Freidman and Realism Reconsidered

On Monday, I wrote a post criticizing Benjamin Friedman’s take on realism as “flatly wrong.” Friedman, who was kind enough to exchange two rounds of e-mails with me, took exception to my criticism. In retrospect, I agree that my response was overstated. I still disagree with his interpretation, but his reading is not obviously incorrect, as I implied. Certainly there is room for reasonable people to disagree about of dense texts and I was wrong to suggest that there is some obvious Platonic ideal interpretation of realism.

Friedman’s take on the realists, as he explains in his e-mail (which he kindly allowed me to quote) is that:

Realists almost exclusively agree that there are moral limits on what states can do. I guess they, like most people, would say that you are permitted almost anything in the face of destruction, but that hardly ever occurs. Morality imposes limits, compels you to do certain things (ie laws of war) in almost all circumstances. As I said before, these restrictions do not come from realist thought itself, but most realists believe in them, and classical realists at least were very clear about saying so.

He goes on to distinguish two propositions about morality, arguing that classical realists (at least some of them) accept both:

  1. The preservation of power is ultimately conducive to morality because power is needed for other ends.
  2. There are moral restrictions on action drawn from outside realism.

The first of these points is fairly uncontroversial: prudence and morality often overlap, and a really prudent agent will recognize that there are good prudential reasons for behaving morally. But I'm skeptical that a realist can commit to (2), at least not consistently.

And that, I think, is at the heart of my disagreement with Friedman’s interpretation of realism. Certainly he is right to say that (many) classical realists hold that there are limits to what states can do. And those limits are the same limits that we would get from morality. Friedman argues that this entails that realists recognize that realism is bounded by morality, that moral concerns are not irrelevant to international politics.

I’m not convinced that is correct.

As Kant tells us, there are lots of reasons why a person might behave in a manner that is consistent with morality. It might be a matter of prudence; after all, defying morality tends to make people dislike us – often so much so that they wish to do things like deprive us of life, liberty and/or property. Or we can behave morally because we like the people in question and don’t want to see them hurt. Alternatively, we might act morally simply because it’s the right thing to do and we want to do what is right.

I think that realists can accomodate morality only in that first prudential sense. That is, actual historical realists might well endorse what look like moral limits on our actions – for instance, by setting up and obeying the laws of war – but they can accept such limits only because the limits in question are not at all inconsistent with prudence.

Consider, for instance, some of the accepted rules for defining lawful combatants:

  • Must be commanded by someone who is responsible for his/her subordinates
  • Must carry arms openly
  • Must be identified by an insignia
  • Must conduct themselves in accord with the laws of war

Now, at the risk of sounding like a bit of a cynic, I'd argue that it’s perfectly consistent with prudence for a Western theorist to sign on to such requirements. After all, Western armies – which are huge and well-funded by a solid base of taxpayers and which are composed of (by and large) professional soldiers – are well-suited to follow such rules. There are perfectly good moral arguments for establishing criteria for recognizing lawful combatants (if not necessarily for those particular requirements). But there are also a host of pragmatic reasons for recognizing such criteria: it makes it easier for our soldiers to figure out whom to shoot, helps to limit post-war damage, makes it more likely that we can pursue a successful peace, and so on.

In other words, realists accept what look like moral constraints on behavior, but that they do so is purely a pragmatic (and hence highly contingent) accident. That's not necessarily problematic. I don’t particularly care why people behave morally; I care only that they do so.

The issue, though, is what realism says to do in instances where prudence and morality conflict. When morality says that it’s wrong to stand by and watch millions being slaughtered but prudence says preventing that slaughter will be frightfully expensive both in terms of the lives of our soldiers and the pockets of our taxpayers. When morality tells us that it is wrong for Badistan to wage an aggressive war on Meekton but prudence tells us that Meekton has nothing we want and is far away. There is the point at which we must ask whether morality matters. For the realist, the answer is no. The morality of warring with Badistan takes a back seat to the pragmatics. If it is in our interest to war with Badistan, we will. Otherwise, we won’t. That’s not to say that realist thought reduces the issue to some simple question, for it is not a simple one to answer at all. But it also isn’t a moral question.

Friedman’s argument, as I understand it, is that for realists, morality is a consideration even if it’s not the consideration, and therefore it’s wrong to say that realists don’t care about morality. That’s fair enough, and he’s right to criticize Chait for claiming that realists are “blind to morality.” (In Chait’s defense, Chas Freeman’s Tiananmen Square post – which is the ostensible target of Chait’s op-ed – certainly makes Freeman sound like a caricature of a realist.)

But the problem is that realists' acceptance of morality is purely contingent. Because realists are operating from a tradition in which warfare can be limited without harming our interests, it’s okay to abide by those limits. But those limits are a product of their happening to live in a particular state at a particular time. Realism, in other words, will give us a set of moral constraints when the realist in question is a product of a developed Western nation. But there is little reason for a realist who is not part of that tradition to accept those limits. Indeed, Friedman himself acknowledges that the moral restrictions "do not come from realist thought itself." Rather, they come from particular applications of realism.*

The disagreement, as I see it, boils down to this: Friedman says that it’s wrong to characterize realists as “blind to morality” because a particular set of Western realists accept that a moral reason can count as a reason for acting. I say that it’s wrong to characterize realists as being concerned with morality since the logic of realism would indicate that, should the facts on the ground change enough, realists ought (on pain of inconsistency) to reject morality out of hand.

That doesn’t make Friedman's interpretation flatly false, and I was hasty to describe him in that way. It still, IMO, makes him wrong. But, of course, this stuff would be uninteresting if we all agreed.

*Note: There might be some temptation to claim that I'm begging the question against particularist theories of morality. While I freely admit to being something of a universalist, I don't think that my objection here is to the particularist nature of realism. That is, I'm not objecting to realism on the grounds that it fails to apply a universal answer to a specific moral principle. My objection is that realism can (and arguably must, if it is to be at all consistent) reject morality in general given the right set of circumstances.

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Cheering for tanks in Tiananmen

I defended Freeman on China here.