Reflections on Wisdom and Politics

Exercising Political Wisdom

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Exercising Political Wisdom

Even though the virtues and values we have examined are aids to political wisdom, they are still not enough. Something else is needed, and that is balancing them against each other, prioritizing them, fitting them together in a particular situation so as to achieve the greatest good. In their book Practical Wisdom, Schwartz and Sharpe apply Aristotle’s thinking to modern life and provide numerous examples of such balancing. They write, for example, of a case in which a judge had to balance retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation—or justice with mercy. In his “balance theory of wisdom” Sternberg was thinking more of the need to balance self-interests with those of others, but here again good judgment about how best to balance our values is involved.

Throughout American history politicians have had to balance different values like freedom and equality. The historian Clinton Rossiter once noted that “the preference for liberty over equality lies at the root of the Conservative tradition, and men who subscribe to this tradition never tire of warning against the ‘rage for equality.’” At the end of the twentieth century, historian Pipes echoed that sentiment when he wrote “the main threat to freedom today comes not from tyranny but equality—equality defined as identity of reward.” A related concern has been “the tyranny of the majority,” which was already a serious fear mentioned by the nineteenth-century Alexis de Toucqueville in his classic Democracy in America. He also expressed his concern that under certain conditions “democracy would extinguish . . . liberty of the mind.”94

In the final decades of the twentieth century, the preference of another value over at least one type of freedom was dramatically illustrated in the struggle over abortion rights between pro-choice and pro-life factions. The very selection of labels indicated that one side believed a woman’s freedom to choose for herself on this question was paramount, while the other side was willing to deny that freedom because it believed the right to life of a fetus was a greater value.

In dealing with governmental and other problems, Schwartz and Sharpe note the temptation to think that we can fix our problems by just devising new rules and incentives. But they believe that such changes alone will not be sufficient and indeed are sometimes counterproductive. Too many rules and incentives can inhibit and skew the development of practical wisdom, both in individuals and in institutions. And practical wisdom for the authors is the “master virtue” or maestro of our other virtues. They point out, for example, that passing laws requiring certain mandatory sentences—often as a means of curtailing the leniency of “liberal” judges—has often prevented judges from exercising practical wisdom. Like Edmund Burke and John Kennedy, the authors of Practical Wisdom believe it is important for people, including representatives, other government officials, and judges, to exercise judgments using practical wisdom to do so.

In his essay on “Political Judgment,” Isaiah Berlin begins by asking: “What is it to have good judgment in politics? What is it to be politically wise, or gifted, to be a political genius, or even to be no more than politically competent, to know how to get things done?” We have already seen that in discussing realism he believed that good judgment involved possessing “an acute sense of what fits with what.”95 But he also realized that judgments required balancing values. As one perceptive account of his thinking put it: “Berlin was more sensitive than many classical liberal or libertarian thinkers to the possibility that genuine liberty may conflict with genuine equality, or justice, or public order, or security, or efficiency, or happiness, and therefore must be balanced with, and sometimes sacrificed in favour of, other values. Berlin’s liberalism includes both a conservative or pragmatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining a balance between different values, and a social-democratic appreciation of the need to restrict liberty in some cases so as to promote equality and justice and protect the weak against victimisation by the strong.”96Max Weber, as earlier noted, also perceived the importance of a politician balancing values, specifically passion with humility, responsibility, and a sense of proportion.

Although the chief political goal of all individuals should be the public good, how one best helps bring it about depends on one’s role, for example, president, senator, Supreme Court justice, or ordinary citizen. In his Virtues and Vices Aristotle stated that “it belongs to wisdom to take counsel, to judge the goods and evils and all the things in life that are desirable and to be avoided, to use all the available goods finely, to behave rightly in society, to observe due occasions, to employ both speech and action with sagacity, to have expert knowledge of all things that are useful.”97 If one is a president, exercising political wisdom requires more than just possessing the virtues and values indicated, and the judgment in particular circumstances how best to combine them, but also various leadership skills. Without these skills, s(he) will not be able to maximize the good results, the common good, that should be the aim of political wisdom. For political wisdom is about acting as well as deliberating.

We note, for example, that Aristotle mentions the need “to employ both speech and action with sagacity.” A U. S. president who cannot communicate effectively will not be able to act as wisely politically as one who can. Besides communication skills, a president must be a good judge of people if s(he) is to demonstrate a maximum of political wisdom, for the complexity of government necessitates a great reliance on selecting and relying on the Cabinet, other advisers, and officials.

Political wisdom for the average citizen entails primarily the good judgment of knowing whom to vote for and what political positions to support. And the latter can be quite complex because of differing ethical approaches. Weber wrote, “We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility.’” In the first, “the Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the

Lord.” Jesus’s “Sermon on the Mount . . . implied a natural law of absolute imperatives based upon religion.” In the second, “one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.” The first was an absolute ethic (or “acosmic ethic of love”) that proclaimed such teachings as “Resist not him that is evil with force.” But because the second ethic takes into consideration the consequences of one’s actions it has often been called consequentialist ethics. Weber maintained that while a pacifist may choose to follow the dictum “Resist not him that is evil with force,” follow “the gospel . . . [and] refuse to bear arms”; for the politician the reverse proposition holds, ‘thou shalt resist evil by force,’ or else you are responsible for the evil winning out.”98

A pacifist such as Dorothy Day, who believed the U. S. was wrong to enter World War II, also believed that “pure means” had to be used to reach one’s goals. In September 1975, she wrote: “It is a lesson for us all in the peace movement that gentle pressure, constant hard work, a faithful, straightforward—one might even say respectful—adherence to the Scriptural command to love our opponents and to exercise the virtue of hope even when all seems hopeless, offer a great example of the pure means to achieve our ends. Jacques Maritain impressed this use of pure means upon us as in the earliest days of the Catholic Worker [the charitable organization she had co-founded].”99 Despite her words, however, Maritain, concluded that war against Hitler was justified, as did many other religious thinkers of Day’s time, most notably Reinhold Niebuhr, who strongly criticized pacifists’ stand.

Weber conceded that ethicists must realize that “the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones—and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications. From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications.” Moreover, he warned that “whoever wants to engage in politics at all, and especially in politics as a vocation, has to realize these ethical paradoxes. He must know that he is responsible for what may become of himself under the impact of these paradoxes. I repeat, he lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence. . . . He who seeks the salvation of the soul, of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence. The genius or demon of politics lives in an inner tension with the god of love, as well as with the Christian God as expressed by the church. This tension can at any time lead to an irreconcilable conflict.”100

But a moral trap also existed for those following a pure pacifist ethic, for Weber argued that their “goals may be damaged and discredited for generations, because responsibility for consequences is lacking.” He concluded that “one cannot prescribe to [any private citizen] . . . whether he should follow an ethic of absolute ends or an ethic of responsibility, or when the one and when the other.” But Weber distrusted those who proclaimed “the responsibility for the consequences does not fall upon me but upon the others whom I serve.” He believed they were often “windbags who do not fully realize what they take upon themselves but who intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations.” He was more sympathetic to the “mature man . . . [who 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.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. 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—a man who can have the ‘calling for politics.’”101

In many ways the position of Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote of “the limits of morality in politics,” was similar to that of Weber. About pacifists, he wrote that they “do not know human nature. . . . They merely assert that if only men loved one another, all the complex, and sometimes horrible, realities of the political order could be dispensed with. They do not see that their ‘if’ begs the most basic problem of human history. It is because men are sinners that justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand.”102Like Weber and Niebuhr, Lieven and Hulsman in their Ethical Realism advocate an ethics that stresses responsibility and consequences rather than just pure intentions.

While Niebuhr was still living, a debate emerged over a book that had major implications for political ethics and political wisdom. It was Situation Ethics (1966), written by the Anglican theologian Joseph Fletcher. Basically, Fletcher argued that an ethics based on unbending moral laws with no exceptions, like the “absolute ethic” mentioned by Weber, was too rigid. He gave the specific example of abortion, rejecting the moral position that it was always wrong regardless of the situation or circumstances, for example even in case conception was due to rape. In place of a system of absolute “dos” and “don’ts,” he advocated acting in the most loving way possible in any particular situation.

For the remainder of the century, conservative Christians argued against such thinking. One Christian writer was appalled when most of the people in a Bible class agreed that in some cases it might be appropriate to lie, for example “if a robber breaks into your house and seems to be interested in doing harm to your wife and children, and asks you if they are in the house.” Obviously rejecting what Weber called an “ethic of responsibility,” the writer argued that it was not permissible to lie even in such a case. In the year 2000, the editor of the conservative Christian Courier wrote an article “Did Jesus Endorse Situation Ethics?” In it he stated:

Situation ethics is the notion that there are no absolute rules governing “right” and “wrong.” Rather, all human activity is determined by the situation of the moment – supposedly guided by “love” alone. . . . This philosophy of situation ethics is bereft of merit. . . . Subjectivity can never be the standard for human conduct. . . . If “situation ethics” is valid, there is no act under heaven that cannot be justified! . . . Situation ethics is a voguish belief in a world of immoral rebels who are determined to cast off divine restraints and “play God.”
Such differences about ethics as mentioned above have major relevance for political wisdom when it comes to such questions as wars and abortions.

Still one more point is relevant about how political roles affect political wisdom, and it relates to Niebuhr’s comments about the role of pressure groups. He wrote: “Political strategy, therefore, always involves a combination of coercive and persuasive factors. Sentimental moralism which underestimates the necessity of coercion, and cynical realism which is oblivious to the possibilities of moral suasion are equally dangerous to the welfare of mankind. . . . The welfare of society demands that enough social intelligence and moral idealism be created to prevent social antagonism from issuing in pure conflict and that enough social pressure be applied to force reluctant beneficiaries of social privilege to yield their privileges before injustice prompts to vehemence and violence.”103

He applied these ideas already in 1932 to the black (Negro in the language of the time) struggle for justice. He declared, “The Negro will never win his full rights in society merely by trusting the fairness and sense of justice of the white man. . . . Neither will the Negro gain justice merely by turning to violence to gain his rights. . . . If he is well advised he will use such forms of economic and political pressure as will be least likely to destroy the moral forces, never completely absent even in intergroup relations, but which will nevertheless exert coercion upon the white man’s life.”104

Considering these words and Niebuhr’s strong influence in Protestant circles, it is not surprising that he had a strong influence on Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. In his famous April 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” On April 13, 1970, two years after King’s assassination, the editor of the journal Christianity and Crisis wrote to Niebuhr: “Let me tell you that Andy Young told me recently that in the quiet hours when he and Martin King would sit and talk that Martin always said he was much more influenced by you and Paul Tillich [another important Protestant theologian] than by Gandhi and that the nonviolent technique was merely a Niebuhrian stratagem of power. Enough said!”105

Niebuhr believed that Gandhi’s techniques went beyond “pure pacifism,” and “ended up initiating a vast strategy of nonviolent coercion,” but “nothing less realistic than Gandhi’s policy can ever hope to be politically effective.” For workers he also advised pressure tactics because “the group which is able to wield the most economic and political power really determines its [the state’s] policies.”106

The advocacy of various forms of pressure by Niebuhr and the employment of nonviolent pressure tactics by Gandhi and King all suggest that among the masses and non-politicians, political wisdom often calls for more partisanship and passion and less compromise than for politicians, who often must compromise to advance the common good.

Gandhi and King were not modern-day politicians, but more akin to the Biblical Jewish prophets who attacked the evils of their day. These two modern prophets displayed the “prophetic charisma” that Weber believed was helpful to challenge an increasingly rationalized and bureaucratic state.107 A contemporary of Weber, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), also perceived the need for the prophetic function along with ones for church and state in the idealized political order he proposed, but “the prophet was a free agent, controlled neither by the hierarchy nor by State officials.”108

During Niebuhr’s era, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton identified more with the Biblical and later prophets than with contemporary politicians. In his 1960 collection, Disputed Questions, Merton devoted one section of his long essay on “The Primitive Carmelite Ideal” to “The Prophetic Spirit.” Prepared by “prayer, contemplation and solitude,” true prophets, he thought, advocated “the destruction of the inequalities and oppressions dividing rich and poor; conversion to justice and equity.” In 1968, just months before his death, he gave a talk to a group of contemplative nuns at his Kentucky monastery on “Contemplative Life as Prophetic Vocation.” In it he said:

The great problem we’re up against now is that we live in a society that incorporates dissent into it. In

other words, the thesis behind this position is that we’re living in a totalitarian society. It’s not fascist in

a political sense, but in the way that it’s economically organized. It’s organized for profit and for marketing.

In that machinery there’s no real freedom. You’re free to choose gimmicks, your brand of TV, your make of new car. But you’re not free not to have a car. In other words, life is really determined for everybody. . . .

. . . This is the system that calls for some kind of prophetic response.

What are we going to do? What is the prophetic person going to do?. . .

One of the central issues in the prophetic life is that a person rocks the boat, not by telling slaves to be free, but by telling people who think they’re free that they’re slaves. . . .

If we’re going to live up to our prophetic vocation, we have to realize that, whether we’re revolutionary or not, we have to be radical enough to dissent from what is basically a totalitarian society. And we’re in it. It’s not a society that’s coming, it is here.”109

More recently, Cornel West has emphasized the importance of prophetic action within the political realm. He asks, for example, “Can prophetic religion, in all of its various forms, mobilize people, generate levels of righteous indignation against injustice—not raw rage at persons, not ad hominem attacks—can we put pressure on President Obama? He’s listening to technocratic elites in his economic team who have never had any serious concern with poor people and working people.”110

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