Be wary of anyone who claims absolute moral certainty in policy decisions, and be equally suspicious of anyone who dismisses moral concerns as irrelevant to the realities of policymaking, said Bryan Hehir during a panel discussion to release a new Center for American Progress book, Pursuing the Global Common Good. Hehir, a Catholic priest and professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, stressed that moral concerns always shape policy choices—whether explicitly or not—because morality is inherent in human behavior.
Hehir was one of four authors of Pursuing the Global Common Good who discussed the need for U.S. foreign policy to reflect our highest ethical values. From the positive effects of U.S. tsunami disaster relief to the abhorrent practices of Abu Ghraib, U.S. foreign policy is judged internationally in moral terms. The challenge and responsibility of the government is to live up to its highest moral responsibilities while safeguarding its national security interests.
This theme, discussed by panelists at yesterday’s event, is elaborated in Pursuing the Global Common Good, which was written in collaboration between policy and faith leaders. The book includes chapters on the Just War Ethic, torture, global warming, foreign aid, and the international responsibility to protect human beings against atrocities.
“This administration loves torture but likes to call it something else,” said panelist Bill Schulz, a CAP senior fellow and former head of Amnesty International, U.S.A. According to Schulz—who wrote the chapter on torture—the Bush administration has draped itself in the language of morality when it comes to torture, but it does not act accordingly.
Schulz also criticized the “ticking bomb” argument, which justifies torture by claiming that it could save innocent lives from imminent attack. According to Schulz, the reality is that such situations are virtually impossible to establish and are rarely limited. Moreover, as a practical matter, torture almost never works. Panelists agreed on the importance of establishing moral norms that would not be crossed, and the use of torture is one such norm.
Elizabeth Ferris, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who formerly worked with the World Council of Churches, emphasized the importance of non governmental groups and civil society in exerting an ethical influence on foreign policy. By exposing wrongdoing and pointing toward higher moral standards, such groups are crucial members of the global community, she said.
The panel also tackled the complexities of national sovereignty and international intervention. Elizabeth Ferris, who wrote a chapter on the responsibility to protect, discussed changing norms in terms of national sovereignty by explaining that nations no longer stand by and do nothing when governments attack their own people. At the same time, panelists acknowledged the difficulties of intervention when it comes to nuclear proliferation and maintaining the sovereignty of smaller or less powerful nations.
But these developing norms are not self-executing, said Denis McDonough, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who wrote a chapter on foreign assistance. Just because a norm has been established does not mean it is acted upon. We must use these developing norms to force action to support the global common good, he told attendees. And we must develop sufficient political will to do what is both responsible and right. Panelists agreed that these actions included eradicating torture, dedicating more resources to the responsibility to protect—and prevent—atrocities against humanity, and using principles of just war in evaluating the use of military force.
The bottom line is that consideration of the global common good strengthens U.S. security and foreign policy, bolsters the moral integrity of its citizens, and maintains the United States’ position as a moral leader. That’s exactly what is meant by the global common good.
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