wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Judith Shklar

Ordinary Vices

Fear is not just a vice, or a deformity of our character. It is the underlying psychological and moral medium that makes vice all but unavoidable. It is far more than just being afraid. One can be afraid of fear, because fear is the ultimately evil moral condition. It is so for the individual and for society, and that is what Montesquieu meant by despotism, the principle of which is fear.

Fearing fear may well drive us into our libraries or other places of withdrawal. Montesquieu had to recommend the vices that tend to bring us into public life and make us into free citizens. What else was there to arm us against despotism? Of rulers, therefore, no more is demanded than justice—no other virtues at all. That does, however, mean that they are required to live up to a higher standard of probity than are private persons. We are, of course, encouraged to cultivate the intellectual and social virtues, but only our legal obligations can be enforced. That is, in fact, the outlook of most Americans. We impose far higher standards of honesty and discipline upon public servants than upon people engaged in business or employed in any way in the private sector. That is a total reversal of the beliefs of Machiavelli and his disciples, who have always agreed that goodness is a private luxury that rulers cannot afford. Like them. Max Weber in this century has argued that there are two ethics, one obedient to the Sermon on the Mount, intent upon a pure conscience, and the other concerned only with outcomes and in pursuit of some political 'cause.' This stark choice between a public and a private ethos may seem especially real when one thinks about war and peace and similar life and death or public safety issues. In fact, the division of public and private imperatives is not so clear. Most politics are not a question of stark choices at all; they involve bargains, incremental decisions, adaptations, rituals, display, argument, persuasion, and the like. Decisions are rarely made by isolated and heroic individuals sacrificing their conscience and their honor. The Machiavellian ethical pathos and drama of choice are hardly ever relevant. A liberal government is expected to be more just and honest than its average citizens, and its agents are not charged with tasks that require them to be more vicious than, or even particularly different from, private citizens.

It is not possible to think of vices as simply either private or public. There are vices that are purely private, or that for the sake of political freedom are fenced off from even the scrutiny of public agents. But there are others that are both private and public. There are some that we tolerate only in public officials as agents of coercion. That means that the simple choice that Weber inherited from Machiavelli between a mere two roles, immoral politics and moral privacy, does not make much sense in a liberal democratic state. It is a leftover from the highly personal state of the early modern period, in which Weber often still seemed to live. His typical statesman is a heroic figure who must make enormous moral sacrifices for the sake of his country or ideology. His ethical conflicts are those of the aristocratic neoclassical drama of Corneille more than those that confront politicians in contemporary representative democracies. His were the politics of the great gesture, and they still appeal to those engaged intellectuals who like to think of 'dirty hands' as a peculiarly shaking, personal, and spectacular crisis. This is a fantasy quite appropriate to the imaginary world, in which these people see themselves in full technicolor. Stark choices and great decisions are actually very rare in politics. The sorts of choices that occur in public regularly are no different from those that have to be made by every single person who is responsible for other people and not just to them. No mother of a family can cultivate her conscience only; and if she does not calculate the consequences of her actions in a cool matter-of-fact way, her children will suffer the effects. What we look for both in public officials and in our friends is character. Not a set of discrete, heroic, ethically significant decisions, but the imperceptible choices of dispositions that are manifest in the course of a lifetime.

And character is an indissoluble amalgam of motives and calculations. No one specializes in that. Betrayal, especially, is built into relations of trust at every level of society—at home, in the office, and at war. As social actors, we all have unclean hands some of the time. It is not a glamourous melodramatic issue for conspicuous agents only. In matters of probity, far from permitting officials a great moral latitude, we are very strict about keeping their private hand out of the public till. The whole force of Weber's heroic drama is drawn from the obvious fact that there are special tasks that only public agents perform. Throughout history, war and punishment have been the primary functions of government. No liberal ever forgets that governments are coercive. Certainly, neither Kant nor Montesquieu nor Locke ignored this most undeniable of all facts. Weber chose to put it in a nutshell by defining the state as the holder of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It is not an adequate definition, but it does encourage demands for limited government and for justice as the sole public virtue, and underlines the political significance of putting cruelty first. All this and more is obviously an effort to reduce the threats that governmental force poses to liberty.

It is a mark of the ethical radicalism of Montesquieu and The Federalist that neither worried in the least about the consciences of rulers. They assumed that this was a moral relic that would cease to mean anything once absolute rulers and their confessors were replaced by an institutional 'system' that demanded only justice from public officials. That, in effect, was too limited a vision of leadership. Whether it be a psychological necessity or only the effect of electoral politics, personal leadership appears to be inescapable, and this is especially so in circumstances of danger, in what are perceived as 'crises' in international relations, intense domestic conflicts, or extreme economic disorders. Liberal democracies therefore continue to face the old threats of personalized politics, and they cannot ignore the character of conspicuous public figures. There has, after all, been only one incomparable George Washington. Not all the vices of public agents are therefore equally irrelevant, and that is why Montaigne's profound meditations upon cruelty and misanthropy, and his unconditional rejection of Machiavelli, even at the cost of unresolvable doubt, uncertainty, and conflict, seemed to me to be so enduringly relevant to the actualities of public force and coercion.