There’s a show my wife and I watch in reruns now that it’s been over a few years called “The Closer.” We loved it on its first run, as well as the spin-off “Major Crimes” that carried the story after the departure of the lead character. This weekend, they were running the second season finale, which has in it a speech made by a character who is former CIA and is now a deputy chief of police. From the first time I heard it, it rang false to me in a way I couldn’t quite identify. But this weekend, I finally was able to wrap my head around where I disagree.
Here’s the quote:
I remember once hearing a speech about what it meant to be on officer of the CIA, and the man who gave this speech talked about the struggle to control civilization and how we’re always fighting the same fight and he used the Dark Ages as an example. And he talked about how on one side you had the pragmatic king who was greedy and power hungry and basically took advantage of people whenever he could. And on the other side you had the idealistic church, forcing everyone to follow the same rules, have the same beliefs and all that. Neither the king or the church was ever completely right or wrong, both sides ended up doing terrible things to get what they wanted. Really terrible things. But the point of the story was this: that this struggle from the Dark Ages had been going on forever, and the church and the king might take on different forms and philosophies, but they would always fight each other, pragmatist and idealist, and that most times you’re better off standing on the sidelines and letting them duke it out. But every once in a while one side or the other decides it might be better to just blow up the whole world just to get its own way, and when that happens you can’t stand on the sidelines anymore. You have to pick a team. And so for tonight, anyway, we’re serving the king.
I agree that you can see a lot of Western political history as a constant struggle between government rule and religious influence. Going back a long way before the Dark Ages, that was the struggle for control, authority, and power. Far wiser people than I can distill European history into the constant cycle of politicking between church and state. And those echoes exist today, ported into the US by the exact same forces. When you’re dealing with the US, it isn’t all one religious camp and one US government camp — the argument and the conflict is fractured and, if anything, the worse for it. But it’s there.
The struggle for civilization in many ways can be summed up by the struggle for power and control, either by the beliefs which live in the minds of the people, or the laws which govern their lives.
The problem, as I see it, with this particular analogy is the idea that the king represents pragmatism while the church represents idealism. Truly, they’re two sides of the same thing. Both are authorities warring for control, and both will do what they need to do to win. In that way, they’re equally pragmatic, just fighting from different ends of the equation.
But there’s no real representation of idealism here, because both sides are operating under the same underlying assumption — that the ends justify the means.
Pragmatism and idealism are opposites, but they just can’t be neatly aligned to church and state. Not in a historical context and not in a hypothetical one. In the end, both sides of church and state are looking for the same thing — power, control, influence, and the ability to command the present and rewrite the future to their dictates. And because of that, they will both, as the character says, do “really terrible things” because that end state of power and influence is worth the sacrifices made along the way.
But are they? Are they really?
In college, I was a political science and international relations major with an unofficial minor (called a concentration) in political philosophy. I’ve always appreciated thinking about systems and people, whether it’s the set of cultural biases that inform interpersonal relationships or the broader worldviews that impact diplomatic (or lack thereof) negotiations. To the uninitiated, political science sometimes sounds and feels like reducing human action and emotion and intent to a series of predictable equations. That’s the part of it I always hated. But there’s truth to it, if you look at it in a more nuanced way. It’s not saying “You’re X, Y, and Z, so you vote ABC.” It’s tracking the minute intersections of people and where they touch the world. Like a spider in a web, it’s knowing which strand to pull that sets you free and which one gets you eaten.
When you get to talking about the underlying philosophies of rule, however, you run into the “hawk” and “dove” divide — mostly for the context of war, but it applies to other things as well. Basically, would you rather commit X in order to attempt to assure Y, or is the act of X too reprehensible to make Y worthwhile? Hawks are those who would prefer to go to war to ensure national security, or to weaken an enemy, or whatever is needed. Doves agree that national security is important, and the enemy is a problem, but argue that to go to war does more harm than it is worth. The hawk argument is a pragmatic one; the dove argument is an idealist one.
I wrote my senior thesis on the morality of espionage as a tool of nations, looking at the historical and philosophical reasons for espionage and comparing them to the real-world experiences of various retired spies, heads of the CIA, etc. (It was a lot of reading.) And what I found was an almost universal answer across my sources —
Philosophically, historically, pragmatically, the agreement was entirely on the side of espionage as not just being valuable, but being necessary in protecting the state from harmful acts or threats by other nations or organizations. But the people themselves writing about their lives, their jobs, their sacrifices — every single one of them found the practice of espionage to be morally and ethically wrong. They did it anyway, because it was necessary. But they could not say that it was “good” that they had done so. Even when the results literally saved thousands of lives or kept a nation from falling.
These people, these brave, dedicated people had sacrificed everything — their families, their wellbeing, their chances as a normal life — to serve the pragmatic king. And they were not sorry for doing so. But they still could not believe that the ends inherently justify the means.
They ended their service as pragmatists in action, and idealists at heart.
As a person, that’s a bit where I’ve ended, too. I’ve been a pure pragmatist, focused on making sure things turn out okay regardless of the cost, and you know what? It’s poisonous. For me, I have no pride in the things I did thinking that way, even if they ended up just fine. Because I can’t see the happy ending — only the careless harm I could have done along the way.
And yet I still cannot let myself be a pure idealist. The ends may not justify the means, but sometimes if you don’t fight for the ends you want, you get a result that you can’t live with, either. Sometimes to get what you need, what you can’t live without, you have to do something you wouldn’t otherwise do given any choice at all — because sometimes the world doesn’t give us choices. And then we have to live with whichever path we took.
There aren’t nearly enough examples in history of someone who found a way to get to the ends they needed without employing means that cheapened the victory. Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr is the quickest example I can think of. And even that isn’t simple at all. Nonviolence as a philosophy to force change is certainly more ethically sound than violence, but the change MLK won didn’t only come through nonviolence. It also came through politicking, through the actions of others who weren’t totally nonviolent, through concessions and bartering — and there’s a strong argument to be made that it hasn’t even entirely worked. We don’t live in a post-racist society. Hell, we live in a VERY racist society.
But recent protest movements are making the point that the means DO matter, not just the ends. If we are rightly protesting police violence on people of color, committing violence not only is unethical, but inflames the violence and it cycles back tenfold on the people we are trying to protect. On the other hand, simply standing on the side of the road with a sign may be utterly unoffensive, but without giving at least a little offense, how could it create change? It’s the point made regularly about the correctly maligned “thoughts and prayers” — if thoughts and prayers could change the world, it would have been changed long ago.
Control of civilization is always up in the air, and you can divide by state versus church, but you can also divide it by autocratic powers and the decentralized populace. The autocratic powers almost always act pragmatically, even when there are doves in seats of power, because ultimately, they have a responsibility to preserve their power and continue to expand it — otherwise, they fail to exist. The people, on the other hand, have a choice. They can riot, fight back, support violent insurrection, or they can vote, protest quietly, and go home at the end of the day no matter the results. And every possible shade and nuance in between.
For me, I wish I could live in a world where anyone who wanted to be a pure idealist could. Where people could embrace true pacifism, true integrity, and never be forced to choose between making war or being obliterated. I wish I could live in a world where it was safe to choose the path of doing the right and ethical and moral thing even if it wasn’t going to work because the result wouldn’t be all that bad.
But I really don’t.
I live in this world.
So, yeah, I vote, and I protest, and I donate money to causes and organizations that champion what I believe in. But when it comes down to the ends and the means, if the ends is truly an end to human decency, to human rights, to equality, justice, liberty — then, I’ll do what I have to.
If, going back to the original analogy, one side decides to blow up the whole world, or deny the dignity of a class of people, I’ll throw idealism out the window just like the subjects of my senior thesis did. Because as much as my idealism means to me, personally, it can never be as important as the actual life and safety of another human being.
I can be an idealist — right up until the world demands I be a pragmatist in order to defend and support others. Because in one very particular way, the ends DO justify the means.
If it means creating a better world for others, then to hell with what I have to give up of my pretty philosophies. I’d rather live in the world and never be comfortable with the choices I made if the world that came out of them is better than this one.
That’s the only king I could ever find worth serving.