07/02/2008 08:34 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Liberal Principles Part III

Click here to read part I and part II

Third Principle: Minimal Altruism for Everyone Else

With the emergence of non-state actors in global affairs -- Al Qaeda being only the best known of many -- the question of how to treat people living in other political societies, not just other nation states, has become pressing.

Modern American liberals believe that members of other political societies deserve concern and respect, but Americans don't have to pay for their health care. Philosophers call this principle by lots of different words -- minimal altruism, meaning that people have a moral obligation to help others but not at a heroic cost to themselves, supererogatory acts, beneficence, the limits of obligation. This concept has enjoyed a well-deserved resurgence in response to the urging of utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer that people must give all they have until they are just barely better-off than the poorest other human being.

In response to the perfect logic of Singer's position, philosophers have been forced to revisit the insight, usually attributed to David Hume, of the natural and emotional wellsprings of human altruism. People seem mostly care about those closest to them. Stretching it to the political limits of the nation state is a reach; the further away people are, the lower the caring, both in time (great-grandchildren? Great, great-grandchildren?) and in space. So the principle dictates helping others if the cost to ourselves is not great or if the benefit to us is great. This stands in stark contrast to the alternating fits of utter selfishness and heroic proselytizing that the conservative ideology seems to generate.

Recognizing a duty of minimal altruism walks the fine line between the two pitfalls of dealing beyond the USA: thinking everyone is just a little would-be American waiting for the American system of government and thinking everyone else is a foreign barbarian plotting to destroy our "way of life." Situations will arise in which people unequivocally need help, and help can be given without much cost or social knowledge. Minimal altruism allows a liberal administration to distinguish what those situations are.

For instance, minimal altruism recognizes that people and societies that do not share America's history and culture and are therefore harder to understand. Lack of knowledge leads to error, and so involvement in activities such as nation-building must be kept to a minimum.

As another example, acting unilaterally is very costly and encourages people on the sidelines (we'll call them "France") to make matters worse, increasing the cost of acting. Accordingly, the cost-benefit analysis of minimal altruism heavily favors multilateralism in international affairs. A prime example of the application of minimal altruism is global warming. The problem is, self-evidently, global, requiring some extra-national policy. Rich countries like the US will not benefit from reining in global warming as much as poorer, warmer, more coastal nations, so some altruism is required. But, since the US is part of the planet, the gain from controlling destructive climate change benefits us as well as others. The format is for countries to cooperate on limiting the emission of greenhouse gases, which is verifiable and does not require involvement with local culture or politics and the only workable solutions are all multilateral.

Fourth Principle: A Prudent Foreign Policy

Prudence, or a "slow food" foreign policy toward other nation-states, is the counterpart to minimal altruism toward the inhabitants of other societies. For centuries, people debated whether there could be a moral foreign policy at all. Nation states, lacking a common governor, were in a perpetual state of war, whether they were at war or not. Only national interest counted. The horrifying spectacle of the western democracies scrambling to appease Hitler, aka "Munich," and of American isolationism gave rise to a half-century in which Americans, at least, believed that morality played a role in international relations and aggressively pursued both a moral and self-interested resistance to Soviet communism. One might argue that the Vietnam War constituted a wakeup call that new principles of international relations were required. But it was the application of the "Munich" analysis to Iraq that solidified the notion that new principles of foreign policy were in order, even if a revision split the bipartisan consensus.

Prudence, or what the classical philosopher Aristotle called "practical wisdom," is the capacity to identify the right ends and to reason toward them in the right way, understanding what is good for themselves and for all humankind. In describing what went wrong with W's war in his brilliant riposte to the State of the Union address last January, new liberal James Webb described it well: "they [our rulers] owed us -- sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it." Aristotle's contribution to the debates over politics, in the wake, in his case, of the disastrous wars among the Greek city-states is his avoidance of "the illusion of easy virtue that the imagined flash of battle stimulates" proposing instead a complex balance of the warring and pacific proclivities in the human nature."

Virtue talk may sound particularly strange to American liberals, accustomed to the traditional understanding of American governance as a machine that would go of itself. The Constitution would prescribe a structure to contain vicious rulers with divisions and separations of powers, because the Founders didn't think we would otherwise find rulers of adequate virtue to sustain a republic. True, if the government had been more divided, some of the excesses of the last seven years would have been avoided.

With the rise of the Imperial presidency and the decline in the Congressional role in the all-important War Power, the case for a candidate of virtuous practical wisdom is more exigent than ever in the past. It is probably fair to say that the founders hoped divided government would rein in rulers who believed in divine right. But it's more than two centuries since 1776. Even our constitutional machine isn't enough of a protection against divinely inspired chief executives.

Virtues don't just exist in philosophy classrooms. The hard virtue of practical wisdom puts a premium on experienced, mature candidates over the macho candidates of easy virtue. Such contenders would fairly invoke their experience and put forth their moderate and evolving approaches as an exercise in reflective equilibrium. Virtuous liberals would put down the bullhorn and forego all claims to represent the will of God on the earth. Experience and a track record of making good decisions in conditions of uncertainty would replace flight jackets and talk of evil, empires or axes. In place of bravado, they would offer a transparent matrix of human good judgment in making decisions in the hope that their good judgment would apply to the most serious decision of all -- the decision to spend their peoples' lives.

Conclusion: It's the Philosophy, Stupid

I was a big James Carville fan at the time, but turns out it wasn't the economy (stupid) after all. The Clinton administration was just a passing fancy. If Democrats are going to move back into the hearts and minds of a meaningful majority of American voters, they are going to have to do it with a vision of our personhood and our obligations to one another more robust than the losers' philosophies of centrism and minimalism and in clear opposition to the conservatives' social contract tradition that went out of fashion in other advanced western societies years ago. These three posts are not intended for the senior common room: this is not a contest for who can generate the cleverest deconstruction of a single paragraph in the collected work of John Rawls. Nor are they intended to tell the candidates the details of their every campaign position. My goal is to open a conversation, hopefully for people much cleverer than I am, about why we the American voters should, in November, and thereafter, select liberals to hold power. What do we believe, at the deepest level, are the basic principles of a good society?