Half a dozen times over the last fortnight I’ve come across newspaper and magazine articles in which writers, on the subject of politics and morality, speak of a choice between “morals” and “interests.” All these writers insisted that individuals and nations should act from moral principles rather than from perceived interests. There are several points to be made about this.
First I believe it is a false distinction. Why can it not be moral to act out of self-interest? Any father or mother who did not act in the family’s interest would rightly be described as irresponsible. Surely the leaders of nations are justified when they act in the nation’s interest. National politicians are elected precisely for this purpose.
This is where the discussion takes a sinister turn. For what is this “morality” which, it is alleged, should be preferred over interest? To uproot moral principle from interest is to commit oneself to abstractions. And of course different parties are bound to prefer differing abstractions, so how is the word “moral” to be defined? Really, when these political advocates of morality speak, they usually assume – entirely without justification, in my view – that acting morally means acting according to abstract concepts – such as equality, diversity and universal human rights. No reasoning is ever provided to demonstrate that such abstract principles are cogent and valid, let alone that they should be be accepted as normative.
The so-called international debate about morality in public life and foreign policy has effectually been settled in favour of something very much like the ethical dogmas of the French Revolution. This is pernicious.