Near-term reward will blunt any moral force integrity may have
By Herbert Rothschild
In the March 10 edition of The Guardian, Peter Beinart, professor of journalism and political science at The Newmark School of Journalism of the City University of New York, published an op ed in which he challenged the U.S. to act consistently in its foreign policy. Specifically, he wrote that while our government condemned Russia’s seizure of Crimea as “a gross violation of international law” (Secretary of State Antony Blinken), during the Trump administration we declared as legitimate Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in 1967 and Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara in 1975. In both cases the U.S. was the only nation to do so. Beinart went on to note that the Biden administration has not reversed either of these decisions.
I’m glad I read Beinart’s piece, principally because I had known nothing about the Morocco annexation. Apparently, Trump’s motive for legitimating it was to induce Morocco to recognize Israel diplomatically. Beyond providing such information, though, I wondered why Beinart bothered to write it. This was his stated intention: “Remaking borders by force violates a core principle of international law. Which is why the Biden administration must do more than resist Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It must stop violating that principle itself.” Must! Really?Was he so naïve as to think that by pointing out an inconsistency in U.S. behavior he could change it?
I could fill several columns discussing far graver inconsistencies than the one Beinart writes about, but why would I do that? You know as well as I that we invade whichever nations we have a mind to if we think we can succeed militarily. You know as well as I that we accuse governments who aren’t playing ball with us of the very abuses practiced by governments that do and thus don’t incur our chastisement. That hypocrisy doesn’t license you and me to give a pass to other bad actors, Russia being front and center at this time. Our judgment mustn’t be corrupted by self-serving inconsistency just because our nation’s behavior is.
I don’t assume that an inner compulsion to avoid grave inconsistencies in thought and action is widely shared, especially by transpersonal entities like corporations and nations. In most circumstances, we adhere to the same standards of conduct to which we hold others because there are external compulsions — the laws of the polities we live in, the rules of the sports we play, even the expectations of our social circles. What’s in question is how we would behave in their absence.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was not only a powerful reasoner but also a believer in the power of reason. One of his lasting contributions to moral philosophy is what he called the Categorical Imperative. Here is one of its formulations: In regard to an action that will have significant import for others, act only in a way you would want to become a universal rule of conduct. If you can foresee adverse consequences were everyone in the same circumstances to act as you’re about to act, then you won’t want to act that way either.
That’s a wonderfully reasonable way to evaluate behavior, and most individuals are reasonable enough to let it be our guide some of the time. So, for example, probably a majority of us obey stop signs not because we fear being ticketed but because we understand that unless everyone stops at them, sooner rather than later we’ll die trying to drive across town. Usually, however, the consequences if our own behaviors became universal rules of conduct either aren’t that obvious to us or don’t seem to threaten our wellbeing. Perhaps most of us would exceed highway speed limits were they not enforced.
If the Categorical Imperative has any moral force, it will nonetheless be disregarded if the near-term rewards of disregarding it are large. When you and I are on the street, we keep our small trash with us until we reach a receptacle, realizing that were everybody to toss their trash just anywhere, the attractiveness of Ashland would quickly deteriorate. But not littering requires us to forfeit almost no immediate reward. A large oil company, by contrast, gets a big reward of the kind that most matters to corporations by discharging its pollutants irresponsibly. It may occur to some executives that if everyone acted that way, their world would become well-nigh uninhabitable, but that awareness won’t change the corporation’s behavior. Only external compulsion will, and corporations resist such compulsion to the extent they can. Where there isn’t sufficient countervailing power, they utterly despoil the environment, as Texaco did in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin and Shell in the Niger Delta.
Which returns us to Beinart’s quixotic attempt to induce the U.S. to practice what we preach. In the international arena we’re under neither external nor internal compulsion to behave morally. We incurred no international sanctions when we invaded the Dominican Republic and Granada and Panama and Haiti and Afghanistan and Iraq, and the leaders of the world’s strongest nation won’t be shamed into integrity.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Email him at email@example.com.