Friedman vs. Realism

Cato's Benjamin Friedman, that is. Friedman takes Jon Chait to task for what Friedman calls "a common mistake." Specifically, Friedman says that "Chait writes that Freeman is a realist and therefore doesn’t care about morality in U.S. foreign policy." Friedman then goes on to complain about Chait's use of the word "morality."

Modifying a noun with “moral” does not make it so. Realists argue that idealism – ignoring realities that encourage tradeoffs among competing goods – is foolish, and there is nothing moral about doing foolish things in the name of morality. Realists believe that our foreign policy should be governed by an ethic of responsibility, where you do things that actually lead to good consequences, starting at home. They see the promiscuous use of power as destructive of it and therefore of all the goods it serves, including the ideological sort.

This is all true enough. But Friedman then goes on to conclude that:

Those with even passing familiarity with leading realists like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr know that their goal was to create a moral foreign policy in an anarchic world.

As someone who is passingly familiar with Carr, Morgenthau and Niebuhr, I'm here to tell you that Friedman's description is just flatly false.*

The "common mistake" in this case is Friedman's. For his argument to go through, he has to assume something like:

  1. Action A is consistent with moral code C.
  2. Person P endorses A.
  3. Therefore P's actions are motivated by C.

Obviously there is no reason to think that the conclusion follows from either of those premises. Indeed, all that the argument shows is that P is acting consistently with C, not that P is in any way motivated by C. The distinction is crucial; indeed, it's the very heart of the question.

See, realism just is the view that prudential considerations are the only thing that is relevant to national security concerns; moral considerations are strictly irrelevant. Now certainly Friedman is correct in his description insofar as prudence is actually part of morality. So to that extent, a commitment to acting prudently is a commitment to acting morally. But, and here's the rub, morality and prudence don't always perfectly overlap.

Charity, for instance, is an imperfect duty (meaning, I've a moral obligation to be charitable at least some times, if not in any specific instance). And charity is required even if no one ever knows that I'm charitable and even if there is no probability that I'll ever need to receive charity from others.

Similarly, morality may well require that I place myself in some danger to assist others. If I see a mugging taking place, I have some duty to assist, even if it's nothing more than phoning the police. And that duty doesn't go away even if it does raise the chances (slightly) that the mugger will come after me.

The point here is that morality at least sometimes requires that we put the interests of others ahead of our own interests. Realists deny that nations should ever do this. Indeed, it's the central thesis of realism. I see a few alternatives to explain Friedman's post:

  1. Friedman thinks that morality and prudence always perfectly overlap.
  2. Friedman misunderstands the differences between morality and prudence.
  3. Friedman thinks that being committed to some things that are morally required is equivalent to being committed to morality generally.
  4. Friedman misunderstands what realists are arguing.
  5. Friedman is being disingenuous to take a swipe at neocons.

Of these, (3) is the fallacy of composition, and (2) and (4) assume that Friedman isn't capable of reading and understanding fairly basic texts in his field of expertise. And the principle of charity suggests that (5) should be a last option. That leaves (1), which is by far the most interesting position of the available options, though it's not one that he has defended in this post. Perhaps he will elaborate in a future post.

*UPDATE, March 4: I was too hasty in describing Friedman's position as "flatly false." Check out my updated (and, I hope, somewhat more thoughtful) post, "Friedman and Realism Reconsidered."

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The examples of moral

The examples of moral actions in your post are all examples of the moral obligations of individuals making choices to sacrifice their own interests. Nation-states are not at all analogous, since they are comprised of many people with diverse interests and wills, and since their coercive nature means “sacrifice” will necessarily entail some people choosing to sacrifice the interests of others who have not consented to the sacrifice.


Richard Sullivan

Isn't Friedman dead? Oh, that's Milton Friedman. :)

Similarly, morality may well

Similarly, morality may well require that I place myself in some danger to assist others. If I see a mugging taking place, I have some duty to assist, even if it's nothing more than phoning the police .

Robot Spam

The above comment seems to be robot spam, clipping a random sentence from the post and driving traffic to a website.

Hope my NoScript plug-in protected me from malicious scripts...