Saturday, March 18, 2006

Consequentialism, Deontology and Just Wars

by Joe Miller

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick famously advances the view that rights act as side-constraints on our actions. There Nozick rejects what he calls a "utilitarianism of rights" which calls for minimizing instances of rights violations and argues instead that a proper understanding of rights as side-constraints requires that rights function as "moral constraints in the pursuit of your goals" (Nozick 29). What Nozick recognizes is that deontological theories of ethics (Kant and Locke in particular) don't so much prescribe what sorts of things I should be doing as proscribe what sorts of things I must not do. Kant gives us lots of duties to refrain from X, but very few duties of the do-Y sort. (Indeed, pretty much all of the duties of the do-Y type are imperfect duties, or duties which I must discharge but which I am also free to choose how and when I will discharge.)

The upshot is that deontological accounts of ethics, particularly those of the Kantian or Lockean variety, offer individuals much greater latitude in their actions than do consequentialist (specifically, utilitarian) theories of ethics. Most consequentialists say something like, "maximize G for P" where G is some conception of the good and P is some person or group of persons. Since they are committed to maximization, consequentialists must typically hold that there is one particular action that is required of me in any given circumstance. For deontologists, however, there is always a wide range of actions open to me; I will be free to perform any non-proscribed action that I choose. Hence the basis of Kantian emphasis on living my life in accordance with reasons that I give to myself.

What all of this means for Nozick is that an account of ethics that takes rights seriously may well also take seriously the pursuit of good consequences. Rights, however, will act as constraints on the consequences that one can pursue. For Nozick, in other words, there is nothing inconsistent in having a theory of morality that says, "among those acts available to you that don't violate constraints C, act so as to maximize goal G" (Nozick 29).

It is precisely this view that Michael Walzer imports into his discussion of humanitarian intervention in chapter 6 of Just and Unjust Wars. Following Mill, Walzer outlines a set of criteria for justifying armed humanitarian intervention:
  1. In cases of secession, where the side attempting to secede has demonstrated that it represents a real national movement and has made at least some positive progress toward liberty all on its own.
  2. In civil wars, when a foreign power has intervened illegitimately on behalf of one side, intervention on the other side is permitted, but that counter-intervention must do no more than balance out the initial illegitimate intervention.
  3. In real humanitarian crises, where a state is committing acts that "shock the conscience of mankind" against its own citizenry (e.g., genocide or mass enslavement).
Walzer's criteria provide a set of side-constraints on just intervention. In effect, Walzer is saying that any intervention that does not meet one of the three above criteria is proscribed. But where one of the above criteria is met, Walzer does not require intervention. Rather, he falls back (albeit implicitly) on a view much like Nozick's. Specifically, Walzer allows that in deciding whether or not to intervene, a nation may legitimately consider the degree to which intervention really will maximize goal G, where goal G can be either the interests of my nation generally or the interests of overall world peace.

To sum, Walzer is not claiming that nations ought to rush to the aid of every promising secessionist movement or charge in to correct all human rights abuses. Rather, he provides a set of conditions under which intervention would be justified. Individual nations must then determine under what conditions they actually will intervene in those (sadly numerous) cases in which intervention would be justified. Walzer provides the side-constraints C and then leaves open the question of what sorts of goal G it is appropriate for nations to pursue within those constraints. Our task is to make sure that G is likewise morally defensible.


Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

Now, as I drove home last Thursday evening, I am thinking that there is a whole lot of necessary and very little sufficiency going on. While there may be scores of reasons that something may be considered 'just reason for action,' I find that a far cry from the 'ought' claims for which we, as philosophers, so thirst.

Then again, this is sort of the point of JWT in the first place, no? Finding the necessary?

Anyway, nice summation of last Thursday's class... without the cupcakes and whatnot.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

I'll see what I can do about adding some virtual cupcakes to the post.

11:39 PM  

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