Politics and Moral Neutrality

Just recently I came across this essay connecting Max Weber’s essays “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation” to Trump’s impeachment. According to Zaretsky, civil servants both in Weber’s time and in our own have worked with the “imperative of vocation,” even or especially when, in the words of Weber, “an absolutely immeasurable factor” like the Kaiser in Weber’s time or Trump in our own act unpredictably and without thought. They must be, Zaretsky argues, “devoted to their calling” or their vocation even in the midst of the “absolutely immeasurable factor”of a leader like Trump or the Kaiser. In the course of praising and describing this devotion to civil service as an “imperative of vocation,” Zaretsky quotes Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch: “Public servants who by vocation and training pursue the policies of the President, regardless of who holds that office or what party they affiliate with.” That is, their vocation demands service to presidents and the use of their expertise to help them achieve what they want.

Insofar as Weber begins with a distinction between facts and values, his praise of civil servants who practice a vocation in relation to those they serve is not surprising. Since they cannot judge, they can only do their best to serve by making their expertise available to the rulers. Apparently, the vocation is, in and of itself, noble. But, as Zaretsky notes in passing, “there is in fact a tragic quality to the pursuit of such vocations.”

I bring this older essay back up because it points us to a decisive problem in our modern politics, especially its vast administrative components. Faced with an “immeasurable factor” like Donald Trump many of our experts didn’t know how to respond. One might say that they have expertise rather than wisdom. Or perhaps better to say that their vocation seems to require them to submerge their wisdom in favor of their expertise. Since their vocation requires that they follow the facts without moral judgments, they faced difficulties when confronted by the enormities of Trump’s corruption. Either, as many Republicans accused them of doing, they undercut him in secret because they could use their expertise to do so even as they lacked the moral authority to do so publicly. They served the public by pretending to serve the President even as they objected to his ends and undercut them. This form of obstruction, although perhaps the best they could do in a world of administrative vocation, helped to confuse our ability to hold our politicians responsible. Or, in other cases, they chose to follow him down the paths he led, unwilling because unable to voice moral objections that their vocation doesn’t permit.

In other words, Zaretsky’s argument is perplexing. He seems to praise the vocational commitments of civil servants–a commitment they learned from Weber. But he fails to confront the consequences of that commitment. The moral neutrality prized by these “vocationalists” was precisely one of the things that led us down the path to Trump. Instead of being a solution to the “immeasurable factor,” it only made it worse.

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