Freedom and Constraint

  • Colm McKeogh


This chapter examines Niebuhr’s attitude to the issue identified in the Introduction as the core of political realism: constraint. It was suggested there that what gives political realism much of its character is its assertion that there are significant constraints on our freedom of political action and that, as a result, the political world cannot be remade according to our desires or moral aspirations. Indeed, any attempts to do so would be counterproductive and dangerous. Political realists of the past have identified three factors which impose constraints on the freedom of choice of decision-makers: the circumstances of choice, the goals they hold and the resources available to them. To these, Niebuhr adds two more: the nature of human beings and their communities. For Niebuhr, the imperfect and selfish nature of humankind requires coercive states for the maintenance of law and order. In this way, human nature limits the freedom of action of policy-makers. It also does so through limitations on our reason and moral imagination. These constraints, in turn, place limits on the role that morality can play in politics.


Human Nature Moral Imagination Political Realism Political Freedom Human Freedom 
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Copyright information

© Colm McKeogh 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colm McKeogh
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political Science and Public PolicyUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand

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