Classical Realists offer the most convincing available account of the relationship between morality and politics.’



            Realism, as used in political theory, symbolises a school of thought whose main objective is to review the political process either as defined by historical forces, or in its present condition. Thus, realism as used in political theory analyses the political process as considered by the able political practitioner and as integrated into his political acts and/or conceptions. Realism gained prominence as a key analytical tool in international relations after World War II, after it replaced idealist ideology, with the promise to offer precise information and pertinent answers to the source of war and peace (Brecher & Harvey 2009). The current realist paradigm draws its roots to the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Thucylides, among others. However, the work of Hans Morgenthau stands out among other contemporary thinkers in the sense that it provides us with a more comprehensive account of the link between politics and morality, upon which the current essay is based.

            There is a widely held assumption in the field of international relations and international politics that the key focus of international realism is its belief that moral principle is inferior to self-interest (Forde 1992). What this appears to suggest is that we must either strike out the issue of morality from this equation or start viewing self-interest as a moral principle on its own right.  Put simply, we need to debate on whether realism is an amoral or immoral doctrine (Behr & Heath 2009). Nonetheless, on the subject of classical realism as applied to international relations, neither of these options appears to hold much water because the ideology's main argument is “that states must find the appropriate balance between power and morality as they strive to achieve the national interest, which always has national survival as its minimum” (Cristol 2009, p. 242). By studying the works of such classical realists as Morgenthau, it becomes quite clear that there is an ongoing search for balance between morality and politics.

            By reading his early works, we might be tempted to conclude that Morgenthau does not consider moral considerations fit for international politics, a position that Scheuerman (2007) notes to be “singularly ubiquitous and ingrained in IR literature” (p. 513). According to Cristol (2009) such basic misunderstanding of Morgenthau's classical realism largely stems from his 1948 work, Politics among Nations, as well as numerous selective readings in textbooks and international relations courses that draws from it.  In this early work, Morgenthau noted that “politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.” Since human nature is intrinsically defective, it follows therefore that conflicts happen naturally owing to a state's conflicting quest for power.

Morgenthau is of the opinion that human nature, on account of its objectivity, controls politics. Accordingly, if at all we are to predict political outcomes, we need to first develop a theory of political relations. This can only be achieved by viewing issues from the perspective of a statesman (Cozette 2008). The book, along with its various later revisions, represents the author's frontal and radical attack on states' over-dependence on liberal visionary ideologies, especially the foreign policy ideals that the United States assumed in the 1950's, and their lack of recognition for the ideation of power   (Cozette 2008).

            The “Six Principles of Political Realism” which was a later addition to the book (Morgenthau 2006) was seen to have been especially damaging seeing as it merely dwelt on the issues of rationality and power to the casual reader, all the while appearing to obscure Morgenthau's theory of morality (Scheuerman 2007). Various scholars (for example, Pin-Fat 2005 and Cozette 2008) acknowledge that morality is actually a key component of Morgenthau's classical realism.  According to Donnelly (1992), Morgenthau is of the opinion that the human nature is propelled by a lust for power and it equally egotistical. Morgenthau is also equally cognizant of the fact that there is a sustained and intractable tension between the true realities of political power that man so yearns for and his lust for it. Accordingly, Morgenthau is in agreement with other classical realists who subscribe to the statement that “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” (2006, p. 29). At the same time, Morgenthau is also equally aware that this struggle may not continue without encountering resistance despite power being a fundamental element of human existence.

            Scheuerman (2007) is of the view that Morgenthau’s ideation of morality is a direct result of power relations. Scheuerman further opines that morality and its affiliation with power relations could be  universal to a certain extent based on the argument that man has demonstrated an insatiable quest for power that is hard to fulfil, not to mention that it is all too often in conflict with others. There is need therefore to find justification for repressing the use of power. Consequently, it becomes easier to move past the passion and natural instincts that are atypical of human nature, in effect leading to the realisation of a fundamental moral code. Morgenthau thus views political action as “characterised by a central antinomy which is composed of two poles between which it oscillates: the lust for power and [the desire for moral behaviour]” (Cozette 2008). Morgenthau further talks of an unusual dialect of politics and ethics which hinder the former from escaping normative direction and the judgement of the latter. This dialect, according to Morgenthau, draws its basis on man's nature as a moral and political animal.  Accordingly, Morgenthau opines that “a man who was nothing but ‘political man’ would be a beast, for he would be completely lacking in moral restraints” (2006, p. 15).

            The moral doctrine which is a key element of Morgenthau's classical realism is largely reliant on these basic moral restraints, which have also been identified as being vital in safeguarding this moral doctrine from claims of aggressiveness.  Morgenthau's political realism is largely based on St. Augustine's acknowledgement of man's evilness and inevitability when it comes to lust for power.   He views all action as being self-referential, and that through acting, man is compelled to be selfish since 'the attempt to do justice to the ethics of unselfishness.... leads to the paradox of the ethical obligation to be selfish in order to be able to satisfy the moral obligation of unselfishness at least to a certain extent' (p. 192). Morgenthau 1946; p. 192; cited by Pin-Fat 2009, p. 44) What Morgenthau is trying to communicate across is that in a bid to desist from sacrificing the interests of other people to those of his own, man is compelled to maintain a certain level of individual interests. This ensures that he is not hindered by moral sacrifice to the point of failing to 'contribute at least a share of unselfishness to the overwhelming demands of the world' (Morgenthau 1946 p. 191; cited by Pin-Fat 2009, p. 45).

            By viewing man's lust for power as having a certain level of evilness and inevitability to it, Morgenthau rejected the policy prescription and outlook of rationalist liberals and utopians who , based on his opinion, erroneously inferred that power, along with the hazards associated with it, is assigned to definite forms of situations, institutions, and actions. He further opined that by abolishing and reforming these, we could then eradicate the lust for power, in effect finding a solution to the moral issue of power (Molloy 2006). Rather, Morgenthau contended that human nature, and not defective institutions, should be held to account for the temptation and misuse of power. Morgenthau is also opposed to the principles of liberal strain that is attached to the international relations theory, as well as believing in peace without power, identification of politics and morals, and a belief in pacifism.  However, for Morgenthau, interest defined as power act as the yardstick with which to judge and direct political actions (Cozette 2008). 

            Classical realists are of the view that international politics is largely a struggle for power, while war acts as a standard instrument that aids in the advancement of politics, albeit in other ways (Donnelly 1992, p.100). This should however not be interpreted to mean that classical realists tend to be, by and large, aggressive, or that they are ready and willing to put up a fight. According to Cozette (2008), while Morgenthau could have viewed politics as a platform that reinforces power struggle, he, nonetheless, had no intention to have it viewed as just that.  Morgenthau was deeply opposed to wishful liberal utopias on grounds that they were indifferent to the true realities of power politics and human nature.

            Morgenthau was also equally opposed to predatory Machiavellian ideation on account of their disassociation of political and moral action, a development that permits statesmen to give an explanation for virtually all violence as they seek power via lustful means, successfully transforming man into a beast (Scheuerman 2007). Even as Morgenthau has defined politics as an independent domain, he is careful not to subscribe to the Machiavellian course of totally isolating ethics from politics.

            Morgenthau opines that while human beings may be political animals, as revealed by the manner in which they go about pursuing their interests, they also tend to be moral animals.  By removing morality from this equation, man would be relegated to the level of sub-humans or beasts. While there may be no universal moral principles that guide political action, Morgenthau still feels that there is a moral significance to it (Morgenthau (2006). According to Morgenthau, realism should be viewed as a form of thinking about international relations as well as a vital tool for the development of policies. Nevertheless, some of Morgenthau's fundamental ideation of his theory, particularly his view of human nature as the source of conflict, and the power ideation, have attracted a lot of criticism.

            While Morgenthau agrees that international politics involves a power struggle which is driven by the fundamental human lust for power, his suggestion that all persons are forever pursuing power has raised criticism. It is important to appreciate the unobservable aspect of human nature. This means that there is no empirical research that may prove it, but our belief system can impose it on us, while education aids in inculcating it. In an attempt to reinforce this belief, Morgenthau brings forth the issue of rationality to his theory. Even though a rational foreign policy is usually regarded as being a good foreign policy, Morgenthau describes rationality as a process that facilitates in the computation of the benefits and costs of optional policies with a view to identifying their capacity to increase power.  Morgenthau is of the view that statement “think and act in terms of interest defined as power” (2006, p. 7). Accordingly, the only time when policy makers resort to foreign policies that move away from a rational path intended to maximise benefits and minimise risks is if there is an intellectual weakness to it. As opposed to presenting a true depiction of human affairs, Morgenthau seems more focused on highlighting the pursuit of power, in addition to establishing it as a norm.  Various scholars (for example, Berh 2010; Behr & Heath 2009) view power which is a basic component of Morgenthau's realism, as a debatable issue. To these scholars, power can be a means to politics or an end to it.   However, if we are inclined to view power as just a means of obtaining something else, it would fail to define international politics and its associated nature as Morgenthau intended it. We are not in a position to comprehend the actions of states single-handedly from the ideological preferences and motives of political leaders. As such, this view of power may not function as the starting point of defining politics as an independent realm.

Classical realists are of the view that the fundamental responsibility of statesmen is to see to it that the state survives. In this case, national interest, usually defined from the context of power, acts as a key indicator that statesmen are interested in the survival of the state.  However, Morgenthau opines that man ought to be satisfied with not being evil, as opposed to hoping that he will be good. For that reason, statesmen should aspire to do lesser evil in their quest to pursue national interests. However, Morgenthau is of the view that it is personally undesirable and politically untenable to pursue power without a moral basis to it is reflective of bad foreign policy. On the other hand, good policies come about due to moral and power considerations (Cristol 2009).  Therefore, Cozette (2008) views classical realism as instilling morality in the national interest. This is a further indication that both evil and good define power in the same way as they help to define politics. Based on this perspective, it would appear then that war could be a necessity, although moral constraints are still valid.

Based on the foregoing arguments, it would appear that Morgenthau, along with other classical realists, views a good foreign policy as due to the actions of shrewd statesmen and how well they can comprehend the various tragedies associated with politics.  In their actions from a political platform, political leaders ought to take into account the values of each case by embracing a reasoned and prudent attitude restricted by ethical and moral concerns, and by adopting the lesser evil concept. Scheuerman (2007) singles out Churchill as a perfect example of this, and identifies Stalin and Hitler as having revealed the tragedies of naked power politics in the absence of moral restrictions.  This could perhaps explain Morgenthau's conclusion that politics depicts as struggle for both power and moral leadership. This is best exemplified by Morgenthau's disapproval of America's participation in the Vietnam War (Cozette 2008).

According to Pin-Fat (2005), such a contention for moral leadership is prone to perilous insinuations, considering that the definition of moral code via the national interests might easily result in imperialistic and totalitarian practices. On the other hand, Morgenthau was convinced that morality permitted sufficient basis for the appeasement of conflicting national interests as long as they are modest, as opposed to hubristic (Morgenthau 2006).

In sum, by examining the works of Morgenthau, it becomes evident that classical realists are on a perpetual search for balance between morality and politics. This is a clear reflection that classical realists are cognisant of the act that we cannot explain international politics by relying on power and structure alone. Morality is very much part of the equation. It also points towards recognition that different statesmen and states behave differently, and that the hindrances of the international system, regime type and essential of power politics cannot take away the diverse practical and oral choice possessed by powerful states and powerful statement. However, morality in the form of belief systems tends to have a considerable impact on the actions of such statements in international politics and/or relations.





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