Global Justice and Moral Obligations
In mid-April, pirates off the coast of Somalia took the captain of an American container ship hostage sparking a 4-day standoff with the U.S. Navy. Out of gas, food and water, the pirates found themselves face-to-face with a 500-foot guided missile destroyer. Affiliated pirates, seeking ways to improve their partners’ bargaining power, threatened to kill other (non-American) hostages being held further out at sea if the standoff ended in the death or capture of the pirates. The U.S. was undeterred. On April 12, Navy SEALS, with authorization from President Obama to act if the captain’s life was perceived to be in danger, shot all three pirates and rescued Captain Richard Phillips.
What was otherwise a relatively simple decision for the President was made morally complex by the pirates’ threat to kill the other hostages. No longer was the choice simply about how much risk to take in rescuing the one hostage (ie. whether to act immediately or wait until the conditions were just right). There were now two distinct normative questions at play: the degree to which we may give greater weight to the interests of Americans over those of non-Americans; and whether the President (in his role as president) must promote the interests of Americans above those of others. Though these may look similar, they arise from distinct philosophical issues. Read more
Says David Brooks, philosopher-in-chief at the New York Times:
My friend Ron Brownstein of The National Journal looks at the data and concludes that while Americans are still skeptical of government, they are open to rethinking what the social safety net should look like in the 21st century. I look at the data and conclude that the tumult has not significantly changed the way Americans look at government, corporations or the social contract. Americans are open to good ideas from government, as always, but they are still skeptical and fiercely self-sufficient. The economic crisis has produced a desire for change but not a philosophical shift.
We’ll link to the poll as soon as it’s up.
Hat tip to Jake for surfacing this excellent Damon Linker post on Strauss and torture.
Linker’s argument is, finally, that there are certain exceptions to “natural law” that require action normally outside the bounds of moral behavior, such as when the state faces an “existential” crisis. In such an instance, because the true nature of the crisis is often only clear in retrospect, so too the justification for the action is only clear after the fact. This is where Linker leaves it.
I want to push a step forward and discuss what this might mean for thinking about such moments of crisis in the future. A few preliminary observations that I hope will not be controversial:
- Some politicians will mistakenly invoke an existential crisis due to poor judgement
- Some politicians will mistakenly invoke an existential crisis due to lack of information
- Some politicians will mistakenly invoke an existential crisis because they take their own interests to be the interests of the state (on this see Andrew Sullivan on how the Bush regime authorized torture specifically to derive false justificaitons for the war)
Because the strong tendency of political leaders will be to to err on the side of invoking an “existential crisis,” (especially in the third category above) incentives need to be structured so as to reduce politicians’ incentives to do so.
Therefore, those politicians willing to take the risk of using immoral means for the security of the state should expect to be punished severely when they are mistaken. What Obama is missing with his “look forward, not backward” stance is that he is in effect creating incentives only to disregard the rule of law and removing the disincentives to doing so. Of course, had torture developed information that was used to prevent another terrorist attack, Cheney’s bunch would have been judged heroes. However, the strong preponderance of the evidence reveals not only did torture not reveal any information in this case, but that it generally never does so.
An objection might be that we risk punishing politicians who in fact made the right decision, but the facts justifying their action have not yet been revealed. However, A) such an argument only reveals that they acted upon false or unproven pretenses and B) the specter of false prosecution simply incentivizes politicians to err on the side of caution in following the rule of law.
Much of the debate on punishing Bush-regime torturers has centered around punishment-as-retribution. The debate needs to shift to punishment-as-disincentive.
In a reply to fellow New Republic editors Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber’s recent piece on Obama’s theory of government (which we mentioned earlier this week), John Judis argues that Obama will change American capitalism—whether he wants to or not. On the way to his point, he makes the following assertion:
Americans have been notoriously loath to undertake reforms that increase the role of government. That goes back partly to our Lockean liberal heritage of minimal government that marks us off from Europe with its absolutist past.
A few questions follow:
(a) Is that our heritage?
(b) Is that Lockean?
(c) Is this what delineates American liberalism from European absolutism?
(d) What on earth does this mean?
A few things are striking about this assertion. First, it claims Lockean liberalism and American libertarianism together, a suggestion that is at least historically – if not intellectually – suspect. It’s not at all clear that Locke is necessarily an advocate (or particularly influential one) for minimal conceptions of government, even if Robert Nozick wants it that way.
Second, whatever marks us off from Europe and it’s absolutist past, it’s probably not liberalism. The liberal tradition, which originates in European thought, was well on its way to transforming western European governments around the same time our Framers were designing the republic. Absolutism undoubtedly had a major influence on the development and evolution of European governing bureaucracies, but that’s a separate question from how the liberal theory of the state influenced the two continental approaches to government.
Americans may be hesitant to increase the role of government and that may well go back to our heritage. But it’s not our Lockean or liberal heritage. It’s something else altogether.
Damon Linker uses Strauss and Artistotle to discuss the morality of torture in TNR:
Strauss begins by noting that Aristotle (in Book 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics) asserts, with little explanation, that natural right is changeable — in other words, that standards of what is right and wrong vary from time to time and place to place. According to Strauss, this claim follows not from historical relativism but rather from the multi-faceted and ambiguous character of political morality itself. Simply put, political morality sometimes means commutative and distributive justice (what the parts of the political community deserve or are owed according to commonly accepted standards of fairness), while at other times political morality means the common good (what is required for the political community as a whole to survive and thrive).
This, in Strauss’s view, is what Aristotle meant when he asserted that natural right is changeable. Under normal circumstances, the common rules of political morality tell us that torture is simply wrong. (The example of torture is mine; Strauss focuses on espionage.) But in a sufficiently extreme situation — when faced with an “an absolutely unscrupulous and savage enemy” — torture may become not merely a permissible evil but a positive good that is necessary to fulfill the highest law of political morality (which is the defense of the common good).
Under normal circumstances, the two parts of political morality cohere enough that the tensions between them rarely show themselves. But in extreme situations — situations in which (in Strauss’s words) “the very existence or independence of a society is at stake” — there may be “conflicts between what the self-preservation of society requires and the requirements of commutative and distributive justice. In such situations, and only in such situations, it can justly be said that the public safety is the highest law.”
And the complication:
But the need for statesmen to make a decision about when to deviate from what is normally right creates a massive problem for decent politics in dark times. As Strauss writes,
‘There is no principle which defines clearly in what type of cases the public safety, and in what type of cases the precise rules of justice, have priority. For it is not possible to define precisely what constitutes an extreme situation in contradistinction to a normal situation.’
In the end, the statesman needs to rely on his judgment — on what Aristotle called practical wisdom (phronesis) and President Bush (and Stephen Colbert) called his “gut” — in making the decision about whether and when and for how long and in what ways to deviate from what is normally right in order to “preserve the mere existence or independence of society” against its mortal enemies
Public Choice Theory and Obama’s Ban on Lobbyists
Sam’s piece and the lobbying debate touch on a central question in democratic theory: Are democratic citizens, when they act politically, to be self- or other-interested? It is argued that democracy works only if everyone advocates and pushes for either (A) their personal interests or (B) the public good. If it’s (A), then the majority-rule principle works to filter everyone’s personal interests into policy that equates with the public good. That’s assuming there are provisions to protect minority rights. If it’s (B), then the public good is reached more straightforwardly. That’s assuming that people can discern the public good through independent and collective reasoning. The problem, goes the theory, is that in the real America, some people fight for their personal interests, some people fight for the public good, and the majority-rule principle gets muddled along the way.
As it relates to the lobbying debate, this theory argues that a self-interested lobbyist can be part of a machine for the public good and need not exhibit the taint of bias or cynicism. Sam’s reply, as I read it, is to discuss intentions v. results. In a system where people are expected to represent a mix of personal and public interests, those who focus entirely on personal interests may represent legitimate concerns and may engender results that accord with the public good. But they do not exhibit the good intentions and other-regarding personality that we want in our policymakers. And for that reason, the distinction between turning policymakers out of “non-profit” lobbyists, but not “for-profit” lobbyists makes sense.
Are there good guys and bad guys in the business of influencing politics?
The New York Times ran a front-page story today in the continuing uproar surrounding the administration’s lobbying ban. The rule, intended to make good on Obama’s campaign promise to keep special interests from running his administration, bars lobbyists from entering the administration to work on issues for which they’ve lobbied in the recent past.
Insider reports suggest headaches on both sides: among lobbyists and in the administration. In particular, attention is falling on ostensibly “do-gooder” advocates who are also lobbyists. The example in the Times piece is of Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, who was passed over for the top human rights position because he is a registered lobbyist.
Obama’s policy derives from the ethical stance that special interest politics has distorted governance. The Times reports that some critics have found Obama’s standard unduly scrupulous:
The assumption underlying the Obama policy, critics say, is that all lobbying is suspect, even legitimate advocacy at the heart of a democratic process.
An unexamined issue in the continuing Administration lobbying kerfuffle is the minor premise of this statement: that there is a meaningful distinction between suspect lobbying and “legitimate advocacy.”
The answer depends in large part on one’s theory of democracy. Almost no theory would countenance a Jack Abramoff: someone who willingly broke the law to wield political influence. But what about advocacy well within legal limits?
Aside from the fact that lots of people “feel” like advocating for victims of human rights violations is purer than advocating for the auto industry, what’s the real difference between the two kinds of advocacy?
It can’t be the common, public good. That debate is at least awash. The auto industry is a gigantic sector of the American economy and governmental regulations or aid will impact the livlihood of millions. How policymakers should help, regulate or hurt the auto industry is up for debate, but it would be patently incorrect to think that advocates for automakers have no stake in our national conversation.
A more successful argument would be to deepen not our understanding of the common good, but our understanding of legitimate public discourse. An argument along these lines would be to say that, while automakers sometimes represent the common good, it is a lucky coincidence between their profit motive and our broader understanding of what’s good for everyone. That is to say that, for automakers, the common good is at least ancillary to other goals, namely, profit. For this reason, their influence over policy making should be limited.
On this model, the “democratic process” is defined as the open competition of views and interests concerned exclusively with the common good and not at all with private gain.
Advocates from non-profits have offered an amendment to the Obama policy that embraces this approach, and suggest removing the lobbying ban for advocates from tax-exempt organizations. This would be a consistent distinctoin and uphold some of our intuitions about legitimate versus illegitimate advocacy.
Let’s just not forget that corporate interests are real interests. Defining legitimate interests in a democracy isn’t collateral to who can work for the President. It’s central.
The March issues of Prospect, the British political magazine, features a great article on Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian historian cum British intellectual cum Harvard Carr Center for Human Rights Policy Director cum Canadian politician. Igatieff is now the leader of the Canadian Liberal party and likely future prime minister. His introductory speech to the 2005 Liberal party conference highlights the necessary discourse that philosophers can add to political debate:
“I’m not here to tell you something new. I’m here to remind you of something you’ve always known: the fundamentals of Liberal belief. I’m not going to talk about programmes and policies. We talk too much about them, frankly, and not enough about the fundamentals.”
Here’s to hoping more philosophers take the political plunge.
Franklin Foer and Noam Scheiber at The New Republic try and define Obama’s “new theory of the state.”