by Bastoche | 11/11/2007 02:09:00 PM
“It would take the will of men, not nature, to bring down this horrific human invention.” So says Robert Kagan in his most recent column for The Washington Post. The “horrific human invention” to which he is referring is American slavery. Prior to the Civil War, Kagan tells us, there were those in America who, rather than confronting this shameful system with strength and will, preferred to let “nature take its course,” that is, to let the predetermined course of history step by step dismantle the institution of slavery. No direct governmental intervention, political or military, would be necessary to expunge the blight. The progress of civilization itself would do the job.


“Abraham Lincoln called these ‘lullaby’ arguments,” Kagan says, and such arguments are being served up again and in our own time by those who prefer to remain passive in the face of resurging autocracy “in China, Russia, Venezuela and elsewhere.” Economic liberalization, so these gradualists say, will step by step and inevitably produce in these autocratic nations political liberalization. Kagan disagrees. Rather than subverting autocratic regimes like Russia and China, economic liberalization and growth are strengthening them. Only one solution remains to the problem of resurgent autocracy, according to Kagan. The free nations of the world must “confront autocracies and demand that they hold free and fair elections.” Patiently awaiting the inevitable progress of democracy will not do the trick. The free nations of the world must act. “Passivity in the face of tyranny will not suffice,” Kagan concludes.

Meanwhile, in the November 12 issue of The Weekly Standard, Fred Kagan makes a related point. In Iraq we overthrew an autocrat, Saddam Hussein, and we are now trying to establish in that country a democratic system in which not violence but free and fair elections will resolve disputes. There are those, however, who insist that, because American military power cannot resolve the “tensions” between the disputing factions in Iraq, we must bring the troops home and let the Iraqis resolve their difficulties on their own. Kagan disagrees. The Bush administration’s “most ambitious aims involved only establishing a stable and peaceful democracy in Iraq--which is very different from resolving all tensions, as anyone who knows anything about democracy can tell you.” In a stable democracy factional tensions always exist, but the “core issues” that produce those tensions must be resolved “peacefully, through a political process rather than through violence.” Unfortunately, not all the contending factions in Iraq are committed to the use of peaceful means to resolve their disputes, and America must “reject and oppose those who seek to use force to gain leverage in the political process.” Kagan assures us that such rejection and opposition “is exactly what we are now in the midst of doing.”

Even though this strategy of “rejection and opposition”—that is, the Surge—is beginning to mitigate sectarian strife, Kagan says, we must not expect it to achieve a perfect reconciliation between the contending groups. Factional tensions persist in other countries that have worked their way through periods of extreme civil violence. In Northern Ireland and Bosnia, even in the United States itself, patriotic citizens continue to glower at one another across factional divides. “But achievement of perfect harmony was not the standard for the United States” nor for any other nation, “and it should not be the standard for Iraq.” Instead of such an unattainable standard, two realistic and achievable “standards” must, in Iraq, be established and maintained: first, a stable political system within which factional disputes can be resolved in an orderly manner and, second, a stable social environment within which the political system can function.

Our principal goal in Iraq, Kagan assures us, is now and has always been to establish these standards, that is, “to create a stable government…that is able to govern its own people and drive violence down to a manageable level.” The first standard was established by the Iraqi Constitution and the 2005 elections. The second standard is now being established by the Surge. The Surge is suppressing and will continue to suppress the violence manufactured by four factions: Al Qaeda, Baathist holdovers from the Saddam era, Iranian proxies, and sectarian militias, especially the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. Until those four instigators of violence and anarchy are effectively subdued, Iraqis cannot establish the conditions—social stability and peace—within which free and fair elections can regularly take place and a democratic process successfully function. The Iraqi government, however, is at present incapable of controlling those factions, and it needs America’s continuing presence and help until it can suppress on its own the instigators of anarchy. When the Iraqis themselves are capable of managing factional violence and sustaining the democratic process, America can confidently claim that it has achieved its primary goal: the establishment of freedom and democracy in a nation previously ruled by autocracy and despotism.

1. A Concert and a Surge

The Brothers Kagan have a point. In a democracy, free and fair elections are one way that those who do not govern hold accountable those who do (an independent judiciary and a responsible press are two others). The great American Ideal is to make this electoral power—and the other components of democracy—available to all the peoples of the world. Idealists though they are, the Brothers Kagan are also practical politicians, and they have devised the means by which this great end can be achieved. The scope of Brother Fred’s method, the Surge, is limited to one nation, Iraq. Fred claims that certain factions in Iraq are actively seeking to undermine the democratic goal. One faction, the Baathists, wants to reestablish the old secular autocracy. The other factions—Al Qaeda, the proxies of Iran, the Mahdi Army—want to establish a new theocratic one. At present, only American military power, organized into an effective counterinsurgency force, can subdue these anarchic elements and thus create a space in which a stable democracy can take root and begin peacefully to resolve the “core issues” among the disputing factions.

Brother Robert’s perspective is not the present situation in Iraq but the looming contest between, on the one hand, the great democracies of the world and, on the other, the giant autocracies, Russia and China. And he too has a method by which free nations can, short of war, act to put pressure on those nations who refuse to abide by the principles of freedom and democracy. In a recent Washington Post article, he and Ivo Daalder have called for a Concert of Democracies. This group of free and democratic nations will regularly meet in order to discuss and achieve consensus on critical international situations. Their discussion and the consensus that emerges from it will be based on “shared principles”: freedom and democracy. Such a consensus, reached through rational discussion and based on unassailable principles, will thus provide legitimacy for America’s “next intervention,” that is, America’s next confrontation with autocratic coercion and tyranny.

This Concert of Democracies bears more than a passing resemblance to an idea that Kant put forward in his 1795 philosophical sketch, Perpetual Peace: a league of states that, on the basis of reason, establishes and maintains a condition of international peace. In Of Paradise and Power, the book that I am examining in this series, Kagan gestures again and again towards Kant and his idea of a peace that is perpetual because it is founded on reason. On the basis of rationality and rules, according to Kagan, Europe has crafted a paradise of Kantian peace set off from the Hobbesian anarchy that prevails in the rest of the world. America’s role, as Kagan sees it, is to stand on the border between the two, courageously and honorably defending freedom and democracy from the assaults of terrorist outlaws and autocratic rogues.

But what Kagan fails to mention, or fails to understand, is that Kant, in his writings on morals and politics, makes a crucial distinction between two types of reason and two types of politician. The political moralist, as Kant calls him, uses ordinary practical reason and its methods in order to advance his nation’s self-interest. The moral politician, on the other hand, uses pure practical reason and its methods, based on the categorical imperative, in order to attain international peace. By means of ordinary practical reason, or instrumental reason, the political moralists of the world can certainly construct a league of states or a “Concert of Democracies,” as Kagan and Daalder call it. But for Kant such a league is neither a paradise nor perpetually peaceful since each of its member nations is committed, finally, to its own power and privilege, its own self-interest. Only on the basis of pure practical reason and the imperatives that emerge from it can the moral politicians of the world create a federation of free and equal states and guarantee a perpetual peace.

In other words, for Kant perpetual peace can be attained only when politics and morality are brought into accord with one another. And Kant is under no illusion that such an accord is easily achieved. The world is brimful of political moralists who espouse freedom and honor and international cooperation but whose allegiance is to national prestige and self-interest. Conversely, the world labors under a severe shortage of moral politicians who commit themselves to the supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative, and to the political ends that flow from it: freedom and equality for all the peoples of the earth. To put it another and very Kantian way, whereas the ideal of the political moralist is a nationalistic ideal, the ideal of the moral politician is a cosmopolitan ideal.

For Kant, then, we have on the one hand the political moralist who, on the basis of instrumental reason, espouses a nationalistic ideal of self-interest and power. On the other, we have the moral politician, who on the basis of pure practical reason, espouses a cosmopolitan ideal of freedom, equality, and solidarity. This distinction between the political moralist and the moral politician is a crucial one in Kant’s political philosophy, and in order to understand it we must first understand the basis of Kant’s moral philosophy, the categorical imperative, which he defines and illustrates in that brief and immensely influential work, the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

In their political writings the Brothers Kagan and their Father Donald put a heavy emphasis on a specific human faculty: the will. In the Groundwork so too does Kant. His purpose in the Groundwork is to discover and define the factor that makes a person’s will a good will, and he discovers that factor in the supreme principle of morality, the categorical imperative. Further, he claims, this supreme moral principle is oriented toward one supreme human end—freedom. As we’ve seen, the Kagans are idealistically committed to the triumph of freedom over its perennial opponent, tyranny. One might think, therefore, that Kant and the Kagans are on common ground in regard to this most fundamental of moral matters. They are not. The political moralist—and each of the Kagans is a shining example of the political moralist—is always happy to traffic in the ideals of freedom and democracy. But his end is a world removed from that of the moral politician.

2. A Gal’s Gotta Do What a Gal’s Gotta Do

Kant begins Section I of the Groundwork with this famous passage: "There is nothing it is possible to think of anywhere in the world or indeed anything at all outside it, that can be held to be good without limitation, excepting only a good will." (trans. Allen W. Wood)

Before we consider what, according to Kant, makes a will good, we must first consider what the will is and what relation it has to other human faculties. The will is that mental faculty that causes a person to act in order to obtain an object or achieve an end. A person’s will, though, does not set the end which the person strives to obtain or achieve. For Kant, a person’s will is conditioned, that is, moved to act, by his physical and social and moral inclinations or needs.

When a person sees an object or envisions an end that promises to satisfy one of his inclinations, he uses his ordinary practical reason (his instrumental reason) to devise the means that will enable him successfully to possess the object or achieve the end. He then, as Kant puts it, wills the end. That is, by an act of will he puts into practice the means, devised by his practical reason, that will enable him to achieve his end: the possession of an object or the achievement of a goal that satisfies the initiating inclination.

One person, for example, has a desire (inclination) to learn to play the piano. In order to achieve this end, he employs his practical reason to map out the necessary means: he must find a good teacher, budget time for practice, set aside funds for the instrument and the lessons, etc. He must now will the end, that is, put into practice the means that he has devised to achieve it. If he is sufficiently resolute—if he has sufficient will—he will so deploy the means as to achieve his end. Conversely, if he is not sufficiently resolute—if he lacks sufficient will—he will deploy the means so infrequently or irregularly as to make no progress towards his goal.

Another person has a desire to assert America’s dominance in the Middle East in order to spread the benefits of democracy and guarantee the satisfaction of America’s “vital interests.” In order to achieve this end, he employs his practical reason to map out a strategy (the means): invade select nations, topple governments that are tyrannical, install governments that are democratic, create conditions that will enable the installed democracy to flourish, etc. He must now will the end, that is, deploy the means that will successfully transform the Middle East into a paradise of freedom and democracy and a reliable supplier to America of vital resources. Of course, spreading democracy is not as easy as learning to play the piano, and he might find that however resolute his will, the end is not as easily achieved as he at first expected. Nonetheless, he remains confident that if he continues to apply an effective strategy—if he continues, that is, to will the end—he will successfully achieve his laudable and honorable goal.

These are both instances in which a person, moved by an inclination to achieve a goal, mobilizes his practical reason, devises a strategy to achieve his end, and puts the strategy into practice or, in Kant’s terms, wills the end. In neither case, though, do we have an example of the will undertaking a moral action, an action that in Kant’s view exemplifies the good will. In fact, it is possible that the second person, the one intent on spreading democracy, is, in spite of the seeming goodness of his goal, committing an immoral act.

But more on that next time. First, an example of an act that, in Kantian terms, is an authentic moral act, an act that flows from a good will.

A person has a desire to remedy a situation that she recognizes as unjust: the invasion and occupation of a Middle East nation by an American regime intent on securing its interests and expanding its sphere of influence. Her remedy—the goal that she wants to achieve—is to end the occupation. In order to achieve this goal, she employs her ordinary practical reason to map out a strategy: write letters to the editor of the local paper, become involved in the campaigns of like-minded politicians, take part in public demonstrations, etc. She must now will the end, that is, put into practice the elements of the strategy that her practical reason has mapped out.

But problems arise that interfere with her motivation to put those means into practice: she has recently divorced and is seeking a new relationship; she is working overtime so that she can buy a new car; both her mother and her father are staunch supporters of the president and his policies. Correcting the injustice has now become inconvenient and troublesome, using time and energy that she is more inclined to put towards other goals. Even worse, working to end the occupation might very well produce conflict between her and her parents. But even though these factors are exerting on her a powerful pull and deflecting her will away from doing the right thing, she nonetheless resists their pull, chooses the right thing, and does it.

To put it in Kant’s terms, the person’s inclinations—to begin a new relationship, to buy a new car, to avoid conflict with her parents—are preventing her from willing her end. At this point her pure practical reason intervenes and insists that she adhere to its rule, the categorical imperative. Caught in this conflict between reason and desire, she now makes what for Kant is an authentic moral choice. Though pulled away by her inclinations—by her self-love, as Kant puts it—from doing what she knows must be done, she resists the pull and does the right thing. She works to correct the injustice her nation is committing because that work, she sees, is a moral necessity, a duty for which she must reserve some small part of her time and energy. Thus, by resisting her inclinations and consenting to the imperative, she wills an act that is authentically moral. And in willing such an act, her will becomes a good will.

3. So What Is This Thing Called the Categorical Imperative?

Fred Kagan claims that the Bush Administration has always had one overriding goal in Iraq: the eradication of autocracy and the establishment of democracy. As his brother Robert now argues, the free nations of the world must stir from their passivity, unite into a Concert of Democracies, and actively resist the expansion of autocracy in the world. The protection and promotion of freedom are certainly laudable and honorable goals, and the neocon politicians who strive to attain such goals with strength and will are, just as certainly, moral politicians, that is, politicians who are moved by the imperatives of international freedom and equality. One cannot possibly call them political moralists, that is, politicians who are loud in their espousal of international freedom and equality but who are, in reality, motivated by nationalistic self-interest and nationalistic self-love.

Well, as I’ve said, not only can one call the Kagans political moralists in Kant’s sense of the term, one can hold them up as paradigmatic illustrations of the type. And to see why, we now have to look at the categorical imperative itself and at the type of nation that, according to Kant, is founded on the moral imperatives of freedom, equality, and solidarity—the republic.

Crossposted at dailykos

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