On the Right to Morally Criticise

By Bryn Simon

In one of my classes this semester I have heard this oft mentioned question: “Do we have the right to tell (insert name or organisation or nation state) is the wrong thing to do?”

A specific example of the above form which I have in mind is “Do we have the right to tell Iran they should not be developing nuclear facilities that can produce weapons grade uranium?”

I must say I find this manner of question thoroughly baffling. Not because I do not understand the meaning of the words, but because the statement seems so ambiguous that I do not understand what their point could be. Most of the problem seems to come about through the use of this ambiguous notion of a ‘right’, I can see at least three possible interpretations of the statement, so I shall discuss them and assess their value below:

(1) “We do not have the right to tell Iran not to develop nuclear facilities that can produce weapons grade uranium.”

A rhetorical statement. If this is the correct interpretation then it is based on the assumption of a specific value about who can say what and when; the value namely relating to the concept of ‘rights’. I think this interpretation contains two important distinctions to be made.

Firstly, people often mentioned along with this statement that we (as in the ‘West’) have such facilities and are thereby deemed unable to criticise others. To this I say sure, if you say one thing and yourself do another then you are hypocritical. But that is a character issue. One does not thereby lose the ability to utter true ethical judgements. For example, if a murderer states that murder is wrong then we can say he is a hypocrite. But the moral statement of the murderer (i.e. murder is wrong) is still true. To further illustrate; just because the United States says weapons of mass destruction should be restricted, despite having them and being the only country which has used them, does not thereby make the idea of nuclear non-proliferation false.

Secondly, the term ‘right’ in this interpretation is in the sense of a moral right as opposed to a political right which I discuss later. But if that is the case, the concept of ‘right’ seems muddled and somewhat odd to use. Rights are usually considered something inalienable. If people are suggesting that because the West is hypocritical then we have lost the right to speak on others behaviour, then they either do not understand the typical concept of rights, or are relying on a new unstated interpretation. Moreover I think the framing of the question using this notion of right is not useful and tells us little. With rights come obligations on others to respect them. If we apply this to the question, then what might the obligation on Iran be if we did have such a right? Presumably the obligation would be that Iran does not stop us from offering them our opinion/belief. But then due to the nature of this question, it is a right which even if Iran did not wish to respect, could do nothing to stop. Part of my point here is that in discussing other countries decisions, framing it in some ‘rights’ notion is not a very enlightening concept with which to understand the issue.

(2) “We do not have the political right to interfere or have a say in Iranian decisions around their nuclear facilities.”

In this instance the term ‘right’ might refer to some political right of participation i.e. by virtue of being a citizen or a member of the accepted governing body. I think an answer to this is fairly cut-and-dry, a yes or no answer. All those who are not citizens or members of the accepted governing body of a particular nation state clearly have no politico-legal backing for interference in internal politics. Of course nation states may exert diplomatic pressure but I think this is a different question. This interpretation seems too trivial to be what people are getting at.

(3) “Nobody has the right to tell Iran what to do regarding its nuclear facilities.”

It differs from (1) in that this interpretation could be reformed as “Nobody has the right to tell anyone what is right or wrong” Essentially I reject this interpretation as I think it implies a conclusion I do not find convincing. Specifically, the argument to bolster this position is usually based in some relativist/subjectivist viewpoint on morals. So to accept this statement would be to implicitly accept a relativistic moral position. I am not going to further explore this idea here as I have written a bit already, but I make the point.

My Conclusion

So I find these formulations of the statement either unconvincing or not very useful in the discussion of the issue. What do other people think? Any better interpretations out there?

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One response to “On the Right to Morally Criticise

  1. perhaps this is another interpretation to the statement;
    “If we DID tell Iran they should not be developing nuclear facilities that can produce weapons grade uranium, we would not be doing the RIGHT thing.”

    I agree, these interpretations are entirely dependant on the way we use the word ‘right’. Are we talking moral rights (i.e. something that is overriding, like human rights or the right to freedom of speech), or the politically/morally CORRECT thing to do?
    I also think that the question at the beginning could also be argued FOR instead of against (i.e. we have every right to tell Iran to quit it). I would tend to disagree instinctually because I believe it is difficult for anyone to have the right (and I use the word in the overriding sense) to tell anyone to do anything.

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