The Ethics of the Withdrawal

Updated: Nov 26, 2021



President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan by September 1 came, as he said, from his very core. For him, it was the right thing to do. Why? Because he followed his “moral compass” so to speak. Most of us have some kind of moral compass that helps us make good decisions. As we know, some compasses are better than others. It all depends on what our moral compass encompasses


A good moral compass guides you toward your goal, but it also checks out your will to make the journey and exposes how your decision will impact the circumstances of others. In my book The Ethical Process (2003) I called these the ethics of purpose, principle, and consequence. In Learning through Disagreement (2014), I presented the three as the activities of a visionary, a judge, and a calculator. Whatever their names, a good moral compass does not focus on one at the expense of the others.


The Ethics of Purpose

It did seem to me that President Biden focused first of all on our national interest. National interest, in other words, was the goal, and the withdrawal of troops was the “means toward theat end.”


Central to an ethics of purpose is the relationship between means and ends—acts and goals. If the end is good, then the means are justified. One might quibble about the means, but if their negative impact does not outweigh the good accomplished, the action is justified.


One could say that the withdrawal was not so much an action that furthered our national interest but one that stopped its violation. An ethics of purpose is generally used to justify doing good, but in this case, it was used to stop doing harm: harm to our national interest. One could imagine other cases where a similar decision would be quite appropriate, depending on how we understand what’s in our “national interest.”


Ethics of Principle

When President Biden chose this action, he also willed a moral principle, or at least that’s what an ethics of principle would assume. Instead of the good purpose justifying the right decision, in this case, the right decision depends on what kind of decision it was; that is, on whether others could make a similar decision in similar situations. So, could we always withdraw like this? No, not if it broke our promises.


From an ethics of principle, you cannot break promises, for the simple reason that if you did, no one would make them with you again. The promise here, as you know, was the promise to protect Afghans who had worked with us. This ethical approach would surely spin the needle on our moral compass.


Ethics of Consequence

Ok, decisions can be complicated. That’s why we have three types of analysis instead of one. It decreases the chance of making a mistake. The third one looks at how the action impacts others and their circumstances. The withdrawal is certainly positive for our military. For Afghan civilians, especially women, it’s horrible.


For the overall circumstances of the area, the withdrawal probably does not change the conditions of war. We have withdrawn our soldiers, but we have not done much to decrease the trafficking in weapons, war profiteering, or the plight of vulnerable civilians.


When our moral compass encompasses purpose principle and consequence, the needle may take several spins before it shows us the way, and that could be a mistake. My guess is that if the decision increases the climate of injustice, it is.




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