Toward a Responsible Eastern Orthodox Moral Critique of U.S. Defense Policy

The problems of whether and how ethics and public policy can be related — especially in terms of U.S. national defense — have preoccupied Christian ethicists more perhaps than any other group of American scholars. And yet few Eastern Orthodox theologians have shown any interest in these matters — a regrettable situation mitigated only somewhat by the paucity of Orthodox moral theologians on this continent.

Given the demands of the Christian Gospel, particularly its maximalist ethic which summons the followers of Christ to suffering and death, if necessary, in behalf of their fellow sinful creatures, the exigencies of policymaking in the contemporary secular, pluralistic American state must pose a radical challenge to Orthodox Christian morality. Nor is the public furor and the internal dissension created within the American Catholic community by the recent pastoral letter on war and peace from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops encouraging to those of us in the Orthodox community who perceive a compelling need for our bishops and theologians to address the issues of U.S. defense policy. Indeed, the most troublesome question is whether the challenge is insurmountable.

Still useful as a starting point for discussion is Max Webster’s distinction between an “ethic of ultimate ends” and an “ethic of responsibility.”1 In his inimitable way, in a lecture delivered in 1918, the great German sociologist perceived a fundamental dichotomy between the maximalist or perfectionist Christian ethic, as epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount, and the decidedly violent means inherent in “politics.” Thus, the believer in an ethic of ultimate ends “feels ‘responsible’ only for seeing to it that the flame of pure intentions is not quelched” — in religious terms, “the Christian does rightly and leaves the result with the Lord.” In contrast, the man who acts in accordance with an ethic of responsibility “takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people” and recognizes the need “to give account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.” Weber apparently saw the Christian emphasis on principles, especially purity of means toward appropriate ends, as effectively deontological, hence neglectful of actual consequences. He expressed his sense of the utter futility of this perspective in the real world of politics in the following succinct statement: “He who seeks the salvation of the soul of his own and of others, should not seek it along the avenue of politics, for the quite different tasks of politics can only be solved by violence.”2 That is not to say that the only alternative for Weber was a thorough-going consequentialism in which ethics played merely a supporting role. The “irreconcilable” quality of his dichotomy notwithstanding, Weber moderated his position by suggesting how “immensely moving” it is when a mature man of politics who follows an ethic of responsibility somewhere “reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand: I can do no other.’”3 This genuine moment of Luther-like defiance constituted the point where the two ethics converge or function as supplements of one another. Weber never explained precisely this nexus between ethical principles and ethical concern for consequences in the public or political domain, but his dichotomous method, however simplistic, did crystallize the basic ethical concerns that confront policy-makers who seek to exercise their craft for the common good.

More recently, the work of two Protestant ethicists who have attempted to relate ethics to issues of the use of military force that policymakers in America must confront in the nuclear age represents, as it were, extensions of the conflicting or supplementary modalities in the Weberian dichotomy. In “The Relation of Strategy and Morality”4 Joseph L. Allen offered what I would term a rule- utilitarianism whereby ethical principles serve only as a corrective element in strategic calculations by defense policy professionals. The ethical problem for the policymaker concerns not the jettisoning of ethical values in favor of the “national interest,” as if the two were mutually exclusive, but rather the need to determine what the national interest ought to include and how to advance it in the context of international interests and demands. Since the strategic policymaker uses consequences as the criterion of his policies, morality can and ought to inform his decisions by requiring that he consider both ends and means in interrelation: specifically, that he seek “the fulfillment of as much creaturely being as possible.”5 This utilitarianism ought not to consist in a cold, dispassionate calculation of consequences, for the dangers inherent in such a pure consequentialism are manifest in the tendencies to limit the range of value to strictly military results in time spans too narrowly conceived and to do so with undue trust in the method of calculation itself. “Concrete moral principles” represent, therefore, “warning signals” insofar as wise rules such as the humane treatment of prisoners condense “the insight of centuries” and indicate the point beyond which “in the overwhelming number of cases” the strategic policymaker “will be far more destructive.” But the “moralist” must discard “rigid moral principles that must be followed regardless of circumstances” in favor of assuming the role of guidance counselor to policymakers — a function “that enables strategy better to be itself.”6

For Allen to regard strategy so highly and the impact of the ethicist so demurely suggests that he may have underestimated the potential role that a Christian ethicist can exercise in relation to public policy. For, in Weber’s refrain, the means of politics is often violence and the Christian ethicist is called to a more active prophetic role than Allen allows.

If Allen’s position represents a new edition, as it were, of Weber’s ethic of responsibility, Paul Ramsey has proffered a radically modified version of an ethic of ultimate ends but one, to be sure, that is highly responsible. In applying his somewhat deontological ethic of agapic love7 to matters of public policy, Ramsey drew upon one tradition of natural justice — Aristotle’s distinction between “making” and “doing” — and contends that political ethics concern “’the very well-doing’ that in and of itself is an end and norm of action.”8 There are certain actions which, by their “own inner logic,” policymakers simply cannot effect, notwithstanding their proclivities for making teleological calculations. More generally, policymakers would be more aptly termed policy-doers. For moral and political acts in this Aristotelian understanding “are important not for what they make or engineer beyond themselves … out of altogether calculable pre-existent factors.”9 Instead these acts are “a matter of the risk-filled venture of creatively doing something,” and the political actor is “a doer of deeds that brings out of nothing, beyond all rational calculation, the things he hopes to be.” Statecraft, therefore, is “a system of interacting doings,” so ethics and politics belong together. Although the specific role of the ethicist in this scheme is rather subdued,10 the effect on defense policymakers is to call their attention in particular to the a priori moral principles that apply to all decisions, above all the twin principles of jus in bello: proportionality and discrimination (or noncombatant immunity).

In light of this terminological and conceptual framework the systematic approach of Ralph Potter to the problems of Christian ethics and public policy may be identified as Weberian in the best sense. From the standpoint of this Presbyterian ethicist at Harvard, responsibility tempered by caution but born of historical tradition and cogent reasoning is the salient characteristic of the policymaker and ethicist alike.

The fundamental postulate from which Potter’s argument proceeds swiftly and logically in his influential little book War and Moral Discourse is his contention that policy can be neither “non-moral” nor “purely moral.” This point has become a veritable refrain in Potter’s writings on the ethics of war. In an earlier essay, he argued persuasively that both the just war tradition and the secular doctrine of “reason of state” presuppose certain moral values and entail normative ethical reasoning, any pretensions to purely descriptive analysis notwithstanding.11  In War and Moral Discourse Potter reaffirmed this fact, noting also that “the elements of policy thought are systematically interrelated.”12 Part of the task facing the Christian ethicist is to “ferret out” the ethical assumptions that underlie the self-consciously “non-moral” vocabulary of secular strategists and require that they reflect on their decision-making processes and justify their conduct in terms of the “basic purposes of human existence and civil community.”13

In support of his observation about the interrelatedness between the ethical and non-ethical elements of policymaking, Potter has borrowed one of the paradigms from Talcott Parsons’ sociological theory of action and adapted it to the process of public policymaking. If the ethicist must become involved in specific policy recommendations, then he (and the public officials as well!) ought at least to appreciate the inherent complexity of such recommendations. Each military or defense policy, for example, that specifies a responsible agent, goal(s), and appropriate means is, according to Potter, “derived through a complex reasoning pattern which may conveniently be analyzed into four elements,” whether or not each element is explicitly acknowledged by the policymaker:14

(1) an empirical definition of the situation, which includes judgments about the pertinent political and military facts and possible courses of action in keeping with the defined “national interest”;

(2) an affirmation of loyalty to the “primary object of concern,” whether nation, an ideology, mankind in general, etc., or what the Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, termed one’s “ultimate concern” — the highest value, conscious or otherwise, that actually shapes one’s life as a practice of religion in response to that value;

(3) a mode of ethical reasoning employed in the process of choosing from among the available options, particularly the normative questions pertaining to the range of factors to be considered, the relative ranking and weighing of those factors, and the reasons for assigning value to those factors while excluding others;

(4) a set of quasi-theological beliefs “concerning God, man, and human destiny,” particularly in terms of the nature and scope of human freedom and man’s capacities “to predict and control historical events.”

In this four-part typology, moreover, the elements are independently variable, and reasonable disagreements may arise over any or all of the four components of policy recommendations. Thus, policymaking features an even greater complexity that theoretically allows for a panoply of policy positions on a given issue that may be construed as ethical.

What then ought to be the role of the Christian ethicist in this complicated yet fluid process of policymaking? In the particular matters of war and national defense policy, Potter wrote in a pamphlet in 1970, the ethicist’s “duty is to scrutinize the moral logic by which a war may be justified or condemned.”15  In War and Moral Discourse he seems to suggest that the Christian ethicist cannot, practically speaking, exert a direct influence as a Christian, for the American government and society are not Christian in any sense of the term and hence not especially receptive to appeals on a particularistic basis. Potter added, moreover, that even if Christians were to succeed in converting the world forthwith, “conflicts originating in divided wills would not cease upon the earth.”16 In another statement resonant of the Weberian dichotomy, Potter averred that “the political power to accomplish the demands of justice has not been granted to the koinonia.” or Christian Church as a fundamentally religious and not political community.17 And if such prudence were to prove unavailing to the Christian ethicist, Potter could invoke the moral objection that the Christian ought not to impose his “intellectual parochialism” on the public administration of a society that God has allowed to go its own secular way. Discounting one’s misgivings regarding Potter’s peculiar understanding of divine providence, any reasonable Christian ethicist must concur with Potter that, given the secular, pluralistic quality of American society, he cannot work for peace and love in the domain of public policy “by appeal to the distinctively Christian categories.” Thus, the Christian ethicist qua Christian, while maintaining his personal witness to revealed truth and morality, may reasonably hope for at most an indirect influence on public policy. Here the Weberian “ethic of responsibility” surfaces most decisively, although critics might view this concession, inaccurately to be sure, as the triumph of a dangerously false “realism.” For the distinctively Christian quality that is bracketed, as it were — namely his particular faith-context — is balanced by the broader base of his appeal as an ethical spokesman for the “common life.” In the absence of a “highly particularistic, confessional language” and conceptualization of morality, the Christian ethicist who wishes to exert a more direct, reasonable, moral influence on public policymaking must assume, in effect, the mantle of the moral philosopher!

Potter suggested the substantive basis for this ethic of the “common life” in the following pithy remark: “Short of the sudden conversion of all men to Christ, peace can best be served by a mutual recovery of common moral law known to ‘men of sound reason.’”18 Then he declared. “Only through the implementation of such a moral law can disparate groups establish a tolerable world order.” To be sure, Potter has recognized the “epistemological problems” that “have bedeviled attempts to refurbish the natural law tradition” and has called for “an intense investigation” of them as a precondition for the resort by Christian ethicists to “one version or another of the natural law tradition.” From an Orthodox Christian moral perspective, one can respond more readily to this summons, for natural law has played an integral role in the Orthodox moral tradition much as it has in Roman Catholic moral theology as a fundamental “least common denominator” in human moral existence. In the patristic tradition perpetuated in Orthodoxy, this “inborn moral law,” as Fr. Harakas has noted, was seen as “a first, preparatory step in God’s relationship with men,” which even sin did not obliterate totally.19 A natural law “ethic” based on rational self-interest and a measure of universal good will (as opposed to a fully revealed “morality”) would serve adequately as a fall-back position for the Orthodox moral theologian, who cannot in good conscience expect, much less require, public policymakers to acknowledge and to heed the complete restoration and fulfillment of the natural law — namely, the rigorous Gospel of Christ as revealed to the faithful in the Church. A true “ethic of responsibility” would demand no less than this sacrifice by the Orthodox moral theologian in America.

Ironically, Potter’s “compendium of considerations” in arriving at a natural law of justice with respect to the causes and conduct of war amounts in the final analysis to the classic Western theory of the “just war” to which Christian theologians beginning with St. Ambrose, St. Athanasius, and St. Augustine have contributed so decisively.20  The nine or so guiding principles of the just war, though not purely deontological, represent “criteria appropriate to many different theories of justice and morality” and serve, at the very least, as a collective moral presumption in the manner of Allen’s rule-utilitariansim.21  “In order to combat these arguments,” Potter continued forcefully, “those disposed to justify the war must either demonstrate that these considerations are morally irrelevant or offer alternative interpretations of facts pertinent under each of these headings.” In a moment of excess, in my estimation, Potter also concluded, “Christian ethics grounded in loving obedience to divine command converges here with ethical thought based upon natural reason.”22  “Converges” is too strong a verb, I submit, for traditions of moral reasoning that are essentially maximalist on the one hand (the Gospel) and minimalist on the other (just war theory). If Potter would allow the substitution of “intersects” in this context, then I would feel more at ease as an Orthodox moral theologian who must resort to a theory of natural law in order to appeal to the ethical sense of public policymakers. After all, Potter himself has admitted that there is an appropriate ethic for “saints,” one for “ordinary” Christians, and one for public officials charged with the protection of all citizens.23  And surely no one in his right moral mind would mistake public officials for saints!


1Max Weber. “Politics as a Vocation,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. trans. and ed. by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1958), p. 120.

2Ibid.. p. 126

3Ibid.. p. 127

4Joseph L. Allen. “The Relation of Strategy and Morality.” Ethics. LXXIII. No. 3 (April, 1963), pp. 167-178.

5Ibid., p. 173

6Ibid., p. 177

7It is precisely his emphasis on tradition and Ramsey’s seeming preoccupation with the principles of jus in bello that lead critics to describe his ethical perspective as deontological. What he has constructed, however, is more of a hybrid of rules or principles and a flexible contextualism open to the present reign of God,” Christian agapic love as exemplified by Christ is his basic norm, but even this is not a purely deontological concept.

8Paul Ramsey, The Limits of Nuclear War: Thinking About the Do-Able and Un-Do-Able (New York: Council on Religion and International Affairs, 1963), p. 13.

9Paul Ramsey. “Force and Political Responsibility.” in Ernest W. Lefever (ed.), Ethics and World Politics: Four Perspectives (Baltimore: The John Hopkins U. Press, 1972), pp. 48, 51.

10For Ramsey, the most effective way in which an ethicist (like everyone else!) can speak “truth and righteousness” to policymakers is “through their upbringing and moral development in a society whose moral purposes, values, and outlook they (perhaps) inarticulately share” (Ibid. p. 52). This laid-back approach seems to me to amount to a rather dubious process of moral osmosis!

11Ralph Potter, “Just War and Reasons of State,” in Robert W. Tucker, et al, Just War and Vatican II: A Critique (New York: Council on Religion and International Affairs„ 1966), pp. 53-55.

12Ralph Potter. War and Moral Discourse (Richmond: John Know Press, 1969), p. 27f.

13Ibid., p. 26.

14Ibid., p. 23.

15Ralph Potter, The Moral Logic of War (Occasional Papers on the Church and Conflict. No. 5: Philadelphia: Board of Christian Education. United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., n.d. 1970 ), p. 7

16Ralph Potter, War and Moral Discourse. p. 76

17Ibid., p. 18


19Fr. Stanley Samuel Harakas, “The Natural Law Teaching in the Ante- Nicene Fathers and in Modern Greek Orthodox Theology” (Unpublished Th.D. Dissertation, Boston University School of Theology. 1965), pp. 329. 235.

20Potter, loc. cit. p. 45. For the generally neglected contribution of St. Athanasius, see my essay. “The Canonical Validity of Military Service by Orthodox Christians,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review, XXIII, Nos. 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 1978), 271-273.

21Potter, loc. cit. James F. Childress, “Just-War Criteria,” in Thomas A. Shannon (ed.). War or Peace? The Search For New Answers (Maryknoll. N.Y.: Orbis Books. 1980). pp. 46-50, lists the developed jus ad helium criteria as follows: (1) legitimate authority: (2) just cause; (3) last resort: (4) formal declaration: (5) reasonable hope of success: (6) proportionality of means to ends: and (7) right intention. The most inclusive jus in bello criteria are (1) restraint of the enemy as the immediate object: (2) noncombatant immunity: (3) the avoidance of unnecessary suffering; and (4) proportionality, especially as it pertains to effects of war on civilians. Cf. J. Bryan Hehir. “The Just-War Ethic and Catholic Theology: Dynamics of Change and Continuity.” in Ibid., p. 19. for similar though truncated lists.

22Potter, loc. cit.

23Ibid., p. 58.


  • Rev. Alexander Webster

    Father Alexander F.C. Webster, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America, retired in June 2010 as an Army Reserve chaplain at the rank of colonel after more than 24 years of military service. He is the author or co-author of four books on topics of social ethics.

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