Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Prudence and morality for a political community's trustees confronting war

A note on ethics and war and just war theory.  In class, we have been talking our way through Walzer's chapter on realism and his deservedly famous discussion of the Melian dialogue.  The positions that can be disambiguated from that discussion as statements of realism are:

  • Amoral realism.  The view that morality has no role in war.  It is expressed by the Athenian generals when they say (paraphrase), because we have power, we will do what we will and you will do what you must.  And because morality has no role in war, there is no ground to speak on moral grounds of limits on war.
  • Amoral realism, 'an argument upon your safety' from Thucidydes.  This prudential argument says, too, that morality does not have a place in the discussion, because it is simply about your safety.  You must do whatever you must do to secure your safety.  Put in this bare bones fashion, it is still an argument of pure prudence, although it rapidly shades over into the moral argument formalized by Hobbes:
  • Moral realism, 'an argument upon your safety' but by a 'necessity of nature', from Hobbes.  The move that converts Thucidydes into a moral argument, by linking it to the moral claim that in the state of nature, you are entitled, morally entitled, to whatever you deem prudent for your safety, including war.  Again no limits on war.

All that - plus some more - appears in Walzer, chapter 1.  But I want to add something else, something that converts and amplifies the 'argument upon your safety' from a purely prudential argument into a moral one.  It is that when the subject of all this is not a person, but a community, then obligations to see to the safety of that community become more than merely prudential.  They become a moral requirement that entails prudential forms of action.  The leaders of the community are, in effect, trustees and fiduciaries entrusted with the safety of the community.  What they do as matters of prudence are also, and in the first place, acts of morality on behalf of the community for whom they act. 

An individual, that is, might choose to take greater risks for himself or herself than he or she would feel entitled to have the community take.  It is a familiar position for a fiduciary - you are obliged to act more prudently than you would for yourself alone, and in so doing you fulfil a moral duty to others that, with respect to yourself alone, would be merely prudential.

I have described this as "amplifying" the prudential 'argument upon your safety' because the trustee, as fiduciary, must be more cautious and more prudent because of moral obligations to the community.  It amplifies in some circumstances the possibility of conflict, including preemptive and preventive war.

(For a real life example of this, see Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency, a book premised in large part on the proposition that any US administration, keenly aware of its role as trustee of the safety of the American people, will believe it not just prudent but moral to do whatever it takes to ensure public safety.  Many people argue that this prudence is misplaced and excessive, and risks other kinds of things, such as damage to the long term constitutional order.  Goldsmith's observation is that it is not merely a sense of prudence - protecting ourselves - but morality - the president has the moral obligation to do whatever can prudently be done to keep the American people safe.  In that sense, the moral obligation of a trustee serves as an amplifier of prudential action.  See my TLS review of it, downloadable at SSRN, here.)


(PS.  Philip Bobbitt (I don't think he'd mind me identifying him), in an illuminating conversation (as they always are) with me today noted that this sentiment, the idea that what is prudence for an individual becomes a genuinely moral obligation for the ruler - and amplifies it -  is part of Machiavelli's thought in The Prince.  But it is not Machiavelli as caricatured, but part of his republican thought.  Philip has a new short biography on Machiavellli and The Prince for a general audience coming out soon.  Also, Philip's magnificent Terror and Consent will appear from Knopf on April 1 - don't miss it! 

I should add, too, that this was a conversation with my daughter Renee, who has been studying Western intellectual traditions in her 9th grade Sidwell history class.  Renee has the good fortune to have an outstanding teacher - scholar in her own right - who has the class reading Machiavelli, et al., in original selections.  Renee remarked how much she loves listening to Philip talk about ideas, he is very clear, she says.  Philip is remarkably patient in explaining these things, and Renee took away an important idea about Hegel today to use in her Marx paper.)

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