Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, wants the goverment to seek a philosopher’s advice. And, rather than the “blathering Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, Peter Hain”, he wonders what an ethicist would make of the Northern Ireland [Offences] Bill which passed its second reading in the Commons earlier this weekHe opens with a call for a chief government ethicist –
We need a chief government ethicist. We have a chief scientist, a chief economist, a government law officer, an astronomer royal, a poet laureate, and inspectors of schools and prisons. Why no ethicist? Socrates said: “There will be no end to the troubles of states until philosophers become kings and kings become philosophers.” This week I needed an ethicist. All I got was a blathering secretary of state for Wales and Northern Ireland, Peter Hain.
and he offers some suggestions as to what the ethical advice would be –
The government claims the right to allocate justice at its own discretion. Is that the rule of law in parliament ordained, or is it Shakespeare’s liberty “that plucks justice by the nose”? Philosophy should tell us. In England the government says that the rights of “potential victims of terror” should enjoy legal supremacy over the right to habeas corpus, presumed innocence and open trial. In Northern Ireland government says the opposite. The actual victims of terror have no right to see their tormentors brought to justice. That right is rendered subservient to a political expedient called closure.
How would a chief ethicist advise us on these contradictions? Blair claims a prerogative to show mercy to terrorists on behalf of their victims. Is this the prerogative or mercy, or rather of power? The victims of Enniskillen are not asking for an eye for an eye, only for what Blair has conceded the victims of Bloody Sunday, that justice be blind to political circumstance. And what value is forgiveness without atonement?
A political ethicist might see the “on-the-run” law as a political gesture in a higher cause. Individuals must often take second place to the collective good. Or ethics might ordain that such a law pollutes the integrity of the state. Why else were ministers so obviously queasy in the Commons. Were they nervous of reversing Eliot’s “greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason”? Were they doing the wrong deed for the right reason?