Balancing liberty and security has long been a crucial and fraught subject in America, with the post-9/11 war on terrorism as a prominent recent example. So when David McCabe, holder of the Richard J. and Joan Head Chair in philosophy at Colgate, was invited to submit a paper on the subject to an academic conference in Rome, he was quick to accept.
McCabe was eager to see what he could contribute to the dialogue through the give and take of philosophical argument. What resulted was his essay, “National Security, Self-rule, and Democratic Action,” published earlier this year in The Journal of Ethics: An International Philosophical Review.
In his paper, McCabe focuses on an area that he sees as core in the dialogue for a democracy: national security issues. He argues that “there are reasons to see government secrecy not just as compatible with democratic ideals but as a reasonable extension of them.”
McCabe, who has been on the Colgate faculty since 1994, sees himself as committed to basic democratic norms. “I’m in favor of elections, I’m in favor of transparency, of committees who exercise oversight of the government — all those kinds of things.” Key to navigating the tension between liberty and security, he says, is making sure that the means don’t subvert the ends.
Yet McCabe believes that in certain contexts, including that of national security, it may be appropriate to apply to democratic government what he calls “the model of entrusted authority,” where people authorize their political leaders to carry out actions in their name but without their direct involvement or explicit approval. So long as the ends are legitimate goals of the citizens, there may be no great offense to the idea of democratic government when states act in ways that citizens haven’t specifically authorized.
“Preserving national security is a central goal for all states,” McCabe says, and he cites the example of when a covert rescue mission is needed to save citizens. If government officials are asked about such plans and if secrecy will increase the chances of success, secrecy can be defended. Beyond that, if deception is necessary to maintain the secrecy, government deception can also be seen as permissible, he says.
“The chief consideration recommending secrecy in this context is the existence of enemies who wish to harm a community and whose efforts would be substantially aided if they knew more about what their target nations were doing to combat those threats,” McCabe says. “Demanding full transparency in all state action forgoes important advantages covert action might offer.”
While allowing for possible secrecy and deception, McCabe thinks there need to be strong limits. “I am not defending as a general principle the permissibility of governments either lying to their citizens or acting in ways that bypass citizens’ will,” McCabe says, yet there are carefully drawn situations where lack of full transparency is acceptable, when the actions would “substantially advance important goals.” He adds, “It’s hard to imagine that maintaining national security is not a goal that citizens care deeply about and one that advances their interests everywhere. If deception can be justified in any context, it is surely here.”
One aim of my research is to encourage students and other people to develop a more nuanced understanding of the moral parameters of political action,” McCabe says. “And with that, a little more tolerance both for the messiness of politics and for the deep challenges that arise in seeking to be governed by clear principles that we might articulate in advance and which could then resolve every challenge we face.Prof. David McCabe
McCabe is acutely alert to possible abuses. For instance, where deception is motivated simply by a political agent’s desire for personal gain, or by the drive to hide actions that “violate a nation’s self-image,” or by a fear that “citizens might express strong opposition to what is being done,” it is clearly at odds with basic democratic ideals. And he says deception cannot be acceptable in cases of fearmongering “because it employs deception to convince citizens to adopt an end they would otherwise not have.”
Further, McCabe says, there is “a darker possibility that must be acknowledged,” referring to the “moral hazard” where people could “enjoy the benefits of morally questionable acts their government carries out without directly bearing the responsibility that should go with such acts.” Where the need for entrusted authority “diminishes citizens’ incentive to ensure the decency of their state’s action, that would constitute a serious drawback.”
McCabe’s scholarship connects with what for centuries has been one of the trickiest and most talked-about aspects of political discourse: the question of whether the ends can be seen to justify the means, even where those means seem to be genuinely morally problematic. It has been a subject often traced back to the writings of Italian diplomat and philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli in the early 1500s.
For McCabe, the argument was reignited by a seminal 1973 paper from the American political theorist Michael Walzer, popularizing discussion of the concept of “dirty hands.” Walzer asked whether political leaders should violate the deep constraints of morality in order to achieve greater good or avoid disasters for their communities. Those holding political office, Walzer says, may unavoidably find themselves struggling against adversaries whose malicious tactics might be best met with actions of highly dubious moral character.
“Questions about the appropriate norms governing political action have come to the fore in the last 20 years since 9/11,” McCabe says, including questions about disclosure of information and the use of torture and assassinations. “One of the key questions that has emerged over that period is whether the presence of serious threats might justify steps that are in some respects morally problematic, and this brings you into the terrain of dirty hands.”
He cites moral and political complexity in the example of how Barack Obama as a candidate called for the closing of the Guantánamo Bay prison and then didn’t succeed in doing so — or choose to do so — in his eight years as president.
McCabe, who is on sabbatical this year, is working on a new book about “the norms that should properly govern political actors in a democracy, which will involve both the idea of entrusted authority and the difficult issue of dirty hands.” His courses at Colgate include contemporary political philosophy, international ethics, and seminars exploring contemporary challenges to just war theory.
“One aim of my research is to encourage students and other people to develop a more nuanced understanding of the moral parameters of political action,” McCabe says. “And with that, a little more tolerance both for the messiness of politics and for the deep challenges that arise in seeking to be governed by clear principles that we might articulate in advance and which could then resolve every challenge we face. I wish it were that simple, but I doubt that it is.”