Get Out of Afghanistan!

Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister in the middle of the 19th century, said: “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies, England has only eternal and perpetual interests.” I find myself thinking about this quote whenever I think about Afghanistan.

I suspect that I am not alone in thinking that when America and allies invaded Afghanistan, this was a good thing, as opposed to the invasion of Iraq, which was a bad thing. And yet here we are, a decade later, getting out of Iraq in a sort of way, and one trusts being very careful not try that sort of lark again, even though there are those who urge us to bomb Iran into non-being and, while we are at it, a load or two on Syria would not be amiss. But Afghanistan goes on from one awful day to another. If it isn’t the corruption of the government that we are propping up, if it isn’t Pakistan showing their contempt for everything we are trying to do, then it is we ourselves showing battle fatigue and more and doing stupid or dreadful things, like burning Korans and killing innocent villagers.

Do we have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan? My natural inclination is to say “yes,” and I think that in a sense – in an important sense – this is right. But the question I do ask is about how much of an obligation we have and whether we have greater obligations elsewhere and if we are at present ignoring the latter in unfair favor of the former.

I am philosopher, not a political scientist (and even less am I a military expert or an authority on world affairs), so take what I have to say in context. The question as I see it is one of deciding between two basic moral principles. The first is that we have an equal moral obligation to every human being, indifferently. We owe as much to the starving child in Africa as we do to any one of our own kids. I have always thought of this as a Christian principle, for certainly it was what I was taught in my Quaker childhood. Today, the person I have thought of as coming closest to endorsing this position is Peter Singer, the utilitarian ethicist at Princeton. (If someone wants to correct me on one or either of these attributions, I shall be more pleased than surprised. But I would like to know if there are or were people who advocated this position fully and openly.)

The second principle is that morality is differential. Yes, we do have obligations to everyone, but more to some than to others. In particular, family first, then relatives and close friends, then fellow countrymen and women, and then to others – all proportionately obviously to need. Hence, it might be more moral to give that hundred bucks to Oxfam rather than to your kids setting out for Florida for spring break.

This second is certainly the view of David Hume. Quoting from A Treatise of Human Nature:

A man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where everything else is equal. Hence arise our common measures of duty, in preferring the one to the other. Our sense of duty always follows the common and natural course of our passions.

It was very much the view of Charles Dickens. In Bleak House, there is a savage parody of those who care about foreigners at the expense of their own family and the poor and suffering of their own society.

“You find me, my dears,” said Mrs Jellyby, snuffing the two great office candles in tin candlesticks which made the room taste strongly of hot tallow (the fire had gone out, and there was nothing in the grate but ashes, a bundle of wood, and a poker), “you find me, my dears, as usual, very busy; but that you will excuse. The African project at present employs my whole time. It involves me in correspondence with public bodies, and with private individuals anxious for the welfare of their species all over the country. I am happy to say it is advancing. We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

Not a thought for her neglected and hungry children and even less for Jo the crossing-sweeper.

I believe that this view of morality is very much one underpinned by Darwinian evolutionary biology. Those humans who evolved to care about their own kids survived and reproduced better than those who cared only about the children of others. (Before David Barash takes time out from orgasms and starts spluttering about the evils of evolutionary ethics, let me rush to say that I don’t think that selfish emotions are moral. What I do think is that natural selection has given us moral sentiments to back up what is in our evolutionary interests, and that ultimately that is all that can be said on the subject.)

So back to Afghanistan. As one who does subscribe to the second of the two principles, who does think that Lord Palmerston had a point, I believe that we are now in Afghanistan partly because we don’t know how to get out (and in particular how to get out without massive loss of face), partly because there are obviously still worries about what leaving could mean to our personal security, and partly – and I fear too much – because somehow we want to do good over there.

By all means, let us continue aid to Afghanistan and continue to act in our interests. But reflect: It is not as if everything is OK in America. Think of the poverty and suffering and lack of adequate access to health care and much more. And then say to your politicians: “Get out of Afghanistan!”

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