The Scholarly Commons


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Suppose that you were Colin Powell. Would you have resigned your office rather than go before the United Nations Security Council to make the case for the invasion of Iraq? Or would you have remained silent, swallowed your doubts and, like a good soldier, obeyed your orders?

This essay argues that the resignation decision is hard and that words like "duty," "ethics of public service," and "sound public policy" do not capture all of the difficulty. Instead, the best defense of public resignation conceptualizes it as a radically free act -- a rebellion against normal constraints, including the constraints of duty and ethics.

Part I of the essay sets out the plausible alternatives open to public figures who find themselves in disagreement with the policies pursued by the government. It also provides historical examples of officials who have chosen each of the alternatives. Parts II and III explore the case for each of the alternatives on instrumental and non-instrumental grounds. Part IV defends the concept of resignation as radical rupture. Part V discusses the role that law and legal institutions play and should play with respect to resignation.