What is your answer?

Professor Dani Rodrik, once at Harvard and now at Princeton, posed this moral dilemma in an article a while ago (in 2011!). It should be familiar to those of us who have ran into them in our personal lives and in Hindu epics. What is the answer to this dilemma? What is the guidance our scriptures give? I am very eager to know. Will be grateful for your comments.

APR 12, 2011

Saif Qaddafi and Me

CAMBRIDGE – Not long ago, a Harvard colleague wrote to me that Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of Libya’s dictator, would be in town and wanted to meet me. He is an interesting fellow, my colleague said, with a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); I would enjoy talking to him, and I might be able to help his thinking on economic matters. The meeting, as it turned out, was a letdown. I was first briefed by a former Monitor Company employee, who gently intimated that I should not to expect too much. Saif himself held photocopies of pages from one of my books on which he had scribbled notes. He asked me several questions – about the role of international NGOs, as I recall – that seemed fairly distant from my areas of expertise. I don’t imagine he was much impressed by me; nor was I much taken by him. As the meeting ended, Saif invited me to Libya and I said – more out of politeness than anything else – that I would be happy to come. Saif never followed up; nor did I. But if a real invitation had come, would I have traveled to Libya, spent time with him, and possibly met his father and his cronies? Would I have been tempted by arguments such as: “We are trying to develop our economy, and you can really help us with your knowledge?” In other words, would I have followed in the footsteps of several of my Harvard colleagues who traveled to Libya to exchange views with and advise its dictator – and were paid for their services?

These scholars have been pilloried in the media in recent weeks for supposedly having cozied up to Qaddafi. Sir Howard Davies chose to resign as Director of the LSE, which awarded Saif his doctorate (which some allege was plagiarized) and took money for the school from the Libyan regime. There is a strong sentiment that academics and institutions that collaborated with such an odious regime – often with the encouragement of their governments, no doubt – suffered a grave lapse of judgment. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s murderous stance during the uprising has revealed his true colors, regardless of his more moderate posture in recent years. And Saif al-Islam’s recent support for his father suggests that he is not the liberal reformer many took him to be. But it is much easier to reach such judgments with hindsight. Were the moral overtones of dealing with the Qaddafis so obvious before the Arab revolutions spread to Libya? Or to pose the question more broadly, is it so clear that advisers should always steer clear of dictatorial regimes?

Universities all over the world are falling over each other trying to deepen their engagement with China. Most academics would jump at the chance to have a meeting with China’s President Hu Jintao. I haven’t heard much criticism of such contacts, which tend to be viewed as normal and unproblematic. And yet few would deny that China’s is a repressive regime that deals with its opponents harshly. Memories of Tiananmen are still fresh. Who is to say how the Chinese leadership would respond to a future pro-democracy uprising that threatened to undermine the regime? Or what about a country like Ethiopia? I have had intensive economic-policy discussions with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa. I must confess to having enjoyed these talks more than most meetings I have in Washington, DC and other democratic capitals. I have no illusions about Meles’ commitment to democracy – or lack thereof. But I also believe that he is trying to develop his economy, and I offer policy advice because I believe it may benefit ordinary Ethiopians.

The conundrum that advisers to authoritarian regimes face is akin to a long-standing problem in moral philosophy known as the dilemma of “dirty hands.” A terrorist is holding several people hostage, and he asks you to deliver water and food to them. You may choose the moral high ground and say, “I will never deal with a terrorist.” But you will have passed up an opportunity to assist the hostages. Most moral philosophers would say that helping the hostages is the right thing to do in this instance, even if doing so also helps the terrorist. But choosing an action for the greater good does not absolve us from moral culpability. Our hands do become dirty when we help a terrorist or a dictator. The philosopher Michael Walzer puts it well: “It is easy to get one’s hands dirty in politics.” He immediately adds, however, that this getting one’s hands dirty in this way is “often the right thing to do.”

In the end, an adviser to authoritarian leaders cannot escape the dilemma. Often, leaders seek the engagement only to legitimize their rule, in which case the foreign adviser should simply stay away. But when the adviser believes his work will benefit those whom the leader effectively holds hostage, he has a duty not to withhold advice. Even then, he should be aware that there is a degree of moral complicity involved. If the adviser does not come out of the interaction feeling somewhat tainted and a bit guilty, he has probably not reflected enough about the nature of the relationship.

© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate

2 thoughts on “What is your answer?

  1. First, the Indian philosophy (based on whatever little I know) doesn’t prescribe any clear approaches. Lord Krishna takes the utilitarian approach (the larger good justifying one’s actions) as he advised Arjuna to send arrows to Karna when his chariot got stuck or asking Yudhistra to speak a lie to end Drona’s life or asking Bhima to aim at Duryodhana’s waist to kill him. Yet at the same time he did everything to prevent the war and when war was inevitable, he took the utilitarian view. The key point (in my view) is not about moral choices but whether one is acting out of personal agenda or has vested interests in exercising one’s choices.

    I think it was Max Weber who said ” No ethic in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of good ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means”.

    President Abraham Lincoln’s actions in the context of the Civil war and the emancipation of slavery is a classic example of the “dirty hands” dilemma. He hated slavery but not to the extent as the abolitionists. He was a gradualist who believed (perhaps optimistically) that slavery would die some day maybe centuries later.In fact in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate, he accepted that slavery would exist for another 100 years. In fact in his first inaugural speech he said something that he had no purpose to interfere with the institution of slavery.

    Yet in his 2nd inaugural speech (after the Emancipation declaration and South gradually winning) he said ” …Yet if God wills that it (the war) continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
    He used every method (deceit, dubiousness, political strategy etc.) to get his way around to abolish slavery.

    One way to look at the whole dilemma is based on the following rationale: The conflict in making the choices occurs because of a certain locus of moral principles that one’s consciousness has decided. At the time of making the choices, one is locked into those moral principles and hence the dilemma may become acute. Yet morality is never consistent. One strand of morality may be in conflict with another strand of morality. The morality of actions assumes ascendancy over the utilitarian view in normal circumstances (and it should rightly be so), in cases of extreme circumstances such as Mahabharata war or the Civil war the utilitarian value should override the moral stance provided one has no self-interest.

    Many decades back I wrestled with a dilemma of a similar nature in my personal life. My closest friend’s father was in coma and was on life support for over 3 months. Doctors were not optimistic about any recovery yet the family was keen on keeping the patient on life support for whatever time was needed and at all costs. One day the senior most doctor told me and a relative of the patient that the hospital had limited resources and that the life support system could be better utilised for other patients. It would mean removing the life support system and allowing my friend’s father to pass away in 6 hours. I knew that the family would never accept that. I agonised over that for a couple of days and along with the distant relative unofficially told the doctors to remove the life support system. It was done without the family’s consent and the patient passed away within 3 hours. I often wondered whether I had the right to make a decision of such consequence on behalf of the family or whether I was condemning someone to death. But the overwhelming thought at that moment and to this day continued to be that the scarce life support system could be used for other patients when they had a fighting chance of recovery. There was no self interest involved. A couple of years later I did confess my “crime” to my friend. Luckily our friendship survived and even strengthened as he understood my thought process.

  2. Ananth…
    i probably have the most superficial understanding of the hindu concept of ‘dharma’ among the people you know, but i shall go at the professor’s dilemma from that understanding. dharma is not one immutable dictum. it, to me means the ‘right thing to do’. so it varies for a professor, a politician, , a businessman, a butcher and a hundred other professionals.
    the professor you cite leaps from one context to another:
    1- if i were an academic with a profound sense of my importance, i would evaluate whether i am being used or genuinely sought
    2- if i were to be dealing with a terrorist, i would weigh all the tricks i have access to, in order to manage the situation and even outwit him and to live another day to get him
    3- if i felt passionate enough about my theory, my invention, my religion or my business to evangelise it, i would see if my mission would be furthered by my decision to go or not. i find among such people morality is but a self-serving convenience.
    thanks for giving the opportunity to trot out my sagacity!

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