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09/17/05 - Andy Price <A.Price (at)> is a Doctoral Candidate and Associate Lecturer in The Department of Politics and Philosophy at the Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. 

When asked in an interview in 2002 what a ‘proper response’ for the US to 9-11 would be, the renowned political philosopher and activist, Noam Chomsky, answered that “whatever answer one gives, it should at least satisfy the most elementary moral truism that I can think of, namely that if some act is right for us, it is right for others; if it's wrong for others, it's wrong for us”. Whilst in this case the discussion concerned activity at the level of the state, the same truism can be equally applied to the level of the individual, Indeed, strict adherence to this elementary moral truism – at both the level of the state, and the level of the individual - is our only way out of the catastrophe that has befallen us, in Iraq and at home.

At the level of the state, the supposed bedrock of the post-Second World War World is the principle of ‘universality’ that lies behind our shared acceptance of the United Nations Human Rights regime, behind the United Nations itself, behind the principle of self determination of nations – and the principle that once they have achieved this, their right to an agreed upon, defendable national sovereignty. None of this is at all possible without a universal acceptance of our elementary moral truism. As we know, this has not been the case, as every single one of the above so called ‘accepted norms’ have failed to be honoured in the breach since 1945 by the very architects of the post-War World – the examples are to numerous to catalogue here, though a look at general themes therein is illuminating.

What is right for us is right for others: if it is right for our, Western governments to reserve the right to attack a sovereign nation for either perceived crimes committed or possible future crimes, then it is right for the enemy to do the same. In this case, Iran would be well within their rights to attack the US, pre-emptively, now. The patent aggression being openly directed towards Iran, mirroring the aggression shown toward pre-invasion Iraq, under our elementary moral truism becomes a valid policy avenue for Iran itself. Inversely, if we declare that it is right for us to have security, not be under external threat, to guarantee the prosperity of our citizens, then it is also a right for the government of Iran. Ideological differences apart, dedication to our notion of liberal democracy apart, it should not be on the personal judgement calls of our leaders, or on the desires of our business communities that a regime is deemed different to us, and therefore subject to different courses of action, but on our commitment to a moral integrity, based on our elementary moral truism.

What is wrong for others is wrong for us: similarly, if it is wrong for Iran to develop its nuclear capabilities, then it is wrong for us to develop our nuclear capabilities. How can we transgress the Non-Proliferation Treaty, year after year, and then deem it a threat or inherently wrong for Iran to do the same? More widely than Iran, if it is wrong for the Russians or the Chinese to supply Iran with weapons, as has been the case recently (think of President Putin receiving a mild scolding from President Bush earlier this year), then it is also wrong for us to sell weapons to nations that on any truthful indicator would fall behind Iran in terms of human rights (think Indonesia).

What is wrong for others is wrong for us: perhaps the most important area of all, at the level of the state, is the commitment to the belief that it is wrong to kill civilians, irrespective of the cause. The atrocities of Baghdad, London, Bali and New York are all hideously wrong. But so too are the atrocities across Iraq and the Middle East committed by our own governments. All doublespeak about ‘collateral damage’ aside, if we are to have any moral integrity stemming from our elementary moral truism, then the death of civilians anywhere is wrong. Whether they are targeted or not is irrelevant; and the line between targeted and non-targeted civilian death incredibly hard to discern - who can deny that the disgracefully named ‘Operation Shock and Awe’ was not aimed at the entire Iraqi population, a show of brute force to dissuade (for untold thousands, by force of death) one and all from resisting the initial invasion? 

These are just a few of many examples at the level of the state, where non-application of our elementary truism has led us to human catastrophe. Adherence to our truism would have saved thousands of lives. Yes, adherence may be less secure for the elites of the West, their tool of intervention taken from them – no small reduction in power – but if moral integrity involving the equal valuation of life everywhere is our goal, then a loosening of the West’s grip on the international arena is a precondition of that goal.

While application of our elementary moral truism at the level of the state is crucially important, application of the truism at the level of the individual is perhaps our true, revolutionary way out of the current malaise. Hurricane Katrina has painfully highlighted the gulfing divisions in American society, divisions that would not be allowed to continue under application of our truism. This application, as we will see, would raise far-reaching questions concerning the distribution of wealth in society, questions that for many years could not be seriously discussed. The discrediting of the Left and the failure of applied socialism deemed these discussions unacceptable. Now, however, the shadow of the Soviet Union – that global, flashing neon advertisement for the problems of socialism - has receded from the international arena and from the memory, allowing – indeed, demanding - a re-discussion of wealth distribution and re-distribution.

If the idea of being caught in the eye of the storm in New Orleans with no means of escape due to one’s financial position strikes fear into the heart of people like us, people who are relatively privileged (and this privilege may simply mean living above the bread line – some privilege) then it will strike even more fear into the heart of those who were actually in that position. Just because of their unimaginable poverty, doesn’t mean they fear less, feel less. If it is wrong for us to be in that position, it is wrong for them. The inverse of this is just as striking – if it is right that someone has the means to escape disaster, to insure themselves against disaster, then it is right for anyone – if it is right for us, it is right for them. The privileged of the US cannot now say, “Well, that’s just the way things are. Some people are poor enough to survive, others aren’t”. That simply won’t do. The right to life and security is a right, if applied universally and with moral integrity, that is unalienable to us all.

In society more widely, if it is right for the wealthier among us in the West to increase their security through gated communities, through differing levels of private transport, through the best choices of schools, through access to the political system – if all of these characteristics of being wealthy are right for the wealthy, then they are right for everyone. It cannot be right, cannot be moral on any level – cannot be justified - that people died in New Orleans because they were too poor to have the means and will to leave, while at the other end of society, Exxon Mobil will make $30 billion in profit this year and the wealthiest will become even wealthier due tax cuts worth billions of dollars.

We need a thorough re-evaluation of what is right and wrong in our societies, and in the wider, global society. And to do this, we need a firm base upon which to stand; firm bedrock of a principle from which we can draw our universal integrity – our elementary moral truism. We have to face the fact, long denied because of the long shadows cast by socialism’s failure, that if it is right for a few in any society to enjoy luxury, security and influence, it is right for us all. Inversely, if it is wrong that a member of this group should not have fixed, secure dwellings, fixed income, access to the best schooling, and later, access to the corridors of power, then it is wrong for anyone to be deprived of these things. 

We have to push aside vacuous notions of ‘meritocracy’, of the ‘American Dream’ of ‘try hard enough and you will succeed’. We have to unashamedly re-open discussion of how to foster true social equality. When we are derided as dreamers, communists, Marxists, we have to push through, stressing the fact that we are none of these things. Rather, we are simply human beings, trying to employ one of the characteristics that make us truly human, that separates us from the animal kingdom – that is, the ability to conceptualise a moral code and moral integrity, and from this, the ability to interpret what is right and wrong. Trying to practically apply this very human characteristic does not make us unrealistic dreamers; it makes us human, makes us realists. The real dreamers here are the small minority on this planet who cannot accept our elementary moral truism and its concomitant moral code, who are committed to vague notions of the free market as the place from whence to draw our code of behaviour: these people do not even perceive what is right or wrong, what is true or false – undeniable characteristics of a dream. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, their dream - their denial of our moral code - becomes our nightmare. 

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