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Vital interest vs. policy preference

Published on 17 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

Analytical tools remind me of chess pieces. One has decided preferences among them. One uses this of that one inventively, even instinctively. In chess, the horse is my favorite means of attack, possibly because it vaults over obstacles in a quirky and irregular way. It always falls on its feet, like a street-wise cat. Compare it with the boring bishop, or the tower, predictably moving up and down in straight lines and stopping at every obstacle..

Robert COOPER[1] has provided me with an analytical tool I have grown to cherish. This is a tool that jumps easily over insurmountable obstacles, and has always a twist in it – like soothing lemon zest. For it is so delightfully and subtly self-contradictory. It reminds me of the Cheshire cat.

Robert COOPER argues the fundamental difference between vital interest and policy preference. Let me explain (alas from memory, the book is in a distant library at the moment).

Sovereignty is a classic example of “vital interest”. A social group therewith asserts its independence of any other group. It will fight to retain its sovereignty. Territorial integrity would be another. Vital interests are what we “would die for” – and I’m not referring to those enticing blue eyes.

“Policy preferences” are the humdrum of everyday life. Driving on the left would rate as “policy preference”: if all neighboring states were to change direction of driving, the matter of my state following suit would be discussed, and pros and cons could be weighed. Most conventions that regulate social life and make the content of laws are “policy preferences”. Most “adaptations at the margin” fall in this realm. Political controversies over “policy preferences” occur all the time. Not that the alternatives are that different in content – but different groups may benefit or lose from the eventual choice. We may argue our face red – but would we shed blood for a mere preference? Admittedly, the narcissism of small difference has killed in certain areas.[2]

Once one has sorted out policy choices in either of these two baskets, one becomes somewhat relaxed about policies. For one, one soon recognizes the old joke about the head of the family hectoring: “I make all the vital decisions; my wife makes the day-to-day ones.” When asked for examples, he admitted that he had never taken a “vital” decision – yet.

One may remark – in passing – that the division is along lines of “interest” and not rights. Rights are a great “political conversation stopper”. Once rights have been adjudicated, the only thing still arguable is their pecking order. Transcendent rights are the worst in this respect. Discussions over rights remind me of the “non-negotiable demands” of my UC Berkeley youth.


Robert COOPER worked for the European Union – a place where the distinction between vital interests and policy preferences is practiced every day. As a rule of thumb, vital interests demand consensus voting, and policy preferences can be settled by qualified majority.

The discreet charm of the distinction lies in its versatility at the margin. Take territorial integrity. We would all die for it – and wars have been waged over territorial integrity. The matter seems clear: a line is drawn in the sand, and the “other” better not cross it – or else.

Or else? For, once one starts looking into the detail, the dichotomy somehow dissolves. Would we die for 1 km2? 10 km2? Of land? Of soil? A province? Matters can become quite complicated: is Great Britain still Great Britain, should Scotland declare its independence? An extreme example is our own body. Nothing defines the “me” more than my own body. I got it at birth and I’ll take it to the grave. Except – all cells are replaced (except the gonads) about every seven years. Is the current heap of cells still “me”? I have a vital interest in myself; but do I have a vital interest in every cell of mine?

Daniel C. DENNETT puts it brillianty: “When people sense that something they love is under threat, their first reaction is but build an “impenetrable” wall, a Maginot Line – and just to be extra safe they decide to enclose a bit more territory, a buffer zone, inside its fortifications. It would seem to protect us from the awful slippery slope, the insidious thin edge of the wedge, and as everyone knows, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. (…) But this policy typically burdens the defenders with a brittle, extravagant (implausible, indefensible) set of dogmas that cannot be defended rationally – and hence must be defended, in the end, with desperate clawing and shouting. In philosophy this strategic choice often shows up as absolutism of one kind of another. (…) I call it hysterical realism;” [3]

I have many uses for the distinction, and here are a few examples.

I’d argue that society has a vital interest in the health and education of its members. This overarching interest is a common concern. We have a legitimate and collective interest in knowing where the health of the social group is going. I would reject personal or individual extra-territoriality: the argument that “my health is solely my own concern.” My rejection would be first on pragmatic grounds. We all share in the costs of treating bad health, one way or the other. Even if one had the money to pay his medical bills, she would hog scarce medical resources. More deeply: we are a community and we live with each other as well as for each other. We cannot remain indifferent to each other’s illness – and not just the contagious ones.

This vital common concern does not translate, however, into an obligation to be “my neighbor’s keeper”, and a right/obligation to stop everyone from smoking/drinking/whatever. Here I might just have a (lesser) policy preference. We might be more intrusive with cigarettes, less with alcohol, and nobody better count the cups of coffee I drink in the morning!

“Vital interest” is often used to justify state intervention. Nothing of the sort follows. Collective awareness does not necessarily translate into state-mandated policy. For instance, we may nudge our neighbors instead. We may go for educational policies. We may endure our own inability to plan ahead. We may come to the conclusion that intrusive policies are counterproductive. We may allow every one freedom of choice – within limits. We may leave many aspects of health to completion, which securing basic services in more directive ways.

I could repeat this exercise for education, or other social services. The key distinction is between the “meta-level” and the specific policy that implements the principle. There may be a “vital interest” in the whole, while on the specifics we may be practical.

We are back to the issue of territorial integrity. At the meta-level, territorial integrity is a vital interest. But do we need to fight over every contested blade of grass? We should avoid hysterical realism.

The cunning twist is the reconciliation of principle with application: what goes for the “whole” does not translate necessarily in rule for the specific. They operate at two different levels – that of the pragmatic rule and that of meta-rule.

Is it not nice to be able to have the cake (the whole) and eat it too (policy slice by policy slice)?

In my next blog I’ll deal with another example: the internet, and internet governance.

[1] Robert COOPER (2003): The breaking of nations. Order and chaos in the twenty-first century. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York.

[2] Michael IGNATIEFF (1999): The warrior’s honor. Ethnic war and the modern conscience. Penguin, Toronto

[3] Daniel C. DENNETT (2013): Intuition pumps and bother tools for thinking. Norton, New York. Pg. 204

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