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Friday, 31 July 2009

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2009)

Does the end justify the means? This question, difficult to answer in the abstract with a categorical negative or affirmative, occurred to me when I read that Alberto Fujimori, former president of Peru, had been sentenced to seven and a half years’ imprisonment for corruption, to run concurrently with the twenty-five years he is already serving for abuse of human rights. more>>>

Posted on 07/31/2009 5:46 PM by NER
8 Jan 2010

I'd speak of four categories of actions: those which are always right, those which are normally right but sometimes wrong, those which are normally wrong but sometimes right, and those which are always wrong.

Torture is the fourth category -- it always coarsens and degrades the person or organization which does it, and degrades its moral credibility even if the enemy is torturing more, and doing it more enthusiastically -- but things like bribery and assassination, and lying, are of the third category, not to be done by default but potentially justified by circumstances.

So in answer to the question, "do the ends justify the means?", I would say "for some means but not others." English proverbs are not generally the path to good moral reasoning; don't get me started on "the exception proves the rule."

26 Nov 2009
Send an emailJim Murphy

Taking about evils, how about the Democratic Reformists in so many countries of that region over many decades backed by the old USA hiring militias and setting them to terrify and kill the state's enemy, which was usually opposed to the rich and the self interest of USA.  Or is this simply propaganda?

16 Oct 2009
Paul D

No, Mr Habeeb, we certainly need not debate the politics at issue to see what a vacuous literary hatchet-job you have conducted on Dr Dalrymple’s article.

I note the pride with which you hone your prose, liberally sprinkling such evocative epithets as ‘bubbling’, ‘demagogical’, ‘faux-ambivalence’, all for the sake of a holier-than-thou vanity that puts you on the side of the angels without having to deal with any of the moral complexities that Dalrymple painstakingly explores.

Moreover, I note the delight you display in deconstructing Dalrymple’s reflections into simplistic moral contrasts, whereas the good doctor is eminently nuanced. The anecdote you so arrogantly cast aside, (without even a hint of irony, I might add) is meant to exemplify the kind of blindness to horror that some human-rights advocates display when confronted with the uncomfortable facts regarding the side on which they have pegged their colours.

I note also the cynicism with which Dalrymple’s motives are suspected at almost every turn. Whenever there’s an unworthy motive to be ascribed to one of Dalrymple’s musings, you can be relied on to ascribe it. Let’s take your very first:

In response to:

"it illustrates the dangerous folly of expanding tertiary education as a means of economic development rather than as a consequence of economic development."

you bleat:

"Only when everyone’s nicely middle class should they be allowed to go to university. Heaven knows what ideas they’ll get into their heads otherwise."

Or perhaps a simpler explanation is that a university education is supposed to broaden the mind, a goal which is arguably stymied when it is biased from the start and misused “as a means” (Dalrymple’s own words) to something else.

In your psychologically inverted world, Dalrymple is not really expressing gratitude that he has not been placed in the dreadful position of having to make nightmarish moral choices for the greater good; oh, no. Rather, he is being “coy” and in true Foucaltian fashion, secretly fetishises dreams of power and grandeur worthy of "El Presidente"!

Let’s get real. Dr Dalrymple is not an apologist for despotism: just read his other articles if you need any proof of that. He is not even advocating a specific course of action or an ideology. Like any good op-ed writer, he lives in the amorphous spaces between what we take as rock solid commonplaces in the happy, safe world we have constructed for ourselves and draws our attention to what is uncomfortable but ultimately necessary viewing in the real world. In the West, we can barely think of what it must be like to live in places where the sky seems about to fall at any moment. But Dalrymple has travelled through those very places. He has earned the right to muse over the data he has collected first hand.

Another of your gems: in response to "How does one assess his moral, as against his legal, guilt?"

you opine, as though it were obvious:

"Er, how about according to the same standards you apply to your enemy but seem to be reluctant to apply to your friends?"

Give yourself a pat on the back for that. I suspect it was meant to make your halo glow. But how convenient that you lift the text out of its context and ignore the next three sentences, which I will repeat for you and which maybe this time you will actually read:

"Is it permissible to commit a lesser evil to avoid a greater one? I am not a utilitarian, but it seems to me unrealistic to say that we should never depart from the ideal in order to prevent a much greater departure from the ideal...On the other hand, the doctrine that the end justifies the means has been responsible for many horrors, large-scale and small."

No further comment necessary.

No, Mr Habeeb, your reading is lazy and suffused with template liberalism. Lack of imagination and sympathy slime their way through your piece of drivel like a worm determined to dredge up a bit of filth. The world is complex and does not always yield to how we would have it. But like any gong-wielding fanatic, you seem best pleased when immersed in the swagger of your own echo.

28 Aug 2009
Send an emailPaul Lamy

I share just about all of Dalrymple's perceptions (and some of his experiences) of the state of fear and anarchy that engulfed Peru and led to the election of Fujimori.  It was in his second term as President, and this after the battle with the Sendero Luminoso had been won that Fujimori, for whatever reason, turned to running the country like a mafia boss (and for no compelling reason).   It was the unnecessary damage and abuses of power that he perpetrated during his second term that completely eroded the support and respect he had initially garnered for doing what had to be done. He was wise to flee to Japan.  His mistake was in coming back (what was he thinking?). 


He rightly fled to Japan  

23 Aug 2009
Send an emailRichard Tseng

 Personally I have to say that, morally or not, the events that have transpired in Peru seem to be the best outcome given the circumstances.

Suppose Dalrymple is correct, and the Sendaro ascension would likely have led to the demise of millions. Suppose also that, short of genius or other unpredictable occurence, some form of extra-judicial action is the least-damaging solution to the Sendaro problem. Nonetheless, whoever claims the authority and power to order the extra-judicial actions necessary must then suffer for their illegal actions if rule of law is to return. The alternative is to face a complete collapse in faith for the state.

If we do not do all in our power to punish our leaders for breaking the law--even if breaking the law was for our benefit--then the legal institution loses all power.  Why would anybody follow a legal system knowing criminals are being celebrated out in the open? Sometimes a crime may be necessary to prevent an even greater crime, but at the end of the day all crimes must be punished by law.

Republican Rome had one fatal flaw, and this was that they recognized the position of dictator, an emergency office whose holder would never have to answer for his actions committed during his dictatorship. Once Caesar became dictator-for-life, he became completely exempt from Roman Law, making even his assassination insufficient for the Republic to remain.

Great evils are beaten by stained martyrs, not by self-made gods. To prevent Caesar we must legally punish our dictators.

16 Aug 2009
Send an emailAlice de Tocqueville

I agree with haseeb, Stegiel, et al. Lots of holes in the piece.  For instance, he doesn't say what he saw that made him conclude that the Shining Path was the apocalypse.

Mr. Dalrymple is not so much answering the question as massaging it. Not to be crude, but probably that's why I have to say that's how he got to a different part of the anatomy than the heart.

9 Aug 2009
Cara Yoshizumi

Provocative article.  The missing information is how bad human rights abuses were on each side.  Sometimes populist, pro-democratic guerilla movements commit human rights abuses--I'm thinking of the FMLN in El Salvador,  the FSLN in Nicaragua and the revolutionary government in Cuba--but the abuses were far outnumbered by the enemy; and there are other factors as well, such as do these guerilla movements help the population as a whole?  In these cases, the Cuban government, the Sandinista government and the FMLN also provide literacy programs, health care, and support for subsistance-based agriculture.

Not all Marxist movements are benign--Sendero Luminoso and the Pol Pot regime are probably two examples, but characterizing all Marxist governments as "bad" is the mindset that keeps getting the U.S. in trouble when intervening in international affairs.  Sometimes the Marxist government is what the people want!

8 Aug 2009
Eoghan Harris


Theodore takes us through the moral fog that faces any   democratic society dealing with terrorism- and comes up with a courageous answer.   Every statesman needs a hard heart for hard times.    God help the society with a leader who saves his own soul but condems his countrymen to death and degradation. 

7 Aug 2009

This is a very insightful article.

I don't understand the parallel between the Sendero and Lumumba. I guess the author means Patrice Lumumba. I know that he was gearing up for civil war, but a civil war against conspirators in league with the Belgians.

I wonder ff there is any evidence linking Lumumba to atrocities, especially to atrocities worse than those commited by Colonial powers and their allies. Otherwise, it's hard to understand the reference to him.

7 Aug 2009

The premise of your article is based on a deadly logical fallacy. By a reverse syllogism, Sendero is defeated under Fujimori, Fujimori violates civil rights and oversees Masacres at la Cantuta, therefore civil rights violations led to Sendero's defeat.

While I agree that Sendero as a movement was a poisonous cult of personality, itself guilty of revolutionary violence against the highlanders it claimed to be 'freeing.' I disagree that the actions of the Sinchis and other right wing paramilitary groups were either justified or effective.

Most studies and research (McClintock, Burt, Degregori) suggest that the military was only able to secure areas towards the late 1980s after reevaluating their conduct of the war. The support of Rondas Campesinas and protection of highland villages turned back some of the inroads made by Senderistas in the Emergency Zones of the Southern Highlands.

As even you note, Sendero was defeated not because of significant changes in the highlands, but rather because Guzman was captured. While I am not familiar with the intelligence that led to his capture (and it may well have been produced in an illiberal fashion), it seems that Fujimori's actions (inconjunction with Montesinos and Sinchi paramilitaries) mostly exacerabted the divisions in Peruvian society. 

If Guzman was effective, it was in exploiting that reflexively violent response of the Fujimori administation, a response that drove many into the hands of Sendero and completely destroyed a conciliatory middle ground upon which a constructive settlement could be reached.

6 Aug 2009
Send an emailwinthrop Allen

Nicolo Machiavelli addressed the issue of good and evil in governance with "The Prince."  Mach argues that evil will always defeat the unalloyed good.  Evil has more and better weapons.  Consider terror, certainly the most economical and effective means to control a population.  TD has got it right.

6 Aug 2009

 The logic of situations such as this is tragic. One side justifies its evil by the evils committed by the other side, and vice versa. So the evil is compounded. One side calls the other side 'evil' which makes the other side's reactions and provocations unjustified and your side's cruelty justifiable. I see the aim of amnesty as trying to put a stop to this tragedy by saying that some lines should not be crossed, even if one side is or has crossed the line. The alternative is to take sides or simply wait until the more powerful side triumps. In the article, Dalrymple takes a side and, albeit reluctantly, seeks to justify his side's actions. At least he does not deny the evil committed by the side he chose. 

5 Aug 2009
Josh Strike

This treads dangerously close to what's known in Argentina as 'la falacia de los dos demonios'... the assertion of the military ex post facto that their "un-gentlemanly" excesses had been in response to a greater chaos looming; and, indeed, had been the lesser of the two evils.

Reasons why it's always been a fallacy:

Firstly, that should the humanitarian standards of a sovereign power devolve to animal brutality each time that power is threatened, it should become as bad as its opponent rather quickly; and secondly, that in its monopoly on power, any abuse by the state is by definition more humiliating and more egregious than any abuse by an insurgency.

Thus, had Shining Path gained state power, there is no rational doubt they would have been a far worse abuser thereof than was the Fujimori government; but so long as one was the government and the other a guerrilla movement with no claim to state power, it was the obligation of the government to behave as a civilized entity regardless of what they were faced with.

The recent popularity, among philosophers of the American right, of publicly abandoning such principles, is symptomatic of our decadence. Precisely what's important in any such conflagration is maintaining, if not the reality, then at least a reasonable facsimile of the moral high ground. Not just in word, but in deed; ask the Chinese; the shouldering mandate of heaven ain't near as easy as picking up an AK.

5 Aug 2009
Rather ironic really. Suppose one were a loyal Marxist revolutionary. Revolutionary violence is the only option-the end justifies the means once more. There is something deeply interesting in the hypothesis that it is not evil when done for a "higher cause." Hence Hiroshima, Hamburg and Nagasaki and of course Operation Barbarossa or Operation Fujimori.

5 Aug 2009
Send an emailBrianB

I agree with one commenter on the simplistic dismissal of Kant.

However, I understand your conclusion. A good leader chooses between possible knowns, not abstractions that may turn out to be irrelevant. If all his field commanders think that extra-judicial methods were necessary, who am I to make other suggestions or demands from my commanders that they do the impossible under life-threatening situations.

But, then, Fujimri going to jail doesn't exactly bring Shining Path back to power.



5 Aug 2009
Send an emailDavid

I liked reading this article. It presented the complex situation in Peru in a clear and simple way. The writer came across as a man of integrity and honesty and yet at the end I wondered about the effect the words had upon me.

Murder is murder and greater murders don't really justify lesser murders. When someone tells you that you must murder or torture someone for the greater good you have to ask, what is this greater good. Is it just a fiction of the mind? Murder is real and it is clearly stated that we should not indulge in it ever. Period.

To begin 'disappearing' people because you think their ideology will result in even more people being 'disappeared' is a kind of madness. Let us have none of it.

Thank goodness there are organisations such as Amnesty International  that have people prepared to investigate crimes against human dignity because they respect human dignity and for no other reason.

I began to wonder just what Mr Dalrymple had said to the investigator for Amnesty International that made him turn away from him on the plane.

Theodore Dalrymple is gentleman enough to say he would feel squeamish about carrying out the acts he himself advocates but he does not mind arguing that others should be harder of heart.

Don't ask anyone to do what you would not do yourself. Don't wish done to someone else what you would not wish done to you or yours.

5 Aug 2009
Send an emailTom Hopson

Probably the most balanced piece I've ever read, unbiased to a fault.  Nothing in human or animal nature or history is that fair.  Mr. Dalrymple needs to grow a pair if he expects his comments to matter.   The right wing crazies right here in the heartland are making the case that softheaded logic wins no place at the feeding trough.  Fujimori was just plain stupid to come back to Peru and subject himself to the new reality.  Waiting for mad dogs to share their booty is beyond meek, its suicidal.  Gosh, I hope I dotted all my i's for the spelling police.  Seriously, I loved the piece, just taken by the naivete.

5 Aug 2009
Send an emailToby Mottram

Good one Theo.  I always check out what you are writing.  I gave up on Amnesty after 1989 when it became a little skewed.  Don't be too glum we live in a wonderful time for more people than ever.

5 Aug 2009
Send an emailRebecca Bynum

Dear Mr. Moskowitz,

I believe you are correct and have changed whom to who. If Dr. Dalrymple objects, I'll refer him to you.

Rebecca Bynum

5 Aug 2009
Send an emailSully

As always Theodore Dalrymple has produced a balanced, reasonable and persuasive piece. Unlike the smarmy commenter above for whom everything is simple and the only good person is a perfect person, Mr. Dalrymple recognizes and presents nuance.

5 Aug 2009
Jack Moskowitz

In the second paragraph, "whom" should be "who," as the subject of "would win." It is incorrect to regard "whom" as the object of "assumed." It is not.

5 Aug 2009

As is often the case, "Mr. Dalrymple" gets to the heart of the matter.

This surely must be a case of cognitive dissonance in the moral realm:  Torturing and murdering people are always evil.  AND:  Someitmes torturing and murdering people is the only option available to an even greater evil.

If a kidnapper has been captured, but had secretly buried my chid alive and they only had a few hours of oxyegn, what should I or the police do?  To torture him is certainly wrong, but to let my child suffocate to death is an even greater wrong.

No better ending could have been concieved from this essay - thank God most of us never have to make a choice like that.

5 Aug 2009

I don't see what Dalrymple's moral problem is.

Extra Judicial does not mean immoral.

The Shining Path was at war with the Government of Chile and its defeat was as a result of a  military operation. The nature of guerilla warfare is such that the emeny is going to try and obscure themselves amongst innocent civilians. A goverment which attempts to rid itself of the insurgency is going to accidently kill people who are innocent.  This is what makes guerilla warfare so nasty, the insurgents want the goverment to kill innocent civilians so as to turn the population against them. The state has a right to self defense, it does not have an obligation to provide a judical justification to the very men who would have overturned the judiciary. Men who have sworn to overturn the legally legimate structures of society have no right to appeal to them in defeat.


5 Aug 2009

One does not even need to go into the political debate or this or that atrocity of the government or the Maoists in order to identify the ugliness that keeps bubbling to the surface of this article. Let’s parse some of the key phrases.

“…it illustrates the dangerous folly of expanding tertiary education as a means of economic development rather than as a consequence of economic development.”
Only when everyone’s nicely middle class should they be allowed to go to university. Heaven knows what ideas they’ll get into their heads otherwise.  

“I also saw, and heard about, actions by the Peruvian army that were less than gentlemanly… Still, it was what stood between Peru and the Apocalypse.”
Note how the writer uses ironic euphemism in the first phrase to soften the reader for the apologism in the second. Note the grandiloquence: you can imagine the heavy pause between ‘Peru’ and ‘the Apocalypse’. Note the fatalism of the second phrase. How can the writer later point out the foolishness of prophesising the future, and yet speak with conviction about averted apocalypse when justifying army brutality?

“On my way back to Europe, I happened on the aircraft to sit near a man who turned out to be an investigator for Amnesty International…”
What a pointless anecdote, but a typical rhetorical strategy for the likes of Dalrymple. An unsubstantiated, tendentious, boring story about ‘someone I sat next to on a plane’, the kind of story you might dread having to sit through at a dinner party but one you certainly wouldn’t expect in a ‘political’ essay. Note the prejudices it plays on: the NGO worker relishing tales of inhumanity; the sneaky secret bias of such persons. Then there’s the demagogical announcement (excused by the writer’s disingenuous admission of ‘being illogical’) that he has lost respect for Amnesty. I note from the comments above that he’s already got plaudits for that. What’s next? A rant against ‘the human rights of criminals’?

“But, of course, some of the methods used to achieve that victory were not up to the standards of Scandinavian democracy.”
Probably the most objectionable line in the entire piece. Oh human rights might be ok for you latte-sipping Norsemen but in South America we were engaged in a cosmic war between the forces of Gandalf and the forces of Mordor.

“How does one assess his moral, as against his legal, guilt?”
Er, how about according to the same standards you apply to your enemy but seem to be reluctant to apply to your friends?

“Who can say for certain, or even in probability, what the assassination of Lumumba averted?”
We can say nothing, obviously. Leave that kind of ‘what if’ history to Robert Harris. More to the point, this recruitment of a shamefully-murdered democratically-elected leader – a murder undertaken with the complicity of one of the most shameful colonial powers in Africa – in order for Dalrymple to provide ballast for this portentous, euphemistic piece is downright appalling.  
“…could I have been persuaded that extra-judicial killings were necessary to defeat it? I hope I am not revealing a disgraceful character when I say that I think I could have been so persuaded.”
Well, you hoped wrongly. To admit to the possibility of one’s failure of character under extraordinary pressure is perfectly normal. But to do so at the tail-end of a piece whose faux-ambivalence is part of a strategy to apologise for state-terror so long as it is informed by one’s own political bias, is indeed revealing a disgraceful character. Anyway, stop being so coy. We know armchair generals love the idea of being the reluctantly-murderous but grimly-realistic El Presidente.
“I am only relieved that I have never been put in the way of such temptation and that no such responsibility has ever devolved on to me.”
You heard it here first folks! Enacting state brutality is simultaneously ‘tempting’ and yet also some grand ‘responsibility’. That juxtaposition brilliantly highlights the key dynamic behind this article and others of its kind: the pleasure of power disguised and justified by delusions of grandeur.

5 Aug 2009
Send an emaileero iloniemi

It seems to me that Mr Dalrymple is implying that the mere fact that one recognises there are no black and white choices is a virtue in itself.

I would disagree. The effective and moral choice -albeit an impossible one- for Mr Fujimori  would have been to freely admit his transgressions in fighting Shining Path and accept the concequences. Thus he would have achieved his proposed yultimate aim and still hold himself accountable for his actions. But admitting guilt and going to prison would have required a sense of sacrifice, a quality politicians often talk about but seldom practice.

5 Aug 2009
stuart munro

I will accept your assertion that the end may indeed sometimes justify the means, but I wish you would not reduce Kant to the case of the inquiring murderer, it's not even his example - it's one of the Socratic dialogues.

I think that the categorical imperative was intended to clarify that bad actions are never excused by any cause. Which does not mean that Kant was necessarily incapable of recognising a need to choose between evils, only that he did not deceive himself with regard to the morality of the act. It might very well be that Herr K would have asserted that we had other duties to murders besides not lying to them.

3 Aug 2009
Send an emailchris

 What a wise article. 

It is really appallingly rare to hear such reflections these days, which is a comment on the simplicity of our moral thinking (not always a bad thing, I might add). 

Indeed, I can only recall one prominent analyst in the later twentieth century who consistently applied the type of common sense that Dalrymple exemplifies to political events (that would be Raymond Aron). Today--in my humble opinion--Victor Davis Hanson carries the torch. 

I don't really have much to add, but I was just talking with some friends about political morality, and I was forced to reflect that it is a kind of art requiring a very difficult balancing between two propositions: 1) politics is complex and thus not the same as morality; 2) morality is necessary to politics. 

There is a nasty irony here, unless I am mistaken.  The tendency today is to take the first lesson about complexity to the point where all is grey and a sort of relativism results. On the other hand, being human, moral judgments still shine through and dominate the exercise. Hence the Amnesty fellow: appalled at Fujimori; "nuanced" about the Shining Path.

I guess hypocrisy is still the homage to virtue. But damn it is hard to straighten ourselves out.




2 Aug 2009
Norman Berdichevsky

Although the substance of the article deals with the Fujimori regime and the dilemmas it faced, the moral dilemma presented and the real choices on how to resolve them extend throughout all time and situations.

This is probably most true today in the never ending guilt complex of the Jewish Left who cannot excuse Israel's survival if one " innocent Arab" has been harmed - much like the disgusting revisionism of those historians who use the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden to draw a moral equivalence between the Allies and the Nazis-Japanese imperialists in World War II or waterboarding to proclaim we were just as bad as Saddam Hussein..

Their absolute moral superiority is safely proclaimed and protected by their affluent suburbs and detachment from the daily struggles of ordinary people.