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Toward An Ethic of Political Conduct

Radicalism -- Part 6ix

By Salahuddin I. Imam

Any system of political ethics has two functions. 1) To serve as a guide for one's personal political conduct and 2) to enable one to consider the actions of political bodies, governments, in the past or the present, which in turn would have implications for individual behavior.

Max Weber, in his fundamental essay, "Politics as a Vocation," emphasizes over and over the fact that politics "operates with very special means, namely power backed up by violence," and so one requires a special and sensitive ethic of political conduct. Weber goes on to suggest two such: the ethic of ultimate ends, under which one takes actions on the basis of one's pure and good intentions regardless of the immediate consequences--even though these may be the opposite of what is desired. This kind of thinking is identified by Weber as being common among those possessed with religions zeal. The other ethic is that of responsibility, in which one judges one's actions in terms of the foreseeable results. In other words the first ethic is one of ends predominating over means and the second is of means over ends.

After spending most of his time rejecting the first and defending the second Weber ends up advocating a combination of the two.

However it is immensely moving When a mature man is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: "Here I stand; I can do no other." In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man.

And it is clear to all of us today, that Weber's conclusion is a sound one. We are too concerned with the dangers of "counter-productive" action not to pay heed to the foreseeable results of any political moves. At the same time no one suggests that we should be automatically crippled by an over-regard for the immediate consequences of an act. What is at stake are the conditions in which one refrains from or chooses to take political action, action which, to repeat, inevitably involves violence whether this is open or sublimated.

The importance of the above in this determination of the precise context in which political action is permissible is that Weber, the arch-rationalist and father of scientific sociology, could do no better than to describe the process in terms as flagrantly imprecise as "somewhere [one] reaches the point" of decision. This failure to be more exact is not due to any lack of mental capacity on Weber's part--it is inherently impossible to find scientific principles on which to base one's judgments and choices.

One just has to try to be a "genuine man" who "feels a responsibility with heart and soul" for the consequences of one's conduct, and one has to hope and trust that there do exist other "genuine" men and that one's actions based on this honest appraisal will find a responsive chord in other men, genuine or not, who will, deep down, be "moved" by it. Weber, unwittingly, his penchant for accuracy once more betraying his fervent urge to systematize and rationalize, has done no more than to establish that we must all make individual choices for specific cases with no help from abstract principles--because for all his analysis of the two systems of ethics he was unable to provide us with this abstract principle. He relies ultimately on a belief in the basic goodness of man to hope that right choices will be made rather than wrong ones. We must all and in fact do, draw in some mysterious way on our instincts and on the values of civilization and humanity (which must perforce not be empty terms if this analysis is to stand) to come up with a position and abide by it.

There is no restriction, in principle, to the actions one may choose. Thus you cannot say that the principle of free speech for everybody is inviolate. Under certain circumstances it is perfectly right and proper to curtail free speech. When George Wallace spoke at Dartmouth, students did everything in their power to try to stop him. As it turned out they had sufficient power to succeed in preventing him from speaking. At a Southern school they might not have had enough. It is all a question of power. Should an "ungenuine" man -- and there are many of these around despite the basic goodness of man -- acquire power there would be no defense against his maranding in any principle. The risk is inescapable.

Under certain circumstances it is right to kill. At Nuremberg the German leaders were tried for "crimes against the conscience of humanity" for what they did to the Jews. They were members of a legal government, and, in a real sense, only followed orders, and had clearly believed what they were doing was right. Nevertheless the existence of a "natural law" that transcended human law was made the basis for a legal judgment--they were hanged and rightly so. No doubt if the Germans had won the war they would have hanged their share of people but they would not have been able to do it on the same grounds and won my acquiescence, and I resolutely presume and project, the acquiescence of most humans.

To take another example: censorship is not an absolute evil. If it is discovered that portraying violence on screen has harmful effects, it is one's social duty to require that violence on TV be censored. Every person, in every specific case, has to go through with this process of balancing the good against the bad and coming to a decision to act in a certain way. If this is a frighteningly vague guideline, it is so of necessity. No one can evade the responsibility of choosing a position on the basis of the facts of a particular situation by taking refuge under some all-embracing tenet that is supposed to prescribe one's proper behavior.

Walt Rostow was denied his old position on the faculty at M.I.T. and is consequently going to the University of Texas. This was clearly a case of political considerations influencing an academic appointment, as M.I.T.'s excuse that it had no field of economics and history was patently false. Nevertheless no students protested (in fact, they would have probably protested if Rostow had been appointed). If it were Staughton Lynd who was being discriminated against for political reasons students would have protested this infringement of academic freedom. This is hypocrisy only if you believe that people should defend abstract principle qua abstract principle.

There is no such imperative. Principles have to be applied in real situations. Rostow is a bad man and one should not have compunctions about making an exception to a generally valid principle in his case. Which is not to say that students would necessarily take to the streets every time someone who had spent time in Washington proposed to return. If Kissinger makes another Vietnam, students will presumably protest his re-appointment to Harvard. One has to wait and see what happens each time. No unconditional guarantee of principle can be assumed.

To incorporate this necessity for individual choice and its implications about the laxity of absolute principle, with Weber's combination of the two ethics, I would suggest an ethic of motives. Under this ethic one would have to judge outside actions, those of other people and those of governments, in terms of the probable motives of the protagonists. Thus, Ho Chi Minh has killed many peasants but one does not equate him with Hitler and refuse him support, because one judges that he acted for the welfare of his people and not for personal power or out of insane hatred. It is a frightful dilemma to have to condone the killing of large numbers of people but one cannot escape it.

Applying the ethic of motives to one's own behavior one starts with the assumption that the best and most worthy motive is ensuring the welfare of the greatest number of people. With this motive one is freed from total, slavish devotion to all other rules. This is a horrifying freedom and one must immediately temper it with a sober assessment, springing from the ethic of responsibility of how means and ends ought to be reconciled, fortified by the knowledge that the ethic of ultimate ends will, at some moment, forbid further compromise.

The one necessity, now and always, is for rational and sensitive and humble examination of every specific situation with no absolute shackling preconceptions.

Such is our role as men in an imperfect world. It is, in all honesty, a terrifying role but we must fulfill it. We are trapped like dancers in a ghastly ritual

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