Rights, permissions, duties ….

by Chris Bertram on July 2, 2008

I’ve recently had to advise some students who wanted to write papers on the topic of humanitarian intervention. Not for the first time, it brought home to me how strong the disciplinary pressures towards a particular perspective can be. Political philosophy (of the Rawlsian/Kantian variety) isn’t an entirely fact-free zone, but the way we often discuss matters of principle tends to push us towards favouring _policies_ independently of the way things actually are. So we might ask, what should be the foreign policy of a just liberal state and what attitude should such a state have to “outlaw regimes” which are engaged in systematic human rights violations. And, in the light of such thinking, what would the laws of a just international order look like? What rights against interference would states have? When would there be a duty to intervene? And so on.

Straightforward answers come easily and slickly along: states don’t have any immunity to intervention as such, since they only exist for the protection and benefit of their citizens. If they are actively harming their citizens and we can act to stop this, then we, the just liberal state, should do so. And maybe there should be special permissions granted to bona fide democracies, giving them more extensive rights of intervention than other states. Etc etc. (I rather agree with some of this in the abstract, but it is not hard to see how one might thereby build up enthusiasm for the Iraq war — to pick an example at random — without ever troubling to acquire further information about the country, its history, people, society etc.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with asking the questions that get asked in philosophy seminars. But the temptation is there to read the answers across to the actual world and to support policies as if the philosopher’s premises were true. So, in asking what the policy of a liberal state should be, we proceed as if the actual states in which we live “liberal democracies” approximate that moral ideal rather closely. (They don’t.) And we tend to be less aware of practical objections than we ought to be. (We don’t tend to inquire too deeply into what would happen if we encoded our ideally-justified permission to intervene in international law. How might doing so change the incentives facing political actors?

Contrast this with the economists’ way of approaching matters: will intervening do more harm than good? Would this law or that do more harm than good? Sociologists would be another case for comparison: whilst political philosophers (of the Rawlsian/Kantian variety) are predisposed to see democratic institutions as a requirement of justice, sociologists are likely to ask hard questions about whether this or that society has the social structure or culture that makes democracy possible. Historians might ask whether democracies intervening in non-democratic cultures have more often tended to be benign or, alternatively, genocidal.

Of course, everyone has a get-out here. Everyone pays lip service to the actual world and is keen to tell us that they’re only doing “ideal theory” or that they’re engaged in a hypothetical exercise to determine what the norms would ideally be under non-ideal conditions, that “of course” considerations of practicablity are relevant to deciding what actually ought to happen, and so on. But just as economists tend to read policy off from their models and make concessions to the world as an afterthought (see under “minimum wage” _passim_ ), so philosophers often move too quickly from principles dreamed up for an abstract world to real policy prescriptions.

[Note: The intellectual vices described in this post don’t actually apply to any real philosophers, living or dead, all of whom are careful to issue and act upon the necessary caveats. If you are a political philosopher reading this, you can be certain that it would be most unfair of anyone to suggest that _you_ think like this, or have ever done so. You don’t, and neither do I.]



James Wimberley 07.02.08 at 8:48 am

The great merit of arguments from first principles is that they provide some check against the pervasive human vice of self-deception, an “idol of the tribe” that has more or less free rein in utilitarian pragmatism. We are all inclined to “fix the facts around the policy”; call it the Dearlove principle. You can always kid yourself that the crime you are about to commit is a lesser evil.

Simply running Aquinas’ just war tests, an antique piece of theory kit, over the arguments being put forward in February 2003 for the Iraq invasion sufficed to show there was probably something seriously wrong. And lo, there was.


rageahol 07.02.08 at 9:11 am

and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

i just dont understand how a theoretical argument from nonexistent absolutes can help the discussion if you have a clear vision of what the starting point and hoped-for outcome are.

there will never be a just state.


praisegod barebones 07.02.08 at 11:15 am

‘Philosophers often move too quickly from principles dreamed up for an abstract world to real policy prescriptions.

Note: The intellectual vices described in this post don’t actually apply to any real philosophers.’

As J.L. Austen said of analytic philosophy:

‘There’s the bit when you say it, and the bit where you take it back.’

As someone who’s got a fairly small dog in this fight, I think you should name your targets, rather than go in for this kind of weaselling.


qb 07.02.08 at 11:44 am

A day or two ago Kieran Healy complained about hearing “correlation is not causation” once too often. The complaint, as I understood it, wasn’t that the maxim doesn’t hold, but that it is too often used as an excuse to dismiss compelling data.

The “you can’t go straight from ideal theory to non-ideal theory” objection (often) operates in exactly the same way–it provides a facile excuse to reject normative conclusions with which one disagrees.

Many political philosophers are under the impression that a big part of their job is to make themselves ‘relevant’ to ongoing policy discussions. This leads us to overreach. We might better serve academia if we hewed closer to our abstract principles, and stopped pretending to be experts in foreign policy, in the same way social scientists would do well to heed Hume’s lessons, and leave the metaphysical and conceptual heavy-lifting to the philosophers.

On the other hand, there is some value to be had in slightly exaggerated rhetoric. In the same way that surprising causal claims make economics interesting and accessible to non-economists (e.g. Freakonomics), so too do surprising policy suggestions make political philosophy exciting and thought-provoking for non-philosophers (e.g. arguments for ‘forcible democratization’). Presumably, the specialists in either field can separate the wheat from the chaff, and the real world is messy enough that actual decision-makers will be pulled, virtuously, in both practical and ethical directions.

We could all do a better job of recognizing our methodological limitations, and of finding ways to shore them up with other approaches. But perhaps we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, either.


John Emerson 07.02.08 at 12:01 pm

I am full agreement with the premise of this and the previous post. Graduate school is like a boot camp or dog obedience school conditioning students to think only thoughts allowed by their discipline. Ten or twenty years after someone leaves graduate school, you could tell what discipline they were trained in by wiring them up to a lie detector and finding out which forbidden words made them flinch.


Chris Bertram 07.02.08 at 12:21 pm

_As someone who’s got a fairly small dog in this fight, I think you should name your targets, rather than go in for this kind of weaselling._

Weaselling? I think I’m prone to just the sort of vices I discuss here myself, at least when I’m not being careful and self-aware. So there’s a target straight off: myself.


Dave 07.02.08 at 12:31 pm

Weaselling? I thought it was a joke, implying that ALL of them do it….


Alex Gregory 07.02.08 at 1:03 pm

Isn’t qb entirely correct? Philosophers should be happy to provide a yardstick by which to measure political decisions, and it’s up to the social scientists to tell us where political decisions sit on the yardstick so provided. Matters get messy when people try to do both jobs at once.


sk 07.02.08 at 2:04 pm

didn’t stanley fish just publish a book arguing the same thing?

To summarize: teach your students how to think. Don’t tell them how to vote.



Ingrid Robeyns 07.02.08 at 2:29 pm

Philosophers should be happy to provide a yardstick by which to measure political decisions

but that implies that their yardsticks should be the results of theories that take all relevant constraints and considerations into account, which is, imho, not the case with most ideal theory within normative political philosophy. Many social scientists are currently rather critical of the usefulness of philosophical work on issues of justice, humanitarian intervention, etc for application to the real world – and I think rightly so. Of course there is a good reason why philosophers have some of these assumptions, since we want to know what the priciples would be under ideal circumstances and not give in to the status quo. But that doesn’t justify all the assumptions currently made in ideal theories.

For me the upshot is that we need a massive injection of resources into non-ideal normative political philosophy. That’s what I’ve argued in a paper that’s forthcoming in the next issue of Social Theory and Practice which is entirely devoted to the issue of ideal and non-ideal theories of justice. I will write a post with more content once it’s all in print and online.


Ingrid Robeyns 07.02.08 at 2:33 pm

Of course, one alternative is to say that philosophy shouldn’t aspire to be action guiding or be useful for evaluating states of affairs in the world as it is. I’m not willing to defend that position.


Brownie 07.02.08 at 3:55 pm

I’ve recently had to advise some students who wanted to write papers on the topic of humanitarian intervention.

My daughter has just graduated from Durham and her dissertation title read:

In Light of the Legal Ambiguity Surrounding NATO’s Intervention in Kosovo, is There a Need for a Codified Right of Humanitarian Intervention in International Law?*

I’ll be publishing it soon and you can all marvel at the intellectual rigour of one moulded in my own image.

*The answer is “Emphatically Yes”, by the way.


Dan Kervick 07.02.08 at 4:04 pm

This is a very welcome post. Hopefully this kind of post signals a groundswell of deep dissatisfaction in political philosophy, and the beginning of the end for the mysterious Rawlsian ascendancy found in so many quarters. I also hope that part of this disquiet might reflect some awareness that contemporary political philosophy is far too preoccupied with the normative or prescriptive side of political philosophy, and not nearly as preoccupied as it should be with understanding human beings, with the descriptive study and analysis of individual and collective human behavior, and with reflection on the conceptual underpinnings of that study. The ongoing effort to improve our understanding of ourselves, to identify what, at the deepest levels, we actually want, and the way we actually behave, ought to be seen as an essential foundation for any normative reflections about what we ought to do and any prescribed improvements in the way we organize our common life.

This is something that is deeply lacking in the Kantian and Rawlsian approaches to political philosophy, with their typical disparagement of the relevance of the contingencies of actual human nature. It’s as though the medical academy were thoroughly dominated by a whole school of people writing on the normative principles and ethical conundrums related to medical treatment of human beings, but in a way that is divorced entirely from the scientific study of the actual human body, and concerned primarily with discussions of how ideal nowhere doctors on an ideal nowhere planets should formulate principles for treating the members of an ideal nowhere species, whose actual physiology, fundamental drives and functional organization are obscured behind a veil of ignorance.

A notion that must be strongly resisted is the idea that the weaknesses and limits of the Rawlsian approach to political philosophy are the limits of philosophy itself, as opposed to other areas of inquiry. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Marx and many others grounded their political thinking in the study of actual human beings. There is no reason at all to think the normative philosophical foundations of political thought must be confined to abstract, formal principles from nowhere. There is even less reason to think that normative political philosophy should consist in deducing or adducing imaginary subsidiary norms from the imaginary charter of an imaginary society.


smaug 07.02.08 at 6:33 pm

…philosophers often move too quickly from principles dreamed up for an abstract world to real policy prescriptions.

Really? It might help to have some examples here. Which philosophers do this so uncritically?

I don’t see the flaw with the policy implications being drawn from principled theorizing, with a huge ceteris paribus qualifier attached. I think Bertram is being too hard on political philosophers here.

I think the problem arises when people fail to think about the policy implications thoroughly. Take the conclusion here — that a just liberal state should intervene to stop systematic gross human rights violations when they can. Could this justify the Iraq intervention? Maybe, but in 2003 such a conclusion would have pointed to intervention in Cuba, Libya, Burma (Myanmar), North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria & Turkmenistan as well (using Freedom House’s double-7 scores for 2003). The question would be: what counts as gross, systematic human-rights violations? How should they be ranked? How to choose among candidates for intervention?


John Emerson 07.02.08 at 7:08 pm

I recently had an internet political debate with a nice, sensible person who happens to be an analytic philosopher. I found his opinion unrealistic and objectionable and accused him of being a mad-dog-realist of the act-utilitarian type. He confessed to the act-utilitarianism. As the discussion progressed, others becoming involved too, it came to seem that what he was saying would only be convincing to other act utilitarians. In other words, his training had made it difficult for him to communicate with anyone outside his particular sub-specialty an tendency (together with non-specialists who were act-utilitarians by personal inclination). This seemed rather disempowering.

I feel much the same about Peter Singer. I read his animal rights book, and he seemed to assume that pain-minimization was the fundamental principle of ethics. For anyone whose ethics were of some other kind (e.g. me) his book said little.


abb1 07.02.08 at 8:48 pm

…the topic of humanitarian intervention..When would there be a duty to intervene?

Part of the problem here is the language, euphemisms. “Intervention”. If you are talking about sending them rice and iceberg lettuce – that’s one thing. Giving some of them guns and bombs is a different matter. Assassinating their leaders (the “bad guys”, presumingly), bombing, terrorizing their country, killing thousands of people, destroying their infrastructure, etc. – that’s something else again. Anything can be “intervention”; imprecise language makes these “straightforward answers” meaningless.


Chris Bertram 07.02.08 at 9:18 pm

Look, I’m writing about the cognitive pressures political philosophers are prone to (imho), because I feel them myself most acutely. But the point is supposed to be a quite general one about disciplines. I’m sure sociologists or economists could tell a similar tale.

On specific responses above:

Dan Kervick: unlike you I have no problems with Rawlsians (et al) engaging in that kind of theorizing. I do it myself. I’m just calling for a little bit more self-consciousness about the limitations and dangers.

abb1: leave it out.


Barry 07.03.08 at 12:42 am

Posted by smaug:

“The question would be: what counts as gross, systematic human-rights violations? ”


“How should they be ranked?”


“How to choose among candidates for intervention?”



vivian 07.03.08 at 1:59 am

Chris, why the own goal: “Contrast this with the economists’ way of approaching matters: will intervening do more harm than good? Would this law or that do more harm than good?” That’s straight-up philosophy, though of the utilitarian and pragmatist (Dewey and Putnam more than Rorty afaict) style. Economists are more likely to talk about principal/agent problems, resource constraints and, if we’re lucky, specific relevant economic facts of the case. There is plenty of analytic philosophy concerned with setting priorities – abstract but usable. There are lots of tenured professors of philosophy and political theory who talk about practical concerns without embarrassing themselves too much – Pogge, Buchanan, Putnam, Scanlon, etc. We might be in Rawls’ shadow but that doesn’t mean there is no light from outside.


curious grad student 07.03.08 at 4:42 am

As someone who’s very sympathetic to the thrust of the post and concerned generally with the relationship between theory and practice, I’m curious if anyone has any recommendations of recent work in political philosophy that treats these issues at greater length than a blog post. All suggestions are appreciated.


Chris Bertram 07.03.08 at 4:50 am

Vivian: Obviously I’m not unaware either that there are philosophers who are straightforward consequentialists or that there are philosophers who successfully avoid the pathologies I was trying to describe. Buchanan would, I agree, be a good example of the latter (in fact I had him in mind when writing the post).


Alex 07.03.08 at 9:34 am

Frankly, if there is any intellectual enterprise we don’t need, it’s yet more consideration of “humanitarian intervention” taken in the abstract, as if there possibly could be any such thing as an abstract, ideal type international crisis or military operation. Whatever you set up as points of departure, they’re going to end up back at just war, and Iraq is still going to be a disaster.

Meanwhile, 12 raises the horrible possibility of second-generation Decents.


qb 07.03.08 at 12:53 pm

Alex, technical terms don’t require crystal clear extension to be theoretically useful. Some judicious stipulation allows us to talk about things and events in general terms by cutting down on complexity–it need not deny that such complexity exists. It’s not like there are any such “things” as abstract, ideal-type “intellectual enterprises,” “points of departure,” or “horrible possibilities” either.

Moreover, even if all things “humanitarian intervention” fell within the purview of just war theory, which they don’t, you seem to be under the mistaken impression that the just war tradition presents something like a coherent, unified account of the morality of war, which it doesn’t. For that matter, the questions just war theorists address are considerably more interesting and difficult than deciding whether or not Iraq is a disaster.

Just because you aren’t interested in a subject doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t talk about it. Frankly, there are many intellectual enterprises we need less than just war theory, and blog commentary about which intellectual enterprises are worthwhile is one of them.


Brownie 07.03.08 at 12:53 pm

Meanwhile, 12 raises the horrible possibility of second-generation Decents.

It’s worse than you think. I’m having my vasectomy reversed.


matt 07.03.08 at 1:03 pm

David Miller, in his new book _National Responsibility and Global Justice_ discusses some of these ideas in a quite interesting and useful (if not completely right, I think) way. He doesn’t offer a fully worked out view, of course, and it’s not the place of philosophers to offer particular policy recommendations, but he does start working out an interesting account of when, how, and to what degree various types of intervention can be required. It’s quite a good book over all- much more careful than a lot of work on global justice- and worth looking at, especially, perhaps, for those inclined not to agree with him. (On at least some things that includes me.)


Brownie 07.03.08 at 1:33 pm

Jokic, Aleksandar and Wilkins, Burleigh [Editors] (2003) Humanitarian Intervention As a Moral and Philosophical Issue (Broadview Press)


Peter K. 07.03.08 at 3:25 pm

Chris Bertram:

“So, in asking what the policy of a liberal state should be, we proceed as if the actual states in which we live “liberal democracies” approximate that moral ideal rather closely. (They don’t.) ”

The Cold War is long gone and these kids don’t have a memory of it and how bad the West behaved in the name of fighting Communism. Some people are just stuck in the 60s.

And these kids are idealistic and see the older generation and the government as complacent.

I fucking hate the name “Decent.”


novakant 07.03.08 at 4:26 pm

Expanding on what Vivian said, these questions (theory vs ‘real world’, the normative vs the factual, the general vs. the individual) have of course been around since more or less the beginning of philosophy. And not only that, but discussing such questions has traditionally been a major part of what philosophers actually preoccupied themselves with and thus philosophy is one of the most self-critical disciplines around. From my experience, philosophers tend to be rather more aware and critical of their methodology than both social and natural scientists. So I’m a bit at a loss as to why philosophy as a discipline should suddenly be incapable of dealing with these problems. An interdisciplinary exchange with the social and natural sciences is certainly beneficial and probably necessary, painting caricatures of quixotic philosophers not so much.


Tom Hurka 07.03.08 at 4:29 pm

The abstract, philosophical theory of justice in war contains conditions about, e.g. proportionality, which say the resort to force is unjust if it will cause harm out of proportion to the relevant good it will secure. Applying that condition requires, and is known to require, all sorts of real-world information.

The philosophical literature on humanitarian intervention has mostly addressed the prior question of whether, proportionality apart, such intervention is in principle forbidden (as e.g. the UN Charter claims) or can in certain circumstances be permitted.

But the latter question has always been discussed with the caveat “proportionality and other similar conditions permitting,” and it’s been understood that whether those conditions are satisfied isn’t something philosophers can settle.

You can believe (I certainly do) that humanitarian intervention is in principle permitted, i.e. can be a just cause for war, even though many and even most such real-world interventions would be unjust because they would cause excessive or unnecessary harm. And I think most philosophers writing on the topic have been perfectly aware of that.


Chris Bertram 07.03.08 at 4:55 pm

Tom H: I agree with you until your final sentence.

If, when you write

_And I think most philosophers writing on the topic have been perfectly aware of that._

you mean that most professional philosophers writing scholarly papers in journals etc have indicated an awareness of the point, then that’s still correct.

But philosophers don’t just contribute through “writing on the topic” in that sense, but also through educating students, and through influencing debate in the media, on blogs and in other places (and in their ordinary conversation on policy matters). In those places, I think the vices I’m worrying about are far more evident.

I’d also add that the fact that people acknowledge the fact that philosophers can’t settle question X, agree that real-world information is required, &c, doesn’t establish that they do actually give those extra-philosophical considerations the weight they should.


Tom Hurka 07.03.08 at 6:16 pm


Fair enough, and I’ll agree that philosopher friends have been far too confident in their off-the-cuff judgements about particular wars. I was writing a newspaper column at the time of the 1991 Gulf War and felt compelled to have an opinion about it, which I found very difficult because the kinds of balancing required to decide whether the war was proportional and/or a last resort demanded a kind of skill in judgement, let alone knowledge of the facts, that I as a professional philosopher didn’t think I had.

You may not agree with this example, but I think Michael Walzer, though not (as he himself admits) the greatest abstract philosopher, often shows very good judgement on these types of questions.


abb1 07.04.08 at 6:27 am

Tom (29),
…that humanitarian intervention is in principle permitted…” – I agree, of course. I can easily imagine a hypothetical scenario where war is clearly the best solution.

…is unjust if it will cause harm out of proportion to the relevant good it will secure…” – if that’s the main criterion, then how is it different from Dershowitz’s “ticking bomb” scenario? It seems to be exactly the same argument.

In fact, your scenario even seems weaker, because while Mr. Dershowitz inflicts excruciating pain (though not disproportionally, using sterile needles only) on the terrorist; your scenario, no matter how proportional the force is, is likely to kill, maim, rape, torture, etc. a bunch of innocent bystanders. Because that’s what happens in wars.


Dave 07.04.08 at 9:17 am

@32, alas, taking the logic evident there to its conclusion, no defensive alliance between two sovereign states should exist, or be acted upon, because however great the suffering inflicted by one country upon another, it will always be more likely that such suffering will grow if a third party is involved. And therefore, so long as one is the ruler of a strong state, one can confidently go about seizing and pillaging weaker states, safe in the knowledge that theorists have proved that anyone trying to stop you will just make things worse.

War is indeed, as general Sherman had it, all Hell, but there are circles of Hell, and I am fairly certain that the one containing cowards who stood by and justified a refusal to act against atrocities, under any circumstances, on the grounds that ‘it will just make things worse’ is a deep pit indeed. But perhaps you didn’t quite mean that?

p.s., I was unaware that, for example, the liberation of France in 1944 involved widespread rape and torture by the advancing allies. Evidence appreciated.


abb1 07.04.08 at 9:42 am

Dave, what I meant is, I think, exactly what Chris meant in his post: fine in theory, extremely problematic in real life.

My own humble contribution here is the observation that words like “intervention” (especially “humanitarian”), “use of force”, “military action” and even “starting a war” currently don’t have the connotation of something extremely barbaric, like, say, the word “torture”. I feel that this confuses the issue.

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