Friday, March 4, 2011

The State as Moral Agent

Some attention has been given to the similarities or dissimilarities between the moral obligations incumbent upon individuals as opposed to those of states. In their potential role as intervening agents in cases of gross violations of human rights, the question is whether states may be held to the same moral expectations as individual humans.

In the class discussion of the example of the campus shooter, it was noted that individual responsibility for responding to emergency situations seems contingent on both one's role within the social environment and proximity (literal or otherwise) to the crisis. Some questioned whether such considerations could be properly applied to events occurring on the other side of the world. However, in this case the factors framing the moral choices of states are not particularly different from those confronting individuals; that is, the (at least potential) moral claims that may arise for states are heavily dependent on context, just as they are for individuals. As the individual in the classroom can be more reasonably expected to attempt to respond to the situation than can an individual in the adjacent building, so a country neighboring a state which violates human rights can be said to have a more compelling direct interest in addressing the violation than can a nation on the other side of the globe. Likewise, the global leadership role of a powerful state like the United States may be considered analogous to Dr. J's self-avowed position of responsibility in the classroom. After all, to which country are the demands from some quarters for military intervention in Libya primarily directed?

However, in another respect, the moral character of state behavior is quite different from that of persons. As noted in class, courageous, self-sacrificing behavior by individuals is much-admired, even where it is not felt to be obligatory. In certain cases (such as for a soldier in wartime), self-sacrifice may even be deemed a moral duty. In general, at least in the Western Judeo-Christian moral universe (and its secular subsidiaries), altruism is the mark of a good person. We admire those who are willing to put the well-being of others above their own. 

A state, conversely, is duty-bound to pursue its own self-interest, because it is entrusted with the welfare of its people. For a state to forgo its own interest in favor of the welfare of others seems to conflict with its basic purpose, and may not even be admirable, since it would betray its first loyalty to its own citizens. In the case of self-sacrifical behavior, what may be the height of moral excellence for the individual is unthinkable folly for the state.

At the very least, the state's role as guardian of its own citizenry, first and foremost, significantly alters the moral calculus underpinning its conduct. Yet, even if states are different sorts of moral agents than individuals (if the state can be termed moral at all), they clearly are capable of action with great moral significance. 

One of the best, and unfortunately too-often neglected, examples of state power acting towards moral ends is the role of the British Empire in stamping out the international slave trade in the 19th century. After having benefitted, admittedly, from this vile traffic for decades, the United Kingdom undertook a massive effort to banish it, committing considerable naval and financial resources over the course of decades (I read somewhere that the campaign against the slave trade may have consumed as much as 2 per cent of Britain's annual economic output during this period). Many millions of pounds were expended, and hundreds of British sailors and marines were killed in the service of this cause. While efforts to curb slave-trading intersected with Britain's other colonial interests, it is clear that the expense in blood and treasure far outweighed any material benefit the British could hope to recoup.

Was this foolishness? Was it laudable? Was it merely the fulfillment of a moral obligation to humanity? I don't know, but I am deeply impressed by it. My very astonishment stems in part, I suspect, from this tale's relative rarity as a clear example of state power directed towards morally unimpeachable ends (whatever the reason; as I indicated in class, I doubt it is ever proper to speak of purity of motive when it comes to state behavior). Nonetheless, it demonstrates the capacity of the exercise of political power for moral good. Arguably, states do not operate outside the moral universe; at the same time, they occupy a rather different place within it than does the individual.

1 comment:

  1. Patrick, I think this a very interesting post that rather acurately sums up the debate that we had in class. Perhaps the best way to characterize the relationships between one state and another is to consider the relationship between one individual and another. Just as I consider you as a whole individual rather than a group of parts that fit together, so must one nation consider another nation. Having said that, the right/duty of one nation to interfer with another on behalf of a group of people (which would be considered parts in this context) within that nation is questionable at best. For instance, do I really have the right to interfere if you decide that you like to cut yourself? I clearly know that this action is not good for you, but I my right and obligations in this situation are a little unclear. What if the attack on your parts is something less over such as smoking or eating foods that are extremely bad for your health? Do I have the right to interfere in these cases despite the fact that you are killing yourself? If we cannot provide clear and consistent answers to these questions when thinking about individuals, I doubt that we will be able to do so for nations who have arguably greater autonomy from one another than we do.


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