President Obama’s statements about politics–and especially about foreign policy–often leave me with the sense that he has an unrealistic, utopian view of the world. This sense was reinforced by his statement on the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. This is from the opening paragraph of the president’s remarks:
Once again, we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians. This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.
This statement is not just utopian but actually incoherent. The president presents himself as speaking for the whole human race. He says that the terror attacks were “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.” He seems absolutely confident in his claim that all of humanity shares a certain set of values, values on the basis of which we would judge the attack on Paris to be evil. Yet it is clear from the fact that the attack was carried out by some people–and cheered by other people–that the values that the president cherishes are not in fact held by all human beings.
The “universals” to which the president wants to appeal–for example: do not kill non-combatants on purpose–may well be moral principles of universal applicability and obligation. It is not naive to think that there are such principles.
It is naive, however, to speak as though such principles are acknowledged by everybody, or almost everybody, in the world. For to speak this way is to think this way and to encourage others to think this way. And that in turn encourages us to think that, any time now, such evils are going to stop forever. And that in turn leads us to let down our guard against them.
This is surely not the president’s intention. His remarks were well-intentioned. But they reflect and contribute to a confusion about how the world is that is not going to help us.