Moral Certainty and Political Choice


The first thing that people say when discussing the prison scandal is that what they have seen on videotape is appalling and can never be justified. That is natural and must be that way. Denunciation of human torture is a moral imperative. It is what distinguishes a civilized society from a barbaric one. It is possible, indeed necessary, for civilized people to argue about where to draw the line between torture and legitimate methods of securing the truth from a suspect. But that line must be drawn and crossing it must arouse moral indignation.

Moral Outrage and Civil Society

Moral outrage is the driving force of civil society as well. Moral outrage transforms into determined public action. If that reaction brings about the necessary result then that means that that country lives in accordance with the standards of a civilized society (even if it does not always meet those standards).

Scenes of prison torture have caused universal moral outrage – irrespective of individual political allegiances. No one doubts that the government made a very serious mistake and that it will be unable to make a scapegoat of secondary figures – say, newly resigned Corrections Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze. As soon as that most active segment of the society – students – took to the streets, civil reaction produced tangible results. In rapid succession, the government admitted a systemic mistake; two ministers stepped down; and the penitentiary system was taken over by the person least likely to tolerate a repeat of what happened there – the Human Rights Ombudsman.

Is that enough? For a segment of the society, the answer is “Yes, it is” – at least at this stage. Others think that more must be done immediately; they demand the arrest of newly resigned Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and the resignation of the Justice Minister, the Chief Prosecutor and any others who were obliged and failed to react to warning signals coming from the Human Rights Ombudsman.

Morality and Calculation

German sociologist Max Weber made the distinction between the “ethic of conviction” and the “ethic of responsibility.” The former is directed toward a moral imperative to do what is right regardless of the consequences; it is why people are inherently against torture. By contrast, the ethic of responsibility gauges the causal effect of an action. A political action (be it that of an ordinary citizen or the leader of a state) necessarily must rely on the ethic of responsibility – it requires a calculation of causality.

When I was a university student, I read Plato’s teaching that mastering the art of calculation is fundamental to becoming an ethical person. Back then, I was very much surprised at such a philosophy. In the culture in which I was raised, morality and calculation are diametrically opposed. There, calculation is associated with seeking gain and cool reason is synonymous with cynicism. A person is ethical only when that person foregoes gain and acts “noble-heartedly.” That is probably why I so frequently saw immorality and hypocrisy around me: People rarely forego gain whereas claiming to have done so noble-heartedly is often a falsity.

The Devil Never Sleeps

The ethic of conviction has one comparative advantage – inner clarity. We know intuitively that torture is bad and fighting against it is good. Without such inner clarity, we cannot be moral beings.

Inner clarity comes with risks, however. If expressed in religious terms, it can be used by the devil as an unholy weapon. Being on the side of good is psychologically comfortable; it makes you think that you are good too. You feel even better if you can stand with like-minded people to fight together against evil. Such moral certainty can also obstruct critical reasoning. Reason is that part of the soul which Plato believed engages in calculation. An intense passion for fighting evil is seldom tempered with cool reason and often disintegrates into violence. That’s how heretics came to be burnt on bonfires. The moral superiority of people can become a weapon in the hands of an evil worse than the one they are fighting against. (Afterwards they will say anyway: “So what? We were fighting for a greater cause, weren’t we?)

The Discomfort of Responsibility

The ethic of responsibility is not psychologically comfortable. The choice prompted by a causal calculation may even be objectionable from a position of moral certainty. Those who adhere strictly to the “ethic of conviction” might brand such a choice as Machiavellian. But the ethic of responsibility has a more modest though realistic aim; it seeks not to embody virtue but to avoid evil. That precise moral aspiration sometimes (but not always) is achieved by doing or supporting the lesser of evils.

Civilization, or what today is called modernization, is that state of a society when a moral imperative (for example, human rights) exists but is, at the same time, well understood to be only an approximation. How that moral imperative should be approximated is a matter of rational debate. Unconditional conviction exists as a final orienting point, but action, which is called “politics,” is based on a rational calculation of what can and must be done now to get there.

Emotional Correction or Rational Calculation?

In the context of the prison scandal, the ethic of conviction requires that torture be condemned and the offenders be punished. But what form and degree of punishment will satisfy our moral instinct? Here the morally certain quest for justice degrades into a passion for retribution. It is not necessary to recite the many overwrought calls to impale every representative and supporter of the government, without exception. That we can attribute to excessive emotionalism. I think that we are dealing with a much deeper problem. The demand that, say, Bacho Akhalaia be arrested immediately is just the first step toward a lynching. Some people allege that Akhalaia was directly involved in torturing prisoners, but the fact is that the people in the street are not in any position to evaluate evidence objectively. An unbiased and transparent investigation, which absolutely is legitimately demanded, may or may not reveal his culpability. When that decision instead is taken by the people to the street that degrades moral certainty to mob mentality.

The most adequate form of political punishment is replacing the government responsible for such atrocities. Proceeding from the ethic of conviction, one would say that political punishment was warranted in this particular case. But that did not require rallies in the street when the election was right around the corner. That was politically calculated and calculating: We know for sure that the release of those videotaped torture scenes was deliberately timed for maximum causal effect days before the elections.

What should have determined the election outcome? Should it have been an emotional desire to punish an imperfect government or a rational calculation built on the ethic of responsibility? If the latter, then the calculation should have been: Which political group is less dangerous for our human rights (and not only in prison) and which political force can we expect to improve our standard of life or, at least, not to deteriorate it?

Every voter should have made that calculation. I will not hide my position: The government indeed deserved to be punished because of what happened in prison, but the alternative force poses a graver threat, including in the sphere of human rights. That is not a comfortable calculation, but it should have resulted in the only rational choice.

 This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 116, published 1 October 2012.


Log in or Register