A Facebook post by the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, whom I knew many years ago at Oxford, prompted me to send him a short reply, which I think deserves further development here.
Responding to the Chilcot Report about Britain’s war in Iraq, Stephen commented, ‘I still respect Blair’s commitment to doing what he believed was the right thing.’ This echoes the excuse Blair himself has often given for his behaviour – ‘I may have been wrong, but I acted according to conscience’. As Blair said in his own response to the report, ‘Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.’
For simplicity’s sake, let us take Blair at his word, and accept that he acted in ‘good faith’, and that he did what he did because he sincerely believed that it was the right thing to do. Given the disastrous consequences of his decision, does the fact that he was acting according to conscience excuse him?
A good way of answering that question is to turn to Thomas Aquinas and the distinction he drew between ‘vincible’ and ‘invincible’ ignorance. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas asked whether it was sinful to obey an erring conscience. He answered that, ‘absolutely speaking, every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.’ In other words, if your conscience (which Aquinas defined as being the application of reason) tells you that something is right, then you must do it. If your reasoning subsequently turns out to have been wrong, you still won’t have acted sinfully. But Aquinas linked this conclusion to the concept of ‘invincible ignorance’. Aquinas wrote:
It is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible,’ because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know.
Following this, Aquinas then asks, ‘whether an erring conscience excuses?’ He replies:
Now this question depends on what has been said above about ignorance … If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil.
Simply put, if you do something wrong believing it to be right, your error is excusable if you weren’t to blame for your own ignorance. But if your ignorance was your own fault, because you should or could have known what you did not, then the fact that you were acting according to conscience does not excuse your mistake.
So was Tony Blair vincibly or invincibly ignorant about Iraq? Could he, or should he, have known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that the invasion of Iraq would lead to the collapse of government authority in that state and bloody civil war, and that the invasion would probably increase the threat of Islamic terrorism? Or were these all things that he could not have known, and which he should not be blamed for not having known?
The Chilcot report provides the answers. As I pointed out in my last post, the report makes it clear that the intelligence Blair received about WMD was not nearly as categorical as he pretended; he was warned that the Americans did not have a decent plan for the post-war occupation; and he was warned that the war would probably increase the danger from terrorism. But he chose to ignore these warnings. In other words, his ignorance was vincible. Consequently, the fact that he was ‘doing what he believed was the right thing’ does not excuse him at all.