The debate regarding whether it is acceptable for statesmen to use the language of good and evil to persuade citizens of the necessity of a particular set of policies rages on. But no reasonable person would dispute that it is easier to move the masses to action with moral absolutes than with arguments about the balance of power. The debate, rather, is about whether good and evil are concepts that are necessary for crafting a sound foreign policy. Introducing these concepts into the realm of statecraft is both counterproductive and dangerous because affairs of state cannot be meaningfully described in moral terms.
Good and evil are concepts best applied to the specific actions of individual actors in particular situations. Parents who torture their children are evil. So are child molesters and serial killers. People who volunteer in soup kitchens or who help old ladies cross the street are good. The concepts become diluted as we try to apply them to larger groups of people over greater stretches of time. To apply them to the world of states is absurd.
Our rules of morality only make sense because all men share a rough equality. No man is physically powerful enough, by himself, to force his will on any significant number of people. The weaker men can band together and defeat the stronger man precisely because of this rough equality. The same cannot be said of countries, however. The inequalities of power between nations means it is notionally absurd to have moral considerations affect how they interact. Is it immoral for me to kill a spider? No more so than for a powerful nation to squash an insignificant one that has the gall to cause offense.
The terms good and evil can be used in both a subjective sense and an absolute sense. Subjectively, good and evil are appellations we use for strong personal preferences, usually regarding moral and ethical questions. This is not always the case, however, since good is often used to refer to non-moral excellence such as, “He’s a good shot. He hit his grandmother square between the eyes at 500 yards.”
Only an entity that has an infinite intelligence and an infinite capacity for perception can make absolute and legitimate pronouncements about what is good or evil. No human being has this ability, which means any human, or state, who claims to know what is absolutely moral is a charlatan. G-d gave us prescriptions for moral conduct, but He has also directed His servants to engage in behavior that contradicts these moral absolutes, such as when He told the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites and take their land. This implies that what is Good or Evil depends on the context of the situation, the action and the actors. Only G-d has the capability to know absolute morality.
The enemies of the U.S. are not evil in the absolute sense, although as American patriots we see them as evil in the subjective sense. I can imagine myself in the position of one of the terrorists who committed the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, and from that position I can see their actions as legitimate and justified on moral grounds. If I see my traditional society being corrupted by a decadent and materialistic foreign culture backed by the most powerful military in the world, how could I not strike the Great Satan in his heart and kill as many infidels as possible?
Of course, I don’t come from that position. What I saw on that day, and what I still see, is an act of war by the barbarians of our time against the mighty edifice of our civilization. I see them as wantonly murdering our citizens and deserving of whatever cruelties it is possible to inflict upon them both in this life and the next. The fact that I can see both positions as legitimate depending on whichever point of view I choose illustrates the uselessness of moral terminology to describe the way the world works.
We must also be aware of the danger of using these concepts. If the men and women responsible for crafting our foreign policy really come to believe our enemies are evil, we are just a short step away from declaring that evil is the enemy. The world is filled with depravity and vice. Humans are cruel and malicious creatures. Ridding the world of evil is impossible. To try to annihilate evil by force of arms is to guarantee perpetual war and perpetual misery. No patriot could wish for that.
Matthew Klein is a sophomore in Berkeley College. He is the treasurer of the Conservative Party.