France Goes to War
by Benjamin Studebaker
French President François Hollande has decided that France is going into Mali. The nation of Mali has, in the last year, descended into civil war. The war in Mali has received relatively little mainstream media coverage and many westerners are, to our collective shame, unaware of what has been going on there and the role their own governments have played in creating the war. Today I would like to examine the Malian Civil War, its causes, the present state of affairs, and the ethics of intervening in it.
The Malian Civil War is an off-shoot of the Libyan Civil War and the west’s intervention in it. When the western nations entered the Libyan conflict, they flooded the rebels with weapons and military support. When the war in Libya was concluded, the new government was insufficiently strong to control the spread of these weapons, and the west, for its part, considered its work done and left. The result was the arming of the Tuareg rebels in northern Mali, a separatist faction that has sought independence from Mali since the sixties. The Tuareg rebels believe that a region of Mali roughly the size of Texas to be an independent country, which they call “Azawad”. The Tuaregs want independence because they feel their region is unduly impoverished (it is) and because they resist the Malian governments efforts to modernise and develop the region. If this sounds counter-productive, it is because it is. The Tuareg rebels will not embrace the progressive change necessary to enrich their region, but they nonetheless demand prosperity. Mali, which possesses a per capita GDP of less than $700, does not have the funds to redistribute wealth to Azawad. It must instead develop the region, and it cannot do this if the region resists efforts to develop it.
The rebels were led by two factions. The first group is the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). The second faction is a coalition of Islamist organisations, including Ansar Dine, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram (also known as “Western Education is Sacrilege”), and Ansar al-Sharia. What we have here is a combination of nationalists and reactionaries, more or less.
The Malian government mishandled this war and lost the Azawad region to the rebels. The Malian military, frustrated by what they considered to be incompetence on the part of the civilian government, overthrew the elected Malian government in a coup d’etat in response.
After seizing Azawad, the Islamist rebels began imposing a very medieval version of Sharia on the populace. This resulted in a break between the Islamists and the MNLA, and so the conflict is now three-fold, with a military junta against nationalists against religious extremists.
At present, the region of Azawad is under the control of a mixture of the nationalists and the Islamists. Here is the current state of affairs, as best known to us at present:
It should be noted that the Islamists have been destroying historic sites from the Mali imperial period. It is believed by some of the rebel groups (in particular, Ansar al-Sharia) that this destruction is ordained by Allah. They are also reportedly using child soldiers and engaging in rape, vandalism, and other behaviours that have been labelled war crimes.
In most cases my tendency has been to be opposed to western interventions in foreign conflicts. I was against intervention in Iraq and Libya, I remain opposed to intervention in Syria. However, this particular case is different for several reasons:
- This conflict did not occur organically; the arms being used by the rebels are only in the region because of previous western action in Libya. To intervene in Mali to stop their use minimises the ill effects of a previous western intervention. The west messed up the region badly during the Libyan intervention, and sometimes the only way to correct a deviation from good policy (i.e. general non-intervention) is with a further deviation.
- The rebels are not a progressive force. They are nationalist separatists seeking to break up a country and undermine its progress. They are Islamist extremists seeking to arrest Mali’s advancement and roll it back to a medieval state of affairs. Gaddafi and Assad are brutal individuals, but their nations did experience economic development and progress under their respective reigns, and they were secular. It remains conceivable that the governments that replaced Gaddafi and and may yet replace Assad could be worse than the regimes they removed. It is wholly impossible for the Malian rebels to outperform the present Malian state. These rebels are destroying Mali’s tourism industry, its economic infrastructure, and its rule of law. They are making a very poor country even poorer. I have no use for separatists, nationalists, religious extremists, and other reactionaries, and neither do the world’s poor, or, in this specific case, Mali’s poor.
- The African Union, which represents a pan-African interest, supports the French intervention. If the AU are happy enough with the Malian junta, it stands to reason that they are the legitimate government in Mali and have not earned overthrowing.
- The French have an economic interest in the outcome that they have the right to defend–France is Mali’s second leading importer, responsible for around 14% of Mali’s imports. It represents a major market for French goods. It is always morally permissible for states to defend their true interests, provided those interests are perceived correctly, as states are responsible first and foremost to their citizens. The French benefit from trade with Mali, and it is the French government’s prerogative to ensure those benefits continue in so far as doing so does not risk any larger French interests in the long-term. I see no such risks here.
The French motivation for entering into the conflict is western guilt–France is Mali’s former imperial master and feels responsible for Mali’s present poverty. While the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries have expressed support for the French endeavour, only France will directly use its military. Given France’s economic interest in Mali is not shared by these other countries, it is understandable that they would choose to refrain from participation.
One could praise France’s moral courage in choosing to intervene alone, but it simply is in the French interest to intervene in a way that it is not for other western nations. France is not more moral or in any way better than these nations; it merely is making a good decision for France based on France’s national interest. It so happens that this coincides with the interest of Mali and the Malian people, and so much the better for all that. All the same, I commend François Hollande and the French state for doing the right thing both for France and for Africa by acting to stop this uncivilised, reactionary movement from destroying Mali.
I find myself somewhat surprised–this is the second day in a row that I have seen fit to actually commend a country for taking an action I support. Generally, I find myself bemoaning the bad decisions of our states, but today I am proud to be human and glad to see good action taken. Vive la France.
France and the Malian government have since been victorious in the Mali conflict. The map shows the state of affairs in January, when this post was written.
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While I agree with your general opinion on this conflict, I have my doubts about at least one of your reasons for arriving at it:
“4. The French have an economic interest in the outcome that they have the right to defend–France is Mali’s second leading importer, responsible for around 14% of Mali’s imports. It represents a major market for French goods. It is always morally permissible for states to defend their true interests, provided those interests are perceived correctly, as states are responsible first and foremost to their citizens. The French benefit from trade with Mali, and it is the French government’s prerogative to ensure those benefits continue in so far as doing so does not risk any larger French interests in the long-term. I see no such risks here.”
Under which ethical principle is it “morally permissible” for state A to militarily intervene in state B to prevent changes which might result in state A losing part of its export market in state B? Note that were France to lose its entire export market in Mali, France would not go bankrupt and the French would not starve – they’d only be slightly less rich – so we’re not talking about ligitimate self-defence here. What you’re describing is the de facto post-colonial reality (or perhaps more generally the anarchy of international relations in the absence of a world government), but I see no reason to describe it as “morally permissible”. States may be “responsible first and foremost to their citizens”, but the principle that states are justified in going to war simply for their own economic benefit is hardly a recipe for world peace!
I agree that this is probably my most controversial claim here. It comes from a larger set of moral principles I’ve gotten into in other places but did not elaborate on here. In brief:
I have a core belief that individuals and states are not required to show moral concern to parties that refuse to reciprocate that concern. More specifically, I think the zone of moral concern is limited by two principles:
1. The Reciprocity Principle: No person or state ought to be morally required to show moral concern to any other person or state unless that person or state is willing to reciprocate the benefits of that concern either directly (e.g. the relationship between two friends) or indirectly (the relationship between two fellow citizens who do not know each other personally).
2. The Exploitation Principle: Exploitation occurs when one person or state is forced to self-harm for the sake of another without any prospect of reciprocity. It is always wrong for a person or state to be asked to participate in its own exploitation. Under special circumstances, it is sometimes necessary for the state to exploit individuals for the common good (e.g. drafting them in the army to repel an invasion), but the individual is never under a duty to cooperate freely. Instead, he is entitled either to be incentivized or to be coerced, whichever is more effective.
Within a society, the state is the guarantor of reciprocity–we should always show moral concern for our fellow citizens because they are part of a political and economic system of cooperation enforced by the state. In the international arena, there is no world state and we have international anarchy, which means that conditions of reciprocity are much more tenuous. Many states do reciprocate with us (they participate in alliances and treaties and they trade with us), but if a state or organization within a state violates those agreements and refuses to reciprocate the benefits of cooperation, a state is entitled to intervene if that intervention can restore reciprocity at a cost less than the cost of the reciprocity lost.
So in this case, I argue that by destabilizing Mali, the rebels were disrupting trade agreements between France and Mali and in this way violating terms of reciprocity between themselves and the French people. This entitles the French people to restore reciprocity by force if they can do so for less than the cost of the reciprocity lost. It should be emphasized that the minute the rebels indicate they are willing to reciprocate with France, France is required to resume showing them concern, in which case France is entitled to intervene only due to any other duties it has to the extant Malian government.
Yes, this is (or should be) a controversial claim. I’m surprised you’ve been allowed to get away with it for so long (I fear some of your readers aren’t paying attention 🙂 ).
There’s nothing wrong with the Reciprocity Principle, which must be one of the most widely held principles governing the relationships both between individuals and between states, and (as I understand it) could be described as one aspect of ‘fairness’. But to be ‘fair’ there has to be a balance between the positive or negative actions on either side of the reciprocal exchange. If country A refuses to import goods from country B, then there’s absolutely no reason why country B should be obliged to import goods from country A. Similarly, if country A respects the borders of country B, then country B should return the favour. Self defence is one aspect of this: the use of force justifies a reciprocal use of force. On the other hand a minor border incursion would not justify a nuclear attack, and, I would contend, neither would a refusal to trade justify military action. Suppose I had an orange orchard and my next-door neighbour had a marmelade factory. For many years I’ve sold this guy most of my oranges, and we’re both happy with the deal. If he were to suddenly stop buying my oranges I might be in serious financial difficulty, but would I be justified in using physical force to compel him to buy my oranges?
To be fair, that isn’t analagous to the situation between France and Mali. The French were invited in by the government (de facto if not official) to put down an uprising, which is a very different situation to a standard aggressive invasion. But suppose the situation had been different. Suppose the government of Mali had just decided, for whatever reason, to break off all economic dealings with France. Would that justify a French invasion to replace said government with a more cooperative one? It sounds to me as if you’re saying it would, as long as the cost (to France) of the intervention was lower than the cost of the lost trade.
That is how international relations have always tended to work in practice, and countless wars throughout history have been started because one side felt economically disadvantaged by something the other side was or was not doing. It’s just survival of the fittest in the arena of international anarchy. These days such a course of action is much less respectable, so a country invading another, for instance to assure itself of a supply of cheap oil, will go out of its way to find a better-sounding excuse: generally self-defence or the defence of some supposedly threatened third party or internal group, although ideological justifications have also always been popular.
So, if you’re just being descriptive and saying how these things work in practice, then yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head, these are indeed the sort of moral principles which govern international relations. And if you’re happy with the results then there’s no reason not to be happy with the underlying moral principles. I would contend, however, that the present state of the world, with the threat of war (and therefore often actual war) as an ever-present feature of international relations leaves a lot to be desired, and that other moral principles are therefore called for.
I’ve never really been persuaded by the proportionality argument–as far as I’m concerned, beings and states either reciprocate (return services rendered in some form or fashion) or they do not. If I’m country A and country B refuses to work cooperatively with me to achieve common purposes, I think I am morally entitled to take any actions necessary to bring about reciprocity provided those actions do not cost me more than what was lost.
Consider for instance global issues that affect everyone where if one country defects, that country brings harm on everyone. Say global warming–if we were to have an international treaty to put a stop to global warming and one major power defects, and that one major power can emit enough to undo the work done by all the other powers, I think the appropriate response is not proportionality (i.e. also refraining from abiding by the terms of the treaty) but disproportionality (i.e. sanctions and war). The issue is not the specific way in which the offending state has not shown respect for the interests of other states, but the fact of this in itself. The scale of the offense only matters insofar as individuals and states should not act against their own interests–they should not take actions that inflict further pain against themselves.
So in this way my reciprocity principle is a bit different from other versions–it explicitly rejects the principle of proportionality, arguing that an actor either fulfills the duty of showing respect for interests or fails to do so. The extent to which the actor fails is not relevant.
The orange issue is a little different, because you and the customer are part of the same society under a government, which means that you are obliged to show a minimal level of deference to the customer as a fellow citizen. Whether or not the customer buys your oranges, the customer does not commit crimes against you, and so you may not commit crimes against the customer. Because you are part of the same society, there is a minimal level of respect each of you must accord to the other irrespective of any other differences. But perhaps you were friends with the customer, or married to the customer, or had some further relationship of reciprocity that was predicated on the idea that the customer was the sort of person who bought your oranges (I’m not sure why this would be that important to you, but nevertheless). You would then be justified in dissolving that relationship, provided that by dissolving it you did not do further harm to yourself over and beyond the harm that you seek to avoid.
In international politics, we have no independent legal system with coercive power above the states, so when a state stops reciprocating with you, the reciprocity ends entirely–there is no world state to ensure permanent conditions of minimal reciprocity. You are in a Hobbesian state of nature and if a state is not your friend and is not contributing to your prosperity and security by choice it is effectively undermining those things and is at risk to join in an alliance against you. It may not be doing a vast amount of damage to you, but without a world state, the stakes are very high. The only reason for a state to tolerate anything less than reciprocity in international relations is inability to obtain reciprocity at a reasonable cost. Most of the time, states have no cost-effective tools available for this and must accept the status quo and the level of danger it poses. When they do, they are entitled to use those tools to make themselves more secure. A state only has duties to its citizens and to those foreign states that reciprocate with it insofar as it is willing and capable of pushing the issue in a cost-effective way. Now, if the Malian government was intent on resisting the French intervention, intervention likely would not have been cost-effective on this basis, but because there was a large, powerful faction in Mali that favored intervention, the costs for France were low enough that it could be justified in intervening even on explicitly economic grounds.
Now, I agree with you that this leaves a lot to be desired. From a universalist, objective point of view, it would be much better if countries never fought wars with each other. But it is not reasonable to expect states to refrain from doing this in the absence of a world state which guarantees a minimal level of respect. To go back to the orange example again, if the customer and I are in the state of nature, it would be foolish of me not to suspect that the customer’s decision to stop purchasing from me was not a presage to further hostility beyond what the law would allow (as the state of nature is lawless). It would be wreckless of me to tolerate any weakening of my position relative to other people living in that state of nature beyond what I do not have the means to cost-effectively address. The only way to change that situation and make it possible for the customer and I to live in peace is if we have a state to appeal to, which guarantees that the customer will not violate me and that others will not take advantage of my weakness to violate me. It is for all these reasons that international relations works as I describe–the system does not allow for objectively better behavior to be reasonable, and behavior that is unreasonable cannot be morally required. So I will agree with you and say that war is bad from a universal point of view, but to create a duty not to wage war that is reasonable, we need a world state.
I think the main difference between us is that you’re making more descriptive claims while I’m making more normative ones, but I’ll come back to that later.
First the business of reciprocity and proportionality, which I think are very much connected. I find it unrealistic, even on a descriptive level, to regard reciprocity as a black/white, yes/no, on/off property and to deny the importance of proportionality. Different degrees of ‘offence’ can have very different degrees of consequences, and justify proportionally different degrees of response. I think most people would agree with my statement that a minor border incursion would not justify a nuclear attack – and not just because such an exaggerated response would be likely to hurt the aggressor more than it’s worth, in terms of loss of international reputation, the likelihood of prompting other states to form protective alliances against it, etc., but purely because such a response wouldn’t be regarded as ‘fair’.
I would go further, and say that there are different discrete levels of ‘offence’, ranging from an ‘insult’ which might hurt people’s feelings but which can be simply ignored without any real consequences, via the sort of actions which cause actual inconvenience (e.g. economic sanctions which lower a country’s standard of living) to those which cause serious damage or injury, or even threaten the very survival of the recipient. Generally speaking, retaliation for an ‘offence’ should remain within the same level, and moving up to a more serious one is regarded as unjustified escalation of the conflict. An example of this would be the idea that a perceived insult can never justify physical violence. In real life things aren’t always so simple, for at least two reasons. Firstly the exact border between two levels is arbitrary and subjective: what one person or state regards as a mild inconvenience can be seen by another as serious injury. Secondly, there’s no real division between international relations and domestic politics, and an incident which is only mildly insulting at international level may well be a matter of political survival for an individual or group within the insulted state (and when we take coups d’état, assassinations and capital punishment into consideration, political non-survival may very well entail physical non-survival), and therefore be treated as something much more serious than was actually intended. For this sort of reason, conflicts often do escalate. It’s also true that a state which wants to start a war with another and is just looking for an excuse to escalate the conflict will usually have no trouble finding one. So, this isn’t an exact science, but I still find the idea of different discrete levels of ‘offence’ a useful one.
But whether we talk about discrete levels of ‘offence’, or a continuous sliding scale between mild insult and attempted murder, I don’t think we can deny that in practice international (and interpersonal) relations tend to be based on proportionality. A perceived insult might justify the recalling of an ambassador or the cancellation of a cultural exchange programme, whereas a bombing raid might justify an invasion. Nor do I see any reason why things ought to be otherwise. And regarding reciprocity, international (and interpersonal) relations are a complex and dynamic matter of give, take and compromise, which can be improving in one area and simultaneously worsening in another, so I don’t see how you can say that “an actor either fulfils the duty of showing respect for interests or fails to do so”. But that’s just my opinion, and I’m very interested to hear yours. First of all, am I being fair when I say that you regard reciprocity as a black/white, yes/no, on/off property, and deny the importance of proportionality? And if so, what advantages do you see in this viewpoint, in comparison to mine?
Your example about global warming concerns a very special situation, where the survival of all depends on the cooperation of all, and when one party refuses to cooperate the whole group is threatened. This would be equivalent to the famous dilemma about a group of people hiding in a room from others who want to kill them. They have to be quiet, and if one makes a noise they’ll all be discovered and killed. Would they be justified in killing that one non-cooperative individual? In the usual version that individual is a baby who starts crying, but to adapt the example to the question of global warming let’s assume it’s an adult who just finds it personally inconvenient to keep quiet and isn’t really convinced that they’re in that much danger anyway. There’s no need to take that analogy any further here, but I just wanted to show that it’s a very different situation from, say, a powerful country which wants some raw material at a low price from a weaker neighbour, and is prepared to provoke a war and invade that country to replace a non-cooperative government with one which will play ball. In your example of global warming, aggression might well be justified, but in mine I would say that it usually isn’t.
You regard the situation between me and my hypothetical orange-non-buying neighbour as substantially different to that between states, because I and my neighbour “are part of the same society” whereas states are in a Hobbesian state of nature. I agree that the situations are technically and practically different, because within a given society there is a government with a monopoly on violence and (hopefully) clearly defined laws which that government will apply fairly to all. In a state of nature (i.e. international anarchy, survival of the fittest, and disregarding modern developments such as the UN), the laws are either non-existent or not clearly defined and each state acts as its own judge, jury, policeman and executioner. According to Hobbes it was to remedy this situation among individuals that society and government came into being.
So, being “part of the same society” certainly simplifies matters, but on a moral level I don’t think it makes that much difference. You say that because I and the customer are part of the same society under a government, I am “obliged to show a minimal level of deference to the customer as a fellow citizen.” If you use the word “obliged” in the sense of “if I don’t do so, then I will be punished”, then I agree, but I don’t feel morally obliged to show other people a minimal level of deference just because the government says I should, but rather because I find it a good idea, i.e. I believe it has good consequences. If I disagree with a law then I don’t feel morally obliged to obey it, although I may well do so if necessary in order to avoid punishment. Even if there were no government and no law, it would still be a good idea to show other people a minimal level of deference, simply because a society in which people do that is a lot more pleasant to live in than one in which they don’t. Similarly, I would say that states should treat each other with a minimal level of deference, simply because it’s a good idea, i.e. because of the consequences.
I’m very much in favour of a world government (given a sufficient level of subsidiarity), as it would simplify the achievement and maintenance of a situation in which states actually do treat each other with a minimal level of deference, but only for the reason I’ve just stated, i.e. because it’s a good idea and has good consequences. In other words the moral ‘obligation’, if you want to use that word (I would rather say the fact that a certain course of action is a good idea) comes first, the (world) government and its laws are simply a means to that end.
So, I’m certainly talking about how things should be, whereas (I get the impression) you’re talking more about how they are. I think we would probably like to see the same end result, more or less, but I’m not at all sure that saying that moderate economic advantage can justify aggression (e.g. in this hypothetical situation in which France invades Mali to preserve its export market) is the best way to go about getting us get there.
Okay, a while back I wrote a couple posts about what I’m going to get at here:
To discuss the idea in brief–and this is a normative argument, not a descriptive one–I straight up do not believe that beings can have moral duties to other beings unless there is a state present, and that where there is no state present, the only imperative is to advance one’s own interests and create a state. I think this is objectively the case. It can simultaneously be right for one state to invade another and for the other state to defend itself in objective terms.
The question I keep getting back to as I read your response is “why should the state care?” Why should the state care about fairness, proportionality, and so on? If the state cares, it will end up not taking advantages for itself and for its people that are available to it, to the benefit of other states which it cannot guarantee are not future aggressors. For a state to do anything other than act egoistically is for the state to violate the principle of exploitation against its own population, it is for the state to treat the interests of foreign citizens as indistinguishable from the interests of the citizens it exists to protect. If there are no special benefits to citizenship, why should citizens agree to contribute to states? Only when there is a world state does it become possible for the state to look beyond egoism without exposing its citizens to exploitation and harm. It all comes back to the question of why anyone should be expected to voluntarily agree to commit self-harm. Sometimes we need to exploit some people for the good of others, but we can’t reasonably expect them to participate in this exploitation voluntarily–we need a coercive apparatus. Without that apparatus, we’re being unreasonable, they simply have no reason to do what we’re asking them to do.
If your claim is that they do have a reason–that it really is better for them personally to act this way–then we’re not really talking about the same category of cases.
So to take all this back to the Mali case, from the Malian point of view the intervention is justified because of #1, #2, and #3, but what makes the intervention especially compelling for France is #4. It is simultaneously true that #4 legitimates intervention for France but does not legitimate intervention for Mali because in the absence of a world state, there literally is no way to take the interests of both into account at once in a way that is reasonable.
Yet again, I don’t see a ‘reply’ button, so here’s a new comment…
I read those two interesting posts (including the long discussions below them) and found them both very relevant to this question. I said somewhere near the top of this thread that I thought some of your readers weren’t paying attention, but I think I got that wrong. They probably just knew you and the contents of this blog a lot better than I did, and realised that the whole question had already been discussed at length. I must say, you not only have an excellent writing style and a good philosophical insight, you’ve also got a hell of a lot more patience than most people! 🙂
There’s a lot of good stuff in there, e.g. the real reasons why people act morally, “human dignity”, “true morality”, why Plato is wrong, and (my favourite) whether cats think about morality. I wish I had time to comment on all that in detail (I tend to agree with you on most points, which is hardly surprising as “Reflective Thinking” seems to be a non-utilitarian who is more inspired by Catholicism), but unfortunately I don’t, so I’ll just stick to the point.
First of all, your example which goes with the question “Am I an Egoist?”. You live in a terrible state, and when an invader wants to come in and replace your terrible government with a better one, you find yourself forced to defend this terrible state from invasion. Are you ‘obliged’ to refuse to defend your state? I agree with your conclusion that you aren’t, but not entirely with your reason for coming to it.
If I were to use the word ‘obliged’ in this case I would mean that you are morally obliged, i.e. that you should refuse to defend that state, which would be nothing more than a slightly exaggerated way of saying that in my opinion it would be a good idea to refuse, in other words that the best course of action (that with the best consequences) would be to refuse. On the other hand everyone has a built-in instinct of self-preservation, and being a utilitarian doesn’t mean that one has to somehow get rid of this instinct or pretend it doesn’t exist. Your being in the army would add to your terrible state’s chances of survival, but not by that much (one soldier more or less doesn’t make that much difference), but on the other hand if you refused to serve it would have very serious consequences for you, so I would say you could claim mitigating circumstances. This is an agreed principle at war crimes tribunals, where it’s an allowable defence for a soldier, even one who was involved in some atrocity, that he was ‘only obeying orders’ and would have been shot for desertion or insubordination if he hadn’t.
However, the reason you give, that “one is never morally required to commit self-harm”, is far too simple. Suppose, for instance, that you were already in the army when war broke out, and you were given the choice of not fighting but it would cost you a 20% pay cut (not very likely in the circumstances, but just for the sake of argument). I would say that you would then be ‘morally obliged’ to refuse to fight, even though you were self-harming. Or more generally, suppose that by mildly inconveniencing yourself, i.e. doing something which disadvantages you, makes your life worse – but not by much – you could save someone else’s life. In that case most people would say you are ‘morally obliged’ to do it, and I would agree. Where the one situation flips over into the other, and at which point one becomes ‘morally obliged’ to commit self-harm for the good of others, is arbitrary and subjective. I think it comes down to a question of balance and proportionality: you have to weigh up the consequences of a course of action, for you and for the rest of society, and dying, for an individual, counts as a very serious consequence and therefore weighs heavy in the balance. As a utilitarian you don’t only have to take the rest of society’s interest into account, but also your own, and doing so doesn’t make you an egoist. What would make you an egoist would be to find your own interest far more important than that of others, e.g. by refusing to inconvenience yourself to save someone’s life. So no, your principle doesn’t stand up in all circumstances, mainly, I think, because you’re trying to apply a hard and fast ‘all or nothing’ rule where a sliding scale is more appropriate.
As to your general principle that there’s no reason why actors (states or individuals) at any particular level should act in any way but egotistically unless compelled to do so by the state, i.e. from a higher level, it reminds me very much of the attitude you come across in lots of religiously inclined people (Dostoyevsky was famous for it), that if there was no God and no afterlife then there would be no reason not to kill and steal. I am not religiously inclined, and I don’t believe in a God or an afterlife, but I still think there are very good reasons not to kill and steal. Those reasons are based on the fact that the consequences of killing and stealing would be detrimental to what I want to achieve, to the creation of the sort of world I would want to live in, and if those reasons are valid in this world, then they are valid with or without a God and an afterlife. Similarly, they are valid with or without a state to compel people not to kill and steal. It’s true that in practice the presence of a state can be very useful (perhaps even essential) when it comes to preventing people from killing and stealing, but it isn’t the reason why killing and stealing is not a good idea.
You obviously see things differently, I think for two reasons, one of which is more a matter of principle and the other more a matter of practicalities. Firstly you seem to be seeing the state as the result of a ‘social contract’, and the obligation of actors not to harm or exploit each other as being due to the fact that they’ve all agreed not to do so. Where there’s no state then ‘no contract has been signed’, so there’s no obligation. I’ve never found the idea of a ‘social contract’ very convincing. Or maybe I should just say I don’t find it very useful, as it’s usually only presented as a useful fiction. I prefer my own simpler explanation: stronger individuals surround themselves with weaker specimens whom they dominate, thereby forming groups. Larger and more cohesive groups have an advantage over smaller and looser groups, so that natural selection will favour the formation of families, clans, tribes, and eventually countries and empires. Yes, I have quite a mechanistic view of the development of human society: the ‘state of nature’ is one of competition, survival of the fittest, and ‘society’ grows quite naturally out of that. Within any given society there is organisation and cooperation, but much of it is still based on power relationships and the basic driving force is still competition and survival of the fittest. We can see this in the fact that power and wealth tend to accumulate and concentrate. Those individuals and sub-groups who are stronger tend to dominate the rest and become ever more powerful (as demonstrated by the iron law of oligarchy).
To the extent that human beings are able to extricate themselves from this naturally occurring situation, it is because those individuals or states who have the ability to dominate and become more powerful choose not to do so, i.e. they do something which is against their own immediate personal interest because they can see that doing so is better for the group as a whole (the whole of humanity, if we’re talking about states), which, because they are part of that group, is in their own longer-term interest. Note that states are part of the group ‘the whole of humanity’ whether they like it or not, and whether there is or isn’t a world government. The key to all this is that to make good decisions, and to take those courses of action which will lead to the best results, it’s a good idea to view the situation from the highest possible level, from the broadest perspective possible, both spatially and temporarily. Aiming at what’s best for the whole of humanity rather than for any one state, for instance, is likely to produce the best long-term consequences, and is therefore the most useful course of action, and therefore what every state should be trying to do. I hope I’m stating the obvious.
The other reason, which I said has more to do with practicalities, is that actors can be caught in the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’: the most rational course of action for any one individual actor is not the most rational course of action for the group as a whole. ‘Enlightened self-interest’ might recommend a course of action which involves ‘self-harm’, while simple egoism never will. This certainly makes it more difficult to follow the best course of action and it can explain why people and states often don’t, but it says nothing about what they should be doing, which is what we’re talking about here. To put it very simply, from a utilitarian/consequentialist standpoint the best or most moral course of action is that which is a good idea, and the best way to decide what that is, in any given situation, is to take the widest and most long-term view possible. Where short-term interests and those of smaller groups conflict with long-term interests and those of larger groups, the wisest (and therefore most moral) course of action is to give preference to the latter. The result of a utilitarian/consequentialist philosophy is therefore that individuals or states are sometimes required to do things which are contrary to their best interests – sometimes even to their best long-term interests. I don’t see any way around that.
In your final example, where everyone except for you is about to die, and you have the opportunity to push a button that will kill you but save everyone else, I would say that you are morally obliged to push the button and you should feel guilty if you don’t. Of course, in practice you may well not push the button, even if you feel you really should, so it would be useful to have a state to compel you to do so (and if some other individual does this, I would say that that would be morally justified).
You will probably object that this view makes utilitarianism too difficult, so that it can never work in practice, but who said the best course of action would be easy? I don’t think your alternative of relying on coercion from a higher level could ever work in practice, as a state (even an extreme police state) is never all-powerful, and you just end up with a constant tension between state/community desires and individual desires, with each individual egoistically trying to get the most for himself while the state tries to force him to ‘be good’ – which strikes me as a pretty good description of the current situation in our society. We then find that some individuals are better than others at making the most of the situation, at pushing their own egoistical interests at the expense of those of others/the community. In practical terms, the state makes laws to compel individuals to do what’s in everyone’s best interest, but those who are clever find loopholes in the law, and those who are rich and powerful hire a good lawyer or pay off a judge. So we’re back where we started: a situation of competition, survival of the fittest, where power and wealth tend to accumulate and concentrate. Which, as far a I’m concerned, is not what we were trying to achieve.
I think all that should answer your question “why should the state care?” about fairness, proportionality, and so on, and explain why I don’t think that reason #4 would of itself justify a French intervention in Mali.
In ‘Can We Be Moral Without the State?’ you say:
“The United States doesn’t decide whether or not to intervene in country X based on how an intervention affects country X; it decides on the basis of how intervening affects itself. If the United States were to act in the human interest, it would start giving away its wealth to poor parts of the world or intervening in foreign affairs purely for altruistic reasons. With the exception of a small minority on the far left, most of us agree that the US is not morally bound to do that.”
I would say that literally “giving away its wealth to poor parts of the world” might not be in the best long-term global interest, and also that there is a big difference between pure altruism and ‘enlightened self-interest’, but for the rest I would say yes, the United States should decide whether or not to intervene in country X based on how an intervention affects country X, at least as much as on the basis of how intervening affects itself. If that makes me part of “a small minority on the far left” then so be it (there are worse things to be part of 🙂 ).
BTW, unless I’ve missed it you still haven’t answered my question: am I being fair when I say that you regard reciprocity as a black/white, yes/no, on/off property, and deny the importance of proportionality? And if so, what advantages do you see in this viewpoint, in comparison to mine?
I have your intuition that it is awful for a person to refuse to save another person’s life at little inconvenience to themselves, but I think I have this intuition because it seems clear to me that saving another person’s life should be gratifying to a morally normal person in such a way that the benefits to the individual would outweigh the costs, and that failure to do so is indicative of a distinct lack of empathy. This causes me to feel disgust for the hypothetical actor, but this is only because it is difficult to imagine such a person and because human beings are naturally predisposed to blame others for their character traits. I still would not deny that if a person genuinely felt this total disinterest in others, that person could not reasonably be expected to engage in voluntary self-harm. I would however suggest that it’s clear that this person needs to be coerced by an external third party.
I would contest the claim that refraining from killing or stealing can be said to meaningfully contribute to the kind of world we want to live in without the state. When a state exists, refraining from killing or stealing upholds the state’s order and stability. Without a state, refraining from killing or stealing upholds a nonexistent order that we know others will not observe. It seems to disadvantage oneself without producing any larger social benefits and expose the self to unnecessary risks. My question here is how does an individual create a better world by taking action that the individual cannot guarantee will be reciprocated by other individuals in the system?
I agree with you that states arise from systems of domination rather than out of any kind of civilized agreement. This follows from what I have been saying–before the state, there is no reason to show moral concern for others, so the best way to protect oneself is to seek domination. The impulse to dominate and thereby protect oneself creates the state. Once the state has been created, we can then talk about how it ought to operate to make it most stable and prosperous, and this usually entails making it just (which for me means causing it to show equal concern for the interests of its citizens). This process of making the state into a moral instrument is a very long one and has not yet been completed by any human population anywhere–there are still many elements of modern states that reek of the pre-state dominating impulse.
However, I do not think it is obvious that states gain anything by acting as if they exist to serve the human interest unless they have some guarantee that this behavior will be reciprocated, i.e. that all states will act this way. Consider for instance the interwar period, in which many states decided to disarm on the accurate belief that it is in the interest of humanity that states no longer wage war against each other. They did so expecting treaties to guarantee reciprocity, but because those treaties were not backed by a state or external third party, Germany was able to defect and engage in a massive military build-up without substantive consequences, leading to a war that devastated many of the peoples who had disarmed. Surely it would have been better for the peoples in question to have refused to disarm and instead continued to engage in balance of power politics to contain Germany (or, better yet, to arm the League of Nations and turn it into a genuine world state). In the same way that individuals are inclined to seek domination for the purposes of self-defense in the state of nature, states are inclined to seek domination for the purposes of self-defense under international anarchy. Defecting from that strategy in the interest of something more pan-humanist means being exploited by a less scrupulous state. This pursuit of domination will eventually create a world state. To the extent that international norms are enforced today, it is because the United States attempts to act like a weak world state.
So rather than say that we get morality by refraining from seeking domination, I would say that seeking domination is the only way to create the structures we need to get morality. Once the power structure exists, it becomes clear to those with wisdom that if one part of the state continues to exploit the rest, the long-term stability and prosperity of the system will be compromised–it is for this reason that the European colonial empires collapsed. Had the Europeans used domination to secure territory but then gone on to fully integrate the conquered peoples as full citizens, showing them equal concern, they would have been much more successful (the empires that last longest do so because they are seen to show more equal concern for interest–compare the Roman Empire, which lasted a long time because it delivered prosperity and political inclusiveness to conquered peoples, and which collapsed due to internal weaknesses and external invasion, not due to revolts by distressed peoples). The Europeans failed to emulate the Romans because they were blinded by racism, and this caused them to take a course of action which was not only bad for the conquered peoples, but bad even for themselves in the long-term.
To clarify, I think that if short term self-harm is in one’s long-term interests, it is not self-harm in the sense in which I’m using the term. For me, “self-harm” is an action which does not net benefit the actor now or at any time in the future. So in all of these state of nature cases, the issue is that without a state, there is no guarantee that any long-term benefits will be forthcoming and the strong likelihood is that the long-term outcome is exploitation by a less scrupulous third party. The same goes for the button pushing scenario–even if the button pusher is particularly empathetic toward other people, it is hard to see how it could be in the button pusher’s long-term interest (unless we imagine that the guilt the button pusher would feel would exceed the awfulness of being tormented for all eternity).
I think we are pretty early in this project of creating just states where the system is designed to encourage good behavior. Until pretty recently in human history, states had little concern for justice in any wide sense of that term, using welfare and redistribution only to prevent workers from starving or rebelling and failing to recognize that everything can be improved if we use our resources to ensure that citizens enjoy extensive opportunities to be productive contributors to society. There are still many people who are locked out of productive contribution by their circumstances or who have been influenced by perverse incentives that states could easily counter. In all of these cases, badness persists not because the state cannot rectify these situations, but because it chooses not to do so on the basis of outmoded and anachronistic moral ideas (such as the idea that the poor are to blame for their poverty or that criminals are to blame for their criminal behavior or that those who earn money deserve to keep it irrespective of larger social consequences). If the state truly takes responsibility for every citizen’s outcome and acts to show equal concern for each and every citizen, much more can be achieved. Even the current structure of our political system upholds anachronistic norms that inhibit this (e.g. the idea that money is speech). Our states are not even close to optimally formed yet, so I think it is too early to pronounce this model too difficult to achieve. We have hardly even begun to try, and more people in our society are actively trying to undermine these efforts than are trying to further them.
You are right that I think indiscriminate utilitarianism is too difficult and too unreasonable, because even if we obey its mandates we have no guarantee that others will and so and we are likely to be exploited as a result. This makes bad behavior more likely to prevail over the long-term, as bad behavior rewards the actor while good behavior penalizes the actor. I will say that I used to hold a much more indiscriminate view. I changed my mind in no small part because I became convinced that human behavior is a product of genetics, environment, and quantum randomness and that human beings do not have free will. If true, this implies that it is impossible for people to transcend their structural incentives, so morality becomes a matter of creating good incentives rather than asking people to self-modify.
So, to sum up, I think there are two core issues here:
1. I am absolutely concerned with enlightened self-interest and not narrow self-interest, but I believe that without the state, it is not even in a person’s enlightened self-interest to act morally. I think the only enlightened self-interest in the state of nature is the interest in developing a powerful coercive instrument to protect oneself, and that this instrument is necessarily a kind of proto-state.
2. I do think reciprocity can exist at varying levels, but only when there is a state, i.e. some guarantor that survival or other core existential interests are very unlikely to be threatened by either party. Without a state, I think reciprocity is too tenuous for actors to rely on it–there are too many incentives to defect and attempt to take advantage of the cooperating party.
In both of these cases, we’re coming back to the question of what is really in the individual’s long-term interest when there is no state, i.e. how much room for reciprocity there is, if any, for a reasonable actor living with other actors who may be less scrupulous). In other words, how do the structural incentives change when we create a state, i.e. a device for modifying structural incentives? I think the state introduces nearly limitless change given sufficient time and research.
I will say that I think it is shockingly easy to create very rudimentary states that allow for reciprocity within small groups (e.g. tribal or family structures). It is much more difficult to create a rudimentary state at the international level, especially given the role that nationalism, xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, and so on play in causing people to feel falsely entitled to independence.
What you say about the interwar period is very true, except that you forget to mention that one of the main reasons for Germany’s military build-up was the way Germany was treated by the victors of the first world war. I agree completely that it would have been better to arm the League of Nations and turn it into a genuine world state. With the benefit of hindsight I even agree that it would have been better for other countries to have refused to disarm and instead continue to engage in balance of power politics to contain Germany. But I find that more a matter of political strategy than of ethics. If I’m talking simply about morality, I would say that the victors of the first world war shouldn’t have humiliated and over-penalised Germany, and Germany shouldn’t have re-armed and started another war. The way things actually went could be taken as evidence for both our points of view: if both sides had followed what I maintain to be the ethically best course of action, then everything would have been fine, but on the other hand they didn’t, which perhaps indicates that I’m being over-optimistic and that states will never act morally if they aren’t forced to. However, I think you’re presenting this a bit too much as a case of ‘everyone was nice to Germany and look what happened’. That does apply at the level of arms and military build-ups, but that’s not the only measurement of egoism/altruism between states, and there were other things going on at the time.
My answer to your question “how does an individual create a better world by taking action that the individual cannot guarantee will be reciprocated by other individuals in the system?” would be that no single individual can create a better world, but each individual can act in a morally optimal way in so far as is practically possible, such that the more individuals who act that way, the better the world becomes. It’s like asking “how does an individual create a litter-free beach by not dropping litter when he cannot guarantee that other people will do likewise?”, and my answer would be the same. What’s at stake here is very different than when we’re talking about Germany being allowed to re-arm, but the principle is similar. If I go out of my way to take my litter home with me, I’m running the risk that I’ll later discover that hundreds of other people were lazy and left theirs on the beach, which looks not a single bit worse than it would have if I’d done the same, so that I’ve wasted my energy for nothing. OK, I’m not going to get annihilated, but still. So, I’m saying you shouldn’t leave litter on the beach because it’s a bad idea and has bad consequences, even though you’ve got no guarantee that you aren’t wasting your time, and I’m also saying that people should be educated not to drop litter (a process which begins with some philosopher pointing it out that it’s morally reprehensible 🙂 ), and maybe some day the beach will be clean. I think the solution you’re proposing would be that it’s not only OK for people to drop litter, but that they should in fact do, until the state installs litter bins and has a team of policemen patrolling the beach to make sure people use them. I can’t help thinking that my method would be cheaper and more effective in the long run.
You say “rather than say that we get morality by refraining from seeking domination, I would say that seeking domination is the only way to create the structures we need to get morality”, and if we’re talking about the best strategy for setting up a stable and peaceful society then you might well be right. I agree with what you say about the Roman and European empires. However, I’m not talking about strategy, but about principles.
What I’m actually doing here is maintaining a separation between two distinct questions, a theoretical one: what is morally the best course of action, i.e. what would ideally be the best thing to do, and a practical one: what is achievable in a given situation. You can say what people or states ought to do, and still be realistic about political strategy and compromise where necessary. For instance, that armies are a bad idea, but given the circumstances we shouldn’t get rid of ours just yet.
I think the problem is that because we’re talking about consequentialism, where the rightness or wrongness of an action is due to its consequences, it’s difficult to keep these two questions separate. I might say that the consequences of having armies is war, and you might say that the consequences of not having an army is that you get invaded by Germany, and both these statements might be true. I don’t think you can extrapolate back in the same way though, to arrive at the answer to the question “is it morally right to have an army?”. I seem to be talking more about theoretical consequences, while you’re talking more about practical consequences. Would it be going too far to say that I’m following rule utilitarianism, whereas you’re following something nearer to act utilitarianism? – in which case the answer is easy: we need to find the equivalent of two-level utilitarianism. Or am I cutting corners and trying too hard to find common ground?
This is all a pretty theoretical discussion, but I can see definite practical consequences of both viewpoints. For instance, in the case where a rich and powerful nation like France is considering whether to invade a small and weak country like Mali for a moderate economic advantage. France is in the luxurious position of being freely able to decide whether to invade or not, and is able to consider the consequences (some Malians being killed and bombed out of their homes, versus some French people being slightly less well off than they could be), and acting in the way which is conducive to a peaceful world. You’re taking the principle that no state should be expected to commit military suicide (with which I agree), and the principle that a state should consider the well-being of its own citizens before the well-being of non-citizens in other countries (with which I have more of a problem, but let’s say I agree to that as well), and elevating them into an all-or-nothing rule that a state should always do what’s best for its own citizens, no matter what. Yet again, I can’t help thinking that my method would be more likely to lead to a peaceful world.
You’re right about the current state of states, as it were, and about their potential for perfection in the future. Just to be clear about it, however, I think that an unavoidable consequence of utilitarianism is that it is sometimes required for an individual to do something which is not in his own interest, not even his own long-term interest, i.e. something which you would define as “self-harm” and would want to totally avoid. In the button pushing scenario for instance, there’s no doubt that pushing the button would not be in the button-pusher’s long-term interest, but I would still say he ideally oughtto do it. However, I think that a significant form of “self-harm” is only to be found in extreme circumstances (e.g. the button pushing scenario), and that it is a minor and exceptional consequence of utilitarianism, alongside all its good consequences. Minor forms of “self-harm” for individuals, on the other hand, are an acceptable trade-off against the benefits for the whole of society, and we’ll just have to learn to live with them.
Finally, you say that “human behavior is a product of genetics, environment, and quantum randomness and that human beings do not have free will”. It may or may not be relevant to this discussion, but up to a few years ago I would have agreed with you 100%. On the matter of free will my ideas have changed slightly, and I would now say both that human beings have free will and that their actions are entirely determined by genetics, environment and randomness. It all depends on perspective: from the ‘interior’ point of view of an individual situated in time, free will exists and he really does make real decisions which have real consequences. From the ‘exterior’ point of view of someone outside of that timeframe, everything that individual did was predetermined. When I say ‘outside of that timeframe’ I’m not just talking about some theoretical God-like entity which can see all of eternity in one go, but also about someone looking back at historical events or at what happened yesterday. Note that I’m not saying that the individual thinks he has free will or appears to have free will, but that he really does. But that’s another discussion entirely and I’m still not sure if it’s relevant here.
Germany was not the only power to arm in defiance of the league–Japan quit the league in 1933 and the league expelled the Soviet Union in 1939. Without independent coercive power, the league was unable to do much of anything in any of these cases, and all of these nations exploited those nations who did participate in disarmament. The core problem is that no side can be certain that the others will follow any agreement without an enforcement body, at which point it becomes advisable for all sides to violate any agreement to avoid becoming the victimized party. Morality and good political strategy should align, not conflict.
There’s a difference between what it would be advantageous for people to believe and what is actually true. It may be advantageous for people to believe that they should not litter irrespective of what others do (in the same way that it might be advantageous for them to believe that god punishes litterers or god punishes states that arm themselves), but it is not clear that this is actually true, that this is actually a reason for action. Unless one’s actions bring about a wider change in the behavior of all the other relevant actors, one is not solving the core problem. You could argue that it might be reasonable for states to use the education system to inculcate children with strong norms against littering, but this is only sensible because it changes the structural incentives by creating a sense of guilt and shame around littering. It does not make it any more rational for one person not to litter when everyone else litters. My point is that there is a sharp distinction between policy changes that target the behavior of groups and individual behavioral changes that are only effective if a variety of other autonomous beings all act the same way spontaneously. Why should we believe that the latter will actually happen? Aren’t we just ignoring the real problem–the incentive scheme that leads people to act in suboptimal ways?
I would collapse the distinction between the theoretical and practical and claim that ought implies can. Voluntary universal behavioral change is not possible, and the continued emphasis on it only serves to perpetuate the problems we are ostensibly trying to solve. As long as we sit here and go “states have a duty to disarm voluntarily” we implicitly deny the need for the world state, and in so doing we ensure that the problem of war is not solved, leading to adverse consequences for all parties. By claiming that a group of people should do something, we necessarily imply that the group really can do that thing without any further social help. So I would say that the claim that “armies are bad” is not only impractical under the circumstances, it is normatively false until those circumstances are changed. Consequentialism means that there is no single consistent answer to the question of whether or not armies are bad–the answer quite literally changes depending on the context. All we can say is that in a context where security can be provided for without an army, armies are bad. Rule utilitarianism gives us general rules based on assumptions about what contexts are ordinarily like, but it does not disregard the context or give us an answer that is context-independent. Consequentialism and context cannot be wholly separated in that way. The only kind of moral system that can disregard context altogether is a deontological system where the rule-making principle is considered prior to the outcome in any and all given cases (e.g. Kant’s categorical imperative, which argues that we should act as if our actions were universal laws, i.e. as if everyone were going to do what we do, regardless of whether or not this is actually the case and regardless of what will result from this in the real world). If anything, I would argue that the case you’ve been presenting is more Kantian than utilitarian.
In your discussion of France and Mali, I think you fall into the pattern of assuming that the moral principle we agree to will be universally followed in all cases, when we know that isn’t true. A Kantian moral principle would be the best principle if everyone actually followed it, but in the real world this doesn’t happen. Morality is meant to make the world better not merely in theory, but in practice. So relying on people to universally follow a moral principle that we know they cannot universally follow is not achieving the ends of morality.
I agree that it is objectively good if the button pusher pushes the button, but that we cannot expect a moral obligation for him to voluntarily press it to be effective because we cannot realistically expect people to take the objective point of view. So rather than create an impossible moral obligation for the button pusher and hope it works, we should permit the button pusher his resistance and then require state coercion. Morality is more than just a set of principles, it is device for producing behavior that improves the world. The more aware we make people that the true capacity to influence the situation rests with the state, the more likely we are to see people using the state the way it ought to be used–as a tool for promoting justice.
I don’t think the individual’s internal perception is particularly relevant for the way in which I’m using the concept of free will–for me, we have free will if we can act independently of our nature and environmental context. This is how I define the term when I use it, so when you say that you agree that nature, nurture, and randomness produces all behavior but that you still believe in free will, you are implicitly saying that you believe in a different kind of free will under some other definition. The importance of my conception of free will is that once we admit that we do not have it, it follows from there that we cannot expect people to be capable of doing a wide variety of things that they might appear physically capable of doing. People’s choices become consequences of systems and structures rather than agentic in the traditional sense. That leads us to an understanding of morality where the onus is on the structure to provide a benevolent context and not on the individual to be benevolent in spite of a bad context.
This has taken a while, and not only because I’ve been busy with other things. Since your last comment I’ve read several older posts from your blog, in particular Do We Have Obligations to Future People?, Dead Baby Interventionism (in which you specifically talk about the French intervention in Mali) and Kermit Gosnell and Infanticide, and I’ve spent some time thinking about your ideas and how they relate to my own. I see that you’ve thought (and indeed written) a lot about this principle of reciprocity, the obligations of a state only to its own citizens, etc., and I’m pretty certain that I now understand exactly what you’re saying and how you arrive there. BTW, I really like the way you come straight out with conclusions and ideas which I’m sure many if not most people would find shocking (e.g. the Foetus Flow Chart), and I’m surprised you don’t get more negative reactions on some of this stuff. Do your readers all agree with you, or can they just not be bothered to comment? Generally I find much to agree with, in fact I’ve rarely got to know someone’s political and philosophical opinions so well and found so little to disagree with, which is why it bothers me slightly that you sometimes start from points with which I wouldn’t argue, and arrive at conclusions (pertaining to aggressive military action for ‘selfish’ reasons for instance) with which I definitely (still) disagree. The fact that this is happening implies that you are and/or I am making a mistake somewhere, and/or that we’re talking at cross-purposes. Unfortunately I don’t have enough philosophical background to analyse both our standpoints and work out exactly where we differ (I’d first have to formulate mine a lot more precisely anyway), but I do have some ideas…
For a start you have a lot more confidence in the benefits of ‘the state’ than I do. I went through a period in my youth when I described myself as a left-wing anarchist, but that changed when I realised that if there were no state there would be a power vacuum, which would immediately be filled by the most dominant, power-hungry and aggressive group or individual – who would be very unlikely to be the sort of person/people I’d want to be dominated by. That’s a long time ago, and these days I’m very much in favour of a world government, which many would regard as going to the opposite extreme. In actual fact I’m convinced that a world government is our only hope of humanity not destroying itself and/or the planet in the not too distant future. I’m also convinced that a world government is inevitable, whether we like it or not, but I’m not optimistic about how it will arrive: probably following world war three and/or some global environmental catastrophe (hopefully after I’m gone!). I would also very much like to see a United States of Europe – but that’s also going to take a while by the looks of things.
That said, although the state is necessary and does good things (I wouldn’t want to try to live without one), I still do have a tendency to regard it as a necessary evil and to mistrust it. I talked earlier about how I see society as having developed naturally from the ‘state of nature’ of competition and survival of the fittest, and that I see society (including the state) not no such as something completely new but rather as a continuation of this original condition in a more civilised form. The state can be seen in two ways: on the one hand as a mechanism for enabling society to run smoothly and ending the ‘war of all against all’, and on the other as an expression of who’s currently winning the power struggle (those who either are the state or control the state), and as a mechanism for keeping them in power. You make the point that the state will naturally progress from the one to the other, whereas I’m slightly less optimistic. We’ll probably agree that both aspects are to be found in varying proportions in every existing form of state, from the most despotic to the most enlightened. But even after so many millennia of human development, we find that even in the longest-lasting and most successful empires, even in the most modern and technocratic social democracies, that second aspect of the state still tends to predominate. That’s not surprising, as competition and survival of the fittest ‘comes natural’, and it takes a conscious effort to go against that – an effort which, in my opinion, involves some individuals ‘self-harming’ for the benefit of others, and a willingness to sacrifice a certain amount of progress and efficiency for the sake of peace and harmony. Even were the state to become ubiquitous up to the highest level, I can easily imagine the continuing oppression of ‘losers’ by ‘winners’, or even a continuing cycle of power accumulation with an elite followed by revolutions to redistribute that power, which might not be much better than a ‘war of all against all’.
You are obviously also very much aware of the negative sides of the state, and of the fact that it’s still at a primitive stage compared to what it potentially could become, but I think you still basically see it as such a good thing in itself that it’s capable of solving all our moral problems, whereas I see it as probably a necessary condition for solving our problems but not a sufficient one, so that a certain amount of ‘self-modification’ by individuals will still be needed. Neither am I as pessimistic as you are about the possibility of individuals ‘self-modifying’, in fact I think they do it all the time. For me, in the end only the individual matters, and the state is just a very imperfect means to an end. It may well be the best means we have, and I must admit that I see myself moving closer to your standpoint on this, but I think the difference between our attitudes has important consequences when it comes to questions regarding which individuals states should feel responsibility to, and by extension what sorts of behaviour between states is and isn’t acceptable. For me responsibility is not an all-or-nothing concept, and I can accept that a state’s first responsibility is to its own citizens, but not that they’re its only responsibility.
I can’t argue with the statement “Morality is more than just a set of principles, it is device for producing behavior that improves the world.” So you’re probably right about the impossibility of separating consequentialism and context, and in saying that ought implies can. My separation of the theoretical and practical questions: “what is morally the best course of action?” and “what is achievable in a given situation?” may well be just an unconscious habit which I’ve never thought about sufficiently. Maybe it goes back to my Catholic upbringing: we know what we should do, but the flesh is weak so we just have to do our best and go to confession on a Saturday. I stopped being a Catholic before I became a teenager, but I’m still occasionally surprised at the things I discover in myself which have their origin in my early upbringing. On the other hand, the side of philosophy which tries to answer the question “How should we live?” is really faced with two questions: “What are we trying to achieve?” and “What is the best way to achieve it?”, and in practice pretty well every attempt to improve the world runs into a conflict between ends and means. The proposed solutions to this conflict could be placed on a scale ranging from “the end justifies the means” at one extreme to “fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity” at the other. Neither of these extremes is satisfactory, so a compromise is always sought somewhere in the middle. A system of ethics which completely avoided this conflict by unifying ends and means would certainly be very useful, and I can see how getting rid of the concept of free will would make this a lot easier, but I’m still not sure that such a system is possible, never mind whether yours qualifies. I’m sure there’s a lot more which can be (and undoubtedly has been) said about this very question, so I’m not going to jump to any conclusions here.
However, even if I agreed completely with everything you say about the necessity of a state above individuals and a ‘super-state’ above states (which I do in practice), about the impossibility of moral action without a state to insure that everyone else will do likewise, and about a state’s only responsibility being to its own citizens, your views on the legitimacy of a powerful country invading a weaker one for a moderate economic advantage would still go too far for me. After all, what I am aiming at (and I’m pretty certain the same applies to you) is a peaceful world where people don’t go around shooting, bombing and torturing each other, and if the route I had chosen to get me there were to result in my going out shooting, bombing and torturing people then I’d be forced to have serious doubts about the road I was on. I think most utilitarians would agree that a crude ‘mathematical’ interpretation of utilitarianism can lead to undesirable consequences, and people have gone to great lengths to try to find a more sophisticated model which will avoid them. I’m not suggesting that your type of utilitarianism is such a crude one, but I still can’t help thinking you rely too much on all-or-nothing logical principles and too legalistic definitions of who a citizen is and what the state’s responsibilities are, and follow them even when they lead to undesired conclusions. What it comes down to is that for me the welfare of people, whether they’re citizens or not, is the only thing which ultimately matters, and concepts like states and citizenship are relatively unimportant. The practical consequences of this regarding the behaviour between states in the absence of a world government would then be that while aggressive action may perhaps be justified in certain circumstances when the long-term benefits for humanity as a whole outweigh the short-term disadvantages, it should be regarded as a last resort and avoided if at all possible. I’m not nearly as optimistic as you seem to be about the fact that war, domination and imperialism inevitably contribute to the coming of a world government. It’s true that in practice it’s often difficult to decide whether aggressive action is likely to be in the long-term interest of humanity as a whole and therefore justified, but there are cases where it’s very easy, and I would say that the hypothetical situation we’re talking about would be one of them.
As I said before I’m not very good at the technicalities of meta-ethics, and I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that I’m perhaps not quite such a consequentialist/utilitarian as I thought I was. I find it quite a worrying idea, though, that I might be a Kantian! Not that I’ve actually read Kant, but from what I know of his ethics and especially his categorical imperative they’re very far indeed from my views and can lead to totally ridiculous consequences. According to Bertrand Russell, “Kant gives as an illustration of the working of the categorical imperative that it is wrong to borrow money, because if we all tried to do so there would be no money left to borrow.” (!) I actually think I may be some way towards being an ethical subjectivist or relativist, unpopular though those categories seem to be. I wrote a bit about my views on the relative nature of good and evil here, if you’re interested.
Anyway, I can see that you’ve got your views well worked out and I’m unlikely to be able to change them. I’m still feeling my way around to a great extent, and I may well end up moving in your direction eventually, but for the moment you haven’t convinced me on the main point of this discussion (the France/Mali thing), and I don’t see it happening any time soon. I’ll be very interested to hear anything you have to say about anything I’ve said above, and I may well come back on this myself if and when my views change and/or I have something new to say, but I don’t think I do for the moment. So maybe the time has come to agree to differ…
I thank you so much for taking the time to read so many of my posts and familiarize yourself so deeply with my way of thinking about things. It does look as though we’re probably going to have to agree to differ, though I am pleased that you have found so much to agree with elsewhere. I will say this much:
1. To achieve a world state, it is necessary to consolidate hundreds of states into one big state, at first weakly at the economic level and then strongly at the political level.
2. I don’t think states are likely to do this voluntarily–it will require coercion by the bigger states against the smaller states.
3. This coercion will likely entail invasion and conquest to some degree.
4. However, once a state has been integrated into another state’s economic or political system, the conquering state must not exploit the conquered state–it must integrate it into its moral community and reciprocate with it.
So for instance, I would say that there is nothing wrong with the European colonial empires conquering territories around the world, but there most definitely was something wrong with the way the European states went on to exploit these territories for material gain rather than fully integrate them. Colonists living in India, Africa, and so on should have been given full political and economic standing. What’s more, it is because they were not given that standing that they eventually sought independence and gained it, rolling back much of the work that had been done to consolidate these territories into a small number of political units.
So I want to be very clear on that point–while I sometimes think it is okay for states to invade and conquer each other, once the conquered state submits I think it is very strongly in the interests of all parties for the conquering state to treat the conquered state as if it were native territory, showing the same level of respect and concern for interests it shows for its original citizens. When a state conquers territory, it necessarily gains moral obligations to the people of that territory–they become citizens. Otherwise, the consolidation will not be sustainable or lead to anything positive.
While that may not be sufficient to persuade you to agree, I do hope it helps make my position seem less repugnant to you.
As far as your Arendt piece goes–I agree that people are not deliberately evil, that when people do bad things it is because they are operating under principles that are merely mistaken. I am not a subjectivist or relativist, but I think that we can only really evaluate ideas and actions as good or bad, not people. This links up with my denial of free will–I think people come to believe and do things through a process for which they are not responsible. Nazism is a bad idea and Nazi actions are bad actions, but the Nazis themselves are merely mistaken. At worst, they are foolish or stupid. A subjectivist or relativist would go further and claim that we cannot evaluate actions or ideas on an objective level even distinct from persons–that when we say that Nazism is bad, all we are saying is that our social and cultural norms are different from the Nazi equivalents. I think that is a very dangerous idea, because it gives us no substantive justification for rejecting Nazism and no means of convincing a Nazi that Nazism is wrong in any serious way. I also think it is self-negating, because the idea that all moral ideas are subjective or relative is itself an objective moral claim.
I hope to talk to you again, whether it’s a continuation of this thread or somewhere else down the line. You’re a fun person to exchange ideas with. In any case, thanks again for taking the time to read and understand.
You don’t have to thank me for reading your posts, I thank you for writing them. I always enjoy reading your blog, even when I don’t agree with everything. This little exchange of views has been useful to me and has helped me to sort out my ideas on a few points, so I’m glad you also got something out of it. Mind you, I’m pretty certain that you enjoy writing just as much as I do 🙂 .
My previous comment was supposed to be my final one, but I can’t resist the temptation of replying to a couple of things you said. First your optimism that the process of states invading and conquering each other will inevitably lead to a world government. The general tendency throughout history has indeed been for states to invade and conquer each other, and for smaller states to consolidate into bigger states, which is why I say I believe that a world government is coming whether we like it or not. However I can also easily imagine a ‘1984’ type situation developing where you end up with a small number of super-powers which are more or less equally balanced. The only way of getting from there to a world government would be either World War 3, which might well be a lot more destructive than the first two put together, or something involving cooperation and trust – unless of course the ruling elites of these super-powers find a continuous state of (cold) war convenient for domestic purposes, in which case there will never be a world government. All good SF stuff!
I agree with much of what you say about empires, but I think you’re forgetting that the reason powerful nations colonise weaker ones is not because they think it would be so wonderful to have a world government, but for the sort of entirely selfish reasons you find justified in the case of France and Mali. Colonisation is simply one aspect of competition and survival of the fittest in the situation of international anarchy, and the whole point of having colonies is to exploit them for material gain. In my opinion the primitive situation of competition and survival of the fittest simply continues within the state/empire in a more civilised form. So I agree completely that “Colonists living in India, Africa, and so on should have been given full political and economic standing”, but to do that the elites of the conquering nations would have had to give up some of their power, and by saying that they should have done so you’re asking them to self-harm. I can see two big reasons why colonies seek independence:
people generally prefer to have decisions made about their lives and laws made for them by people who speak the same language and have broadly the same culture,
lots of individuals would rather be a big fish in a small pond than a medium-sized fish in the ocean.
There are plenty of cases like that between Britain and Ireland, where there was a very high degree of integration but even after 600 years of colonisation the Irish still wanted independence. I think larger political units (and certainly a world government) can only survive if there’s a sufficient degree of decentralisation and subsidiarity, and this was the essential difference between, say, the Roman and Ottoman empires on the one hand, and those of the British and French on the other. I’m no historian, but might it not be that the degree of centralisation that existed in the British and French empires simply wasn’t technically possible for those older empires? In other words, natural competition and survival of the fittest leads to the formation of empires, but it also leads to the accumulation and concentration of power and wealth with the elite of the colonial power, in as far as that’s technically possible.
BTW, I’ve just read Bertrand Russell’s essay The Ethics of War, in which he puts forward the view that the only justified wars of colonisation are those where a more advanced culture “drive[s] out the whole population of some territory and replace[s] it by an invading population of a different race’, as in the case of the colonisation of America and Australasia by Europeans (‘justified’ because they are in the best interests of humanity as a whole). He regards more recent colonial wars which “aim only at securing certain governmental and trading advantages” as examples of what he calls “wars of prestige”, which are never justified.
So, you still haven’t convinced me, but don’t worry, I don’t find your ideas ‘repugnant’ (I’ve come across much worse in my time 🙂 ). I hope you don’t find my ideas about the relative nature of good and evil too ‘repugnant’ – which brings me to the second thing I want to talk about. I agree completely that, in connection with the question of free will, “we can only really evaluate ideas and actions as good or bad, not people”. That’s certainly a big advance on the idea that people can be deliberately evil, and I think that’s what Hannah Arendt was saying. I’m not at all sure that I’m a moral subjectivist or relativist, but I still think it’s much too easy to simply say that Nazism is objectively wrong. What I’m saying is that we can (in theory at least) evaluate ideas and actions as being objectively good or bad, but only relative to whatever it is we’re trying to achieve. So we have to look further at what that might be, and ask whether that can be evaluated as objectively good or bad, and I don’t think it can without bringing in some objectively existing super-human concept such as “God’s will” or “human dignity”, or the sort of ‘self-evident truths’ talked about in the US constitution. As far as I’m concerned nothing is self-evident, and a man-made aim is necessarily subjective. As a utilitarian I could say that something is objectively good or bad because it’s objectively useful or not useful in achieving the aim of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (or whatever subtle variation on that general theme I might happen to adhere to), but I don’t see how I can claim that that aim itself is objectively better than any other. Someone who believes that we’re only here to prepare for the next world, or who follows the ideas of Nietzsche, might have very different ideas, and if we say that a utilitarian aim is objectively better than theirs, we can’t justify that claim simply by saying that our ideas are objectively more ‘useful’ in achieving the aim that we have set for ourselves! What I, personally, am trying to achieve is something very similar to a utilitarian aim, and I believe I have very good reasons for preferring that aim over others – which is why I have that aim, and why I would try to persuade other people that it is the most reasonable aim to have – but I would consider it arrogant of myself to claim (and more to the point, impossible to justify!) that my views are anything more than my subjective opinion. If you know a way of proving that a broadly utilitarian aim is objectively better than any other, it would certainly make life easier and I’d be very interested to hear it.
One last point. You say that moral relativism and subjectivism “is self-negating, because the idea that all moral ideas are subjective or relative is itself an objective moral claim”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the idea that all moral ideas are subjective or relative actually an epistemological claim about the nature of moral claims, which can and should be judged independently of the moral claims themselves? I could make an objective claim that the question of whether Marmite tastes good is a subjective one, and set up an experiment to prove it one way or the other. In the case of moral claims no such experiment is possible, so I can’t imagine a claim that moral ideas are subjective being anything other than pretty subjective itself, but my point is that we’re talking about two different levels of objectivity/subjectivity which have nothing to do with each other. Surely if you classify the idea that all moral claims are subjective as just another moral claim, then you end up in an ‘all Cretans are liars’ type paradox, and what you’re really saying is that a priori, by definition, moral claims are objective – which I don’t find very convincing. If I’ve misunderstood you or am talking complete rubbish then please say so!
I very strongly disagree with the thought that asking empires to treat conquered people like citizens rather than exploit them is asking them to self-harm. I think the historical record is very clear that exploitation is not sustainable and that once cooperation is politically feasible, it is the strategy that will produce the most prosperity not just for the conquered or for both parties as a whole but even for the conquerors themselves. In all of the cases where conquerors engage in exploitation, I think the conquerors are being deeply foolish and acting against their own long-term interests. While no empire has every fully integrated all of its conquered peoples, we can see very clearly that the empires that have lasted the longest and brought the most benefits to even their original citizens have pursued policies of integration–compare the Romans to the European colonial empires for instance, or the Babylonians to the more oppressive Assyrians. In every case, the empire that is more inclusive is more successful. I am not asking empires to self-harm, I am asking them to take an enlightened view, to cast aside the racist, nationalist, or ethnocentric beliefs that motivate them to act in a manner that is ultimately self-destructive.
If I am wrong about this–if it really is in the interest of the conquerors to exploit the conquered rather than integrate them–I think peace and justice are not possible for human beings, because this implies that those states who exploit will always triumph over those that do not, because they will always be the stronger. As I said before, I don’t think the historical record bears this out at all, but I think this is the clear theoretical implication of the position. If it really is good for the conqueror to exploit, I submit to you that the world is an intrinsically horrible place and beyond redemption. The implication is that every person should ruthlessly exploit every other person wherever possible, and that to do otherwise is foolish and can lead only to one’s being exploited by someone less foolish. It leaves us with only three choices:
1. Live the life of a fool–get exploited, be a slave.
2. Live the life of a wise person–commit horrifying cruelty and exploit others wherever possible.
3. Commit suicide.
I hope I am right and that integration is in the interest of the conqueror, that the conqueror has a sincere long-term interest in reciprocating with the conquered to create and sustain the benefits of fair cooperation.
As far as objectivity goes, here’s how you prove that suffering and happiness matter objectively:
It is impossible to explain human action without appealing to the suffering and happiness. nor is it possible to convince a person to do something or not do something without appealing to them. Consider even deeply religious people, who claim not to be utilitarian at all–aren’t these people still motivated by a desire to go to heaven or avoid going to hell? Heaven is nothing more than a place of infinite happiness and hell is nothing more than a place of infinite suffering. Even Kant’s categorical imperative is aimed at getting people to do whatever would, if done universally, lead to the best results (Kant’s problem is that this is too rigid–no one behavior is always optimal in every case). Even Nietzsche believes that being the ubermensch is what makes one happy in the sense that he considers important. Even the virtue ethicists believe that being happy and being virtuous are ultimately inseparable. I don’t think any moral theorist has ever escaped making an ultimate appeal to happiness and/or suffering. If I’m right and all objectivist moral theories ultimately converge on happiness and suffering, the objective/subjective debate is really just a debate about whether suffering and happiness matter or whether nothing matters objectively. No one actually behaves as if nothing matters objectively, so all those who claim that nothing matters are in contradiction with themselves every moment of every day.
Derek Parfit makes this sort of argument in On What Matters, I think it is very convincing and conclusively shows that the subjectivist position cannot stand.
To go into more detail, I don’t think subjectivism is merely epistemological, because it has clear substantive normative moral outputs. Any theory that purports to tell us what we should do is making a substantive normative moral claim. Subjectivism invalidates the objectivity of our reasons. In doing so, it has a variety of substantive moral consequences:
1. It makes it impossible to substantively criticize another person’s moral views because that person can respond with “that’s just your subjective point of view”.
2. It makes it impossible for us to justify our own views to ourselves or to others, because we cannot give other beings objectively compelling reasons, as we have ruled out the existence of said reasons.
In this way we see that subjectivism is not compatible with any of the consistent substantive moral theories. All consistent moral theories propose objective reasons for action, so subjectivism invalidates all consistent moral theories. So if you are a subjectivist, you cannot justify moral beliefs of any kind or offer any reasons for your actions that other beings are in any way compelled by reason to accept. Indeed, moral reasoning itself is called into question, because moral reasoning cannot refer to anything objective and is, for the subjectivist, a mere reflection of cultural and social norms. This means that subjectivists are de facto nihilists. Nihilists constantly live a contradiction (they act on the basis of reasons whose legitimacy they deny), so subjectivism is self-negating and collapses in the same way that nihilism does. There is no way to be a subjectivist without being a nihlist if one wishes to retain consistency, and once consistency is dropped, subjectivism becomes unfalsifiable and immune to reasoned critique. At which point there is nothing more to say, because the subjectivist is no longer committed to the methodology of moral philosophical debate. At that point we either choose to care about morality in a serious way or we choose to ignore it and let the chips fall where they may. I choose to care, and I hope you do too.
I’m not saying that it’s not in the long-term interests of conquering states to integrate the conquered rather than just exploit them – far from it. I’m just saying that competition and survival of the fittest occur within states/empires as well as between them, and that it’s maybe not in the shorter-term interests of the power-wielding, decision-making elite to share their power. This by way of an explanation of why the European elites chose not to do so. You mention xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, etc. as the reason, and that definitely played a role but I don’t think it’s the whole story. For instance, if we look at the way the English working classes were being treated in the 19th. century we can see that the elite were basically exploiting everyone to the extent that they could get away with it, and for various reasons they could get away with a lot more in the colonies than they could at home. The fact that the colonies rebelled against this treatment while the English working classes didn’t is also the result of many complex factors, but I think a very important one was that when people are exploited by others whom they regard as similar to themselves they tend to put it down to bad luck, fate, their own shortcomings etc. (especially when the church and society in general encourages such views), and only a politically conscious minority see it as exploitation. When the exploiting classes speak a different language, are a different colour and come from thousands of miles away, it’s much easier to rebel; you could say the differences provide something to focus on.
I actually don’t think we really have much to disagree about as far as colonisation goes. I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying, repeating your own point of view (which I do understand, I can assure you), and then wildly exaggerating the consequences of a point of view which I’m not even suggesting, to end up at your three choices scenario.
As far as moral subjectivism etc. goes, I’ll have to look into that more deeply. Yet again, I don’t think we really have that much to disagree about. I think we’re mostly just talking at cross-purposes and getting bogged down in definitions and labels. I could be wrong about that and there could be something important dividing us, but I don’t feel capable of saying one way or the other, or of adding anything useful to what I’ve already said. So, I think the time has come to wind this discussion up for the moment. I’m sure it will continue some time in some form…
Ah, I see what you’re saying. My mistake. I think there are good short term reasons for leaders to integrate as well. For instance, the English working classes were eventually extended the vote and a variety of other political and economic entitlements, in part because political elites realized a couple things:
1. By extending entitlements to these groups, politicians can gain their support and use it to win other political disputes with their rivals.
2. By extending entitlements to these groups, politicians can avoid the possibility of a rival group of politicians doing #1 to them.
I also think that as the possibility of revolt increases, politicians become more likely to see the benefits of co-opting marginalized groups and the disadvantages of failing to do so. Furthermore, by co-opting the group, they can preserve more of their advantages than they can if the group prevails utterly. Yet once the group is co-opted, it is in a good long-term position to slowly win those advantages that were initially withheld. The trouble is that sometimes this comes too late, and a revolution or independence movement already has too much momentum–the oppressed group is too alienated and no longer wants anything to do with the oppressors.
I think the primary reason that these short-term interests sometimes do not win out early enough is that the extant population is deeply opposed to integration, usually for the bad reasons I previously stated (xenophobia, racism, etc.). This sometimes makes it politically difficult for elites to integrate even if the elites themselves believe it is in the national interest to do so, and oftentimes the elites are themselves in thrall to the bad reasons.
Happy to wind up, again, good talk.