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The Lesser Evil

University of Edinburgh

In this volume, Michael Ignatieff seeks to answer the following question: should liberal democracies be free of violence or are ‘lesser evils’ justified under the auspice of protecting the values represented by democracies? Despite having been written in the aftermath of 9/11, Ignatieff’s lectures draw on a wide range of historical material in the pursuit of his argument, i.e. that any violence still has to remain a very last resort. 


In the first chapter, “Democracy and the Lesser Evil,” Ignatieff introduces the concept of the ‘lesser evil’ which will be a main theme of the lectures. This notion maintains that, “in a terrorist emergency, neither rights nor necessity should triumph,” (8) and is examined critically by pointing to moral hazards and the risks that this approach represents between the extremes of cynicism and perfectionism. 


This is continued in the second chapter, “The Ethics of Emergency,” which turns to an examination of ‘emergency legislation’, a suspension of law when the established rule of law is under attack. Ignatieff points to the challenges surrounding the definition of such emergencies as well as the risks of assigning authority over the declaration of emergencies. 


Chapters 3 and 4, “The Weakness of the Strong” and “The Strength of the Weak,” look at the struggle between liberal democracies and terrorist groups from two different perspectives. The third chapter searches for reasons why liberal democracies tend to overreact under the threat of terrorism. Ignatieff points to the way terrorism has impacted the way liberal democracies operate, in part due to the fact that it encourages covert operations rather than open exchanges in the public sphere. The same tension is examined in Chapter 4 from the reverse perspective by outlining where terrorism finds the origins of its power. Terrorism is understood as a “violent form of politics” (81) which is complicated by its (at times radical) views not being heard in the public sphere and the immediate resort to violence. It provides the reason why terrorism is defined as a ‘greater evil’, as it makes peaceful political dialogue impossible. 


Chapter 5, “The Temptations of Nihilism,” shifts its attention once more to both sides of the struggle. Nihilism, the rejection of all moral principles, is examined as a temptation to both liberal democracies and terrorism. Illustrated by concrete examples such as the justification of interrogation techniques involving torture, the lecture points to the high ideals with which both sides might begin and sketches the decline of those ideals. It also illustrates how the ideals of liberal democracy might be maintained. 


In the sixth and final chapter, “Liberty and Armageddon,” Ignatieff draws together the argument of the preceding five chapters and seeks to answer the question with which he began: how can liberal democracies be strong enough to defend their values under the assault of terrorism without resorting to violence? Ignatieff calls for a renewed commitment to democratic values, both corporately as nations, as well as individually, and for committed advocacy for liberal democracies faced with the challenges of terrorism. 


In summary, Michael Ignatieff provides an insightful discussion of the possible necessity of the use of violence when democratic ideals are under attack. With realism and a broad analysis of historical, philosophical and ethical issues pertaining to the ongoing discussion regarding the response to terrorism, Ignatieff argues for a measured approach when democratic values are under attack and encourages the exercise of moral power to persuade others of the values of liberal democracy.


The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror

The Lesser Evil
Princeton University Press
  • Sven Ensminger, University of Oxford