February 12, 2005

Too much moral clarity?

In today's NYT, Roger Cohen writes about the Bush Administration's embrace of Natan Sharansky's book "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.":
Here is Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, explaining last month what will guide her policy: "The world should apply what Natan Sharansky calls 'the town square test': if a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society. We cannot rest until every person living in a fear society has finally won their freedom."

The idea of the town-square test appears on Page 40 of Mr. Sharansky's book. By this point, he has developed the arguments that are repeated in various guises through the remaining 263 pages. These may be summarized as follows: Freedom is attainable for every person on earth. It is the best guarantee of global security, because democratic societies are nonbelligerent. Totalitarian or, as he puts it, fear societies are dangerous because they always seek external enemies as a means of self-preservation.

To act on the above requires "moral clarity." This phrase is repeated with bludgeoning insistence. By moral clarity, Mr. Sharansky means the courage to bring down autocracy wherever it may exist, including the Middle East. "We must recapture moral clarity," he writes, "by recognizing that the great divide between the world of fear and the world of freedom is far more important than the divisions within the free world."

Cohen calls the book too "simplistic," too "pat."

The danger now is that the beauty of his argument may become a form of blindness. He uses America's abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison mainly to laud the response of a free society to such an outrage: investigation, public debate, judgment and punishment.

But Mr. Sharansky might also have taken Abu Ghraib as an illustration of what can happen when a society becomes too certain of its mission, too giddy with its might, too negligent of constitutional safeguards of liberty and too blind to the humanity of people from another culture. Moral clarity in the name of freedom is one thing. But the slogan of freedom masquerading as moral clarity is quite another.

Cohen is right to raise these concerns. It's important to have values, but you also must constantly pay attention to what you are actually doing. Ideologues are dangerous, even if some ideology is important in the practical work of making the world a better place. Real moral clarity involves clearly seeing the effects you are having and not falling blindly in love with your own ideas.

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