Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Libya: Milliband / Balls contradiction?

“We did not want him [al-Megrahi] to die in prison,” - David Miliband (Today, 2nd September)

“None of us wanted to see the release of al-Megrahi,” - Edward Balls (Today, 7th September)

Alex Massie on his Spectator blog ties himself in knots trying to demonstrate, in his familiar contrarian way, that Balls has not contradicted Miliband. (And gets rewarded for his pains with a comment accusing him of being Jesuitical.)

However, he misses what is blindingly obvious: the statements aren't (of themselves) contradictory.

The clue is the word "want". The whole point about a dilemma is that it presents you with two (or more) alternatives, neither of which you want, but one of which you must choose. Otherwise it wouldn't be a dilemma.

It's a very basic ethical problem:
  • British Government does not want to release al-Megrahi, because it will annoy the Americans, be an offence against Justice, seem soft on Terrorism, etc.
  • British Government does not want to leave al-Megrahi in gaol, because it will annoy the Libyans, damage British economic interests, etc.
It can't both release him and not release him, so it is forced to identify the least bad option. (Idiot's Guide to Ethics, chapter 1.)

If a Government is politically astute it will, of course, attempt to pursue the selected option as elegantly as possible. It is this that the present administration has singularly failed to do. Conservative commentators naturally exploit this failure. That is fair eno' - all part of the game. But Sir Watkin has a nagging suspicion that many of them fail to understand the underlying logic of dilemmas, lesser evils and hard ethical choices. Which is worrying.

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