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June 28, 2007

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Down With Values

Props to Ezra Klein for coming out swinging:

I have a confession to make: I am not a values voter. I do not want a foreign policy based upon “the idea that is America.” I do not think we should be guided in all things by such glittering concepts as liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith.

In fact, I’m fed up with values. Entirely. They’ve failed this country. As a lodestar, there is none worse.

His column is keyed to a new foreign policy book by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It’s all about the responsible application of American values to world affairs; but Klein says:

The problem with Slaughter’s vision, which I generally found myself in enthusiastic agreement with, is that the only one I trust to carry it out is, well, Slaughter. And possibly me.


What Klein wants is foreign policy proposals that focus on material outcomes — not moral origins. We’ve had enough of the latter lately.

What timing! I’m going to see Francis Fukuyama speak tonight. He’s going to revisit and re-appraise his argument from The End of History and the Last Man — parts of which formed some of the deepest framework for the neocon misadventure. Expect a full report.

Posted June 28, 2007 at 3:37 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Snarkpolicy


I like your way of framing the problem as "material outcomes" vs. "moral origins," and not just for the parallel initials. It's not as though we can escape completely into some value-neutral political realism. But we have to abandon political romanticism: the idea that because the origins of our actions are good values that they will lead necessarily to good consequences.

Max Weber called this the "ethics of ultimate ends," and contrasted it with the ethics of responsibility demanded for politics proper. And Carl Schmitt coined "political romanticism" to describe pretty much the same thing.

The thing is, the neocon crowd knows all this. And when it comes to torture or bombing civilians, they're more than willing to act instrumentally. The bottom line seems to be a certain degree of callousness to life and death. And if that's the case, then an abandonment of the language of values might not really be the remedy.

Your note about torture got me to thinking -- brooding, even. I think what Klein is calling for is not so much an abandonment of the language of values, as a recognition of its limitations. For an example, take Bush's nearly content-free statement that "America does not torture". What does that mean, in terms of material outcomes? How can I accurately judge whether Bush's values about life and death are similar to mine if I don't know what, materially, he means by torture?

I think this is leading to a demand for frankness about the specific consequences of value statements. More thoughts about this, but they'll have to wait. :-)

Posted by: Matt on July 2, 2007 at 09:04 AM

Yes, you've got it there, Matt -- it's mostly about connecting the dots and making sure value talk is actually TIED in some (any!) way to material action.

More than anything we have suffered from a sort of parallel world problem: There's one world described by American rhetoric and another manifested by American action. One is kinda cool, and the other one TOTALLY SUCKS.

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