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Reinhold Niebuhr's "Christian Pragmatism": A Principled Alternative to Consequentialism.

Although the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought on political theory has been a profound one, curiously, scholars have quite often misunderstood or misinterpreted his philosophy on issues that are of central importance to his political vision. Specifically, Niebuhr's program for ethical and political action is often described as one of "unrestricted" consequentialism, in which ethical decision making is by necessity reduced to a process where the ends justify the means. Despite the fact that Neibuhr's theory of ethics clearly called for an examination of the likely consequences of one's actions, it should nevertheless not be labeled in this manner. Although Niebuhr believed that the principles of justice were to be applied pragmatically (i.e., only after an examination of the likely consequences of one's actions), they were to be derived deontologically. Such a position not only made justice, and not prudence, the first principle of political obligation, but denied the correctness of the consequentialist tenet that the ends justify the means. The result of this two-step process of applying deontologically derived principles in a pragmatic fashion was an effective strategy, unique to Niebuhr's theory of ethics, for fulfilling the prescriptions of the law of love to the greatest degree possible, given the world as it is.

The influence of Reinhold Niebuhr's thought on international relations theory has been a profound one. Seminal realist thinkers such as Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and E. H. Carr have been quite explicit in recognizing the debt they owe Niebuhr in the development of their own scholarship. [1] Even Kenneth Waltz, the leading proponent of the dominant theory in contemporary international relations scholarship, neo-realism, and perhaps the most influential (and most often cited) of today's theorists, claims to ground some of his judgments on important political issues in the thought of Niebuhr. [2]

Despite the repeated claims of the tremendous influence of Niebuhr's thought, however, political scientists and others contributing to political journals have quite often misunderstood or misrepresented Niebuhr's philosophy on issues that are of central importance to his political vision. At a minimum, this mischaracterization does a disservice to Niebuhr and should be corrected on the grounds of scholarly ethics. At a maximum, this fact is politically dangerous to the extent that policies are justified by either invoking Niebuhr's name or the name of the school of realism that Niebuhr championed. [3]

The specific dimension of Niebuhr's thought that deserves reexamining is Niebuhr's conception of the relationship between the law of love and political action. A reexamination of this aspect of Niebuhr's philosophy is warranted on two grounds. First, the relationship between the ideal and the real represented to Niebuhr the "central problem" of political philosophy. [4] Second, despite the centrality of this relationship to Niebuhr's entire system of religious and political ethics, this remains one of the most misrepresented areas of his thought. Specifically, Niebuhr's pragmatic program for ethical and political action is quite often described as one of "unrestricted" consequentialism, [5] in which ethical decision making is by necessity reduced to a process where the ends justify the means. [6]

One of the primary purposes of this article is to challenge this interpretation of Niebuhr's thought. Although Niebuhr was undeniably a pragmatist, [7] he was not one of the sort that scholars have described. His pragmatism was based on the goal to realize the greatest degree of justice that the permanent and often intractable presence of sin and necessity would allow. In other words, Niebuhr did not examine consequences because there was no other standard other than ends by which one's acts could be determined and judged. Niebuhr was absolutely adamant in his assertion that the law of love, despite all corruptions engendered by man's sin and the contingencies created by man's finitude, continued to act as a permanent, that is, transcendent, source of inspiration, judgment, and renewal. Moreover, throughout his writings, he labeled the Machiavellian policy of the ends justifying the means as dangerous, [8] heretical, [9] and morally perverse. [10] Niebuhr's pragmatism necessitated an examination of consequen ces, but this examination was necessary not for the purposes of wholly determining the means of action or for absolving those means of moral wrong-doing. Instead, it provided an effective method for fulfilling the law of love to the greatest degree possible, given the world as it is.

In some ways, my interpretation of Niebuhr's thought in fulfilling this first purpose of my article is not unique. Indeed, theologians such as Langdon Gilkey, Dennis McCann, and Robin Lovin espouse a view of Niebuhr's system of political ethics that is similar to my own. [11] Nevertheless, because many individuals, both political scientists and theologians (as evidenced by the previous citations) continue to misunderstand or misinterpret Niebuhr's theory of political ethics, a reexamination of his views in this area is worthwhile.

The second primary purpose of my article, however, does involve a unique interpretation of Niebuhr's philosophy. In brief, I argue that within a particular dispositional ethic created through awareness of a transcendent ideal, Niebuhr offered a two-step process of ethical decision-making. The combination of this process within the context of this dispositional ethic resulted in an effective strategy for realizing the prescriptions of the law of love to the greatest degree possible. [12]

This article will be divided into the following sections. First, I will briefly review the differences between consequentialist and deontological theories. Second, I will discuss Niebuhr's conception of the transcendence of God's law, and the dispositional ethic this conception creates in man. Policy implications of this ethic will be discussed in the third section, which will be followed by an examination of Niebuhr's two-step strategy for realizing in creasingly higher levels of political justice in history. I wil. conclude with an examination of two case studies in order to demonstrate how Niebuhr's theory of ethics can be applied to real world issues.

Deontological and Consequentialist Theories

The differences between deontological and consequentialist (which are also labeled as teleological or utilitarian) theories of ethics are well known. A consequentialist theory is grounded upon the belief that the sole criterion for decision-making is that actions have the intended effect of producing a greater balance of good consequences over bad ones than any other policy option. In other words, to these types of theories, "an act is right if and only if it... is intended to produce at least as great a balance of good over evil as any other available alternative; and act is wrong if and only if it does not do so." [13] Thus the ends in question become "the one and only" criteria for action in consequentialist theories. [14] A necessary implication of this position is that the means by which ends are pursued become virtually irrelevant to decision-making. If consequences are the only consideration for action, means should be chosen solely on the grounds of which ones most efficiently bring about the desired end. From this logical sequence derives the maxim "the ends justify the means." [15]

In contrast, deontological theories hold that policies should result, at least in part, from principles that are derived independently of the likely consequences of these actions. According to William Frankena, "deontological theories deny what teleological theories affirm. They deny that the right, the obligatory, and the morally good are wholly... a function of what...promotes the greatest balance of good over evil for self, one's society, or the world as a whole."'6 Instead of ends, most deontological theories derive prescriptions for action from transcendent principles, i.e, principles that are derived without regard to particular historical circumstances or interests and are universally applicable. Most importantly, these principles are held to be valid regardless of the consequences they bring about.

Significantly, what distinguishes deontological theories from consequentialist ones is not necessarily a lack of belief on the part of the utilitarians that a transcendent standard of ethical obligation exists. What may distinguish the two types of theories is instead the political relevance of such a standard. In other words, even if consequentialists believe that man is capable of discerning principles of obligation that transcend the contingencies of history and that are formed independently of the ends they bring about, these individuals hold that these principles are, for whatever reasons, simply not applicable to the pragmatic world of politics.

The next sections will attempt to articulate Niebuhr's program for ethical and political action. I will demonstrate that while Niebuhr's philosophy undeniably considered the consequences in formulating his political advice, he did so in ways that are in significant contrast to utilitarian theories. Thus, while Niebuhr was not a pure deontologist, the consistently made charge that he was a consequentialist who believed that the ends justify the means is a mistaken one. I argue instead that Niebuhr's system of political action provides important guidance in fulfilling a deontological standard, the law of love, to the greatest degree possible in a world of sin and necessity.

The Transcendent Nature of God's Law and the Dispositional Ethic It Creates

To Niebuhr, the most important and most distinctive contribution of prophetic religion to political morality and ethical theories is a comprehension of a "dimension of depth" in life. [17] Explicit in this conception of Niebuhr's were two seemingly paradoxical insights, which when held together in creative tension provide prophetic religions a unique understanding of history and an original theory of ethics. The paradox that Niebuhr's conception of the dimension of depth in life reveals is that God's law is both transcendent and immanent to history. Niebuhr's understanding of the transcendent dimension of God's law and the implications it generates will be discussed in this section. The implications of the immanent dimension will be analyzed in the next two.

A principal insight of prophetic religions, and one of the keys to Niebuhr's political philosophy, is the belief that God's law forever transcends man's understanding and accomplishments. According to Niebuhr, "A religion of revelation is grounded in the faith that God speaks to man from beyond the highest pinnacle of the human spirit; and that this voice of God will discover man's highest not only to be short of the highest but involved in the dishonesty of claiming that it is the highest. ["18] There are three implications that are critical for our purposes that necessarily result from an understanding of a transcendent standard that is always and inevitably above man's ability and inclination to realize it. [19] When these are taken together, they create a "dispositional ethic" [20] that is unique to prophetic religions and the concomitant dimension of depth by which life is understood.

The first of these implications that results from Niebuhr's conception of transcendence is that all of human history necessarily stands under negative judgment. If man can find meaning, fulfillment, and salvation in fulfilling God's law, but complete realization of this law remains beyond the limits of man's sinful life, then all of the human experience must be condemned as falling short of the glory of God.

The second implication resulting from Niebuhr's prophetic conception of religion originates directly from the previous one. Once the permanence of God's judgment on all of human history is understood and acknowledged, the need for repentance becomes obvious. In other words, the wisdom of a prophetic religion, as Niebuhr time and again explains, not only powerfully reminds us of our failure to fulfill perfectly the law of love, but shatters man's repeated pretensions that he has.

The first two ramifications resulting from the transcendent nature of God's law create the preconditions for the third. Awareness of the complete transcendence of God's law has the double effect of reinforcing both the finite nature of our knowledge, power, and virtue, and the sinful pretension to deny this partiality In turn, the awareness of our finitude and sin despite our highest achievements creates in both individuals and groups a sense of humility This disposition helps both to limit the often fanatical ambitions of man and to foster a sense of compromise and conciliation.

In sum, the above analysis reveals that to Niebuhr the law of love in its transcendent capacity acts as a principle of "indiscriminate criticism" [21] that judges the partiality and sinfulness of all human endeavors, thereby creating a disposition toward repentance and humility and away from fanatical creeds. It must be stressed that Niebuhr's conception of the dimension of depth in life, and the dispositional ethic it creates, result from a deontologically-derived standard of action. Indeed, to Niebuhr the law of love, to be consistent with the prophetic tradition of Judeo-Christian religion, must necessarily be derived without consideration of ends and be universally applicable. According to him, "it must be observed...that no appeal to social consequences could ever fully justify [the] demands of Jesus....[For] if the action is motivated by regard for social consequences it will hardly be pure enough to secure the consequences which are supposed to justify it. Upon that paradox all purely prudential morality is shattered." [22] If the sum-total of Niebuhr's program for ethical-political action was simply to juxtapose the transcendent nature of the law of love and human history in order to remind us of the partiality of our knowledge and virtue and the sinfulness of our endeavors, the deontological nature of his thought would be clear.

Even though the "dispositional ethic" of humility and repentance created by the transcendent nature of the law of love may "plausibly be counted as an ethic for politicians," [23] our evaluation of the political ethics of Niebuhr's philosophy cannot end here, however. It cannot for two principal reasons. First, although the dimension of indiscriminate judgment was very important to Niebuhr's philosophy because it set limits to human pretensions, Niebuhr hoped to establish a system of political ethics that went much further than articulating a negative standard that precluded certain options from the human agenda. Perhaps even more important to Niebuhr was to establish a positive program of political action that stimulated the achievement of increasing levels of political justice. In other words, Niebuhr hoped not only to provide a principle of indiscriminate judgment by which all actions are evaluated as relative, but also a principle of discriminate criticism which "provides a benchmark for judging between greater goods and lesser evils." [24] Therefore, before we can judge Niebuhr's philosophy as deontological, consequentialist, or some mixture of the two, we must examine this other dimension of his program for ethical action.

The second primary reason why we cannot unequivocally label Niebuhr's philosophy after only an examination of his conception of the law of love as a principle of indiscriminate criticism is that a deontological standard that completely transcends human experience may, paradoxically, engender a consequentialist ethos. In the case of Niebuhr's theology if the distinctions in terms of relative justice among human communities pale in comparison to the degree to which all are involved in violation of God's law, do these differences among communities continue to have any meaning? In other words, to the extent that the law of love is an absolute impossibility are relative violations of this law meaningful, or must all be judged as equally sinful?

The answers to these questions have profound implications both for one's view of history and the type of ethical theory that one espouses. In terms of one's understanding of history if the law of love is always and only transcendent over the human experience, the only function this law can serve in life is one of judgment, and thus the meaning of history must necessarily, and only, be a negative one. According to Niebuhr, "the problem of the meaning of history according to prophetism is how history can be anything more than judgment. which is to say, whether the promise of history can be fulfilled at all.,, [25] In other words, to the extent that a deontological standard of action becomes an impossible goal, history loses its potential for meaningful action because all attempts to realize this standard will be hopelessly futile. Subscribers to this understanding of the possibilities of humanity may be saved from the pitfalls of fanaticism only to succumb to the hazards of cynicism, relativism, or apathy Nieb uhr hoped to avoid all these perils.

In terms of policy relevance, if a deontological standard serves only as a negative function in history because of its position of complete transcendence, it can have little immediate applicability to the world of politics. If one is looking for guidance on policy decisions, it is not terribly useful in terms of concrete, positive instruction to know that no matter what one chooses it will make no difference in solving the profound conflict between all men and God. A principle of indiscriminate judgment is extremely important in creating in statesmen a dispositional ethic of humility and fostering limited political objectives. Yet such a principle cannot help us to decide among limited goals because a completely transcendent principle cannot provide the discriminate guidance one needs to operate in the political world. Moreover, and this is the crucial point for our purposes, the inapplicability of a deontological standard to the political realm may actually lead to the adoption of a consequentialist ethos. It may do so because even if one believes in the existence of a deontological standard, if it is not relevant to political decision-making in a positive (as opposed to merely a negative) sense, statesmen may have no other choice but to base their policies on the ends they bring about. In other words, if the transcendent norms that exist only serve to judge all political acts as equally immoral, there is no criteria by which to distinguish among them. Thus no political actions can be labeled as better or worse because all are equally deserving of judgment. If one does not receive specific political guidance from a deontologically derived standard, a consequentialist one will in all likelihood fill this void.

Thus the ability to demonstrate the deontological nature of Niebuhr's philosophy turns on his ability to relate the law of love to politics in something more than a judgmental role. In addition to this indiscriminate function, the law of love must perform some discriminate tasks as well. The next two sections will attempt to demonstrate how Niebuhr tried to relate the transcendent character of God's law to the specificities and contingencies of politics.

The Immanent Dimension of God's Law: The Policy Implications of Niebuhr's Dispositional Ethic

It is important to realize that one set of means by which the law of love relates to history (another will be discussed in the next section), i.e., one way in which the complete transcendence of God's law has practical policy implications, has already been discussed: by demonstrating the sinfulness and partiality of all of human history. There are two sets of policy implications that are critical for our purposes that result from Niebuhr's incorporation of the universality of sin and finitude into his theory of ethics. First, the universality of sin necessitated that Niebuhr shift his discussion of the moral possibilities of man from that of love to justice. If man is incapable of perfectly fulfilling what the law of love requires, yet the obligation to do so still remains, one's language used to describe ethical action must capture this dilemma. To Niebuhr, justice is the term that fills this gap. He defined justice as "the approximation of brotherhood under the conditions of sin." [26]

In other words, instead of the impossible ideal of the love commandment, the principles of justice attempt to incorporate the fact of sin into their formulation. This does not mean that the principles of justice are not derived deontologically. Niebuhr is clear that the three primary principles of justice: equality order, and liberty, just like love, are transcendent in nature and universal in scope. [27] Unlike love, however, the regulative principles of justice incorporate the realities of sin into their composition. For example, the ideal of equality (which is explicitly implicated in the love commandment: "You shall love thy neighbor as yourself") is also the first principle of justice because, being the foundation of balances of power, it is a primary means of mitigating the effects of sin. [28]

If taken to an extreme, however, equality can create a terribly unjust system, since it can imply either the negation of freedom (if, for example, a governmental structure enforces a leveling effect on the rest of society) [29] or, paradoxically, the radical expression of liberty. This latter scenario obtains when, through a state of perfect equality, all individuals are necessarily "judges in their own cases." In this type of society, there is, by definition, no governmental authority and civil relations are of the pernicious variety described by most state-of-nature theorists. To avoid these pitfalls that arise from man's sinful constitution, Niebuhr's conception of justice, in addition to equality, also stressed both liberty (in order to allow the fruits of human creativity to grow and to meet the "special needs of the life of the other"), [30] and order, since it prevents the anarchical tendencies that result from either radical equality or excessive liberty. [31] When taken together these three principl es, if implemented in the proper proportions, form the foundation which would enable "real persons to live well." [32] In other words, these principles of justice provide the guidelines for what "we would want for [others] if we loved them." [33]

In addition to helping to define the principles that constitute justice, the second set of policy implications that resulted from Niebuhr's belief in the universality of sin is that it led him to prescribe two mechanisms, one institutional and the other dispositional, that he believed afforded the best chance of realizing these principles. The first of these mechanisms has been alluded to since it is derivative of the principle of equality: the balance of power. If because of man's sin, people-of both good and malign intent [34] -- invariably take advantage of those in a weaker position, the most obvious solution to this dilemma is to minimize the power disparities among both individuals and groups. According to Niebuhr: "All political justice is achieved by coercing the anarchy of collective self-interest into some kind of decent order by the most attainable balance of power. Such a balance, once achieved, can be stabilized, embellished, and even, on occasion, perfected by more purely moral considerations. But there has never been a scheme of justice in history which did not have a balance of power at its foundation." [35] Without such an equilibrium, the needs of weaker parties will not be met. They will not be so because the finitude of man prevents him from understanding the needs of his neighbor as well as his own, and probably more importantly, because the sin of man impels him to prefer, both consciously and unconsciously, the fulfillment of his own interests more than his neighbors'.

In addition to a balance of power, a second mechanism that an awareness of the universality of sin makes necessary if one wants to have the best chance of realizing the principles of justice is through what Dennis McCann, following Niebuhr, has called "the test of tolerance." [36] The purpose of this test is to limit the conflict among both individuals and groups that has occurred throughout history due to the influence of rival ideologies over the mind of man. In other words, the purpose of the test of tolerance is to impel man to forgo those perfectionist and proselytizing policies that are the essence of fanatical creeds and idolatrous beliefs. The test is predicated upon reminders both that the law of love is completely transcendent over human history and that it stands in perpetual judgment over every human creation, both ideational and institutional. This comparison powerfully reveals the contingency of man's conception of truth, virtue, and knowledge, thereby fostering a feeling of contrition and humi lity in both individuals and groups. [37]

The constant revelation of the perspectival nature of man's accomplishments--along with the disposition toward humility that this revelation creates--has critical implications of a practical nature. Most importantly, it adds an ideational support to the institutional framework established by the balance of power. Leaders that decide policies with a spirit of forgiveness and humility will tend to eschew self-righteous and fanatical policies that place the most stress on a functioning balance of power. A spirit of toleration not only impels man to avoid fanatical policies but also helps to create a spirit of compromise because no position is granted an absolute claim on the truth. As a result, political relations are made both more stable and more moderate. [38]

In sum, this section has attempted to illustrate one mechanism (another will be discussed in the next section) by which Niebuhr hoped to relate the law of love to history in terms of positive policy advice (i.e., in something more than simply a judgmental role). Somewhat paradoxically, by judging all of human history as sinful, the transcendent dimension of the law of love has immanent policy implications in the sense that it reveals the need for balances of power and tests of tolerance.

Although the above insight, which is generated by a pessimistic understanding of man and his communities, may constitute a "more or less coherent framework for making moral choices in politics," [39] it is not unique to Niebuhr. Indeed, it is extremely similar to the conceptions of political efficacy offered by Niebuhr 's fellow political realists. Both Morgenthau and Kennan, for example, believed that man must be humble in the pursuit of his interests lest crusading policies result, and that a stable balance of power was critical for self-preservation in a sinful world. What separates Niebuhr from these other scholars is that within the context of these first two principles, Niebuhr offered additional positive requirements for relating the law of love to the realities of history. It is the position of this article that Niebuhr offered a two-step strategy for realizing increasing levels of political justice within the context of a functioning balance of power stabilized by a spirit of toleration. This strate gy so far as I know, is unique to Niebuhr.

Niebuhr's Two-step Strategy for Applying the Law of Love to History

Niebuhr's program for relating the law of love to history beyond the contextual factors discussed in the previous section consisted of a two-step process of moral reasoning which, when taken together, provided a reasonable strategy for fulfilling the law of love to the greatest degree possible, given the contingencies and corruptions of the particular situation.

The first step in Niebuhr's strategy for ethical action was a call to realize more perfectly the law of love and the principles of justice that approximate it in a sinful world. This was the starting point for Niebuhr's analysis because to him only the law of love is normative. This belief necessarily flowed from Niebuhr 's understanding of the "myths" of the Creation and the Fall. [40] The myth of Creation in which God both created the world and was present in the Garden of Eden reveals that God is both involved in, yet separate from, the world. This particular understanding of the relationship between the Divine and history as both transcendent and immanent has critical implications for one's understanding of the meaning of history. For if God stands within history as opposed to merely above it, then history must be meaningful as well. God's presence implies that there is a unity and coherence to life, and although these qualities cannot be perfectly comprehended or realized (as God also stands outside of history as its Creator), the limits of the possibilities for doing so cannot a priori be determined. As a result of this cosmology, Judeo-Christian theology sees the world "as a realm of meaning and coherence without insisting that the world is totally good or that the totality of things must be identified with the Sacred." [41] Moreover, and just as important, to the extent that man can find meaning in obedience to God, which is a further implication of the myth of Creation as man was made "in the image of God," then individual fulfillment can be found only in following God's law, and its final form of the law of love as revealed by Christ.

Significantly, the myth of the Fall does not nullify either of these two insights generated by the myth of Creation (i.e., that history is potentially indefinitely creative, and that man can only find meaning in obedience to God and His law). It is true that the universality of sin that the Fall reveals serves to limit in important ways the extent to which man is capable of realizing the law of love. Hence the perennial need for balances of power stabilized by a test of tolerance. But because in Judeo-Christian theology the Fall is separate from Creation, man's disobedience to God neither destroys the potential meaningfulness of history, nor negates man's duty to act on this possibility by living up the standards of God's commandments. In ontological terms, man's sinful existence cannot destroy his dutiful essence since "sin is a corruption of man's true essence but not its destruction." [42] Consequently, "no man, however deeply involved in sin, is able to regard the misery of sin as normal. Some memory of a previous condition of blessedness seems to linger in his soul; some echo of the law which he has violated seems to resound in his conscience." [43]

In sum, because of Niebuhr's interpretation of the Judeo-Christian myths of Creation and the Fall, [44] his first principle of ethical action was grounded upon the belief that only the law of love is normative, with "normative" understood as a set of standards that prescribe behavior, regardless of circumstance. [45] Niebuhr's theory of ethics was thus clearly built upon a deontological foundation. Indeed, his understanding of the prescriptive role of the law of love in history is the essence of a deontological theory of obligation: it is categorical (i.e., it is unconditional), universal in scope, and it is formulated in an a priori manner without reference to ends. Consequently, actions that violate the law of love remain wrong regardless of the consequences they bring about.

After establishing his belief that realizing the law of love is the permanent obligation of man (and thereby differentiating himself from other political realists), Niebuhr's second stage in ethical reasoning was to distance himself from both secular and Christian liberals, who, in his view, held that all that was needed for ethical action in history was to follow the first step, that is to adhere to the injunctions of the love commandment. Niebuhr distanced himself from such a position in two highly interrelated ways. First, against the perfectionist views of liberal thinkers, he reasserted the intractability and universality of human sin and finitude, thereby demonstrating a permanent gap between the ideal and human potential to realize it. As seen, belief in the universality of sin both shifts the emphasis of man's obligation from the principles of love to justice (though, as stated, both sets of ideals are deontologically derived), and contextualizes the possibilities of justice in the sense that the pri nciples that constitute it must be realized within the context of a balance of power and a spirit of humility.

Second, against those who might be labeled orthodox deontologists (i.e., those who believe that any examination of consequences in an ethical theory should be avoided), Niebuhr argued that any ethical strategy that operates in a world of sin must include a pragmatic dimension that systematically examines the anticipated consequences of one's actions. [46] There are two principal reasons why Niebuhr felt that an examination of the consequences is necessary in order to facilitate the cause of justice. First, as with all deontological theories that are defined by a number of rules, there will inevitably be times in history when there will be conflicts among them. To use a famous example, a person cannot simultaneously keep his promise to the Jews in his protection and tell the truth to the Nazis. Or more generally, if, as stated, the regulative principles of justice are equality liberty, and order, there will inevitably be times that equality or order can only be promoted at the cost of freedom, and vice versa. [47] We cannot tell a priori which of these principles at any particular time we should promote. In other words, when the principles of justice are in conflict with one another, we have no way of knowing which of these principles of justice we should stress at any particular time unless we factor the ends of our actions into our decision-making.

In addition to the problem of conflicting prima facie rules of obligation, a second, and more significant, reason why Niebuhr believed that consequences must be factored into any effective theory of ethical decision-making is that following the prescriptions of the law of love in a world of sin and necessity without considering likely outcomes will very often lead to situations in which this law is broken more profoundly. In other words, a critical insight of Niebuhr's understanding of human nature is that there is often a paradoxical (Niebuhr also used the adjective "ironic" to describe this idea) relationship between the prescriptions of love and actual outcomes. [48] This relationship is ironic because by adopting a pure ethic of intention in a sinful world, we will quite often end up violating that ethic more profoundly because we well surrender the affairs of this world to those without such moral scruple. To adopt a policy of "Do justice though the heavens fall" is in many ways a perversion of moral ob ligation because it all but abdicates the world of politics to those who are not so ethically restrained. [49]

One remedy for this dilemma is to take into account the likely consequences of one's actions. If an actor believes that his actions will lead to the opposite of his intent, then some other, perhaps less loving, strategy should be adopted. A critical implication of this position is that if one believes that extremely just means would result in terribly unjust consequences, and if isolationist strategies and a disavowal of responsibilities are deemed similarly unacceptable, [50] then ethical strategies, paradoxically, must incorporate means that are less than just (i.e., they are unjust) into their modus operandi in order to be effective. In other words, if one believes that following a perfectly just strategy of political ethics (e.g., "Do justice though the heavens fall") or an ascetic retreat from the world of politics will both result in the triumph of those with the least moral restraint, what choice does one have but to adopt unjust means if one wants to avoid this outcome? According to Niebuhr, "ambiguo us methods are required for the ambiguities of history. Let those who are revolted by such ambiguities have the decency and consistency to retire to the monastery, where medieval perfectionists found their asylum." [51] It is primarily on account of the facts that Niebuhr felt that a consideration of ends was necessary for any strategy of ethical action to be successful in a sinful world and that unjust means were necessary to avoid particularly heinous outcomes (and, conversely, to bring about more desired results), that his theory of ethics is described as one of consequentialism in which the ends justify the means.

It should be clear from the previous sections, however, that such an understanding of Niebuhr's thought is greatly mistaken. It is so for the following reasons. First, Niebuhr argued for an examination of the consequences of one's actions as only the second stage in his strategy for ethical action. The first stage, his call to realize more perfectly the principles of justice that approximate the law of love, did not involve such an undertaking. In other words, while to Niebuhr the regulative principles of justice were to be applied pragmatically (i.e., only after an examination of the likely consequences of one's actions), they were to be derived deontologically. Though pragmatic concerns would necessarily limit the application of these principles, one's ultimate goals and means were to be guided by a transcendent standard. The qualitative difference between a strategy that attempts to apply deontologically derived principles in a pragmatic fashion and a strategy in which actions are determined solely with r egard to ends should be clear. In the former, a transcendent standard of morality is believed to be normative, in the latter, prudence is elevated to a normative level. [52]

Second, those who argue that Niebuhr accepted the doctrine that the ends justify the means are mistaken because they ignore or discount the implications of Niebuhr's conception of the transcendent nature of God and His law. Fundamental to Niebuhr's theory of ethics was the belief that the only standard against which ends and means were to be judged was the law of love. As demonstrated, this law provided both an indiscriminate and a discriminate standard of judgment for all of human history. Significantly, both functions clearly refute the idea that Niebuhr believed in the ethical theory that the ends could justify the means.

To begin with, the claim that Niebuhr believed that ends could "justify" one's means, thereby allowing vice to be turned into virtue or unrighteousness into righteousness, [53] is to ignore Niebuhr's long-standing belief that no act could ever bridge the chasm between man and God "in whose sight no man living is justified." [54] Once the permanent gap between history and God is acknowledged, then all means, even ones that bring about good consequences, stand under negative judgment. Justification by ends thus was to Niebuhr historically impossible.

Probably more importantly for our purposes, an implication of Niebuhr's conception of the law of love as a principle of discriminate criticism (which made note of the relative violations of this law by different polices), was the belief that the varying degrees of morality of different actions were (at least in part) determined through a comparison of those acts to the law of love and the principles of justice that approximate it. Consequently, ends could not determine the morality of means, since the degree of morality or immorality is in important ways determined through comparison to an independent ethical standard. It is true that Niebuhr believed that the realities of both sin and necessity often required the use of unjust means in order to realize various moral ends such as the preservation of one's self, family, or nation from the encroachments of others. However, while Niebuhr believed that the force of necessity and the worthy ends these means realize may mitigate one's guilt over using evil methods , he was clear that they are incapable of "justifying" these means and thereby completely absolving them of their immoral content. Ends are incapable of performing this function for the simple reason that to Niebuhr the law of love continues to judge the relative morality or immorality of an action regardless of the ends it brings about. Consequently, "the actions to which men are 'driven' by necessity are yet charged with guilt." [55]

This belief has profound implications for one's theory of ethics and policy prescriptions. For if individuals' actions continue to be judged as wrong (hence the feelings of guilt) even under conditions of necessity--when presumably highly-valued ends are at serious risk--then the likely consequences of one's actions can be the sole determinant of neither one's policy choices nor the moral rightness or wrongness of these actions. Once this dimension of Niebuhr 's thought is recognized, then the charges that he was a consequentialist who believed that the ends justify the means must be judged as groundless. If the morality of an act is even partially determined independently of the consequences it engenders, and if man (as Niebuhr clearly believed) is commanded to reduce the immorality of his actions to the greatest degree possible, then the "right, the obligatory, and the morally good" cannot "wholly" be determined by an examination of ends, as consequentialist thought asserts. [56] Instead, one's actions sho uld at least partially be determined by antecedently-known principles, a fact which will serve to constrain the maximization of the end or good in question.

Niebuhr clearly believed that it would be politically and morally disastrous if the law of love, even in its immanent dimension, was denied its deontological foundation (i.e., its ability to prescribe the ends of humanity and to proscribe the means by which man should achieve them). If the law of love were denied this duel capacity, thereby opening the door to an ethical theory in which the ends could justify the means, Niebuhr believed that man's capacity for rationalization would inevitably impel him to delude himself into thinking that any sacrifice, no matter how seemingly immoral, should be made in order to realize his interests. Moreover, by the logic of consequentialist thought, man could engage in this process of rationalization of sinful and selfish activities without the restraining, and potentially redeeming, influence of a guilty conscience. If the ends justify the means, man's guilt that he should feel for moral wrong-doing is absolved without the need for either penitence or forgiveness. If man were to adopt such an ethical theory, politics, to Niebuhr, would inevitably become unbearable. According to him, "it is not possible to build a community without the manipulation of power is not possible to use power and remain completely 'pure.' [Yet] we must not have an easy conscience about the impurities of politics or they will reach intolerable proportions." [57]

In summary, this section has demonstrated that in addition to advocating balances of power stabilized with a spirit of toleration, Niebuhr also sought to relate the law of love to history through a two-step strategy of ethical action. The first step in this strategy was to reveal that the goal of political action is justice, understood as the greatest approximation of love that the corruptions and contingencies of any particular historical situation will allow. Second, Niebuhr called for an examination of the likely consequences of one's actions. Although Niebuhr's theory of ethics clearly called for this examination, it should nevertheless not be labeled a consequentialist one in which the ends justify the means. It should not both because he called for an examination of consequences in order to most effectively apply deontologically-derived principles, and because to Niebuhr the moral rightness or wrongness of an act is determined (at least in part) independently of the ends that it achieved.

Case Studies: Applying Niebuhr's Theory of Political Ethics

Two examples, one from international and one from domestic politics, should serve to illustrate both how Niebuhr's program for ethical action can be applied to real-world issues and how such thinking is different from a consequentialist ethos, as well as that of a pure deontological position. The first example is that of Niebuhr's advice for attempting to solve to the greatest degree possible the nuclear dilemma within the context of the Cold War. The second is that of Niebuhr's prescriptions for establishing a system of universal healthcare in the U.S. [58]


As demonstrated, the essence of Niebuhr's strategy for ethical action was to articulate a two-step process of ethical reasoning that takes place within the context of a particular disposition of relating to the world. The disposition that Niebuhr hoped to create via a comparison of history to the transcendent dimension of God and His law was an acute awareness of the sinfulness of all of human history As seen, the ultimate purposes of creating this awareness were two in number: to make clear the timeless need to establish balances of power in order to control for the universality of man's sin, and to create a sense of humility and toleration in all individuals and groups that results from knowledge of the imperfections of one's achievements. This awareness of a common fate is an important contributor to the peaceful resolution of disputes since it creates a common framework of understanding without which compromise is unlikely

Given these goals that constitute the dispositional ethic Niebuhr hoped to create, it is not surprising that the starting point for his plan to alleviate the tensions of the Cold War, including its nuclear dimension, began with a reminder to both sides that though the conflict between the U.S. and USSR was great, since it resulted from profound strategic and ideological differences, it paled in comparison to the conflict between both sides and God. According to Niebuhr:

We do, to be sure, face a problem which Lincoln did not face. We cannot say, 'Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God.' ... But even in this situation it is very dangerous to define the struggle as one between a God-fearing and a godless civilization...Even the most Christian civilization and even the most pious church must be reminded that the true God can be known only where there is some awareness of a contradiction between divine and human purposes, even on the highest level of human aspirations. [59]

Once the fact of the common violation of God's law was brought to the forefront of the consciences of both sides, humility and contrition before the sovereignty of God would hopefully blunt the ideological struggle of the Cold War that both stimulated hatred and fanaticism and precluded compromise. [60]

In addition to attempting to foster in both the U.S. and USSR feelings of humility, toleration, and contrition that would hopefully facilitate compromise between the two superpowers, the second component in Niebuhr's attempt to create a particular dispositional ethic that would tend to abate the tensions of the Cold War, including its nuclear dimension, was to demonstrate the timeless need for a balance of power. Niebuhr believed that the adoption of any other strategy would put either side at the mercy of the intentions of the stronger, and a correct understanding of the lessons of history and of the sinfulness of man precluded all but a pessimistic prediction from such a vulnerable position. [61] The creation and maintenance of a balance of power (or in the nuclear case a balance of terror), however, would hopefully provide not only the time necessary to allow the fruits of humility and contrition discussed earlier to manifest themselves, but it would also provide a necessary supplement to these dispositio ns because it reduced the temptation of aggression by either side.

After establishing the institutional and dispositional framework within which ethical action should take place, Niebuhr's next stage of ethical reasoning was to articulate a strategy for positive political action. In other words, the dispositional ethic just discussed set the limits and context for ethical action. Within this context, Niebuhr articulated a two-step process for realizing increasingly higher levels of political justice.

Niebuhr's two-step program for ethical action consisted of, first, an assertion of the relevance of deontologically-derived principles, and second, in order to best realize these aims in a world of sin and necessity, an examination of the likely consequences of one's actions. In the case of the nuclear stalemate between the U.S. and USSR, Niebuhr was clear that "we can sacrifice neither order nor justice." [62] The general goals that Niebuhr sought to realize were clear: the protection of peoples' lives and liberties from Soviet (and sometimes American) aggression, and the creation of a global political climate that allowed the genuine needs of peoples from around the world to be met. These aims are the general goals of beneficence that are intrinsic to most deontological theories. [63] The ethical problem that Niebuhr (and other scholars with similar goals) confronted was how to realize them in the context of a balance of terror, which by holding millions of innocent people hostage, seemed to preclude the v ery aims he was trying to fulfill. Niebuhr's solution to this dilemma reveals how his two-step process of ethical decision-making is different from and in the long-run more successful than either consequentialist or pure deontological theories.

A pure deontologist's solution to the nuclear dilemma must of necessity be one that advocates the abolition of these weapons. If one's maxim is "Do justice though the heavens fall," a situation that holds millions of innocents hostage is clearly unacceptable. In contrast, a pure consequentialist can justify not only a situation of mutual assured destruction, but also the use of nuclear weapons, as long as the benefits of such actions outweigh the costs.

Niebuhr's theory of ethics, because it sought to apply a set of deontologically derived principles to history after an examination of likely consequences of one's actions, is distinct from both of these approaches. Against orthodox deontologists, Niebuhr believed that following their advice would lead to perverse consequences in which the abolition of nuclear weapons would lead not to an increase in justice, but a significant diminution of it. It is for this reason that Niebuhr advocated the maintenance of the balance of terror lest the stronger power exploit the weaker. Against consequentialists, Niebuhr was quick to point out on this issue that the deontological rules of justice were always in effect, even though the realities of the world necessitated an examination of consequences. Because the degree of morality of an action is determined through a comparison to a transcendent standard, and not by the ends they bring about, the ends cannot justify the means, and some means should be a priori ruled out be cause they violate these rules too profoundly. Moreover, they should be ruled out regardless of the consequences they are likely to engender. As Niebuhr put it on the nuclear issue: "We would be saying by a policy [of no first use of nuclear weapons] that even a nation can reach the point where it can purchase its life too dearly. If we had to use this kind of destruction in order to save our lives, would we find life worth living? Even nations can reach a point where the words of our Lord, 'Fear not them which are able to kill the body but rather fear them that are able to destroy both soul and the body in hell,' become re1evant. [64] A consequentialist could not have made this statement. Only a person adhering to an ethical theory in which policies are determined independently of consequences could recognize that even the highest end--the preservation of the life of one's nation--should be abandoned if the means necessary to realize this aim result in its "moral annihilation" [65] because they so egregiousl y violate the injunctions of an independent ethical standard.

To Niebuhr, the advice of both consequentialists and orthodox deontologists was thus morally unacceptable, the latter's because it led to pernicious consequences, the former's because it violated too profoundly autonomous standards of ethical conduct. In very general terms, Niebuhr's advice in this area, based on his two-step program of ethical reasoning, was the following (in addition to creating a disposition of humility discussed earlier). First, the nuclear balance must be maintained. Capitulation in this area would most likely invite exploitation by the stronger side. Second, both the U.S. and USSR should pledge to a policy of no first use of these weapons.At the same time,America should increase its conventional force level to offset Soviet advantages in the European theater. Such a policy would reduce the American reliance on nuclear weapons. This strategy possessed the benefits of minimizing the threat of nuclear war--and the "moral hazard"[66] that this threat entailed--while still maintaining the b alance of power. The preservation of the balance of power, in turn, would hopefully provide sufficient stability, and thus the time, to allow the ideological antipathy between the two blocs to abate. Niebuhr's ethical theory therefore provided advice on this subject that gave the prescriptions of justice their greatest hope for fulfillment in a world of sin and necessity.


The unique political advice that is created by Niebuhr's theory of ethics is, of course, similarly applicable to the realm of domestic politics. A brief example will demonstrate its usefulness. Throughout his career, one of Niebuhr 's foremost hopes was to establish a system of universal healthcare in the United States. In terms of his two-step strategy of ethical reasoning, the origin of this hope clearly sprung from the deontologically derived injunchon that recognizes "the law of love as our norm... [and] assumes our responsibility for our neighbor's welfare."[67]

As seen, however, Niebuhr's theory of ethics was not as simple as calling for the application of a deontologically derived standard to history. As always, this injunction took place within the context of a dispositional ethic that sought to relativize all claims of justice and to establish a balance of power. On the subject of a universal healthcare system, Niebuhr held that both of these dimensions of the dispositional ethic were critical to obtaining the most just outcome possible. A balance of power was necessary because unless the poor could in some measure compel the rich to establish a means of income redistribution, the selfishness of man would limit charitable contributions to a point below which a workable system of universal health insurance is possible. Charity, to Niebuhr, without a significant element of coercion (or the credible threat of it) would never be significant enough to alleviate the legitimate needs of the poor. A balance of power between classes was thus needed to correct for the sel fishness of man.

The second aspect of the dispositional ethic, a sense of humility created through awareness of the partiality of all human endeavors, was also critical to Niebuhr on this issue. Unless every "center of power and ideology" is placed under review, [68] individuals and classes will be able to use seemingly plausible theories to justify their interests. For example, Niebuhr was frequently critical of a laissez-faire policy in the realm of economics because it justified, in the name of the general good, the status quo interests of the rich. Niebuhr adamantly believed that anytime there was a too easy coincidence between the general good and the particular interest of the group making the claim, the honesty of this position should be questioned. Unlike Marxist theory, however, Niebuhr 's criticisms of the rich meant neither that the poor were immune from using universal ideologies to assert their particular interests, nor that if the poor got in power they would rule more beneficently than the rich. Niebuhr believ ed that the cloaks of pretensions of virtue that masked self-interest had to be removed as much as possible from the assertions of all groups in order to benefit best the community.

Within the context of these two dimensions of the dispositional ethic, Niebuhr's ethical theory then called for an examination of the consequences of one's actions in order to provide the best chance of realizing the deontologically-derived goal of "assum[ing]...responsibility for our neighbor's welfare," including the provision of a system of universal healthcare. He did so for two primary reasons. First, in attempting to realize such a goal, the principles that constitute justice are in conflict. In any scheme of income distribution, there is obviously a tradeoff between equality and liberty. We cannot tell, a priori, which of these principles to emphasize at any particular time. Because emphasizing one principle of justice too much will lead to unjust outcomes, we must have knowledge of consequences in order to achieve the intended results of our actions. Second, Niebuhr understood that simply to work for the goal of universal healthcare without examining likely results would lead to perverse outcomes. Fo r example, establishing a system of healthcare that was limitless in scope would result in gross inefficiencies that come from "the obvious waste in the time and energy of medical men if no checks are placed upon the services that the citizen may claim from the doctor." [69] What was needed instead was a system grounded upon a realistic understanding of human nature that both "implements a Christian understanding of the limitless character of a man's responsibility for his neighbor" and guards against "the limitless claims that may be made upon it." [70] In short, what was needed was an examination of consequences in order to apply best a deontologically-derived goal.


In conclusion, Niebuhr's theory of ethics was one of a modified deontological strategy [71] that operated within a dispositional ethic that was created by his notion of transcendence. It sought to adhere to the prescriptions of the law of love, but only in those situations where following them would likely result in their fulfillment. In short, Niebuhr's ethical strategy allowed for the realization of the law of love to the greatest degree possible, given the world as it is. Because it finds a way both to reconcile conflicting prima facie duties and to avoid those situations where following the prescriptions of deontologically-derived goals would lead to the opposite of their intent, Niebuhr's theory represents a reasonable solution for solving the dilemmas of other ethical theories. Its unique blend of pragmatism, yet faithful devotion to a transcendent standard that both judges history and draws it to fulfillment, allows Niebuhr to be dedicated to the ideal without succumbing to fanaticism, to be humble in his claims both to know the truth and to act virtuously without succumbing to relativism, and to understand the limits that a world of sin and necessity places on any theory of ethics without succumbing either to despair or cynicism. Neither orthodox deontological nor consequentialist theories can make such claims.

MARK L. HAAS is a doctoral candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Government and Foreign Affairs in the University of Virginia.

The author wishes to thank the following people for their thoughtful comments and overall encouragement in the writing of this piece: Langdon Gilkey, Charles Mathewes, Dennis McCann, Walter Nicgorski, John Owen, Margaret Roosevelt, Kenneth W. Thompson, Drew Trotter, Will Walldorf, and several anonymous reviewers for The Review of Politics.

(1.) For example, both the content and footnotes of both Morgenthau's Scientific Man vs. Power Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946) and Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of international Relations (London: Harper & Row, 1946) are explicit in their debt to Niebuhr.

(2.) Kenneth Waltz, "Reflections on Theory of international Politics: A Response to My Critics," Neorealism and Its Critics, ed. Robert Keohane, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), p. 341. This influence of Niebuhr on Waltz exists despite the fact that neorealists reject the classical realist emphasis on human nature as the most important determinant of political outcomes, a view for which Niebuhr was one of the most forceful proponents.

(3.) The following list is a small sampling of American politicians and political advisors who have claimed to be, in varying degrees, disciples of Niebuhr and thus presumably have grounded policy decisions upon his thought: Bill Clinton, jimmy Carter, McGeorge Bundy, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger, Hubert Humphrey, David Stockman, Ernest Lefever, and Paul Ramsey. I do not mean to imply that these individuals have misinterpreted or misused Niebuhr's thought in order to justify particular policies. I only hope to show that because there are many self-proclaimed disciples of Niebuhr operating in the political realm, the need to have a correct understanding of his thought is a necessity

(4.) Quoted in Ronald Stone: Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians (New York: Abingdon press, 1972), p. 11, as determined by an interview by the author with Niebuhr.

(5.) David Little, "The Recovery of Liberalism: Moral Man and immoral Society Sixty Years Later," Ethics & International Affairs 7 (1993): 197. See also: James Childress, "Niebuhr's Realistic-Pragmatic Approach to War and the Nuclear Dilemma," in Reinhold Niebuhr and the Issues of Our Time, ed. Richard Harris, (London: Mowbray, 1986), p. 137; John Patrick Diggins, "Power and Suspicion: The Perspectives of Reinhold Niebuhr," Ethics and International Affairs 6(1992): 142, 156; Colm McKeogh, The Political Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, A Pragmatic Approach to Just War(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 103, 104, 111, 120, 127, 151, 152, 173; Little, "The Recovery of Liberalism," p. 183; Michael Joseph Smith, "The Prophetic Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr," in Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1986), p. 133.

(6.) Childress, "Niebuhr's Realistic-Pragmatic Approach to War and the Nuclear Dilemma," p. 137; Little, "The Recovery of liberalism," p. 183; Diggins, "Power and Suspicion," p. 156; Stone, Reinhold Niebuhr: Prophet to Politicians, pp. 76, 158.

(7.) Indeed, Niebuhr described his ethical theory as one of "Christian pragmatism" (quoted in Robin Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Chrisitian Realism [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995], p. 48). It is from this description that the title of this essay is derived. Elsewhere he would state: "I am a pragmatist who tries to be guided in pragmatic judgments by the general principles of justice," in which prudence is only a "procedural standard" used to guide the application of these principles. (These quotations are from the following sources, respectively: Reinhold Niebuhr, "Response," in Reinhold Niebuhr: A Prophetic voice in Our Time, ed. Harold Landon, [Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press. 1962], p. 122; and Robert Good, "National Interest and Moral Theory: The 'Debate' among Contemporary Political Realists," in Foreign Policy in the Sixties: The Issues and Instruments, eds. Roger Hilsman and Robert Good, [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965], p. 279, as determined by an interview by the author with Niebuhr.)

(8.) Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932), p. 175.

(9.) Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940), p. 215.

(10.) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light, the Children of Darkness (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944), p.8.

(11.) See, for example, Langdon Gilkey, "Reinhold Niebuhr's Theology of History," Journal of Religion 54 (October 1974); Langdon Gilkey, "Reinhold Niebuhr as Political Theologian," in Reinhold Niebuhr and the issues of Our Time, ed. Richard Harris, (London: Mowbray, 1986); Dennis McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, Practical Theologies in Creative Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981); Dennis McCann, "The Christian Element in Christian Realism," in The Bible in American Law, Politics, and Political Rhetoric, ed. James Turner Johnson, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), PP. 153-172; Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.

(12.) Niebuhr, perhaps because he was not an academic theologian, never presented his theory of ethics as formally as I present it here. Nevertheless, I believe that the theory articulated in this essay represents a very reasonable deduction from the logic of his thought, as revealed throughout his writings, that is consonant with his philosophical vision and beliefs.

(13.) William Frankena, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973), p.14.

(14.) Ibid., p. 15.

(15.) This brief description, of course, obscures the differences among consequentialist theories. This type of analysis, however, is not critical to this essay because I am only interested in the type of consequentialist theory attributed most frequently to Niebuhr's theory of ethics. His theory is most often described in classical utilitarian terms which ranks preferences solely according to ends and thus without consideration of the means by which the ends should be brought about. For an examination of the differences among consequentialist theories, see Samuel Scheffler, The Rejection of Consequentialism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) and David Lyons, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965).

(16.) Frankena, Ethics, p. 15.

(17.) Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1963), p.3. To Niebuhr, there are at most three religions that should be classified as "prophetic." Christianity and Judaism definitely belong in this category, and Zoroastrianism possibly does. For further explication of the terms upon which this classification is based, see: ibid., p. 13.

(18.) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1949), vol. 1, p.203.

(19.) To Niebuhr, the transcendent standards by which man's actions are judged are God's law (i.e., the Ten Commandments) and its final form as the law of love as revealed by Christ (i.e., "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself"). These two terms will be used interchangeably throughout this essay

(20.) I borrow the term "dispositional ethic" from Dennis McCann because it is a particularly good one to describe the framework established by Niebuhr's conception of prophetic religion. See McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, p. 80.

(21.) McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, p. 85.

(22.) Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 28.

(23.) McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, p. 93

(24.) Ibid., p. 85. Cf. Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1:220.

(25.) Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2:27; cf. ibid., 1:300.

(26.) ibid., 2:254. My purpose is not to examine Niebuhr's conception of the relationship between love and justice (for such an examination, see McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, pp. 87-93;Lovin,Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, chap.5; D.B. Robertson, ed., Love and Justice, Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1957), but simply to point out that Niebuhr believed the universality of sin had profound implications for the type of principles that could and should be applied to history. The critical point for our purposes is that despite the fact that sin necessitates we shift our goals from those of love to justice, both sets of principles are deontologically derived.

(27.) Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, p. 254.

(28.) As Niebuhr put it, "As the ideal of love must relate itself to the problems of a world in which its perfect realization is not possible, the most logical modification and application of the ideal in a world in which life is in conflict with life is the principle of equality which strives for an equilibrium in the conflict" (Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p.91).

(29.) The presence of a governmental structure implies, however, the presence of a hierarchical, and therefore unequal, relationship within the polity. Thus while government may attempt to promote equality in the civic arena, a hierarchical arrangement will be maintained in state-society relations.

(30.) Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 66.

(31.) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, pp.4-5.

(32.) Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, p. 196.

(33.) ibid.

(34.) Significantly, Niebuhr's understanding of sin meant that not only those who consciously intend evil must be restrained but also those who genuinely desire to pursue the good of others. Through the processes of rationalization and self-justification, people are able to delude themselves into believing that their actions and intentions are devoid of selfishness, when in actuality they are highly exploitative. In order to express this idea, Niebuhr was fond of quoting John Adams in a letter to Thomas Jefferson: "Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws" (Reinhold Niebuhr, The irony of American History [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952], p.21).

(35.) Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, p. 104.

(36.) Cf. McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, pp. 93-98.

(37.) In short, the test of tolerance is simply a restatement of the assertion discussed earlier that all of human history falls short of what God's law requires. Individuals and groups are "graded" on this "test" by how well they remember that they, just like their adversaries, cannot rightfully claim to have solved the moral and political problems of man. Of course Niebuhr was aware that toleration, if taken to an extreme, would lead to apathy and moral relativism. Consequently, his "test of tolerance," in addition to fostering the "capacity to preserve the spirit of forgiveness toward those who offend us by holding convictions which seem untrue to us" also included the need "to hold vital convictions which lead to action" (quoted in McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, p. 97, from Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2:219). Niebuhx, however, always considered the position of moral relativism a lesser danger than fanaticism for the simple reason that men and groups will invariably co ntend over visions of truth. A sustained position of moral relativism Niebuhr thus thought unlikely, making balances of power stabilized by dispositions of humility perennial needs in history.

(38.) It is important to realize that a sense of humility and contrition does not obviate the need for a balance of power as a precondition for justice, however, because even the humble will seek their own interests.

(39.) McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, p. 210.

(40.) By "myth" Niebuhr does not mean that these symbols are "untrue," but only that the insights that they reveal cannot be expressed in rational form. According to McCann: "Just as the theologian is like a portrait artist who falsifies some of the physical details in order to arrive at a symbolic expression of the total character of his subject (Niebuhr, "The Truth in Myths," in Faith and Politics, ed. Ronald Stone [New York: George Braziller, 1968], p.27), so the Bible's permanent insights can only be expressed in forms of indirect communication, which contain a certain degree of provisional and superficial deception (Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History [New York: Scribner]. p.3)" in McCann, "The Christian Element of Christian Realism," p.156. In other words, Niebuhr believed that only the category of myth could articulate the paradoxical nature of both the ideal's relationship to history as both transcendent and immanent, judge and lure, and of man as both finite an d infinite, free and bound. In expressing his theology in mythical terms, Niebuhr hoped to distance himself from both fundamentalist and liberal theologians. Against both of these positions, Niebuhr advocated that the meaning of the myths of the Bible be taken "seriously but not literally." For a much more thorough analysis of Niebuhr's use of the mythical method, see McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, pp. 37-51.

(41.) Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 16.

(42.) Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man , 1:269; also ibid., p.272.

(43.) Ibid., p. 265.

(44.) The final myth in this cycle, that of the Atonement, will be briefly discussed in a subsequent section.

(45.) Robin Lovin confirms this interpretation of Niebuhr's thought when he states that to Niebuhr, "the reality of God means that love, and not prudence, is the law of life" (Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, p. 67). Lovin, for clarity's sake, might have added that the reality of God in history is what makes love, and not prudence, the standard by which our conduct is judged and toward which we should set our goals. For, as stated, even if one believes in a transcendent standard that relatives all actions and sets limits on human aspirations, without the additional belief that the ideal is present in history this conception of the transcendent may allow prudence to be the highest political virtue. (For essays that assert that two of Niebuhr's fellow political realists, Morgenthau and Kennan, adopt precisely this position, see Good, "National Interest and Moral Theory" and McCann, "The Christian Element of Christian Realism").

(46.) To my knowledge, Niebuhr did not specifically attack deontological thinkers as he did liberals, but a critique of such thinking is implicit in his writings.

(47.) Cf. Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, pp. 100-101, 120.

(48.) Indeed, because of the perverse outcomes that frequently occur by following the principles of love in a sinful world is a primary reason why Niebuhr shifted his theory of obligation from love to justice. For in a world of sin, when "[love] is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny" (Niebuhr, "The Christian Faith and the World Crisis," in Love and Justice, p. 283)

(49.) For examples illustrating this dimension of Niebuhr's thought, see "Airplanes are Not Enough," in ibid., p. 190; "The Will of God and the Van Zeeland Report," in ibid., p. 170; "A Negotiated Peace," in ibid., p. 174; and "A Critique of Pacifism," in ibid., p. 241.

(50.) And to Niebuhr, "the essence of immorality is the evasion or denial of moral responsibility" ("Repeal the Neutrality Act!," in ibid., p. 177).

(51.) Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, P. 175.

(52.) Lovin stresses the difference between these two positions when he states: "Without the 'impossible ideal' of Jesus' ethics, we have only variations on the utilitarian and prudential schemes which from the Christian perspective scarcely deserve to be called 'ethics' at all" (Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, p. 92). To Niebuhr, prudential schemes, if elevated to a normative status, were both dangerous and immoral because they invariably are "forced to give sanction to the conflict of egoistic individuals and groups as the very essence of human character" (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 23).

(53.) Diggins, "Power and Suspicion," pp. 160, 159.

(54.) Cf. Niebuhr, "The Conflict between Nations and Nations and between Nations and God," in Love and Justice, pp. 161-62.

(55.) Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p.47. Niebuhr's understanding of the relationship between ends and means and the concept of justification is thus similar to the one elucidated by Michael Walzer in his essay "Political Action, the Problem of Dirty Hands." To Walzer, necessity may require violations of moral standards, yet the fact of necessity in no way justifies one's immorality. According to him, "a particular act...may be exactly the right thing to do in utilitarian terms and yet leave the man who does it guilty of a moral wrong" (Michael Walzer, "Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands," Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 [Winter, 1973]:161). In other words, moral rules may be "overridden" because of "supreme emergency" (i.e., the survival of the nation or state), but these commandments are not "set aside, canceled or annulled." They still apply, thus men are morally culpable for their immoral deeds, even though they are necessary in order to realize critical historical goals. To W alzer, we may "forget" (p. 180) a person's immorality according to the exigencies of the time (Niebuhr, of course, would most likely couch this sentiment in terms of Divine forgiveness, not individual or collective forgetfulness), but this person still needs to be forgiven for the immoral acts he has performed.

(56.) Frankena, Ethics, p. 15, emphasis added.

(57.) Reinhold Niebuhr, "American Power and World Responsibility," in Love and Justice, P. 205. It is important to realize, however, that while Niebuhr believed that feelings of guilt are necessary in order both to restrain the sin of man and to lay the foundation for repentance, they are also potentially paralyzing. In an effort to avoid them, both individuals and groups may try to retreat into isolationist and irresponsible behavior. It is to avoid this problem that the Atonement is so important to Niebuhr (see McCann, Christian Realism and Liberation Theology, pp. 43-45), for it allows man to act in history despite the ambiguity of his means and the impurity of his goals. In short, guilt, though inevitable because of the role of love as judge, must also be redeemed. Cf. Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, p. 30.

(58.) Because of the limitations of space, lam obviously precluded from examining the great detail and nuance that Niebuhr devoted to these two issues. Nevertheless, the critical differences between Niebuhr's theory of ethics and either pure deontological or consequentialist theories should be dear. The tenets of these other theories simply do not allow their proponents to provide the prescriptions that Niebuhr's theory generates.

(59.) Niebuhr, The irony of American History, p. 173. See also, ibid., p.174 and Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, p. 285.

(60.) This did not mean that Niebuhr ignored relative distinctions between the U.S. and USSR. Indeed, to equate the two powers to Niebuhr "obscured the difference between the comparatively ordinate and normal lust for power of a great traditional nation and the noxious demonry of [a] world wide secular religion" ("Why is Communism So Evil?" in Christian Realism and Political Problems [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953] p. 34). But Niebuhr did hope to blunt the pretentious claims in the absolute superiority of the West, a belief that he felt would inevitably lead to an ideological crusade.

(61.) Cf. Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, pp. 279,286; Niebuhr, "The Hydrogen Bomb," in Love and Justice, p. 236.

(62.) "The Problem of a Protestant Social Ethic," quoted in Childress, Niebuhr's Realistic-Pragmatic Approach to War and 'the Nuclear Dilemma,'" p.126.

(63.) Cf. Frankena, Ethics, pp. 45-48.

(64.) Niebuhr, "The Hydrogen Bomb," in Love and Justice, p. 237.

(65.) Ibid., p. 235.

(66.) Ibid., p.237, emphasis added. By emphasizing the moral damage that the use of nuclear weapons would cause--damage that was caused by the violation of an independent ethical standard--Niebuhr differentiated himself from those who believed that nuclear war was to be avoided primarily on consequentialist grounds based on the enormous physical costs such a war would entail.

(67.) Reinhold Niebuhr, "Our Faith and Concrete Political Decisions," in Love and Justice, p.58.

(68.) Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, p. 293.

(69.) Reinhold Niebuhr, "Socialized Medicine in Britain," in Love and Justice, p. 85.

(70.) Ibid., p. 86.

(71.) Frankena supports this interpretation of Niebuhr's philosophy, although he does so in a roundabout manner. In his attempt to label various philosophies as deontological or teleological, he finds one important exception to his schema: that of Niebuhr. According to Frankena: "As for Reinhold Niebuhr, he appears to me to suggest, in one place or another, almost every one of the positions I have described; whether this spells richness or confusion of mind, I shall leave for others to judge" (quoted in Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, p. 72). Hopefully, this essay has illuminated the fruitfulness of the synthesis of deontological and consequentialist insights that Niebuhr's theory offers. Significantly, even Frankena felt compelled to adopt a similar view when he articulated his own theory of ethics (see his "mixed deontological" theory in Frankena, Ethics, pp. 43-45). For another example of a philosopher who has seen the need to combine the insights of consequentialist and deontological theor ies, see Scheffler's "hybrid" conception as articulated throughout his book, The Rejection of Consequentialism. Similarly, though his dominant interpretation on Niebuhr's philosophy is consequentialist, Colm McKeogh at times admits that the best description of Niebuhr's theory of ethics is "deontological-consequentialist" (McKeogh, The Political Realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 112, 116, 117).
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Author:Haas, Mark L.
Publication:The Review of Politics
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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