The Lesser Evil by Michael Ignatieff
This was my first exposure to Ignatieff’s writings and I was quite impressed. Although I knew he had written 16 books and was well regarded as a top intellectual globally, it seems my expectations were lower than they should have been. Page after page contains first-rate writing and skilful analysis of complicated issues. Even if I was less convinced by a point he was making or disagreed with an argument, I would often still think it was well-written.
The book is about terrorism and how liberal democracies should cope with such threats without sacrificing their ideals and freedoms. The primary concern is that if too many concessions are made and rights denied then the society has lost itself; it is no longer a liberal democracy and it has lost while trying to win.
Ignatieff outlines opposing views to the protection of the state: (1) Where necessity is emphasized over the dignity and freedom of the individual, for if a state is not sufficiently protective, it will be destroyed or diminished and there will be even fewer rights for people; and (2) where rights are emphasized over necessity because if a state cannot protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens, then it has already been compromised. The Lesser Evil is about the lesser evil, a third position that
“maintains that necessity may require us to take actions in defense of democracy which will stray from democracy’s own foundational commitments to dignity. While we cannot avoid this, the best way to minimize harms is to maintain a clear distinction in our minds between what necessity can justify and what the morality of dignity can justify, and never to allow the justifications of necessity – risk, threat, imminent danger – to dissolve the morally problematic character of necessary measures. Because the measures are morally problematic, they must be strictly targeted, applied to the smallest possible number of people, used as a last resort, and kept under the adversarial scrutiny of an open democratic system.” (p. 8)I excerpted the above paragraph because I thought it provided the clearest description of Ignatieff’s stance and then one can (accurately) imagine that Ignatieff goes on to further elaborate his beliefs throughout the rest of the book. Often in academic works, there are theoretical descriptions of how systems/people should behave, but these prescriptions suffer from vagueness. Additionally, many authors frequently ask questions, mostly as a rhetorical device, but never answer them directly. Happily, neither of these issues was problematic in The Lesser Evil as Ignatieff provides examples, both real and theoretical, of how his view would be different from the other viewpoints on defending a liberal democracy; and whenever he would ask questions, he would usually answer them. Further, his examples spanned both space and time as situations in numerous countries were assessed using the lesser evil approach. I did think the last chapter was the least cogent, but it still had a lot of useful content.
This book review could be quite long because there is so much to discuss, but I want to maintain some sort of balance between breadth and brevity (the lesser evil approach to book reviews?), so I’ve decided to list some questions I had while reading the book (and also for use in a book group meeting) and then to provide short answers to them. I end with a half-assed timeline examining Ignatieff’s beliefs about Iraq, the book and his political actions (I was trying to ascertain how much future political aspirations influence the book).
General: What were your expectations going in?
I was expecting something decently intelligent and perhaps pro-torture. I would say I was wrong on both accounts as this was a very intelligent book and Ignatieff believe there should be a fundamental ban on torture.
Does he create a false dichotomy and/or straw men (i.e., the two positions he outlines) so that he seems more reasonable taking a middle ground approach?
I think he might do this to some extent, but my ignorance prohibits me from knowing just how much. His arguments usually assume that most people are only in one of the two camps as opposed to most people not falling into the extremes, and even then probably even having some contradictions or inconsistency in their views considering the plethora of issues surrounding the protection of public safety. While it is true that there are decent numbers in the extremes, I do not know what proportion they represent. Consequently, I am sympathetic to the charge that Ignatieff was being tactical instead of just descriptive (who could deny porridge that had a temperature that was ‘just right’?)
Do you think that there is a hierarchy of rights?
I will have to say I do. While some declarations have rights as all equal, I think more of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and then this informs my idea of rights.
Do you think “adversarial justification” is sufficient?
No, but it is necessary. Ignatieff seems to put much faith in our governmental institutions and while I believe they do serve important purposes, I am far more agnostic on the issue.
Do you agree that terrorism alone has never toppled a state (but only when it is combined with an economic or military crisis); and therefore terrorism might be a decent ‘tactic,’ but it is a poor ‘strategy'?
Based on the little I know, I do agree. It would seem that terrorism does terrorize, but rarely if ever actually succeeds in creating full revolution.
Is his justification for armed struggle in defence of self-determination convincing? (the four conditions on page 103)
They certainly seem like decent conditions, but I would like to have another learned scholar critique so I could be aware of competing ideas.
How did you feel about his definitions of nihilism?
I was initially reluctant but then saw the utility. I found useful the repetition of the idea that some terrorists have apolitical goals – that they are just seeking destruction and death. In these cases, one cannot reason with such an enemy (but military action must take into account potential future recruits).
What do you think of the issue of military versus civilian targets? How blurry is the line?
I thought it was important as a point of discussion, but I think the line is far blurrier than Ignatieff does (at least in my reading). Civilians who are making the decisions to kill others could arguably be considered military targets and I wasn’t so easily convinced by his notion that that average citizen isn’t partly complicit in the military actions of their state.
Did he address the issue of torture sufficiently?
Not quite. He did provide excellent coverage and his views were mostly clear, but I thought he could have done more on the issue of whether or not torture actually works and just how one might deal with a ticking time bomb – that pervasive and dangerous thought experiment. I also thought he could have presented greater coverage of how some ‘non-tortuous’ states use information that was acquired by a different state torturing someone. Are they complicit? What moral conflicts are presented here?
Do you agree with his last sentence of the book?
I agree with half of it. I am mostly convinced by his arguments, but I’m less persuaded by the idea that people will be persuaded to act more reasonably (and I’m not just trying to be sneaky to prove my point).
What did you think about pre-emption and did he decently justify when it is appropriate?
I think it is a very tricky issue and while he made a decent attempt to justify it, the fact that he supported the war in Iraq, which I consider unjust and an invasion, made the whole section less cogent. I really think he should have supported his view on Iran better and specifically described how the U.S. helped arm Saddam with the very weapons that Ignatieff chastises him for.
Do you think (liberal democratic) people humanize their enemies?
I think they want to… but they don’t. One simply needs to look at a newspaper:
1 Canadian Soldier died; XX Afghans. I used Xs not only to represent unknown double digits because that seems to be the approximate ratio, but also because the lack of specificity indicates that we just don’t really care. It is the problem of any state (or even person) – some lives are worth more than others.
2002 to 2003 and onward: Supports invasion of Iraq
January 2003 – Gave lectures upon which The Lesser Evil is loosely based.
January 2004 – Writes preface to The Lesser Evil, which is published sometime that year.
March 2004 - wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine, "The Year of Living Dangerously," on the first anniversary of the invasion : "So I supported an administration whose intentions I didn’t trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can’t have human rights without order and that you can’t have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation."
Late 2004, Davey and two Liberal lawyers from Toronto decided to visit Ignatieff in Cambridge, Mass., where he was teaching at Harvard (to convince him to run for office)
November 2005 - Ignatieff confirmed in he intended to run for a seat in the House of Commons in the winter 2006 election.
April 7, 2006 - Ignatieff announced his candidacy in the upcoming Liberal leadership race, joining several others who had already declared their candidacy.
October 2006 - in the midst of his campaign for leadership, he told The Globe and Mail his support of Iraq was based on mistakenly having faith in the Americans."(I take) full responsibility for not having anticipated how incompetent the Americans would be. I don’t have remaining confidence in the Americans," he said. "The Bush operation in Iraq betrayed any hopes I had of Iraq transitioning to a stable political elite, and now all those hopes rest with my friends, the Iraqi political elite."
August 2007 – Ignatieff recants on Iraq war – NY Times magazine.