So here’s the latest twist on a debate which has run for hundreds (thousands?) of years. Jack Straw denies that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was released as part of an oil deal with Libya:
Letters leaked to a newspaper show Mr Straw agreed not to exclude him from a prisoner transfer deal in 2007 because of “overwhelming national interests”.
Now I can see two different sorts of argument for releasing al-Megrahi. One is an argument about British national interests (philosophy buffs might call it the Parochial Utilitarian Argument), while the other is about Absolute Moral Rights and Wrongs (philosophers might call it the Kantian Arugment). The two arguments are:
- [Parochial Utilitarian] Releasing al-Megrahi will allow British companies to secure lucrative contracts with Libya, enhancing the welfare of British citizens. I am a British politician, elected to serve British national interests. Therefore I will release him.
- [Kantian] Showing mercy to a dying man is, quite simply, the Right Thing To Do, regardless of what that person may have done in their life. All humans should show mercy to dying people. Therefore I will release him.
Argument (1) is ‘parochial’ because it ignores the upset caused to the families of those who died in the Lockerbie catastrophe, many of whom are not British. Argument (2) is Kantian because it deals in moral absolutes (which Kant pushed hard, but utilitarian philosophy isn’t so hot on).
Now I can also see two arguments for not releasing al-Megrahi. And (wouldn’t you know it?), they fall into the same two categories:
- [Utilitarian] The fury of the families of Lockerbie victims far outweighs any conceivable ‘welfare gains’ of BP employees thanks to new business contracts with Libya. Therefore I will not release al-Megrahi.
- [Kantian] Murder is wrong. Mass murder of innocent civilians is simply unforgivable. Anyone who commits such a crime forfeits any right to mercy. All people convicted of mass murderer should be imprisoned until they die. Therefore, I will not release al-Megrahi.
So the fury over Jack Straw’s leaked memos boils down (I think) to an argument between a utilitarian and a Kantian, where the utilitarian is arguing for Megrahi’s release (it is in Britain’s “overwhelming national interests”) and the Kantian is arguing for his death in prison (”it is simply wrong to release a convicted mass murderer. Ever.”)
I fear that this isn’t an argument with a ‘right’ answer. I know that Megan McArdle eschews the utilitarian argument, her economic training notwithstanding. (Economics has profoundly utilitarian roots…) But I don’t even think this a straightforward argument between a Kantian and a utilitarian. I think both the Kantian and utilitarian arguments could cut either way.
What I do believe is that politics tends to function better when politicians are of a broadly utilitarian bent. (The purpose of a political class is to compromise, not to bicker about moral absolutes.)
But then the greatest politicians of all time were those who believed that some things were absolutely, unambiguously wrong. Which only baffles me further. Do we want politicians who are utilitarian about the small stuff, but Kantian about the big stuff? Or just politicians who are utilitarian when we agree with the majority, but Kantian when we agree with the minority?
I simply don’t know…