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ISIS And The Virtue of Moral Clarity

ISIS was evil long before most people had heard of them, and for reasons well beyond what most people have seen so far.

Michael Boyle, a professor at La Salle University and a good friend of mine, wrote in the New York Times last week of his concern over the demonization of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Calling ISIS “evil” or “barbaric”–as President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have recently done–is seductive, Boyle argues, because it “conveys a moral clarity” and it allows us to “separate ourselves…from the enemy.” Further, moralizing language “obscures the group’s strategic aims,” involves “gross simplifications,” and plays into the jihadists’ strategy of drawing us into mortal combat. Worst of all, it creates a powerful incentive towards mission creep: if we’re not careful, Boyle warns, we might even make the mistake of trying to defeat the group. (James Dawes at CNN offered a similar argument.)

Those who are only just now becoming offended by ISIS’s evil are late to the party.

Boyle’s argument, which I know to be thoughtful and genuinely come by, is wrongheaded in almost every way. He does get one thing right. The president’s moral outrage, sparked by the ghastly execution of American journalist James Foley, is misdirected and belated. The Foley execution is not more morally offensive because of the means used or the citizenship of the victim: beheading an American does not put ISIS in a lower circle of hell than the Interahamwe, who macheted a million Rwandans to death. ISIS was evil long before most people had heard of them, and for reasons well beyond what most people have seen so far. Those who are only just now becoming offended by ISIS’s evil are late to the party.

Beyond that, Boyle is sorely mistaken. He worries that labeling ISIS “evil” might obscure our understanding of the group’s strategic aims. Nonsense: most observers understand the group’s aim pretty well–erecting a totalitarian Sunni jihadist state–and rightly discern it to be evil.

He worries that moral language is simplistic. But something is “simplistic” only if it is more simple than the reality it purports to describe. If reality is actually simple, then simple language is fitting. ISIS is, in reality, evil. Calling them so isn’t the language of an unfortunate bumpkin not privileged enough to have a PhD in international relations, clinging bitterly to his religion. It is the judgment of a mature and rightly-ordered moral conscience.

He worries that calling ISIS evil “conveys a moral clarity”–as if that is a bad thing. There is a virtue to moral clarity, especially in wartime, which over-wrought political correctness only obscures. And Boyle’s own stance of attempted moral neutrality is itself a moral stance, whether he recognizes it or not. George Weigel wrote in 2003:

Moral muteness in a time of war is a moral stance: it can be a stance born of fear; it can be a stance born of indifference; it can be a stance born of cynicism about the human capacity to promote justice, freedom, and order, all of which are moral goods. But whatever its psychological, spiritual, or intellectual origins, moral muteness in wartime is a form of moral judgment—a deficient and dangerous form of moral judgment.

I would add that moral clarity is especially important when sending an all-volunteer army into battle. As a veteran, I wonder why on earth we would ask soldiers to kill and to risk being killed–and why would they obey–if the stakes were less than good and evil? Killing is a morally serious business, and we had better think carefully about right and wrong when we decide to go about it.

Finally, and most troubling, Boyle believes that moral language is strategically self-defeating because it plays into the jihadists’ grand strategy. They want a religious war, he believes, and we’re in danger of giving it to them by indulging in moralizing language. Boyle asked in an earlier essay, “does the US really want to engage in an ideological struggle with ‘radical Islam’?” No, he argued, rather, “the United States should be desperately trying to avoid the war on terror being transformed into an ideological struggle, not welcoming its transformation.”

Boyle dramatically misunderstands the nature of the war the United States is in. Boyle would be right if 1) the United States can choose not to be at war with jihadists, or 2) ideology is not a necessary component of war, or 3) both. Sadly, none of these presumptions are true. Boyle wants the post-9/11 conflicts to be about delegitimizing terrorism as a tactic, not a confrontation with a totalitarian ideology. Reality is unlikely to accommodate itself.

Modern jihadists have been targeting the United States for more than twenty years. The United States cannot choose not to be in conflict with them. Regardless of whether we characterize it as a war or not, it is most certainly a clash of necessity. No responsible government can or should ignore repeated attacks on its citizens. As Trotsky’s old adage goes, you may not be interested in war, but war may be interested in you.

And warfare almost always involves a clash of ideas, which makes moral and ideological clarity a vital part of it. That is why presidents are at pains to explain why we fight, including what we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Moral language is inescapably, and rightly, part of this. In his 1943 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt said “In this war of survival we must keep before our minds not only the evil things we fight against but the good things we are fighting for.”

Such moral clarity has pragmatic virtues: it helps sustain support in a democracy and morale in an all-volunteer army. More importantly, it explains why we think we are right to kill while the other side is wrong to do the same thing. It is our moral theory of the war, our explanation to ourselves for why it is necessary. It is our justification before history and its Author for unleashing the terrible scourge of war. That the president’s moralizing might lead to mission creep and tempt us to try to defeat the group is, in my view, less a weakness of his policy, as Boyle thinks, and more a virtue.

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