Wednesday, November 7, 2012
665: The Least of All Possible Evils
If, as a friend recently suggested, we ought to construct a monument to our present political culture as an homage to the principle of the “lesser evil,” it should be made in the form of the digits 6-6-5 built of concrete blocks, and installed like the Hollywood sign on hillsides or other high points overlooking city centers. This number, one less than the number of the beast—that of the devil and of total evil—might capture the essence of our humanitarian present, obsessed as it is with the calculations and calibrations that seek to moderate, ever so slightly, the evils that it has largely caused.
The principle of the lesser evil is often presented as a dilemma between two or more bad choices in situations where available options are—or seem to be—limited. The choice made justifies harmful actions that would otherwise be unacceptable, since it allegedly averts even greater suffering. Sometimes the principle is presented as the optimal result of a general field of calculations that seeks to compare, measure, and evaluate different bad consequences in relation to necessary acts, and then to minimize those bad consequences. Both aspects of the principle are understood as taking place within a closed system in which those posing the dilemma, the options available for choice, the factors to be calculated, and the very parameters of calculation are unchallenged. Each calculation is undertaken anew, as if the previous accumulation of events has not taken place, and the future implications are out of bounds.
Those who seek to justify necessary evils as “lesser” ones, especially when searching for a rationale to explain recent wars and military expeditions, like to appeal to the work of the fourth-century North African philosopher-theologian St. Augustine. Augustine’s rejection of the principle of Manichaeism—a world strictly divided into good and evil—meant that he no longer saw evil as the perfect mirror image of the good; rather, in platonic terms, he saw evil as a measure of the absence of good. Since evil, unlike good, is not perfect and absolute, it is forever measured and calibrated on a differential scale of greater and lesser. Augustine taught that it is not permissible to practice lesser evils, because to do so violates the Pauline principle “do no evil that good may come.” But—and here lies its appeal—lesser evils might be tolerated when they are deemed necessary and unavoidable, or when perpetrating an evil results in the reduction of the overall amount of evil in the world.
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has appealed to the lesser evil principle in a decree permitting the use of condoms in places with high rates of HIV. Similar to this logic of contraception, some in the Vatican thought that implicit support for the government of Silvio Berlusconi, albeit plagued by sin, ridicule, and corruption, might be considered as the lesser evil in protecting Christian values. In cases such as these, the economy of the lesser evil is always cited as a justification for breaching rigid rules and entrenched dogma; indeed, it is very often used by those in power as the primary justification for the very notion of “exception.”
In fact, Augustine’s discourse of the lesser evil was developed at a time when the church had started to participate in the political government of its subjects and had acquired considerable financial and military power. Through the ages, the Christian church saw its task as keeping human evil to a minimum. It pastorally ruled over a vast and complex intrapersonal economy of merits and faults—of sin, vice, and virtue—operating according to specific rules of circulation and transfer, with procedures, analyses, calculations, and tactics that allowed the exercise of a specific interplay between conflicting goods and degrees of evil. In his lectures on the origins of governmentality, Michel Foucault argued that, on the basis of this “economical theology,” the modern, secular form of governmental power has itself taken on the form of an economy.1
The theological origins of the lesser evil argument cast a long shadow over the present. In fact, the idiom has become so deeply ingrained, and is invoked in such a staggeringly diverse set of contexts—from individual situational ethics and international relations, to attempts to govern the economics of violence in the context of the “War on Terror” and the efforts of human rights and humanitarian activists to maneuver through the paradoxes of aid—that it seems to have altogether replaced the position previously reserved for the term “good.” Moreover, the very evocation of the “good” seems to invoke everywhere the utopian tragedies of modernity, in which evil seemed to lurk in a horrible Manichaeistic inversion. If no hope is offered in the future, all that remains is to insure ourselves against the risks that it poses, moderate and lessen the collateral effects of necessary acts, and tend to those who have suffered as a result.
In relation to the War on Terror, the terms of the lesser evil were most clearly and prominently articulated by Michael Ignatieff, former human rights scholar and leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. In his book The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff suggested that in “balancing liberty against security,” liberal states should establish mechanisms to regulate the breach of some human rights and legal norms, and allow their security services to engage in forms of extrajuridical violence—which he saw as lesser evils—in order to fend off or minimize potential greater evils, such as terror attacks on civilians in Western states.2
If governments need to violate rights in a terrorist emergency, it should be done, he thought, only as an exception and according to a process of adversarial scrutiny. “Exceptions,” Ignatieff states, “do not destroy the rule but save it, provided that they are temporary, publicly justified, and deployed as a last resort.”3
Film still from Sylvain George’s documentary on North African and Middle Eastern refugees’ attempt to reach the U.K.. Here, one of the characters shows his obliterated fingertips—a strategy to evade identification through fingerprinting. May they rest in revolt (Figures of wars I), 2011. Copyright: Independencia.
The lesser evil emerges here as a pragmatic compromise, a “tolerated sin” that functions as the very justification for the notion of exception. State violence in this model is a necro-economy in which various types of destructive measures are weighed in a utilitarian fashion, not only in relation to the damage they produce, but to the harm they purportedly prevent and even in relation to the more brutal measures they help restrain. In this logic, the problem of contemporary state violence resembles an all-too-human version of the previously mentioned mathematical minimum problem of the divine order, one tasked with determining the smallest level of violence necessary to avert the greatest harm. For the architects of contemporary war, this balance is trapped between two poles: keeping violence at a level low enough to limit civilian suffering, yet high enough to bring a decisive end to a given war.4
More recent works by legal scholars and legal advisers to states and militaries sought to extend the inherent elasticity of the system of legal exception proposed by Ignatieff into ways of rewriting the laws of armed conflict themselves.5Lesser evil arguments are now used to defend anything from targeted assassinations and mercy killings, to house demolitions, deportation, and torture,6 to the use of (sometimes) non-lethal chemical weapons, the use of human shields, and even “the intentional targeting of some civilians if it could save more innocent lives than they cost.”7 In a macabre moment, it was even suggested that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might be tolerated under the principle of the lesser evil. Faced with a humanitarian A-bomb, one might wonder what, in fact, might qualify as a greater evil. Perhaps it is time for the differential accounting of the lesser evil to replace the mechanical bureaucracy of the “banality of evil” as the idiom to describe the most extreme manifestations of violence. Indeed, it is through this use of the lesser evil that self-proclaimed democratic societies can maintain regimes of occupation and neocolonization.
Text from Eyal Weizman’s most recent book The Least of All Possible Evils
1 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977–1978, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 164–73, 183.
2 Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
3 Ibid., xiv.
4 These refer respectively to jus in belloand jus ad bellum.
5 A former Israeli military lawyer Gabriella Blum opines that if international humanitarian law “is designed to minimize humanitarian suffering within the constraints of war, then it is not at all clear why measures intended to further minimize suffering … a choice for the lesser evil – cannot serve as a justification,” she says effortlessly, “for suspending the law in the name of the law.” Gabriella Blum, “The Laws of War and the ‛Lesser Evil,’” (35 YJIL 1, 2010), 3.
6 Relying on what is essentially a proportionality analysis, the Israeli Commission of Inquiry into the Methods of Investigation of the General Security Service Regarding Hostile Terrorist Activity, otherwise known as the Landau Commission, of 1987 reaches the conclusion that the prohibition on torture is not absolute, but is rather based, in its own words, upon the logic of “the lesser evil.” Thus, “the harm done by violating a provision of the law during an interrogation must be weighed against the harm to the life or person of others which could occur sooner or LATER” [upper-case in the original]. US Department of Justice attorney John Yoo similarly referred to a balance of interests when authorizing forms of torture during the Bush Administration. Itamar Mann and Omer Shatz, “The Necessity Procedure: Laws of Torture in Israel and Beyond, 1987–2009,” Legalleft, 2011, see →.
7 Ibid., 3.