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Friday, January 07, 2005

Ignatieff's 'ethical' war narrative

Finally got around to completing Ignatieff's Lesser Evil, and I remain impressed with the overall discussion and argument he makes about the ethics of conducting a war on terror.

His conceptualization of "lesser evils" is effective but still bothersome to me given my sensitivity to the use of the term evil. It is understandable within the context of the dilemma-based view of ethics he presents. From this perspective, ethics is not the act of pursuing or adhering to some set of principles, an approach which is better termed "moralistic" than ethical. Rather, it is the examination of how one deals with dilemmas involving choices that have to be made between two or more courses of action. More significantly, the dilemmas under discussion involve choosing between two "bad" options -- and thus the need to select the "lesser evil." For the most part, therefore, the term "evil" is applied here figuratively, although there are some choices (e.g., the use of torture) where the idea of "evil-ness" is more literal.

But more than an "ethical" discussion, Ignatieff's book helps articulate a "war narrative" for the war on terror that has been missing form the out. My colleagues and I explore war narratives and their role in conducting government business during wartime in a forthcoming article. What is historically distinctive about the war on terror is that it is the first in US history declared without a significant war narrative in place at the time of its declaration, and we argue that the narrative vacuum was filled with one of at least four distinctive types of war narratives. Over the past three years, however, a war on terror narrative has emerged, and I think Ignatieff's version of it is a useful and normatively interesting version that ought to be widely read.

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