Some people say that power alone determines the course of human affairs. They consider themselves realists, speaking the language of realpolitik. They disdain those who see a need for moral values in government, calling them idealists. They say that all that is necessary instead of morality, is an operational code. The self-proclaimed realists are in error.
Power is simply the capacity to cause an effect. It is first necessary to choose what effect to cause. No one does every thing he has the power to do. The choices we make, no matter how we define them, reflect and reveal the values we have.
The real question for an individual, group, or state, is, "What are my/our values? or what should they be?" "It is yet not enough, as Plato again and again insisted, to will what is right; it is also necessary to know what it is right to will." 54
"Goals" are a statement of a desirable end. What constitutes "a desirable end" is determined by the values that one has. "Morality" is the articulation of a statement of values, a distinction between what is defined as good and what is defined as bad. "Policy," realpolitik or otherwise, is simply the formulation of a way to reach a goal.
Greed may determine human affairs. Lust may. Hatred may. Pride may. So may mercy and compassion, but power, of and by itself, does not. Power is simply an available tool for accomplishing chosen goals.
The challenge for meaningful discourse is to replace an unstated, fuzzy assumption with a clearly articulated prioritization of values. What is the definition, the standard, that will determine our values, which, in turn, will determine our goals, which, in turn, will determine our policies? How should such things be determined - by vote, decree, or revelation?
"After all, it was one of the fundamental steps, in Grotius, to recognize that the question of 'justice' becomes largely one of finding the various rights as soon as we move from a discourse of what is right, to one of having a right." 55 First we must define what is right.
Everyone believes that there are overriding moral obligations. The disagreement is about which moral obligations are overriding, i.e what is the proper prioritization of moral values and, therefore, the standard for decision making. Power only determines human affairs after values have been chosen and prioritized.
An operational code, despite its morally antiseptic sound, is a description of what should be done. "Should" is a value term. When we talk about what an individual, group, or state "should" do, there is an implicit assumption that one thing is better than another. We can identify and list options, but that is not sufficient for decision making. Which option brings the greater good or benefit? Which option brings the lesser evil or harm?
We can only make such a determination when we have defined "good" and "evil." Other words are often used in debate, but they come down to the same thing.
Whenever a choice is made, there is always a criterion (or several) for making that choice. What are the relevant criteria, and which is determinative? That is the crux of the matter.
How does one determine what is better? By what criteria should we determine the "right" or the "good" thing to do? We can only talk about what is "right," when there is something that is "wrong." Each concept implies the other. We can only talk about what is "better," i.e., "more good," when we have a concept of what is "good."
The actual conflict between "realpolitik" and "idealism" is how the "good" of a society should be defined. It is not a question of pragmatism versus morality. It is a question of one morality, or prioritization of values, versus another.
Positivist law claims to have no moral base, but that is a deception, an impossibility. All law is a statement of the permissable and the impermissable. On what basis does one permit or forbid? What is the standard? The protected prioritization of values is the chosen morality.
If, for example, "We should do to others what we would have them do to us" is a moral statement, then so also is "We should NOT do to others what we would have them do to us." So also is, "It does not matter whether or not we do to others what we would have them do to us."
If "You should not murder" is a moral statement, "You should murder" must be one too. So also is, "It does not matter whether or not you murder." Realpolitik informs us that we should covet the wealth and territory of others, and think of ourselves first. The claim that this is not a moral position is absurd.
For both realpolitik and conventional moralities, the realm of discourse and life is exactly the same. It is only the choices that are different. Words are used, consciously or not, to skew and monopolize the public discourse. They are misused to communicate that this particular Machiavellian morality is the only legitimate basis for making a certain kind of decisions. People manipulate words in order to manipulate others.
Whether the system is termed "realpolitik," "pragmatic," "Machiavellian," "positivist," or "utilitarian," the underlying moral principle - i.e., the articulated value - is essentially the same. "Right" and "good" are defined as whatever is physically self-serving or self-indulging. Whatever is self-denying or self-sacrificing is "wrong" and "bad." The physical self is the rightful king. These things are only true for those who accept and live by them.
The implicit assumption is that practical people always fear death more than anything else. The implicit definition is that practical people are those for whom self-preservation is the highest good, and therefore the overriding motivation in all decision making. Not only is that far from obvious, it is also far from true.
The world abounds with contrary affirmations such as "Death before dishonor;" "Better dead than red;" and "Give me liberty or give me death." Is there something that you would rather die than do, or rather die than have it done to you?" For many, if not most, people, the answer is "yes." That means that power has its limits. It is not the ultimate determinant in the affairs of men and nations.
Job was tested to see whether or not he would forsake and curse God when his own life was being destroyed. "'Skin for skin!' Satan replied. 'A man will give all he has for his own life.'" 56 In Job's case, Satan was wrong.
In a general sense, it is not at all obvious that self-preservation is always in one's best self-interest. And it is far from evident that the apex of human values is self-preservation. Such is the case only in a particular prioritization of values.
At its extreme, such a Stalinist morality claims that might is the sole determinant of right, and that whatever one can get away with is legitimate. Stalin's "greatest good" was the attainment of absolute power over others. Hitler's "greatest good" was the annihilation of certain people groups. Everything else was of lesser value.
The language that claims such a prioritization of values to be outside the realm of morality is simply a pretense. It is used in a monopolistic, manipulative way to control the discourse. It is the language and policy of a distinct morality. The pretension and the manipulation are consistent with the morality of those who believe it is good to control and manipulate others to get what they want.
Gandhi was correct in saying, "that those who thought that religion and politics could be kept separate, understood neither religion nor politics." 57

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(go back)
What is National Sovereignty?
Where Does Sovereignty Come From?

Hobbes Reconsidered
Realpolitik Morality

One World, One Sovereign
Notes & Bibliography