Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 21:20 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 21:20 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Realism and morality


Sam Roggeveen


11 February 2009 17:33

Edward replies to Scott Burchill's post of yesterday:

One of the most insidious rhetorical tricks that both neo-conservatives and some on the left such as Burchill use is to suggest that some people are motivated by moral considerations and those that don't share their particular moral viewpoint are somehow 'immoral realists'. This is a very common straw-man argument that portrays realism as an absurd or evil idea only so it can be duly knocked down and the moral truth of the alternative proposition revealed. It has been the reflex of countless numbers of moralists since the Vatican denounced Machiavelli.

Dr Burchill seems unwilling to contemplate the possibility that calling the Iraq war bad strategy is also a moral argument. Why, for example, is it only a pragmatic question to ask whether the Iraq war diverted resources from the campaign against Al-Qaeda, and not a moral one? Given that national security, prudence, consideration of the long-term consequences of policy decisions, the credibility of your country's position and applying rigorous criteria to the use of military force are also ethical values, it is simply not sufficient to assume that the moral rectitude of the war can be determined only by posing a pre-determined set of ethical or legal questions.

Realism gives much more room for debate than Dr Burchill allows. Just because realists might look first to 'national interests' or to power relationships to explain and often prescribe foreign policy, this does not mean that power is only about material capabilities or that moral objectives are suddenly irrelevant. One of the key insights of realism is that, when it comes to foreign policy, ethical considerations are invariably complex and what is considered moral and what one can actually do about it is very often a function of power relationships.

Dr Burchill seems to be trying to attack the views he disagrees with by labeling them as illegitimate, rather than engaging with them squarely and defending his own ethical positions. This is a lazy way of arguing. If he believes we have a different interest in Iraq, then he should say so rather than claiming morality for himself and suggesting that he is above discussing national interests.