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Sunday, May 04, 2008
One of the biggest cliches in our public discourse is the term "moral equivalence". "Moral equivalence" is supposed to be a huge sin. It occurs when a person compares action A, usually done by the United States or one of its allies, with action B, done by some notoriously evil regime. The argument is that comparing action A to action B in that situation is improper, because it makes it sound like the generally good regime that engages in action A is the moral equivalent of the evil regime that engaged in action B.

When placed in this abstract form, one can instantly see several things wrong. Most importantly, it refocuses the debate away from how similar actions A and B are to how the nation engaging in action A is good and the nation engaging in action B is evil. To see how this is pernicious, let's conduct an experiment (and violate Godwin's Law in doing it). Suppose the United States decided to round up all Jewish Americans, place them in concentration camps, and kill them with poison gas. Now, an objector to this policy stands up and says "this is a terrible policy! This is exactly what the Nazis did!"

In response, a defender of American policy replies "you are drawing a moral equivalence between us and the Nazis. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why do you hate America?"

Now, obviously, that analogy is exaggerated for effect. But the point is that the validity of any analogy between two regimes depends on how similar the policies being compared are, and
the concept of "moral equivalence" does not add anything here; rather, it distracts from that analysis in favor of a per se rule that one can never compare the actions of "good" regimes to the actions of "evil" regimes.

Further, the "moral equivalence" argument is itself a very pernicious concept. It is an attempt to shut down criticism of the regime that engages in action A. Analogies are very powerful arguments. They can be false, of course, or circumstances can be different. But, take the torture debate. While many people can figure out that torture is wrong without an analogy, it certainly is powerful to point out that some of the worst regimes in history waterboarded and used other "enhanced interrogation techniques". That is evidence that such techniques are, in fact, torture. The entire point of "moral equivalence" claim it to make sure that this powerful analogy never gets made. Essentially, it doesn't matter how many techniques associated with Stalin and Pol Pot that we adopt, since we are not Pol Pot or Stalin (true enough), there is no basis for criticizing our conduct.

Additionally, the claim of "moral equivalence" is intellectually dishonest. People who draw these analogies are not, after all, saying that the regime engaging in action A is the moral equivalent of the regime engaging in action B. Indeed, they are saying the opposite-- that because everyone knows that the regime engaging in action A is not the moral equivalent of the regime engaging in action B, it is deeply troublesome that the former regime would adopt some of the latter regime's tactics. The whole point is that regimes should hold themselves to higher standards than those set by people like Hitler. The person raising the issue of "moral equivalence", therefore, is deliberately miscasting the argument so that it can be discredited without refutation.

"Moral equivalence" is poison to the discourse. It should be jettisoned.


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