Colombo Telegraph

A Reply To Prof Carlo Fonseka

By R.M.B Senanayake

R.M.B. Senanayake

Prof Carlo ( hereinafter called CF) has returned to the original issue now dragging various other personalities to the debate, In his first criticism of my article he stated that ethical and moral values are only for individuals and not for governments. He also argued that human behavior , moral or otherwise ( not moral values) are the product of evolutionary biology. These are the issues particularly the latter.

I pointed out that whatever the origins of human behavior there is a case for moral judgments on the behavior of individuals. He argued that the State is not bound by any moral code. Now he drags Dr Jayantha Dhanapala citing his argument elsewhere that foreign policy must be pragmatic. He has never justified the violation of the moral code and obviously his pragmatism criterion assumes that whatever actions are taken in the pursuit of pragmatic foreign policy must be ethical as well.CF seems to be a moral nihilist who thinks there are no moral values.

Lord Devlin, in an essay “Morals and the Criminal Law” in The Philosophy of Law (ed R M Dworkin) Oxford (1977) at p 74 said: If men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental
agreement about good and evil they will fail; if having based it on common agreement, the agreement goes, the society will disintegrate. For society is not something that is kept together physically; it is
held by the invisible bonds of common thought. If the bonds were too far relaxed the members would drift apart. A common morality is part of the bondage. The bondage is part of the price of society; and
mankind, which needs society, must pay its price.”

There are various UN rights Declarations and the Laws of War and Humanitarian Law which are the bedrock of International Law which is binding at least on those countries that have signed up to as members of the UN and  accepted its Declarations. Of course the UNO is not a strong organization – not a form of world government or a body that can hold States to account for the violation of International law or UN Declarations.  But to argue that each Sate can pursue its own interest untrammeled by any moral principles is not a position that the majority of States or people will uphold. So the UN has not been inhibited in criticizing the human rights records of some States. It
does criticize those States which engage in atrocities against their own people particularly ethnic and religious minorities. CF says there is no reason for the State to accept my moral code.  I have not
authored any such moral code but may have passed judgments on the basis of a commonly accepted moral code binding human beings. States are a collection of human beings who wield power. They may do so for their own selfish purposes  to exercise and strengthen their power. I hope CF doesn’t call into question the UN moral code regarding the unjust treatment of its people or some of its people by the state.

Machiavelli and Kautlya are two philosophers who argued that the ruler should enhance and consolidate his power by any means- by hook or by crook. So Hitler who came to power through a free election and consolidated his power by suppressing all those who would criticize or
oppose his actions. The Lutheran Church originally supported him but when they saw his ruthless killing of the Jews and the suppression of those against  Bishop Bonheoffer opposed him and  was executed on trumped up charges of a conspiracy – a favorite ploy of dictators. Hitler thought the German race should be kept pure and believed in a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the German race. So he inaugurated the holocaust and killed 6 million Jews. The world considers this genocide and a crime based on the moral commandment that no human being should be killed..

Although CF thinks that a state is free to pursue its national interests violating the human rights of its subjects the UN will not accept such an attitude. The world does not recognize that a ruler can resort to any action in the national interest as perceived by him. CF thinks that a State is free to pursue its national interest such as to maintain the territorial integrity. Serbia thought so and massacred thousands of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. Such action is considered a war crime and the Serbian ruler Milosevic was tried before the International War Crimes Tribunal.  Milosevic was charged for war crimes as were several rulers of countries like Somalia, Kenya, and the Congo etc. As I keep pointing out the positive aspect of ethics is distinct from the normative aspect. CF can keep saying that there is no moral code binding on States but the world’s people don’t seem to agree

CF says “it is not ethics but the anti-thesis of it namely economic self interest that governs relations between nations”. May be so but the distinction between the positive and the normative cannot be ignored. International Law and the UN Declarations don’t permit a State to violate the accepted moral code among States in such pursuit of national interest.

Whether there is still a need to resort to force to counteract the Tamil separatists or not is a matter for the Defense authorities and I certainly don’t consider myself a judge of such a situation. But the
laws of war and humanitarian laws cannot be violated in any such exercise of force in the past, the present or the future. Those waging such war cannot say they are free to do anything in the national interest which is to preserve the territorial integrity of the country.

CF also draws out another argument against a moral code. He says moral values are relative. Bu many believe accept certain core moral values as contained in the Ten Commandments. The UN Declarations on Human Rights are based on such core values. So is International Law. Today there is discussion of the use of chemical weapons. Yes most people and even States would agree that chemical weapons should not be used in war. It is said that in the war of Rama and Ravana Lakshmanan prohibited the use of poisoned arrows. Here lies the core moral values. Of course animal rights are not accorded the same status in this core value system. Buddhism equates animals with human beings and opposes animal slaughter for human consumption. But this seems to be a relative moral value for mankind as a whole does not accept such a moral value however noble it may be.

CF  raises another very fundamental question: What is the basis of authority in ethics?  To somebody who thinks ethics is only relative the source of ethics may well be the society. So in certain African
societies in the past cannibalism was practiced. I would say it is a violation of the core moral values. But if there is no such core moral values and all moral values are relative to each society then cannibalism would be justified. Many people hold certain values such as are contained in the Ten Commandments as part of the core of permanent moral values and all other religions also have such values in their dogmas. If moral values are relative then the authority may be the society. But speaking for myself my authority for the core of moral values is God himself who gave Moses the Ten Commandment.

Back to Home page