Red lines and “complex moral duality”: TOK and ethics of witnessing

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“Civilians Attacked by Chemical Weapons!” Few headlines spark as much outrage. If a TOK class engages students in the questions of knowledge connected with this kind of horrendous event, it can help them feel the importance of the intellectual tools that the course provides for probing into – and reacting to – such events.

A reflective piece in the current edition of Dispatches, a journal of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, provides an articulate, subtle, and thoughtful focus for many such questions. (Stephen Cornish, “Red Lines”) Easily viewed online, the article is short enough to be used as the basis of a rich and far-reaching discussion. What makes the article particularly effective, too, is that it appeared shortly before the most recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, and thus concerns a whole array of questions perhaps not fully apparent in the most recent news flashes.

Taking the article to class, some teachers first might want to try allowing students to read it and, afterwards, ask what needs to be discussed in TOK terms. Many students may, understandably and even laudably, want to jump right into inveighing against the use of chemical weapons. Others, seeing the term “complex moral duality”, might mutter, “aHA”, and see in the situation here, something akin to one of the “trolley problems” that they may have discussed in class. A TOK approach can, however, assist them in going beyond initial reactions to see what really is going on here. It could include several topics.

1. Does knowledge bring responsibility?

How much does privileged access to knowledge with broad social repercussions require the individual to share that knowledge?

 The article uses the roughly equivalent terms “témoignage”, or “bearing witness”, to identify the nature of this kind of shared knowledge – though students might have to be told that, in terms of social activism, “bearing witness” is usually used as a preventative tactic. (Most often outsiders make their presence as observers known, with the hope that those in conflict will restrain their use of violence and/or injustice.)

The particular question of “témoignage”, of course, has the additional feature of sometimes arising from chance and other times arising from a calculated and deliberate attempt for witnesses to put themselves into a position of gaining knowledge. How much and in what ways, therefore, does this kind of responsibility differ from that connected with “whistle blowing”, another kind of knowledge that gives a heavy weight of responsibility to those who possess otherwise hidden knowledge?

2. How do we evaluate sources of knowledge?

When the stakes are especially high does the level of certainty need to be likewise especially high – or the reverse? In the absence of direct observation, to what extent is it justifiable to accept the word of “trusted medical colleagues” and, as the writer points out, information that is “second hand”?

How much does the author of the article establish the credibility of the sources?

In the first place, it might be worthwhile looking at his use of terms like “trusted networks”, and “eyes and ears on the ground”. Second, we might look at the way the author gives particular weight to the current reports by differentiating them from those that, in the past, provided “medical evidence”, yes, but evidence that was only “suggesting” the use of chemical weapons. Finally, he adds that these reports, in the past, were “isolated” and “extremely difficult to confirm.” Thus, arguably, he lays the ground for establishing himself and MSF as careful and cautious in not jumping to conclusions.

What else does he do to make his claims seem convincing?

  1. He gives a specific time and number of cases: “close to 3,600” and all within “three hours”
  2. He asserts they all exhibited “neurotoxic symptoms.”
  3. He points out they were all in “MSF-supported hospitals”.

Now, it is true that the author doesn’t tell us what the symptoms are, how strong they were, or whether they are unique to chemical weapons. Additionally, he doesn’t tell us what it means to say a hospital is “MSF-supported”.

In fact, there may be a little irony in the fact that we, as readers, simply have to mirror the kind of source-assessment that MSF itself has done: we must consider the source (MSF), be a little cagey about accepting it uncritically, but, in the end, put our knowledge of MSF into the mix and accord it the respect we might feel it deserves. Thus, with caution, we may well want to accept the “knowledge” we now, ourselves, possess, no longer second hand, but now third hand.

 3.What does the article reveal about cause and effect in this real life situation?

Being able to pin down causes and predict effects, to the extent we can, is an achievement of methodology and patience in areas of knowledge. Where human beings are acting in a complex world, entire webs of causes and effects can complicate present understanding and render prediction uncertain. Yet how do we act – and act ethically – making the best prediction we can make based on current knowledge?

 Two particular cases of cause and effect seem to be involved here.

  1. The first is fairly straightforward and already touched upon. If certain chemicals are used on people then they exhibit the following “neurotoxic” effects. Doctors, apparently, feel confident in locking on specific causes to specific effects. In this case, importantly, the knowledge involves biology. The knowledge of cause and effect is essential scientific knowledge.
  2. More important – and, in fact, the very heart of the article – concerns not science/biology but the human sciences. Further, it depends on hypothetical cause and effect and speculation on the future: IF we do act then ….; IF we don’t act then…

A class might want to discuss some questions first in general terms, independent of this article. How much can we predict political behaviour? How much is our prediction based on observation of political behaviour in the past, how much on the claims (bluster?) and devious tactics of countries or politicians in the present?

Turning back to this article, we see that the particular hypothetical questions that the writer pins down are:

  1. “Would speaking out result in US missiles raining down on Syrian cities?”
  2. “Would it cause reprisals against our doctors inside Syria, and our expulsion from places where we were directly providing care?”
  3. “Would remaining silent…allow it to be repeated in other places?”

Although the writer doesn’t have the space for examining in detail the likelihood for any of these concerns, he does point to at least two lines of evidence for #1 and #2.  For #1 he points out that the U.S. has said the use of chemical weapons is a “red line”. For #2 he points out that already MSF has been forbidden by Syrian officials to work in some areas.

Question: does it seem that these are compelling reasons for real concern that speaking out is likely to have negative effects?

4. How do we know what ethical action to take in face of “complex moral duality”?

How much does this sense of cause and effect play into the principles of “consequentialist” ethics – or deontological alternatives? How much is the article about “a complex moral duality”?

First consider the consequentialist or utilitarian awareness.

Apart from references to international law, and basic human decency, how much does the article primarily emphasize that the better action is that which will produce the greatest good?

Well, we might notice that there seems to be much in the article that suggests that the best course of action is that which would produce the least harm both in the present in the future. The article points to four groups, whose numbers and degree of suffering, all need to be weighed, predicted, and balanced –

  1. doctors who might suffer reprisals from Syrian officials
  2. civilians who, therefore, might go untreated
  3. civilians who might be bombed by the U.S.
  4. civilians in other times and places who might suffer without protest in the present.

Of these, the first three groups might be hurt by speaking out – and the fourth by remaining silent.

To what extent is this balanced by deontological concern for universally applicable principles?

What are the implications of the author writing, “Would remaining silent make us complicit….?”   Does asserting that a chemical attack is “a mockery of the rules of war” suggest that the “rules” (implicitly based on universal principles) are worth respecting independent of their consequences? Does “basic human decency” likewise suggest a universal principle independent of consequences?

And this brings us back to the question of that “trolley problem”. To what extent does this article give a particularly harrowing, real life version of that chestnut?

The article does, arguably, therefore show a conflict between acting on universal principle and acting most beneficially. However what makes this article particularly rich and significant is its “real world” complexity.

After all, fundamental to the dilemma faced by the doctors who have learnt of the atrocity, is an issue less of moral tension than epistemological uncertainty. When the writer asserts, powerfully, that there is no “clear division between right and wrong”, it seems clear that he is painfully aware that the major anxiety lies in choosing a course of action not just that is inherently “right”, but, also, that will produce the most positive outcome. In the end, MSF has decided that it must speak out – and, it seems, because of a combination of deontological reasons and the consequentialist view that not speaking out might cause even more suffering than speaking out.

Thus, MSF seems like all doctors who, in swearing the “Hypocratic oath”, embrace the principle, “do no harm“, yes – but add to it something like “do no wrong.”

5. What is the role of “history” suggested in the article?

What seems to be the view of the author here about the moral authority and depth of knowledge possessed by history?

At the end of the article, the author claims, “Only history can judge.” TOK, of course, examines the ways of knowing open to a historian – and the role of history in furthering the total sum of human knowledge. Some might be more skeptical than others about the authority of history in possessing full factual knowledge, in selecting, reporting and analyzing factual knowledge, or in passing judgment.

Perhaps the answer is not clear. There is some sense, maybe, that by “history”, the writer is really speaking of a time in the future when the results of the current “speaking out” will be clear. It probably seems nit picking to point out that only “counter factual history” would try to pin down what not speaking out would have led to. After all, what makes history so different from most of the “social sciences”, as TOK emphasizes, is that it is impossible to run experiments, and almost impossible to be sure of a different outcome, in retrospect and in imagination, by changing only one variable.


Clearly, questions can be extracted from the article and discussed independently. Additionally, the method by which the article raises the questions itself can lead to valuable discussion about shared knowledge. What makes the article so powerful, though, is the fact that not only does it show a complex awareness of ways of gaining knowledge and acting on that knowledge, but, crucially, it provides a real-world resource for the TOK teacher who feels it important to discuss with students the connection between knowledge and action.

And, indeed, what could be more central to whole spirit of TOK than the author’s words from the conclusion: “we must remain guided by the best knowledge we can gather and a willingness to re-evaluate in the face of new evidence.” Now, if only he – and TOK students – could get the rest of the world to agree!


A PS from Eileen Dombrowski: Detachment and Engagement

Please note that the above blog post modeling Theory of Knowledge analysis is written not by me, as usual in this blog, but by Theo Dombrowski. While his treatment of the article from Médicins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders shows the detachment we use in TOK to examine knowledge claims, he cares personally about MSF and the issues raised, and he shares the writer’s conclusion that we must act “guided by the best knowledge we can gather.”

TOK doesn’t engage in action itself. It prepares students to take informed and thoughtful action – possibly through the Creativity Action Service program, or using the training CAS provides for ethical and effective action in the world.

But what action? What if we’re not doctors, or engineers, or administrators? What can we do to help? One possibility I’ve always encouraged students to take is Theo’s way of helping – that is, doing whatever he can do. In retirement, he is a writer, artist, and illustrator, raising funds to donate to humanitarian work that he can’t do himself. He particularly admires and supports MSF.

In dealing with real life issues with our students, I think we want to frame our analysis always in terms of aiming for “the best knowledge we can gather.” As we connect our own course in so many ways with the rest of their IB education, we want to nourish the connection with CAS and awareness of the implications of conclusions for action – including our own.

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The April 2017 edition of the MSF magazine Dispatches features “Red Lines”, the article by Stephen Cornish examined here, but also a number of other articles on the difficult issue of when to speak out – when to become a witness. Note the articles “The Responsibility to Bear Witness” and “Why Does MSF Speak Out?”. Particularly useful in class could be the article “No Easy Answers”. It treats three case studies that illuminate the difficulties of making the right decision in a complex world, and the reasons for making the particular decisions in each case.–msf-canada-magazine—no-easy-answers.html

image: By CDC Global (Dr. Joel Montgomery), Ebola treatment unit in Liberia. October 2014. photographer Athalia Christie. image cropped as permitted by license. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.