Good people in bad jobs – public service in authoritarian regimes

What is required to be a good person, and a good public servant, when serving in a genuinely bad regime?

When I was in college, Syria’s Ambassador to the United States came to visit my school – H.E. Imad Moustapha. He gave a lecture on Syrian foreign policy (in very broad terms), art, and culture, and then had a Q and A with a few students. The fellow was genuinely funny, engaging, self-deprecating, and bore my questions (largely variations on “so, you guys offed Hariri, right? How’s that working out for you?”) with good grace. The Ambassador seemed a genuinely good guy. Hell, he even has a blog: Hard not to like the fellow.

And yet – this guy is a senior official in a genuinely unpleasant regime, a dictatorship that indulges in frequent human rights abuses, stifles its press, and does everything in its power to keep neighboring Lebanon a puppet state. (Largely by supporting Hezbollah – classy!)

I spoke my one of my profs after the lecture, and said what I’ve said here – that I was surprised by the extent to which Moustapha seemed a genuinely good guy. My prof grunted, looked uncomfortable, and said “Well, maybe he’s a good man in a bad job.”

So that’s the question – to what extent is it possible to be a good man in a bad job? And at what point, regardless of how much you try to be a good person, is that simply no longer the case?

I think that it’s certainly possible to be a good person, and a good public servant, in a bad regime. At least to some extent. For example – firefighters. I don’t care if you’re a firefighter in North Korea – you may be a public servant employed by one of the nastiest regimes on Earth, but people need firefighters, and there’s no question your community is better off for your service. Any firefighter is worthy of respect.

At the other end of the spectrum – if you’re actually making the policy that makes your regime loathsome to begin with, it’d be hard to argue you’re still a good person. If I’m disappearing political dissidents, I’m pretty clearly scum.

But there’s a whole range between those two extremes. To go back to the example of the Syrian ambassador – on the one hand, the world needs good diplomats. Diplomacy is how we keep accidents or misunderstandings from escalating into major wars. And I could see a man saying, “well, my government may be unpleasant – but through capable diplomacy, I can prevent my country from being entangled in unnecessary wars, thus saving lives. Surely this is to the good!” But on the other hand – such a person must necessarily advocate the interests of their government, and those interests will often be morally reprehensible. So, is such a person a “good” person?

I’ve always thought public service to be an honorable calling – but then, I’ve always lived in a nation that, whatever its flaws, is mostly governed by honorable men and women of good intent. What do you guys think about the cases when that isn’t so?

(Note: Though it certainly might make sense to talk about Syrian politics and Middle East policy in this thread, that isn’t really the main point – I mentioned the Syrian ambassador merely because I happen to have met the man, and he’s an interesting example of this moral question.)

Great question.

I think it’s better to be a good person in a bad job than to be a bad person in a bad job. You should do the best you can in the job in which you find yourself - especially if you’re a diplomat, a firefighter or the like, someone who’s genuinely helping people. Diplomats serving evil regimes can really do some good:

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want death-camp guards to be diligent, hardworking team players, and all bets are off if you’re actually involved in formulating evil policies. Look at it this way: Come the revolution, will you look back on what you did with shame, or be able to look yourself in the mirror and even be believed by others when you say, “I made my people’s lives better by doing what I did, even though I disagreed with the policies of the regime.”

There’s a lot of substance to the OP, but I wanted to interject one other possible explanation: someone could appear to be good, but isn’t really. For example, Deng Xiaoping was by most accounts a very smart, engaging person. But he’s also responsible for god knows how many political prisoners, not to mention the whole Tiananmen Square thing.

Cool - I’d heard something about a Japanese diplomat in WW2, but hadn’t known his name, or just how badass he was. “Righteous Among the Nations” indeed.

I think Elandil’s Heir’s standard is a good one - if you’re doing something that would still earn you respect after the current regime falls, you’re probably an okay sort.

Regarding the point about death-camp guards being hardworking team players - does anyone else have a kind of hilarious mental image of SS troopers heading out to a ropes course, going through sexual-harassment seminars, and doing trust-building exercises?


Er - well, I don’t either, then. That would just be silly.

There was a serious card-carrying Nazi among the westerners in Nanking who saved god knows how many Chinese people from the Japanese massacre. He used his position to do tremendous good. On the other hand, that’s kind of an extreme example.

Would it make them better people if they abstained from working for their country and let it be an even more oppressive shithole than it is?

The United States has made a serious effort at considerable expense to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into countries as bad as Syria.

I don’t know, if I were a member of the SS, I might be made very uncomfortable by team-building paintball.

I really don’t know where to draw the line. You can make the argument that working in a manufacturing job in an authoritarian regime is feeding the beast if you think about it. Labor organizations and general strikes have played a role in bringing down some authoritarian regimes, and an authoritarian government cannot survive if all the workers who are upset by the human and civil rights abuses go on strike.

So arguably private sector work in an authoritarian regime (which creates wealth, tax revenue and a functioning system) is also feeding the beast the same way public sector work does. If every private sector worker in Syria goes on a 2 week strike, the government will probably change dramatically afterwards. If they try to become more oppressive, go on another 2 week strike. Sooner or later the government would ease up.

Plus on the subject of authoritarian regimes, many of us in OECD nations rely on oil whose revenues are used to prop up regimes like the ones in Iraq (before the invasion), Iran or Saudi Arabia. So without consumers buying the products produced in totalistic regimes, which end up creating wealth and tax revenue to fund the government, the governments will have trouble or fall. In the US we tend to put economic sanctions on many human rights abusing nations for this reason.

I’m drawn and having trouble answering because to me private sector work is needed to prop up the government. And attempts to organize private sector employees is a tool people have used to resist totalitarianism. Plus it seems there are tons of factors that go into supporting or bringing down totalitarian nations.

If you take a nation like Saudi Arabia, why is the public sector bureaucrat feeding the beast any more/less than the private sector worker whose job creates wealth and tax revenue, or the person overseas buying oil which funds the human rights unfriendly oligarchy there?

But as far as public sector work, I think you can be a good person if every time you are faced with a decision, you err on the side which gives more civil, political and human rights to the people affected by your decision. Even if you work in an unfriendly regime, I think you’d still be a good person in that scenario.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist -

Few authoritarian regimes are “all bad all the time”. They don’t generally wake up in the morning and think, “Well, it’s Tuesday, how many people can I behead today?” They may treat their perceived enemies brutally, and they may perceive more enemies than you find comfortable, but it’s really just a matter of degree, i’nit? And many would say our hands are not exactly spotless, yah?

Ask these leaders why they do what they do and they will tell you they want the best for their people. That’s not such a bad motivation. If you had a hankering for public service, wouldn’t you sign on for that?

This is the guy:

Being a charming and likable individual isn’t the same as being a good person.

The OP and all others interested ought to watch the German movie Downfall (Der Untergang), about the last days of Hitler’s regime. One could say the OP’s question is a significant theme in this film. (Including a major subplot about an SS doctor.)

I’m kinda with Icarus on this one. It’s hard to speculate on the motivations on some top tier wacko leaders out there (looking at N Korea), but I believe that Ahmadinejad still thinks and hopes he is looking out for the good of the people of Iran. Now his understanding of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘people of Iran’ may be distorted severely, and of course his attempts may be entirely in the wrong direction, but it’s silly to think that he lives and thinks like a James Bond villian- that is, he wakes up every morning and dreams up new ways to cause chaos and destabilize the world, much less to cause suffering to Iran, even if that is what his policy causes.

All of the African warlords cause untold amounts of suffering and death, but most all of them are looking out for whatever particular group they happen to be leading at the time.

It is different than our system here in America, but only in scope and severity. In the broader picture, both political parties have different ideas about what constitutes good and bad policy, but both truly believe that their own ideas will overall help America.

The root of the problem is trying to develop a worldwide measuring stick for ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but I believe that cultural differences make that all but impossible.

Thanks, Wikipedia was crazy slow at the time.

Deng Xiaoping is an interesting case. There are literally hundreds of millions of people whose lives are significantly better because of the economic policies Xiaoping put into place, something that may not have happened without him.

Or, for another example, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was only a shining beacon of human rights compared to what had come before; was Gorbachev a bad person for taking charge of it, continuing much of the system and changing what he could?

(I guess this is a bit of a hijack from the OP, but still kind of interesting.)

What you said, or, as Shakespeare put it, “One may smile, and smile, and be a villian.” I don’t know that he is, but Moustapha could be the most evil person in the world, and still be clever, witty, knowledgeable about art, and fun to be around and talk to.

By all accounts, everybody liked Hermann Goering.