by Luke Muehlhauser on February 10, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)


Apparently, professional diplomats divide themselves into two camps.

(See: Should Top U.S. Goal Be Democracy)

The idealist camp says that American foreign policy should focus on promoting the ideals of democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, a right to trial by jury, and he like. They hold that these rights are inalienable human rights, and if any government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and they think that the American government should lend a hand where it can.

The realists reject the idealist notion, claiming that it makes America a crusading nation with its head in the philosophical clouds rather than looking at the practical real-world side of things. A dictator with oil and a promise to stand against America’s sworn enemy – whether that enemy is the former Soviet Union or al-Queida – is better than a self-interested democracy.

These question are relevant to what has happened and what is happening in Egypt. For 30 years, America has supported “president” Mubarak. We have done so in part because Mubarak has supported peace with Israel. He has also worked in opposition to Palestinian terrorists and al-Quieda.

His country also controls the Suez Canal, through which a lot of oil flows on its way to America.

If the people of Egypt elect a new government, there is no guarantee that the government will be friendly either to the United States or to Israel. There is a possibility that factions will gain power that are less reluctant to support militant Islam (and, unlike militant atheism, militant Islam kills people).

The American government has long told its citizens and, particularly its soldiers, that standing up for certain ideals is worth, in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice. There are certain qualities that make this country worth defending. It may turn out to be the case that while the government promotes certain ideals domestically, on the international scene these are just meaningless words.

One of the problems with the realist view is that, if the government is being run by people who believe that basic moral rights are trivially unimportant and can be waved whenever convenient, then what is to prevent it from applying those same principles domestically? Moral limits take the form of certain desires and aversions. If there is no desire to protect democracy, freedom of the press, a right to trial by jury, and the like, then we can expect this lack of motivation to carry through everywhere.

Socially, we call a person who ignores morality and seeks only his own advantage “evil”. It’s the same for governments. If we are routinely violating the moral limits on how we treat others whenever it suits our interests to do so – whenever it is “practical” – then we as a nation have the same moral character as any individual who behaves the same way. To adopt this attitude as policy is to act so as to promote a world in which everybody else is told to adopt the same attitudes.

The claim that idealism makes America a crusading nation always at war is not necessarily true. Morality does not prohibit a person from being practical. If you walk into a bank while it is being robbed you are not morally obligated to tackle the robber at risk of your own life. If the robber points a gun at you, hands you a bag, and says, “Fill it with money,” you are under no moral obligation to refuse.

However, you must admit that you are acting under durress.

America may, in some cases, be powerless to effect certain changes – held under durress by economic or geopolitical concerns. There is nothing in the idealist camp that says that this cannot happen. Morality does not require moral people to act like idiots – though evil people often like to portray morality that way to excuse their decision to abandon it.

Even where a person can force change on others, morality puts strong limits on exercising that power. Few things scream “arrogance” as loudly as a moral crusade – and arrogance is a vice, responsible for a great deal of senseless destruction. It is not a virtue.

I have a great many moral opinions. However, having those opinions does not entail that I may take up arms in violent opposition to anybody whose opinions differ from my own. For the most part, I am obligated to deal with others – including others that I think are acting immorally – through words such as this blog post, rather than through violence.

Morality says that an important fact about the world that one must consider is the fact that I should give others the benefit of the doubt, and facts about human limitations imply that I should have a great deal of doubt to give others the benefit of.

At the same time, morality allows that action can be taken when certain lines are crossed. Domestically, the use of state violence against an individual requires a community agreement on where that line is (nobody gets to decide such things unilaterally), and evidence beyond a reasonable doubt presented to an impartial jury that the line, in fact, has been crossed. These limitations to not deny individuals the right to immediate self-defense if attacked. The same moral limits work just as well for governments.

One of the reasons why dictatorships persist and groups have no qualms ignoring moral limits is precisely because “realists” in America teach this moral lesson to the world. When we adopt this practice, we tell the rest of the world that it is morally permissible for them to adopt this practice. When they adopt this practice, it is not in our nation’s interest, even in “practical” terms.

Remember the moral principle to treat others as one would have them treat you? The principle does not come with caveats that it applies only to people within the same country. If we adopt a lower set of standards when it comes to how we treat people from other countries, we should fully expect to suffer the harms that manifest when we adopt the same low standards in the treatment of each other and of Americans.

The lesson, “moral limits are mere contrivances that you all may ignore whenever you find it convenient” is not a lesson that I think it is particular wise for even a “realist” government to be telling the people of the world.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Leomar February 10, 2011 at 4:20 am

Great post men.


mister k February 10, 2011 at 9:04 am

I would broadly agree, but I wonder if you are attacking a straw man here. While the US has certainly behaved in an actively immoral manner in the past- deliberately disrupting democractic regimes to replace them with puppets, I suspect the “realists” might argue that the moral consequences of not acting are worse. For instance, in the worse case scenario where Egypt gets a jingoistic government which plunges the region into war. If the US has credible evidence that losing the current regime would cause great harm to the surrounding region, do they have a moral responsibility to act and help the dictator?

I don’t think so, and agree with you here, but you seem to argue that the realists are only acting to preserve the US’ interests. I suspect they would argue that doing so thus ensures a greater good. I disagree with this proposition, and I think your post goes some way towards answering it (acting in a way that is not consistent with professed principles will encourage other regimes to do so), but maybe doesn’t reject it fully because it is too busy attacking the staw man realist who only cares about advancing the US’ position without caring about moral considerations at all.


Polymeron February 10, 2011 at 9:17 am

This is a good post. And yet, I have one quibble.

“Remember the moral principle to treat others as one would have them treat you? The principle does not come with caveats that it applies only to people within the same country.”
> I’ve actually seen a LOT of people who think differently. I’ve heard the argument that any number of foreign deaths should be preferable to smaller domestic casualties; and I’ve heard the position that if you’re donating to charity, you should donate closer to home, all things being equal. There seems to be a whole range of opinions that DO take in-group out-group into account; and it also seems to elicit responses similar to moral ones (e.g. it’s one of the factors that we are naturally drawn to/repelled by, and so is kindness/cruelty.)
So while I personally hold it to be true that grouping should not have an impact on what is moral, I don’t hold it to be obviously true. I’m interested to know how desirism tackles this issue.


Steven R. February 10, 2011 at 10:00 am

Two things:

1. To future posters, you should address your comments to Alonzo, who wrote this article, not Luke. I keep on seeing people criticize the conclusion and say “Luke” rather than “Alonzo.”

2. Alonzo, a small typo in your first sentence “… a right to trial by jury, and he like”


Excellent post Alonzo and this outlines my views on diplomacy very neatly. The consequences of a “realist” position is just inviting trouble. Maybe not immediately which makes it so appealling at times, but sooner or later, those dictators will begin to demonstrate why we have opted for a Democratic-Republic. Not only that, but after supporting Mubarak for so long, it seems extremely hypocritical to have the Obama Administration vouching for democracy. Sure, different administrations and whatnot but a more coherent policy–one that stands by our ideals and doesn’t just act like an evil person would–would be much more desirable.

To Mister K:

I would think that other actions that don’t flout our ideals are available. We don’t have to promote a dictator who wants peace if a democratic election would put a jingoist in office. We could track down the cause of why so many people are feeling jingoisitic. Because other countries have severely abused them (uh oh! seems like Realist policies of other nations are now coming back to give us bigger headaches!)? Because they feel their culture is being destroyed? Whatever the cause, I don’t think it would be severely jingoistic just “because.”

As such, once most of the major factors behind the jingoism has been found, we can deal with it through means that don’t involve promoting a dictator. We could, for example, provide funding to preserve the local culture. We could promise them support. Of course, I don’t think this will always work. So, if the people are hellbent on war and destabilizing the region and A). there is little no time to implement any other policy and/or B). the people refuse to listen to reason and more pacifist means, then Alonzo’s explanation of acting under duress would, as far as I see it, be fully justifiable.


Patrick February 10, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Strictly speaking, foreign policy realism is a descriptive theory before it is a prescriptive theory. The prescription follows from the assumption that the description is largely true about other international actors. I’d argue that any effort at refuting foreign policy realism has to start with attacking whether its actually a good descriptive theory.

Personally I think its not, but if it were, I’d have a hard time arguing against the prescriptive aspects that follow.


hstfan82 February 11, 2011 at 10:24 pm

If the United States took only an idealist approach to dealing with much of the Arab world, it is certainly not true that those feelings would necessarily be reciprocated. In fact, there’s very little historical evidence to support your assertion that a more realist position encourages one’s enemies to be more willing to use violence and be exlusively concerned with self-interest. Ironically, the idealist approach would probably lead to the demise of the idealists.

One’s beliefs necessarily entail a picture of a better world where those beliefs have consequences for society in contrast with a worse world where those beliefs are rejected. Moral reasoning cannot be separated from the material world and a belief that there is a state of affairs worse than another state of affairs. When morality is taken out of this context, it loses all meaning.


dantresomi February 13, 2011 at 8:26 am

great post. While there are some people who we can consider realists (Kissinger, Machiavellis,etc.) and some who we can consider idealists (FDR, Jeffrey Sachs,etc.) US Foreign policy has been a mix of both idealism and realism with a lean more towards realism since we have supported dictators during the Cold War.

To be frank, there are very few politicians around the world who are purely either one of those camps. Politics is an ugly profession in of itself because you have to align yourself with unsavory characters or your enemies to meet the self interests of your country.

The issue is that when it comes to U.S. foreign policy our gov’t has been more apt to use realist solutions (yes even the Obama administration).


citizen Ghost February 13, 2011 at 7:25 pm

The words “realist” and “idealist” are often used to describe particular approaches to foreign policy but these terms are in fact miseleading It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that when it comes to foreign policy, just about everyone is a “realist” – in foreign policy circles, at least. What I mean is that both the “realists” and “idealists” seek to promote U.S. interests and believe that their own view of reality promotes U.S. interests.

Traditionally, the “realist” camp was has supported autocrats in the Middle East rather than popular movements & democracy The reasons have to do with order, security and econonmic self-interest. The “idealists” oppose this, not because they prefer lofty ideals to hard realities on the ground or because they DON’T want to promote U.S. interests, but because they think that the benefits of supporting these autocracies are in fact illusory. Or yeild only diminshing returns. Contrary to the terminology, the foreign p0licy “idealists” here are equally committed to realpolitik. Only the calculation is different. THEY think that costs of maintaining the status-quo – pro-western tyrants who maintain a corrupt and iron-fisted rule – is actually a riskier proposition than the prospect of political reform, however uncertain the outcome.


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