States, territory and utopianism

by Chris Bertram on December 7, 2006

We CTers don’t agree about everything, and here’s a case in point. I was reading Jon’s excellent “Global Justice”: the other day and was arrested by the following sentences:

bq. When we face the question of how state borders should be drawn, it would be utopian in the pejorative sense to consider carving up territories from an imaginary state of nature. That is not a problem we will ever face. Because the current world is already divided into states, the question we must face concerns the possibility of redrawing existing borders. (p. 89)

Here Jon is echoing, and, indeed, referencing, similar sentiments by other philosopher, including Allen Buchanan whose “Theories of Secession” I was reading about the same time. Of course I agree with them both that, as a practical problem, we’re never going to face the issue of justifying state acquisition of territory _ab initio_. But the task of political philosophy isn’t just to provide practical guidance, it is also to produce critical understanding, and, anyway, there’s the question of the moral attitude individuals ought to adopt to the territorial (and other) claims of states. States claim the moral right to coerce those within their territory, to prevent others from crossing their frontiers, to deport aliens etc etc. We may have to live with the territoriality of states as a fact of life, but depending on whether we think state claims are justified (or could be justified) we’ll think differently about the morality of people who try to cross borders and people who try to stop them (among other issues). We’ll also think differently about history. The rise of the modern state and the claim of states to jurisdiction (separately or communally) over the earth’s surface, has been at the expense of non-state forms of organization, of tribal peoples, of anarchists. Simply accepting the legitimacy of statist territorial claims shuts out the perspective of the losers in an disturbingly peremptory fashion.

One of the most annoying responses we get from our students is when we ask what (if anything) might justify some aspect of social life (income inequality, say) and they shrug and reply “That’s just the way the world is”. Maybe. And maybe it always will be. But that doesn’t mean we should shirk the task of justification. Of course there’s a difficulty here, because we often aspire to practicality. But utopianism _in the pejorative sense_ is surely theorizing that assumes crazy things about human nature (universal perfect altruism, for example). Discussing state jurisdiction isn’t like this. We have states _now_ but they aren’t a permanent feature of the human condition in the way that some psychological or physiological facts plausibly are.

(Recommendation: A. John Simmons, “On the Territorial Rights of States” , _Philosophical Issues_ 35(2001) (Supplement to _Nous_ ).)


by Ingrid Robeyns on December 7, 2006

One the day my child turned one, “TRex”: wrote about “Esten”:, a three year old boy with leukemia, asking his readers to donate money for his treatment.

I am surprised about my increasing inability to read posts about children in pain, or children in miserable circumstances, without producing tears. Is it age? Or is it triggered by a growing awareness of how vulnerable children can be? Or a permanent change in my hormonal balanance due to childbearing or breastfeeding? Or is it the psychological effects of motherhood?

Whatever…. Hang in there, Esten!

Liberty Cabbage and Pinochle

by John Holbo on December 7, 2006

Did you know?

On April 2, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany despite considerable public opposition. Just a few months after the United States entered the war, Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, called the public mood a “delirium”. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, German Shepards became Alsatians and the city of Syracuse banned pinochle, a German card game. The press published calls for mass hangings of “disloyal German-Americans” and some clergymen compared Germans to cholera germs that must be annihilated. Despite this, naturalized Germans collected relief funds for the Red Cross and served in the U.S. Army.

They banned pinochle? (Wikipedia informs me it is etymologically derived from the German Binokel.) ‘Liberty cabbage’ puts that whole ‘freedom fries’ episode in perspective. At least we aren’t getting any dumber. I wonder whether some shrewd entrepreneur marketed pinochle decks under the badass tempting slogan ‘banned in Syracuse!’