Faced with the daily depravities of our political system, my friends frequently lament just how little their compatriots seem to care about people who are not like them. They have a point. Over the past weeks, I have spoken to hedge fund managers who are willing to sacrifice the rights of minorities to secure a tax cut that will make their fortunes just a little vaster. I have spoken to Republican members of Congress who are choosing to sacrifice their constitutional duties so they can reduce their chances of getting primaried. And I have talked to scores of voters who have altogether given up on the pretense that public policies should serve some common good, rather than a sectional interest.
But I have also been struck by how similar some of my friends are to those they purport to disdain: Even people who loudly claim to be moved by the suffering of the world’s weak and vulnerable are, it turns out, often depressingly willing to push their fate aside when it doesn’t fit their political agenda.
Take the case of North Korea. The country has 1 million men under arms and some incredibly deadly rockets at its disposal—many of them aimed directly at its neighbor, South Korea. There is little doubt that any serious attempt to overthrow Kim Jong-un’s brutal regime would lead to one of the bloodiest wars in human history. For that reason, I am as glad as anyone that we are making some progress—uncertain as it is, and illusory though it may prove—toward a peace settlement.
And yet, I have also been disturbed by the ease with which virtually every participant in this debate ignores the immense suffering that a deal with Kim would likely perpetuate. North Korea’s 25 million residents live in a brutal totalitarian regime that impoverishes, intimidates, and humiliates its residents. The 100,000 inmates of the regime’s concentration camps have it incomprehensibly worse: The grotesque cruelty they suffer rivals just about any state-sponsored regiment of sadistic torture dreamed up in the long history of humanity.
All of which is to say something that should be both obvious and uncontroversial: By just about any moral standard, Kim is one of the world’s most reprehensible dictators. People who claim to disdain strongmen and care about human rights should at the very least feel queasy about the way in which the recent smiling photographs of him with other world leaders may help to legitimate his rule. Most importantly, they should feel disturbed that any rapprochement would condemn 25 million human beings to live under horrific circumstances for the foreseeable future.
And yet, this is a point barely anybody has bothered to make. Instead, the very same people who regularly denounce the U.S. government for maintaining friendly relations with the dictatorial rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, of China and Myanmar, are full-throatedly cheering the pictures of Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, shaking hands with Kim. In fact, the very same people who rightly keep a violin at the ready to lament the fate of any mistreated Tibetan or Palestinian seem strangely unmoved by the daily doses of death doled out in North Korean camps.
(Some people might argue that peace with North Korea could somehow lead the regime to become less brutal, or even to lose power. But, leaving the question of how likely this is aside, what’s striking is that this isn’t part of the debate so far: Most of the commentators who have been cheering the rapprochement with Kim haven’t done so on the basis of improving the lot of the North Koreans; they have done so on the basis of ignoring it.)
I can already picture the angry responses to this piece. “You bloodthirsty imperialist,” they will say. “What on earth could a war with North Korea possibly accomplish?”
But that knee-jerk reaction just goes to prove my point about the strange limits to our capacity for compassion. Somehow, our moral imagination seems to be all or nothing: Once we have decided to pursue a course of action, it causes us huge cognitive dissonance to acknowledge the people who are negatively impacted by it. Anybody who dares to mention the horrifying cost of making peace with North Korea, we therefore assume, must secretly oppose it.
But this is to overlook the fact that there are genuine “moral dilemmas”: situations in which any course of action that is available to us seems morally unacceptable.
Take the terrible choice faced by the protagonist of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice: An SS soldier forces a woman to decide which of her two children is going to the gas chambers; if she refuses to condemn one of them to death, he vows to kill them both. In this kind of situation, some philosophers believe, no moral theory is able to issue clear guidance about what she should do. The least it can do is to acknowledge the tragic nature of the impossible choice she faces—and to accept that any course of action is likely to lead to lasting regret. As Bernard Williams put the point:
the agonies that a man will experience after acting in full consciousness of such a situation are not to be traced to a persistent doubt that he may not have chosen the better thing; but, for instance, to a clear conviction that he has not done the better thing because there was no better thing to be done. … It would seem a glib moralist who said, as some sort of criticism, that he must be irrational to lie awake at night, having killed his daughter.
The civil war in Syria seems to me to be about as close to this kind of moral dilemma as you are likely to get in international relations. It has now been going on for more than seven years and has killed about half a million people. An end to the suffering is not in sight. The opposition is fractured and increasingly fanatical. With the help of Russia and Iran, Bashar al-Assad has steadily improved his military position. His ultimate victory may now represent the only chance the country has for an end to the hostilities. But it would leave Syria in the hands of a ruthless dictator who has, again and again, proved willing to kill scores of civilians to gain a little military leverage—and will likely want to settle scores with his opponents as soon as he resumes control over all of his territory.
It seems morally impermissible to stand idly by as the slaughter in Syria continues apace. But by the same token, it is far from clear what we can do to stem the suffering: With no viable opposition that could conceivably pacify Syria in sight, any intervention in the war only risks prolonging the misery.
In those rare moments when the tragedy in Syria still manages to rise to the top of the news cycle, you would therefore think that the overwhelming stance would be one of humbled despair. Irrespective of what we should have done seven years ago, or which of the terrible options that remain open at this late stage we should now pursue, it is clear that the suffering will continue.
But that, strangely, is not how anybody seems to talk about the situation. Instead, the people who are advocating airstrikes are pretending that the few missiles the United States and its allies launched at Syria a few weeks ago somehow constitute a great act of moral heroism. The fact that it has done precious little to stop the dying somehow doesn’t seem to bother them overly much. Meanwhile, the people who passionately oppose any military action in Syria promise to “fight for peace” and denounce anybody who disagrees with them as an imperialist warmonger. The fact that an incredibly deadly war has long been raging seems to leave them remarkably cold.
I have, in short, no idea what to do about Syria. What I do know is that each of the options we are debating is repugnant in its own way—and that anybody who has seriously grappled with the situation on the ground should have the decency and the foresight to acknowledge that the course of action they favor will, even if it is the best of a lousy lot, lead to lasting regret.
In one important sense, the North Korean case is different. Faced with Kim’s power and capriciousness, there is only one realistic option: to make our peace with him. But as Bernard Williams taught us, even if we are absolutely convinced of doing as best as we can, it is perfectly human to be disturbed by the extent to which some people will suffer due to our choice.
“Moral conflicts,” Williams wrote with elegiac elegance, “are neither systematically soluble, nor all soluble without remainder.” It is a point we would do well to heed as we discuss the human tragedies unfolding around the globe: I, for one, would have a little more faith that the loudest voices in the room—whether they be peace activist or neocons, self-styled idealists or loudly proclaimed realists—aren’t just consumed by their own righteousness if they were a little more willing to acknowledge the unbearable “moral remainder” that their actions will almost certainly have.
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