Dark Angels

Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the most famous political prisoners in recent history. She was under house arrest in Yangon for years, and was prevented from seeing her dying husband in the UK. As a result of a series of political events in 2015 she became the leader of Myanmar, albeit under the watch of the powerful Burmese army. Currently the muslim minority in the Rakhine region in the west of the country – known as the Rohingya – has been subjected to severe oppression, including the burning of homes, rape and killings by the army. The region has been cut off from the rest of the country. Tens of thousands of the Rohingya have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. There is animosity towards these muslims in a predominantly Buddhist country, and consequently there is little sympathy for the Rohingya’s plight. That lack of sympathy, it is reported, is shared by Suu Kyi herself.[i] Indeed, to the dismay of many who have seen her as a champion of human rights, she has done nothing to stop what amounts to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. But as any observer of history will point out, she is hardly unique in this respect. History is replete with figures who were personally decent, and sometimes even courageous, but who were nonetheless complicit in heinous crimes, usually committed by states. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of these dark angels as I shall call them.[ii] To be clear, most of us are dark angels to some degree, that is, morally upright at a personal level yet willing to acquiesce with respect to – and in some cases support or enable – heinous crimes such as mass murder. Below I explore the contrastive relationship between our personal moral probity and our toleration or licensing of large scale crimes sometimes committed by the corporations and governments we form.


At the heart of this contrastive relationship is the concrete nature of morality. What we judge to be good or bad naturally concerns our own actions and the actions of those around us. We judge it to be wrong to steal from a work colleague, for example. Most often we are so practised at this sort of ethical behaviour that it is immediate to us, that is, there’s no need of detailed rational deliberation. This thought concurs neatly with Aristotle’s virtue ethics, characterised by the view that knowing what is the right thing to do on some occasion is a matter of phronesis, i.e., a practical skill. By and large most of us are morally upright in this personal sense. We expect ethical behaviour from each other; and so, for example, we are surprised when we learn of someone who kills a stranger for money or steals from a friend. Generally we think of such people as morally deviant, lacking. Likely some figures in history who have commissioned monstrous crimes were good people at this personal level. Or again, a despicable racist who, for example, had been part of a lynch mob would nonetheless on his own accord likely not kill anyone personally.

Moral judgments in this context are concrete in the sense that they concern private actions, that is, actions for which we are directly responsible. The lynching of a man, on the other hand, is a public act. In such public spheres the agent is removed or abstracted from the act – he is not directly responsible, or at least he alone is not responsible. In our personal lives concrete morality is relatively clear-cut since it relates to what we are familiar with – it is where our moral abilities or skills originate. We almost all behave ethically in this private sphere, within the confines of our daily interactions with one another.

In the public sphere, however, things are complicated by the fact that very often ‘our’ actions are not our own. It was the US Air Force that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The crews of the planes were agents of the US Air Force. Still, one might ask: How could these crews have perpetrated such a deed given that they knew well that they were killing tens of thousands of innocent people? Were they not morally obligated to refuse to execute the mission? Of course there are such conscientious objectors. But often people follow orders and commit unequivocally immoral acts in the name of some higher good, as they see it, e.g., to hasten the defeat of the murderous Japanese Empire in 1945 and thereby save many more lives. Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew on board the plane ‘Enola Gay’ dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima killing between 66,000 and 78,000 people – though leaflets warning of its destruction were dropped two days before and largely ignored.[iii] The colonel and his crew trusted the judgment of US President Harry Truman and his cabinet. I suspect that most people simply defer moral judgments to a higher authority in this way. Perhaps more precisely, many of us are content to deflect responsibility when put in a position to act on behalf of some higher authority.

Why are we so often ready to renounce moral responsibility in this way? A foreign mining engineer in the Philippines, for example, goes to work knowing that his actions lead to the poisoning of the local environment, and thereby causing great ecological damage and harm to the local inhabitants. Yet he carries on. He would never conceive a plan of his own to poison his neighbourhood back home. Again, a banker issues a mortgage to a customer knowing that this customer will almost certainly default and lose her home. Still he sells her the mortgage. Such stories of moral abnegation are repeated over and over. Importantly the victims of these actions are remote, removed from the perpetrator’s life. In contrast the engineer’s life is connected to those of his neighbours. Likewise the banker has vested interests with repect to his friends and family members. This is a crucial difference between our actions inside the private sphere and outside in the public sphere. Inside our actions have concrete reprecussions for each of us, outside less so. Further, the public sphere is morally unfamiliar territory in the sense that the ethical skills we have acquired are not native to it. Again, these skills develop from our interactions with people immediately around us.

It is important here to distinguish between our tendency to deflect moral responsibility to an authority and our having moral obligations in any context. In saying that we have this tendency I am not arguing that we do not have moral responsibility in the public sphere so that, for example, Colonel Tibbet bore no responsibility for deciding to command the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. Rather, I am simply describing how we in fact behave in such circumstances. It is another matter whether such behaviour is morally excusable.

The renowned ethicist, Peter Singer, offers the following hypothetical scenario: You are smartly dressed on your way to an important interview when you spot a small child in a shallow pond who is drowning. Singer observes that you would be morally obligated to rescue the child since there is no great risk to yourself, as a fully grown adult wading into the pond, even though it may cost you the interview and a possible job.[iv] You have this same obligation, Singer goes on to argue, to people in desperate need anywhere in the world. You are equally obligated to help save the lives of those who happen to be on the other side of the planet, e.g, by donating money to internationally organised rescue efforts, as you are to rescue a child in your immediate vicinity. The fact that most of us do not feel the same moral obligation to save the lives of strangers on another continent supports a point I have been making, namely that our moral skills are local, that is, they originate within the private sphere and it is here where we are ethically most adept. We are less adept at considering our moral obligations on a larger public stage or more exactly, as Singer’s scenario assumes, we find it difficult to extend them in this way – hence Singer’s perceived need to argue for their extension. One might argue, against Singer, that we have no moral obligations – or at least to a far lesser degree – to remote strangers as we do to those around us. But either way we in fact tend not to extend our moral obligations in this way.


The other aspect of the concept of a dark angel to address concerns the fact that within the public sphere we act not for ourselves but on behalf of some corporate entity – most often a company or a state organisation, e.g., the police force. The banker does not give mortgages and loans from her own pocket, rather she does so on behalf of the corporate bank she’s employed by. The police officer arrests a protester as an agent of the state. Insofar as we tend to defer moral responsibility to whatever organisation on behalf of whom we act, it is to this higher authority to which the responsiblity belongs. If the banker deliberately gives a mortgage to a customer who is bound to default the bank is to blame. If the pilot and crew kill thousands of souls the Air Force must answer for it.

But then we are left asking: Who is the bank? Who is the Air Force? A bank itself is not a moral agent, it is a group of individuals defined by the structure of their organisation and its deeds. Such an organisation – a corporation – is not the sum of its constituent members with respect to accountability for its actions. One cannot blame every employee, shareholder and customer of a bank for the giving of mortgages to people who clearly are at great risk of defaulting. The most plausible individuals in a corporation who can be thought of as morally responsible are its executives. These are the people who direct the overall actions of the corporation. And so, if anyone in a bank is to blame for its crimes and misdemeanors, it is its CEO and other board members. Similarly, it was Truman and his cabinet who were answerable for the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.

The obvious thing to observe here is that the greatest financial crisis in decades around 2008 was largely caused by banks’ issuing fraudulent loans and mortgages. Yet not a single bank executive has been held responsible for these fraudulent activities. The US government that was primarily responsible for holding these executives to account was headed by friends and colleagues of the executives. And while such corporations are at least in principle answerable to the government, we must ask who holds the government and its state apparatus accountable for their actions? If the state and its executives cannot be held accountable then they can be compared to Gyges, the mythical shepherd whose story is recounted by Plato.[v] Gyges was a shepherd who chanced upon a ring with the magical power of making its wearer invisible. Once Gyges has realised he had the ability to make himself invisible at a moment’s notice he set about killing the king, seducing his wife and generally behaving in a morally reprehensible manner. Indeed, many people think that the Wall Street bank executives did behave in a manner analogous to Gyges, given that they came to believe they were ultimately unaccountable for their fraud. The executives were right about this impunity. The worry is that the state is de facto like the Wall Street banks in that its executives are not accountable to anyone. If that were the case then states are themselves unimpeded by moral opprobrium. Of course, the executives of the state – the cabinet – may still, and hopefully do, accept moral responsibility for their decisions.

One might think that our fears in this respect are allayed given that there are laws designed to guard against the abuse of power and criminal actions by the state’s executives. We do indeed pride ourselves in western democracies on our adherence to the rule of law. There are at least two problems with this thought. First, laws themselves do not guard against moral transgressions as such. From the fact that an action, e.g., an act of war, is legal or sanctioned by the political system it does not follow that it is moral. Second, the executives may be in a position to change the law to suit their criminal intentions, should they have any. That said, democratic institutions are often designed to prevent this possibility, e.g., in the US the presidential executive branch is answerable to the house of representatives, the senate and the courts. Likewise in Britain and Canada, for example, with parliamentary systems, the cabinet is answerable to the members of parliament, the second house and the courts.

The real problem arises, however, at the margins. Most state executives are given a degree of discretion and are therefore able to act ‘in the state’s interest’ without full transparency. A recent example of this is Edward Snowden’s revelation that the US intelligence agencies have been indiscriminately collecting data about US citizens in violation of its own laws, indeed the state itself has acted unconstitutionally. This difficulty points to a major issue. In order to operate with any modicum of efficiency state apparatus cannot be immediately accountable to those institutions designed to check them. Their operations are so diverse and complex it is impossible for such accountability to be implemented. Eventually moral transgressions might be exposed and addressed by these institutions, but not immediately. And often eventually means too late.

Currently the private company GEO Group, contracted by the US government to run some of its detention centres and prisons, is facing a class action law suit. The complaint concerns the naked exploitation of detainees of its detention centres in running its operations, e.g., cleaning, serving meals etc. In the case of migrants detained in their detention centre in Aurora Colorado, for example, the group pays them one dollar per day in compensation. GEO Group has argued that the detainees have consented to this arrangement. But of course they are not properly in a position to give their consent freely, as is required. What this amounts to is slave labour. Even if the courts put a stop to this practice by GEO Group, very many people detained simply for seeking asylum in the country will have been subjected to slavery. This case also raises the troubling question as to why the people running GEO Group would act in such an immoral manner. One can understand their motives for wanting to exploit detainees in this way – for profit – but why did they not resist this temptation given its clear immorality? They are themselves, I submit, dark angels. They are unable to make clear moral judgments in the public sphere in which they operate.

The Australian government is notorious for its harsh treatment of asylum seekers – in particular those refugees and migrants who attempt to enter the country by sea. Most boats are intercepted and the migrants – effectively stateless – on them are often transferred to an offshore detention centre on one of the Pacific islands of Nauru, Manus and Christmas island. The migrants, or ‘transferees’ as the government euphemistically calls them, are basically warehoused in these centres. They are prisoners and are provided with the minimum of amenities. They are processed very slowly and so their detention is practically indefinite. Their living conditions are squalid and inhuman with no privacy. The guards are often violent and abusive towards detainees. Many detainees, who include hundreds of children, are mentally stressed to the point of attempting suicide. They understandably see their situation as hopeless. They are forgotten people, left to rot.[vi] This harsh treatment of asylum seekers is sanctioned by the government of Australia. The policy is reported to be popular with Australians. Here we have an example of actions taken by the state which are by and large legal but which are immoral, thus illustrating the distinction between legality and morality.


What I have described thus far might be called a moral gap, that is, the difference between our moral obligations and our capacity to act on them.[vii] We are dark angels to the extent that this deficit exists. I have explained its existence in terms of the difficulty we have in applying the ethical behaviours learnt in the private sphere of our daily lives to the public sphere that defines us as state and corporate citizens. With the advances in technology over the last century in particular the actions of states and corporations, as distinct from those of individuals and families, have far greater presence in our lives. A lot more of our actions are instead done through these organisations, that is, in the public sphere. Again, the ethical skills we personally develop do not pertain to this public sphere, and so we each find ourselves at sea when trying to figure out how to act ethically in our corporate roles – few of our skills apply in this context.

According to this essentially Aristotelian picture, ‘moral probity’ describes a complex set of social skills. But other moral theories suggest that acting morally is not a matter of skill, instead it is a matter of grasping and applying the right moral principles by which to measure our actions as right or wrong. The two main theories in this regard are Kant’s deontological theory and utilitarianism. According to Kant, as rational creatures we are able to grasp what he calls the categorical imperative. This, very crudely, is a universally applicable principle based on the idea of treating others in ways one expects to be treated by others oneself. So long as we live by this rationally based principle our actions will tend to be moral. The utilitarian holds that an action is good to the extent that it leads to the greatest amount of happiness (utility) for the greatest number of people. That describes Singer’s assumption when he claims that we are morally obligated to help starving people on another continent – it maximises everyone’s happiness. In any case, these theories seem to allow us to transcend any limitations we might have in virtue of how we behave in the private sphere. They seem equally applicable to our actions in the public sphere. Let me say two things in reply to this observation.

First, both Kantianism and utilitarianism assume a rational detachability. The theories involve abstracting our actions, that is, evaluating them from a rational universal perspective removed from our everyday biases. But to the extent that we cannot or do not abstract in this way suggests that this moral gap exists equally for these theories. We, as individuals, clearly do not develop morally by first learning the categorical imperative or the principle of utility maximisation and then practise applying it. Rather, Aristotle’s picture of our learning to be moral by gains in social skills seems far more plausible. That is not to deny that as adults we can learn such universal moral principles and practise applying them. But there is little evidence that most people do in fact operate in this manner.

My second related point is that in discussing this moral gap I am focussing on our natural limitations with respect to moral obligations and not the force of those obligations themselves. The difficulty with morality is that it is elastic in the sense that what seems clearly immoral to one person can be justified, i.e., stretched, to be moral by someone else. A good example of this is the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In one sense they are heinous unequivocally immoral acts – the mass slaughter of innocent people is not justifiable. Yet, of course, many do see these acts as morally justifiable. Above I outlined the usual sort of utilitarian justification of them in terms of saving more lives in the long run. I have taken the position that certain acts are unquestionably cruel and immoral. On the surface this position seems contradictory. How can I assume something is immoral without justifying it by appeal to some theory ultimately? While these bombings may be justifiable in certain utilitarian terms, it is always possible to argue they were not justifiable, e.g., on Kantian grounds. More generally the examples I have discussed are hard to justify morally on any grounds, e.g., slavery. It is the elasticity of morality that I want to bypass. Some of the acts carried out by states and corporations are, I have therefore assumed, clearly cruel and immoral. It is not their moral unjustifiability that concerns us. Rather, to reiterate, what interests us is how we fall short and as a result allow such crimes to be committed.


What purpose is there in identifying this moral gap? What follows from the fact that we are dark angels? It suggests that we ought to be far less trusting about our moral judgments in the public sphere. When we encounter an action by a state that is clearly immoral, e.g., Australia’s treatment of migrants, we ought to resist excusing it. Indeed, our treatment of the increasing number of refugees fleeing war and poverty around the world is a major crime of this century. We too easily ignore the plight of stateless refugees. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, becoming stateless is the first step to becoming a victim of the sort of horrendous crimes we have witnessed in the last century especially. Arendt writes: “The danger is that a global, universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.”[viii]

Her point is this: we find ourselves in a civilised world and consequently those fleeing war and poverty have nowhere to go – every border is closed to them. The result is that they are trapped in various no-man’s lands – detention centres, makeshift camps, abandoned buildings, by the roadside, should they survive their flight at all – and most crucially they belong to no nation. Their lack of statehood entails, Arendt argues, their becoming savages, that is, human beings whose only claim to justice is being a member of the same species. Once a human being is stripped of her communal identity in this way she is seen as superfluous, a problem rather than as an equal. Equality and rights, Arendt insists, following political theorist Edmund Burke, can only be claimed by members of a coherent community or nation. We ought to see the treatment of these people for what it is, namely a moral outrage. It is an outrage because once people are stateless it is easy for us to fall into treating them even more barbarically, as we have witnessed in the case of the holocaust and other genocides. Arendt repeatedly stresses that the industrial scale murder of the European Jews in the Second World War was the last step in this process of stripping them of their statehood and community, leaving them with a status no different in kind from that of unwanted animals.

The civilising of the world, then, ironically has led to the danger of new and more extreme forms of barbarism. We the civilised become the barbarians. It is the origins of this barbarism which is most pernicious. We are more receptive to the excuses of our own rulers than we are to those of outsiders, since we are in part complicit in the crimes our rulers commit, ostensibly on our behalf. Most outside observers see, for example, the treatment of the Rohingya by the state of Myanmar for what it is, namely criminal and immoral. But many Burmese citizens – including Aung San Suu Kyi – deny its immorality or ignore the crime in virtue of their investment in the state’s actions and their long-standing animosity to the Rohingya. Very often, as in this case, nationalism is the poison at work. It is likely the motive underlying the popularity of Australia’s treatment of migrants as well for example.

Nationalism reinforces the acquiescence and complicity of people with regard to any immoral actions by their state executives.  As an ideology it aims to co-opt citizens, giving rulers license to act more like Gyges, should they be positioned and inclined to do so. To illustrate how this process works, consider the case of Viktor Orbán in Hungary. In a speech the Hungarian nationalist prime minister is recorded as saying: “Since the state is nothing more than a form of organising the community,…the determinative moment in today’s world [is]…that there is a race underway to find the method of community organisation…which is most capable of making a nation…internationally competitive.”[ix] By characterising the state as an organ of the people in this way Orbán implies that the state’s actions are congruent with the interests of its citizens. More exactly, he sees the Hungarian citizen as an element of the nation, so that her interests ought to agree with those of the state as a whole. This assumption is explicit when he attacks the individualism, as he sees it, of liberal democracy. The actions of the individual must be checked, he insists, insofar as they impinge on the interests of the Hungarian people as a whole. For liberalism, on the other hand, individual freedoms are limited only to the extent that they impinge on or hurt other individuals. But for Orbán it is the people qua state that ultimately matters, not the individual citizen. That is the core tenet of such illiberal nationalism also found in places like Erdoğan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia. Accordingly the people’s interests can only be properly served when they align with the state’s interests, here described by Orbán in terms of the country’s competitiveness.

The consequence of Orbán’s nationalism has been his government’s open hostility to the refugees from middle eastern conflicts that migrated en masse to Germany and other northern European countries during 2015 in particular. Their passage through Hungary was blocked by the government, despite the refugees having no intention to remain in Hungary. As a result these refugees were abandonned in the fields of Greece and the Balkans. From Orbán’s nationalistic perspective these refugees were a menace by their very existence. They represent total outsiders who, in virtue of not belonging to any nation, are ‘savages’, to use Arendt’s term. They have been effectively treated no better – or perhaps worse – than cattle.

For these reasons the recent rise in nationalistic politics is worrying. The obvious instance is the election of Donald Trump as US president. His rhetoric has been overtly nationalistic. How far this will be expressed in actions by the US government is impossible to predict. He is the epitome of unpredictability. But what he has said and done so far is worrying. For example, he has begun a process of searching out undocumented immigrants in the country. The targeted individuals are effectively exiled from their community, and are thereby in danger of losing their identity and being turned into savages in the sense alluded to by Arendt. Such dehumanisation must be resisted. Indeed, the humanity the USA has shown over much of its history comes from such resistance, from its willingness to take in the displaced and dispossessed. It was one reason Arendt so admired her adopted country.

None of this is to deny that it is practically impossible to accommodate the tens of millions of refugees and displaced persons throughout the world. Nor can I suggest how to begin to find a home for all of them. What I have urged is that we acknowledge our moral shortcomings and look at refugees and migrants in terms of how we treat them, rather than seek ways of ignoring their plight or finding excuses for their mistreatment. This matters, I think, because how we treat people on the margins of societies, both in terms of throwing them out of society and excluding outsiders who are looking in, is a measure of the health of our societies. The sickest civilised societies in history have been those that abandoned the marginalised and consequently committed such horrors as the Jewish holocaust and the genocide of the Armenians. We naturally want to avoid disease. The first step to doing so is to recognise our moral limitations that are often the cause of such sickness.

[i] Suu Kyi has said little herself about the attacks on the Rohingya, but her aide, Win Htein, told The Guardian reporter Poppy McPherson that Suu Kyi does not sympathise with them. See ‘Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar’s great hope fails to live up to expectations’, The Guardian, UK, 31 March 2017.

[ii] I do not mean to allude to what Steven Pinker calls our ‘inner demons’ that incline us towards violence, as described in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2011, NY: Penguin Books. I use the term, rather, to highlight the conflict between our private moral probity and our acquiescence with respect to crimes sometimes  committed by governments and the corporations we work for.

[iii] See Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, 1997, NY: Harper Collins, pp. 817-22.

[iv] See Peter Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, (3): 229-243, Spring 1972.

[v] Plato, Republic, Bk 2, 359a-360d.

[vi] There are several documentaries on this issue. See, for example, Australia’s SBS Dateline documentary titled ” presented by Dr David Corlett, first broadcast 17 Nov. 2015 – http://www.sbs.com.au/news/dateline/story/inside-story.

[vii] This term is used by John E. Hare, for example, in his book The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits and God’s Assistance, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Hare, as his title suggests, investigates the role of religion in bridging this gap.

[viii] Hannah Arendt, ‘The Perplexities of the Rights of  Man’  in The Portable Hannah Arendt, Baehr, P., ed., NY: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 44.

[ix] Given by Victor Orbán at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, 30th July, 2014.


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