THE LESSER EVIL: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

By Ignatieff, Michael; Welsh, Jennifer M. | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

THE LESSER EVIL: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror


Ignatieff, Michael, Welsh, Jennifer M., International Journal


THE LESSER EVIL Political Ethics in an Age of Terror Michael Ignatieff Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2004. xii, 212pp, $22.00 paper (ISBN 0-14-301735-7)

In the spring of 2003, Michael Ignatieff incurred the wrath of his liberal colleagues by supporting the US-led military campaign to unseat Saddam Hussein. What particularly incensed many liberals, whether in university departments or non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, was Ignatieff's use of human rights to justify his position-namely, the rights of Kurds and Shias who had been slaughtered under Saddam's brutal dictatorship. One could be pro-war, he insisted, without succumbing to the Bush administration's neoconservative and imperial agenda.

In his new book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, Ignatieff once again affronts a sizeable portion of the human rights community. In their view, by even daring to formulate the questioncan civil liberties be sacrificed in the name of public safety?-Ignatieff has "sold out" to the exaggerated fears of American policymakers, such as former attorney general John Ashcroft. Ignatieff s opponents have come to view him as an obstacle to the advancement of the liberal agenda.

A more careful reading of The Lesser Evil reveals that this characterization is both unfair and counterproductive. True, Ignatieff refuses to elevate human rights above all other principles; instead, he argues that neither rights nor necessity can trump in a context of terrorism. But the author's guiding purpose is one liberals should surely support: devising a set of guidelines to help western liberal democracies both remain faithful to the values of openness and freedom and counter the devastating effects of terrorism. Ignatieff s answer, the so-called lesser evil, is that rights can be temporarily limited in the name of the collective good of public safety, but only through proper procedures that are enforced by courts. In the fight against terrorism, liberal democracy will be saved from sliding into despotism by its own system of open adversarial review.

So how can western governments achieve this fine balance? The first step is to remember that the lesser evil is still evil. To remain true to our liberal democratic essence, Ignatieff writes, we can never "allow the justifications of necessity-risk, threat, imminent danger-to dissolve the morally problematic character of necessary measures" (8). The next step is to submit limitations on liberty to three tests. The "dignity test" asks whether such measures involve cruel and degrading treatment; if so, they compromise liberal democracy's foundational commitments to human rights and must therefore be rejected. The "conservative test" asks whether counterterrorism policies respect our institutional inheritance; if they depart too radically from standards of due process, they are unjustifiable. And finally, the "effectiveness test": will the proposed mechanisms make citizens more secure in the long run? If the answer is no-if they threaten to erode the legitimacy of the government or support for the constitutional order-then they fail to meet the requirements of moral consequentialism. To succumb to the pressures of necessity without passing these hurdles, Ignatieff argues, is to betray who we are and to deliver victory to the terrorists.

It is on the tricky question of torture that Ignatieff stays truest to his roots. While he describes torture as the "hardest case in the ethics of the lesser evil" (140), he ultimately rejects the justifications for its practice. …

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