Paul Vallely: Is retaliation ever the best course?  

08 June 2018

Paul Vallely looks for guidance from psychology and moral philosophy

Olivier Douliery/UPI

MAGA music: President Trump participates in the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, in July, organised by the First Baptist Church of Dallas to honour veterans

MAGA music: President Trump participates in the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, in Ju...

WHAT is the ethical basis of tit for tat? And can it ever be a sensible basis on which to conduct our relations with other nations? Next week sees the visit of the England football team to Russia for the World Cup. This week has seen the latest step by President Trump in the escalation of tensions with the trading partners of the United States. Should we give into the temptation for retaliation?

We have already gone some way down this road in both instances. Theresa May announced, after a Russian nerve poison was used on the streets of Salisbury, that no members of the royal family or the Government would attend the World Cup, and the FA has more recently decided that it will have just one permanent representative at the tournament.

In Parliament this week, there were calls for reciprocal attacks on US products in retaliation for President Trump’s introduction of tariffs on steel from Britain and other nations. One backbencher went so far as to suggest that the imposition of taxes on foreign golf courses in Scotland was the only kind of response which President Trump would understand.

It might be fruitful to consider what psychology and moral philosophy have to tell us. They have largely confined their consideration to the personal rather than the political sphere, but there is a surprising consensus when it comes to studying the relative merits of competition and co-operation.

There are a few hardliners, such as the political philosopher Ayn Rand — whose novel The Fountainhead is one of the very few books for which the President has declared a liking — who take the view that selfishness is the only rational behaviour in our fallen world.

President Putin, a social Darwinist if ever there was one, would probably agree. But most moral philosophers — whether on idealist, absolutist, or utilitarian grounds, from Plato, through Aquinas, and John Stuart Mill, to Peter Singer — side with religion in defending justice and fairness as the right approach.

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Intriguingly, most evolutionary biologists have now been forced to the conclusion that there is something that has evolved in human beings as social animals which values and rewards co-operation over our competitive selfish genes. Psychologists, in a succession of experimental variations on the theme of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (an imaginary situation employed in game theory), have repeatedly shown that reputation — both good and bad — colours social behaviour in such a way that individuals do not automatically choose the selfish, competitive option, but more often go for the fair and co-operative one.

Tit for tat, of course, is not merely a negative phenomenon. If the initial action of one side is positive and good, the mirroring response will be the same. International politics is inevitably more nuanced. Encouraging good relations with ordinary Russians offers a counterweight to the signal that expelling diplomats sends to their political leaders. Football may well contribute to that.

As for President Trump, he will not be there for ever; a measured and proportionate response to his pantomime bluster will make it easier to undo any damage, once he has been replaced in the White House.

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