Politics, Security

Inaction is an Active Choice

Everyone’s a critic. When it comes to Cameron’s case for extending airstrikes beyond the nominal border between Iraq and Syria, including the Western plan to defeat Islamic State, it is seemingly very easy to be a critic. When judged against perfection it always is. 

In judging the success of previous interventions, critics tend to operate from a counter-factual assumption of suspended animation and zero deaths. For example, every death following the 2003 invasion of Iraq is added to the debit column of intervention yet no predictions of deaths from a maintenance of the status quo are added to the credit column, let alone any kind of assessment of what misery a collapse of Saddam’s regime would have created. You may well believe that after factoring in your understanding of these, the debit column is still by far the larger. This is a perfectly valid view but to fail to factor them in at all is to produce a worthless assessment of the decision. It also forms no basis from which to take pride in an apparent position of moral superiority. 

A large section of the critics of intervention today are making similar assumptions in both the moral and practical assessments of the choices before us. We are not in a state of suspended animation and merely mulling a decision to move. Things have been moving constantly and what we have and haven’t done up until now are all active choices. People are dying in bloody batches and will continue to do so, millions are displaced, over 200,000 are dead. We have not reached a fork in the road, we have erected one and every previous day we had a choice to erect it or not. 

Apparently, action is far more culpable than inaction, though I am uncertain why this should be so. Being unable to decide what colour to paint your bedroom means you are choosing to keep it the colour it is. 

Inaction is an active choice.

Moral philosophers have addressed this subject at length. The reductio ad absurdum of applying moral judgement to inaction is that each moment I spend at leisure makes me morally responsible for all the lives I could have helped using that time elsewhere. Accepting this, I cannot therefore pretend this is simple. However, there are elements in this specific case that affect the moral analysis. 

The first is that so many in the anti-intervention camp already hold us (the West) as morally responsible for the situation as it stands. But they are part of the West too and they too are responsible even if they were against the decision. They are part of society, they vote for its leadership and they profit from our mutual cooperation. They cannot therefore have this both ways. If we are at all to blame then the consequences of the decision to make no decision is our responsibility as much as the consequences of making one. 

A second is that so many are prefacing their objections to the currently proposed course of action with a statement of agreement with the imperative of action. Take this example from Corbyn’s new group, Momentum:

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When diagnosed with cancer, choosing to do nothing is as much a choice, a plan, a decision, an action, as seeking treatment is. The various types of treatment all have different probabilities of success and nobody knows for certain how it will turn out. But one of the available paths, including doing nothing, is always taken.

A surgeon knows that each time he tells his anaesthetist to put somebody under there are varying odds that that patient will end up dying. They might make a mistake, something unforeseen might happen, they might not be able to achieve what they aim to. We accept that this might happen. We try and mitigate the risks by getting the best doctors to make the best calls.

What is the moral assessment to be made about the person who says that because the surgeon is unable to guarantee no risk they say: “Although we agree the patient’s complaint has to be dealt with, and although we have no sensible alternative treatment plan, we are voting for the patient to continue living with their ailment and if the surgeon tries and fails, in any way, we will blame them for the failure”.

Furthermore, claiming that the surgeon gave the patient cancer previously, which is a constant refrain here, surely works against them. 

The anti-intervention case is predicated on the notion that those advocating a change in policy bear all the responsibility for what then happens whereas those advocating a maintenance of the status quo bear no responsibility.

The only way this could be taken seriously is if they make the case for what happens without the treatment. If treatment is to make the situation worse then surely this case needs a ‘comprehensive’ explanation as to how the opposite will create a better outcome.

The argument against this seemingly amounts to little more than: because a Westerner didn’t pull the trigger it is in no way their responsibility. This is fallacious, not to mention a complete betrayal of the principles of universal solidarity they tend to dress their opinions in. The fact that they might feel no responsibility for the current state of affairs doesn’t affect human happiness one iota beyond their own sense of immunity from guilt.

Ultimately this is about choosing a path from the various options available and, as it happens, none of them are even close to perfect. People stating opposition to the West’s current plan are not, as they seemingly fashion it, arguing against zero deaths or suspended animation. And while they have advocated an alternative, they are not fleshing it out, they are not making it ‘full and comprehensive’ and they are certainly not putting their names to it. If they did, then those opposing them could make lists of objections and shortfalls and potential negative outcomes just as easily while also exuding the same sense of moral superiority.

Cameron has been perfectly clear that there is uncertainty and risk in his proposal of extending British military activities into Syria. No serious person would have it any other way. There is no perfect solution here and pointing out a shortcoming in his proposal might certainly be useful in indicating something we must attempt to mitigate. This is an essential element to any planning process and must continue as we progress. However, this is different from using that shortcoming to reject the proposal while presenting no alternative. The rejection in preference of nothing is a positive choosing of nothing. Anybody doing this who is then unwilling to claim support of nothing, to spell out the ramifications of nothing, to call their nothing their plan, is simply not being morally serious.

David Paxton is a writer and a MENA Security Consultant. Follow him on Twitter @CanYouFlyBobby

David Paxton

David Paxton

David Paxton is a writer and a MENA Security Consultant. Follow him on Twitter @DavidDPaxton
David Paxton

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David Paxton is a writer and a MENA Security Consultant. Follow him on Twitter @DavidDPaxton

13 Comments

  1. Drew Blyth says

    This is a superb piece. It crystallises what had been on the tip of my tongue but couldn’t quite express properly. Thanks.

  2. “Everyone’s a critic. When it comes to Cameron’s case for extending airstrikes beyond the nominal border between Iraq and Syria, including the Western plan to defeat Islamic State, it is seemingly very easy to be a critic. When judged against perfection it always is. ”

    Nonsense. Cameron isn’t being judged against perfection, he’s being judged on the basis of seven questions, the majority of which he has failed to address in any meaningful way.

    “In judging the success of previous interventions, critics tend to operate from a counter-factual assumption of suspended animation and zero deaths.”

    Sigh. No. The success of previous interventions is judged on whether they achieved their goals. Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq all failed as interventions in the most basic way possible.

    “The first is that so many in anti-intervention camp already hold us (the West) as morally responsible for the situation as it stands. But they are part of the West too and they too are responsible even if they were against the decision. They are part of society, they vote for its leadership and they profit from our mutual cooperation. They cannot therefore have this both ways. If we are at all to blame then the consequences of the decision to make no decision is our responsibility as much as the consequences of making one. ”

    Baffling straw man that also begs the question. Taking your argument at face value though, even Tony Blair admits the Iraq war destablised the Middle East.

    Your extended medical metaphor is a stretch at best. But I’ll use it myself. If you had visited a doctor who previously suggested a mole might be cancerous and as a result had amputated your leg, only for the doctor to be proved wrong, would you trust him again? If you were to visit another doctor, would you hold him to a higher standard in terms of the burdon of proof than the last doctor?

    “The anti-intervention case is predicated on the notion that those advocating a change in policy bear all the responsibility for what then happens whereas those advocating a maintenance of the status quo bear no responsibility.”

    Utter nonsense and more straw manning. The anti-intervention case is based on the notion that those advocating a change in policy bear the responsbility of showing their proposed policy is workable. As is the case with any change in policy. It is for Cameron to argue his case for change. Anything else is agreeing to action for action’s sake.

    Cameron has failed to show that his plan would make things better. History tells us it is likely to make things worse. It’s not the anti-interventionists you should be angry with, but Cameron.

    You are correct in stating that inaction is a choice. But the rest of your article is based on shifting the burden of proof away from the man whose shoulders should be bearing it.

    Inaction at this stage would have one great benefit – we could always do something later when we have a better plan.

    If Cameron gets his way, those bombs can’t be undropped.

    • “Nonsense. Cameron isn’t being judged against perfection, he’s being judged on the basis of seven questions, the majority of which he has failed to address in any meaningful way.”

      I said a ‘large section’. If I need to be clearer about this then that is my fault but I am aware that not all opposition are the same.

      “Sigh. No. The success of previous interventions is judged on whether they achieved their goals. Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq all failed as interventions in the most basic way possible.”

      Sigh. By you perhaps but many ‘tend’ to do as I described.

      “Baffling straw man that also begs the question. Taking your argument at face value though, even Tony Blair admits the Iraq war destablised the Middle East.”

      You’d have to explain how that begs the question. However, there is a gap between admitting it destabilised the region and making us morally responsible for all subsequent events.

      “If you had visited a doctor who previously suggested a mole might be cancerous and as a result had amputated your leg, only for the doctor to be proved wrong, would you trust him again? If you were to visit another doctor, would you hold him to a higher standard in terms of the burdon of proof than the last doctor?”

      Yes you would and we are. But if you’re not careful what you might in fact bedoing, and what other critics undoubtedly are doing is saying “my leg was amputated therefore medicine is bad”.

      “Utter nonsense and more straw manning. The anti-intervention case is based on the notion that those advocating a change in policy bear the responsbility of showing their proposed policy is workable. As is the case with any change in policy. It is for Cameron to argue his case for change. Anything else is agreeing to action for action’s sake.”

      Actually no, they need to make the case that it will likely lead to a better situation than the current one or the current direction of travel. Much of the criticism is not positively arguing for the predicted outcome of inaction. Which is the point of the piece.

      “You are correct in stating that inaction is a choice. But the rest of your article is based on shifting the burden of proof away from the man whose shoulders should be bearing it.”

      No. It is about saying the burden of proof is on the man but also on the critics. I am demanding more people have a burden of proof, not that somebody should be alleviated of it.

      “If Cameron gets his way, those bombs can’t be undropped.”

      Yes. Absolutely. And nor will a terror attack planned and launched from Islamic State held territory be un-launched.

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  4. chris says

    It’s the ‘doing nothing’ that I object to most of all in this article. The alternative to spending treasure on bombing is not inaction, but to use that treasure domestically to subvert, ridicule, disrupt the young men who go out to Syria to join ISIS, the funders of the ideology.

    If we’re prepared to kill them over there, we ought to be up for some non-lethal struggle over here. So it looks like we’re not up to that. Bombing seems to be the less difficult choice. Bombing doesn’t require the sort of confident declaration of values, and attack on incompatible ideas, that a domestic campaign needs. Our leaders and media aren’t confident enough in Enlightenment values and culture to promote and defend them in a quiet & sustained campaign of debate and education. Because their confidence is weak they need the sound and fury of the bombs to pump up the impression of confidence & decisiveness.

    & the bad consequences of bombing will be discovered only in the future sometime, and in a diffused way.

    I think this was true in Afghanistan also with the opium growing – with those attempts to destroy the crop without taking on the domestic demand which the farmers were supplying.

  5. James says

    Agree totally, but you seem to have stretched a v simple point into a whole essay.

    • Charles Black says

      Is the point that simple? A lot of people don’t seem to get it and seem incapable of accepting that their preferred policies could possibly result in even the most plausible unintended consequences. I don’t think the article belabored a simple point, rather it approached the point a few different ways. Hopefully it sank in a bit more.

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  7. Helen says

    Yes ultimately a pretty simple point has been made here – that there are only two choices: Action or Inaction – to bomb or not to bomb. Oh and that choosing not to act is still a choice – obvs – and therefore carries some responsibility. Whilst I’m not convinced by Corbyn as a leader – I do believe he is attempting to offer a third choice- potentially far from ‘nothing’, but an alternative, a change… a new way forward? If we really thought hard about it there might even be more choices.

  8. Helen says

    I’m sure most here are aware of what Corbyn has said? But the way I understand it he is erring on the side of caution (which is an option in itself) because:
    a) it’s doubtful ground forces are in place to back up air strikes.
    b) the civilian casualties must be considered.
    c) the UN resolution is not a Chapter 7 – other countries such as Canada are backing out.
    d) he believes only the political process can bring about peace.
    and e) he says more should be done to cut off funding through oil sales, supplies and arms to IS. To be honest I find the whole thing so complex I don’t feel well informed enough to be for or against air strikes. I’m trying to get more informed. But going by the above – what Corbyn has actually said – it seems a reasonable view??? And not exactly ‘nothing’.

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