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The Politically Great and the Morally Good

photograph of Machiavelli statue

It wouldn’t be beyond the pale to assert that we’re currently having a collective crisis of faith regarding many of our world leaders and the political institutions they represent. Not only do they appear to be ineffectual in the face of emerging challenges – climate change, economic collapse, pandemics, and rising fascism, to pick a few – but several also seem to be fundamentally untrustworthy and, if one wants to be provocative, downright immoral.

For example, in the U.K., in the past year alone, several high ranking cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister himself, have been accused of lying, bullying, adultery, cronyism, corruption, and the questionable appropriation of public funds for personal use. Abuses of power like these, which extend far beyond the U.K.’s shores, have even been identified by the Centre for the Future of Democracy’s recent report as one of the critical causes for the broader decreased faith in democracy in many of its former bastions.

Now concerns regarding politicians acting less than virtuously are nothing new. In the 44 B.C. treatise De Officiis, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote that there is “no vice more offensive than avarice, especially in men who stand foremost and hold the helm of state. For to exploit the state for selfish profit is not only immoral; it is criminal, infamous.” Indeed, concern regarding politicians’ dubious dealings have been common throughout history.

Cicero’s demand that politicians not exploit the state is pretty ethically uncontroversial. However, there is a more nuanced question here than should politicians do their job morally. The question of the personal moral character of politicians and what this means for their suitability as statesmen is far more complex. Does it matter to us if a world leader acts immorally in private when they are good at their job of being a politician? That is, if they lead the country, protect their citizens, and communicate clearly with those they’re responsible for/to, then why should we care about their extracurricular ethical deficiencies?

To illustrate, let’s use a thought experiment. Imagine an election has been called to decide your country’s next leader. Candidate A is known to be morally admirable – they recycle, don’t cheat on their partner, give generously to charity, don’t lie, etc. On the other hand, Candidate B does the opposite – they lie, cheat, throw all their rubbish in the same bin, hoard their wealth, etc. After a brutal campaign, both candidates demonstrate their suitability for the job in equal measure. With nearly all the votes counted, there’s a tie. Yours is the only vote left to be cast. As such, you get to decide who the newest world leader is. Whom do you pick, and why?

On the one hand, you might think it’s obvious – you pick Candidate A as they are objectively better than Candidate B. In addition to doing the job, Candidate A is also a good person, and that’s valuable. After all, immorality is, by definition, bad (we might want to value it as -1). This undesirability is evident compared to the amoral (which we could value at 0) and even more so when compared to the morally good (which we can value as +1). Thus, if you end up with an effective leader regardless, why would you pick Candidate B, who comes with a negative value (-1), when you could instead have Candidate A, who comes with a positive value (+1). In other words, why settle for less when you can have more?

Complementing this self-centered approach, those favoring the morally virtuous leader may also ground their reasoning in justice. We typically think that the immoral shouldn’t succeed at the expense of the moral; there is something right in rewarding those who act morally and punishing, or at least not rewarding, those who don’t. To actively choose Candidate B over Candidate A would fly in the face of this sense of justice. It would indicate that individual integrity is divisible from the mainstay of professional ethics. That personal moral failing can be disregarded in decisions about who should(n’t) be rewarded in professional capacities. In short, when all other things are equal, justice demands that bad people shouldn’t succeed and good people should. Thus, Candidate A is the just choice.

On the other hand, it’s plausible to argue in favor of, or at least of not discounting, Candidate B simply because they possess some personal moral failings. After all, who among us is entirely virtuous?

As we’ve already established, the two candidates are equally qualified. Thus, we have to ask why it matters that one acts in a morally dubious manner and the other doesn’t. Could it be that we’re acting upon some ill-formed or reactionary intuition? After all, we don’t think in these terms when we consider a person’s suitability for other jobs or tasks. For example, if you need surgery, the idea that you would pick from a list of equally qualified surgeons based on whether one was faithful to their partner would seem bizarre. In this situation, what matters is that person’s capacity to fulfill the role’s requirements. Anything outside that scope is inconsequential. So, just as we would think it insignificant that a capable surgeon acts immorally when not on-call, we might feel the same about a world leader – provided that they can undertake the task of effectively leading the nation, all other considerations should fall to the wayside.

As with many thought experiments, you might consider this one’s parameters to be too restrictive or even implausible. The pessimistic (or some may say realistic) of you may argue that the very qualities that make one a practical head of state are the same qualities that would tarnish one’s personal ethical record. As noted in Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“And again, he need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.”

For Machiavelli, those qualities which make someone a good person are not the same as those that make them a great leader. Indeed, often those qualities may impede one’s ability to do their job as a politician. That, at the end of the day, the requirements of statehood demand that one lie, deceive, subjugate, battle, and even kill others – things that we would otherwise decry as vices and sins if not for the fact that the role of world leader required them.

Where does this leave us then? Do politicians need to be moral, and are we right in expecting them to be? While it may seem obvious to say yes – to decry the idea of an immoral leader – we have to be aware that we may be moralizing in a way that we wouldn’t do for people in other roles. Furthermore, we might even be doing our country a disservice by trying to install a leader who, under any other circumstance, might be considered a good person.

The Uses and Abuses of Political Hypocrisy

photograph of pinocchio sculpture atop puppet theatre in Kiev

Accusations of hypocrisy are so common in American politics that one usage of the term “politician” is as a near-synonym for “hypocrite” (“what’s your supervisor like?” “he’s a real politician.”) And for the most part, the hypocrisy of politicians is not considered laudable. Immanuel Kant famously condemned what he called the “political moralist” who “fashions his morality to suit his own advantage as a statesman,” paying homage to morality while devising “a hundred excuses and subterfuges to get out of observing them in practice.” Like Kant, most of us seem to prize integrity in our politicians.

Yet throughout history, other philosophers have argued that hypocrisy is a necessary part of politics. Niccolò Machiavelli defended hypocrisy as an indispensable tool in a world in which “a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good.” Much more recently, Judith Shklar argued that hypocrisy is nearly inevitable in political systems premised upon competitive elections, since candidates will employ persuasive rhetoric that requires a certain degree of dissimulation. Ruth Grant went further, arguing that without a plausible alternative for achieving comparable goods, hypocrisy in politics may very well be a moral necessity.

Thus, there appears to be disagreement about the inevitability and justifiability of hypocrisy in politics. In this column, I will focus on the kinds of hypocrisy politicians exhibit, and the question of whether and when political hypocrisy is morally preferable to non-hypocrisy.

It is important to note that hypocrisy is not a mere inconsistency between one’s words and deeds. For example, I would condemn many things I did as a teenager, but that does not automatically make me a hypocrite. One hallmark of hypocrisy is that the hypocrite pays homage to morality not out of genuine concern, but for self-serving reasons — to gain some undeserved advantage, to excuse himself, or to hide from blame. It is for this reason that we cannot trust that the hypocrite’s utterances reflect what he truly cares about, rather than what he believes to be advantageous in the moment.

It follows from this that many instances of political behavior that some might be tempted to call “hypocrisy” are, on reflection, not hypocrisy at all. Suppose that a politician publicly supports policy A, but then reads more about the issue and ends up voting for policy B. His former supporters might accuse him of hypocrisy, but this does not seem to be apt: the inconsistency between his public support of A and his eventual vote for B is due to a change of mind about the issue, rather than some self-serving reason.

Nevertheless, there are certainly many instances of true hypocrisy in politics. And while we tend to value integrity in our politicians, it can be plausibly argued that hypocrisy in the service of morally good ends is preferable to integrity in the service of morally bad ends. Politician A, while secretly racist, campaigns for office on an anti-racist platform in order to attract the support of minority constituents. Politician B, who is also racist, believes that one should stick to one’s principles even when doing so might hurt one’s electoral prospects, so he supports a racist platform. I would rather have A as a player in my political system, since A’s hypocrisy will help his minority constituents, unlike B’s integrity.

On the other hand, compare politician A to politician C, who genuinely holds anti-racist views and supports the same anti-racist platform. C seems morally preferable to A, but on what grounds? One answer is that, since C supports the anti-racist platform because it is right to do so, his support is morally creditworthy in a way that A’s is not. This might be Kant’s view, as he famously distinguished between actions in accord with and actions from duty; according to him, only the latter have moral worth. Another answer is that C’s proper anti-racist motives will more reliably lead him to promote anti-racist ends, whereas A would abandon those ends whenever it suits him politically. Some consequentialists might adopt this line. A third answer is that C’s behavior arises from virtuous motives while A’s does not; this is one position that a virtue theorist might take.

The trouble with the Kantian or virtue theoretical positions is that, while they can distinguish between A and C, they give no reason for us to prefer A over B. As we have seen, A’s support of the anti-racist platform is not morally creditworthy. Furthermore, because it involves deception — A knowingly causes others to falsely believe he supports an anti-racist position — its underlying maxim could not be universalized, which is Kant’s test for whether an action is morally permissible. So, on Kant’s view the deception practiced by A may make A worse than B; A’s behavior amounts to a “double iniquity.” If B’s integrity is a virtue, then the virtue theorist may also have to say that B is preferable to A; and if it is not, then at best A and B are morally equal, as in neither case does their behavior flow from virtuous motives.

Now consider politician D, who is secretly anti-racist but panders to his racist constituents by supporting B’s platform. This character seems obviously morally worse than A or C, but what about B? I think a common reaction is that B is less loathsome than D, but it is difficult to explain this judgment in consequentialist terms. After all, D’s anti-racist values will lead him to support a racist platform less reliably than B, just as C’s anti-racist values will lead him to support an anti-racist platform more reliably than A; so consequentialist reasoning seemingly should lead us to prefer D to B.

On the other hand, it may be that D’s stance undermines something that we care about very much in politicians: namely, transparency. Because we can only vote for or otherwise support a politician on the basis of what they say and do, we want their words and deeds to reflect their actual commitments. This is precisely what is not the case when it comes to hypocrites. Of course, we do not value transparency above everything else: as between a hypocrite who insincerely supports the good and an outright villain, we prefer the former. But as between B, an outright villain, and D, a hypocrite who insincerely supports the bad, we seem to prefer the villain’s integrity, because at least we know where we stand with him. Thus, consequentialism can explain our ranking of politicians A, B, C, and D in terms of the interplay between our desire for transparency and other values we want to promote, such as justice.

Perhaps a useful way to think about this disagreement between consequentialists, Kantians, and virtue theorists concerning political hypocrisy is in terms of two political virtues Max Weber famously distinguished: the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility. The ethic of conviction involves a “constancy of [a person’s] inner relation to certain ultimate ‘values,’” or in other words, integrity. The ethic of responsibility, on the other hand, involves a proper understanding of the consequences of one’s actions and a practical ability to promote one’s ends. Those who favor the latter will likely believe that hypocrisy is no great sin (although still problematic, because transparency-negating), so long as it can be directed toward good ends, as in the case of politician A. By contrast, political hypocrisy is likely to deeply offend someone who places more emphasis on the ethic of conviction. Put another way, those who think an excellent politician is one who effectively promotes policy goals will not care about her reasons for pursuing those goals, except insofar as those reasons make her a less reliable advocate of them. On the other hand, those who think an excellent politician is one whose actions reflect her values will care deeply about eradicating hypocrisy from politics.

Yet, a too-fervent attachment to the ethic of conviction can lead to a dangerous kind of anti-hypocrisy hypocrisy. Consider politician E, who sincerely believes, and often publicly declares, that (1) a country should never start a land war in Asia and (2) a politician should always stick to his core principles. When his party starts a land war in Asia and he, without a hint of self-consciousness, votes in favor of a war resolution, he explains that the resolution authorizes a police action, not a war. This kind of self-deceived hypocrisy is particularly dangerous in politics, since it is very difficult for the politician herself to limit or check. It is also frequently a symptom of a kind of self-righteousness that may, in the politician’s own mind, license her to operate outside the normal bounds of morality. Thus, in a quest for purity of intention, politicians can fall prey to a hypocrisy more insidious than that which they seek to avoid.

We arrive, then, at a few conclusions. First, there are occasions where hypocrisy is morally preferable to non-hypocrisy. In particular, there is reason to prefer the hypocrisy of insincere politicians who support morally laudable ends to the integrity of our sincere villains. At the same time, the most morally problematic hypocrites are the anti-hypocrisy hypocrite and the hypocrite who espouses bad values without believing them. These judgments assume, or are rather supported by, a consequentialist style of moral reasoning that places emphasis on the ethics of responsibility over the ethics of conviction. Kantians and others, who elevate the significance of intention and motive in their moral judgments, may come to different conclusions.

Game of Thrones: Dragons, Despots, and Just War

photograph of used Game of Thrones book

** SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones up to and including the show’s Season 8 ending.

Game of Thrones, the popular television show based on the book series by George RR Martin, aired its final episode last week. Set in a medieval fantasy world the strength of its appeal is in its exploration of real-world themes of politics, power and war.

For a story infamous for subverting narrative expectations with radical plot twists, in the last two episodes the actions and ultimate fate of Daenerys Targaryen shocked even the most intrepid fans. Hitherto one of the story’s heroines and presumptive savior of Westeros, fans watched in horror as Daenerys chose to burn hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians alive in her quest to ‘build a better world’. What happened? Was this a calculated tactic, and if so, what possible reason or justification can there have been for her to choose the route of extreme violence?

Daenerys Targaryen was one of many contenders for the Iron Throne, the seat of power on the continent of Westeros, and the only one with dragons. In Martin’s fictional world, dragons (which can grow to immense size, and breathe columns of fire so hot it can melt stone and steel) had traditionally been used by the ruling Targaryen family as weapons of war and conquest, but had been extinct for a century prior to events of the story.

As different characters and factions vie for the Iron Throne and the rulership of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen, living in exile after her father the “Mad King” was deposed by the current ruler(s) during a rebellion, magically hatches three petrified dragon eggs. Already possessed of the belief that the throne belonged to her by right of succession, as her dragons grew to maturity she was also in possession of a formidable military weapon with immense firepower. In a medieval world where weapons of war are swords and arrows, the dragons represent the destructive might of nuclear weapons against the mere capacities of conventional ones.

Despite occasionally displaying the fiery Targaryen temper, Daenerys was to begin with relatively restrained in the use of this significant advantage in pursuing her military goals and achieved her ascendency to ruler of Slaver’s Bay (a region on the continent in which she was in exile) with only sparing use of dragon fire. For most of the story Daenerys seems to be (so to speak) on the right side of history as, in Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen she liberated the large population of slaves and presided over the abolition of the institution and practice of slavery. To this end she was a revolutionary, and styled herself as a liberator and a ruler for the downtrodden on a mission to create a better world.

When she finally turns her gaze to Westeros to retake the Iron Throne even as her advisors, including Tyrion Lannister, implore her to hold back her firepower and not to use her dragons to attack the city of King’s Landing (the seat of her rival, tyrannical and ruthless queen Cersei Lannister and also home to a large civilian population) but to pursue other military options less likely to result in large numbers of civilian casualties, many of her allies (Yara Greyjoy, Ellaria Sand and Olenna Tyrell) encourage her to hit King’s Landing with all of her might.

This is a real ethical dilemma in military tactics. Where one party has a weapon of immense superiority, such as a nuclear weapon, there is a case to be weighed up between using it to obtain swift victory, avoiding a potentially protracted conflict which may eventually lead to a great deal more death and suffering, as against holding back to avoid the possibility of an egregious, even gratuitous, victory born from a one-sided conflict. As such, the debate continues on whether the use of nuclear weapons by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end WWII was morally justified. One informal, voluntary poll shows that over 50% of respondents believe that it was indeed justified.

Viewers who had followed Daenerys’ ascent from frightened girl to Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains generally trusted in her, as a flawed but fundamentally good character, to do what was right. But as in the real world, in the world of Game of Thrones, it is not always clear what the right thing is. Even so, one of the things that the Game of Thrones seems to point up is the need for benevolent rulers. When Daenerys responds that: “I am here to free the world from tyrants… not to be queen of the ashes” we seem to instinctively understand that benevolence and indiscriminate violence cannot easily coexist.  

Yet following the failure of other tactics, she finally unleashes the immense firepower of a dragon against the Lannister army, literally incinerating it, and afterwards, presenting the captured soldiers and nobles with a ‘choice’ – to “bend the knee” (accept her as their ruler) “or die.” She executes with dragon-fire those who do not acquiesce. If Daenerys is going to win, if she is going to take the throne and build her better world, she needs some victories – but is this use of firepower, and subsequent refusal of mercy the right thing to do? At this point her advisors, and possibly her supporters, are uneasy.

In our world, the rules of just war have been formulated, and latterly enshrined in international law, in order to regulate, and limit when and how war is waged. Just war theory includes the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Jus ad bellum is a set of criteria to be consulted prior to resorting to warfare to determine whether war is permissible, that is, whether it is a just war. This principle has a long history in the western philosophical tradition. In his Summa Theologica, circa 1270 Thomas Aquinas writes: “[we deem as] peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” One principle of just war, particularly relevant here is the principle of proportionality which stipulates that the violence used in the war must be proportional to the military objectives.

Daenerys does, in accordance with Aquinas’ stipulation, have as her objective the ‘securing of peace’ and ‘uplifting of the good’. Her attack on the Lannister armies, following the exhausting of other tactics, probably passes the test of proportionality – though executing prisoners of war would contravene the Geneva Convention.

However, in the penultimate episode of the series, the worst fears of those who had counselled her against unleashing the full force of her destructive capacities upon a whole city – civilian and military alike, come to pass. Worse still, this action is not taken as a last resort. Using her armies and dragons she has already overcome the enemy’s military. The city has surrendered and the bells of surrender are ringing out as she begins methodically to raze the city to the ground. In this moment she cedes the moral high ground and loses all the moral authority she had earned as a warrior for justice and liberator of the people. But why does she do this?

Daenerys believes that the end will justify the means. She believes that the good of the new world she wants to build will outweigh the suffering caused by the destruction of the old one. She relies on a consequentialist justification here, but if an action can be justified morally by its consequences, then one must know what the consequences will be, and one must know that the resultant good will be certain to morally outweigh the suffering.

Theoretically, if the death of, say, hundreds of thousands prevented the deaths of millions then it could be justified in consequentialist terms. Many philosophers find in such reasoning grounds to reject consequentialist ethics. The reason no one accepts this rationale from Daenerys is that the magnitude of devastation renders it nearly impossible to see it as anything other than utterly, horrifically disproportionate, and the fact that the city had surrendered renders such a justification moot since the immense suffering can not be shown to have been necessary for the better world she claims to be trying to build. As such, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it was gratuitous.

If Daenerys actions cannot be justified as a sacrifice in pursuit of “mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage to a tyrant” the other explanation is more sinister – and also more realpolitik. In his book on ruling and the exercise of power, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: “it is much more safe to be feared than to be loved when you have to choose between the two.

Coming to the bitter realization that she was not going to win the Iron Throne nor hold power in Westeros by virtue of the love of those whom she needed on her side, Daenerys knows that if she is to rule, fear is her only pathway to power. She says as much to Jon Snow before the attack on King’s Landing: “alright then, then let it be fear.” As such, she had made her choice before hand and knew that were the city to surrender she would not pull back, as Tyrion urged her to do, but unleash the full force of her fiery might.

Perhaps Daenerys thought that this was the right thing to do, perhaps, cornered, she thought it was the only thing left for her to do. As Cersei Lannister so prophetically said to Ned Stark in Season One “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die, there is no middle ground.” Is this Machiavellian move compatible with the goal of building a better world? Daenerys had wanted to free the world of tyrants, but what is a tyrant but someone who must rule by fear? Sadly the Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains in the end became what she despised.