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The thorny ethics of dealing with dictators

Our philosopher-at-large argues that the burden of proof is on those who would prop up despotic regimes like Putin's
May 12, 2022

You cannot shake a blood-stained hand while keeping your own spotless. As Putin’s war of terror in Ukraine grinds on, apologists for the Kremlin such as Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini are drenched in red, but no western leader is close to being clean. Our own governments are to varying degrees complicit: indeed, at the time of writing many of them were still handing over cash for Putin’s oil and gas, effectively funding war crimes.

And even as they try to wash their hands of Russia, they are sullying them again as they seek deals with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, who have the dubious merit of being the lesser evils.

Moral disgust is an appropriate first reaction when our leaders sidle up to dictatorial regimes. But perhaps keeping our hands clean is an act of moral self-indulgence that creates more problems than it solves. As the philosopher Chris Armstrong wrote three years before the current crisis, when dealing with dictators there is “depressingly little reason to believe that disengagement will make things better for the oppressed, at least in the short term. And it may well make things worse.” This is the danger in Afghanistan, where refusing to deal with the Taliban seems to be driving the innocent population to the brink of starvation.

Such dilemmas are not simply conflicts between principle and pragmatism. It is morally important that we take into account the practical effects of our actions, especially when they involve acute suffering. Principle can come into conflict with expediency, but this does not create any deep moral dilemmas. Someone who does what is wrong but expedient is not walking a moral tightrope: they are leaping off it.

It is the nature of genuine moral dilemmas that often there simply is no entirely satisfactory resolution. There are times When Doing the Right Thing is Impossible, as Lisa Tessman called her insightful book on moral tragedy. Sometimes we cannot punish a dictator without harming his (always his) oppressed subjects, save some people without leaving others to die, defend our countries without creating greater bloodshed.

This goes against the more optimistic view that although such trade-offs are horrible, equipped with the right moral principles we will always be able to do what is right; that at the end of the day, it either is or it isn’t right to pay the price of complicity with dictatorships for the good that results.

That view assumes that moral principles can be arranged in a hierarchy, where we know which should take priority over others. But millennia of philosophy have failed to produce anything remotely close to such a neat moral calculus. Instead, it seems that we have a number of moral imperatives—fulfilling our duties, maximising welfare, doing unto others as we would be done by, and so on—and that these don’t always align. When they don’t, there is no algorithm that tells us what has to give. As Ukraine painfully illustrates, how do you compare the short-term horror of war with the long-term persistence of tyranny and the crushing of freedom? How do you account for the fact that some people would rather die on their feet than live on their knees? The consequences of different courses of action differ in kind, making any sort of impartial comparison impossible. 

Although moral philosophy cannot deliver definitive answers to these dilemmas, it can help clear the way for honest decision-making. We need such rigorous deliberation because both individuals and countries are very good at self-deception, especially the kind that rationalises convenient wrongdoing. Ethics can help keep us on the straight and narrow, resisting the seduction of the line of least resistance, which in this case is to gloss over the awfulness of dictatorial regimes and go along with what suits our own selfish interests.

One tool to keep us honest is philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards’s suggestion to ask where the burden of proof lies. With moral dilemmas we can easily fall into a “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” way of thinking that starts from the assumption that both sides of the argument have an equal claim. But Radcliffe Richards points out that often there is an asymmetry, and that the burden of proof falls more on one side than the other. As she once told me in an interview: “if a policy causes some clear harm, you start with the presupposition that it’s unjustified until proved otherwise, and challenge its supporters to defeat that presumption.”

Whenever we help prop up dictators, there is such a clear and evident harm. Therefore the burden of proof is on those who argue that it would be worse to sever ties. Usually, that burden cannot be met. With some effort, sacrifice and help for the poorest, we can live with food and fuel shortages. The burdens that sanctions impose on us are nothing compared to the horrors of Putin’s war. When we’re honest about what dancing with the devil means, it becomes impossible to close our ears to its diabolical rhythm. 

Every month Julian Baggini will write a column offering a philosopher's view on current events. Suggest your own topics in the comments below