Moral equivalence

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Moral equivalence is a term used in political debate, usually to criticize any denial that a moral hierarchy can be assessed of two sides in a conflict, or in the actions or tactics of two sides. The term originates from a 1906 address by William James entitled The Moral Equivalent of War, subsequently published in essay form in 1910.[1]

The term has some limited currency in polemic debates about the Cold War, and more currently, the Arab-Israeli conflict. "Moral equivalence" began to be used as a polemic term-of-retort to "moral relativism", which had been gaining use as an indictment against political foreign policy that appeared to use only a situation-based application of widely-held ethical standards.

The purveyors of the device usually start by believing their side is by definition morally superior by who they are, not by what they do. They then use selective history to cast the situation as a big-picture struggle against an evil power. This evil could be totalitarianism, or genocidal policies or some other ostentatious villainy. They then justify the atrocities of their own side by claiming it to be a lesser evil compared with allowing the evil power to have its own way - usually culminating in genocide or mass enslavement. These atrocities in this way become acts of good, not evil.

International conflicts are sometimes viewed similarly, and interested parties periodically urge both sides to conduct a ceasefire and negotiate their differences. However these negotiations may prove difficult in that both parties in a conflict believe that they are morally superior to the other, and are unwilling to negotiate on basis of moral equivalence.

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Cold War

In the Cold War context, the term was and is most commonly used by anti-Communists as an accusation of formal fallacy for leftist criticisms of United States foreign policy and military conduct.

Many such people believed in the idea that the United States is by definition benevolent, that the extension of its power, influence and hegemony is an extension of benevolence and brings freedom to those people subject to that hegemony. Therefore, by definition, those who opposed that were by definition evil, trying to deny the benevolence to people. The USSR and its allies, in contrast, practiced a totalitarian ideology. A territory under U.S. hegemony thus would be freed from possibly being in the camp of the totalitarian power and would help to weaken it. Thus, all means were justified in keeping territories away from Soviet influence in this way. This extended to countries not under Soviet influence but instead said to be sympathetic at all in any way with it. So, Chile under Salvador Allende was not under Soviet domination, but removing him would help weaken the USSR by removing a government ruled with the help of a Communist Party. The big picture, they would say, justified the tortures carried out by the Pinochet dictatorship, as it served to weaken the totalitarian Communist camp and in time bring about the freedom of those under its domination.

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