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How Would a Good Leader Respond to Jamal Khashoggi’s Killing?

Advice from Max Weber to Donald Trump.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In 1919, famed German theorist Max Weber gave a lecture to a group of idealistic left-wing students in Munich. It was a time of political shifts: Germany had lost the First World War, and revolution was in the air. For young students, politics must have seemed an attractive outlet for shaping a better world. Weber wanted them to be under no illusions, however. If salvation was what they wanted, for themselves, and others, they had the wrong idea. Politics is not just about doing what’s morally right, he warned them, in a lecture that would become his classic “Politics as a Vocation” essay. Or rather, what is morally right is not that straightforward in politics.

What “any person who wants to become a politician” needs to understand, said Weber, is an “ethical paradox” at the heart of politics: the contrast between the “ethics of conviction” and the “ethics of responsibility.” Those who act out of the “ethics of conviction,” according to Weber, do what they see as the morally right thing to do, independently of the consequences. Those guided by the “ethics of responsibility” try to anticipate the potential implications of their actions and take them under consideration before acting.

Many have criticized Donald Trump’s tepid reaction to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi. Mainly, they’ve focused on his lack of moral indignation, i.e. lack of an “ethics of conviction”—his interest in keeping the Saudi relationship going despite the regime’s murderous activities. But what Weberians might note is that the president also hasn’t displayed any real ethics of responsibility.  

Trump’s response to the death of Khashoggi has evolved over the past weeks, moving from statements on the importance of Saudi arms sales to criticisms of the regime. This has been, to some extent, a result of Saudi Arabia’s continuously evolving account of what happened. But Trump’s revised stance has also been a result of the public perception of this case, something that Trump himself admitted to, and lamented: “This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s not a positive. Not a positive.”

In his interview with 60 Minutes, Trump came close to recognizing the atrocity of a government murdering a journalist over critical op-eds: “There’s something—you’ll be surprised to hear me say that—there’s something really terrible and disgusting about that if that were the case, so we’re going to have to see.” He then added, “We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.” But Trump’s recognition of the morally unpalatable nature of the journalist’s murder was coupled with a reminder of the enormous military order Saudi Arabia has placed with the U.S. Further concessions were also made: Khashoggi, after all, wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and the murder took place in Turkey, not on American soil. Trump has also said he believes the prince Mohammed bin Salman’s denial of involvement—that this was all carried out without his knowledge. True moral outrage was absent—probably unsurprising, as strong moral convictions are not something that Trump is known for, particularly when it comes to freedom of the press. The president has repeatedly called the media “the enemy of the people,” and recently applauded Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte for getting rough with a reporter.

Weber might point out that downplaying moral conviction can be a good thing for a leader. In fact, he criticized moralizing politicians, who he said “in nine out of ten cases are windbags,” self-satisfied with their own moral purity. More importantly, “they are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder”—to consider consequences, not just principles. For an illustration of that point, one need look no further than the Iraq War. According to reports from that time, the conviction that Saddam Hussein was “evil”—completely aside from the empirical question of whether he had weapons of mass destruction—trumped concerns about the possible complications and unwanted consequences of intervening in that area of the Middle East. Even though removing an evil dictator might have seemed a noble reason for going to war at the time, retrospectively, that seems a deeply irresponsible motivation, possibly even immoral, given the number of deaths, the power vacuum that allowed violent radical groups to proliferate, and the continuing instability of the country.

This brings us to Weber’s ethics of responsibility. It represents a down-to-earth pragmatism, one that takes into consideration the complexities of the world and the negative consequences that well-meaning actions might have.  

Given the geopolitical intricacies of the Middle East, there’s certainly a case to be made that U.S.-Saudi relations need to be preserved for non-monetary reasons— this security partnership provides some semblance of stability in the region, that could otherwise erupt violently. On the other hand, this line of argument would have to be weighed against the consequences that allying with Saudi Arabia has had so far—including the famine a Saudi-backed alliance is causing in Yemen. Even taking an “ethics of responsibility” stance against Saudi Arabia does not provide easy options.  

But this isn’t the sort of complicated political calculus the president has offered in place of moral indignation. Instead, the justification for being easy on Saudi Arabia has been couched in terms of financial loss—perhaps even on a personal level, as the president’s own business ties there have recently come under scrutiny. Trump’s caution over Saudi Arabia thus fails Weber’s definition of the ethics of responsibility as well: Weber explicitly stated that acting according to the ethics of responsibility was not the same as acting in pure self-interest.

On Thursday, news broke that Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor was now acknowledging that Khashoggi’s murder was premeditated. This news will make it much harder for Mohammed bin Salman and his father, the king of Saudi Arabia, to maintain they were unaware of this plot. And it puts greater pressure on President Trump to choose a course of action.

Towards the end of “Politics as Vocation,” after having lectured the young, idealistic students in his audience about the moral compromises that a life in politics involves, Weber had a moment of idealism himself. Sometimes, even a politician with a keen sense of the ethics of responsibility, and an awareness of the potential consequences of their actions, can’t help but act on the basis of moral conviction. “This should be possible for any of us,” Weber said, “who is not dead inside.”

Unlike the American president, who so far has displayed not so much a struggle between two ethical compulsions as between public perception and calculated financial interest, at least some members of Congress seem to be taking the moral weight of the events seriously. There seems to be bipartisan support for at least exploring sanctions. In these times, having one branch of government not be “dead inside” is perhaps all one can hope for.