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Ukraine, The Great Powers, Budapest, and "Astheneia"

Online Exclusive from the Ethics & International Affairs Website

April 10, 2014

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Was it unethical for the United States to give Ukraine non-binding security guarantees as an inducement for giving up nuclear weapons?

In his Ethics, Aristole addresses the question of what he terms astheneia (ασθενεια), which can be translated as weakness or infirmity, as part of his overall discussion of akrasia (ακρασία)—the "lack of mastery" or insobriety. This applies when someone knows what the right or ethical thing to do is, but fails to do it because of possible cost—usually at the expense of one's personal comfort or ease—or because the ethical course of action will bring hardship and difficulty.

This should be of particular concern to modern politicians, particularly in electoral democracies, where campaign promises are easily made but too often not fulfilled when political costs are too high. (The Obama administration discovered these realities in attempting to implement the president's inauguration day 2009 executive order mandated that the Guantanamo detainee facility be closed by January 2010; Gitmo remains operational more than four years after its putative closure date.) Voters, at least, have the option of taking their revenge at the polls; but what happens when promises are made to other states that are not then not fulfilled?

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