I don’t think that a person in my situation—and I imagine my fellow panelists are similarly situated—is in any position to judge whether there exists a moral imperative to “intervene in countries like Libya.” The consideration of moral imperatives always involves prudential concerns; indeed, classic just war theory requires that wars have a likely chance of success. None of us has sufficient knowledge of the military and political dynamics at play in any of these countries, let alone in all of them (as these dynamics are profoundly interrelated), to make such a determination.
Instead, our role is to remind the people who do make such decisions of what our traditions have taught on the issue, especially where those teachings have met with broad approval outside of our own tradition.
What I would offer from my tradition is the reminder that people are worthy of governments that respect the dignity inherent to the very fact of being human. If a people is oppressed by a tyrant, it is a noble and charitable thing to risk life and treasure to liberate them…provided there is a good chance of success, and that such liberation happen according to the principles of justice in the manner of fighting the war. The fact that men are not angels, and that even with the best of intentions people still get hurt gravely in wars, must give policymakers great pause as they contemplate entering into combat with another nation.
The devotion of resources to one cause will necessarily limit one’s ability to devote them to another, so if a nation is to intervene it must be sure that it has sufficient military energies in reserve to address other important needs that may arise. It may well be the case that multiple situations merit attention, but only some, or one, or none may be engaged due to the limitations of the resources available. This kind of prudential consideration is part and parcel of policy-making, and it is illegitimate to demand that intervention in one nation triggers the moral responsibility to intervene in all such nations.
A nation may only do some things if it does not attempt to do everything, and to invalidate the former for the sake of the (illusory) latter renders it impossible to achieve a standard of justice in prosecuting a war. For those who raise this objection, I suspect this may well be the point of the exercise.
Jason Poling | Mar 23, 2011 10:20 AM