Recently I wrote my thoughts on Interpreter magazine’s report The Menace of Unreality. Interpreter magazine is a decent source of information on Russia, but reading that report and other material on their site does occasionally set off think tank alarm bells. One particular culprit is the repeated use of the term “moral equivalency.”
In the traditional sense, moral equivalency is a sort of quasi-fallacy where one posits that there is no moral difference between two actions. For example, suggesting that the Allies were somehow no better than the Axis powers simply because they bombed civilians and invaded neutral countries would be making a moral equivalency. Even if we did assume some kind of moral equivalency for the sake of argument, nothing can change the fact that the Nazis enthusiastically started a war and continued to prosecute that war in spite of the British invitation to the negotiating table. Moreover, if one invokes the bombing of Hamburg or Dresden, they should remember the words of British Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris:
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
Unfortunately, recognizing moral equivalence as a logical fallacy can also open up a can of worms when it is wielded by the wrong people. While making a true moral equivalence entails insisting two morally different agents are in fact morally equal, one can also insist on a moral inequality based on arbitrary, even inaccurate grounds. In simpler terms, one can insist that a particular country or regime is somehow morally superior when in fact it is not; the insistence on a different standard of measurement without good justification is known as “special pleading.” Accusing an opponent of making a moral equivalency implies that there is a moral difference. Sometimes, however, there simply isn’t.
In my experience, many die-hard supporters of neo-liberal capitalism and the liberal status quo in general have latched onto this term “moral equivalence” as a debate ending term. These individuals trumpet a black and white narrative of history where the United States and its allies are perpetually righteous and moral. At worst, these countries have made “mistakes,” and sometimes failed to live up to their high-minded principles, but you can never say something like, “The US killed more than 2 million people in Southeast Asia.” That was just a “mistake”; you tend to make mistakes when you’re fighting Communism, the greatest evil on earth! Of course the Vietnam War and its equally destructive predecessor on the Korean peninsula were not “mistakes,” but rather the logical result of deliberate policies to suppress the self-determination of post-colonial peoples.
The excuse that these states would have gone Communist were it not for this subversion doesn’t hold water. Even if we were to uncritically accept all claims about the atrocities of Stalin and Mao, there was no mass genocide in 1948 Korea or in Vietnam. Isolated atrocities? Sure- these occurred on both sides during those conflicts. But again, these conflicts were largely spurred on by American and French intervention. On the flip side, many newly created republics with capitalist systems came into being without instituting slavery, genocide, or child labor as the US and other capitalist powers once had. In reality, most self-proclaimed socialist nations grew up in the midst of bloody struggle often funded from beyond their borders, yet in spite of this the majority of such nations did not suffer massive death tolls like those which are attributed to the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. Anyone who argues otherwise, or who argues that the regimes were authoritarian, should be directed to look at the behavior and excess mortality of various capitalist client states throughout the Cold War. Indeed, the freedoms afforded to most post-WWII American citizens far outstripped those of the USSR or East Germany, but they were also far greater than those of South Korea, Zaire, Cambodia, Guatemala, Iran, etc. all Western-backed regimes.
At this point any of the main offenders I’m alluding to should be jumping up and down screaming, “MORAL EQUIVALENCE! MORAL EQUIVALENCE!” They never explain why the United States was morally superior in these cases. They just imply that it was and they expect you to leave it at that. One argument they could make is that even in spite of all its flaws, the American system provided its citizens with greater freedoms and better respected their human rights. That’s a fine argument, except that Americans’ freedoms do not justify denying the same to others by supporting coups and dictatorships. One could also argue that a great deal of America’s high standards of living can be attributed to the exploitation of other nations, and sponsoring dictatorships in those nations helped maintain that exploitation. One could also argue that however horrible the results might have been, the motives of Communist and leftists regimes were in fact just. Equality and social justice are supposedly democratic values. It simply isn’t logical to assume that had socialism not faced such bloody violence since long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the results would have been the same. The young United States never faced such threats, yet that didn’t stop it from wiping out or ethnically cleansing native populations and maintaining the institution of slavery until the 1860’s.
Those who like to dismiss such arguments with the phrase “moral equivalency” forget that the onus is on them to explain why there is no moral equivalence. If there is justification this shouldn’t be hard to do. For example, if Russia compares its annexation of the Crimea to Kosovo’s unilateral referendum for independence, the fallacious logic is obvious. Whatever we might say about the manner in which Kosovo was separated from Serbia, their decision took place nine years after the cessation of hostilities in the area, leaving plenty of time to discuss and debate the matter. Kosovo did not make its declaration under the occupation of armed troops from Albania; no Albanian troops ever crossed into the area. The international forces in Kosovo had no authority to intervene in the local government. Lastly, the people voted for independence as opposed to joining the country of Albania. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that the problem with this comparison is one of a fallacious moral equivalency. The basic facts just don’t compare. Morality doesn’t really come into play.
Unfortunately, many pro-status quo intellectuals prefer to use the term moral equivalency when they don’t want to debate, when they want to deflect criticism, shirk responsibility, or when they want to exclude historical context for no good reason. In other words, they are engaging in special pleading. One good example of this is how folks like Ed Lucas, Anne Applebaum, Michael Weiss, Peter Pomarantsev etc. agonize over the growing influence of Russian money in Europe. Until recently, Russia’s corrupt elite had its fingers in pies all over Europe, and their real estate in London even inspired one book entitled Londongrad. One major avenue for Russian influence in Europe is via the far right. This explains the curious fact that in spite of an open, obvious, and virulently anti-Communist right-wing presence in the Ukrainian Euromaidan movement, most European right-wingers from countries like Greece, Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria have elected to support Russia in this conflict. They know that Russia’s occasional use of Soviet symbols, references to the Great Patriotic War, and hypocritical hysterics about fighting fascism are nothing but a big sham. Opponents of Russia in the West are quit happy to point out how Russia is worming its way into their systems and how it is financing the far right, but for some reason they want to put all the blame for this on Russia. As for their own governments, they were just being naive or lazy.
In reality, Russia in the mid-2000’s was simply taking advantage of a neo-liberal capitalist system which many of these moral warriors shill for. Some of these intellectuals have whitewashed the history of Axis collaborators, glorified Eastern European nationalists, or even in the best cases portrayed Communism and anything remotely socialist to the worst plague any nation could possibly suffer. After years of supporting this system some of them now seem to be upset that the Russian elite learned how to play the game. Moreover, they seem shocked that the far right prefers Russia. In a sense, one could liken Russia of the 2000’s to a Western-backed dictatorship, and I have several times. Putin’s regime is like that of Mobutu in Zaire, who robbed his country blind while enjoying the favor of the Americans, French, and Belgians. All three parties realized that he was cheating them too, but the reply to any complaint was always the same- “If not Mobutu, then who?” Replace “Mobutu” with “Putin” and you have one of the latter’s campaign slogans from 2012. Indeed, many of Putin’s apologists in the West sing the same refrain. Obviously Mobutu and his elite were directly responsible for the suffering of Zaire and later the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the regimes who backed him cannot escape responsibility. So it is with Russia as well. The West took no serious concern over the welfare of most Russian citizens in the 90’s. It made no attempt to actually educate people as to what it meant by “democracy.” It grew fat off of the stolen money Putin and his elite delivered by the boatload. To let America and Europe off the hook for this is moral cowardice.
I would posit that many of those who scream “moral equivalency” at the drop of a hat, particularly on the topic of Russia, have not a leg to stand on. Many of these people support the neo-liberal status quo, which says that the market should be left to its own devices as much as possible. Now they cry foul because the market was happy to accept Russian money. They helped promote right-wing historical narratives, and now they are upset that these right wingers admire a right-wing dictatorship. Who could have possibly seen that coming? I on the other hand, do have a leg to stand on, because I’m a critic of that same system that they support. In fact, I see Russia’s rise to power and all the problems associated with it as nothing but the natural result of capitalist policies, from the money laundered abroad to the legions of RT fans. In their report, Pomerantsev and Weiss continually warn that Russian propaganda is reaching disenfranchised and dissatisfied segments of Western populations without suggesting why this might be or what should be done about it. By contrast, I suggested actually listening to those disenfranchised people and addressing their needs. Who has the moral high ground from which to criticize Russia then?
Since debates over Russia traditionally consist of 90% whataboutery, the inappropriate application of moral equivalence is a legitimate concern. I have said plenty of times that whataboutery is a lot like hearsay. There is a standard definition but there are exceptions. It’s not enough to simply accuse somebody of whataboutery or moral equivocation without showing good reason as to why the two cases are indeed morally different. Sadly, many Western intellectuals and politicians live in a world where their arbitrary declarations make things true, failing to realize that their oblivious behavior so enrages masses of people who will then listen to anyone who appears to be opposing them. Indeed, Putin’s apologists in Russia, Europe, and America will continue to make inaccurate moral equivalencies and engage in ruthless whataboutism. One fallacy cannot be rectified by another, however. Special pleading is not the answer to moral equivalency.