Democracy & Elections

Does Presidential Moral Reflection Matter? We’re About to Find Out

Quinta Jurecic
Monday, November 14, 2016, 12:57 PM

When I started research on moral theory and drone strikes a few years ago, I honestly never imagined the subject would become newsworthy in a day-to-day sense. At the time, the topic of the role of moral awareness and responsibility in the quality of a leader’s decision-making interested me because I found Sartre, Camus, and Dostoevsky compelling.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

When I started research on moral theory and drone strikes a few years ago, I honestly never imagined the subject would become newsworthy in a day-to-day sense. At the time, the topic of the role of moral awareness and responsibility in the quality of a leader’s decision-making interested me because I found Sartre, Camus, and Dostoevsky compelling. I picked drone strikes because they seemed like an interesting test case, and I was intrigued by President Obama’s presentation of himself as an anguished just-war theorist as well as Commander-in-Chief. But I was a political theory student, and we don’t think in terms of the headlines.

Then Tuesday’s election happened, and all of a sudden, the issues that I’ve been thinking about have jumped to the center of our national conversation.

If you are finding Lawfare useful in these times, please consider making a contribution to support what we do.

The core of my work centered on the question of how moral awareness and a capacity to deeply feel the moral burdens of decision-making affect a person’s capacity to exist and lead in the political space. To quote Max Weber, we live in a world that is “ethically irrational.” And to paraphrase Machiavelli, in order to carry out the work of politics, the leader must love his or her country more than his or her soul—that is, the leader must be willing to carry out ugly and even violent actions for the sake of the country, while keeping sharply present the knowledge that such action degrades the soul. The long-running argument is whether only a person willing to degrade his or her soul for the sake of country—and yet keep the painful knowledge of those moral compromises always in mind—is fit to lead a country. Does this willingness to compromise and do violence, and yet always feel the pain of compromise and violence, really make for a better leader?

When I wrote my senior thesis, I understood these questions of moral awareness and moral responsibility only as questions of academic interest. While I framed my argument in the context of President Obama’s self-presentation, I always imagined that the policy relevance of my work, if there was any, was secondary to its addressing a lacuna of research within my academic discipline.

Over the course of my time at Lawfare, that has changed: I’ve continued writing about the subject, focusing more and more directly on how considerations of moral awareness affect our understanding of the targeted killing program and the function of law in the executive branch. This summer, I also pondered the sharp contrast of our current president’s display of moral seriousness at the Democratic National Convention with the profound lack of moral seriousness that we find embodied in the person of Donald Trump.

But then Donald Trump was elected to the presidency.

The result is that we now find ourselves confronting a remarkable controlled experiment of sorts as we lurch from the exquisitely presented moral anguish and self-involved seriousness of Barack Obama to the proud, almost avowed moral emptiness of Trump.

Here’s one side of the contrast: Over the last eight years, President Obama has given a bravura performance as our philosopher-king, reading Thomas Aquinas and pondering the moral necessity and cost of targeting threats to the United States with deadly violence—and making sure we all know that he is doing so. The administration has been at pains to emphasize that we live in a country with a just-war theorist in the Oval Office. And the targeted killing program has been fitted closely to the individual moral character of that theorist in chief, who believes himself alone to be possessed of the moral seriousness necessary to preside over a program comparatively free of other institutional constraints.

Here’s the other side of the contrast: Our president-elect is a man who appears to have no capacity whatsoever for self-reflection or self-doubt and who has given every appearance that he is so narcissistic that he lacks the capacity to weigh the value of his soul against his love of country—or even to understand what that comparison means.

Compare this with President George W. Bush, who was often derided for being thoughtless or unserious about the lives affected by his military orders during his presidency, but who has presented a measure of thoughtfulness in the years since his time in office. Bush never pretended to be a philosopher-king. But Trump is the opposite of a philosopher-king: He comes off as having all the moral seriousness of a toddler. (While I am open to changing my opinion of the president-elect on this point based on future conduct, I should be candid that I do not expect I will need to.)

The move from Obama to Trump thus presents in unusually stark terms the question of whether and to what extent moral seriousness, and the conveyance of that seriousness, plays any role at all in the quality of presidential decision-making.

Now, to be sure, we can delude ourselves that Trump and Obama will not occupy precisely the same office. After all, new constraints may be implemented before the next president takes office; indeed, Obama indicated as much regarding the targeted killing program before the election. But as Benjamin Wittes has written at length, the nature of the office of the presidency places an inherent limit on how much the president himself (or herself) can be constrained. There is always the element of individual decision. And what President Obama can put in place on his own authority, President Trump can remove on his.

Perhaps we are going to learn that moral reflection plays a very small role and its resounding absence will thus have very little impact. There may be many reasons for this, including the layers and layers of bureaucracy and rulemaking that lie between the president and many—though not all—significant decisions and the layers of advisers that condition nearly all major presidential determinations.

Moreover, whether the president anguishes over a drone strike on a suspected terrorist in Yemen, or whether he cheerfully signs off on a strike without giving it a second thought, in many—though not allcases, we will get the same end result. The man in Yemen will still be dead, as may the civilians unlucky enough to be nearby. Anguish may be overrated.

On the other hand, maybe moral anguish has a significant effect indeed. Perhaps we will discover that President Obama’s concern over the difficult decisions before him really did shape the way that these matters were handled, producing procedures that made strikes more effective and less prone to kill innocent people in error. In the absence of such moral awareness and the self-criticism that comes with it, without a keen awareness of the tragedy of violence, maybe more people in Yemen will die and fewer of those dead will have posed the sort of threat against which military force is most usefully wielded. We may learn that anguish and rigor—and thus military effectiveness—are closely connected.

Finally, it is possible that moral anguish has comparatively little practical effect but a great deal of significance in publicly communicating the president’s seriousness. I’ve written about President Obama’s performance of anguish as a transparency of sorts—the way he has put on display the legal and moral debates within the executive branch that the public usually does not get to see. This anguish is a means of reassuring the public that the president and the executive branch take the burdens of office seriously, and therefore that the country is in good and capable hands. It is also a means of conveying moral and legal seriousness when requesting deference before the courts, to whom the same claim of power has a very different feel when it is presented with care and an understanding of moral weight than when it is presented cavalierly.

So even if bureaucracy and structures of law constrain a morally empty president’s ability to follow the path of least resistance, we may also find that the inability to communicate moral awareness and responsibility to the public and the judiciary presents a serious blow to the effectiveness and legitimacy of the office of the presidency, a blow which then invites the imposition of constraints from the outside.

This may be true not only domestically but also among our allies. I had a conversation last week with Matt Tait, a former information security specialist for GCHQ, who posited that British intelligence services may need to begin watching the United States government very closely to gauge the new president’s willingness or lack thereof to maintain restrictions on torture and against other morally offensive overreaches of power. Such monitoring has not been necessary under a president who clearly and publicly communicates his understanding of his moral and legal responsibility and the seriousness of his work, and whom allies trust to hold to the meaning of his words on such matters.

My hypothesis is that the true answer lies closest to this third possibility. The reason lies in a point by Max Weber, who knew something about moral life and its connection to the work of politics in times apparently without hope:

[I]t is immensely moving when a mature man—no matter whether old or young in years—is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position.

In other words, even if there’s no connection between moral reflection and the quality of decision-making, there may well be a connection between the public conveyance of moral seriousness and this thing we call leadership.

Quinta Jurecic is a fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare. She previously served as Lawfare's managing editor and as an editorial writer for the Washington Post.

Subscribe to Lawfare