Morality and Politics: The Case of Grenada

The moral good has an interest in nurturing a political system which allows it to unfold

American involvement in the affairs of third world countries raises anew the insistent question of the relation of morality and politics. For example, the invasion of Grenada was condemned by Anthony Lewis of the New York Times (Oct. 27, 1983) because it undermines the concept of “legitimacy,” one of whose elements is the sanctity of borders. Mr. Lewis sees adherence to this principle a cornerstone of American strength. Mr. Lewis is wrong. Rather it is American strength which is the chief bulwark of “legitimacy” in this world. More interesting than the error is the cause. Mr. Lewis, as many of our contemporaries, fails to distinguish between politics and morality. Indeed both may have required the invasion of Grenada.

It is now clear that Grenada promised to be a replay of one of the Soviet Union’s favorite gambits. In order to swell its growing power, Moscow bypasses a strict constructionist concept of “legitimacy.” As in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and Afghanistan in 1978-80 indigenous forces which bear the mark of Soviet influence first topple a shaky government, i.e. one already debilitated by and mortgaged to leftist politics. All the while more disciplined instruments of Soviet foreign policy stand by ready to take advantage. As it turns out several hundred armed Cubans, Moscow’s favorite Hessians, were in place in Grenada. Anyone who doubts they were sufficient to the task of dominating Grenadan politics once the dust had settled lives under too many illusions to dispel without a treatise.

So far then the requirements of politics and legitimacy may have been satisfied. Morality is not yet at issue. What is at issue are political values: values arising out of the competition and thus the clash of the self-interest of political communities, although the word ‘competition’ may be misleading since it conjures up the orderly world of games bound by rules. Politics, on the other hand, is sui generis, bound only by the limitations political agents impose on themselves, or are compelled to accept out of necessity. What is at stake up to this point is the world we share with Assyria and Rome, with the France of Louis XIV and Le Duc Tho’s Vietnam. But even if the requirements of politics are unsettled with respect to Grenada, it is not so for morality. At first blush moral values are not in the world like political values.

Morality is like mathematics. Both initially exist in the abstract. As mathematics deals with the world only when joined to physics, so morality is in the world only when wed to politics. It does not breathe in the real world unless politics allows. As a matter of fact, in the world in which we live, only regimes which are responsible allow for morality, even if imperfectly. But a necessary condition of responsibility is accountability. Governments which are not accountable to their subjects are, strictly speaking, not responsible. They are irresponsible. They are closed to moral considerations arising out of the political process except for narrow tactical reasons and hence fitfully, if at all.

The record is clear. No government which is part of the Soviet Empire — including collaterals, e.g. Libya — has ever had genuine elections. None are accountable. They are all irresponsible. Cuba is a prime example of this pattern. Fidel Castro, the boss, has been ruling for over 20 years. He has not the political courage to .stand in free elections. Even political cowardice is a species of immorality. (The fate of Flight 007 is not so much an instance of Soviet “paranoia” — a term which even hands-on psychiatrists use with caution when dealing with individuals — but of Soviet immorality. The Soviet Government is not accountable. It acted irresponsibly. It still does so. It has yet to offer compensation.)

Of course not every situation in the third world will be as clear as Grenada. The relatively intolerable excesses of dictators, juntas, strong men of whatever sort will not be by themselves causes for action. Politics will have primacy. Extreme cases will be more than manifest. Consequences will be weighed. If America can forward a transition from repression to responsibility, as in the case of Portugal, thoughtful observers will be heartened. Mindless transitions — at the price of America’s self-interest — from incompetent repression to a cruel sort, as in Iran, will be seen as aberrations. In any case it will be the moral agenda of Americans acting in groups, translating abstractions into political realities, which will ultimately determine where American self-interest dovetails with moral considerations.

Grenada’s fate was as tolerably clear as human affairs allow. Until the Soviet Union and its allies respect a meaningful concept of legitimacy, observers will be prepared to see the U.S. tiptoe around a world where spurious legitimacy must at times be sacrificed to sound politics. As for those who follow Mr. Lewis in failing to distinguish between politics and morality, they will be condemned to repeat his error. Morality has a claim where it is allowed to make its claims felt. Hence the price of being blind to American political interests will, on the whole, lead to a denial of morality’s interests. A judicious perspective is always mindful that it is not merely Caesar’s wrath which requires that Caesar’s interests be respected; the moral good also has an interest in nurturing its anchor in the world, a political system which allows it to unfold.


  • Joseph Gonda

    Joseph Gonda teaches in the philosophy department of Glendon College, York University (Toronto).

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