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Presidential Decision-Making: Utilitarianism vs Duty Ethics

Michael Rockler compares two ethics of statemanship for two American presidents.

United States presidents, beginning with George Washington in his policy regarding the French Revolution, right up to George W. Bush’s decisions affecting terrorism and the war in Iraq, have had to face ethical questions of great importance. The historical evaluation of a presidency – whether or not is has been successful – is often based on the way in which the president approached moral dilemmas.

This article looks at presidential decisions in the administrations of Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman. It examines how each applied both utilitarianism (which is closely related to democratic governance) and Kantian duty ethics in making significant judgments.

Utilitarianism may be understood as a commitment to the search for the common good. The first utilitarians sought to measure pleasure and pain in order to help them achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Their goal was to maximise happiness. However, utilitarianism failed in its attempt to calculate the amount of pleasure and pain across society. This kind of assessment is ultimately too complex and subjective.

Contemporary utilitarianism abandoned the measurement of pleasure and pain in favor of a less complicated formulation based on the examination of consequences. In any given act, positive outcomes should be greater than negative results, such that there is a net positive gain for the common good. In other words, the consequences of actions must be evaluated and decisions made which lead to a positive increase of benefits for society.

In contrast, the duty ethics of Immanuel Kant can be summarized with three key propositions. First, for Kant, ethics is a rational process. Everyone must use his or her intelligence to determine what is morally appropriate, since human beings’ foremost characteristic is reason. Once an appropriate ethical stance is determined by reason, it becomes one’s duty to act ethically on the basis of what one has concluded rationally. The second Kantian proposition is the requirement that human beings tell the truth. This is the prime duty, for without it – lacking a deep commitment to honesty – human social relations cannot effectively occur. Finally, Kant identified the categorical imperative. This says that you should judge your actions as if your behavior were a model for all humanity. As part of this, Kant also argued that each person should be treated as an end in themself and not simply be used by others. He wanted people to create communities where persons were endowed with dignity and respect and would be treated as responsible, valuable citizens.

Presidents often need to be utilitarian. That is, they have an obligation to find a way to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number; more generally, they need to engage in actions whose positive outcomes for the society outweigh the negative consequences.

Many presidents have also been Kantians. As men committed to democratic ideals (usually), they believed that human beings need to be seen as ends in themselves and not as tools for the use of others. They also understood that their actions would be seen as models for others to emulate, and could have reflected that their principles could be applied universally.

Sometimes utilitarian and Kantian goals can be in conflict. I’ll argue that President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan was a utilitarian decision by a president who tended to act within a Kantian framework. Similarly, Lincoln found a way to reconcile a utilitarian perspective with his commitment to duty ethics in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which had both the economic good and the good of the individual as motivations. Thus Lincoln and Truman applied both utilitarianism and duty ethics in their decision-making.

Abraham Lincoln and the Ethics of Slavery

All of his life, Abraham Lincoln was an opponent of slavery on Kantian-type grounds. Following the categorical imperative, Lincoln believed that one could not support the enslavement of others because one would never want to be a slave. He wrote, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” He understood that when human beings are enslaved by others they are used as means to the ends of others. This is also a violation of the categorical imperative. Lincoln also argued that it was inconsistent for a country founded on democratic beliefs to maintain slavery: the United States republican form of government could not be a model for other nations as long as slavery existed.

Lincoln also opposed slavery on utilitarian grounds. He believed that the negative consequences of slavery outweighed any positive. Thus Lincoln believed that slavery was both wrong, and led ultimately to the diminution of the public good.

Lincoln’s ethical struggle stemmed from the fact that at his inauguration in 1861 slavery was legal under the Constitution, and he had taken an oath to preserve the Constitution. Any attempt to abolish slavery would be a violation of that oath. This would also be a violation of Kant’s principle that one must always tell the truth.

Lincoln resolved his ethical conflict over slavery by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It abolished slavery in the states which had revolted against the U.S. government, while allowing it to continue in those slave states still in the Union. He could abolish slavery in the rebellious states as part of his war powers as Commander-In-Chief, as a way to weaken their ability to engage in rebellion. This action was consistent with his oath to defend the Constitution, since the document also gave him extraordinary power in time of war. Lincoln also proposed an amendment to the Constitution which would abolish slavery in all of the states. That amendment became part of the Constitution after Lincoln was assassinated.

Lincoln applied his utilitarian belief that slavery should be abolished for the greater good of the country. His Kantian perspectives regarding the universality of actions, the non-use of people as the tools of other people, and his belief in not violating his oath of office were also maintained. Within these parameters, Lincoln found a way to abolish slavery in most of the United States by the Emancipation Proclamation. He also started the process that resulted in the 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery in all of the United States.

Harry S. Truman – Hiroshima, The Marshall Plan and Civil Rights

Harry S. Truman, now regarded by historians as a great or near-great president, also applied both utilitarian and Kantian principles in his ethical behavior. But these were applied to different ethical dilemmas in his presidency rather than reconciled in a single decision, as with Lincoln and emancipation.

Perhaps the greatest ethical dilemma Truman faced was the decision to end the war with Japan by using the atomic bomb. To this day there are those who praise him for bringing the war to an end with the minimal additional loss of the lives of U.S. and Allied troops. There are also those who condemn him for the use of this terrible weapon of mass destruction. But the use of the bomb can be seen as a case of the direct application of utilitarian ethics.

Within few weeks of Truman becoming president, the war in Europe ended with the defeat of Germany. Truman also received word that the United States had developed a nuclear bomb capable of tremendous destruction. He was required to decide whether to use this weapon on the Japanese to bring about their quicker surrender and the final conclusion of the war.

It could be assumed that with the end of the war in Europe, an invasion of Japan would be successful, and that the war could be ended with the conquest of Japan. However, to do this would cost a lot of human lives. Since the invasion never took place, it is impossible to know how many Allied soldiers would have died in the invasion. Truman heard estimates that put the death toll in the range of 500,000 to 1,000,000 Allied casualties.

Truman was also aware of the continuing slaughter of Japanese from ongoing non-nuclear bombing, which had already cost the Japanese some 100,000 lives. Dropping atomic bombs and forcing the Japanese to surrender would not only save Allied and American lives, it would end further futile Japanese soldier and civilian deaths as well.

So Truman decided to use nuclear weapons on utilitarian grounds. He reasoned that dropping the atomic bombs would ultimately cost less lives – Allied, American and Japanese – than would the continuing conventional bombardment of Japan coupled with the deployment of a huge military force on the Japanese Islands. And the use of the atomic bombs did end the war.

Two other initiatives in the Truman presidency demonstrate his application of Kantian principles in the exercise of his office.

The first is the Marshall Plan, which was a strategy for rebuilding Europe with U.S. financial support (named after General George Marshall, who was Truman’s Secretary of State). The Marshall Plan, which was costly and demanding, helped Europe recover its strength, and eventually the European nations returned to self-sufficiency. Thus the United States funded the economic rehabilitation of Europe, which had been nearly totally devastated by the Second World War.

The Marshall Plan can be seen as an application of the categorical imperative, in the sense that Truman understood that ethically he could not avoid helping to rebuild Europe, since nations in a community cannot allow some members of that community to live in devastation and despair as a sort of universal principle. Ignoring the needs of others cannot be a universal principle, and hence the Marshall Plan can be seen as an application of the categorical imperative. Truman would have expected Europe to help with the rebuilding of the United States if the situation were reversed.

Truman’s support of civil rights for African Americans is another example of the application of Kantian principles. The mistreatment of any group by a society cannot be supported, since it violates the development of the community. Discrimination, even against a minority by a majority, cannot be accepted as a universal principle. The reverse would obviously never be acceptable. Lincoln made this clear in his statement that as he would not be a slave, so he would not be a master.

As part of his civil rights program Truman desegregated the armed forces, fought for the passing of anti-lynching laws, and became the first president to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When he left office there was still much to do with regard to racial equality and social justice, but he was the most active president in advocating civil rights since the time of Reconstruction.

Thus Truman’s ethical decision-making, like Lincoln’s, can be seen as the application of both utilitarian and Kantian principles.

Summary and Conclusion

Because the presidency of the United States entails great power, the decisions of individual presidents often have great significance, and often depend on careful ethical decision-making. Both Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman made some of their most important decisions by a combination of utilitarian and Kantian principles. The Emancipation Proclamation, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the decision to help rebuild Europe with American funds, and the commitment to civil rights were among the most significant decisions in American history. Their impact is perhaps magnified because they can be seen as the careful application of ethics to human affairs. All presidents make important decisions; but the historical process of deciding which presidents achieved greatness and which did not perhaps relates to the extent to which these decisions can be seen in an ethical context.

© Prof. Michael Rockler 2007

Michael Rockler is Adjunct Professor of General Studies at Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland.

Further Reading
Burnes. B. Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times, Kansas City Star Books, 2003.
Chadwick, B. The Two American Presidents: A Dual Biography of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Carol Publishing Group, 1999.
Donald, D.H. Lincoln, Simon and Schuster, 1995, and We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, Simon and Schuster, 2003.
Guelzo, A.C. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Hamby, A.L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman, OUP, 1995.
McCullough, D. Truman, Simon and Schuster, 1992.

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