The Congressman’s Burden: Resolutions Have Consequences

By Jason Lee Steorts

National Review Online, NY
Oct 16 2007

Occasionally the world reminds us that it is evil.

I am not saying this in the obvious way, that the world is full of
blood, death, arbitrary destruction, and gratuitous cruelty – though
that is surely true. It is also true that such evils often allow
reasonably precise moral reckoning, at least where human agency is
concerned: If I murder you, I have committed an evil; if my nation
wages an unjust war, it has committed an evil; and so on. Such cases
are morally ambiguous when they turn on questions whose answers evade
mere mortals: Did I kill you in self-defense? Did my nation wage war
in response to an intolerable threat, and was war the only remedy?

But the questions have right and wrong answers, and if we knew them
we could assign blame with justice and precision.

What I have in mind, rather, is the possibility that one might (a)
be forced to act, (b) possess perfect information about each possible
course of action, and (c) discover that all of them are immoral. The
contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has used the term "moral blind
alley" to describe such circumstances.

I believe the House of Representatives may have gotten itself into a
moral blind alley by taking up the question whether to recognize as
genocide the massacre of Armenians in eastern Anatolia between 1915
and 1917.

No one denies that the government of the Young Turks ordered the
deportation of their Armenian minority. The Armenians were dispossessed
of their property and driven from their homes, and when the dust
settled an appalling number had also been slaughtered.

(Estimates vary widely: 300,000, according to the modern Turkish
government; the Armenian government says 1.5 million.)

What is debated is whether these massacres are properly called
genocide. The conventional wisdom is that yes, an order to exterminate
the Armenians proceeded from the highest levels of Ottoman rule. The
government of Turkey denies this claim, and argues that the massacres
were an unintended consequence of the deportation policy. And some of
the evidence in favor of the traditional view is open to question. (For
details, consult this article from the Middle East Quarterly; this
one too.)

I will attempt no resolution of the genocide question (though I wish
to note in passing that, even if there was no order to exterminate,
the Young Turks were still guilty of a horrific crime). Instead, I
would like to assume for the sake of argument that the conventional
view is correct. This will help us see how the House might have turned
down a moral blind alley.


The congressman’s dilemma is this: If the resolution passes, it
will enrage the Turkish government, which will retaliate in a manner
harmful to the interests of the United States. It has threatened to
deny the U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base, an important re-supply
hub for military operations in the Middle East. It would also adopt a
more cavalier attitude toward the potential dispatch of its military
to Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers
Party (PKK), which is responsible for a long campaign of separatist
violence in Turkey. The United States has labeled the PKK a terrorist
organization, but it opposes Turkish incursions into Iraq on the
grounds that they would destabilize that country.

The problem for a U.S. congressman is not just strategic: for there
are very good moral reasons to want the U.S. to achieve its military
and foreign-policy objectives in the Middle East. These reasons are
consequentialist: that is, the failure of American objectives would
risk bringing about morally undesirable outcomes. A collapse of
Iraq’s democratic experiment, or an attenuation of U.S. power that
strengthened the hand of Islamists, would increase the suffering of
multitudes in the Middle East (or so, I believe, it can be persuasively
argued – though I do not make that argument here). It would also leave
Americans more vulnerable to attack. While a setback in U.S.-Turkish
relations would not force these outcomes, it would make them more
likely. To the extent, then, that lawmakers have a duty to prevent
misery generally and the misery of Americans in particular, they have
grounds to vote against the House resolution.

Yet there are also moral considerations in favor of the resolution’s
passage. These reasons do not concern the consequences of defeating
the bill, but are, rather, deontological: They turn on the idea that
to vote "no" is to treat persons in a way that is wrong, no matter
the consequences. The persons in question are the remaining survivors
of the Armenian genocide (if it was that) and the descendents of its
victims. One might also include the victims themselves, though it is
hard to articulate how the dead can be wronged.

To understand why voting "no" would wrong these persons, imagine that
your mother has been stabbed to death by a mugger; that I witnessed
the crime; and that, fearing recriminations, I refuse to answer
investigators’ questions about what I have seen. Imagine further
that there are other witnesses, and that their testimony will be
sufficient to convict the murderer. Finally, imagine that my refusal
is partly motivated by ethical reasons of the consequentialist sort:
I am a researcher on the brink of discovering a cure for a type of
cancer, and I fear that, should I denounce your mother’s murderer,
I will have to abandon my work and flee.

If you knew all of this, would you feel that my silence wronged you
(and your mother)? I believe you would. For my silence contains the
implicit judgment that you (and your mother) do not matter enough
for me to acknowledge, when called upon to do so, the awful injustice
that you (and she) have suffered.

Or consider an example involving Holocaust denial. Imagine a slightly
different world in which Germany denied its genocide of European
Jews and all manner of dire consequences might follow from angering
Germany. We should feel morally uneasy with those who refused to
acknowledge what happened in the death camps, even if they had their
reasons for refusing, and even though acknowledging the Holocaust
would do nothing to resurrect its dead.

Let us return now to the Armenians. Congressmen might be tempted to
escape the moral blind alley by arguing as follows: "Declining to
recognize that something happened is different from denying that
it happened. By voting ‘no,’ I affirm nothing more than that the
institution of which I am part should keep silent."

Such reasoning could perhaps be refined into a sound argument
against introducing the genocide question before the House: just
as I, the brilliant cancer researcher, might have sufficient reason
not to volunteer my testimony against your mother’s killer. There is
no obligation to utter impolitic or dangerous things simply because
they are true. Once the genocide resolution was introduced, however,
the moral stakes changed: Now congressmen were being called upon to
declare their position, as was the House taken collectively. This
is analogous to the point at which investigators knock on my door to
ask about your mother.


The idea of a moral blind alley is more philosophically radical
than it might at first seem. It is different from the much simpler
problem of apparently conflicting duties within a single type of
ethical thought – for example, a case in which you must kill to
save your life or the life of a loved one. Such apparent conflicts
dissolve when we adequately define the duties in question: The duty
not to murder is defined as including an allowance for self-defense,
but not a permission to harvest my neighbor’s kidneys and give them
to my dying daughter.

Moral blind alleys seem rather to be cases in which two wholly
different ethical perspectives collide. One perspective rests on the
feeling that some things are simply wrong to do to people, no matter
the consequences. Another perspective rests on the feeling that some
consequences simply should not be allowed. Put thus schematically,
the potential for conflict is obvious enough. The real question is
whether human beings are indeed susceptible to both kinds of moral
feeling, and if so what they should do about it.

One answer is to cue the philosophers: "Our intuitions are muddled;
kindly devise a system of rules for us to follow instead." This
approach is very far from life as lived, and I do not believe it can
satisfy actual human beings, though it may please such computers
as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. I say this in full knowledge
that the skeptical Nagelian alternative largely reduces ethics to a
descriptive project.

If there are moral blind alleys in this world, it is politicians who
are most likely to get stuck in them. Holding public office requires
one to contemplate the consequences of one’s choices on masses of
people, even while remaining subject to all the usual feelings about
how persons should treat one another and how institutions should
treat persons. It is work for those who are wise and brave enough
to grapple with the contradiction; foolish enough not to see it;
or cynical enough not to care.


You may also like