ of humanitarian intervention, as applied in Kosovo, relies for its tacit acceptance in international law on the principle of responding to a clear and immediate threat to a civilian population that, like the supposed threat of WMDs, was absent at the time of the invasion.

This is, however, no mere relativism, but a reflection of absolutes derived from his religious beliefs; a view of public morality derived from the dual absolutes of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Blair’s personal view of rights seem to me to be very much bound up in the dualism of Christian morality in which notions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’; ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, are the primary absolutes to which all other moral values and principles, including justice, are subsidiary and subservient.

As such, this enables him to arrive at a ‘moral reconciliation’ on the use of torture on the basis that it would be wrong, and absolutely so, to torture the innocent who are clearly deserving of their rights in full, but not quite so wrong in the case of a terrorist who, by their guilt, is undeserving of the same rights – provided, of course, that he isn’t seen to dirtying his own hands with such things. This is not, however, either moral flexibility or relativism but the introduction of Christian dualism into his understanding of human rights under which such rights, and the values from which they spring, remain absolute but cease to be universal in application.

We see very much the same thing at work in much, but not quite all, of the latter-day credo of ‘victims’ rights’ that Blair seems so very keen to apply across the full gamut of criminal law to the extent that he and others in government, working to Blair’s personal script, see nothing overtly incongruous in putting forward the view that universal human rights, as codified in the European Convention on Human Rights, impede the presumed rights of victims. Yet it has to be said that even within Blair’s concept of the rights of victims, not all of these rights are pursued with the same degree of vigour and conviction.

British justice, like that of other common law countries, provides for three basic rights that victims of criminal behaviour may be thought to enjoy.

Paramount amongst these is, of course, the right to justice itself. Yet perversely it is this right that has most often come under attack from politicians, in recent years, in their mistaken belief that the right to justice means the right to a conviction. This is, however, manifestly a false position.

Imperfect though the criminal justice system may be the fundamental right to justice enjoyed by victims of crime is no different to the right to justice enjoyed by the defendant or by society as a whole, this being that the guilty are convicted on proof of guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – to convict the wrong person, an innocent man or woman, is as much an affront to the rights of the victim as it is to those of the person wrongly convicted and it is for that reason – to protect the innocent if wrongly accused – that the standard of proof is set so high and should not be diminished.

Yet it is this standard of proof and, to a lesser extent the burden of proof – i.e. the requirement that the prosecution prove the accused guilty rather the accused prove their innocence, that most often comes under attack; each failing in the criminal justice system being met with demands for more legislation to ‘tilt the balance of the system in favour of the victim’, which, in turn, has lead to the creation of more than 700 new offences in the last eight and half years alone, many of which are defined in vague and subjective terms that require juries to consider questions of the intent, understanding and of the perceived character of accused, thereby reducing evidence to a series of value judgements that covertly serve to shift standards of proof in the direction of a ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

Nowhere is this more evident in the current British justice system than in the removal, in 2003, of almost all restrictions on the introduction of a defendant’s prior criminal history into evidence by the prosecution when countering evidence of ‘good character’ put forward by the defence.

Despite the obvious limitations inherent in the use of simulations, research using mock juries has shown clearly and unequivocally that evidence of prior criminal convictions has a disproportionate effect on the view that juries take of defendants, despite the fact that a prior criminal record is in no way substantive evidence that the accused is guilty of the offence for which they are being tried, other than in a relatively small number cases where it serves to establish a clear modus operandi as the accused’s ‘signature’ in carrying out an offence. Evidence of this kind is, therefore, an open invitation to juries to judge the accused on the basis of their perception of them as a ‘bad person’ and therefore more likely to be guilty, even in the absence of supporting evidence which would put their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Worryingly, the same research shows such evidence to have the same prejudicial effect even if the judge then rules it inadmissible and issues a direction to the jury that they ignore it.

Although arguably no more than a part of the general right to justice, one may also consider victims to have some right to see justice visibly done in the form of sentencing policies in which the punishment is seen to ‘fit the crime’. Again, however, this a favourite area for political interventions in the name of “victims’ rights

  • wiggles

    Your argument is perhaps best exemplified by his response to the defeat on the 90 days aspect of the new Terrorism Bill. In essence it was his usaul mantra of “I’m right and you’re wrong”. In the end I still think that he is a lying, cheating and thieving bastard who excuses his decisions and excesses under a decrepit moral code. His real legacy should be in the dock at the War Crimes court in the Hague (alongside Dubya, Cheny, Rummy, et al) so he can get a real taste of victims rights.

  • Thanks for another thoughtful analysis. You may be right about TB. Of course emotionally it’s more satisfying as a devious, ignorant, mendacious little toad. Certainly his ignorance of history, and specifically of legal history is astonishing – but as we all know ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’.

    I’m reminded in this context of what someone once said about Reagan ‘It’s not what he doesn’t know that’s frightening. It’s what he knows for sure that just isn’t so.

  • …btw the CS Lewis quote is one of my favourites. Pitting a conservative Christian traditionalist against a ‘modernising’ Christian sophist is rather neat.