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Posted by on Apr 2, 2009 in War | 1 comment

Moral Clarity in Foreign Policy

With Obama’s recent Af-Pak announcement, I thought it might be a good time to pull my musings around moral clarity and foreign policy back out of the closet and dust them off to have another look. When last I ruminated on this topic, it was over at my home digs at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen where co-blogger E.D. Kain had expressed perfectly reasonable concern over basing foreign policy on something as mercurial as moral clarity and said that he would be interested to see how I managed to work some sense of morality back into foreign policy. I’ve had that challenge tumbling around in the back of my head ever since and feel like I might finally have something to say on the matter.

But to begin with, I think we need to clear something up how neoconservatives took the notion of moral clarity and poisoned the foreign policy well with it. As Mark noted in that same post,

In other words, when the neoconservative critique was translated into the public mind, it became an argument that the promotion and defense of liberal democracy was such an important moral virtue that all other moral virtue became irrelevant as long as actions were being taken to promote or defend liberal democracy. In a sad way, the popular incarnation of neo-conservatism became the very nihilism and moral relativism that it claimed to oppose (and that many/most intellectual neo-conservatives actually DID oppose). Out went just war doctrine and proportionality; in came waterboarding and Guantanamo Bay.

Indeed, I think Mark is spot on here. Part of the problem with advancing an agenda of foreign policy via robust sense morality is that doing so inevitably conjures up images of how neoconservatives did the exact same thing and the horrible results that have followed. But I would argue that neoconservatives, in fact, did not properly present a proper case for a morally based foreign policy at all, precisely because they ran the calculus ass backwards.

Much more after the jump.

What I think makes most people nervous about the idea of morally based foreign policy is that the calculus as they’ve seen it unfold goes something like: administration A seeks to forward military intervention B on nation C, administration A determines reason D for engaging in military intervention B on nation C that is palatable to the public and then comes up with normative argument E to both back up reason D and argue against criticisms F, G, and H. In this formation of moral calculus, the normative arguments that arise are determined as a means of bolstering and justifying the decision to engage in military activity and this is how most people perceive such moral calculus acting.

By my lights this is entirely wrong. Moral calculus used in determining a military course should act as a check and balance to the intervention in question, forcing the reasoning for such intervention to pass certain tests and clear certain hurdles. If the proposed military intervention is able to clear those hurdles and prove sound on a number of vital fronts, then and only then can it be considered an act that possesses some degree of moral clarity. I say “some degree” because I think that the cases in which any possible course of military action will cash out with 100% moral certitude to be fewer than we would like, even with a battery of tests and hurdles because the limits of human knowledge prevent us from a.) predicting the future and b.) knowing all the possible variables.

That being said, there have been and will be times where such a calculus will allow us to act with a moral clarity that will make our lot and the world better off than had we not acted, thereby presenting a need for fashioning such a calculus even if it is not always, or even ever, capable of providing us with moral certitude. Which is to say that moral clarity and moral certitude is not the same thing and via this calculus we are primary concerned with seeking the former with an eye to developing the moral muscle to extend our abilities closer to the latter with time and practice.

Now this turning of the calculus on its head might seem like a basic, even trivial point, but I think this is a key blockage in conceptualizing a morally based foreign policy with which a majority of people can be comfortable, and so consequently I don’t think we can have a meaningful conversation without making it.

So with that out of the way, our attention must turn to the specifics of such a moral calculus, what hurdles are we to insist that any proposed military action must clear. In my thrashings over the past month, this question has posed the most significant challenge. Now, because I don’t fancy myself a ground breaking moral philosopher, it made the most sense to me to survey and borrow the moral formulas expressed by some of the truly great ethicists available and fashion them into some kind of coherent calculus.

As each of these moral hurdles seem equally important to me and being as that I believe that any proposed course of military action must clear them all to successfully make claims to moral clarity, I will go through the list chronologically based on the philosopher from which the formulation has been borrowed.

I’ll Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Having acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge, we require some kind of sounding board against which to test the arguments any proposed military intervention. What may seem perfectly reasonable and obvious to one particular nation or set of decision-makers, will contain a host of problems when viewed from a different perspective. This kind of cross-referencing is vital to any moral calculus in which we might look to engage and so developing a broad base of support for one’s potential course of action is more than just a matter of pragmatics, but a vital barometer in determining the overall legitimacy of one’s foundational reasoning.

Let’s call this the Aristotelian hurdle, based on the idea of virtue presented in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argued that people are not born virtuous, but rather become virtuous by spending time with virtuous people, watching their actions, and learning by trying to repeat those actions themselves. As pertains to morality and virtuousness in foreign policy, because of the limitations in our own knowledge we must seek to confide in a group of our peers to ensure that our reasoning is sound and that our intentions seem worthwhile before engaging in a course of military action. Should it be the case that we are unable to formulate a broad base of support for proposed course of action amongst others in the global community, that ought to give us cause to review our proposition and its underlying reasoning to see if there is something of concern that we might have missed for any number of reasons.

But It’s My Foreign Policy!

There is a certain myopia that sets in when a nation goes about putting its foreign policy house in order and certain argumentation starts to gain ground primarily on the basis of its source. In short, group think is only ever an air strike away and the kind of cocooning that administrations can enable by silencing dissenters makes breaking that group think incredibly difficult. Once a determined course is locked in and the reasoning behind is determined, there can be an unrelenting inevitability to the realization of the policy despite evidence to the contrary. All of which dangerously undermines any ability to act with any genuine sense of moral clarity.

The other challenge is that certain nation-states, the US in particular, see it as their role to provide the necessary military action to deal with geo-political conflicts that arise. Sadly, this perception is often times largely reinforced by much of the global community, operating until a point much too late in the game to effectively correct that notion when it goes awry. The King is the last person to realize he has no clothes on, as they say, and a villain is the last person not to see him/herself as a hero. So any foreign policy direction we might seek to set should be comprised of actions in which we would be comfortable having another competent nation-state engage.

This test represents our Kantian hurdle and seeks to perform a modified categorical imperative: for any action in which you might engage, would you will it equally acceptable if carried out by others? If the answer to that question is no, there is likely some element of the policy that is morally questionable and ought to give ample cause for hesitation and reconsideration. The goal here is to subject any course of action to a broader context of justification than simply our own perceptions of right or wrong action and justification, and thereby avoid the limitations of our own inherent biases.

Seeking the Triple Bottom Line

One of the elements of foreign policy with which I’ve grappled the most is the role that national interest plays in its formulation. One can’t very well jettison national interest altogether, after all, any military action involves a particular nation-state’s blood and treasure. The idea that pure altruism might motivate foreign policy altogether is a nice thought, but as League commenter Bob once pointed out, seems highly unrealistic. In this regard, it is imperative to seek a triple bottom line in determining whose interests are served by a particular course of action.

Consider this the Rawlsian hurdle, premised on John Rawls notion of justice as fairness. In addressing the interests served by a particular course of action, one must not only take one’s own interests into consideration, but also determine whether the interests of the nation one proposes to directly impact are also served by the course of action. In this regard I think that the point Mark made to me some time ago (sorry, old site is now gone so I don’t have a link) about ensuring that we only intervene in conflicts where our intervention is sought by those being oppressed. You can’t very well be taking the receiving nation’s interests into consideration if you haven’t bothered to figure out if you’re proposed course of action is desired by the proportion of the population you claim to be helping.

The third portion of the triple bottom line stretches the planning and considering out one step further by also requiring that any course of action consider the interests of those nation-states and groups within the immediate vicinity who might not be directly impacted, but do stand to be indirectly impacted. In short, any course of military action ought to benefit all involved either directly or indirectly before it can make claims to moral clarity — it ought to be fair. This hurdle, I think, finds room for national interest n foreign policy, but does not limit our calculus to that particular instance of interest.

I’m a Lover, Not a Fighter

This final hurdle can be considered a fail safe that in some senses subjects our proposed course of action to the most difficult element of moral calculus. I have said in the past that while military action may be necessary in some instances, that no decision-maker should undertake that action with a sense of zeal. No matter how technically savvy our military might become and how precise our equipment allows us to be, military action always results in pain, suffering, and death. It is in this regard that military action should always be seen as an option of last resort, the kind of decision that is made when all other options have been exhausted and no other avenue will do.

Call this final test the Singerian hurdle, having to do with the avoidance of pain as an interest that trumps most and ought not to be violated if it can be helped. All too often the chips for military intervention are cashed in before we’ve really considered our hand and the ramifications of such a decision are dire enough that all of the options should always be considered before a decision is made. There isn’t much more to say about this, war is hell and if you’re going to anoint your tanks the canons of morality you had best have done your homework in determining that this particular course of action is truly the only acceptable option available.

As always, that is probably not an exhaustive list, but I think it represents a good start and at the very least a demonstration of how we might look to re-import a sense of morality into our foreign policy that is both specific, but also dynamic, moving beyond the realm of theorizing and into an applicative space.

Most importantly, though, I think this formulation demonstrates how morality properly applied in foreign policy acts as a deterrent to ill-begotten reasoning and fevered egos. Those courses of action that actually make it around the track may be few and far between, but I think their scarcity is a good indication of the relative strength of clarity they purport to present and enable full-bodied action when and where it is required.

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  • HemmD

    Scott

    A truly excellent essay.

    I would venture to say that the distinction between moral clarity and moral certitude is the biggest obstacle to a morally based foreign policy.

    Moral certitude is a goal that can never be ultimately reached; although the attempt leads to greater and greater moral clarity. Unfortunately, moral certitude is where many people believe they start. Certitude is the mind’s life raft in a sea of divergent opinion, and even when that raft is made of stone, the mind is loathe to give it up.
    Because this is a foible of the human condition, your external tests for moral clarity in foreign policy must also become recursive. Is another nation’s advice derived from certitude? Is the group think of your advisors reflective of certitude? Any test proposed will only be effective if that tests have passed its own testing process.

    I hope this demonstrates some understanding of your thoughts. As with all philosophies and most all scientific theories, it is the ‘a priori’ with which one begins that drives the body of the work.

    Thanks for an intriguing read.

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