Presidential Choices: Principle or Pragmatism?

May 1, 2013
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Lincoln, the film, is a tour de force of American constitutional history as well as an amazing portrayal of the intricacies of presidential decision-making. The film takes the viewer into the most detailed inner workings of presidential, personal, and political choices surrounding the end of the Civil War and the moral choices leading up to passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery. It is a brilliant analysis of Lincoln’s moral choices on every level, from family, to law, to politics and war. Abraham Lincoln chose to pass legislation guaranteeing the end of slavery for the sake of millions of future human beings. In so doing, he risked or actually chose to prolong a war in which thousands were dying at every battle. He also chose to use the most unscrupulous political means to get that vote passed — including bribery and blackmail — and, in so doing, knowingly perpetuated the corruption of Congress.

Philosophical ethics, which has a long and honorable history, has something to say about these terrible choices. In a word, Lincoln made a classic choice based on moral consequentialism, the calculation of what would be the best outcome for the greatest number of human beings in the future. This runs against “deontology” or the focus on absolute principles of right and wrong that must never be violated. Lincoln estimated that slavery could easily be reinstated for generations by a future Congress. That could happen if he made peace with the South at that moment in history, because the Southern states would immediately have enough power to block any passage of anti-slavery legislation in Congress. If anti-slavery legislation failed to pass at that moment in time, then the war would have been fought for nothing, with half a million men dead, and the country would return to stalemate. The consequences would be horrendous.

Moral consequentialism has strengths and weaknesses as a moral philosophy. It exercises the best of the human mind in terms of planning for the long-term good of millions of people. Its weakness is the utter depravity of some choices that are made in the present, such as willfully continuing a murderous war or corrupting the U.S. Congress even further than it already was.

President Barack Obama made choices in his first term demonstrating that he, too, was making many consequentialist calculations. He knew that standing too much on principle in the first term would guarantee him to be a one-term president, unable to enact real changes reserved for the second term. He kept very silent on issues such as homosexuality, only to come out boldly in support of them in his second-term inaugural address. Since then, he has emerged with clear opinions on several issues important to him, such as the climate crisis and gun control. In a word, he calculated that the voter margins to get re-elected were so slim that he had to be silent on wedge issues where various special interests and lobbies could chip away at his voter base. So he buried his beliefs for a time, and calculated that he would get a chance to be bolder should he be elected for four more years.

Many presidents have made such calculations. President John F. Kennedy ran his re-election campaign to the U.S. Senate on a perceived missile gap between the United States and the Soviets when it was clear that America, in fact, had the advantage. And yet the same man, in the Cuban missile crisis, defied the military advice of many generals and saved the world from a possible nuclear Armageddon. Clearly, in his heart, he was not eager to provoke war, but during his election campaigns — when the stakes were much lower and “all” he was doing was provoking and furthering the arms race — he chose a hawkish voice in order to get elected. Whether this was an ethical calculation or pure political ambition remains unclear. But what is clear is that his use of the missile gap and fear of the Soviets during the election did not reflect his core beliefs and values about war prevention. That only became obvious during the short time he was president.

The natural assumption is that Judaism favors a focus exclusively on basic principles, what is non-negotiable, generally expressed as mitzvot, such as don’t kill, don’t steal, seek justice, love your neighbor. The assumption is that Judaism would not have as much patience for consequentialism. But that is not so simple, once the details of moral choices are revealed. For example, how does someone balance the love of one’s neighbor, which may include standing up for homosexual rights, with the possibility of losing the election, with the consequence of 40 million poor Americans losing their health insurance — and many probably dying because of the lack of proper care? How does one calculate, even based on multiple principles, the love of one’s neighbor and compassion for all human beings versus saving lives through medical care? It is a conflict of principles, but it is also based inescapably on probabilities and consequentialist calculations that are hard to predict.

Presidents are not that different from the rest of us when it comes to choices between consequentialism and deontology. In plain English, we all have our bottom lines, what remains non-negotiable, but then the shadiness of life gets in the way and we start calculating our own interests and even the good of others. Sometimes, we stand on principle. But sometimes we compromise terribly; we gamble, we hope the ends will justify the means, and we authentically try to make ourselves and others better off in the long run. Sometimes, those gambles pay off and sometimes they do not, but the scale of consequences when presidents make these choices affect the lives of millions of people, and we all live with the consequences. Judaism asks us, and, I would expect, especially calls upon heads of state and policy makers to struggle with clear principles, to pledge allegiance to them, but then also to struggle with the very human, messy reality of predicting consequences and weighing everything in the balance in order to bring the greatest life and happiness to the greatest number.

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Marc Gopin directs the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., where is also serves as the James H. Laue Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. The author of five books on peace building, he is co-owner of the MEDJI tour company, a joint Jewish-Arab tour operator that creates custom tours to the Holy Land.

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