Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror
by Michael Ignatieff
Princeton University Press, 212 pp. $22.95

Is it ever justifiable to do evil that good may come of it? Addressing the threat posed by terrorism, Michael Ignatieff answers Yes, with conditions. He argues that terrorists in our age threaten the destruction of democracy itself, with all the values that democracy embodies and protects, and that to combat this threat effectively, democracies may need to do acts that are evil in themselves but constitute a lesser evil than that posed by terrorism.

Hence The Lesser Evil , which is based on Ignatieff’s 2003 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. His contribution to the growing list of books occasioned by the September 11 attacks and the global phenomenon of terror is an important one. He reflects carefully on the basic dilemma”that defending democracy and its rights and liberties may require an abrogation of at least some of those rights and liberties, at least for some persons and for a limited time”and he explicitly sets out to make a moral argument rather than the legal and political-theory arguments favored among critics of the war on terror. Yet, as I shall suggest below, his effort is marred by serious problems.

Ignatieff states straightforwardly his fundamental position”that a democracy may resort to lesser evils when faced with the greater evil of its own destruction”and proceeds to test it from several perspectives. First he examines whether the emergency abrogation of rights and liberties tends to preserve or endanger democracy; he concludes that limited abrogations, for the duration of an emergency, can serve to preserve while not posing a lasting danger. Yet he cautions that the historical record shows that democracies have been rather too ready to give up their essential rights and freedoms in the face of the challenge of terrorism, and he argues that to avoid this it is necessary to maintain a system of constitutional checks and balances and of open, adversarial challenge to uses of power.

Ignatieff next examines various types of terrorism and outlines distinct responses to each, proposing that some forms of terrorism can be effectively countered by a political response. He maintains, however, that the type of terrorism manifested in al-Qaeda’s actions and affirmed in its public statements “aims at the death of politics itself,” and thus such terrorism cannot be countered by political means but can be met only by war. And war, he clearly claims, entails the use of means that are evil”such means as coercion, force, and violence.

Given that war-making involves doing evil, the problem to which Ignatieff now turns is how to prevent these “lesser evils” of war from turning into greater evils. His probing historical and analytical examination of nihilism shows convincingly that a specific goal of terrorism is to get its targets to engage in terrorism themselves”to reduce the conflict to a contest between terrorisms. Such a corruption of the targeted society is rightly to be feared, says Ignatieff, and a democratic society is aided in defending itself against such corruption precisely by the institutions and procedures that it has designed to keep itself open and free. Thus a democratic society can find ways to craft forcible responses to terrorism that do not also lead to the loss of democracy.

In his last chapter, he considers the special dimension of the threat of “Armageddon,” which would arrive if terrorists were to possess and possibly use weapons of mass destruction. Ignatieff lays out a reasoned and impassioned argument for more robust engagement in the international order, calling specifically for “a renewal of democracy abroad.” His argument is that the threat of terrorists using WMD challenges the stability of the international order itself and therefore must be met multilaterally. After considering several forms of such response, Ignatieff concludes by returning once again to the promise offered by democracy, arguing that the ultimate answer to terrorism must be persuasion: “We must be able to defend ourselves”with force of arms, but even more with force of argument. For arms without argument are used in vain.”

Thus The Lesser Evil is, throughout, a defense of what Ignatieff understands to be the strength and superiority of democracy, both in itself as a form of government and also as a basis for dealing effectively with the threat of destruction posed by terrorism. It is the very strength of democracy, on his conception, that allows for a democratic society to undertake a limited use of lesser evils without losing its own soul.

This is powerful in its own way, even if it is not exactly novel. Michael Walzer’s treatment of what he calls “supreme emergency” in Just and Unjust Wars proceeds along the same basic lines. Indeed, Martin Luther’s conception of how political authority operates in the Kingdom of the Left Hand (that is, the world outside of the Kingdom of Christ) is similar in many ways. But to place at the core of one’s moral paradigm, as Ignatieff does, an explicit permission to do a “lesser evil” should leave many readers uneasy.

The cause of this uneasiness becomes clearer if we question Ignatieff’s argument at several points: the validity of the moral paradigm itself, the assumptions from which he proceeds, the inconsistencies in how he describes the limits to be observed in doing the “lesser evil,” and his conclusions about specific elements of the war on terror.

The fundamental problem with Ignatieff’s moral paradigm is his too-ready acceptance of the idea that it is sometimes right to do evil in the service of good. While he qualifies and conditions this in various ways, the basic point is still the same: that the good aimed at (defending democracy from terrorism) justifies the doing of evil (using means that involve violence, force, and coercion). He insists, beginning in the early pages of his book, that these means are genuinely evil. But does he clearly and sufficiently demonstrate that they are? He declares in his opening sentences that democracy seeks to make political life free from violence (that is, the sort of violence that terrorism inflicts) but that in order to defeat terror, a democracy may have to embrace violence.

But are these two examples of violence”that inflicted by terrorism on democracy and that used by democracy to fight terrorism”inherently equivalent? When Ignatieff quickly adds that in a liberal democracy all use of force is a lesser evil, something has, it seems to me, gone wildly astray. Not only is the initial equivalence between the two forms of violence wrong, but Ignatieff’s position wrongly disconnects the use of force and coercion from the pursuit of justice. When used justly”and in the American system this means at its basis to protect the essential goods of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at which American democracy aims”coercive force is not an evil at all but an instrument of good.

The assumption that all violence is inherently evil shows up in various ways throughout the book. One notable place is in Ignatieff’s discussion of torture. He toys with the idea that for a liberal society to accept killing in war while not accepting torture is inconsistent, then he rejects this idea, and then he qualifies his rejection, saying that distinguishing between torture and killing combatants in war “fails to capture the potential dangerousness of disarmed and helpless subjects.” Because Ignatieff regards any and all violence as evil, he can only express his question in terms of relative evils (killing in combat or torture outside of combat). His ultimate answer is cast in terms of consequentialist moral reasoning, by which what counts as determinative in the moral argument is the outcome. Thus there is nothing inherently wrong with torture of captives that is not also inherently wrong with killing combatants. While Ignatieff in the end rejects torture, it is not at all clear, given this moral argument, why he does.

Ignatieff’s moral paradigm requires that he favor the lesser evil over the greater, and the discussion of torture shows one way in which he resolves the question of what constitutes the lesser evil. Throughout the book, he attempts to set general limits on the evil that may be done, but in different places he defines the limits differently, and in no place does he offer a systematic moral justification for the various limits that he lists.

Early on, he writes that because the measures to be chosen are morally problematic, they must be strictly targeted, applied to the smallest possible number of people, used as last resort, and kept open for adversarial democratic scrutiny. Later (in the same chapter) he lists the following criteria: we must recognize that we are doing evil, we should act only out of demonstrable necessity, and only in last resort, and we must justify our actions publicly and submit to public judgment as to their correctness. When trying to show why terrorism is the greater evil, Ignatieff lists his limiting conditions in mirror-image form: terror makes violence a first resort, “target[s] unarmed civilians and punish[es] them for their allegiance or ethnicity,” and seeks the death of politics itself. When he discusses preemptive war, he requires authorization “in conditions of genuinely democratic disclosure,” a serious attempt to secure multilateral support, action only in last resort, and not leaving things worse than they were before the action was taken. Elsewhere he stresses the importance of public justification, and twice, using the Israeli Supreme Court as his reference, he offers that acts of “lesser evil” remain wrong but that the punishment properly entailed by them may be mitigated because of their good purpose.

These various statements of the limiting criteria differ from one another, and Ignatieff’s readers must figure out for themselves where they come from, why these criteria and not others should be employed, and what it might mean in practice to design defenses against terror that involve evil actions whose punishment may be mitigated by the extreme circumstances.

Coming to this book with a bias toward an Augustinian conception of politics and toward the just war tradition, I remain deeply dissatisfied with Ignatieff’s way of posing the problem. He elides the distinction between the protection of good political order and the protection of the state against harm, and he makes even the defense of democracy (which he clearly regards as good) a matter of a choice among evils. He nods in the direction of traditional just war criteria, but none of his lists of limiting conditions include all of these indispensable criteria. Most basically, by beginning with the notion that all violence is evil he insures that his major concerns focus on the jus ad bellum choice to use forceful or coercive means, not with what the jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality may tell us with regard to right conduct in the war on terror. And despite his effort to nuance and limit the means used in the anti-terrorist struggle, his moral paradigm casts this struggle as doing evil that good may come of it”a morally problematic idea.

Ignatieff has been a wise, informed, and engaged observer of the dimensions of the terrorist threat and of the war on terror; and there is merit in the thoroughness with which he identifies, analyzes, and works through many elements of the dilemma we face. His principal contribution in The Lesser Evil is his insistence that moral reflection should be at the center of the discussion about how to confront terror, but readers should not regard this as the last word in that discussion.

James Turner Johnson is Professor of Religion at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Morality and Contemporary Warfare ( 1999).