It was Saint Augustine who first proposed that it might be acceptable to preemptively attack a robber before he sets upon his mark. It is fair game to attack “an assassin lying in ambush,” Augustine noted in his treatise On Free Will, “even before the crime has been committed.” Throughout the subsequent history of Western moral philosophy, the supposition that the pursuit of one evil could forestall a greater one has had a long and checkered legacy. The lesser-evil rationale for otherwise culpable conduct, moreover, continues to raise ethical questions. In Augustine’s scenario, how do you know if your quarry is the right man? If he is, how can you be sure of his intent? Most important, what if you’re wrong?
Israeli architect-turned-theorist Eyal Weizman believes that such questions demand fresh scrutiny. Since the end of the cold war, humanitarianism has served as the dominant rationale for international interventions, yet during the same period it has also evolved from a practice of compassion into an instrument of politics. And as part of this shift, humanitarians have often invoked the logic of the lesser evil to pursue morally ambiguous ends. In his new book, Weizman argues that humanitarian principles and human rights concepts are no longer simply a way for the politically disenfranchised to indict an evil world, but instead now serve as a palliative that enables political insiders to justify the acts of the powerful. After charting the spatial dimensions of the Israeli occupation in his 2007 book, Hollow Land, Weizman asserts that the global arena is likewise becoming compromised by the exercise of power.
In absorbing essays on Doctors Without Borders, the laws of war, and forensic science, Weizman argues that in many cases, humanitarian activists develop arguments that help rationalize violence. Through vivid interviews with Doctors Without Borders founder Rony Brauman, Weizman illustrates how Brauman’s thinking about humanitarian intervention has become more sophisticated over the last three decades. Brauman explains how he’s tempered his idealism during the same period that global humanitarian engagements have moved from “na´ve . . . compassion” to population management. In one chapter, a macabre parody of Voltaire’s Candide, an Israeli humanitarian speaks of constructing “the best of all possible walls”—not to facilitate a reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, but to create a gentler version of the barrier between them. Weizman also shows how adopting the lesser-evil defense on moral grounds has led humanitarians to find common cause with military theorists who recognize that humane wars are more likely to win consent. As General David Petraeus’s well-known counterinsurgency manual demonstrates, the military has adopted humanitarianism as what Weizman calls a “technique” of governing—or what one commentator he cites describes as “social work with guns.”
The uneasy moralization of suffering in the name of the lesser evil stretches back to the 1860s, when some antiwar activists resolved to moderate war’s worst features rather than try to abolish it entirely. At the time, Leo Tolstoy complained that by trying to humanize warfare, pity had mistakenly given violence a new lease on life. Weizman’s critique, then, is partly familiar, but The Least of All Possible Evils highlights contemporary examples of how pity perpetuates violence—from sequels to warfare’s formal cessation in miserable refugee camps to the permanent care of whole populations in Africa or Palestine.
Weizman’s aim is not to indict hypocrites who invoke humanitarianism for malignant ends. Instead, he intends to prick the conscience of those who believe they are staving off larger evils by inflicting lesser ones, demonstrating how they enter into greater ethical uncertainty than they intend, and can worsen the circumstances they set out to improve. “Well-meaning practitioners that seek to alleviate . . . pain,” Weizman writes, “end up caught in power’s grip, and often inadvertently as its servants.” To illustrate this point, he devotes much of one chapter to a former military intelligence analyst hired by Human Rights Watch to help the group conduct forensic “battle damage assessments” in former combat zones. The analyst’s reports were intended to document moments when the military violated humanitarian standards, but as Weizman notes, they sometimes felt more celebratory of warfare than critical of violence.
Unfortunately, Weizman doesn’t offer a clear alternative to contemporary appeals to the logic of the lesser evil. In one passage, he notes that radicals who want to change rather than “humanize” the world still couldn’t dispense with ethically ambiguous politics: “It is futile to object to all lesser evil compromises on principle,” he acknowledges. Unlike another Israeli thinker, Avishai Margalit, whose recent book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises offers a detailed theory about when moral agents might endorse—or at least tolerate—the logic of the lesser evil, Weizman is content in demonstrating how such logic leads humanitarian politics astray.
Weizman is also vague about how to develop a more plausible politics than he finds in humanitarianism. He says that “cities” should rise on the ruins of “camps” that now litter the global landscape, but doesn’t elaborate on what sort of cities he envisions. Weizman does suggest that humanitarianism’s beneficiaries may only be able to realize the “potentiality of their political life” by rejecting foreign aid entirely, but more solidarity, not less, is needed between Western elites and those they too often treat as suffering wards.
Still, Weizman’s criticism of humanitarianism is indispensable, even if he leaves open what should replace it. Since deploying violence in the name of compassion has become a central feature of global politics, Weizman’s tour of the dark places humanitarianism can lead is alarming and provocative. “Those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil,” Hannah Arendt observed. After reading Weizman’s impassioned and troubling book, this seems the best place to start thinking about our confusing and distressing present.
Samuel Moyn, who teaches history at Columbia University, is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2010).