Cameron, Litvinenko, and Ethical Dilemmas

| January 2016
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We are watching British Prime Minister David Cameron grapple with critical ethical dilemmas in real time, with the release earlier this week of the results of the inquiry into the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko.  The conclusion that a British citizen was murdered by the agents of a foreign power at the probable behest of that country’s leader strike directly at the social contract between a government and the governed.

Leaving aside the specifics here (that is, that the foreign government is Russia and the leader in question is Vladimir Putin), the abstract ethical questions are daunting. Faced with this conclusion, Cameron has only a few options. The first is to refuse to accept the conclusions of the inquiry or to refuse to accept its assessment that the Russian state was to blame for Litvinenko’s death. The second is to take action to seek satisfaction and compensation for the death of a British national. The remainder of the options require different degrees of lawyering: arguing that Litvinenko’s naturalization as a British citizen was flawed or improper (suggesting that he was not in fact a member of the British political community and therefore did not enjoy the rights and protections afforded to a citizen); or that Litvinenko voluntarily engaged in activity (whether on behalf of Russian dissidents, corporations or even the British special services) whereby he gave up the right to expect protection from Russian attack and assault by virtue of his citizenship and residence in Britain. These final set of options would be to make the determination that Litvinenko was not in fact a member of the British “demos” and that the attack on him does not constitute an assault on the British demos by a foreign state.

These latter set of options the British government appears to be willing to rule out. If Litvinenko was indeed working on behalf of the British government, it would be craven and dishonorable to then try to find ways to deprive him of the right to be protected on British soil from assault by agents of other powers. That option seems to be foreclosed.

Nor is Cameron likely to dismiss the results of the inquiry. It remains to be seen whether the British government will argue that the results fall short of a definitive conclusion of guilt—and this may prove to be the slim reed for the prime minister to argue that the liability of the Russian government in general or Putin in particular has not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But the real test comes with the second option: the response. Here, Cameron and other British officials will have to face up between the costs of defending principle versus the costs of accommodation. If they accept the conclusions that the Kremlin is responsible for ordering and carrying out the death of a British citizen on British soil, they are duty-bound to react. But to what extent?

This brings us back to a discussion in these pages two years ago:

In his Ethics, Aristole addresses the question of what he terms astheneia (ασθενεια), which can be translated as weakness or infirmity, as part of his overall discussion of akrasia (ακρασία)—the “lack of mastery” or insobriety. This applies when someone knows what the right or ethical thing to do is, but fails to do it because of possible cost—usually at the expense of one’s personal comfort or ease—or because the ethical course of action will bring hardship and difficulty. This should be of particular concern to modern politicians, particularly in electoral democracies, where . . . promises are easily made but too often not fulfilled when political costs are too high.

Cameron argues that Britain must have a productive relationship with Russia to help solve problems like Ukraine and Syria as well as to ensure that the Iran nuclear deal is successful. He has not quite articulated a counter-ethical argument, but it is definitely present: that limited sanctions imposed on Russia for Litvinenko’s death may be justified on utilitarian grounds if via Russian cooperation greater good is reached.  Left unspoken is the reality that Russian business (licit and illicit both) is critical to Britain’s economy and well-being, and that punitive sanctions imposed on Russia will exact a cost on Britain as well.

So what we are likely to see unfold is the perennial attempt to square the difference: to take action in support of ethics, but to limit that action in order to minimize the costs. The British government will look for ways to show that it is “doing something” but not take major action.

I could be wrong, but watching how this is currently unfolding suggests that astheneia will predominate.

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