A Question of Principle
This is something I've been thinking about a lot, and many of the comments posted here in recent weeks raise the issue, to varying extents. The issue is this: In formulating moral principles or rules, how much should one be concerned about the potential for the abuse of one's principles by others?
Let me take an example from TMcD's recent comment to this post. TMcD argues (this is an excerpt): One way to look at the moral reasoning here is this: some actions are morally required (fighting Hitler), others are morally prohibited (ethnic cleansing), and still others are in a gray area of the morally permissable. In those cases, we have to use our best practical reasoning concerning the ends at stake, the means we have availiable, and the opportunities for success, to make imperfect judgments. Clinton may not have been morally required to invade Rwanda, but it was a doable operation that could have saved many, many lives at relatively low cost to us. Clinton held back because he didn't want a fight with the DeLay caucus, not because he didn't think it worth doing. That's what I would call failed moral judgment in that complex middle category.
TMcD thinks that both Iraq and Rwanda fell into this middle, gray area, if I understand his position correctly, and were thus potentially "morally permissible" as humanitarian interventions. Indeed, he says so in a later comment: Instead, Iraq and Rwanda occupied a gray area of the "morally permissable" within which we must carefully evaluate and balance moral and practical considerations. The problems in those countries (tyranny, violence, ethnic oppressions, etc.) made them legitimate candidates for outside intervention, unlike, say, the US seizing Toronto to keep baseball "All-American," a morally trivial reason, hence forbidden. My judgment, which I've stated repeatedly, is that, within that moral middle ground, reasoning would have legitimized going into Rwanda but NOT Iraq.
I'm sure that many, many readers of this blog would concur with at least some of these sentiments.
But here is my problem, the issue I've been mulling over. It's all well and good to say that practical moral reasoning is necessary in a broad range of cases, but one has to remember that one is requiring policymakers to engage in such reasoning, and that policymakers often have their own agendas, separate from moral considerations (e.g., Clinton's concern with building/securing domestic support for intervention in Rwanda). Moreover, labeling a range of interventions as possibly/potentially "morally permissible" creates possible pretexts for interentions based on ulterior motives. (I think that in Just and Unjust Wars, M. Walzer comments that there has never been a purely humanitarian intervention. I might be off by one, but the point is still a good one: purely humanitarian interventions almost never, or never, occur.)
So, to get to where this post was going: How concerned should serious thinkers like TMcD and others be that their good-faith arguments about humanitarian interventions--which sanction the violation of international norms and also sanction the use of extreme forms of human-on-human violence, i.e., mass killing, if not mass murder--will be twisted and abused by policymakers to serve their own, non-humanitarian, ends?
My concern is whether the adoption or advocacy of this sort of case-by-case analysis approach to policy questions isn't, in the end, the problem. Might it not be better to adopt "bright-line" rules in this area to avoid the situation where a leader can manipulate your good-faith principles to acheive his/her own ends, which have little or nothing to do with your moral principles?
This is separate from the problem of good-faith disagreements about whether a particular intervention is justified, given a certain set of facts. TMcD, CL, and I might agree on a set of criteria for humanitarian interventions (I'm not sure we would, but we might) but disagree about particular cases, in good-faith, because human reason is a notoriously imprecise tool. Academics are used to that sort of thing; we do it all the time.
I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the danger that sanctioning the use of extreme, mechanized violence for humanitarian ends empowers those who would use extreme, mechanized violence against other States for non-humanitarian ends.
It seems to me, as a non-pacifist, that there used to be a "bright-line" we called defensive wars, or self-defense. One might even pre-empt an imminent attack under that theory--although the word "pre-empt" might be worn-out after the abuse it's taken in recent years. One might also join other states in a defensive war against an aggressor. All that is fine, under a set of bright-line rules that thinkers and international lawyers have used for hundreds of years. One might even force an aggressor to give up conquered territory and subject the aggressor state to sanctions to prevent further violations of international norms, as the international community did, with U.S. leadership, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the Gulf War.
But to say that State A can intervene in State B's affairs because State B's government doesn't respect the rights of its subjects is a different matter. It may be the case that State B has a horrendous human rights record. But that is, according to my lights, primarily the problem of State B's subjects; if State B has passed a certain threshold, they should, if possible, rise up and rebel. That may, of course, not be possible, which means that the lives of State B's subjects are pretty miserable.
But to say that if State B passes some threshold it then becomes "morally permissible" for State A to intervene in its affairs is something altogether different. It seems now that one must require the policymakers in State A to have "pure thoughts" only. If Walzer is right, and I suspect he is, that policymakers/political leaders rarely have purely pure (?) thoughts, then the "moral principle" of humanitarian interventions becomes a tool to advance non-humanitarian interests.
Btw, to make a long post even longer, I think that the same general concern applies to claims of expansive presidential power ("inherent power") under the Article II power as "commander-in-chief" of the military and naval forces of the United States. I think that we would all agree that there are cases in which presidents must act quickly and decisively to seize an advantage or to prevent certain contingencies, and that the Constitution almost certainly grants the president at least that much power. But this argument can be easily misused. That "emergency power" might swallow the rest of the powers of government.
It seems to me that, in formulating moral or legal principles, we should consider "bright-line" rules, which cabin the justifications that can be offered for certain actions, as superior to case-by-case "moral reasoning" balancing tests, given the danger of the potential abuse of legitimate moral principles by unprincipled decision-makers. Or, at least, that's how my thinking on this subject has been tending in recent months. So:
Better to say then, that the president has no power to break duly enacted laws than to say that the president may break duly enacted laws, but only in super-duper emergency circumstances. Better to say, no humanitarian interventions, period, than to create rules that would permit and justify interstate aggression for non-humanitarian reasons.