Politics & Policy

The Congressman’s Burden

Resolutions have consequences.

Occasionally the world reminds us that it is evil.

I am not saying this in the obvious way, that the world is full of blood, death, arbitrary destruction, and gratuitous cruelty — though that is surely true. It is also true that such evils often allow reasonably precise moral reckoning, at least where human agency is concerned: If I murder you, I have committed an evil; if my nation wages an unjust war, it has committed an evil; and so on. Such cases are morally ambiguous when they turn on questions whose answers evade mere mortals: Did I kill you in self-defense? Did my nation wage war in response to an intolerable threat, and was war the only remedy? But the questions have right and wrong answers, and if we knew them we could assign blame with justice and precision.

What I have in mind, rather, is the possibility that one might (a) be forced to act, (b) possess perfect information about each possible course of action, and (c) discover that all of them are immoral. The contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has used the term “moral blind alley” to describe such circumstances.

I believe the House of Representatives may have gotten itself into a moral blind alley by taking up the question whether to recognize as genocide the massacre of Armenians in eastern Anatolia between 1915 and 1917.

No one denies that the government of the Young Turks ordered the deportation of their Armenian minority. The Armenians were dispossessed of their property and driven from their homes, and when the dust settled an appalling number had also been slaughtered. (Estimates vary widely: 300,000, according to the modern Turkish government; the Armenian government says 1.5 million.)

What is debated is whether these massacres are properly called genocide. The conventional wisdom is that yes, an order to exterminate the Armenians proceeded from the highest levels of Ottoman rule. The government of Turkey denies this claim, and argues that the massacres were an unintended consequence of the deportation policy. And some of the evidence in favor of the traditional view is open to question. (For details, consult this article from the Middle East Quarterly; this one too.)

I will attempt no resolution of the genocide question (though I wish to note in passing that, even if there was no order to exterminate, the Young Turks were still guilty of a horrific crime). Instead, I would like to assume for the sake of argument that the conventional view is correct. This will help us see how the House might have turned down a moral blind alley.


The congressman’s dilemma is this: If the resolution passes, it will enrage the Turkish government, which will retaliate in a manner harmful to the interests of the United States. It has threatened to deny the U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base, an important re-supply hub for military operations in the Middle East. It would also adopt a more cavalier attitude toward the potential dispatch of its military to Iraqi Kurdistan in pursuit of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is responsible for a long campaign of separatist violence in Turkey. The United States has labeled the PKK a terrorist organization, but it opposes Turkish incursions into Iraq on the grounds that they would destabilize that country.

The problem for a U.S. congressman is not just strategic: for there are very good moral reasons to want the U.S. to achieve its military and foreign-policy objectives in the Middle East. These reasons are consequentialist: that is, the failure of American objectives would risk bringing about morally undesirable outcomes. A collapse of Iraq’s democratic experiment, or an attenuation of U.S. power that strengthened the hand of Islamists, would increase the suffering of multitudes in the Middle East (or so, I believe, it can be persuasively argued — though I do not make that argument here). It would also leave Americans more vulnerable to attack. While a setback in U.S.-Turkish relations would not force these outcomes, it would make them more likely. To the extent, then, that lawmakers have a duty to prevent misery generally and the misery of Americans in particular, they have grounds to vote against the House resolution.

Yet there are also moral considerations in favor of the resolution’s passage. These reasons do not concern the consequences of defeating the bill, but are, rather, deontological: They turn on the idea that to vote “no” is to treat persons in a way that is wrong, no matter the consequences. The persons in question are the remaining survivors of the Armenian genocide (if it was that) and the descendents of its victims. One might also include the victims themselves, though it is hard to articulate how the dead can be wronged.

To understand why voting “no” would wrong these persons, imagine that your mother has been stabbed to death by a mugger; that I witnessed the crime; and that, fearing recriminations, I refuse to answer investigators’ questions about what I have seen. Imagine further that there are other witnesses, and that their testimony will be sufficient to convict the murderer. Finally, imagine that my refusal is partly motivated by ethical reasons of the consequentialist sort: I am a researcher on the brink of discovering a cure for a type of cancer, and I fear that, should I denounce your mother’s murderer, I will have to abandon my work and flee.

If you knew all of this, would you feel that my silence wronged you (and your mother)? I believe you would. For my silence contains the implicit judgment that you (and your mother) do not matter enough for me to acknowledge, when called upon to do so, the awful injustice that you (and she) have suffered.

Or consider an example involving Holocaust denial. Imagine a slightly different world in which Germany denied its genocide of European Jews and all manner of dire consequences might follow from angering Germany. We should feel morally uneasy with those who refused to acknowledge what happened in the death camps, even if they had their reasons for refusing, and even though acknowledging the Holocaust would do nothing to resurrect its dead.

Let us return now to the Armenians. Congressmen might be tempted to escape the moral blind alley by arguing as follows: “Declining to recognize that something happened is different from denying that it happened. By voting ‘no,’ I affirm nothing more than that the institution of which I am part should keep silent.”

Such reasoning could perhaps be refined into a sound argument against introducing the genocide question before the House: just as I, the brilliant cancer researcher, might have sufficient reason not to volunteer my testimony against your mother’s killer. There is no obligation to utter impolitic or dangerous things simply because they are true. Once the genocide resolution was introduced, however, the moral stakes changed: Now congressmen were being called upon to declare their position, as was the House taken collectively. This is analogous to the point at which investigators knock on my door to ask about your mother.


The idea of a moral blind alley is more philosophically radical than it might at first seem. It is different from the much simpler problem of apparently conflicting duties within a single type of ethical thought — for example, a case in which you must kill to save your life or the life of a loved one. Such apparent conflicts dissolve when we adequately define the duties in question: The duty not to murder is defined as including an allowance for self-defense, but not a permission to harvest my neighbor’s kidneys and give them to my dying daughter.

Moral blind alleys seem rather to be cases in which two wholly different ethical perspectives collide. One perspective rests on the feeling that some things are simply wrong to do to people, no matter the consequences. Another perspective rests on the feeling that some consequences simply should not be allowed. Put thus schematically, the potential for conflict is obvious enough. The real question is whether human beings are indeed susceptible to both kinds of moral feeling, and if so what they should do about it.

One answer is to cue the philosophers: “Our intuitions are muddled; kindly devise a system of rules for us to follow instead.” This approach is very far from life as lived, and I do not believe it can satisfy actual human beings, though it may please such computers as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. I say this in full knowledge that the skeptical Nagelian alternative largely reduces ethics to a descriptive project.

If there are moral blind alleys in this world, it is politicians who are most likely to get stuck in them. Holding public office requires one to contemplate the consequences of one’s choices on masses of people, even while remaining subject to all the usual feelings about how persons should treat one another and how institutions should treat persons. It is work for those who are wise and brave enough to grapple with the contradiction; foolish enough not to see it; or cynical enough not to care.


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