Moral Equivalence

Home Secretary David Blunket took time off from his busy schedule in order to denounce the BBC for its biased reporting of the Iraq war.

His most forceful critical barb was directed at the assumption that there was some ‘moral equivalence’ between the Iraqi news briefings and our own, and he spoke in dark terms about reporters in Baghdad working ‘behind enemy lines’.

Freud would hardly have been surprised that politicians try to enlist the independent media as a propoganda instrument for the state – he saw the phenomenon clearly during the First World War – but he would have been appalled by the casual dismissal of ‘moral equivalence’. His whole life was spent establishing the moral equivalence between himself and others: the ‘hysteric’, the ‘psychotic’, the ‘pervert’, the ‘primitive’, the ‘child’; and when he came to write of war – with his three sons fighting at the front – it was to maintain the sense of moral equivalence between his ‘own’ side and the ‘enemy’.

Freud had reason to hold fast to his assumption of moral equivalence. He saw it as the basis of his identity as a scientist, and so reserved his greatest scorn for those of his fellows who betrayed the scientific world view to serve partisan interests.

In ‘Thoughts for the times on War and Death’ he says:

“We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest. Science herself has lost her passionless impartiality; her deeply embittered servants seek for weapons from her with which to contribute towards the struggle with the enemy. Anthropologists feel driven to declare him inferior and degenerate, psychiatrists issue a diagnosis of his disease of mind or spirit.”

But it was not only the German-identified psychoanalyst who saw himself in the Other. The soldiers who have fought in battle also and often see a moral equivalence between themselves and the enemy, and soldier poets like Siegfried Sassoon were able to express it:

by Siegfried Sassoon

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

At the risk of undermining the emotional impact of this poem, I should add that there was one aspect of the conflict in which Freud asserts a moral discontinuity. That is the difference between civilians and combatants. Lip service is currently paid to this moral unequivalence in the War today, but few have considered its implications. It means that a civilian life is worth more than the life of a combatant, or, to put it in other terms, that it is better a soldier dies in ambush than that a minibus of mothers and children are killed by ‘mistake’. Freud, whose concept of ‘social hypocrisy’ is reiterated in his War paper, would have laughed bitterly at the thought that any army – British, American or Iraqi – would ever take on the implications of their stated position.

Leave a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *