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Policy and Theory

When Philosophers Must Make Practical Decisions

By David L. Bosco

It has often been noted that an education provides more questions than answers, and I would not dispute this. While my undergraduate years have increased my knowledge of facts, dates and theories , just as valuable has been coming in contact with the dilemmas of intellectual life. One of these dilemmas presented itself during a class given by Stanley Hoffmann on the ethics of international relations.

Several of the readings for the class were by Michael Walzer, a political philosopher with whom I had become acquainted in several earlier courses. Drawing on "just War" theory, Walzer had proposed a very compelling system for judging the ethics of war. His theory was clear, precise and strong. The article we read was a subsequent attempt by Walzer to address the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the question of what Western response would be justified.

Written before desert Storm had commenced, Walzer's article was little more than the academic version of throwing up his hands at the situation. Though the Iraqi aggression and brutality would seem to have merited an international response using Walzer's own arguments, he was unwilling to call for such a response when it counted. Instead, Walzer puttered around the issue, dealing with the subtleties and details of the question rather than its blatant realities.

Walzer's inability to descend from the academic tower and make a decision on an important issue of the day is reflective of a larger tension, that between the open mind and the strong backbone. How to reconcile continual questioning with the need to make decisions on contemporary issues? It is a question that is relevant far beyond the halls of an academic institution. Both qualities are not only beneficial, they are essential in society. Each of us, consciously or unconsciously, arrives at a moral or ethical system for making decisions, yet these systems are often unexamined and sometimes flawed.

The advantage of an open mind is that it allows changes to these guiding principles, a process that will lead to a stronger foundation. Academia's role in particular is to question or reveal the often unspoken guidelines that we use--what makes the Iraqi invasion wrong ? What type of response is justified? The people who devote themselves to asking these question provide a service to humanity's knowledge. As John Start Mill argued, without questioning. Without debate, progress is impossible.

Yet the very insight that allows us to delve deeply enough to pose those /questions can paralyze those who pose them. Once the process of questioning has begun, where does it end? Just as surely as there are benefits to questioning assumptions and beliefs, there are also times at which that process must end and people must pick sides on the important issues of the day. Seeing all sides of an issue must not entail an abandonment of the right to take a side. The great actors in history are great precisely because of the courage of their convictions: Lincoln as the Union split, Churchill as the Nazi menace spread. The ability of these men to see through the confusion of their times and stand for ideas, principles or nations was precisely what made them unusual.

Few would dispute the advantages of both qualities, Reconciling them, though, is another matter. In many cases, the response to this challenge is not really a response at all. People either become academics (those who question everything, but decide little) or policymakers (those who make decisions but question little).

To a degree, Harvard has its own institutional version of this response in its government department. There are two main centers of graduate study, their focal points being the Littauer Center and the Kennedy School. Put crudely, one does theory while the other does policy. The two camps often look at each other suspiciously. The policy types degrade the theory types for having lost touch with reality; the theorists argue that the policy wonks lack rigor. Much of this taunting is friendly, a way of creating an identity by ridiculing "the other." But the friendly competition masks a real problem: the two types of thinking are largely segregated. The result is theory that can border on the irrelevant and policy that frowns upon any questioning of fundamental principles. Neither is of much service. There are, of course, many who cross the lines between the two. Just this year, Hoffmann, an academic of the highest order, wrote and spoke forcefully on the ongoing Bosnian conflict.

Still, the segregation of the two is a tempting, and even a feasible, alternative in a university setting. This response is less satisfactory on the personal level. Feeling the necessity of action yet admiring the benefits of intellectual questioning. I want to abandon neither. Maintaining both qualities will be , I think, one of the great challenges in life.

David L. Bosco was Associate Editorial Chair of The Crimson in 1994.

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