While the United States and NATO has been busily bombing parts of Libya, Obama only recently presented a speech discussing the justification for that action. He also addressed the question of why the United States was intervening in Libya while allowing seemingly similar uprisings to go unsupported. While this oversimplifies the matter, his basic reply was that the United States is acting in accord with its principles, but is primarily acting in accord with its pragmatic interests. In the case of Libya, our professed values happen to coincide with our professed interests. In the case of other places, such as Syria, our professed values are at odds with out professed interests. Hence, we are bombing Libya and not bombing Syria (and doing nothing but support Saudi Arabia).
Some pundits have taken to calling this approach the “Obama Doctrine”, which is a rather silly thing to do. After all, a look at American presidents shows that this sort of approach is actually the “what all American presidents have done and will do doctrine.” Obama’s major change is that he reduced the rhetoric and was honest about the pragmatic aspects of the matter. That, I think, is to his credit.
While this situation raises many moral topics, I will focus on the specific matter of pragmatism and principle. This has, of course, been discussed by thinkers far greater than I, such as Kant. To steal a bit from that fine fellow, there seems to be a clear distinction between acting from moral principles (crudely put, doing what is right because it is right) and acting from pragmatism (doing what seems most likely to serve one’s perceived non-moral interests). In some cases these can, of course, be in harmony. After all, there is no reason why what is right might not also serve to advance one’s practical interests.
However, it is not these situations that provide the test of one’s principles. Rather, the morally challenging situations are those in which one’s principles and perceived practical interests are not in harmony. In one such scenario, one’s principles might provide a moral reason to act while such action might be against one’s practical interests. For example, supporting an uprising in Syria would seem to match America’s professed principles while doing so would seem to be against our perceived interests. In another scenario, one practical interests might demand action that goes against one’s principles. For example, supporting dictators in the Middle East was long seen as being in our perceived interest while clearly being against our professed values.
On the face of it, to act only when our professed principles and perceived practical interests coincide would seem to show that our principles effectively amount to little or nothing. Truly having principles would seem to require that we act on them even when it is not in our perceived practical interest to do so. This also seems to require that we refrain from some actions, even when taking those actions would seem to be in our perceived interests. Otherwise what do our principles amount to other than empty words? In any case, we can hardly make a claim to moral goodness or principles if we merely act on the basis of perceived practical self interests and dress it up with high sounding phrases about freedom and rights.
This is not to say that we must be moral saints and always act on principle even when doing so is terribly harmful and contrary to our perceived interests. After all, being principled means doing what is correct and not what is self-destructive or beyond what can reasonable be expected. We may, of course, properly have interests. However, to make a claim to principles these principles must play a greater role than merely dressing up actions we would do anyway on practical grounds.