Monday, September 14, 2015

Self-consciousness and the ethic of responsibility

I heard a snippet of an interview today in which an unidentified politician (i.e., unidentified in the few minutes I listened), perhaps one of the Republican presidential candidates, said he was opposed to the U.S. taking in more (i.e., any significant numbers of) Syrian refugees.  He then said that the U.S. is "the most compassionate country" in the world.  That's when I turned the radio off.  I'm not sure how the interviewee was planning to connect the two statements -- presumably something along the lines of saying that as the supposedly "most compassionate" country, the U.S. need not do anything in this particular instance -- but I couldn't stand to listen further.

What was at work there? Deliberate manipulation of the listening audience? Callousness? Pandering? Ignorance? All politicians have prior inclinations about matters, prejudices if you will, just as all people in general do, but when prejudices are reinforced by ignorance their effects are compounded. Some writers (Gadamer in Truth and Method, for one) see "prejudice" not as a synonym for irrational dislike or hatred but as denoting something inescapable and even positive.  However, in the more common and everyday meaning of "bias" or irrational partiality, prejudices can be kept under control and countered only if one is aware of them.  This requires self-consciousness (in the sense of self-knowledge, not in the sense of shyness) or, to use a fancy word that is basically synonymous, reflexivity.

This connects, at least arguably, to what Weber famously called an ethic of responsibility.  To weigh the consequences of acting (or not acting) in a given situation and then to accept responsibility for the consequences brought on by acting (or not acting) is the mark of a conscientious leader.  In Politics as a Vocation, Weber wrote that "the honor of a civil servant" is to carry out a superior's instructions, whereas "[t]he honor of the political leader, of the leading statesman...lies precisely in an exclusive personal responsibility for what he does, a responsibility he cannot and must not reject or transfer."  

One of the criticisms made of Kissinger by Michael J. Smith in his 1986 book Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger is that Kissinger's complete conviction of the correctness of his own decisions and his total "confidence in his ability to judge consequences," as displayed in his memoirs, blurs the line between an ethic of responsibility and an "ethic of intentions":  
To say, "trust my calculation of consequences -- my sense of responsibility is beyond question" differs very little from saying, "trust me -- my intentions are good."... [Kissinger's] untiring efforts to place the blame for the failures of his policy anywhere but on himself do not speak well of his adherence to the Weberian notion of personal acceptance of responsibility. (p.216)  
This was arguably even truer of Nixon.  The most he did retrospectively was to admit certain unspecified "mistakes" with respect to his actions in Watergate.  If he hadn't been, in effect, forced from office, he wouldn't have left.  One should recall that when listening to replays of (or reading) Nixon's remarks on his final departure from the White House in August 1974.


Peter T said...

"I'm not a racist, but...". Compassion is feeling with and for someone. As in " I feel for you, but..(you have to learn to stand on your own feet/I have other responsibilities/my resources are limited/...).

We have just tossed out another Prime Minister. His departure speech was all about how noble he was and how awful the media is. I can't remember the last one I head sincerely accept blame. The game does not breed them.

LFC said...

"The game does not breed them."

Yes, that pretty much sums it up.

I suppose I should have distinguished in the post between a departure speech and memoirs written later. One might reasonably expect some acceptance of blame in the latter context, though I don't know how many memoirs do this. Kissinger, at least acc. to Smith, doesn't.