What if not all goods are compatible?

It is an abiding conceit of our age that all good ideas go together. Truth and reconciliation, peace and justice, even justice and truth: these are only some of the worthy ambitions for human society that are routinely presented as totally reconcilable. But the stony reality is that it is by no means obvious that they are.

Of course, in societies that are basically in good shape, both psychologically and materially, such moral fables - such wishful thinking, really - rarely do much harm and can often do considerable good. Think of the current multiculturalist fables that we in the West have concocted for ourselves in order to cope with the dilemmas and challenges of mass immigration from the non-European world. In this piece of inspired oversimplification, cultural 'diversity' is invariably seen as a boon rather than a threat.

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Yet one does not have to be a follower of Jorg Haider or the late Pim Fortuyn to know that, whatever the gains have been, whether in terms of economic growth or even the widening of cultural experience in the West, much has and is being lost. At the very least, the national cultures of the major Western countries - their deep structures of ideology, taste, and aesthetics - are being changed, as new peoples, with new assumptions, demand that their sense of the world be taken into account.

Sometimes those changes can be for the worse. Think, say, of how in much of Western Europe the only way that new immigrants and their host culture are reconciled is through a culture of consumption and materialism - that is, a culture of the lowest common denominator. Still, it is preferable that this culture of the supermarket prevails, rather than one in which everyone's gods, habits, and beliefs are in perpetual conflict.

Although the moral and cultural simplifications of multiculturalism may have done the West little actual harm, the same cannot be said about poorer parts of the world. For it is when "First Worlders" try to think about the plight of the poor, and, above all, about what can be done with regard to the Kosovos, the East Timors, the Afghanistans, and the Liberias of our planet, that thinking in happy over-simplifications becomes dangerous. Dangerous to the people who are fated to live in desperately poor countries, or societies at war, or overwhelmed by refugees, or struck down by pandemics.

Specialists in human rights, conflict resolution, humanitarian relief, and democracy-building tend to see themselves as coworkers striving toward a 'holistic' solution, and those in need as requiring all those elements in their historical cure. Reality is usually very different. Take humanitarian action and human rights. Most activists in these fields, not to mention their allies in private philanthropies and international organizations like the UN, believe that they need to work together - that humanitarian emergencies are the product of human rights crises and the former cannot be seriously addressed unless and until the latter are as well.

The stark truth, however, is that the moral imperatives of each activity are starkly different. To put the matter crudely, the human rights activist is a moral absolutist par excellence. He or she must uphold human rights standards, and, above all, human rights law to the letter or risk seeing the entire enterprise come unstuck.

In contrast, humanitarians are meliorists. Their first job is to get the desperately-needed aid that often they alone can deliver to populations in need and in danger. In the absence of some military force to protect them (in itself a mixed blessing, as interventions from Somalia to Bosnia demonstrated), these humanitarian groups must negotiate access with criminal warlords, oppressive governments, and war criminals. In contrast to human rights activists, they cannot and must not be purists.

What is at stake here is far more than some easily resolved question about a division of labor. A human rights activist may want to see an oppressive regime overthrown, may believe that this is the only long-term solution. A humanitarian, by contrast, may want to feed a population, knowing full well that food aid could strengthen the oppressive regime. What takes place in the interface of human rights and humanitarianism is often the conflict of two rights.

So far, at least, those who wish for a better world, and who participate in the struggles for it either as activists or as sympathizers, have refused to face the tragic possibility that they will have to choose between good actions, and between moral imperatives. Such reluctance is understandable, for the choice is almost like being forced to choose death over life.

Yet, as Africa burns, as the AIDS pandemic spreads, and as it becomes clearer that the material means at the disposal of those who ache for a better world do not match their moral aspirations, such choices will become more and more pressing. The less willing we are to ask harsh questions about humanitarianism and human rights, peace and justice, truth and reconciliation, the longer we take refuge in self-flattering fantasies about the fundamental reconcilability of all good efforts, the higher the cost will be when the moment of reckoning comes.