Revisiting the Ethical Calculus: Which Obligations Take Precedence?

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Five years ago, I posed a question which continues to have relevance today. This evening, President Joe Biden is signing executive orders returning the United States to the Paris climate accords and to take other steps to reverse actions taken by his predecessor which were based on an “America First” calculus. Yet, as the new president considers how to pursue a wide-ranging climate and environmental agenda, he, Vice President Harris and their entire team will still need to grapple with this equation:

If particular states are asked to assume burdens “for the good of all”—foregoing use of an energy source that might give to the citizens of that state a middle class lifestyle; and accepting limits on its foreign policy choices in order to preserve a regional balance—then what claim in return does that state have to make to be compensated by others who benefit? And how can the voters of other states be persuaded to accept making those contributions?

Who is owed? And who should make sacrifices? These are both ethical as well as political questions.

In the 2016 campaign, we had two very different ethical frameworks at play:

The Trumpian/neo-Westphalian approach tends to look for immediate impacts and rank effects in terms of costs and expenditures. The Obama/”long game” is looking for long-term systemic benefits which may not be immediately apparent.

The Biden/Harris administration will need to wrestle with the “paradox of democracy“:

 which forces leaders “to balance two sets of competing and in some cases contradictory requirements: obligations to maintain and improve the welfare of the current generation of national citizens, versus obligations to future generations and to humanity as a whole.

Finally, this point is as true in January 2021 as it was in July 2016: “The discussion of ethics in international affairs thus cannot be divorced from the politics and process of national security decision-making.” How the new administration will organize itself and how it will create mechanisms to resolve disputes among competing claims and perspectives will in turn be guided by its ethical choices.

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