Toward a norm of humanitarian intervention

by Creon Critic

Several senior diplomats warn of genocide and, at minimum, crimes against humanity. Their concerns are corroborated by defecting military personnel, pilots and naval officers, who tell of orders to target civilians. The government institutes a communications lockdown, blocking internet connections and cell phones. The government also targets foreign journalists calling them “terrorist outlaws”. Foreigners Scramble To Leave [the country] and [nations] Mobilize To Rescue [their]Citizens From […] Violence. The most senior figures in the government warn of “rivers of blood”, label opponents “cockroaches… greasy rats and cats” and call upon supporters to “cleanse” the country “home by home, village by village”. Other senior government officials, responsible for security-relevant ministries, resign to protest the government’s recent actions.

There should be a norm for humanitarian intervention if a state government does wrong within its borders. In certain instances the international community acting wholly, in parts, or even single states, should be able to forcibly compel respect for human rights and humanitarian law. There is a tension in international law between two competing goals, upholding international humanitarian law and human rights law on the one hand and state sovereignty on the other hand.[1] I suggest resolving this tension in favor of international humanitarian law and human rights at the expense of state sovereignty even though this resolution presents some difficulties for the international system.

After defining key terms I will argue that a norm of humanitarian intervention poses three related problems. One problem is determining the threshold for intervention; what wrongs within a state’s borders qualify for humanitarian intervention? I will contend that the “why” of humanitarian intervention is not a novel invention of the 1990’s. I argue that the principles for humanitarian intervention have deep roots in international law, specifically the idea of jus cogens. During the course of the 20th century, the underlying principles animating humanitarian intervention were more clearly enunciated by important international institutions and conventions.

A second problem is preventing abuse of humanitarian intervention; what process, if any, is required for intervention to be legitimate? This question of “how” humanitarian intervention is a difficult one that I could not answer for myself altogether satisfactorily. I can merely sketch key principles to keep in mind, presenting a very legitimate scenario (post reform or current UN Security Council approved), a less legitimate situation (regional international organization approved), and a possibly legitimate outcome (coalitions of the willing or unilateral action). Here I argue the skeptics have the strongest case when they argue that the responsibility to protect (R2P) is a great idea that can not work due to political problems of execution.[2]

A third problem is the charge of neocolonialism; is humanitarian intervention merely a cloak for powerful states to intervene and interfere in the business of weaker states? I will argue that the qualifications outlined are safeguards against neocolonial humanitarian intervention. Violating the criteria I outline yields important indicators for assessing claims of neocolonialism in humanitarian intervention.

Altogether, a norm of humanitarian intervention challenges expansive definitions of sovereignty. Establishing such a norm means that sovereignty conceptualized as bounded in ways that have not yet been widely recognized in international law.

Key Terms
I take humanitarian intervention to mean military intervention not authorized by the target state primarily with humanitarian motives.[3] Humanitarian intervention’s primary aims should neither be to annex or state nor to redraw territorial boundaries (or at least a strong presumption against redrawing territorial boundaries). Intervention is conceived of as temporary, not permanent.[4] I would highlight the point that there is a sliding scale of options, not simply a dyad of all-out military invasion and do-nothing approaches. This continuum includes diplomatic moves like condemnations, targeted sanctions, arms embargoes, and trade restrictions. Furthermore, within the class of military intervention, there is room for variation. This further iteration in the military sphere includes: the threat of military intervention and deploying of military assets to a region (though this poses issues, as the credible threat of intervention is what deters perpetrating parties), limited intervention or an escalating use of force (for instance, NATO only pursued air war against the Former Republic of Yugoslavia), and the Powell Doctrine’s preferred overwhelming use of force.

By norms I mean “socially shared expectations, understandings, or standards of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity – are both ‘regulative’ (ordering and constraining behavior) and ‘constitutive’ (generating agents, endowing them with certain capabilities and powers, and determining their underlying identities, interests, and preferences)”[5]

Finally, though some authors draw a sharp distinction between humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect,[6] I do not hold that distinction here. I use the terms interchangeably.

Why humanitarian intervention & what wrongs qualify?
Conduct that “shocks the conscience of mankind” qualifies for humanitarian intervention. The laws of war, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law give us direction in determining what wrongs qualify for humanitarian intervention. With treaties predating the 1945/1948 foundations of the modern international human rights regime, the laws of war and international humanitarian law represent areas of more fixity in international law. The United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights began the modern international human rights regime. The subsequent widely ratified conventions on human rights provide fixity to the international human rights law content. It is also important to keep in mind that the Genocide Convention’s full name is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; “prevention” is there for a reason. The themes outlined in these instruments are further bolstered by jus cogens.

Jus cogens are fundamental principles from which no state may derogate; additionally, states may not exempt themselves, or release one another from jus cogens. Furthermore, no treaty or domestic law can depart from jus cogens. Jus cogens entail both rights and responsibilities; jus cogens can act to promote certain principles and to prohibit certain behavior. For instance, self-determination is promoted by jus cogens. Jus cogens prohibits heinous conduct that threatens “the peace and security of mankind and the conduct, or its result, is shocking to the conscience of humanity.” Prohibitions include condoning the breach of jus cogens, slavery, piracy, genocide, crimes against humanity, murder, torture, and the use of force or aggression. Thus states cannot legally agree to enslave a minority, or commit genocide.[7]

Jus cogens (and human rights) have been called ambiguous, tautological, and even nonexistent.[8] The ambiguity critique stems from the difficulty in defining their origins. Who made this list, the List? Jus cogens seem to emerge, rather than being legislated as with other law. The tautological critique stems from there self-defining character. The nonexistant critique (also leveled at international law) stems from the lack of an overarching enforcer. On the other hand, like other social constructions, we behave as though they exist. Furthermore, jus cogens have the force of law; one can argue and base rulings on jus cogens in the International Courts of Justice.[9] For our purposes, this answer must be satisfactory.

The “why” of humanitarian intervention must foreground some notion of the international interest. By international interest I mean a focus on upholding provisions of human rights and humanitarian standards that “embody in legal terms the core of our respect for humanity and Mankind.” These elements constituting what I call the international interest have “been adopted only at the expense of vast and painstaking political efforts, in many cases even preceded by conflict and bloodshed.”[10] I have backgrounded the national interest to emphasize the idea of setting aside personal, short-term gain. Disinterestedness is a key component of humanitarian intervention. This is not to say national interest counts for nothing, concern with refugee flows and potentially destabilizing consequences of humanitarian catastrophes definitely focus the minds of neighbors and near neighbors; these concerns also have some claim to legitimacy, but overall I place more emphasis on the core humanitarian and human rights interests of the international system. Engendering this type of collective responsibility, and conditional autonomy of states, is an underlying theme of the R2P.[11]

The idea of disinterestedness also entails acting in the best interest of the target country. America’s barring of French, German, and Russian companies from competing for approximately $20 billion in contracts for Iraqi reconstruction would be an example of acting in a manner very partial to oneself. It contributes to calling into question of the motives of the intervening party.

Foregrounding the international interest and backgrounding the national interest runs counter to schools of thought that emphasize, perhaps even fetishize, the national interest. National interest über alles, succinctly describes the realist perspective that there are a handful of “objective” core state interests, often geopolitically defined. Not to assert that the Straits of Hormuz are unimportant, but there are a core set of values in the international system that are crucial to human dignity. As a consequence of backgrounding national interest, the threshold for humanitarian intervention I present here is lower than that presented of Michael Mandelbaum. In response to the legitimate critique of limited resources, “the world is a big place filled with distressed people, all of whom, by these lights, have a claim to American attention,”[12] I offer the answer of pursuit of non-military means mentioned earlier and an ongoing consideration of proportionality as concomitant with humanitarian intervention.[13]

How humanitarian intervention & by what process?
The process for a humanitarian intervention can take three courses. The most legitimate and clearly legal scenario is UN Security Council approval for intervention. Hotly disputed regarding their legality are the alternate possibilities of regional international organization approval and coalitions of the willing or unilateral action.[14] I would contend both these possibilities, with qualifications, can be included in a norm of humanitarian intervention if a state does wrong within its borders. These latter two courses demonstrate the tension between legality and legitimacy; my qualifications are an attempt to bridge the gap between the two. Though, I am disposed towards the assertion that “all interventions that bypass the United Nations at least need a very strong case to rebut the presumption that they are ethically dubious.”[15]

A UN Security Council resolution in authorizing intervention represents the gold standard for international intervention. Widely recognized as the legitimate forum for adjudicating matters pertaining to international peace and security, Security Council authorization means a prospective humanitarian intervention has passed a rigorous political test. Unfortunately, five veto-wielding Security Council members represent a difficult hurdle to overcome. An intervention must not conflict with any of these key nations’ positions or interests in order to garner support, or, at least, an abstention.

Also problematic for gaining agreement on humanitarian interventions is the prospect of Security Council reform, increasing the size of the Security Council from 15 to 25.[16] The Security Council as currently constituted represents the major powers shortly after World War II. After reform, it would grow more inclusive, depending on the proposal, adding as permanent members Brazil, India, Germany, Japan, and an African nation (possibly South Africa or Nigeria). Current veto-holders have taken the position that relinquishing the veto is a non-starter.[17] While more representative of the powers in the international system today, these additions would make coming to agreement even more difficult.

The fact that Security Council approval is a time consuming and cumbersome process prompts my willingness to allow the broader norm of humanitarian intervention by other international organizations, coalitions of the willing, and unilaterally. Despite Security Council resolutions to “remain actively seized of the matter,” avoiding stepping on the toes of five veto wielders is difficult. Humanitarian catastrophes can be fast moving. For instance, the genocide in Rwanda is noted for its fast pace, 800,000 killed in 100 days required a pace of approximately five people killed per minute, around 300 murders an hour.[18]

An alternate route would be approval by regional institutions like the African Union, European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or the Organization of American States. This route is preferable to a coalition of the willing or unilateral humanitarian intervention, though less safely situated in international law than UN Security Council approval.

Coalitions of the willing or unilateral humanitarian intervention represent potential legitimacy at its lowest ebb (to borrow from Justice Jackson’s Youngstown opinion). This route poses the potential for chaos in the international system if states maintain wide ranging scope in determining what a humanitarian catastrophe is and pursue humanitarian intervention as something other than a last resort. Here proceeding through the UN and regional bodies first is a crucial qualification. Actions on this front must be scrutinized closely, what is at stake is the order established by other core norms, like sovereignty, in the international system. [19]

So far in analyzing all three routes I have presented a state-centric, fairly hierarchical-based approach. The how of humanitarian intervention also needs to include the consideration of international publics and global civil society; this means including horizontal-based ideas regarding power. Whether via the UN Security Council, regional international organizations, a coalition of the willing or unilaterally, the broader atmosphere outside state-centered institutions is also worthy of consideration. Global civil society and the international public’s position is particularly worthy of consideration as having disinterested observers situated in multiple milieus in agreement fortifies an argument for humanitarian intervention.

Spheres of authority (SOAs) other than states, like global civil society and international publics, play a key role in the interaction that constructs a potential humanitarian intervention as legitimate or illegitimate; for instance compare NATO and Kosovo to the US’ coalition and Iraq.[20] Because of their disparate nature SOAs, for instance the international legal epistemic community, will not necessarily produce definite answers. Furthermore SOAs are dynamic, an answer about the legitimacy of an intervention involves a process of argumentation and convincing. Despite these difficulties, in an international system where democracies hold a preponderance of the economic and military power, decision-makers on humanitarian intervention ignores the input and opinions of SOAs at their peril.

What about accusations of neocolonialism?
Calling humanitarian intervention neocolonialism may be a valid charge if the qualifications I have outlines are insufficiently met. During the course of outlining what a humanitarian intervention norm should look like, the burden of proof has been placed against expansive notions of sovereignty and against perpetual, self-interested humanitarian intervention. Overall the aim has been to prevent potential neocolonial mischief cropping up in interventions. Certain indicators highlight when an humanitarian intervention is not a humanitarian intervention.

Lacking an ongoing humanitarian crisis or gross human rights violations at the outset serves as one indicator. Wariness of including past crimes is not due to indifference, but a concern about granting states overly wide latitude in intervening. Intervention pursued precipitously, prior to other alternatives being considered and tested also indicates potential neocolonialist aims. Humanitarian intervention should not be a first resort, it should be a last resort.[21] Interestedness and partiality linked with exploitation of decision-making authority yielded by humanitarian intervention are also indicators of neocolonialism; for instance decisions on the disposal or resources beyond the scope of humanitarian concerns.

Concluding thoughts
The international community needs to act urgently against gross human rights abuses. This core principle, tempered by proportionality, lay behind advocacy for intervention in Libya.

But the US has a lot on its geopolitical plate at the moment. Perpetrators of mass murder do not schedule their crimes to suit. Criminals rarely account for the convenience of the law abiding or law enforcement authorities; war criminals are particularly inconsiderate that way. The objection is like complaining that bank robbers chose an inopportune moment for the police.

But how are we going to pay for intervention? This complaint echoes the first, perpetrators of crimes against humanity have not scheduled their murderous rampage at the right point in the business cycle. Yes there’s been a world financial crisis, but the Genocide Convention does not say prevent and punish genocide “as long as it’s convenient”. The responsibility to protect does not have the caveat “accountants permitting”.

But a more limited intervention could lead to a larger intervention; some argue this could be a slippery slope. Frankly, the future is uncertain. Maybe imposing a no-fly zone over Libya will lead to further intervention, like bombing Libyan tanks, as some warn. This consideration deserves careful thought, but does not excuse inaction or purely rhetorical action. Condemnations are a good first step, but we must be willing to go much further than a strongly worded statement. The situation requires, at minimum, the credible, early consideration of the use of force, we should prepare for that.

But past interventions have not all gone splendidly some contend, pointing to the cases of Bosnia and Kosovo. No, the past is not a humanitarian interventionist’s paradise. Some interventions are more successful than others. Too often skeptics of humanitarian intervention and post-conflict reconstruction point to Afghanistan and Iraq while proponents point to Germany and Japan when the overall picture is rather complex. RAND’s the UN’s Role in Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq testifies to this complexity and also the possibility for success; the cases include both failures and successes: the very successful (West Germany, Japan), successful cases (Namibia, El Salvador, Eastern Slavonia, East Timor), mostly successful (Mozambique), and partially successful (Congo, Cambodia) (here, here, and pdf).

Past history shows that when a state threatens citizens, dehumanizes opponents, shuts down communications, and orders mass murder, we end up profoundly regretting the Triumph of Evil. Witness Bill Clinton’s speech in Kigali, Rwanda from March 1998,

The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began…. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear and full of hope….

…It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.

We have seen, too, and I want to say again, that genocide can occur anywhere. It is not an African phenomenon and must never be viewed as such. We have seen it in industrialized Europe We have seen it in Asia We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence….

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”[22] Instituting a norm of humanitarian intervention would help realize this goal; I’d argue Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment all point to a case for the morality of humanitarian intervention. From this perspective, humanitarian intervention resituates the individual as the center of interest in international relations, de-centering the state. That is to say, human security would be reinforced with a norm of humanitarian intervention. State sovereignty would be circumscribed in ways that favor the individual, possibly deterring leaders considering pursuing gross, widespread violations of human rights as a tactic for staying in power. A norm of humanitarian intervention acting to deter gross violations of human rights would make the international system a more humane and safe place for its ultimate end, the welfare of individual human beings.

Notes
[1] Harhoff, Frederik “Unauthorised Humanitarian Interventions – Armed Violence in the Name of Humanity?” Nordic Journal of International Law, 70, 2001, p. 66; State sovereignty or more specifically “the international prohibition on the use of force against the territorial integrity of a sovereign State,” Harhoff, p. 78-9
[2] MacKenzie, Lewis “Responsibility to protect: a great idea that can’t work” the Globe and Mail (Canada) Sep. 19, 2005, A17
[3] Coady, C. A. J. “the Ethics of Armed Humanitarian Intervention” United States Institute of Peace, 2002, pp. 10-11
[4] Parekh, Bhikhu “the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Intervention: Introduction” International Political Science Review Jan 1997, p. 5
[5] MacLeod, Michael “Forging Private Governance of Climate Change: The Power and Politics of Socially Responsible Investment” Oikos Ph.D. Summer Academy 2007, p. 12; Sikkink, Kathryn “Transnational Politics, International Relations Theory, and Human Rights” PS: Political Science and Politics 31, 3, Sep., 1998, p. 518
[6] Alvarez, Jose E. “the Schizophrenias of R2P: Panel Presentation at the 2007 Hague Joint Conference on Contemporary Issues of International Law: Criminal Jurisdiction 100 Years After the 1907 Hague Peace Conference” The Hague, The Netherlands, June 30, 2007
[7] Adams, Dean “The Prohibition of Widespread Rape as a Jus Cogens” San Diego International Law Journal 6, 2, 2005 pp. 357, 359-60; Christenson, Gordon A. “Jus Cogens: Guarding Interests Fundamental to International Society” Virginia Journal of International Law 28, 1988, p. 586
[8] Schwarzenberger, Georg “International Jus Cogens?” Texas Law Review, 43, 4, 1964 pp. 457
[9] Adams, p. 359-60
[10] Harhoff, p. 79
[11] Parekh, p. 5
[12] Mandelbaum, Michael “Foreign Policy as Social Work” Foreign Affairs 75, Jan/Feb 1996, pp. 16-32; p. Mandelbaum, p. 18
[13] Coady, p. 27
[14] For an argument that necessity may justify humanitarian intervention see, Spiermann, Ole “Humanitarian Intervention as a Necessity and the Threat or Use of Jus Cogens” Nordic Journal of International Law, 71, 2002, pp. 523-543; For an argument that international law does not provide the answer, but criteria can be outlined see, Harhoff, pp. 65-119; For an argument that unauthorized humanitarian intervention has no legal basis in current international law, notwithstanding ad hoc moral grounds based interventions see, Rytter, Jens Elo “Humanitarian Intervention without the Security Council: From San Francisco to Kosovo – and Beyond” Nordic Journal of International Law, 70, 2001, pp. 121-160
[15] Coady, p. 26
[16] “Security Council Reform: Where it Stands” Deutsche Welle 18/6/2005
[17] Blum, Yehuda Z. “Proposals for UN Security Council Reform” The American Journal of International Law, 99, 3, Jul. 2005 p. 637, 644; MacKenzie, p. A17
[18] “Rwandan Genocide 10 Years Later” CNN
[19] Justice Jackson’s three part test for presidential authority influenced this formulation. Jackson, Robert H. “Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer” Supreme Court of the United States, 343 U.S. 579
[20] Rosenau, James N. Distant Proximities, Dynamics Beyond Globalization Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2003, pp. 294-5
[21] Coady, p. 28
[22] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 28

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70 thoughts on “Toward a norm of humanitarian intervention

  1. I agree that we should do something, but why is the US expected to take this on? There are other military’s that could engage this threat. France, Germany, England, etc.

    If you live in a city, and the fire company that is stationed just down the street is busy fighting a a fire, and your house catches, they don’t send a truck to your place. They call up the next closest company and have them deal with it.

    The US is not the closest fire company to this fire, and we are busy. Someone else has to step up to the plate.

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    • Given the US position amongst the world’s militaries, the US is close to every fire. You do have a good point, and perhaps it is being taken onboard, the Post is reporting that the UN Security Council is to discuss a resolution authorizing force today and also that, “France and Britain, with cooperation from one or two unspecified Arab countries, would be ready to start carrying out such a resolution within hours of its approval.” The US may not be carrying most of the responsibility. On a more abstract level I’d argue it is our duty to contribute as an expression of our values (both American and international-system wide), to deter others, and hopefully to prevent others from contemplating such grave violations in the hopes that they world will stand by, yet again, sending strongly worded statements every so often.

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  2. Kudos on a truly well-written article.

    If humanity is to create a normative approach to humanitarian intervention, it will start with this fundamental assertion: the nation state has failed. I would further extend the assertion to state the model of the nation state is already showing signs of collapse, as surely as the Divine Right of Kings failed in the face of interminable European wars. The United Nations cannot work: it is a contradiction in terms. One sovereign state cannot be united to another: its proclamations will always be the least common denominator of all, never presenting guiding principles to which all may be held.

    Recently, a CIA operator was bought out of a Pakistani prison on the principles of diyya after shooting two Pakistanis, whereby murder can be atoned via the payment of a blood price. Ancient Europe under the Saxons had the Wergild, the same principle of justice. Much has been made of the injustices of sharia law, but in this case, we got our CIA operator back and justice was apparently satisfied, if the whole messy situation has only gotten worse.

    You raise the issues of neocolonialism and sovereignty. We could turn these issues inside out and examine the justice of intervention on the basis of the opinions of those thus “liberated”. As the Third Infantry Division entered Baghdad, a squad came on a crowd in front of a store, everyone yelling, one man brandishing a Kalashnikov rifle. The Americans helpfully disarmed the man. The others rushed into the store and looted it. The man with the rifle turned out to be the store owner.

    If Jus Cogens is a slippery pig: Erga Omnes, the obligations of one state to all the others is an even slipperier piggy. It seems to me the best argument for intervention is via erga omnes, that one state is liable to invasion, having failed in its obligations to the others. Zimbabwe, Somalia, North Korea, the Palestinian State under Hamas, the failed state of Iraq under its Shiite kleptocracy, Burma under the military junta, all these seem to meet the criteria for invasion.

    These are not failed states: they are states that have failed the others. Even Israel, with its de-facto apartheid for the Palestinians, might meet these high-minded criteria. Well, all such thinking is quixotic crazy talk: the powers-that-be will protect their autistic client states from the slings and arrows of outrage, under any circumstances.

    The sovereign states have never been much concerned about the people maltreated by other sovereign states: children smearing toxic glue onto the soles of our fancy sneakers, the systematic oppression of the Shiites in KSA, they’ll never impose a penalty on the regimes which do the dirty work their own laws no longer permit. It might well be said the UN has served as a big blue fig leaf wherein these sovereign states are granted some measure of legitimacy where none ever existed.

    The lasting legacies of the World of Empire are the procrustean borders they left behind. Until the world finally addresses this issue, the madness will continue apace, each lunatic hiding behind his little placard at the UN Assembly.

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    • BlaiseP, your erga omnes is a point well taken, and has definitely been part of the mix of attempting to codify where the boundaries of sovereignty lay – Definition of gross and large-scale violations Working Paper. But also, the Responsibility to Protect adds a valuable component as to who matters in the international system – states failing their duties to each other is important, as well as states failing in their duties to their own citizens.

      Has the nation state failed? I’m not sure I’d use the word failed, the nation state is evolving from coping with the pressures of a 17th century world to coping with the challenges of our era, disease, climate change, poverty… From the arguments I’ve advanced, I’m definitely on the pro-global governance / cosmopolitan side of things. I’m particularly interested in Alexander Wendt’s work, Why a World State is Inevitable: Teleology and the Logic of Anarchy pdf.

      The sovereign states have never been much concerned about the people maltreated by other sovereign states

      Post WWII we’ve constructed an entire system identifying this intra-state maltreatment as a concern for the international system. We’re also woefully inconsistent in applying these strictures to actual circumstances. But sometimes it does happen, sometimes states that systematically abuse their populations harshly enough for long enough become isolated.

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      • And, with the exception of South Africa* in the post ’45** era, those countries thus isolated just keep on doing it.

        *maybe Burma is finally coming around. Maybe.

        **to be fair, the real measure is the post ’91 era. Cold war superpower politics had both thumbs on the scale too much to measure anything reliably before the Berlin Wall came down.

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        • South Africa ended its vile policies because of one decent man, Pik Botha, whose name should be engraved a spear’s length deep in the granite of the hall of the righteous. Nelson Mandela got the fame, and I begrudge him none, but if it takes a great man to stand up to evil, it takes an even greater man, so confronted, to repent and end that evil.

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      • Do you really think the nation-state is evolving? I just don’t see it. Consider the EU: despite its seeming unity, the paradigm of the autonomous nation-state has continued to hobble it.

        Greece and Ireland went crazy, Greece with its failure to collect taxes and Ireland with the madness of building more houses than families to live in them. Who could stop them? The great banks of Ireland would lend money to my cat when times were good. Neither had much capital before the EU, neither could cope with success. The Duckworth-Lewis Method summed it up in their new National Anthem of Ireland

        Ireland, Ireland, once we were poor,
        Then we were wealthy; now we are poor again.
        Cows and horses, donkeys and sheep,
        Munster and Leinster, Connacht and ******.

        Chinese, Polish, Africans too,
        Doing the jobs we don’t want to do.
        An Irish stew, a nation of nations,
        Working for peanuts in petrol stations.

        In summary: even where nations have agreed to unify in such unions, while those nations retain their sovereign rights to behave like idiots, we ought to treat their sovereignty as we treated the sovereignty of kings.

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        • Evolving, slowly, but evolving nonetheless. Take the European Court of Human Rights, there is the typical squealing about activist judges and judge-made law and some states are far more compliant with rulings than others, also that huge backlog of cases, but it still represents a marked difference with what came before. In the ever present historians’ argument, continuity or rupture, I’d say the ECtHR represents rupture. What army does it have to enforce its rulings? What power can it call upon to say to countries within its jurisdiction, “Obey!”

          Two cases offhand, forgive me if the particulars are inexact, England had a policy of retaining DNA of anyone accused of a crime. The European Court said this policy contravened the privacy provisions of the Convention. England is now adjusting its regime to resemble Scotland more closely, expunging data from the database after a period. Not perfect, but better than before. Another case, whether transsexuals (pre or post op) have the right to change their birth certificate to reflect the gender they say they are. This wended its way through the European Court, with rulings spanning 2 decades, slowly the majority that said the state (UK) could define transsexuals’ gender slipped away. Eventually, the ECtHR ruled against the UK. Again, not the biggest victory for human rights in the world, a rather small minority group trapped by the misunderstanding, indifference, or animus of the larger society, but a victory all the same.

          Perhaps its just wishful thinking, and I think we may be trapped within nationalistic tribes for some time to come, but what it means to be a sovereign state is shifting, the state itself is contending with new entities on the international scene like international courts, universal jurisdiction, transnational advocacy networks, and international organizations.

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          • But consider the problems inherent in the European Court of Human Rights. Case in point: Russia refused to ratify it unless Russian judges could hear Russian cases. All these fine supranational institutions, starting with the Field of the Cloth of God, Henry and Francis swearing eternal friendship, well until Francis threw Henry in a wrestling match, but it was all conducted with the highest motives. The League of Nations. The UN. All bosh. I call it Flowerpot Diplomacy. A bunch of clever people with degrees from LSE and Sciences Po in bespoke suits, sitting around a conference table with a bouquet in the middle and a multitude of bottles of Dasani water, the chauffeurs of their limousines idly smoking while the Great Men deliberate, all completely disconnected from reality except the chauffeurs.

            The supranational model is in many senses worse than the national model. All politics is local.

            More to come. I’m wrestling with my own essay, a troublesome thing, too, on what might replace the nation state. Again, my congratulations on a wonderful and well-researched piece of writing.

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  3. But the US has a lot on its geopolitical plate at the moment. Perpetrators of mass murder do not schedule their crimes to suit. Criminals rarely account for the convenience of the law abiding or law enforcement authorities; war criminals are particularly inconsiderate that way. The objection is like complaining that bank robbers chose an inopportune moment for the police.

    But how are we going to pay for intervention? This complaint echoes the first, perpetrators of crimes against humanity have not scheduled their murderous rampage at the right point in the business cycle. Yes there’s been a world financial crisis, but the Genocide Convention does not say prevent and punish genocide “as long as it’s convenient”. The responsibility to protect does not have the caveat “accountants permitting”.

    But what is left of the norm once we recognize that these constraints will govern whether and when intervention is undertaken. Bush I and Clinton extremely indecisively intervened in Somalia; then intervention was delayed in the Balkans and Rwanda until it was too late. Only once the economy was reestablished on track did Clinton launch major intervention in Serbia/Kosovo. Afghanistan was not a humanitarian intervention nor was Iraq II fully one, but neither was launched during times of major economic stress nor ongoing shooting wars for the U.S. elsewhere (apart from Iraq during Afghanistan, but they were couched as components of the same War).

    It is a question right now how the U.S. would marshall the resources to respond to a serious direct military challenge to its vital security interests, given our inability to conclude engagement in two conflicts from the previous decade. Major powers will always confront competing demands for military resources. A norm of humanitarian intervention simply can’t be presumed to be feasible in the carrying out under these circumstances, which are just the ongoing standard challenges faced by all countries at various intervals, and a norm of intervention that isn’t followed by actual normal interventions is an even more hollow doctrine than the one we follow today, whatever we might call it.

    I would perhaps sign on for some kind of standardization of the actual norm that we carry out when the question really is purely a matter of humanitarian concern. This would be something like a norm of close scrutiny to extraordinary internal events in sovereign nations, resulting very rarely in serious consideration of armed intervention by states (various types of other international actors and forces being a separate question), and extremely rarely in actual intervention. This is the only norm that I think actual constrained states will ever be able to carry out in a consistent manner. We could claim to have a norm of intervention, but it would in practice turn into a norm of intervention at nations’ convenience, and largely pursuant to their interests, not pursuant an honest assessment of real human rights concerns.

    You can, of course say, that the world ought to be better than that and that we ought to be able to carry out a consistent regime of humanitarian intervention (after all, outrages that shock the conscience of mankind are frequent). But that is not a norm; that is a moral dictum. A norm is what actors actually tend to do because they feel a moral duty to do so. And a norm of humanitarian intervention by the militaries of states into the internal affairs of other states wouldn’t end up looking anything like its name in practice.

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    • But what is left of the norm once we recognize that these constraints will govern whether and when intervention is undertaken.

      Honestly, muddling through. But I’d advocate muddling through along a certain track, a track that has taken into consideration the set of principles the international system says it favors. Look, I recognize global governance is a messy, messy thing – deeply unsatisfying for those who seek consistent application of certain standards of human dignity. It takes a certain mix of willingness to see constant disappointment and hopefulness for better behavior by states to advocate the case for realizing the goals of the international human rights regime. (Perhaps that’s a feature of political advocacy in general.)

      I don’t want to get into a dispute about the precise language, norm or moral dictum, particularly because I don’t think we’re all that far apart since you write,

      I would perhaps sign on for some kind of standardization of the actual norm that we carry out when the question really is purely a matter of humanitarian concern.

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    • More importantly, how the hell would we actually fight such a war? By every measure, our ground forces and their equipment are worn out and busted up. The tsunami of walking wounded, especially brain injuries and PTSD cases is just now washing over the seawalls we’ve erected. They’re DEROSing back here, reentering society and detonating.

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  4. A handful of fun questions…

    In the 1920’s and 30’s, did Stalin’s treatment of his citizenry justify humanitarian intervention?
    In the 1940’s, did Roosevelt’s treatment of his citizenry justify humanitarian intervention?
    Does Kim Jong Il’s treatment of his citizenry justify humanitarian intervention?
    Does Castro’s treatment of his citizenry justify humanitarian intervention?
    Does Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s treatment of his citizenry justify humanitarian intervention?
    Does Obama’s treatment of his citizenry justify humanitarian intervention?

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    • Heh, heh. FDR was sooo sure he could trust Uncle Joe.

      And what do you ’bout regimes which outsource their secret prisons? There’s a new wrinkle for yez. Let’s be fair, here, Clinton started this business of Extraordinary Rendition and it’s been going on a good long while. Can we charge the government under the RICO Act and the client state as an accessory?

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    • I’m unclear on all of these questions. Are you (Jaybird and Mike) getting at specific historical points? Or the conglomeration of all the things going on at the time? Cause the latter might take a couple hours of experienced historians laying out all the important events. If either of you have specific things in mind that might lead to an answer more quickly, I’d love to cut to the chase.

      Otherwise my historical knowledge is to lacking to take part in this conversation.

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            • No. I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that those two things are roughly equivalent. Maybe we’d meet at some point in the middle, as you give examples that are more serious than the imprisonment of one person (I do not agree with his imprisonment) and potential drone strikes against citizens abroad, and I provide examples less evil than the genocide of humans for land development.

              But for now I think we are a ways off from the grey area. If however, you feel that both of those things are as serious as mass murder, by all means make that case and I might agree with you.

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              • I should add that, again, if my family were targeted by drones, or were imprisoned on counts that I thought superficial and out of order, I can’t say that I would be against other nations challenging the sovereignty of the Washington “regime” in that case.

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              • I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that those two things are roughly equivalent.

                So we’re haggling.

                Are there rates of taxation that you think would justify an invasion? Rates of incarceration? Laws against certain things? Laws mandating certain things?

                Is mass murder your price and beyond that it’s none of your business?

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                • You’re going to unusual lengths to read me uncharitably Jaybird.

                  I’ll ask you first if you believe moral duties exist, at all, anywhere, at anytime.

                  If you do, then I agree that it is a difficult and ambiguous problem. But it is one that we can solve, at least to some reasonable degree. We may not agree 100%, but I’m fairly confident that we could zero in one some situations where intervention is justified, and others where it is morally obligatory (morally does not have to mean “in our best interest”).

                  You brought up genocide. Do we think that requires intervention? Probably. Taxes? Well maybe if it gets to the point where it some how seems comparable to the horrifying consequences of genocide (i.e. taking taxing some amount of people toward some form of destitution).

                  You continuing questions seem to be aiming at the idea that, yes, these kinds of moral calculation are difficult, but simply taking a long time to figure out and not having 100% certainty or consensus does not mean they are not real.

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                  • Not unusual at all. Reading people uncharitably is something that comes naturally to me.

                    I’ll ask you first if you believe moral duties exist, at all, anywhere, at anytime.

                    There are 15 or 16 essays in this question.

                    I am pretty sure that I have at least one moral intuition that goes almost entirely counter to a moral intuition that you have. This alone gives me a great deal of pause.

                    The world is full of examples of devout, inspired people who were absolutely certain of their moral rectitude.

                    So when you ask about moral duties in theory, there are a lot of questions there with answers that go from “Russell’s Teapot?” to “And that’s why you need to watch Reverend X on youtube.”

                    And, what the hell, I’ll point you to that essay I wrote about Vector Morality:
                    https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2009/07/07/the-vector-a-post-theist-moral-framework/

                    We may not agree 100%, but I’m fairly confident that we could zero in one some situations where intervention is justified, and others where it is morally obligatory (morally does not have to mean “in our best interest”).

                    Would it be uncharitable to read this as justification coming from two dudes agreeing? Probably. How about if I reframed this as “I am a fairly intelligent person who has reached consensus with another fairly intelligent person from my same culture and we’ve come to agreement on moral issues pertaining to our responsibility to intervene when it comes to the following folks doing the following things.”

                    I mean, seriously, there are a lot of assumptions here.

                    How many things are you doing right now that not only *COULD* but *DO* qualify as something worth intervention according to a handful of cultures that have actually, for real, existed (and may even exist today)?

                    I am willing to bet that the answer is *NOT* “none”.

                    The answer is *NOT* none for me.

                    This also gives me pause.

                    You continuing questions seem to be aiming at the idea that, yes, these kinds of moral calculation are difficult, but simply taking a long time to figure out and not having 100% certainty or consensus does not mean they are not real.

                    I don’t know. I have intuitions… but I don’t know how much weight I ought to give them. Certainly not as I look back with how much certainty I had when it came to our invasion of Iraq.

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                    • Then don’t give your intuitions any weight, because they usually do nothing but help us to rationalize what we be more comfortable or the least discomforting course of action.

                      I’ll just say, that if “moral” is to mean anything important, it has to do with our obligations to others. If you can think of a meaningful concept outside of that, I’m all ears, but for the most part, it seems like that is the only conception not covered by other phrases and that gets at something shared by the large number of instances in which morality is invoked, which all seem to do with our social interaction with others.

                      I ask, do you agree, because I’d like to short circuit any talk of moral relativism or anti-realism from the start, but if you want to hold anyone of those positions, that’s fine, in which case people’s calls for acting morally shouldn’t just be unpersuasive to you, but completely uninteresting.

                      But for those of us concerned with morality, meant loosely as, how we are socially obliged to interact with others, we can move on from there. Yes some have different conceptions of what IS moral, but not what it means for that “is” to be moral. You might think killing babies is immoral, and I might think killing babies is just fine, but in order for us to even disagree we must know what the other means by saying that is immoral.

                      So you might say that so and so won the race, but I might say they did not, but that’s because we both know what it means to have won the race (even if we disagree as to what qualifies as winning).

                      So that said, I will agree and say our intuitions and public opinion have little role in deciding these questions (but that can be useful shortcuts for circumventing unnecessary disagreements).

                      So I only put out the assumptions for hope that we could go beyond them, but if you have serious reservations, then by all means let’s delve in.

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    • Jaybird, I’ll admit when thinking through this topic the warning “there’s nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man” definitely rings in my ears. There are so many (sometimes ad hominem) accusations that’d been leveled at those supporting a case for swifter action in Libya – supposedly I support American greatness and aggrandizement, have narcissistically shifted events in Libya to be about America, and am in favor of imprudent and injudicious action, and so forth. Part of my aim was to say there some important principles to wrestle with that aren’t about attacking the bona fides of those advocating intervention.

      The way I put it elsewhere was that action to stop mass murder must be more swift and more diligent than those seeking to perpetrate mass murder. In response to the specific instances you raise, some cases are more challenging than others, “I would highlight the point that there is a sliding scale of options, not simply a dyad of all-out military invasion and do-nothing approaches.” There is space in between the two poles depending on the scope and nature of the human rights abuses confronted.

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      • Part of my aim was to say there some important principles to wrestle with that aren’t about attacking the bona fides of those advocating intervention.

        Oh, absolutely.

        It’s like saying that, sure, the South was wrong but that didn’t give the North the right to invade! Why, look at Lincoln!

        If we had to wait for a white knight to save us, we’d be stuck until doomsday.

        The problem comes that pretty much any intervention will end up costing a huge amount and much, much more than is promised to those paying for the intervention… It seems crass to say that we should only intervene if the price for not doing so will, eventually, be higher than if we do. It also creates one hell of a perverse incentive.

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      • I would contend that this here actual world, the United States (and the ‘International Community’ however one wishes to define it is in fact using to the full extent all the *non-military* options at hand – and that results in the world we have. (I would also contend that the world we have is the least worst option of the proposed competing alternatives)

        Frex, we have sanctions http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx of one sort or another against Belarus, Burma, The Ivory Coast, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe, all because they’ve behaved like total asswipes to their people in the very recent past

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  5. I’m a lot more inclined to give credence to intervention requests when the locale is one we’ve screwed up in the past (particularly, selling weapons to countries that then use them on their populace). Although I’d rather we just not sell the fishing guns in the first place, really. Culpability should play a factor.

    Assuming you buy into the premise, of course.

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    • I’m a lot more inclined to give credence to intervention requests when the locale is one we’ve screwed up in the past (particularly, selling weapons to countries that then use them on their populace).

      Heh. That’s much of what gives me pause.

      I’ll reshuffle your words to give something much closer to my take:

      I’m a lot more inclined to give credence to intervention when the locale has requested it.

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      • That’s why I threw in the “assuming you buy into the premise, of course”. Add Blaise’s point above: you really want to help? Take the refugees in and give them a better place to be. If they want to go back and duke it out, more power to them. But don’t Bay of Pigs them, either. That seems the least morally ambiguous course.

        It’s tough to note when the “locale has requested it”. By definition, some people in the locale probably want us to butt the hell out (the ones doing whatever it is we think we need to stop, in the name of humanity). How do we know who is legitimate in their request for help?

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  6. Hey, E.C. Down here.

    I’ll just say, that if “moral” is to mean anything important, it has to do with our obligations to others. If you can think of a meaningful concept outside of that, I’m all ears, but for the most part, it seems like that is the only conception not covered by other phrases and that gets at something shared by the large number of instances in which morality is invoked, which all seem to do with our social interaction with others.

    Dude! I wrote an essay!

    Anyway, I don’t understand how “I’ll just say, that if “moral” is to mean anything important, it has to do with our obligations to others” is not an intuition.

    I ask, do you agree, because I’d like to short circuit any talk of moral relativism or anti-realism from the start, but if you want to hold anyone of those positions, that’s fine, in which case people’s calls for acting morally shouldn’t just be unpersuasive to you, but completely uninteresting.

    Assuming I am a moral relativist or anti-realist, what else ought I find completely uninteresting?

    So I only put out the assumptions for hope that we could go beyond them, but if you have serious reservations, then by all means let’s delve in.

    My reservations have to do with the intuition that the majority, if not entirety, of my moral intuitions are culturally seated. That essay I wrote was an attempt to divorce morality from historical trivia (the inclination to do so is probably one of the shackles that I’m not even noticing that I’m wearing).

    What will my morality look like in 100 years?
    I tell you what, 100 years ago, I think it’s safe to say that I’d be considered, at the very least, unfit to be seated on a jury. Why? Because the Judge, Prosecution, and Defense know that they have obligations to society.

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    • Mr. Jaybird, I avoid the term “morality” whenever I can. I don’t know what it means except its etymological relation to the French “mores” meaning “customs” more than “ethics.”

      All morality is conventional, then, and conventions have no relation to absolute truth. Tipping your hat goes back to a knight raising his visor, iirc; it has no intrinsic meaning, it’s a convention.

      Good luck on this. Since ethics aim only as high as justice, obligation to your fellow man seems beyond its purview.

      We used to call such things “right and wrong” or even an obligation to “Christian charity,” but these concepts are obsolete.

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      • I don’t know that all morality is based in convention either.

        It would make sense to me that it would be and that even the most successful organisms has some vestigial parts… but that’s deeply unsatisfying (and the downsides of being wrong include being wrong about the existence of morality).

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    • Jaybird, regarding shackles we don’t know we’re wearing & humanitarian intervention, do you think building an overlapping consensus is possible? Beyond Rawls’ notion of overlapping consensus, I have in mind the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, countries couldn’t agree on child labor generally, so they started at the worst practices and perhaps in future will work their way to encompass more terrible practices that have not been included so far. Similarly, the laws of war and international human rights regime comprise a body of texts that point us in the direction of the intervention worthy. Perhaps a good deal of the negotiating and diplomatic heavy lifting has already been done.

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    • Do I read you right in the one part as saying something like:

      The moral action is one that increases moral agency (and choice), and the moral government (i.e. aggregate action) is that which, “…step[s] in only when the decision making of another will be damaged”

      Now would you say that we have an obligation to increase moral agency? Or only an obligation not to allow it to be decreased? Or do neither of those formulations capture the sentiment of your essay?

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      • Oh, I don’t think I ever got to government stuff. The limitation to the essay is that it’s stuck on the individual and never even moved up to the aggregate except to complain about the solutions that get provided by aggregate action. (I’d probably say that since the moral wrongs done by groups are socialized that the losses tend to be greater than if there were an individual who was responsible. See, for example: Corporations.)

        Now would you say that we have an obligation to increase moral agency? Or only an obligation not to allow it to be decreased?

        I’d say an obligation to not decrease it.

        “But what if someone else is decreasing it! Don’t we have an obligation to stop them?”

        Hoo boy. I dunno.

        “What about children? They can’t be responsible for themselves yet.”

        Yeah. I know. I don’t know how to deal with that either.

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        • My quotes part was taken from your essay. You also touched on the prison system, which might address the question of what we do with others who would decrease moral agency.

          And helping the child to develop, that is, helping it to gain/increase it’s moral agency might address how we deal with kids.

          But I think the prison part, and the bit about criminals is a perfect analogy (well obviously not perfect, but helpful).

          The question I’ve been mulling around, and which I posed in a hypothetical if it ever makes it into the guest posts, is what we do with our police.

          I think it translates into the volunteer army question rather well. We have police, who hopefully chose their profession, and are expected to do certain things, even if it means endangering their life. Now we have a standing, presumably volunteer army (though I’m willing to debate that, given the socio-economic make up of it), expected to protect us. In the state, we expect the police to protect “us” and the “other” (I and everyone else in society who is not me). As a nation, we expect the army to protect “us” but NOT “the other.”

          There’s a lot to unpack there. But I think it approximates the bind of international intervention. And I think a lot of it comes down to power and costs. How much power do we have and what are the costs. If we had a guarantee that no one would die (completely false of course) in military intervention in Libya, would we still feel on the fence about it?

          The list in terms of charitable donation seems to go: You should definitely donate some money. It would be good if you donated your time. You’d be a hero if you endangered your own life to help someone else (say, by increasing their moral agency).

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          • My quotes part was taken from your essay.

            Yeah, but the aggregate action part wasn’t in the the quotes part.

            You also touched on the prison system, which might address the question of what we do with others who would decrease moral agency.

            Yeah, to say we ought to abolish it! To say that we needed to abandon this particular aggregate action because it was worse than doing nothing.

            The question I’ve been mulling around, and which I posed in a hypothetical if it ever makes it into the guest posts, is what we do with our police.

            Want my take? Here it is.

            If I do not feel that I would be justified to X, I don’t see how the police could be justified to X. So if I would not be justified to kick down your door and make you stop playing poker, I don’t see how the police can be justified to do that.

            This also works when I swap out “the government” for “the police”. “The army” works too.

            If we had a guarantee that no one would die (completely false of course) in military intervention in Libya, would we still feel on the fence about it?

            What if we knew that it would end up exactly like Iraq? We’d be there for a decade, people would hate us, and we’d lose soldiers to IEDs like clockwork. Would we still be on the fence about it?

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            • I’m not on the fence about it. I say no to it all. But if the sacrifice were minimal, what would be the reason for not doing it?

              Needless to say the sacrifice will likely be far from little, but the point I’m trying to make is that whether we are morally obligated to do it has something to do with what we would have to sacrifice to do it.

              So for instance, as far police go, I’m not talking about what they have a right to do, as appendages of the state, what I’m getting at is what are they obligated to do. If they see a robbery take place, are they obligated to stop it? If they see a group of men raping a woman, are they obligated to confront them? Maybe wait for backup? What if backup will not be there in time?

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    • “Assuming I am a moral relativist or anti-realist, what else ought I find completely uninteresting?”

      Do you disagree? If someone said what you are doing is unhealthy, and you said you don’t believe in health, why would you be interested in what health is or how one achieves it?

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      • Morality as analogous to health?

        That’s an essay.

        But when I think about “golf”, I am uninterested.

        I suppose a better comparison might be to pre-natal chakra activation. If I were someone who did not believe in chakras, it does not necessarily follow that I would be uninterested in prenatal chakra activation.

        That’s one of those things when one hears about it, one wants to learn more even if one is skeptical (even if one does not believe at all).

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    • urgh, I didn’t mean to press the submit key.

      As far as the cultural convention, that is an issue. But I think appeals to internal consistency and objective fact (empirical information) can help.

      But in order for those things to help, I think the definition of morality needs to be narrowed. If by morality, someone means, the one and only right action in every instance, I think we’re in for a hopeless task.

      As a communicative utterance, I think morality only works in the social context. Would it make sense to say that in a world of only one life being, problems of morality could arise? It seems to me that in that example, to ask what morality dictates would be to misuse the concept, like asking what color the number 6 is.

      Though I suppose someone could define morality in such a way that it is really dealing with all possible actions devoid of social outcome, as in, it is more moral to eat Captain Crunch than Cheerios (or in your example, to listen to person X rather than not listen to person X).

      But as soon as an action is divorced from social context the morality part seems to drop out. Maybe it is more moral to eat Captain Crunch if the company that makes Cheerios mistreats its workers and exploits local populations. But outside of such concerns it seems to me like conflating the “best” and “right.”

      I think we could probably blame this on Plato/Aristotle for talking of the “good life” as one thing, rather than speaking of the “moral life,” and the “good life.” I could be morally right (or at least C-) in all my interactions with people but still lead an uninteresting AND unhappy AND seemingly meaningless life. It might be a moral one, but I don’t know if any of us would think of it as the good life.

      This gets into other questions about how productive I’m morally obliged to be. But generally, I think simply trying to push morality out of the all inclusive realm, and into just social interaction might offer the best way to deal with the question of what is moral, and would be the most favorable toward bringing in principles of internal coherence and objective empiricism (as oppose to preference and custom).

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      • I don’t know… it seems obvious to me that there are matters of taste and matters of morality and the biggest problems come when one is mistaken for the other. Co-incidentally, it seems like the lion’s share of such mistakes are one way… that is, a matter of taste is mistaken for a matter of morality (though the other way has some doozies!).

        More than that, there are many notable attempts to rectify these matters of morality (we have a responsibility, after all) that have resulted in *HUGE* piles of bodies that are bigger than the ones created by the original problem in the first place. (See, for example, Iraq’s Liberation, the War on Drugs, Applied Communism, and so on.)

        When there are questions or blurry things going on, it seems to me like we’d be better off not barging in and making things better through application of force.

        It doesn’t always end up as nice and clean and neat as the Civil War did.

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  7. If I may raise a few points of order:

    —Egypt’s was nonviolent. Libya’s is not.

    —We know nothing about the Libyan rebels, yet we take their side. Qaddafi is a Bad Guy, but there are always worse guys.

    —I liked BlaiseP’s observation that we can tell the Bad Guys from the Good by which direction the refugees head. This tells us what the folks on the ground think, anyway, which is as much as we can hope to know.

    —On the other hand, preferring “the devil you know versus the devil you don’t” doesn’t work in real life if it’s a real devil that you know. You’ll take your chances on the other guy.

    —And let’s note that nobody wants the Palestinians, Good or Bad guys, depending on your POV. Not Israel, not the surrounding Arab countries. The Palestinians are The Worst Guys. They suck.

    —As InstaP put it, this choice for intervention has neo-cons smiling. And I notice the smug “I toldja so” Iraq stuff, but despite this arrogation of history, the ink on Iraq is not yet dry, O Gentlepersons of the League…

    Iraq may still show the way, as was the admittedly cloudy intention at the first. [Surely there is no question which way the refugees went, who the Bad Guy was, eh?]

    Now then, it occurs to me that in Egypt, the two familiar dynamics are authoritarianism and Islam. In Iran’s case, they chose both!

    I think of the French Revolution and Yeltsin’s Russia, which were followed by Napoleon and Putin, since freedom is useless without order.

    It could turn out the the US forces in Iraq have transitioned Iraq from authoritarianism to liberty without the backslide. I repeat: The ink is not yet dry. Democratizing the Muslim World is in its infancy, and I cannot look to Indonesia or Malaysia or Pakistan or even Turkey lately with much confidence.

    As for Libya, I have no idea who the Worst Guys are. Qaddafi is nuts, but the Taliban types are nutser. When Reagan shoved some missiles up his ass, he quieted down. After Saddam’s head wound up separated from his body at the end of a rope, Qaddafi surrendered his Weapons of Mass Mischief.

    That’s a fellow you can do business with.

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    • —Egypt’s was nonviolent. Libya’s is not.

      False on the first count, misleading on the second. Egypt’s turned violent, though not “tanks and artillery violent,” pretty quickly. Libya’s turned violent when the pro-Qaddafi troops began firing on protesters with anti-aircraft guns, artillery, tanks, planes, and helicopters.

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      • Whatever, Chris. The resistance in Egypt was non-violent. I say white, you say black. To cite Ambassador Sarek, some argue for reasons; others simply argue. You have no point here and missed mine. Egypt never slipped into civil war; Libya has.

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    • Ahem.

      I’d like to thank the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and their work on the Responsibility to Protect, without which this essay would not be possible. I’d also like to thank Samantha Power whose work on past inadequate American responses to genocide also inspired this essay, most notably her Pulitzer Prize winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Anne-Marie Slaughter also deserves mention, not only for her recent NYT’s op-ed piece on the subject, Fiddling While Libya Burns, but also because of her work with G. John Ikenberry on Forging a World of Liberty Under Law, U.S. National Security In The 21st Century.

      The “spheres of authority” section would not have been possible without the outstanding work of political science theoretician James N. Rosenau, I had the great good fortune to take two classes with him, but more important are two books that disrupt the typical positivist political science understandings, Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity and Distant Proximities: Dynamics Beyond Globalization.

      Not figuring directly here, but also influences, Mary Ann Glendon (A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and Thomas Pogge. Their work on the origins and meanings of the international human rights regime contribute to the conclusions about working to design an international order that more closely reflects the statements of lofty documents in lofty halls. Or as Kofi Annan (speaking on UN reform) said to the General Assembly in 2005,

      This hall has heard enough high-sounding declarations to last us for some decades to come. We all know what the problems are and we all know what we have promised to achieve. What is needed now is not more declarations or promises, but action – action to fulfil the promises already made.

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