Does symbolism matter in the pursuit of justice?
Ways or ends: which matters more?
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday, Bret Stephens asks whether President “Obama believe[s] in human rights?” Not surprisingly, he suggests that the President does not. As evidence he cites, among other things, the President having canceled plans to attend the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, his failure to meet with the Dalai Lama earlier this month, his new Sudan policy of engagement and his muted public outcry following the fraudulent Iranian elections. Obama’s approach sits in stark contrast to that of his predecessor who, most of the time, spoke out loudly for democracy and human rights.
The Stephens critique of Obama’s foreign policy, whose most significant new feature is “engagement” with adversaries, is not new. In fact, following each of the events Stephens cites, Obama received criticism from both the left and the right. The question is: are the critiques warranted? The answer, not surprisingly, is: it depends.
The justification of the criticism depends on two things: 1) your approach to ethics; and 2) what exactly the criticizer is criticizing.
To simplify things, we can assume that ethical approaches fall into two categories: “morality as outcomes” and “morality as process.” I discuss these two approaches here with reference to this summer’s Cash for Clunkers program. To summarize, the outcome camp would argue that an action is justified if the resulting outcome is more just than the initial state. The process camp, on the other hand, believes that actions are what matters. Actions themselves are just or unjust regardless of the outcomes that result. In other words, the “morality as outcome” camp cares about ends, the “morality as process” camp about ways and means.
This brings us nicely to the second issue: is the criticizer critiquing the ways/means or the ends? I talk about this distinction here. It is helpful to think of a policy as using x mean in y way to achieve z end. “Ends” are the full set of outcome or state of the world that the policy brings about (if already implemented) or is expected to bring about (if yet to be enacted). “Ways” refers to the method in which this end is brought about. “Means” is the tools employed by the ways.
The Stephens critique tries to cover both ways/means and ends, though he does a poor job of distinguishing which he is critiquing at any given time. He spends almost the entirety of his op-ed making an emotional appeal for speaking out for democracy and human rights and against engagement with dictators (ways/means). Then suggests that the “real question is what good purpose can possibly by” engagement (ends) at the same time as he notes the nausea feeling he gets even thinking about the idea (ways/means).
If you are a “morality as process” type, its pretty clear you will side with Stephens. Obama has focused less on publicly speaking out for freedom and democracy and more on engagement with non-democratic adversaries. But if you fall in the “morality as outcomes” camp, the verdict is probably still out, for the empirical connection between ways/means and ends is hardly settled. There’s no telling whether the Obama policy will successfully advance freedom and democracy, but President Bush’s policy of speaking out loudly was a mixed bag at best. According to Freedom House’s historical comparative data, the number of “free” and “partly free” countries rose by four and three, respectively, over the course of Bush’s presidency, while the number of “electoral democracies” fell by two.
The point is that you can care about freedom and democracy and agree with Stephens and you can care about freedom and democracy and disagree with Stephens. It all depends on which ethical camp you fall in and whether you think, empirically, that speaking out for freedom and democracy makes a difference.