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Sergei Lavrov’s Deontology

In Syria, Assad has sought to silence protests against his dictatorial regime using violence. Refusing to be cowed, the protests have resisted. The regime has since escalated the violence. As I write, the Syrian army continues to use massive force against a mainly civilian population. There is little doubt that serious crimes are being committed. After months of ignoring the situation, the West is finally beginning to sympathise with the plight of the Syrians. Yet an emasculated Security Council resolution was thwarted this week by the vetoes of Russia and China. Since then, various explanations have been offered to justify this stance. However, one justification in particular struck me.

This was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s reliance on the principle of non-interference in sovereign states. I have a number of problems with this pseudo deontic principle. For one thing, it obscures the many considerations that really lie behind the decision to veto. Though neither Russian nor China have been entirely transparent, it is likely that the real reasons include concern at the wide interpretation of the previous Security Council resolution on Libya, strategic interests tied to the Assad regime, and concern about who might replace him.

Non-interference also seems a preposterously over simplified principle. It’s not clear to me how such a simplistic principle could deal with all the different scenarios in international affairs. Of course there are some types of interference that are worthy of censure. Undermining a democratic government is one. By contrast, something like stepping in to prevent civilians being killed by a dictatorial regime seems to be a different matter. Applying a procrustean principle like non-interference seems guaranteed to fail to address the different concerns that arise with the different situations.

It’s also debateable whether non-interference is a principle that Russia and China actually adhere to. The situations in Georgia, Tibet and other neighbouring countries suggest otherwise.

Yet for all this, Sergei Lavrov is no fool. Previously a career diplomat, he is very experienced in presenting difficult situations in their best light. He knew, of course, that appealing to such a simple principle would appeal to many people. From what I have written above, it’s probably clear that I’m not one of them. But the situation seems to me to shed a tiny bit of light on moral reasoning. Precisely what is going on, I do not know, but there seems to be an attraction to simple deontic principles, even when a moment’s reflection would suggest them to be woefully inadequate. I’m not suggesting that we’re like the sheep in Animal Farm, but I do think there is some kind of trade off between complexity and simplicity such that a simple principle that approximately reflects normative behaviour may be preferred over a complex principle that exactly reflects normative behaviour. Philosophers may analyse every facet of a problem, but lengthy analysis can make it inaccessible to the vast majority of people. In the case of Syria, opinion is moulded globally within hours of events such as the Security Council resolution. Philosophical analysis also places great store by reasons. However here, it is clear that there is a limitation on the reasons that are provided. The West, Russia and China are often in competition, and do not want to reveal the actual reasons for their behaviour (though it’s often easy to speculate). In this situation, communicating content free principles may be preferable for both sides to laying their cards on the table.

This blog post may seem to be an indulgent one while people are being killed. But I hope my point is a relevant one. It is that if we want to do something about these situations, it is important to recognise that reasons are only part of the story. It may appear easy to pick apart Sergei Lavrov’s principle, yet I doubt it is anywhere near as easy to undo the impact that it made.

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