Cudjoe's Home AfricaSpeaks RaceandHistory Trinicenter
Selwyn Cudjoe Online

The Ethics of Responsibility

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
Posted: June 29, 2004

Shortly after Germany was defeated in World War 1, Max Weber distinguished between what he called the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. In this formulation, Webber wanted to distinguish between Marxism as a political movement and a scientific research project. As politicians, Marxists believed they possessed the truth, which allowed them to ignore the consequences of their actions. As scientists, they realized their access to truth was partial and therefore their policies had to be more responsible and experimental. Thus, instead of science becoming more politicized, Webber believed "politics should become more 'scientised' in the precise sense of adopting the ethics of responsibility" (Steve Fuller, "Kuhn vs. Popper").

To hear Basdeo Panday tell it, everything is wrong with the Police Service Bills that are set for discussion in the Legislative Council on June 29. He forgets conveniently that on July 31, 2001, he informed the House that "a revision of the Police Service Commission Regulations is necessary" and that "amendments to the Constitution" would be necessary to create a Police Management Authority. Panday stated: "It is proposed that this Police Management Authority would be an independent body-may I repeat-an independent body, appointed by the President on the joint advice of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition."

In his address to the House Mr. Panday observed gleefully: "The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both have agreed to the membership of the Authority. Failing such agreement within a reasonable time, the President may act on his own initiative. There could hardly be a more effective formula for the appointment of [a] non-partisan independent authority, Mr. Speaker."

Now, that he is no longer at the helm, Mr. Panday cannot envisage the President acting in an honorable manner. Moreover, he believes that there ought to be a series of checks and balances that will preclude the present government from politicizing the process. However, when Panday proposed the Bill in 2001, he recognized that "to give effect to certain of these recommendations, [an] amendment to the Constitution of Trinidad" was necessary. In so doing, one had "to abolish the Police Service Commission, establish the Police Management Authority and confer new powers on the Commissioner of Police." This leads to the obvious question: why didn't Mr. Panday's government include these checks and balances when he proposed the Bill in 2001? It is dishonest and untenable to argue that UNC did not include check and balances-the most important considerations in Mr. Panday's mind-- because it was a Draft Bill.

Yet, Panday's criticism of the President's inability to be impartial is deceptive and dishonest. The same man who described the role of the President as the most "effective formula for the appointment of a non-partisan independent Authority" now contends that the President is unable to act in a fair manner because he is "a creature of the government." In a democracy, it is depressing to see how casually an honorable man can take one position when he presented the Bill and another when he now argues against it.

Mr. Panday's contention about the impartiality of the President raises interesting philosophical/political questions. Does Panday mean to suggest that the President can never, under any set of circumstances, be independent simply because he is chosen by the leader of the party in power? Such reasoning counters practices in other democracies. In the United States, the President of the Union selects the justices of the Supreme Court and the head of the Federal Reserve System (their Central Bank). One presumes that the individuals are competent and understand the importance of their office. Once such a person has been selected he or she has an obligation to the nation rather than the person or party who selected him or her. Thus, it is not unusual that even though a conservative President, Dwight Eisenhower, selected a conservative justice (Earl Warren) to the Supreme Court, the latter turned out to be one of the most liberal members of the Bench whose rulings transformed social conditions in the USA.

On the other hand, the present Supreme Court, consisting of a majority of Republicans intervened in the US Presidential elections in 2000 and selected their own (George Bush) to the Presidency although the rules governing elections is a sate rather than a federal function. However, once the Supreme Count ruled, the country accepted its judgment and moved along. Now, the country is judging Mr. Bush's performance in the war in Iraq. According to the latest polls, the American public does not seem to endorsing his actions.

One cannot always predict how any Office holder will behave once he is selected to a particular office. At the least, we must accept the premise that the office holder will act with integrity and in a consistent, principled manner. Almost invariably, the public will decide whether the President, or any other officeholder, carries out his functions impartially and act accordingly. In the case of the President, public scorn and contempt is a sufficient remedy to his misdoings.

This is not to suggest that there is no merit in the UNC's position that the Police Bills are more those of police management than they are anticrime. Ultimately, any Bill that makes the police more efficient allows them to fight crime better. I am persuaded equally that any assault on any provision in the constitution-in this case, the removal of the Public Service Commissions-has to be evaluated carefully. One must always be on the lookout for political interference in matters that affect the professionalism of our pubic bodies. As I understand it, Dr. Eric Williams enshrined entities such as the Public Service Commission into the Constitution not only to safeguard them from political interference but also to give the appearance of fairness and impartiality in the affairs of state. A democracy cannot proceed if members of the state believe that political favoritism rather than merit is the criteria for professional advancement.

In this context, the PNM cannot be seen as being above criticism. It is fair to ask why the Government attaches such overriding importance to this Bill, particularly when its effects are likely to kick in only after a period of time since the Bills seek to transform a particular culture. In the circumstances, it must be asked if the government has exploited all of its available resources to fight crime in an expeditious and creative manner and is this piece of legislation likely to change things substantially in the short run.

In classical Greek democracy citizens, speaking out was a necessary precondition to citizenship. In fact, "failing to speak was worse than failing to persuade." In this scenario, the public interest was always perceived to be higher than individual self-interest. Truth is arrived at after we have heard and synthesized the many raised and competing voices. However, in matters such as these the ethics of responsibility is more important than the ethics of conviction. This suggests that no matter how convinced Mr. Panday is belatedly about the limitations of the Bill he must yield to a higher sense of responsibility and patriotism to his nation.

In the course of history, morality has been the most effective weapon that losers have over the winners. According to Fuller, "The losers basically intimidate the winners into treating them well…out of fear or what an omnipotent deity friendly to the losers might do to the winners in the afterlife." This is the epistemic advantage that the UNC has over the PNM and Patrick Manning is a religious man.

In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes argued that without government, "the life of man [will be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." However, Hobbes believed that if we following certain principles which he called "laws of nature" we should be able to escape the perils of anarchy. His third and fourth laws of nature read as follows: "You should keep your promise. You should not give other people who keep their promises reason to regret doing so." Kwame Anthony Appiah recognized correctly that these laws were conceived essentially as moral laws that ought to govern the behavior of the people in the polis. Without them, as A. N. R. Robinson reminded us, we descend into barbarity and a state of interminable war.

Mr. Panday is not versed in philosophy nor does he even have an elevated sense of politics at a theoretical level. His politics is one of survival of the fittest and a doah-give-a-damn, get-in-ma-licks first kind of morality. That is, "do dem before dey do we." Yet, one hopes that in a situation where most of our institutions are breaking down and few of our public personalities can be counted on to tell the truth and act responsible that the least Mr. Panday can do is to keep his promise so that others, such as the President and the Prime Minister, would be forced to keep their promises and thereby place the national interest above lies, slander and mauve langue.

No democracy can thrive if every issue is reduced to vulgar, self-serving and duplicitous reasoning. No democracy can grow if one seeks to besmirch the office of the Presidency anytime one disagrees with particular political formulations. No democracy can achieve what Aristotle called eudaemonia-the state of living well-if one has so little regard for other members of his society that he believes that he can deceive the people at will without any acknowledgement of what such deceptions do to the integrity of the state.

Civic virtue is an indispensable precondition for promotion of a just and moral society. Is it too much to ask Mr. Panday to behave decently and to be intellectually honest just once in his life?

Nuff said.

Professor Cudjoe's email is

Archives | Back to Cudjoe Home | Trinicenter Homepage