Walzer: No pure Kantianism or pure utilitarianism in real life

April 21, 2010

TEHRAN - Michael Walzer, a Princeton professor emeritus, says a pure Kantianism and a pure utilitarianism may exist in philosophy “but in real life, in both our personal and our political affairs, these two are always mixed.”

Walzer made the remarks in an e-mail interview with the Mehr News Agency conducted by Hossein Kaji and Javad Heiran-Nia.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What are the most important questions about the relationship between ethics and politics?
A: The question should be: What are the key issues in political ethics? Or, more narrowly, what are the moral obligations of political leaders (also of activists of all sorts, but I will focus on leaders)? These obligations can be divided into two groups, the first being obligations to their own people—to promote their well-being, to protect their freedom, to respect their “general will,” as manifest through open political processes. Tyranny, repression, arbitrary arrests, torture—all these are violations of political ethics. The second group has to do with obligations abroad, in foreign relations generally and in war: to assist in the alleviation of desperate poverty and hunger, to prevent the massacre of innocent people, to respect the diversity of nations and cultures, and in wartime to avoid the killing of noncombatants. It is sometimes thought that these obligations are somehow in conflict with the necessities of political life. We ought to think of them, instead, as the first necessities, the crucial requirements of a decent politics. I understand that conflicts can arise, but I suspect that these are in fact rare. More often, the claim of conflict is nothing more than an excuse for indecency.
Q: Some thinkers have focused on the point that Kantian ethics is for personal spheres and utilitarian ethics is for public spheres such as political environment. Do you agree with this viewpoint?
A: In the philosopher’s study, a pure Kantianism and a pure utilitarianism may exist, and then this division may make sense. But in real life, in both our personal and our political affairs, these two are always mixed and therefore always impure. Consider the theory of just war, which I have been writing about for a long time. You might think of noncombatant immunity as a Kantian rule and proportionality as a utilitarian calculation, but the two have to go together. The same mix is visible everyday in our personal lives. I am committed, in a Kantian fashion, not to tell lies, but sometimes the consequences of telling the truth, calculated in a utilitarian way, seem too awful, and then I tell (what we call) a “white” lie. Neither Kantian perfection nor utilitarian realism is by itself adequate in politics or in personal life.
Q: Was the 20th century the best century in the history of philosophy? Why?
A: The century of Heidegger and Sartre? A century of willful obscurity and political idiocy. John Rawls is the towering exception, but he can’t save the century. Compare the era of Plato and Aristotle, or the era of Descartes and Spinoza, or the era of Hume and Kant. I don’t know how the relation of politics and philosophy works, but the 20th century was a time of tyranny, world war, and mass murder, and I would guess that that’s not a good time for philosophy. Certainly the response of philosophers was not anything to be proud of.
Michael Walzer is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He has played a critical role in the revival of a practical, issue focused ethics and in the development of a pluralist approach to political and moral life. Walzer’s books include Arguing About War (2004), On Toleration (1999), and Just and Unjust Wars (1977).