Moral Relativism Defended by Gilbert Harman — A Summary


Title: Moral Relativism Defended
Author: Gilbert Harman
Publication: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1975)
Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2184078


Morality arises when a group of people reach an implicit agreement about their relations with one another. This agreement is made in the relevant sense when a group of people intend to adhere to a set of principles based on the understanding that the rest also similarly intend.

Most moral judgments make sense only in relation to such an agreement. ‘Most’ because this thesis is only about “inner judgments” which say that S ought to or ought not to have done D and not about judgments that say S is evil or unjust.

I. Inner Judgments

Inner judgements are relevant only within the relevant moral considerations of the agreement. To illustrate, it would be odd to make the judgement that a conquering alien race which does not harbour the slightest concern for human life should not attack us or to say that their actions are wrong. The same goes for a band of cannibals eating the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Or even a person brought up in such a way as to have only contempt for people outside the family who kills a non-family member.

It will be correct to say that the aliens are dreadful, that the cannibals are inhuman, and that the murderer is a criminal. But it would be inappropriate to judge their actions as wrong or to state that they ought not to have done what they did since our moral considerations are clearly not relevant to them.

The use of the moral ‘ought’ with the qualification ‘to do’ should be differentiated from it use in the form ‘ought to be’ to indicate expectation (“My girlfriend ought to be here soon”), rationality (“My girlfriend ought to be in the 2 PM train”) or normative judgment (“My girlfriend ought to be faithful”[1]). Similarly, for the word ‘should’.

Also, the use of ‘wrong’ in an evaluative sense (“My girlfriend’s infidelity was wrong”) should be differentiated from its use in a descriptive sense (“It was wrong for my girlfriend to be unfaithful”).

II. The Logical Form of Inner Judgments

Inner judgments have two important characteristics. First, they imply that the agent has reasons to do something. Second, the speaker in some sense endorses these reasons and supposes that the audience also endorses them.

If someone S says that another person A ought to do action D, S implies that A has reasons to do D and S endorses those reasons.[2] The reasons that A has and are endorsed by S are assumed to be “goals, desires, or intentions”.[3]

As such, there are certain motivating attitudes M which are shared by S, A, and S’s audience. These attitudes are intentions to keep the agreement. The argument is that inner judgments are relative to such an agreement. In other words, when S says that A ought to do D, S assumes A’s sincere intention to observe a certain agreement composed of motivating attitudes M that S, A, and S’s audience share.

Putting these together, the moral “ought” can be formulated as a four-place predicate, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” which relates an agent A, a type of act D, considerations C and motivating attitudes M. The relativity of this formulation lies with C and M.

Any action of course is relative to considerations.[4] This relativity does not make the thesis a version of moral relativism. Rather, it is the relativity to motivating attitudes that makes the thesis as such. This relativity to motivating attitudes is visible in moral “ought” statements where a speaker invokes attitudes that he does not share. For example, “As a Christian, you ought to turn the other cheek; I, however, propose to strike back.” Here, the moral judgment is explicitly relative to motivating attitudes.

Put differently, “Ought (A, D, C, M)” means that given considerations C, if A has motivating attitudes M, D is the best, or ‘moral’, course of action. Any such ‘ought’ statement necessarily has the first characteristic of inner judgments (see first paragraph in this section). If such an ‘ought’ statement makes an explicit or implicit reference to shared motivating attitudes, the statement satisfies the second characteristic too and is hence an inner judgment. But if reference is made to attitudes that are not shared, as in the example presented in the previous paragraph, the statement is not a full-fledged moral judgment.

III. Moral Bargaining

The further argument here is that motivating attitudes M derive from an agreement i.e., intentions[5] to adhere to a particular agreement on the understanding that others also intend do so.

Consider the following puzzle: even if we believe that doctors ought to help as many patients as he can, we would object to the suggestion that he should cut up a patient and use his organs to save five others. Helping others ranks lower than not harming others.

A way of navigating this puzzle is to consider the hypothesis that morality derives from an agreement among people with varying powers and resources. Everyone would benefit if there is a rule against harming each other. But if there is a rule in favour of helping as much as one can, the rich would lose out. The compromise then would be a strong ‘no harm’ principle and a weak ‘help’ principle.

This compromise agreement is not and need not be explicit. It is reached through mutual adjustment and implicit bargaining i.e., some form certain conditional intentions while others with other interests form other conditional intentions which are then resolved into an agreement though bargaining.

Most of our moral views can be given a utilitarian explanation. And utilitarian explanations can also be accounted for using an implicit agreement.  The reverse is however not possible. Examples would be the one already cited, the distinction between harming and helping, and the feeling that everyone has an inalienable right to self-defence and self-preservation.

IV. Objections and Replies

O. It does not follow from having an agreement that we should therefore keep that agreement.

R. But we intend to keep it. Intention to keep it on the condition that others intend similarly too is what makes the agreement relevant.

———————————

O. What you think, or even agree, is right may not be actually what is right.

R. That’s true. But the thesis is not about what is right. It’s about how what we understand to be right can be made sense of in reference to agreement in intentions. It does not eliminate moral disputes or, otherwise, preclude inconsistencies.

———————————

O. Not all agreements are morally binding.

R. This would imply the existence of a prior principle to the effect that agreements made under compulsion are inadmissible. This objection assumes that the agreement is made through a ritual in which one indicates that he agrees. The agreement here is clearly an agreement in intentions. And the argument here is that it is only with reference to an existing agreement in intentions and not from “prior” principles that such a principle about compelled agreements makes sense.

———————————

O. When and how did we come to the agreement? What of those who don’t want to agree and what if they don’t?

R. As mentioned earlier, the agreement is not based on a ritual but on intentions. In this sense of ‘agreement’, the questions of when and how the agreement came to be (there is no given moment at which one agrees) and what to do with those who disagree (they will clearly be outside the agreement) are rendered idle.

———————————

O. People are often unable to give systematic and precise definition of their moral views. On what understanding then can they form the agreement?

R. Many understandings are of precisely this sort. For example, the understanding among members of an orchestra or a team of acrobats. Also, moral understandings are never absolute. The principles agreed to are generally vague. For example, that respect should be shown wherever possible.


Moral reasoning is a form of practical reasoning. It has to be coherent in the sense of generality and lack of arbitrariness. But it also involves the maintenance of conservatism and the satisfaction of basic needs and desires. One tries to make the least change that will best satisfy one’s desires while maximizing the overall coherence of one’s attitudes.

Someone can reach an agreement with himself i.e., the membership of the group is one. It is perfectly possible to make inner judgments about oneself. Consider the pacifist who judges that it would be wrong of him to participate in killing but is unwilling to hold the same judgment for others even though he is willing to say that it is bad that they participate. Individual morality of this sort is extremely common.


“My conclusion is that relativism can be formulated as an intelligible thesis, the thesis that morality derives from an implicit agreement and that moral judgments are in a logical sense made in relation to such an agreement. Such a theory helps to explain otherwise puzzling aspects of our own moral views, in particular why we think that it is more important to avoid harm to others than to help others. The theory is also partially confirmed by what is, as far as I can tell, a previously unnoticed distinction between inner and non-inner moral judgments. Furthermore, traditional objections to implicit agreement theories can be met”


Footnotes

[1] The use of ought in this normative sense is ambiguous. Is it the ought of expectation (that I expect her to be faithful), of rationality (that it is in her interest to be faithful), normative judgment (that it would be a bad thing for her to be unfaithful) or moral judgment (that it is wrong for her to be unfaithful)? In any case, Harman is concerned only with the last.

[2] But if S says that B is evil in what B did, S does not imply that S endorses the reasons that made B do whatever B did; rather, these reasons were not relevant to S.

[3] These “goals, desires, or intentions” are assumed to be Aristotelian or Humean as opposed to being Kantian. In other words, the source of these ‘relevant’ reasons is not ‘rationality’.

[4]Considering that you promised, you ought to go to the board meeting, but considering that you are the sole surviving relative, you ought to go to the funeral; all things considered, it is not clear what you ought to do.” Quoting Donald Davidson, “Weakness of Will, in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Moral Concepts (Oxford, 1969).

[5] “I will use the word “intention” in a somewhat extended sense to cover certain dispositions or habits. Someone may habitually act in accordance with the relevant understanding and therefore may be disposed to act in that way without having any more or less conscious intention. In such a case, it may sound odd to say that he intends to act in accordance with the moral understanding. Nevertheless, for present purposes I will count that as his having the relevant intention in a dispositional sense.”

“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol by Arnold Wolfers — A Summary



Author: National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol
Title: Arnold Wolfers
Publication: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 4 (1952)
Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2145138


  • The divisions are my own.
  • If the use of the term ‘security’ in this summary, as in the paper, seems inconsistent and extremely loose, it is because that’s exactly the point that the paper is trying to make. 🙂

National Security as National Interest

Do the terms “national interest” and “national security” that statesmen, publicists, and scholars often harp about mean anything concrete and precise? The first word ‘national’ makes it quite clear in that the terms relate to the nation rather than individuals, sub-nations or mankind. But the words ‘security’ and ‘interest’ convey very little meaning.

In the period between the World Wars, American foreign policy was largely driven by the economic interest. The question was whether this policy was serving the national interest or the powerful sub-national interests. Today, foreign policy is driven by the security interest. The question now is whether this policy is too wide in looking out for the “interests of all of mankind” at the cost of national interest.

This shift from economic to a security interpretation of the national interest is understandable. The Cold War and threats of aggression loom large whereas the threats of depression and social reform are relatively minimal.  The important question is whether this formula of national security can be a meaningful guide for securing national interest.

(I)t would be an exaggeration to claim that the symbol of national security is nothing but a stimulus to semantic confusion, (but) closer analysis will show that if used without specifications it leaves room for more confusion than sound political counsel or scientific usage can afford.

Statement of Facts in Security Policy

Demand for foreign policy guided by the consideration of national security assumes that nations have indeed made security their goal. The problem with this assumption, this “statement of fact”, even if it is true, is that “the term ‘security’ covers a range of goals so wide that highly divergent policies can be interpreted as policies of security.”

Security denotes protection of “acquired values”. It is then a value which a nation can have more or less of. Objectively, it measures the absence of threats to acquired values, and subjectively, it measures the absence of fear of threats to acquired values. This discrepancy between the objective and subjective connotations of security is significant.

Different nations react to the same threats differently. Nations that experienced attacks in the recent past or suddenly find themselves in danger after prolonged security are most sensitive to threats. Also, nations are not all or constantly faced with the same degree of danger. The point is that nations will therefore differ in their efforts to obtain more security.

Nevertheless, the generalisation that “most nations, most of the time have shown, and had reason to show, an active concern about some lack of security and have been prepared to make sacrifices for its enhancement” remains undeniable. This does not however make it a cardinal rule. It has been the case that efforts to increase security through, say, more armaments, even when the payoffs are certain, face serious obstacles as they introduce uncomfortable costs. Also, very few, if any, nations have started preventive wars on the grounds of security whereas there have been numerous wars fought for other, even trivial, reasons.

A different hypothesis stating that nations will seek to minimise their efforts to increase security as it is, after all, a negative value i.e., “the absence of the evil of insecurity” might offer a better understanding.

In any case, together with the extent of the external threats, numerous domestic factors such · as national character, tradition, preferences and prejudices will influence the level of security which a nation chooses to make its target.

But nations are not free to choose the amount of effort they put into security. To this objection, it may be replied that ‘pure power politics’ is not the reality and that survival — one of the main justifications for security — has only exceptionally been at stake. Security policies then become more a function of what nations want than what nations are compelled to do by others. And there are values other than security that nations desire to secure and, ceteris paribus, “the efforts for security will vary with the range of values for which the protection is sought.”

What constitutes this ‘range of values’? There may appear to be considerable uniformity regarding these values as every nation wants to preserve its ‘core’ values of “national independence and territorial integrity”. That’s not disputed. But nations seek protection of other ‘marginal’ values too, e.g., markets and investments, which often become crucial on the security agenda even to the extent that many West European countries have become weary and distrustful of rearmament seeing it as a threat to other cherished marginal values.

Any policy for security cannot be determined by its end, i.e., security, alone. The means adopted have to be taken into account. The same end could, for example, be pursued through active rearmament or meticulous neutrality. The general propensity is to assume that the former path will be chosen, but that’s not always the case. This tendency is understandable given the fact, supported by historical reading, that security is being sought against violence — external or internal — which demands mobilisation of coercive power in order to respond appropriately, i.e., with violence.

But then again, such a tendency does little to advance the understanding of security. The takeaway is that, “in the matter of means, the roads which are open may lead in diametrically opposed directions. This is exemplified in the treatment of Germany after the World Wars I and II, in the former case retaliatory, and in the latter conciliatory.

The choice in every instance will depend on a multitude of variables, including ideological and moral convictions, expectations concerning the psychological and political developments in the camp of the opponent, and inclinations of individual policy makers.

Little, then, is left of the sweeping generalization that nations, guided by their national security interest, tend to pursue a uniform and therefore imitable policy of security. There are plenty of reasons to say and historical examples to prove that they differ very widely in their policies which run the entire gamut from “complete indifference to security or complete reliance on nonmilitary means, … (to) insistence on absolute security or complete reliance on coercive power.”

Normative Judgments in Security Policy

(The following paragraph appears right after the first section but is being produced here for the sake of continuity and clarity. Why this is the case will be clear as you read pages 483 and 484 of the paper.)

“The demand for a policy of national security is primarily normative in character. It is supposed to indicate what the policy of a nation should be in order to be either expedient — a rational means toward an accepted end — or moral — the best or least evil course of action. The value judgments implicit in these normative exhortations will be discussed.”

Expediency

Can any security policy said to be “generally expedient”? This is problematic because while the goal of security is not decided based on expediency, it is difficult to conceive of security itself as an end — the implication being that if security is not an end and merely a means to “more ultimate ends”, the question of expediency becomes relevant. Today’s followers of Machiavelli will of course maintain the security of the nation is an end in itself. However, there is growing opinion disagreeing with the Machiavellians. Why else do we — Americans, presumably — condemn Nazis and Communists for defending (the security of) their totalitarian regimes? Why else, in Asia and Europe, is there the apprehension that military security measures would make no sense it they came at the cost of basic liberties and welfare?

Can a specific level of security be generally expedient? One could say that the sky is the limit. But maximum security cannot be an expedient level of security. For one, every increment in security must be paid for by additional resources, i.e., by sacrificing other values. After a certain level, the gain in security will not be able to compensate the loss in other values. This is crucial as absolute security is out of the question. For another, while the problem of the “security dilemma” makes absolute security equal to absolute insecurity — in the language of game theory, a non-zero-sum game — in practice, this vicious circle can be broken through well-crafted diplomacy, self-restraint and moderation.

Can certain specific means of attaining security be generally expedient? It depends. There can be no one answer that fulfills the requirements of every case. Strong countries will have options that weak countries cannot muster. The “power of resistance” cannot be said to be generally expedient given the nature of security. If a nation’s security is understood in its objective sense, the subjective attitudes and behaviour of those nations that threaten it become paramount. But no strong recommendations can be given.

“…it will clarify the issue to sketch the type of hypotheses which would link specific security policies, as expedient, to some of the most typical political constellations.”

One can think of nations lined up between the two poles of maximum and minimum “attack propensity” … wherever the issue of security becomes a matter of serious concern, … an attack must be feared as a possibility, even though the intention to launch it cannot be considered to have crystallized to the point where nothing could change it. If this be true, a security policy in order to be expedient cannot avoid accumulating power of resistance and yet cannot let it go at that. … (in other words,) security policy must seek to bring opponents to occupy a position as close to the second pole as conditions and capabilities permit.

Such a twofold policy presents the greatest dilemmas because efforts to change the intentions of an opponent may run counter to the efforts to build up strength against him. The dangers of any policy of concessions, symbolized by “Munich”, cannot be ·underestimated. The paradox of this situation must be faced, however, if security policy is to be expedient.

Morality

Can any security policy considered to be moral? Any advice on national security will unavoidably be based on moral judgments. The framing of security policies then entails weighing the good and evil of values. As an example, a policy that favours greater military spending at the cost of healthcare carries the implicit judgment that the good of increased security is worth the evil of decreased social welfare.

It is easier to argue for the amorality of politics if one does not have to bear the responsibility of choice and decision!

There are two extreme positions that can be taken regarding the moral issue. One extreme is that national security is at the top of the value pyramid and that it trumps all other values. The other extreme is that coercive power is an absolute evil that must be shunned at all costs. For any other position in between these two, the issue is anything but simple. The line between protection of security and the preservation of other values has to be drawn. Where to draw that line is the perennial problem.

Decision makers thus have to navigate the moral labyrinth of which values to protect, what level of protection to be ensured and what means to adopt in order to achieve that level of protection. Policies of national security far from being all good or all evil can be either praiseworthy or condemnable or praiseworthy and condemnable.

“This wide range of variety which arises out of the multitude of variables affecting the value computation would make it impossible, and in fact meaningless, to pass moral judgment, positive or negative, on national security policy in general.”

Conclusion

“In conclusion, it can be said, then, that normative admonitions to conduct a foreign policy guided by the national security interest are no less ambiguous and misleading than the statement of fact concerning past behaviour which was discussed earlier. In order to be meaningful such admonitions would have to specify the degree of security which a nation shall aspire to attain and the means by which it is to be attained in a given situation. … Because the pendulum of public opinion swings so easily from extreme complacency to extreme apprehension, from utopian reliance on “good will” to disillusioned faith in naked force only, it is particularly important to be wary of any simple panacea, even of one that parades in the realist garb of a policy guided solely by the national security interest.”


 

The Renaissance of Security Studies by Stephen M. Walt — A Summary


Title: The Renaissance of Security Studies
Author: Stephen M. Walt
Publication: International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 2 (1991)
Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2600471


What is “Security Studies?”

Security Studies is “the study of the threat, use, and control of military force”. While a water-tight demarcation of its scope is arbitrary, the main focus of security studies is the “phenomenon of war”. Unsurprisingly, it fits snugly within the realist paradigm and tends to concentrate on variables which can be affected by policy. These include maters of statecraft like diplomacy, arms control, and crisis management which are directly related to its main preoccupation.

There is also, recently, calls to include non-military forces like pandemics and natural disasters which threaten both states and individuals.  However, such a broadening of the discipline’s scope is bound to “destroy its intellectual coherence”. Besides, the spectre of war is always haunting states and, thus, war continues to preoccupy national policies.

The Golden Age of Security Studies

The increasing interest from civilians on matters of security after the horror of World War II inaugurated the “Golden Age” of security studies. It was the rise of nuclear capability and the innumerable questions regarding its potential use which formed the prime area of study. The approach was eclectic and interdisciplinary. One limitation was that given the close exchange of ideas and assets between the Department of Defense and the think-tanks involved in research, the output was uncomfortably military in perspective.

Limitations and Lacunae in the Golden Age

Firstly, early works in security studies were highly speculative. With most relevant data being classified, this was, to an extent, unavoidable. Secondly, politics was understood in the narrow sense of military balances while ignoring non-military sources of conflict. As such, political sources of conflict and, by extension, techniques of redressal, were slighted. Finally, the output arising out of the “behavioural revolution”, although significant, were dismissed by security studies as irrelevant and, thus, had little impact on policy.

The End of the Golden Age

The Golden Age declined in the mid-60s. For one, the central issues identified by security studies were well understood by then. For another, there was no significant contribution to the field from the “successor generation” of scholars. Also, the debacle of the Vietnam war unfortunately and ironically made the field unfashionable in universities. Lastly, the stabilisation of the cold war power balance thanks to nuclear deterrence made the study of war unattractive. Scholars moved their attention to economic issues.

The Renaissance

New Developments in Security Studies

The Use of History

Increased access to classified archives and the increased interaction between historians and political scientists led to structured, focussed, and policy-relevant comparisons and aided the revision of important historical events.

The Challenge to Rational Deterrence Theory

The dubious assumptions of perfect rationality and perfect information which underpinned rational deterrence theory began to be questioned by drawing upon psychology, organisation theory and historical studies.

Nuclear Weapons Theory

Debates on nuclear weapons policy became extremely lively with the surge in rigorous civilian analyses thanks to the availability of data and analytical tools. The water-tightness of the nuclear command and control system was found to be a sham. Scholarship became highly empirical.

Conventional Warfare

The dominance of nuclear considerations in analyses was reversed and conventional warfare began to receive attention thanks to the concern about conventional balance in Europe after Vietnam. Many of the analyses coming out of this were based on new theoretical approaches and empirically tested propositions.

US Grand Strategy

“Increased interest in the subject (US Grand Strategy) was especially evident in the United States, sparked by a growing sense that the United States was over-commited and needed to rethink its strategic priorities.”

Security Studies and International Relations Theory

National security issues became part of the agenda for theorists of international politics breaking away from the hitherto narrow perspective of policy research. This was most evident in the reformulated realist perspective pioneered by Kenneth Waltz.

The Role of the Ivory Tower

“The final characteristic separating the Golden Age from the recent renaissance is the growth of security studies within the academic world. … Although analysts outside the ivory tower remain important, the center of gravity has clearly shifted back toward academe.

Explaining the Renaissance

The End of Vietnam War

Security studies was sort of taboo during the Vietnam war. Its termination made the field more attractive to students who were also motivated by the need to reassess US foreign and defense policy.

The Collapse of Détente

“Interest in security affairs was also revived by the deterioration of U.S.–Soviet relations in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Increased Access to Data

Availability of archival material made possible by the movement against government secrecy thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, and authoritative publications from government departments as well as influential publications from academic centres made the renaissance possible.

Increased Outlets for Publishing

The birth of refereed journals like International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies as well as the establishment of Cornell Studies in Security Affairs helped scholars pursue and demonstrate rigorous and ambitious work in the field.

Financial Support

“Like its medieval namesake, the renaissance of security studies was fuelled by wealth. … Increased public concern about national security issues encouraged generous support from institutions such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation … .

Security Studies and Social Science

“Last but not least, the resurrection of security studies was facilitated by its adoption of the norms and objectives of social science.

Like other social scientists, scholars in security affairs engage in three main activities: 1) theory creation, the development of logically related causal propositions explaining a particular phenomenon of interest; 2) theory testing, attempts to verify, falsify, and refine competing theories by testing their predictions against a scientifically selected body of evidence; and 3) theory application, the use of existing knowledge to illuminate a specific policy problem. 

Problems and Prospects for Security Studies

... a permanent decline (in the field of security studies) is unlikely for at least three reasons. First, as the war in the Persian Gulf reminds us, military power remains a central element of international politics ... . Second, security studies has been institutionalized within many university departments ... . Most important of all, the collapse of the Cold War order will create new policy problems and new research puzzles.

Potential Problems

On the one hand, there is the temptation to focus on “consulting work and policy analysis rather than cumulative scholarly research”. This will spell disaster for rigor and quality in the field. But on the other hand, there is the opposite and even greater danger that security studies might become fascinated by “the trivial, the formal, the methodological, the purely theoretical, the remotely historical — in short, the politically irrelevant” and as a result lose its theoretical progress and practical value.

In short, security studies must steer between the Scylla of political opportunism and the Charybdis of academic irrelevance. ... (this) means that security studies should remain wary of the counterproductive tangents that have seduced other areas of international studies, most notably the “post-modern” approach to international affairs.

Beyond its analytic rigor, the use of formal models has proven to be of little use on other work in the discipline. The use of “heroic assumptions” make these models impossible to analyse empirically. Policy relevance need not be immediate but that does not give license to “pursue a technique regardless of its ultimate payoff”.

“The above strictures are no more than a warning, therefore; progress will be best served by increased dialogue between different methodological approaches.

A Research Agenda for Security Studies

The Role of Domestic Politics

Domestic politics is an important determinant of national security policy. Unsolved questions regarding the role of the military as a cause of war, the claim that liberal democracies do not fight, and the proposition that regime changes are a cause of conflict need to be further analysed.

The Causes of Peace and Cooperation

Peace and cooperation are not utopian aspirations as many in the field used to think. The positive goal of the field is indeed peace building. Peace and security studies need to converge and have begun to do so as evident in the literature on “nonoffensive” defense, the scepticism of security analysts towards ‘security regimes’ and the hope for cooperation through international institutions.

The Power of Ideas

The change in attitude towards war because of the horrors of conventional warfare have discredited its stature as a noble and heroic activity among advanced industrialised countries. While this thesis is incomplete, the impact of changing attitudes on warfare remains a fascinating question.

The End of the Cold War

The end of the cold war provides numerous avenues for enquiry.

“First, … Because both great and lesser powers will need new security arrangements once the Cold War is over, research on alternative grand strategies will be of obvious interest. Under what conditions should states employ military force and for what purposes?

“Second, the end of the Cold War raises basic issues about the prospects for peace. Will the waning of U.S.–Soviet rivalry reduce the danger of war or allow familiar sources of conflict to reemerge?

These concerns are already evident in the scholarly debate over the future of Europe. At least four main views can be identified. “Third-image pessimists[1] argue that the re-emergence of a multipolar Europe will restore the conditions that fuelled war in Europe in the past; for this reason, the end of the Cold War will increase the danger of war. ... “Second-image pessimists downplay systemic causes and emphasize the dangers arising from the weak democratic institutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. ... “second-image optimists argue that the leveling of European societies, the dampening of militarism, and the extensive rewriting of nationalist history in Europe have removed the main causes of earlier wars. “institutional optimists” suggest that economic integration and international institutions (such as NATO, the EC, or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) will be strong enough to safeguard peace in Europe.

Economics and Security

The relationship between economics and security is of increasing interest. One dimension is the connection between military spending and economic performance. Another is the strategic security importance of economic events, e.g., oil shocks. A third dimension is the political influence of the military–industrial complex (MIC).

Refining Existing Theories

“… competing hypotheses have not been subjected to systematic empirical tests. …therefore, refining and testing existing hypotheses through well-designed empirical studies should form a central part of future work.

Protecting the Data Base

“Efforts to shield government policy from outside evaluation pose a grave threat to scholarship in the field. … the scholarly profession should resist this effort wholeheartedly. … restricting information threatens the public debate that is central to democracy and essential to sound policy. … excessive secrecy allows ill-conceived programs to survive uncorrected. … therefore, open debate on national security matters must be preserved. Such a debate requires that scholars retain access to a reliable and complete data base.”

Conclusion: Some Lessons for the Future

The Evolution of the Knowledge

“First, it (the evolution of the discipline) illustrates how external events influence the scholarly agenda: as noted throughout this essay, research in security studies has been heavily shaped by changing international conditions.

“Second, the history of security studies also illustrates the mechanisms by which social science advances. One avenue is borrowing from other disciplines. … The other source of progress is competition between rival theories.

Security Studies and the Ivory Tower

Security studies faces two serious dangers. (See Potential Problems)

“… academic experts in security studies can help in several ways. In the short term, academics are well placed to evaluate current programs, because they face less pressure to support official policy. The long-term effects of academic involvement may be even more significant: academic research can help states learn from past mistakes and can provide the theoretical innovations that produce better policy choices in the future.

The Role of Research Support

The problem of financial support as an imposing one as there are no objective criteria for determining the prospective merits of proposals. Nevertheless, it is obvious that support for academic centres is the most effective way for private institutions to contribute to long-term progress. There are risks involved to be sure. The benefit of investment will never be known in advance. A more sinister risk is that research grants may become politicised. “If access to research support becomes contingent on ‘correct’ political views, the integrity of security studies will be gravely threatened.”

The goal is to encourage talented scholars to attack important questions, regardless of their ultimate conclusions. In short, keeping ideological litmus tests out of the funding process is essential to preserving the legitimacy of security studies as a scholarly enterprise.

Norms and Ethos of the Security Studies Community

“First, security studies has profited from a collaborative ethos. Members of the field are encouraged to exchange ideas, evidence, and criticism freely despite significant substantive disagreements.

“A second norm is relevance, a belief that even highly abstract lines of inquiry should be guided by the goal of solving real-world problems.

“Finally, the renaissance of security studies has been guided by a commitment to democratic discourse. Rather than confining discussion of security issues to an elite group of the best and brightest, scholars in the renaissance have generally welcomed a more fully informed debate.


Footnote

[1] “Third-image” theories view war as a result of the anarchic international system, “second-image” theories focus on the internal character of states, and “first-image” theories address causes found in human nature.


The Concept of Security by David A. Baldwin — A Summary


Title: The Concept of Security
Author: David A. Baldwin
Publication: Review of International Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1997)
Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20097464


Efforts to redefine security have been directed not towards the concept as such but instead on the policy agendas of nation-states. So, while a number of new security areas (human rights, economics, environment, epidemics etc.) have been identified and vigorously argued for, both normatively and empirically, little work has been done on conceptual issues.

This paper will try to separate the concept of security from the empirical and normative rhetoric weighing it down. This is because lack of conceptual clarity often exaggerates the differences and obscures the similarities between different understandings of security.

Identifying the common elements in various conceptions of security is useful in at least three ways: First, it facilitates asking the most basic question of social science, 'Of what is this an instance?'. Second, it promotes rational policy analysis by facilitating comparison of one type of security policy with another. And third, it facilitates scholarly communication by establishing common ground between those with disparate views.

Conceptual Analysis

Conceptual analysis aims at clarifying meanings of concepts. It is not merely an instance of semantic acrobatics but rather an essential exercise without which scholars and policy-makers alike are apt to misunderstand the concept and end up talking past each other. Clear concepts are useful for producing hypotheses and analytical frameworks.

The explication of concepts is subject to a set of criteria summarized by Oppenheim: (l) Concepts should be operational in the broadest sense, although this should not be interpreted as requiring quantification. (2) Concepts that establish definitional connections with other terms are to be preferred. (3) Concepts that draw attention to the theoretically important aspects of the subject matter that might easily be overlooked are desirable. (4) Concepts should not preclude empirical investigation by making true 'by definition' what should be open to empirical inquiry. (5) Concepts should remain reasonably close to ordinary language. 'Ordinary language', however, does not necessarily mean the way most people would define the term, but rather the 'set of rules they implicitly follow when applying it to a given situation'.

This approach contrasts with Barry Buzan’s contention that “the search for a referent object of security goes hand in hand with that for its necessary conditions” which conflates conceptual analysis with empirical observation by suggesting that the concept of security cannot be separated from empirical facts. This downplays the requirement that one has to have a concept of security before he can start searching for ‘necessary conditions’.

Security as a Neglected Concept

Despite the numerous attempts to redefine security after the Cold War, it would still be beneficial to describe the field as neglected firstly, because security is an important concept that has been mobilised to terrible ends by states and also because most attempts to redefine security have not grappled with conceptual analysis.

Security as a Contested Concept

Essentially contested concepts are those that are so value-laden that there can be no agreement on what the concept is. A strong application of this position leads to the rejection of preference for any one conception and would make the analysis attempted in this paper useless. A weak application however would allow for the identification of a better conception than those that exist and is hence compatible with the purpose of this paper.

But is security as a concept essentially contested? For one, it is difficult to portray security as an “appraisive” concept i.e., that it “signifies and accredits some kind of valued achievement”.[1]  For neorealists, security is indeed such a concept. For others, however, security has differing value for different states making absurd the neorealist claim that the state with the most security is the best. For another, security has not generated vigorous conceptual debates as to the nature of the concept and its applicability to various cases.

Even if security were classified as an essentially contested concept, it does not follow that theorists should shy away, as Buzan does, from formulating their own conceptions. Also, the ‘conceptual’ problems (e.g., conflict between state security and individual security) identified by Buzan can be more precisely termed as empirical problems.

Insofar as the concept is actually contested this does not seem to stem from 'essential contestability'. Security is more appropriately described as a confused or inadequately explicated concept than as an essentially contested one.

Specifying the Security Problematique

Security for whom?

A concept of security should specify a “referent object” without which it would make little sense. A wide range of answers to the question are possible: state(s), individual(s), international system, environment etc.

Security for which values?

Referent objects will have many values: physical safety, economic welfare, political independence etc. To avoid confusion, which values are to be secured will have to specified.


These two specifications suffice to define the concept security but do little to guide their pursuit. The following specifications are required.

How much security?

Absolute security is unattainable, even if the word itself implies an absolute condition. The attainment of any objective, in the words of Herbert Simon, is “always a matter of degree”. Security is no different and the question of ‘how much is enough?’ is inescapable.

From what threats?

Threats can be ideological, economic, military or some combination of those. They can also be natural in their origin like earthquakes, floods, droughts etc. It is important that this dimension is clearly specified.

By what means?

Any number of policies and amount of resources may be mobilised to the pursuit of security. Specifying this dimension is essential because traditional definitions of the field in terms of military force create confusion and impair debate.

At what cost?

Scholars often assume that costs do not matter in matters of security. But costs always matter. Especially when security issues trump moral judgements.

In what time period?

Policies that are effective in the short run may be useless in the long run and vice versa.

Summary

“Both the number of dimensions in need of specification and the degree of specificity required will vary with the research task at hand. Each of the dimensions can be specified in very broad or very narrow terms. Not all of the dimensions need to specified all the time. For most purposes, however, meaningful scientific communication would seem to require at least some indication of how much security is being sought for which values of which actors with respect to which threats.”

The Value of Security

The prime value approach

The answer to the question of what life would be like without security, most famously given by Hobbes, informs the reasoning that security is the prime goal. However, the same answer applies when we ask the question with respect to say, breathable air. Thus, to the extent that this approach implies the primacy of the goal of security over others, it is logically and empirically indefensible.[2]

The core value approach

This approach identifies security as one of many important values thereby mitigating the logical and empirical absurdities associated with the prime value approach. However, it still does not define what values may be considered as core values on what conditions.

The marginal value approach

This approach is based on the assumption that the law of diminishing marginal utility is applicable to security. It sees security as one of many important objectives competing for scarce resources and provides that rational policy making will allocate resources for security if the marginal return is greater for security than for other uses.

Security and Neorealism

No theory in IR hinges as crucially on the concept of security as neorealism which identifies it as the primary motivation of states. However, neorealism dangerously simplifies the concept as to make it completely confusing.

If security leads to survival, as neorealists assert, what are the values that should ‘survive’? Because just the simple physical fact of survival does not take us very far. If the degree of security required is to be “enough to assure survival”, as Kenneth Waltz says, the question of how much ‘assurance’ is enough becomes crucial because complete assurance cannot be attained and regardless of the policy, there will always be “some chance of survival and thus some assurance of security”.

In addition, there is little attention to costs. Waltz suggests that states will always seek more security just as firms always seek more profit. However, any political theory that claims that states will always seek more security without regard fot the detriment to other goals is seriously misleading.

Another aspect of security as seen by neorealists is whether security is a zero-sum game. If yes, the ‘winner’ of the game, the secure state, will be surrounded by insecure states. This hardly increases security. There is of course the well-known ‘security dilemma’ but not every action that a state takes to increase its security has to take that form.

New Security Concepts?

The new literature on security has contributed very little to an understanding of the concept. The multidimensionality of security and the expansion of referents outside the nation-state are not innovations. To the extent, therefore, that the new thinking about security focuses on conceptual issues, not much is new.

Conclusion

First, “the concept of security (is) insufficiently explicated (rather) than as essentially contested.”

Second, “since security competes with other goals for scarce resources, it must be distinguishable from, yet comparable with, such goals. This requires that the relative importance of security be left open rather than built into the concept. . ..”


It is possible to now gauge and apply Oppenheim’s criteria (look under Conceptual Analysis) for evaluating scientific concepts to the concept of security explicated above.

Operationalisation

The multiple dimensions of security, while not easy to operationalize, are operationalizable in ‘principle’ when taken individually.

Definitional connections

The concept of security easily connects with a verb. Also, the use of adjectives permits reference to many different kinds of security which provides the provides the security analyst with a usefully broad vocabulary.

Factual connections

“The specifications recommended above direct attention to a number of theoretically important and policy-relevant aspects of the subject matter that might easily be overlooked.”

Not precluding empirical investigation

The specifications discussed here do not preclude empirical investigation by making true ‘by definition’ what had better be left open to empirical inquiry. The importance of security as a policy objective is not built into the concept nor are the means by which security may be pursued are not confined military force.

Ordinary language

None of the specifications suggested above deviates unnecessarily from ordinary usage.


No social science concept has been more abused and misused than national security. If the concept is to be salvaged for use in policy analysis or theory construction, specifications of the sort advocated here seem to be necessary. To argue that they are necessary, however, is not to say that they would be sufficient.


Footnotes

[1] “W B. Gallie uses the concept of a ‘champion’ in sports to illustrate the point, i.e., to label a team as champion is to say that it plays the game better than other teams. Is the concept of security similar to the concept of a champion?”

[2] “Logically, it is flawed because it provides no justification for limiting the allocation of resources to security in a world where absolute security is unattainable. Empirically it is flawed because it fails to comport with the way people actually behave.”


Field Experiments in International Relations by Robert O. Keohane — Lecture Transcript


Title: Field Experiments in International Relations
Presented by: Robert O. Keohane
Presented on: September 20, 2012
Presented at: The Wheatley Institution, Brigham Young University


  • The original transcript is available at the Wheatley Institution’s website. Click here to view it.
  • This modified transcript does not include the Q&A.

Introductory Remarks

More than ninety years ago, at the end of World War I, Max Weber gave two now famous lectures, published in English as “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation”. They well repay reading and rereading. They are short, so if you haven’t read them, I recommend you do so. Thinking of those lectures, it seemed appropriate to me to reflect on political science as a vocation. As the title of my lecture indicates, I am directing my comments both to my fellow political scientists in the audience and to students in attendance here who may be beginning careers in our field.

I am going to reflect on our vocation from the vantage point of someone who has been a practicing political scientist — teaching, reflecting, and writing about politics — for forty-seven years. It is hard for me say that and to believe that, but it is true.

I begin by pointing out that, viewed historically, you are in distinguished company. Aristotle was probably the first systematic Western political scientist, theorizing the relationship of politics to other spheres of life and creating a typology of regimes. He created what we would now call comparative politics. This was in the 4th century B.C. Machiavelli not only advised the prince but sought to analyze the nature of leadership, the characteristic hypocrisy of political speech (which is not a new phenomenon and is certainly still a current one) and the sources of republican greatness. Hobbes provided what is still one of the most compelling discussions of the causes of political violence and the sources of and justification for the state. Montesquieu and Madison developed a durable theory of constitutionalism, and Tocqueville put forth insights into the nature of democracy that remain vibrant today (for example, in the work of Robert Putnam). I have already mentioned Max Weber.

In the generation of political scientists born in the first three decades of this century, I will list (somewhat arbitrarily) Gabriel Almond, Robert Dahl, Elinor Ostrum, Judith Shklar, and Kenneth Waltz, all of whom profoundly affected our knowledge of politics. There are so many fine colleagues doing insightful work now that to mention a few would be to risk slighting others whose work is equally important. The point is that, to the undergraduates, if you decide to go on to join in the political science profession and become a graduate student and then a faculty member in it, you are joining a vibrant profession with a rich history. If you are studying it, you are studying in a profession with a rich history. I hope your instructors don’t start the syllabus in 1975. If I were conversant with classical Indian and Chinese sources, I could probably add to this list and extend this history even further into the past.

Following Virginia Woolf, many of you will probably notice that except for Ostrum and Shklar, this is a procession of men. Fortunately, however, this lamentable situation, which was characteristic of this profession as well as others, has changed. If I had listed contemporary political scientists of note, I would have had to include Theda Skocpol, Margaret Levi, Carole Pateman and Susanne Rudolph, all of whom have been president of the Association, as well as many younger women who are now leaders in the field. Although exclusion on the basis of gender and race was long a reality, our profession is increasingly opened to talented people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

What is Political Science?

What, then, is political science? What do we mean by it? I have an economist colleague who likes to say that any discipline with science in its name is not really a science and that it protests too much. Were one to adopt a narrow view of science as requiring mathematical formulations of its propositions, precise quantitative testing, or even experimental validation, political science would, indeed, for the most part, be an oxymoron.

Today, I will defend our nomenclature by taking a broader view. I would define politics as involving attempts to organize human groups, to determine internal rules, and, externally, to compete and cooperate with other organized groups, and reactions to such attempts. This definition is meant to encompass a range of activity, from the governance of a democracy such as Great Britain to warfare, from corporate takeovers to decisions made from the U.N. Security Council. It includes acts of leadership and resistance to leadership, behaviour resulting from deference and defiance. I define science as a publicly-known set of procedures designed to make and evaluate descriptive and causal inferences on the basis of the self-conscious application of methods that are themselves subject to public evaluation. As transparency, public evaluation, and criticism are inherent in science, all science is carried out with the understanding that all conclusions are uncertain and subject to revision or refutation. So, political science is simply the study of politics through the procedures of science. Most of my lecture will be devoted to an explication of how, in my view, political science should be carried out. That is, the process of thinking and research that yields insights into politics.

Teaching as an Intrinsic Part of the Political Science Vocation

I want to begin by talking about teaching. Teaching is sometimes disparaged. Colleagues bargain to reduce their “teaching loads”. The language is revealing, since we speak of research opportunities but teaching loads. National and global reputations are built principally on written work, not on teaching. But when we look around, we see that virtually all top ranked political scientists in the world today are active teachers. Some are not good teachers, but they are all active teachers.  Few of them have spent their careers at a research institutes or think tanks. In my view, there is a reason for this. Teaching undergraduates compels one to put arguments into ordinary language accessible to undergraduates, and therefore to smart people who have not absorbed the arcane language of social science, which can be evasive as well as it can be illuminating. Teaching graduate students exposes one to new ideas from younger and more supple minds, as long as the students are sufficiently critical of the professor’s views. I want to emphasize this point about criticism. In my experience, most students, rarely the best, are too deferential. In fact, one of the disappointments in my career is that students were less deferential in the 60s and 70s. They are more deferential now, and it is a bad thing.

In 1927, so the story goes (I think it is a true story that comes out of my father’s notebooks; he was an honest man), the Chief Justice of the United States, former president William Howard Taft, came to Yale Law School, where his host was a Chancellor of Yale Law School, Robert Maynard Hutchins. Taft was former president, chief justice, a man of ample girth (350 pounds), somewhat pompous as well as very intelligent and distinguished, and he was a conservative. Hutchins was dean at 28 years old; he was a radical. Yale was seen as a radical place. So, the Chief Justice said to Dean Hutchins, “Well, I understand that you at Yale teach your students that all the judges are fools”, to which Robert Maynard replied, quick as a wink, “No, Mr. Chief Justice. At Yale, we teach our students to find that out for themselves”. Like the Yale law students, you need to discover for yourself which senior political scientists are wise and which are fools. It doesn’t come from their CVs, their nominal reputations, or their titles. You have to do so by using your own critical facilities.

Teaching is rewarding other ways. I learned a lot from my colleagues and directly from my students, who come to me with insights or works to read that were suggested to them by other faculty members. In the long run, one might see former undergraduate students become politicians or even rise to other high positions. A former student of mine is now a U.S. Senator, and another one just retired as president of the World Bank. (Both undergraduates, of course. The graduate students are all professors.) With former PhD students, ties are much stronger, since they remain in the profession. Two of my most valued colleagues and best friends at Princeton are former students, including Helen Milner, who is co-running this conference, and the eminent student of the European Union, Andrew Moravcsik. Former students of mine are scattered at colleges and universities around the United States, with some in Europe or Japan. In my office, I keep a shelf of books that began as Ph.D. dissertations under my supervision.

Never disparage teaching. It is an intrinsic part of political science as a vocation. Furthermore, it provides much more immediate gratification than research. When I am working on a major project, I never know where the results will be worthwhile. I have left unpublished a good deal of work when I realize the premises or methods I used were flawed. Sometimes, even once-published work will be ignored. Like politics for Weber, research can seem like a long, hard “boring of hard boards”, in his phrase. Eventual awards may be substantial or may be meager; you never know until quite a bit later. If you give a good lecture or teach a lively, thoughtful seminar, the gratification is immediate. You know you accomplished something that day. During periods of self-doubt, teaching can keep you going.

The “Science” in Political Science

Now let me turn to the science in political science. Turning to research. What do political scientists do? What are the processes they go through in their search for knowledge? I am going to focus on four activities: puzzling, conceptualizing, describing, and making causal inferences.

Puzzling

First, puzzling. Interesting work begins, in my view, not just with a problem — for example, how does democracy work in the United States? — but with a puzzle. Puzzles are anomalies: what we have observed does not fit with our preconceptions based on established theory. Hobbes sought to make sense of civil war and regicide. Tocqueville wanted to understand how a decentralized, individualized society, such as the United States in the 1830s, could exhibit such overall cohesion and even suffer from oppressive public opinion, in his view. Barrington Moore and a line of successors have sought to explain why some societies develop stable democracies while others do not. Scott and others seek to account for great revolutions and their absence.

Great leaps forward in political science often take place when someone sees puzzles where others are only seeing facts. The great philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos say that science proceeds on a “sea of anomalies”, which certainly applies to political science. That is, science only really progresses when you find anomalies, puzzles that don’t fit either conventional wisdom or established theory, not when you just plug away, crossing the “t” or dotting the “i”.

Now, I am not very satisfied with much of political science today. It seems to me that it often just does call attention to relationships that conventional thinking expects to obtain. I think there is a herd instinct in political science. It has been quite marked in the last decade or two, where people follow the same lines of work, just adding small amounts to it. So, showing with more precision that democracies are relatively peaceful toward one another is an example. It is an important piece of knowledge that they are. The 150th article estimating in a little different way how they are, it seems to me, is not. That civil wars thrive in poorly-governed countries with places to hide, or that economic failure is bad for incumbents, resolves no major puzzles. It is important, then, I think, to begin with an interesting puzzle for which the answer is not obvious.

One implication of my point here is to find something puzzling to study. Don’t just stop when you find something that is a topic in political science, that is a subject matter. There is another implication of the importance of puzzles: never dismiss what appears to be a naïve question. This is true for teaching and also true in research. The naïve questions are often the most fundamental ones. I will give you a true story which taught me this.

I was at Stanford in the 1970s, teaching political science with no training in economics and trying to understand economics better. I was trying to pick it up on the fly by attending economics seminars. I would walk across the street and attended those. I remember one such seminar by an eminent student in a multinational corporation whose work I knew. He spoke very well in a highly-organized way. After about three minutes, in true economics fashion, a young bearded man asked a question which the speaker answered to my satisfaction. After three or four minutes, the same hand went up again, and then again a few minutes later with a different question, each seeming rather obvious to me. After three or four questions, I was getting annoyed and impatient saying to myself, “Can’t you let the speaker proceed?” After five or six questions, it dawned on me (perhaps I was the last person in the room to see it) that the questioner was the only person in the room who understood the topic and that his series of apparently naïve questions had dismantled the questions of this professor’s talk. There was literally nothing left.

I forgot everything else about the seminar, except I remember how the room looked and where the guy was. I know who he was now. But the apparently naïve questions of this questioner had dismantled the talk’s premises.  So, the lesson is that the apparently naïve questions are often the most fundamental. If you are puzzled, ask. In our field, there are no dumb questions. It is true. Probably 90%, maybe 95% of naïve questions are just that. They are naïve. You don’t understand what the speaker said, and then you can only gain by asking the question because you learn something about it. Maybe 5% of the time, you may be the only person in the room to see the anomaly and to sense, like a good detective, that there is something wrong about the story you are being told. The rewards for identifying the major puzzles, for the profession and for yourself, are very large indeed.

Conceptualising

After you have a puzzle, the next step is conceptualization and being clear about the meaning of concepts. Giovanni Sartori pointed out long ago that concepts get stretched out of shape by political scientists trying to do too much with too little. It much often depends on definitions. How we think about the relationship between democracy and liberty, for example, depends on how we conceptualize democracy and liberty. Are they in conflict or not? Likewise, whether democracies ever fight one another, or whether international institutions degrade or enhance democracy, depends heavily on how one defines democracy. Whether civil wars are becoming more or less frequent may turn on how we conceptualize what a civil war is, rather than a lesser form of civil conflict. Whether peace requires justice or is at odds, in conflict with, justice depends on how we define both of these contested terms. There are, in my view, no right or wrong definitions — I am a positivist in that way — but there are explicit and implicit definitions, those consistent with ordinary usage and those that are not. Authors can be consistent or inconsistent in their use of terms. At the conceptualization stage, it is our obligation to pull forward explicit definitions (I tried to define political science earlier in this lecture) and to seek to operationalize them consistently. The more definitions conform to ordinary usage, furthermore, the less confusion is likely to result.

Describing

Now I come to description and interpretation. The core of what most political scientists do most of the time is descriptive inference. Inference means drawing more general conclusions from established premises plus a particular set of facts. For example, from known facts, such as that each of 150 countries has a different form of government and economic characteristics, we may infer that there is a correlation between wealth and democracy. That is a descriptive inference. Properly speaking, though, such a conclusion rests on a chain of inferences. It is often necessary to probe those. For instance, we may have inferred from a sample survey of tax returns what per capita GDP is for the country, or from observations of three elections where the country is democratically governed. These inferences are subject to error. People might systematically falsify their tax returns in one country, for example, and not in another. The incumbent government might conceal decisive manipulations from election monitors. Other examples of descriptive inferences in political science are the generalization that democracies don’t fight one another, the claim that international institutions typically provide information to governments but other governments compliance with rules, and the claim that the European Union was formed more about economic gains than security benefits.

These examples indicate that descriptive inferences can be generalizations about a wide set of cases or statements about a particular set of events at a particular time and place. We can make inferences about individuals; for example, the sincerity or hypocrisy of leaders or our perceptions about other leaders’ behavior. We can also make inferences about the behavior of collective actors that may have subunits pulling in different directions: what the “United Kingdom” or “China” did in a situation, or whether the “United States” (or, rather, unauthorized individuals) engaged in torture at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. We can make inferences about relationships: were there backchannel communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis between the Soviet Ambassador and Robert M. Kennedy, and, if so, what were they about? Are the informal conversations between Israeli and U.S. leaders today as hostile as might be inferred by their public comments? Often, political scientists try to make their descriptive inferences more precise by attaching numbers to whatever process they are seeking to understand. Precision is certainly enhanced by numbers that are both reliable and valid, and so such activities are to be encouraged.

It is important to recognize the importance of both reliability and validity. Reliability essentially means that, using the criteria publicly employed, the number could be replicated by an independent observer. If by criteria defining “wars” as organized violence involving 1,000 or more deaths, one team of observers finds fifty wars at a given period of time, another team using the same criteria should also find fifty wars. That is the reliability side. Get the same answer to the same question if you do it again.

Validity is different. It refers to whether the measurement used — in this case, 1,000 battle casualties — fairly reflects the underlying phenomenon being discussed — that is, war. Are all conflicts involving 1,000 deaths war? Even if some involve small societies so that 1,000 deaths is a large portion of the population and some involve very large societies that suffer more deaths by traffic accidents in a couple of weeks? Should all wars, from the skirmish that took 1,100 lives to World War II, be counted equally? Are they all wars? You see right away, these are constructions. These aren’t factual descriptions. They are dependent on an interpretation of what we mean by a term, what we mean by a war. How are we going to categorize something? Very often, our conclusions rely on these, and all too often, people don’t interrogate the interpretations that lie behind the supposed descriptions. So, these are questions of validity that can’t themselves be solved by clarification, but for which one has to think hard about how one’s conceptualization relates to the phenomena that can be measured. Are we measuring what we are meaning to measure? So, before we accept a descriptive inference, we need to have asked questions of validity as well as reliability.

This issue is highlighted by the famous philosophical distinction between a wink and a twitch. As Clifford Geertz writes, “The difference between a wink and a twitch is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to take the first for the second knows”. I want to add vice versa — if someone who is attractive to you is moving her eyelids rapidly, you need to engage in an interpretation before moving to a descriptive inference. If you interpret the eye moving as a wink, you may infer: She loves me, too! But what if you act on the interpretation and it was only a twitch?

Political scientists engage in interpretation all the time. When states “reject” a public offer, as Spain has rejected loan terms from the European Central Bank, are they really rejecting it entirely, or are they establishing a bargaining position? When the United States brings an auto trade case against China, as it did this week, is it seeking to maintain a level playing field or to help President Obama’s reelection chances, in Ohio in particular?  When Hillary Clinton was overseas during the Democratic National Convention, was she merely following non-partisan tradition for Secretary of State, or was she signaling disinterest in a run for the presidency? Or, perhaps, sealing interest in the run for the presidency through an odd twist of logic? My point of this inference is twofold. It is not the same as simple description. We may think we are describing something, like I am describing that I am hitting this table. It involves an inference from known to unknown that can be incorrect or otherwise flawed. Both description and descriptive inference often rest on the interpretation of inherently (sometimes deliberately) ambiguous actions such as the wink-twitch.

Making Causal Inferences

Now I come to causal inference. Causality necessarily involves consideration of a counterfactual situation. If Charles II had not been executed in 1649, would Great Britain have a different political system now? If nuclear weapons had not been invented, would the United States and the Soviet Union have fought World War III in the 1950s? If the United States had not supported democratization in Egypt, would the Muslim Brotherhood be in charge there now? Since we inherently cannot observe at the same time what actually happened and what didn’t happen, making causal inferences is always difficult. The descriptive inferences are hard enough, but causal differences are really difficult because you can’t observe both the action and the non-action. You can’t observe two situations. So, we do not observe causality. You never observe causality. You always infer causality, and it is always a problematic or uncertain inference.

Now, if we can find and measure many highly similar instances of the same action — for example, votes for parliament or expressions of party preference in surveys — we might be able to make quite good causal inferences through the use of quantitative methods. If it is a common unit (unit homogeneity, in the jargon word), a vote is a vote is a vote, as opposed to being different kind of actions. Even then, our procedures may contaminate our findings. For example, people often make up answers to public opinion polls because they don’t want to seem to not to know something. We know they recall having voted for winning candidates more than can actually have been the case. You can prove, with high significance, that more people report voting for the presidential winner than actually voted for the presidential winner, which of course is a contradiction.

More seriously, our inferences may be flawed because of omitted variables: something else changed that we failed to measure. This change, rather than the one on which we focused, may explain what we want to understand. Or we can confront endogeneity: what we stipulate as the effect is actually in wholer part a cause. There is a reciprocal relationship, for example. Furthermore, anticipation of consequences may create false impressions of causality. States may comply with international law, not because they have incentives to follow it or because they believe they are obliged to do so, but because they have carefully agreed only to rules with which they intended, in any event, to comply. If that is the case, it might appear to be causal, that the law leads to the action, but it would not be true, given my assumption. Conversely, real causality may be obscure. Political scientists seeking to determine the effect of deterrence threats in international crises did not find any significant effects. But critics point out that the states that would submit to deterrence threats should have anticipated the threats and their submission and therefore would not have stimulated a crisis in the first place.

The difficulties of causal inference seem endless. Indeed, I am here at BYU today because of an attempt led by some members of your faculty to explore another approach to the problem of causal inference: experiments. Experiments are standard in medicine, not yet in political science. Now, it is not possible to experiment on some issues. We can’t replace the Egyptian military regime a year ago with, on the one hand, a military dictatorship, and, on the other hand, a second democracy and see how they would react differently to attacks on the American Embassy. For problems on which we can use experiments, the method has enormous advantages. At this conference, we are going to will talk about those.

There are also limitations of this and any other method. The one limitation of experimental methods is what is known as external validity. You may be quite sure that you got the right answer and that you have a causal inference for this particular set of people at this time, at this place, in this context. There is no guarantee that, if the context would have been a little bit different, you will obtain the same results. With respect to large scale problems, like the ones I am mostly interested in, experiments will probably always remain unavailable. Unfortunately for science (but probably fortunately for the human race), we cannot manipulate large scale political phenomena for our convenience, even if human subjects-committees would allow us to do so. So, on these issues, our causal inferences are always likely to be problematic. We could not construct a French Revolution for the treatment and have no French Revolution be the placebo.

Aspirations to causal inference are often linked to hopes for prediction. Our causal knowledge of gravity helps us to predict the movement of planets and other celestial objects, and our causal knowledge of biology and, increasingly, genetics help us to predict the incidence of disease. Sometimes we can make predictions of election outcomes on the base of economic conditions, but even our best predictions are imperfect. For my own subject of international politics, the situation is even worse, because it revolves around conscious strategies of reflective actors: I act as I do because I anticipate what you will do. But you, knowing this, act differently than I expect, and I, in turn, anticipating this, change my behavior. This is an infinite regress about which no prediction can be made. One would have to know how many cycles the players would go through, but if this could be ascertained, smart players would learn it and go one step further.

Why Choose Political Science as a Vocation?

So, why choose political science as a vocation? If causal inferences in our field and predictions are as intractable as I have argued, why should we choose our profession? My short answer is that we study politics not because it is beautiful or easy to understand, but because it is so important to all fields of human endeavor. I readily admit that I cannot prove that politics is important. Weber, in “Science as a Vocation”, says that “[the] presupposition [of something as worth knowing] cannot be proved by scientific methods. It can only be interpreted with reference to its ultimate meaning”.

Without governance, though, as Hobbes said, life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Democracy is, in my view, however flawed it is (and I will mention that in a minute), immensely better than autocracy, much less tyranny. Making democracy work is hard, and imposing democracy seems close to impossible. Ironically, around the world, the flaws of democracy are becoming increasingly evident in the wake of the spread of democracy worldwide. At the same time, we have a celebration of democracy; the last fifteen years has probably been the period of the greatest celebration of democracy in the history of the world. And yet, you can’t pick up a newspaper or a political science journal without seeing the pathologies of one democracy or another.

One of the interesting experimental papers for this conference by Dan Nielson, Helen Milner, and Mike Findley purports to be about foreign aid in Uganda. It shows that people in Uganda seem to prefer multilateral or even bilateral foreign aid from foreigners to government projects of a similar type from their own government. What the paper doesn’t observe is how devastating that is for theories that say that democracy is the best form of government, because Uganda is a democracy (at least nominally), and foreign aid by the World Bank or U.S. Government is not democratic. The people of Uganda have no accountability or control over it. Yet the situation where they have no influence, they can’t hold the provider accountable, they regard in a higher esteem than the situation in which they have (at least in principle or nominally) some ability to hold the providers to account.

We are going to see, I think, in the next ten or fifteen years, a lot of soul-searching about democracy. We have been through a period of celebration and, as C. Wright Mills said a long time ago of the United States, periods of celebration are usually overdone, and there is an underside. I think we are going to see more critical attention to democracy rather than the assumption that has, in fact, dominated public policy but also much of the profession, that democracy is necessarily and, out of context, the best form of government. I am kind of with Churchill that it is the worst form of government except for all others. That is a somewhat different orientation toward it.

Back to political science. Without a political science, it would be hard to have effective democratic leadership because it depends on accountability, and that is based on critiques of action which are realistic with respect to what is possible. Without a vibrant political science, leaders would be guided only by their limited personal experiences, historical analogies, and folk wisdom — all highly unreliable as a basis for inference. Publics would be deprived of a scientific basis for criticism. We should therefore judge our work not according to some idealization of science or by the standards of the physical and biological sciences, in which case we fall short and will for a long time fall short. Unlike Newtonian physics, we cannot properly aspire to knowledge of grand, covering laws that explain a myriad of disparate events. Instead, we should ask the more modest question: whether knowing the political science literature on a given topic has prepared us better to anticipate what could happen, to assign probabilities to these various scenarios, and to judge actual results.

Are the findings of political science superior as a guide to historical analogies, extrapolation from the very recent past, and common sense? The answer is not always affirmative, unfortunately. Indeed, as I already criticized the herd instinct in political science, I think we need to widen our focus to topics that we haven’t focused on enough. For example, I would say one of the most important questions in politics right now is, “What is the impact of new social media on politics, comparatively and internationally?” We don’t know very much. We know virtually nothing, scientifically, about that subject. I think that is fair to say. That is not surprising; it is new. What is surprising is that almost nobody I know in political science is studying that question. I don’t know why every graduate student in the country is not after that question. The only answer I can think of is that their professors aren’t asking that question because we are too old to understand social media. That is not a good reason. So, we need a lot more boldness and imagination in the pursuit of our field.

Democracy and Political Science

At the outset of this lecture, I praised criticism and counsel of one’s elders. I hope that all of you, from students to middle-aged professors, are dissatisfied with the accomplishments of earlier generations, sceptical about their inferences, and sceptical about what I am telling you right now. I hope you see puzzling anomalies in some of the conventional wisdom, issues that need to be unpacked, and I hope that you have objections to express to what I have just been saying. Many of you will have noticed that my sources and examples come almost entirely from Europe and the United States and from international politics, which has been dominated for five centuries by Europe and its offshoots. There is a sort of parochialism, therefore, about the way I have interpreted and presented this subject. This parochialism is presumably due, in some measures, to my own limitations, but also reflects the discipline, which is heavily American, to some extent European, with relatively few genuinely important, independent contributions from scholars on other continents.

As the economic and political centres of gravity shift away from Europe and the United States, and as we move into the “post-American era”, as Fareed Zakaria calls it, this is bound to change. Political science will become a global discipline; it will, however, only prosper if liberal democracy, for all its weaknesses, thrives. If we are doing our job, we political scientists will be irritating to political leaders since we illuminate their deliberate obscurities and deceptions, point to alternative policies that could be followed, question their motivations, and dissect the operations of organizations that support them and the governments over which they preside. They will try to buy us off or, failing that, if not prevented from doing so, to shut us up. As a result, we have a symbiotic relationship with democracy. We can only thrive when democracy flourishes, and democracy, in a smaller way, needs us, if only as a small voice of dispassionate reason.

Our symbiotic relationship to democracy means that political science cannot be value neutral, nor can we be neutral with respect to order versus chaos and war versus peace. In our particular investigations, we need to seek objectivity, a goal that is never realized but that we should strive for. Otherwise, people with other preferences or who do not know what our values are will have no reason to take our findings seriously. In the absence of a serious culture of objectivity, no cumulative increases in knowledge can take place. But the overall enterprise, despite what I have said about objectivity, can never be value neutral.  We should choose important problems because we care about improving human behaviour and human politics. We should explain those choices to our students and readers, and we should not apologize for making value-laden choices even as we search unflinchingly for the truth, as unpleasant as the truth may be.

I hope you will consult your values as well as the literature in deciding what to work on. Try to work on things that are important, where the answer matters to you.  It is not simply a puzzle, like you might solve a crossword puzzle; it is something that really matters, and if people knew the right answer to this puzzle or this anomaly, we would have a better world in one respect or another. In conclusion, let me express the hope that younger political scientists will see openings where we older political scientists see closure, and that you have ideas about how to move through those openings to the insights that surely lie behind them. There are certainly productive, new interpretations to offer and new descriptive and causal discoveries to be made. Some of you have already been formulating some of these new views. I look forward to your questions and to a stimulating discussion.


https://youtu.be/zBEvfIaWM88