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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?