T Nation

Should Political Action Be Judged by Universal Morality?


Many citizens of the Western would answer to the affirmative. My own view is that of political realism, summarized in Hans Morgenthau's principles of political realism.

  1. Politic's, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature which is unchanging: therefore it is possible to develop a rational theory that reflects these objective laws.

  2. The main signpost of political realism is the concept of interest defined in terms of power which infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible. Political realism stresses the rational, objective and unemotional.

  3. Realism assumes that interest defined as power is an objective category which is universally valid but not with a meaning that is fixed once and for all. Power is the control of man over man.

  4. Political realism is aware of the moral signifigance of political action. it is also aware of the tension between moral command and the requirements of successful political action.

  5. Political realsim refuses to identify the moral aspirations of a particular nation with the moral laws that govern the universe. It is the concept fo interest defined in terms of power that saves us from the moral excess and political folly.

  6. The political realist maintains the autonomy of the political sphere. He asks "How soes this policy affect the power of the nation?" Political realism is based on a pluralistic conception of human nature. A man who was nothing but "political man" would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints. But, in order to develop an autonomous theory of political behavior, "political man" must be abstracted from other aspects of human nature.


It all depends on context. In international relations morality should not apply - at least it should not apply wherever it conflicts with objectives. Domestically is a different question and more difficult to answer. The domestic politik is warfare too but it is bracketed warfare in the sense that it is confined within limits. When these limits are exceeded and actual violence breaks out then morality must leave the room - again, at least where it conflicts with the objective/s.


I'd also point out, I don't believe in international law - therefore I don't believe in such things as the Geneva convention. However I do believe in treaties between nations - but obviously without international law there is no one to enforce them besides the parties to the treaties. In terms of the rules of war - nations should seek to follow rules of law but obviously without international law and transnational bodies there would be no one to compel them to do so. In many cases they would choose to do so as European countries did in the 18th Century. Wars with limited objectives are of course much easier to bracket within a framework of rules of war. No party should feel morally obligated to observe any rules of war that their enemy does not observe.


Are you trying to argue that "realism" is a good theory to predict how states will act or explain why they acted? Or are you trying to argue that "realism" should be used as a model by state decision makers to drive policy?

There's a difference.


-What does this mean?



Why does the political realist ask how a policy affects the power of the nation? Shouldn't the political realist be more concerned with how it affects his own power? Doesn't the concept of interest defined in terms of power mean that he should?


He does believe that. The flaw of realism is the assumption that men are universally rational actors. If this were so we would not have had alchemy, sorcery, witch burning, runs on banks, The First World War, the Islamic State or countless other delusions and flights into madness. The true nature of man is best understood as insanity and aggression.


Hey bissy. Have you read Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind or Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds?


Actually, rationality refers to actors as rational egoists who strive to be power maximizers. It isn't an evaluation of their mental constitutions.


The thread's title refers to the relationship between morality and statecraft.

Variants of realism have analytical utility for predicting future state behavior and for critically examining past behavior. Like all tools, however, it has its limitations and should not be utilized dogmatically as a panacea.

Statecraft should be underpinned by realism, yes.


Rational egoism presupposes the actor's motivation is rational and that he will make rational decisions in furtherance of his goal of seeking power. Men are driven by ambition but that does not mean they will act rationally.


Its interesting to note that treaties that have been ratified by the senate are just as legally bounding as the U.S. Constitution.


So if a genocide increases the power of a state without overwhelming negative political consequences, that's the course of action you would recommend its policy makers take, correct?


I won't address an obvious straw man. Power calculations are tempered by international norms. Genocide is about as myopic as power maximizing behavior can be.


Should they be? Why should "international norms" constrain international relations?


Yes. So called rogue states' are subject to crippling punitive actions that can severely hamstring their capabilities and political sustainability. Look at the DPRK and Iran, for example.


North Korea and Iran are not great powers.


Great powers adhere to international norms as well unless they do not align with vital interests.


I'm playing devil's advocate here - why should great powers adhere to international norms if it is not in their interest to do so?


Asking a hard question based on the premise you provided isn't a straw man. Answer the question.


After answering my question, you can also explain where I misrepresented your argument, attacked the fake argument, and then claimed victory based on defeating my fake version of your true argument.