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In Libya, What’s Right? Ethics Blog #1

Are we doing the right thing in Libya?

As the world contemplates the Libyan crisis, that question underlies all others. It evokes a defiant No! from Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — and an emphatic Yes! from Libyan rebels. Between those bookends lies the range of responses that framed last week’s diplomatic powwows at the United Nations and the Arab League. Those responses are now guiding policy debates among the military coalition partners and driving discussions in the global media.

Like so many questions of global moment, this one is fundamentally ethical. That’s a crucial point. You can, of course, ask other kinds of questions: Are we doing the economically advantageous thing, or the politically astute thing, or the militarily effective thing? Good questions, but their answers rely on expert arguments about historical precedent, strategic outcomes, and numerical data. As citizens of the U.N. member countries, we have a great interest in these issues, but there’s little of substance we can contribute to the debate. Lacking the required expertise, most of us are spectators rather than participants.

On the ethics question, however, we are — and must be — participants. To ask, “What’s right?” is to ask what we ourselves believe is the moral worth of our collective action. We don’t do this in a vacuum: The facts on the ground shape our moral responses at every turn. But we can answer the question of what’s right only if we know what it means to be ethical — what it is, in other words, that causes us to say, “Yes — that is the right thing to do.” For starters, consider three things — outcomes, principles, and relationships — that help us test whether ethics is being done.

  • Outcomes. For many people, ethics gets done when things turn out well. Consequences determine worth: When the results are good, you’ve done the right thing. Since consequences are usually in the future, ends-based thinkers have to become moral speculators, striving to foresee uncertain ends. Will Qaddafi, if cornered by superior forces, choose fight or flight? Will this be a long war, a quick victory, a bad defeat? Will Libya be partitioned? Will the rebels, if they come to power, maintain their interest in democracy or drift into their own tyranny? Either way, will they unite the nation or exact genocidal revenge on former loyalists? Will the oil industry be wrecked? For consequentialist thinkers, these are pivotal assessments.Ends-based thinkers also ask about the greatest good for the greatest number. The goal of the U.N. resolution is to protect civilians from massacres by loyalist troops. Yet given the nature of warfare, civilian lives also will be at risk from coalition firepower, and some coalition forces may be lost. How do you think about those losses? Since neither the ends-based test nor the reality of warfare can aim for “all good for everyone,” at what point do you argue that some losses are acceptable, and when do the numbers become too great?
  • Principles. For other people, ethics gets done when you adhere to a rule or standard that you wish everyone in the world would follow. One such standard has been articulated already by U.S. president Barack Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and other world leaders in their insistence that we cannot stand idly by and watch Qaddafi murder his own people. That standard, elevated to a universal principle, would say, “Always stand up against genocide” or “Always protect the weak from murderous dictators.” A parallel standard might say, “Always support democratic freedom-fighters” or “Always promote civil society.”In applying such standards, rule-based thinkers set their sights well beyond immediate consequences. For them, what’s right is never shaped by mere consequence. If intervention to save civilians is right, it will remain right whether or not Qaddafi retains his office. If the support of democratic movements is right, it will remain so even if free elections bring to power a sectarian, anti-Western government.
  • Relationships. Still others see ethics getting done only when you treat others as you would like to be treated. This care-based principle of the Golden Rule — articulated with equal force by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian theologies — requires you to imagine your way into the mindset of others and ask what they would want. What would the Arab world want other countries to do? What would the rebels want? Since these are known already, there’s little need to speculate. But if you realize you’re building long-term relationships, you may want to ask what a future Arab world — or Libyan world, or coalition world — will wish you had done?The Golden Rule, in other words, encourages you to consider lots of “others.” Given Qaddafi’s massive disrepute, few would ask, “If I were Qaddafi, what would I want others to do?” More challenging is to ask, “If I were a citizen in a coalition country hammered by economic hardship, would I want my government to shift its focus away from my plight and engage in an expensive military campaign?” Finally, the issue of relationships can be asked in reverse: “If I stood by and did nothing, would I risk creating long-term negative relationships?”

With these tests in mind, each of us can begin to answer the question of what’s right. We also can understand that others, choosing different tests, may come honorably to different conclusions. In Libya, lots of approaches may be right. Our responsibility — not as experts, but as moral actors in a global citizenry — is to determine the highest right and stand ready to argue for it.


Should it be our responsibility to determine what happens half way around the world? Is it in our interest to manage the situation. Will we benefit from this or will it be a burden on our country?

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