Solzhenitsyn.jpg

Friday Night Conundrum: What Is the Role of Morality in Politics?

In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

He continued:

Moral impulses among statesmen have always been weaker than political ones, but in our time the consequences of their decisions have grown in scale.

Moral criteria applicable to the behavior of individuals, families, and small circles certainly cannot be transferred on a one-to-one basis to the behavior of states and politicians; there is no exact equivalence, as the scale, the momentum, and the tasks of governmental structures introduce a certain deformation. States, however, are led by politicians, and politicians are ordinary people, whose actions have an impact on other ordinary people. Moreover, the fluctuations of political behavior are often quite removed from the imperatives of State. Therefore, any moral demands we impose on individuals, such as understanding the difference between honesty, baseness, and deception, between magnanimity, goodness, avarice, and evil, must to a large degree be applied to the politics of countries, governments, parliaments, and parties.

In fact, if state, party, and social policy are not based on morality, then mankind has no future to speak of.

yalta_conference.jpgSolzhenitsyn spoke these words by way of a condemnation of the Allied Powers for what he saw as a grotesque betrayal of millions of Soviet citizens who had shed their lives to rid the world of the horror of the Third Reich.  In his estimation the West, in seeking to “ingratiate themselves with the victorious Stalin,” rendered the Soviet people who had suffered the lion’s share of World War II casualties as slaves to the murderous Stalin.  And the worst part about this is that they—Churchill, Roosevelt, and later Attlee and Truman—did this knowingly.

Among the most unsettling strategic concessions made by Britain and the United States at Yalta was the repatriation of Soviet émigrés to the USSR regardless of their consent.  I don’t see any way around calling this immoral.

And yet, when it comes to morality in politics, especially politics of the international variety, conventional wisdom holds that it is impossible to hold states to the same standards that we hold individuals to.  This is because players seldom have a choice between right and wrong, and more frequently are left to discern which path represents the lesser of two evils.

What then do we make of Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that politics must be based on morality?  How is this to be done when we no longer even share a consensus as to what constitutes morality in the first place?

  1. Leigh
    Tom Lindholtz:

     Because foolish people thought that “if we were just more tolerant” they’d come around.  Liberalism cannot win because liberalism is not prepared to force its moral standard (if, indeed, it has one) on anyone. · 6 hours ago

    Edited 6 hours ago

    Except for those within their own country who oppose liberalism.

  2. Gus Marvinson
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Right. But this is precisely what Solzhenitsyn was condemning.  Or almost precisely…he was actually rebutting Locke:

    “And then came our Enlightenment, and by the eighteenth century we had learned from John Locke that it is inconceivable to apply moral terms to the state and its actions. ”

    Hmm… Eighteenth century, you say? Somehow I think our Founders didn’t get Locke’s memo.  Lucky for us!

    After all, aren’t the constraints imposed by a philosophy of limited government moral constraints of a sort? · 9 hours ago

    Or it could be that Solzhenitsyn was flat wrong on this. I’ve read Locke and certainly didn’t get this impression from his Two Treatises on Government or A Letter Concerning Toleration. To suggest that the decline of Western civilization began with Locke is just goofy. When Locke was a youngster fresh out of the university he was all about the sovereignty of the monarch, so maybe this is what old Alex was referring to. But if so, that’s a dishonest characterization of an historical figure just to make a point.

  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    It strikes me that we have a problem in defining morality when we can’t agree upon such things as a) what counts as life in the first place (here I’m speaking of the unborn and the acceptance of abortion throughout the globe)…

    It seems to me that we’d be OK politically if the decision as to whether to allow abortion or not, and under what circumstances, were returned to the states, where it used to be.  Which is consensus of a sort — the agreement to disagree is a vital form of consensus for a peaceful life!

    Someday I mean to dig up an essay on abortion by Robert Nisbet in which he argues that too great a preoccupation with abortion is unconservative — not in accordance with the longest-held traditions of either the Church or the laws of Western civilization — and post it here. His take would be interesting to discuss.

    Even if people can’t agree on whether abortion is murder or not, I would hope civilized people could agree that it’s a shameful, tragic business, not something to be proud of, even if it is legal in some places and circumstances.

  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    It strikes me that we have a problem in defining morality when we can’t agree upon such things as… b) whether some lives are more valuable than other lives.

    I think it makes sense to believe that to God, who is all-knowing and all-loving, all lives are equally valuable, but to also acknowledge that it’s no great scandal that we treat some lives as more valuable to us than others: unlike God, we’re creatures of limited knowledge and attachments.

    I don’t see how a society could survive if people attached no value to the lives of those they didn’t know personally or admire as role models. But equally, how could it survive if people didn’t first look after themselves, if spouses didn’t first look after each other, if mothers didn’t put their own children first?

    Each creature is chiefly recommended into his own care, and after that, to the care of those who know him most personally. Moving up the chain, heads of state have to consider their own citizens first. Which isn’t at all the same as treating foreign citizens like trash.

  5. Gus Marvinson

    “What Is the Role of Morality in Politics?”

    There was a time when this would have been a rhetorical question. Man, are we in trouble.

  6. raycon and lindacon

    We have an amoral politics for an amoral time. 

    And, as we all know, it’s the economy, stupid!

  7. Leigh

    My first thought — which doesn’t begin to address the whole issue — is that you always speak the truth about evil.  Even if you can’t right every wrong on the international stage, even if you have to make agreements with corrupt governments, you can speak the truth about the oppression.

    That is one thing that George W. Bush sought to do that the current president does not.

  8. Flagg Taylor
    Bill Walsh: Some of this goes back at least to Machiavelli who argued (pretty persuasively) that acting in the interest of his polity, the prince could not abide by the morality applied to individuals… · 11 hours ago

    Yes, Solzhenitsyn would agree that Machiavelli is a major part of the problem here.  See also Havel’s essay “Politics and Conscience,” where he discusses Machiavelli’s influence.   Great essay to read in conjunction with this one by Solzhenitsyn.  Both can be found in (shameless self-promotion alert) a recently published book called The Great Lie.

  9. katievs
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

    I was there for it!  (I bet I am the only person any of you knows who ruptured an appendix in Vaduz, Liechtenstein.)  My husband and I were students at the IAP at the time. 

    Awe inspiring speech.  It was the first time I was practically overpowered by the impression of moral authority emanating from a person.  You could feel it in the room.

  10. katievs
    Leigh: My first thought — which doesn’t begin to address the whole issue — is that you always speak the truth about evil.  Even if you can’t right every wrong on the international stage, even if you have to make agreements with corrupt governments, you can speak the truth about the oppression.

    That is one thing that George W. Bush sought to do that the current president does not. · 2 minutes ago

    You are channelling Vaclav Havel, too, Leigh.  Another giant.  You would love his “Power of the Powerless”.

  11. Flagg Taylor
    katievs

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

    I was there for it!  (I bet I am the only person any of you knows who ruptured an appendix in Vaduz, Liechtenstein.)  My husband and I were students at the IAP at the time. 

    Awe inspiring speech.  It was the first time I was practically overpowered by the impression of moral authorityemanating from a person.  You could feel it in the room. · 12 hours ago

    WOOWWW!!!!!!!!!

    This–and the ruptured appendix, just earned you a copy of The Great Lie which includes the speech!! Send me your address.

  12. katievs
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Among the most unsettling strategic concessions made by Britain and the United States at Yalta was the repatriation of Soviet émigrés to the USSR regardless of their consent.  I don’t see any way around calling this immoral.

    And yet, when it comes to morality in politics, especially politics of the international variety, conventional wisdom holds that it is impossible to hold states to the same standards that we hold individuals to.  This is because players seldom have a choice between right and wrong, and more frequently are left to discern which path represents the lesser of two evils.

    He spoke in Liechtenstein because, alone among the European powers and principalities. that tiny country refused to hand over Russian soldiers after war.  

  13. Diane Ellis
    C
    Flagg Taylor

    Bill Walsh: Some of this goes back at least to Machiavelli who argued (pretty persuasively) that acting in the interest of his polity, the prince could not abide by the morality applied to individuals… · 11 hours ago

    Yes, Solzhenitsyn would agree that Machiavelli is a major part of the problem here.  See also Havel’s essay “Politics and Conscience,” where he discusses Machiavelli’s influence.   Great essay to read in conjunction with this one by Solzhenitsyn.  Both can be found in (shameless self-promotion alert) a recently published book called The Great Lie. · 4 minutes ago

    The Great Lie is of course, exactly where I myself read the essay.  My San Francisco reading group discussed it last week.  Here we are:

    SF-Reading-Group.jpg

  14. James Of England
    katievs

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

    I was there for it!  (I bet I am the only person any of you knows who ruptured an appendix in Vaduz, Liechtenstein.)  My husband and I were students at the IAP at the time. 

    Awe inspiring speech.  It was the first time I was practically overpowered by the impression of moral authorityemanating from a person.  You could feel it in the room. · 3 minutes ago

    It’s moments like this that I feel honored to be a member of Ricochet. What an entity! Thank you, Rob et al., Dianne, and Katie for your various institution building, post creating and other roles in that moment of joy for me.

  15. tabula rasa
    katievs

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

    I was there for it!  (I bet I am the only person any of you knows who ruptured an appendix in Vaduz, Liechtenstein.)  My husband and I were students at the IAP at the time. 

    Awe inspiring speech.  It was the first time I was practically overpowered by the impression of moral authorityemanating from a person.  You could feel it in the room. · 7 minutes ago

    You can color me jealous with a capital “J”.   What an experience it must have been.

    My closest brush with greatness was hearing Ronald Reagan give his stump speech in downtown SLC in the 1976 campaign.  I was instantly enthralled, and remain so to this day.  But Solzhenitsyn:  the embodiment of moral authority.

  16. Diane Ellis
    C
    katievs

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

    I was there for it! 

    WOW. Incredible.

    The speech, as you say, is indeed awe inspiring and I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.  We should discuss Solzhenitsyn’s view of progress next!

  17. katievs
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    katievs

    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    In a speech delivered to the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in 1993, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn asked, “What is the role, the justifiable and necessary share of morality in politics?”

    I was there for it! 

    WOW. Incredible.

    The speech, as you say, is indeed awe inspiring and I’ve been thinking about it for weeks.  We should discuss Solzhenitsyn’s view of progress next! · 1 minute ago

    Yes.  His remarks about the telephone displacing us in time have stuck with me.  

  18. James Of England

    I don’t think that any of us can imagine what the weight of governing during World War II does to a person’s morality. No matter how righteous your cause, having to regularly decide that it is worth millions of deaths to fight for it, while not wrong (indeed, in this instance, indisputably right!), has to deaden your moral concerns with sacrificing lives to smooth the path to victory.

    Churchill and FDR, of course, were not huge believers in consent before the war, although FDR moderated his progressivism with some protections for individuals against tyranny (the secret ballot in union organizing elections, for instance).

    We are better off today in almost every conceivable respect, and politicians are less comfortable with individual sacrifice, but we are not in a place to criticize people whose spiritual burdens were so impossibly great. None of us can know how we would have fared.

  19. Noesis Noeseos

    Unless one country can defeat another so decisively in war that it can demand unconditional surrender, it lacks the kind a power a legislature has over the citizens.  It cannot command; it can only negotiate.  Attempting to impose its moral vision then becomes much less likely to have any effect whatsoever.

    Pseudo-cat could correct me, but I believe that Aquinas wrote that not all sins can be punished by the legislator.  How much less then can one sovereign punish another?

  20. James Of England
    katievs

    Leigh: My first thought — which doesn’t begin to address the whole issue — is that you always speak the truth about evil.  Even if you can’t right every wrong on the international stage, even if you have to make agreements with corrupt governments, you can speak the truth about the oppression.

    That is one thing that George W. Bush sought to do that the current president does not. · 2 minutes ago

    You are channelling Vaclav Havel, too, Leigh.  Another giant.  You would love his “Power of the Powerless”. · 18 minutes ago

    Bush was willing to moderate his Armenian Genocide recognition advocacy when he was in power. I think it is difficult to know how to weigh up the price of Iraqi lives against the cost of discretion. Very few first principles are unqualified truths.

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