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American Political Science Review[Beitz] has succeeded in clarifying the agenda of moral debate concerning the relations of states and of their inhabitants.
— Terry Nardin
In this revised edition of his 1979 classic Political Theory and International Relations, Charles Beitz rejects two highly influential conceptions of international theory as empirically inaccurate and theoretically misleading. In one, international relations is a Hobbesian state of nature in which moral judgments are entirely inappropriate, and in the other, states are analogous to persons in domestic society in having rights of autonomy that insulate them from external moral assessment and political interference. Beitz postulates that a theory of international politics should include a revised principle of state autonomy based on the justice of a state's domestic institutions, and a principle of international distributive justice to establish a fair division of resources and wealth among persons situated in diverse national societies.
"Political Theory and International Relations is a fine piece of philosophical criticism and reconstruction that few established philosophers could have written.... This is a first-rate book on an issue as fundamental as it is neglected."--Henry Shue, Ethics
"This important book deals a deadly blow to the facile assumptions that support the widespread belief that moral judgment is fundamentally inapplicable or inappropriate in matters of foreign policy and international relations."--David V. Edwards, Social Science Quarterly
"Political Theory and International Relations is a fine piece of philosophical criticism and reconstruction that few established philosophers could have written.... This is a first-rate book on an issue as fundamental as it is neglected."—Henry Shue, Ethics
"This important book deals a deadly blow to the facile assumptions that support the widespread belief that moral judgment is fundamentally inapplicable or inappropriate in matters of foreign policy and international relations."—David V. Edwards, Social Science Quarterly
The Skepticism of the Realists
For many years, it has been impossible to make moral arguments about international relations to its American students without encountering the claim that moral judgments have no place in discussions of international affairs or foreign policy. This claim is one of the foundations of the so-called realist approach to international studies and foreign policy. On the surface, it is a most implausible view, especially in a culture conscious of itself as an attempt to realize a certain moral ideal in its domestic political life. All the more remarkable is the fact that the realists' skepticism about the possibility of international moral norms has attained the status of a professional orthodoxy in both academic and policy circles, accepted by people with strong moral commitments about other matters of public policy. Although the realists have often used arguments with deep roots in modern political theory, I believe that their skepticism can be shown to rest on fallacious reasoning and incorrect empirical assumptions.
To support this view, I shall argue that one cannot consistently maintain that there are moral restrictions on individual action but no such restrictions on the actions of states. I begin by considering the distinction (implied by this argument) between (generalized) moral skepticism and what I shall call international skepticism and show in more detail exactly what is involved in the assumption that moral skepticism is incorrect. It should be emphasized that this is indeed an assumption; I make no attempt to provide a general argument against moral skepticism.
One might be skeptical about the possibility of international morality because one is skeptical, in general, about the possibility of all kinds of morality. Perhaps one thinks that all or most people are incapable of being motivated by moral considerations, or that moral judgments are so subjective as to be useless in resolving conflicting claims and in fulfilling the other social functions usually assigned to morality. Whatever its rationale, moral skepticism, and its derivative, skepticism about political ethics, represent a refusal to accept moral arguments as sources of reasons for action. Moral skepticism might take a variety of forms, including a denial that moral judgments can be true or false, a denial that moral judgments have meaning, or a denial that the truth of moral judgments provides a reason for acting on them.
Generalized moral and political skepticism might be countered to some extent by examining the arguments that support them. Probably these arguments would turn out to contain important confusions or deep inconsistencies. But one could not thereby demonstrate the possibility of social or political ethics; other arguments for skepticism could be advanced, and at some point in the attempt to counter them one would need to rely on substantive ethical or metaethical views to demonstrate the weaknesses of the skeptical arguments. This, however, would be to assume that skepticism is wrong, rather than to argue it. Generalized moral and political skepticism can only be shown to be wrong by exhibiting an acceptable theory of ethics and of its foundation, because one of the functions of such a theory is to explain the possibility of just those features of ethics that the skeptic claims not to understand. At a minimum, such a theory must distinguish morality from egoism and explain how it can be rational to act on reasons that are (or might be) inconsistent with considerations of prudence or self-interest. Indeed, the idea that considerations of advantage are distinct from those of morality, and that it might be rational to allow the latter to override the former, seems to be at the core of our intuitions about morality.
In what follows I shall have to assume without discussion that some such theory can be provided. The leading controversies in metaethics are likely to linger for a long while, and progress in normative areas ought not to await a resolution of these other problems even though they are in some sense logically prior. Obviously, one would like to offer a sufficiently complete theory to meet objections on both fronts. But this seems beyond reach at present. Instead, I shall proceed on the assumption that we share some basic ideas about the nature and requirements of morality (which I refer to as moral intuitions) and see whether international skepticism is consistent with them.
One important source of international skepticism is cultural relativism. International lawyers and cultural anthropologists have documented wide disparities in the views of rationality and of the good prevalent in the world's cultures. These differences are reflected in the structures of various legal systems and in the attitudes customarily taken by different cultures toward social rules, collective ideals, and the value of individual autonomy. In some cultures, for example, autonomy is readily sacrificed to the requirements of collective goals. In general, given any consistent ranking of social goods or any plausible view of how such rankings might be morally justified, it is possible (and often likely) that a culture or society can be found in which there is dominant a divergent ranking of goods or view of moral justification. If this is the case, a skeptic might say, then there are no rational grounds for holding one social morality superior to another when their requirements conflict. Any doctrine that purports to be an international morality and that extends beyond the least common denominator of the various social moralities will be insecure in its foundations. But, typically, the least-common-denominator approach will leave most international conflicts unresolved because these have at their root conflicts over which principles are to apply to given situations or which goods should be sacrificed when several goods conflict. Since principles adequate to resolve such conflicts are fundamentally insecure, the skeptic claims, no normative international political theory is possible.
This argument can be met on two levels, depending on the kind of intercultural disagreement to which it appeals. If the skeptical appeal is to disagreements over, say, the rankings of various social goods or their definitions, it may be that there is no challenge to the possibility of valid international principles but merely to the contents of particular ones. A consideration of views held in other cultures might persuade us that our assumptions ought to be altered in some ways to conform with conditions of which we had previously been insufficiently aware. This may be true of disagreements about the relative importance of individual autonomy and economic welfare. We are accustomed to defending individual rights in contexts of relative affluence, but considerations of economic development or of nonindustrial social structures might move us to recognize a dimension of relativity in these defenses. I do not mean to take a position on this issue at this point; I only mean to note one way in which cultural variations might be accommodated within an international political theory. In this case we would recognize a condition on the justification of principles of right that had previously gone unnoticed. Here, considerations of cultural diversity enter our thinking as data that may require revisions of particular principles; they do not undermine the possibility of normative theory itself.
But skeptics might say that what is at issue is something deeper; since different cultures might have radically different conceptions of what morality is, we have no right to be confident that our conception is correct. This carries the argument to a second level, but now it is difficult to say what the argument means. Perhaps it means that members of some other culture typically count as decisive certain kinds of reasons for action that we regard as utterly irrelevant from the point of view of our own morality. If so, we may ultimately have to say that the other culture's conception simply is not morality, or, at least, that claims founded on that conception do not count against our moral principles, even those that apply globally. It might seem that this attitude involves some sort of intellectual imperialism because it imposes a conception on cultures to which the conception is quite alien. But surely this is not correct. At some point, having learned what we can from the views of others, we must be prepared to acknowledge that some conception of morality is the most reasonable one available under the circumstances, and go forward to see what principles result. Notice that this does not say that everyone must be able to acknowledge the reasonableness of the same assumptions; actual agreement of everyone concerned is too stringent a requirement to place on the justification of moral principles (just as it is on epistemological ones). Notice also that the problem of relativism is not limited to international ethics; intrasocietal conflicts might involve similar disagreements over fundamental ethical assumptions. In either case, it is enough, in establishing standards for conduct, that we be able to regard them as the most rational choices available for anyone appropriately situated and that we be prepared to defend this view with arguments addressed to anyone who disagrees. In this way we reach decisions that are as likely to be morally right as any that are in our power to reach. We can do no more than this in matters of moral choice.
One need not embrace cultural relativism to maintain that moral judgments are inappropriate in international relations. Indeed, political realism more often starts from different premises. Some realists begin with the assertion that it is unrealistic to expect nations to behave morally in an anarchic world. For example, Hans Morgenthau, a leading realist, objects that "writers have put forward moral precepts which statesmen and diplomats ought to take to heart in order to make relations between nations more peaceful and less anarchical ...; but they have rarely asked themselves whether and to what extent such precepts, however desirable in themselves, actually determine the actions of men."6 While conceding the existence of some weak ethical restraints on international behavior, Morgenthau argues that international morality is largely a thing of the past and that competing national interests are now the main motives in world politics. This, he claims, is as it should be: "[T]he state has no right to let its moral disapprobation ... get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival."
How shall we understand this claim? One version is that we will fail to understand international behavior if we expect states to conform to moral standards appropriate to individuals. If we seek something like scientific knowledge of world politics-say, a body of lawlike generalizations with at least limited predictive power-we are unlikely to make much progress by deriving our hypotheses from moral rules appropriate to individual behavior. This seems fairly obvious, but perhaps Morgenthau's emphasis on it can be understood in the perspective of the "idealist" legal approaches to the study of international relations that he sought to discredit. In any event, this version of the claim does not imply that we ought not to make moral judgments about international behavior when thinking normatively rather than descriptively.
Another version of the claim, which is encountered more often, is this: we are likely to make mistaken foreign policy choices if we take an excessively "moralistic" attitude toward them. This might mean either of two things. Perhaps it means that a steadfast commitment to a moral principle that is inappropriate to some situation is likely to move us to make immoral or imprudent decisions about it. Or it might mean that an idealistic or overzealous commitment even to an appropriate principle might cause us to overlook some salient facts and make bad decisions as a result. Each of these recommends reasonable circumspection in making moral judgments about international relations. But neither implies that it is wrong to make such judgments at all. What is being said is that the moral reasoning regarding some decision is flawed: either an inappropriate moral principle is being applied, or an appropriate principle is being incorrectly applied. It does not follow that it is wrong even to attempt to apply moral principles to international affairs, yet this conclusion must be proved to show that international skepticism is true. An argument is still needed to explain why it is wrong to make moral judgments about international behavior whereas it is not wrong to make them about domestic political behavior or about interpersonal behavior.
It is often thought that such an argument can be provided by appealing to the concept of the national interest. Thus, for example, Morgenthau seems to claim (in a passage already cited) that a state's pursuit of its own interests justifies disregard for moral standards that would otherwise constrain its actions.
Machiavelli argues in this way. He writes, for instance, "[I]t must be understood that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which are considered good in men, being often obliged, in order to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity, and against religion." Machiavelli does not simply represent the prince as amoral and self-aggrandizing. His claim is that violation by the prince of the moral rules usually thought appropriate for individuals is warranted when necessary "to maintain the state." The prince should "not deviate from what is good, if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained."
Now Machiavelli is not saying that rulers have license to behave as they please, nor is he claiming that their official actions are exempt from critical assessment. The issue is one of standards: what principles should be invoked to justify or criticize a prince's official actions? Machiavelli holds that princes are justified in breaking the moral rules that apply to ordinary citizens when they do so for reasons of state. Another statement of his view might be that rulers are subject to moral rules, but that the rules to which they are subject are not always, and perhaps not usually, the same as the rules to which ordinary citizens are bound. The private virtues- liberality, kindness, charity-are vices in the public realm because their observance is inconsistent with the promotion of the well-being of the state. The rule "preserve the state" is the first principle of the prince's morality, and it is of sufficient importance to override the requirements of other, possibly conflicting, rules which one might regard as constitutive of private morality.
Is Machiavelli's position really a form of international skepticism? The view that a prince is justified in acting to promote the national interest amounts to the claim that an argument can be given that in so acting the prince is doing the (morally) right thing. But if this is true, one might say, then Machiavelli's view and its contemporary variants are not forms of international skepticism. They do not deny that moral judgments are appropriate in international relations; instead, they maintain that moral evaluations of a state's actions must be cast in terms of the relation between the state's actions and its own interests. The distinction between international skepticism and the Machiavellian view turns out to be like the distinction between general moral skepticism and ethical egoism. One pair of views denies the possibility of morality altogether, while the other pair advances a substantive moral principle. However, in both cases, the distinction is without a difference. What is distinctively moral about a system of rules is the possibility that the rules might require people to act in ways that do not promote their individual self-interest. The ethical egoist denies this by asserting that the first principle of his "morality" is that one should always act to advance one's own interests. To call such a view a kind of morality is at least paradoxical, since, in accepting the view, one commits oneself to abandoning the defining feature of morality. Thus, it seems better to say, as does Frankena, that "prudentialism or living wholly by the principle of enlightened self-love just is not a kind of morality. " Similarly, to say that the first principle of international morality is that states should promote their own interests denies the possibility that moral considerations might require a state to act otherwise. And this position is closer to international skepticism than to anything that could plausibly be called international morality.
Excerpted from Political Theory and International Relations by Charles R. Beitz. Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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