The Possibility of an Ethic of Absolutes in Politics
The following is an essay written for my class:
PLIR 3310: Ethics and Human Rights in World Affairs.
The University of Virginia
Professor Michael Smith
By Jacob Genda
Max Weber once proposed in “Politics as a Vocation” the question, “What kind of man must one be if he is to be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history?”¹ The question is not one of pure intellectual curiosity; the pursuit of its answer gives insight into the past, meaning to the present, and advice for the future for nations, individuals, and the human race. The importance of this inquiry lies in the substantial qualities of the heart and mind. Should the morally upright lead, or the rational realists? One of the most popular held ideas regarding the ideal politician is a leader who is morally upright and therefore one who can be absolutely trusted with power. However, Weber, in part of his response to his own question, contends that being absolutely ethical in all ways and never acting aside from principle, is an innately irrational approach to politics because the use of politics necessitates the use of violence, which he considers to be inherently immoral.² Weber reasons, therefore, that since achieving favorable ends through politics necessitates the use of violence, such ends could possibly justify their immoral means. In contrast to Weber, it is my opinion that it is not ethically irrational to subscribe to an ethic of absolute ends in politics because, as I will reason, force is not inherently irrational; the use of force in politics can be moral, but only if the politician uses it in the continual maintenance and creation of ends, immediate and eventual, that develop universal freedom.
Weber’s emphasis on power in politics comes from a long line of realist thought that can be traced back to Thucydides, one the forefathers of the science of international politics and the nature of the politician. Using the events of the Peloponnesian Wars as a brush, Thucydides paints a picture that demonstrates how the struggle for power is the primary driving force behind all political action.3 For Thucydides, morality does take a role in politics, but it is generally limited, overshadowed by the “pre-eminence and inescapability of power,”4 and is usually simply shaped by the powerful in order to fit their desired ends. Weber draws on Thucydides’ emphasis on power in politics to conclude that, in becoming a politician, one necessarily becomes part of the distribution of such power and therefore its use of force. In Weber’s case, an absolute moralist cannot enter into politics because it necessitates the use of “morally dubious means,”5 which is exactly opposite of the mandates within the gospel.6 Weber’s argument is that the ideal politician cannot be one who attaches himself irrevocably to any moral maxim because politics requires the use of force and because an ethic of being “saintly in everything”7 excludes the use of force.
Immanuel Kant, in contrast with Weber, viewed the relationship between morality and politics as necessarily related. For Kant, morality was not a means to a desired end but, quite purely, a duty to do the right. He writes:
“Morality, as a collection of absolutely binding laws by which our actions ought to be governed, belongs, essentially, in an objective sense, to the practical sphere. […] It is patently absurd to say that we cannot act as the moral laws require. […] Hence there can be no conflict between politics, as an applied branch of right, and morality, as a theoretical branch of right.”8
Therefore, through a Kantian view of ethics, politics exists as a means of enforcing the laws while morality determines what those laws should be. This argument is noticeably in stark contradiction with Weber’s opinion that an absolute imperative is irrational in combination with politics. However, this Weber’s doctrine incompatibility is only true if we assume that a politician’s use of violence or force is without exception is inherently immoral in all instances.
However, there is one way in which the use of force is not only moral, but also the mandated duty of the politician: the production of the right. For Kant, to do the right is to “let your external actions be such that the free application of your will can co-exist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law.”9 Kant reaches this conclusion by first observing that man has a unique trait of unsociable sociability which is a “tendency to come together in society, coupled, however, with a continual resistance which constantly threatens to break this society up.”10 This contradiction, he argues, means that man has a need to create a society where his freedom can “co-exist with the freedom of others.”11 This manifests itself, eventually, in the creation of a “perfectly just civil constitution” and in the forcing of man “to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.”12 Kant, as a theist, believed this was the design of God, but it seems that with God out of the picture, Kant still would have thought that it was, at the very least, the purpose of nature (i.e. in my words, the eventual product of all cause and effect relationships) in order that we could fully develop our rational abilities by solving our unsocial sociability contradiction.13 Regardless of whether the eventual production of this state, which allows our freedoms to operate peacefully with each other, is the will of God or nature, it follows that, either way, we have a duty to advance this purpose. To create this state of universal freedom, there must be a formalized set of laws within community that ensure the freedoms of each and every individual in relation to each other; these laws become what is known as a constitution.
If politics is the art of applying the right, then it is the politician’s duty to be the agent in that application or, in Kant’s words, to “produce a state of right.”14 Therefore, if a politician achieves this, then he is fulfilling his duty and can be considered a moral politician. But in order to do so, he must use power, which is necessarily the use of force, to this end. In this way, the only way that a politician can be a moral politician is if he uses force to produce a state of right. However, since the goal, the state of right, is a universal co-existence of each and every individual’s natural freedom, it would be contrary to this end to attempt to establish it by means that hindered freedom because, true freedom, and therefore the state of right, could never come into existence. Kant deals with this predicament by claiming that is allowable to hinder freedom only when that freedom is being used for the hindrance of freedom itself.15 To hinder anyone from any action is necessarily a use of force. Therefore, I postulate Kant’s reasoning a different way; the only morally legitimate use of force for a politician is to interfere with that which would obstruct freedom.
Kant’s work in demonstrating how an absolute ethic to produce universal freedom necessitates that morality applies itself in the use of politics is incredibly helpful in showing how morality can work with politics without contradicting its basic principle. However, Kant maintains that it is only the intentions of an act that decide whether the act was moral. In a reverse way, Weber and other power realists like Thucydides argue that is only the result of an act which can determine if the act was moral in the first place. I disagree with both Kant and Weberian realists. In order for a politician to become moral by following his duty to produce a state of right, all production towards that state must be completely and absolutely moral, for any dose of produced immorality and the state is no longer purely right. This means that not only the immediate product of our actions must not contradict this end, but the means we use as well. This is because the means we use are more than just a cause, they are an immediate result themselves. In other words, the implementation of force is not only a means by which to reach an end; it is an end in of itself.
To illuminate the complexities of this argument, consider this example: There is a young boy in a room filled with an infinite row of dominoes, ready to fall, that eventually, due to lack of space, leave the room and, out of sight from the child, lead a path throughout the rest of the house, out the front door, into yard and into the wild, its infinite length never ending. The exact course it will take is absolutely unknown to the boy because all he can perceive is the path it takes throughout the room in which he is. Now, the child desires to see a certain domino near the door fall over. He knocks over the first domino, causing a chain reaction that eventually creates the desired effect and continues on out the door with the rest of its path unknown. When the boy’s action is to knock the first domino over, the immediate result of his action is the domino’s fall. Therefore, he has produced its fall, which is his action’s immediate end. In addition, its fall is also the means, or cause, by which he knocks down the rest of the dominoes, creating an infinite repetition of cause and effect. Each domino’s fall is a production of the boy’s initial action and can therefore be considered an end. Since there are an infinite amount of ends in a line, this becomes the path of infinite ends. This demonstrates that the first action by which we strive to create an end creates its own product independent of the desired end and that one action will have an infinite number of ends because of it. Since the first action is simply the first end, is part of the path of infinitive ends. Therefore, the boy’s neither simply produces the fall of the first domino nor only that of the one by the door, but the falling of the entire chain. In short, the boy is absolutely responsible for all the consequences of his action.
In a similar way, in order for a use of force to be deemed moral, the entirety of its path of infinite ends including its immediate end, must be moral. In other words, none of its consequences are allowed hinder the production of the state of right (i.e. universal freedom). This example demonstrates how the ends of an action, no matter how right, cannot justify the means, in contrast to Weber’s argument. As already stated, it is the duty of the politician to produce the right by hindering that which hinders freedom. If a politician then surmises that he or she may allow a hindrance of freedom because he or she assumes, or even rationalizes, that a greater degree of hindrance to freedom will be stopped at a later date and therefore concludes that the end he’s attempting to create justifies the immoral action he has done, then he has already failed to complete his duty as a politician and to produce the right because his first action has already necessarily produced an immoral result. Therefore, he is an immoral politician.
In a different way, Kant surmises that the moral intent of an initial action justifies itself in the event of an immoral result. However, if a politician utilizes moral means but still causes an unintended immoral end in the future, then that politician is immoral, for he has ultimately failed to produce the right and has instead produced the wrong. Let us quickly return to the domino example. If the child knocked down the first domino in the desire to eventually knock down any other particular domino, the continuing nature of the line of dominoes necessitates that even after he achieved his goal the dominoes would continue to fall. They would run out of the room and would continue to fall over in a way that is entirely unknown and unpredictable to the child. Perhaps the dominoes slowly get bigger and reach such a point that one falls, completely unintentional by the child, directly onto his mother’s vase and breaks it. The child will most certainly be at fault, even though he didn’t intend for the vase to break, because he failed to exercise his responsibility to see what the consequences might be of knocking down the very first domino. In the same way, it is not enough to say that a moral politician must only complete initial action morally and then just “see what happens.” Any person is responsible for the results his actions cause, whether good or bad. In this way, the politician is “at fault” for the unintentional produce of his actions, meaning that the means do not justify the ends. In both of these ways, a person is moral only when his initial action and the infinite results of his action are all entirely and thoroughly moral, meaning they produce the right.
However, this seems radically impractical. Surely it would be, but only if the politician, his actions, and his produce existed as the child and his row of dominoes do: isolated from the human ability to insert new causes into a chain of cause and effect. In the example given, once the child knocked over the first domino, that was it; the dominoes would necessarily fall where they would and the child had no choice but to simply watch it happen. This is not the world we live in. While it would be fairly difficult for the child to stop the dominoes from falling without knocking over others, humans have an ability to ride along with the chain of cause and effect and to change how one effect might cause another, creating a whole new path that might have a completely different end. It is not expected that any politician would have the ability to predict accurately what the infinite results of his actions might be if he suddenly lost the ability to act on them again (for that is certainly impossible), or that he would absolutely only produce the right, but it can be expected of the politician that he use the tools at his disposal, specifically the ability to use force, to reorient the path he has been carving towards the production of universal freedom to the best of his ability.
Therefore, we arrive at the idea of an ideal moral politician. He or she must be willing to rationally make decisions that would likely advance universal freedom but, out of absolute necessity, must refuse immoral acts in the pursuit of that end. Not only this, but he or she must also be willing to change and adapt the strategy for the production of the right as time progresses and it is eventually seen that perhaps past actions may end up in unintentional immoral results if not corrected. This line of thinking has created a moral politician not unlike that advocated for by Helmut Schmidt.16 In relation to the points stressed here, Schmidt imagined a moral politician that had to consider both the morality of means and ends, critically weigh consequences, was responsible for those consequences, was able to see the possibilities of his or her own fallibility, and could carefully consider each decision he or she made.17 The important note to stress here is that the absolutely ethical moral politician must necessarily reject, in agreement with Kant, the idea, as argued by Weber, that the an ethic of absolute morals is incompatible with politics, and must also reject that either the means justify the ends or that the ends justify the means, as argued, once again, by Kant and realists like Weber and Thucydides, respectively. Therefore, an ethic of absolute ends is not ethically irrational because an absolute moral of ethics can manifest itself in the form of a politician who uses force to hinder the obstruction of freedom in both the actions he initiates and the continual results and strives for. A moral politician is only a moral politician if he governs for freedom in his entirety.
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- Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” in H.H. Gerth and C.W. Mills (editors), From Max Weber., 26
- Ibid., 30
- Smith, Michael J. “Thucydidean Realism and the Peloponnesian War.” Lecture, PLIR 3310: Ethics and Human Rights in World Affairs, Wilson Hall, Charlottesville, VA, February 3, 2016.
- Weber, 30
- Ibid., 29
- Kant, Immanuel, and Hans Siegbert. Reiss. Kant: Political Writings. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 116. Emphasis added
- Ibid., 133
- Ibid., 44
- Ibid., 45
- Ibid., 46
- Ibid. 136
- Ibid. 134
- Smith, Michael J. “Theory and the Limits of Ethical Action” Lecture, PLIR 3310: Ethics and Human Rights in World Affairs, Wilson Hall, Charlottesville, VA, February 22, 2016.