Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Who Are We to Judge?

The following is an excerpt taken from a report on a BBC interview of Obama this week in regards to his upcoming visit to the Middle East. The overarching context involves the decision of the US to get involved in Iran's development of nuclear weapons.

The president has faced criticism over his decision to give a speech in Cairo, with human rights groups pointing to Egypt's patchy reputation for political freedom.

But he said while there were "obviously" human rights issues to address in some Middle Eastern countries, the job of the US was not to lecture but to encourage what he said were "universal principles" that those countries could "embrace and affirm as part of their national identity".

"The danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture," he said.

Instead, the president said that the most important thing for the US was to "serve as a role model".

It shouldn't take long for the reader to catch the core of this message. For clarification, here is the President's argument broken down to its logical parts:

Premise 1: There are ongoing human rights violations in the Middle East

Premise 2: Human rights violations are morally wrong

Premise 3: It is a greater wrong to judge countries of a different history/culture

Conclusion: Therefore, the universal prohibition on judging supercedes our duty to intervene

It would be unfair to say Obama is completely wrong. In fact, this is an inductive argument with a valid structure - meaning that if the premises are true, the conclusion must necessarily follow. On the other hand, if even one of the premises is incorrect, the conclusion fails. Let's see how it works out.

Premise 1 (human rights violations occur) is clearly true in visible cases of female oppression, political corruption, and unjust violence.

Premise 2 comes from our own moral intuition and follows from the biblical doctrine of our creation in the image of God.

Premise 3 might sound good as it's commonly heard in popular culture, but requires deeper inspection. If it is wrong to judge, why try to influence other countries as a "role model?" Why would we want to change them if we don't first judge their actions (violating human rights) as wrong and needing improvement? Worst yet, if these "universal principles" prohibit judging, the list of allowable atrocities becomes limitless.

Maybe he forgot about the genocide in Darfur. Or maybe he forgot his feelings about the Bush policies over "the last eight years." One might object those kinds of evils would not trump the prohibition against judging. But on what basis? The determination becomes arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. Anyone can justify their actions as long as they deem their acts immune from judgment. This was the famous defense of the Nazi's during international war crimes hearings in Nurnberg, yet no one would say judging them was immoral. In the end, Obama's condemnation of judging actions in other countries is a confused way of thinking. In fact, it's logically impossible. To condemn the act of judging is to commit the very act itself. You have to first judge "judging" as immoral.

Justin Webb [BBC North America Editor] says the president chose to speak to the BBC now because his team wants to reach the parts of the world the BBC reaches, with a message that is nuanced and thoughtful.

Dissapointingly, the message our president gave to the BBC is all but thoughtful. Obama bases his worldview on the assumption that judging is the worst kind of evil. But as we have seen, this not only justifies evil acts themselves, but is ultimately self contradictory. We can become comfortable in our plush lives in the United States where human rights violations are easily forgotten and beyond our sight thousands of miles away. I can understand the temptation to say "it's not our problem" and simply allow unpleasant events to unfold. In fact, it could be argued that engaging in wars against those we deem immoral is not always justified. But that is not what Obama is arguing here. Obama is saying we can't judge them at all! Perhaps he really believes this, but for the sake of those suffering horrible violations against their human rights, I hope he mispoke.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Great post, I enjoyed reading that, good observations and well thought through.