Orwell on Moral Equivalency

In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell said this about pacifism:

The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to taking life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration for totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States….

Some people say that there is no “moral hierarchy” among nations. It is absurd, therefore, to speak of good and bad guys in a given conflict, especially when (it is claimed) that the atrocious tactics of both sides are indistinguishable. This thinking came to the fore in the Cold War. But it was rooted less in facts than ideology. The problem with the “moral equivalency” argument, as Orwell noted, is that it can be disingenuous. There is no real equivalence except as a form of rhetorical hypocrisy. It is the sort of thing one comes across in the assertions of Holocaust Revisionists and apologists for antebellum slavery. Sometimes these arguments contain an element of plausibility, which is why they work. In all fairness I should point out that even Orwell was guilty of some ridiculous comparisons between Nazi Germany and the British Empire before the war. But once the reality of Blitzkrieg set in, the British author had sense and humility enough to revise his attitudes.

There is nothing wrong with a nuanced view of history. Nor should one stifle constructive ethical debate, since it is the chief guarantee that a nation will remain in the right. One realizes, for example, that the tactics of the Western Allies in World War II were not always admirable. But I would point out a key difference in terms of both scale and intention. Deaths of civilians at the hands of totalitarian powers were vastly greater. More importantly, killing noncombatants was never our primary aim. Even when that tactic was adopted by the British under Sir Arthur Harris of the RAF, architect of the infamous “terror bombing” campaign, it was done as a means (however deplorable and probably unnecessary) of sapping Germany’s military potential. The majority of civilians killed by Hitler’s regime, on the other hand, were not by any stretch of the imagination due to “collateral damage.” They were murdered as a result of Nazism’s non-military racial policies that, in many instances, were actually counterproductive to Germany’s tactical war aims.

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