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While not always seen in this light, members of congressional or parliamentary bodies are regularly faced with moral choices when deciding how to vote in situations where the answers to questions like the following may point to diametrically opposed courses of action.

  1. What's best for my country?
  2. What's best for those whom I represent?
  3. Whats best for those who voted and/or may vote for me?
  4. How to best hold on to this incredibly powerful microphone which is so personally rewarding to use?
  5. How best to pay for my kids' education in expensive schools, several houses and cars, etc...

Are there scholarly works (books, monographs, memoirs) by those who study this conundrum or have faced it personally that provide guidance to others who may face it?

update: In the absence of answers with those (this question is now six months old), are there at least clear public statements about how elected officials that provide such guidance?

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    Scholars far more often write descriptive work from which conclusions can be drawn than "how to" works.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 19, 2020 at 22:22
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    What you're really asking is about the moral development of political figures — see Kohlberg's stages to get the gist — and how that development can be fostered, mediated, or engaged. You'll find people struggling with that in critical theory, social theory, and some rare corners of Anglophone philosophy, but it is not a popular line of research. E.g., try arguing that most of the current crop of GOP leaders are morally preconventional (stage 1 or 2; which seems accurate), and see how much headway you make. Nov 20, 2020 at 1:06
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    @uhoh The point is that in all likelihood no such scholarly document exists. But it isn't an answer because if it difficult or impossible to search all possible scholarly documents that have ever been written.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 21, 2020 at 1:31
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    If you were a student of philosophy this could be a homework question. This question is much too big for a quick answer and I can only refer you to the philosophy section of your local library. Start with Plato.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 1, 2020 at 7:39
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    @RedSonja Not just the philosophy section. ##2-4 could just as well be answered in the economics or history sections. Whether you should start by reading Plato, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, or Adam Smith is a matter of opinion.
    – alephzero
    Dec 3, 2020 at 1:16

3 Answers 3

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The closest thing I can think of is Letters for a Nation : From Jawaharlal Nehru to His Chief Ministers 1947-1963.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, used to write a letter to the Chief Ministers of the Indian states (a CM is equivalent to the Governor of a US state) every fortnightly - from 1947 till 1963. The purpose of these letters were to inform, educate, exhort, and warn the heads of provincial governments of what was happening in India and abroad, and how they were to act as elected officials to uphold the political philosophy of Gandhi and the democratic values that a young and newly independent India aspired for. He wrote around 400 letters that cover a range of themes and subjects, including citizenship, war and peace, law and order, national planning and development, governance and corruption, and India’s place in the world.

It is undoubted that Nehru's letters played a huge role in institution building in India and was instrumental in laying a strong foundation for Indian democracy through the next generation of leaders he groomed. A review of the book I cited sums it better than me:

.. despite of unrivalled personal power, Nehru acted with a deep sense of responsibility. He repeatedly reminded the CMs that what could appear as mundane administrative and political decisions of their governments were highly consequential; they will set the ball rolling for public institutions of India; and that their action will set the norms for the future. If Institution-building is true sign of a statesman, Nehru did know the alchemy of statesmanship.

Nehru’s letters ... tell you the story of not just a Prime-minister leading his country. But of an elder brother who laboriously imparted political values and skills to next generation of leaders; of an Indian who despite his aristocratic aura belonged to his ordinary and under-privileged fellow Indians; of a patriot who could be clear eyed about the wrongs and failures of his country and yet could take pride in the remaining good; and of a statesman who even in the face of overwhelming immediate challenges would not reduce his ambitions for his country. Nehru’s was to transform India into the ‘light of Asia’. - Amazon book review

Some excerpts from his many letters:

  • December 7, 1947

I have some knowledge of the way the Nazi movement developed in Germany. It attracted by its superficial trappings and strict discipline considerable numbers of lower middle class young men and women who are normally not too intelligent and for whom life appeared to offer little to attract them. And so they drifted towards the Nazi party because its policy and programme, such as they were, were simple, negative and did not require an active effort of the mind. The Nazi party brought Germany to ruin and I have little doubt that if these tendencies are allowed to spread and increase in India, they would do enormous injury to India. No doubt India would survive. But she would be grievously wounded and would take a long time to recover. - Letters for a nation: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Chief Ministers

  • September 20, 1953

The feeling of nationalism is an enlarging and widening experience for the individual or the nation. More especially, when a country is under foreign domination, nationalism is a strengthening and unifying force. But, a stage arrives when it might well have a narrowing influence. Sometimes, as in Europe, it becomes aggressive and chauvinistic and wants to impose itself on other countries and other people. Every people suffer from the strange delusion that they are the elect and better than all others. When they become strong and powerful, they try to impose themselves and their ways on others. In their attempt to do so, sometime or other, they overreach themselves, stumble and fall. That has been the fate of the intense nationalism of Germany and Japan.

But a more insidious form of nationalism is the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them even more. We, in India, have to be particularly careful of this because of our tradition of caste and separatism. We have a tendency to fall into separate groups and to forget the larger unity.

Communal organisations are the clearest examples of extreme narrowness of outlook, strutting about in the guise of nationalism. In the name of unity, they separate and destroy. In social terms they represent reaction of the worst type. We may condemn these communal organisations, but there are many others who are not free from this narrow influence. Oddly enough, the very largeness of India, which is a world in itself, tends to make the people living in it complacent, rather ignorant of the rest of the world, and narrow-minded. We have to contend against these forces…. - My Dear Chief Minister ... Three Letters Nehru Wrote That Indians Today Need to Read.

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I have a rough theory of optimal stopping for decision making.

The first observation is that, given a difficult choice, you of course should do as much research on the topic as possible, use rational principles that underpin philosophy (to value human consciousness and life above all), and try to find the best solution for those you're responsible for.

This plan of study may be better explained by a political scientist or philosopher, but some heuristics I can think of are looking for prior art, studying the underlying political and economical theory, and studying ethical philosophy.

I think the question can be phrased as: How to understand when we've reached a good enough solution? This is an economic problem (related to 'optimal stopping').

A theoretical solution is surprisingly simple.

  1. Obviously research has a generalized 'cost': the more time you spend on research (or say, an idle or passive activity), the less you are furthering your goals through actions. If your decision is time-critical, that is, if the more you delay it the greater the harm, or the lesser benefit accrued, then you may be able to estimate this cost.

  2. The research also has a benefit, or 'utility': the more time you spend on research, the better hopefully will be your decision. In economic terms this may be called a marginal utility.

The solution then is to choose a time when the marginal 'utility' gained by research minus the marginal 'cost' lost by it is maximal, i.e. when you gain the most in terms of achieving your goals.

You can harness your intuition and ask "In the period of X months, how much do I expect to have learned about the issue? How much will that improve my decision? What do I (in terms of objective) lose from delaying until then?"

(1) Self-Historical analysis:

If you've been studying for a decision for T time (1 day, 1 month, etc.), how much has your decision improved compared to lost opportunity?

If you feel it has improved significantly, continue studying.


That said, I would not say this is an exhaustive analysis of decision making of course, and really there isn't one. I would advise a cross-disciplinary approach for long term study. Other important considerations are risk analysis from financial theory, as well as the field of game theory and strategy. The modern Rationalism community condenses some of those topics quite well.

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Writings or public statements advising elected politicians on how to make hard choices

In the new video Rep. Adam Kinzinger on the Future of the GOP and If Trump Will Be A Part of It | The View (cued at 04:15) to a question asked by Meghan McCain, Representative Kinzinger says (transcribed from closed captions):

Do I fear about my own future? Not really. If I lose I lose. You know I’ve been doing this... this is my eleventh year; whenever you go into congress, whenever you get elected, I actually myself and John McCain the same, made a commitment that we’re doing this for the country, and we’re doing this for the right reason. And so no matter the cost.. I mean if you ever take into account personal cost when you’re making a decision in politics about the constitutionality of stuff — things like January 6th, then I think you lose your moral ability in essence to you know go out and praise the troops that are willing to fight for the country if you aren’t willing to put your career on the line for a similar cause.

Looking at the five items enumerated in the question, Kinzinger suggests that one should indeed put one's career on the line and take the high road when faced with having to "take into account personal cost when you’re making a decision in politics about the constitutionality of stuff — things like January 6th..."

Essentially country before career.

This answer is based on a careful, considered public statement consistent with many others by Kinsinger, but I am certain there are more answers to this question possible based on:

scholarly works (books, monographs, memoirs) by those who study this conundrum or have faced it personally that provide guidance to others who may face it?

and hopefully this answer will pave the way for even better ones.

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