Discover more from A User's Guide to History
(No, this has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction)
In 1896 a Congregational minister named Charles Monroe Sheldon published a novel titled In His Steps. Set in the fictional town of Raymond, somewhere in America, the novel told of a pastor's challenge to his flock to ask the simple question "What would Jesus do?" before making significant decisions. The question transforms the lives of the people in the book, which became an enormous best seller, and it served as a touchstone for decision-making in the lives of many millions then and in the decades after.
The rule has the benefit of simplicity, as demonstrated by the WWJD bracelets that started selling on the internet as soon as there was an internet and continue to sell today. The principal drawback is that it is hard to apply in cases Jesus never encountered. If Jesus ran the Fed, would he raise or lower interest rates?
An alternative rule for decision-making would ask "What would Machiavelli do?" The Florentine diplomat and historian is best known for his brief work The Prince, an amoral guide to politics in Renaissance Italy. The book's very amoralism made the adjective "Machiavellian" a common synonym for cunning, if not downright evil.
Yet the secret of Machiavelli's success—his approach has been widely followed, though often without attribution—is its very calculating character. Machiavelli does not ask what should be, but what will be—not "What should I do?" but "What will happen if I do this rather than that?" Where Jesus is a moral teacher, Machiavelli is an insurance underwriter, reckoning the odds and costs of alternative courses of action.
Machiavelli's most notorious dictum, that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved, reflects this kind of calculation. Machiavelli has no preference for fear, per se, over love. But he recognizes that fear is a more reliable motivator. Humans are fickle in love but predictable in fear.
During the past two weeks world leaders have been meeting in Glasgow to discuss approaches to climate change. Among the many issues raised is the matter of whether developing nations should be asked to forgo economic growth in the service of carbon reduction. Today's rich countries have produced the largest part of the excess carbon in the atmosphere; should they not pay the largest part of the future cost of that carbon, perhaps by subsidizing the transition away from fossil fuels by poor countries? South Africa thinks so, stating that it will not phase out coal unless paid to do so.
What would Jesus do? At first glance, it might seem that he would agree with South Africa and the other poor countries. While on earth, he did side with the poor. And maybe he still would. But in doing so he would be asking children to pay for the sins, as it were, of their fathers, a principle not usually associated with the Christian gospel.
Machiavelli, by contrast, would simply ask what would happen if the rich countries did not pay the demanded price. Quite likely South Africa and the other poor countries would not reduce their carbon production, and their part of global warming would continue apace. Maybe the poor countries are bluffing, but the risk of calling their bluff, adjusted for the cost of getting it wrong, outweighs the benefit.
Needless to say, the Machiavellian approach has its limits. The insurance underwriters don't always get their reckoning right. And the Machiavellians don't enjoy the warm inner glow that accompanies a feeling of moral rectitude. Charles Sheldon's book didn't sell those tens of millions of copies for no reason.
But as the ocean levels rise, would you rather have an inner glow or an insurance policy you can count on?