Realism as Pragmatic Cooperation

by | Aug 28, 2009


CREDIT: George Becker (Creative Commons)

This speech was part of an off-the-record working group meeting held at Strategy& on August 28, 2009 titled “Climate Change, Global Responsibilities, and the U.S.-China Relationship.”

I want to begin by thanking Jonathan Gage and Strategy& for their extraordinary hospitality. I have always believed that the strength of the Carnegie Council lies in the character and commitment of its people. Jon, as a trustee and friend, and Strategy& as a corporate supporter, have been pillars of support for the Council. I hope you know how grateful we are for it.

I would also like to thank Devin Stewart for his heroic efforts in making this meeting possible, as well as his co-conspirators Josh Eisenman and [Carnegie Council staff member] Stefanie Ambrosio. You did all the heavy lifting—so on behalf of all of us who are benefiting, thank you.

I would like to begin my presentation by telling you a bit about the Carnegie Council—and specifically, the word “ethics” in our title. This simple word, “ethics,” informs our approach. It is my hope that will also add value to our discussion today.

By ethics, I do not mean simply compliance with law. Compliance is of course an essential part of ethics. But it is only a beginning. Compliance is a floor, a minimum upon which to build. Many actions in government, business, or private life comply with the law but are not optimal from an ethical perspective. Examples are all around us. British members of parliament may not have broken laws when they used expense accounts to bill tax payers for lifestyle enhancements such as moat cleaning, the upkeep of expensive second homes, or the rental of adult movies. But surely this kind of behavior was wrong. In more serious policy matters, it may well be that most of our major banks and financial institutions were in full compliance with the law when it came to the management of credit default swaps and derivative trading. Yet something went very wrong in the area of risk and responsibility. There are many things we can do and still be in compliance with law—but some of them are wrong. Ethical reasoning helps us make these distinctions.

The discipline of ethics begins with Socrates’ question: How should one live? Ethics is about choice. What values guide us? What standards do we use? What principles are at stake? And how do we choose between them? An ethical approach to a problem will inquire about ends (goals) and means (the instruments we use to achieve these goals) and the relationship between the two.

Ethical reasoning is the process of raising awareness of moral claims and applying principles to arising circumstances. Ethical reasoning implies an interrogation of the moral claims that surround us rather than a mere listing of do’s and don’ts. In a word, ethical inquiry is proactive rather than passive.

The philosopher Simon Blackburn writes that ethics takes as its starting point that: “Human beings are ethical animals … we grade and evaluate, and compare and admire, and claim and justify … Events endlessly adjust our sense of responsibility, our guilt and our shame, and our sense of our own worth and that of others.” [1]

According to Blackburn, ethical inquiry is normative in the sense that it suggests “norms.” Norms are what we consider “expected and required” behavior. We all experience functional norms. For example, in the United States, drivers stay on the right-hand side of the road; in the United Kingdom, drivers keep to the left. We also experience moral norms. A moral norm would consist of an expectation such as nondiscrimination in the workplace or the requirement to respect the needs of the most vulnerable members of society (e.g. children, elderly and the infirm). Moral norms are aspirational and prescriptive rather than functional and descriptive—they paint the “ought” rather than the “is.” It is this type of norm that I want to focus on in these next few minutes.

A cautionary note is necessary here. Norms, expectations, and ethical claims depend deeply on context. No single normative theory or formula will suffice across different types of examples. One of the great ethicists of recent memory, Isaiah Berlin, famously gave up his Oxford chair in normative theory, so the story goes, because he felt he had no single normative theory to purvey. Berlin did not pretend to offer a grand theory that would meet the test of the many different types of cases he was concerned with. [2]

Berlin’s work reminds us that normative inquiry is a non-perfectionist art. The first lesson of ethics is that values overlap and conflict. The single-minded pursuit of any particular virtue can subvert a competing virtue. So as we often see, freedom can conflict with order, justice with mercy, and truth with loyalty. In international affairs, peace may be our goal, but we cannot ignore the need to confront aggression. Some may chant “no more war.” These same people may also chant “never again genocide.” Sometimes, tragically and unavoidably, force is needed to prevent harm. Here, and in countless similar examples, we see norms clashing. Berlin lets us know that these clashes happen more often than not.

Despite our lack of a single theory or formula, Berlin and others do offer a framework for ethical reasoning. Inspired by Berlin and other pragmatists, I think of this framework as ethics in three dimensions.

The first dimension focuses on the decision maker—the actor or the agent who makes a choice. We can and should evaluate the acts of individuals, be they presidents, ministers, official representatives, CEOs, community leaders, advocates, employees, consumers or citizens. Each has a role as an autonomous actor.

In addition to single actors, a discussion of agency must also consider the identity, values, and acts of collective actors such as states, corporations, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations. One of the most important trends of our time is the growing power of non-state actors—especially multinational corporations. Wal-Mart, Microsoft and other companies of this size and scope rival the capacities of many states in terms of their economic, political and social reach. It is therefore both necessary and proper to ask and answer questions relating to the moral choices of corporate entities. All are moral agents.

The second dimension of ethics has to do with the systems, social arrangements, and conditions that define our range of choices. In short, we need to examine the “rules of the game” by which we live and make decisions. We all live within sets of norms and expectations—some more fair and just than others. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this dimension is to show you examples of when “rational” choices within a set of arrangements yield “bad” or less-than-desirable results. In other words, in some systems, when you do the “right thing” within the system, the net result is sub-optimal.

This problem exists on many levels of policy and institutional design. For example, consider the nuclear weapons doctrine of MAD—mutual assured destruction. The entire strategic framework is based on the idea of reciprocal threat. Within this system, to insure stability, the most rational thing to do is to make an immoral threat (and be prepared to carry it out).

Clearly, there is something deeply troubling about MAD. It would seem to me to be a worthy goal to try to create frameworks and policies where the “rational” thing to do would be more benign than to make a threat of mutual assured destruction. In brief then, this second dimension calls attention to the fact that we live within institutions, systems, and social arrangements of human design. The rules, norms, and conditions of these arrangements should be subject to ethical evaluation.

The third dimension of ethics is the assertion that we often have the opportunity to improve our situation—to do better. One way to think of this is to consider a standard ethics scenario like this: My mother is sick. I cannot afford medicine. So I steal the medicine from a pharmacy whose managers will not even notice that it is gone. Is stealing the medicine in this circumstance the right thing or the wrong thing to do?

We can discuss this case in terms of my decision as a moral agent—whether I am a thief and villain, a rescuer and a hero, or both. Ethical questions are frequently raised as dilemmas such as this one. In many situations, there is a genuine need to choose between two competing and compelling claims, and ethical reasoning can help to sort these out. But we can also expand the inquiry to ask a broader question beyond the narrow question of whether to steal or not to steal. We can also ask: What kind of community denies medicine to sick people who cannot afford it? Is there something unfair or unethical about this system?

To further illustrate this third dimension, it is useful to note the distinction that Andrew Carnegie drew between charity and philanthropy.

Charity, according to Carnegie, is the duty to attend to immediate and acute human suffering. Charity translates to feeding the hungry, tending to the sick and destitute, providing relief to victims of natural and man made disasters, and giving shelter to the homeless. Philanthropy is something different—it is an endeavor that reaches above and beyond the imperatives of charity. Philanthropy explores new ways of living, new ideas and institutions to improve society.

While this may sound abstract, Carnegie’s philanthropy was specific and practical. He addressed the societal-level problem of education by suggesting and then providing the infrastructure for two institutions we now take for granted: the public library and the teacher pension system. Carnegie believed that every person should have access to knowledge. Universal literacy and educational opportunity would be possible by supporting a free public library system which he began to do all across the United States and to a much lesser extent, the United Kingdom (his place of birth). In his lifetime, Carnegie provided funds to build more than 2500 public library buildings.

Carnegie’s library venture was an extraordinary feat totaling $41 million dollars, easily several billion in today’s dollars. Yet tellingly, he asked municipal leaders to be partners in the enterprise by providing the books and the funds for upkeep. Carnegie would build the buildings, but communities would be responsible for whatever would happen next. Carnegie thought that if these institutions had real value, communities would invest in them rather than merely accept them passively as gifts. Similarly, when he decided to provide the funds to build Carnegie Hall in New York City, he built the structure in all its grandeur but he did not leave an endowment for maintenance. He believed that if the music hall had genuine value, its patrons—those who benefitted from it—would contribute to its upkeep.

Carnegie also created the first teacher pension institution—now known as TIAA-CREF—to help professionalize the vocation of teaching. If teachers were undervalued, as some surmised, then here was an institution that would contribute to improvement of the educational system by supporting teachers. The idea was simple. But its ramifications were profound. With proper pay and retirements benefits enabled by the new pension system, teaching would become a fully modern profession.

Similarly, when it came to politics, Carnegie believed that new institutions could improve public policy. Specifically, as an advocate for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts and disputes, Carnegie supported the mediation and arbitration movement that grew out of Geneva in the mid-19th century. Again, the idea was elegant in its simplicity and grandeur. Just as we have legal mechanisms to arbitrate disputes in domestic society, so too can we have mechanisms in international society for the same purpose. The concept of international law and organization was gaining momentum at the beginning of the 20th century—the movement merely needed new institutions to give it shape and force. In this spirit, Carnegie financed the building of the Peace Palace at The Hague, supported the establishment of the International Court of Justice, and lobbied for the establishment of the League of Nations. Carnegie devoted much of his philanthropy—and his personal energy—to promoting these new institutions and the ideas behind them.

So then the third dimension of ethics expands the range of choices we have in front of us. It is about creating new possibilities. Sometimes we do face genuine dilemmas—and we find our backs genuinely against the wall. But at other times we can and should use our creative talents to imagine alternate scenarios and better options.

Let me end my remarks on a realist note. While I suppose at one level I am an idealist and an optimist, I think that the most ethical route is one that appreciates realism. Realism is simply the idea that we all act in our own perceived interests. This is as it should be, for human flourishing requires that we take care of our own needs first.

My view is that remedies to global challenges such as environmental degradation are today less about romantic dreams to improve the world and more about pragmatism and sustainability. It is becoming harder and harder, if not impossible, to separate the interests of others from our own interests. The pragmatic thing to do—and the ethical thing to do—is to recognize that our interests are tied up with the interests of others in new and potentially creative ways. Foreign affairs do not have to be a zero-sum game. And this is a trend to be embraced and leveraged rather than avoided.

China and the United States are the two biggest players—and the two biggest beneficiaries—of globalization. It in our interests to solve rather than exacerbate the challenge of global climate change. We have the power and the responsibility to act. We have the opportunity here—right now—to think creatively and to suggest positive alternatives for the future.

So it is in the spirit of mutual learning and common enterprise that we meet today. This meeting is a great privilege and a great opportunity. I thank you all for joining us and I look forward to the discussion.

[1] Simon Blackburn, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[2] Ryan Patrick Hanley, “Berlin and History,” in George Crowder and Henry Hardy, eds., The One and the Many, 2007, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007, pp. 159-180.

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