Syria and Misconceptions about Philosophy
In the wake of suspected recent chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians by their own government, The Atlantic reached out to a few philosophers to learn what the “moral course of action” is for the United States. The collection of answers suggests a problem with public philosophy.
The article’s author, Sigal Samuel, writes:
The war [in Syria] has left roughly half a million people dead—the UN has stopped counting—but the question of moral responsibility has taken on new urgency in the wake of a suspected chemical attack over the weekend. As President Trump threatened to launch retaliatory missile strikes, I spoke about America’s ethical responsibility with some of the world’s leading moral philosophers. These are people whose job it is to ascertain the right thing to do in any given situation. All of them suggested that, years ago, America might have been able to intervene in a moral way to stop the killing in the Syrian civil war. But asked what America should do now, they all gave the same startling response: They don’t know.
I think it is great that Ms. Samuel reached out to philosophers. However, I think we can ask how it is she came to think that it is the job of moral philosophers “to ascertain the right thing to do in any given situation,” for it is not. And we can ask how she came to think that it is “startling” that “they don’t know,” for if philosophers are experts in anything, it is in revealing the complexities that make it hard to know anything at all.
Short answer: it’s not her fault; it’s ours.
Philosophers, more than anyone else, are in a position to know about the extraordinary amount of disagreement there is now, and has been throughout the history of philosophy, over answers to big philosophical questions. Such collective disagreement, among the people who have thought about these questions the most, is a reason why we should have little confidence in the truth of our own answers to them, and to be skeptical that providing true answers to big philosophical questions is what philosophy is about—we’re much better at the undervalued tasks of creating questions and otherwise complicating matters.
This skepticism is especially salient regarding practical questions. Most philosophical training prepares us for mapping the possible and the necessary. This is of limited use in navigating the actual and the advisable. Yet this has little effect on how some philosophers comport themselves, especially when engaging with the public on matters of current events. We quite frequently see in such contexts philosophers offering answers to questions about what to do and providing practical advice. We give the impression that we are all about the answers. It is no surprise, then, that others come to see us that way, too. And that’s a problem.
It’s a problem that Ms. Samuel’s article conveniently illustrates. She assumes that the job of moral philosophers is to answer practical moral questions. She then asks three philosophers—Helen Frowe (Stockholm), Nancy Sherman (Georgetown), and Peter Singer (Princeton)—what the actual United States should do now. To their credit, each of them says in one form or another, “I don’t know.” But the impression the article conveys is that this is a failure. And once again, doubts about the value of philosophy are reinforced.
At a time when education in the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, is being targeted for reduction or elimination by short-sighted administrators and legislators, such doubts may have harmful ramifications for the profession.
Philosophers have not done a good job of explaining the value of what they do. If we had, then Ms. Samuel would not have asked her interviewees, “What should we do?” Instead, she would have asked them, “Why is it so hard to know what to do?” That’s a valuable and helpful question, and one that philosophers are expert at taking up.
Of course, on a wide range of controversial questions many philosophers who work in normative ethics do have definite ideas about what should be done. This is true of Singer in particular. So in general it’s not a mistake to ask moral philosophers what a person or a country ought to do. (The mistake, of course, would be to ask several and expect agreement.) I’m sure that this wasn’t the intent, but one way to read the last paragraph is as saying that if moral philosophers were doing there job better they’d be doing meta-ethics and would get the public to see that meta-ethical questions are the appropriate ones to ask them.Report
My 2nd favorite philosopher Yogi Berra, summed this string perfectly when he declared, “In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice they are’nt”. When all is said and done, a lot said but nothing doneReport
I guess I don’t see this article putting forth “doubts about the value of philosophy,” as you suggest, Justin. The tenor of the article is that past policy failures in Syria leave the U.S. and other outside nations with no ethically defensible options for intervention (or at least, for *military* intervention.) The philosophers’ “I don’t know” are not confessions of moral ignorance but recognitions of moral tragedy:
“All these “I don’t knows” raise another ethical question: What do you do if it’s just too late to do the right thing?”
Samuel then quotes Helen Frowe:
““One of the lessons to be learned is that we need a better plan for intervention earlier, one that might have some prospect of success,” Frowe said. Otherwise, “you can end up in a situation where you have no good options—where there’s nothing that it’s permissible for you to do.”
Samuel does turn to philosophers for help in sorting out our obligations regarding Syria, but the takeaway isn’t “look at these philosophers – — promising answers to practical questions and then failing to deliver!” If anything, the article underscores that moral philosophy can’t help us if we’ve made decisions that render us (ethically) helpless. That’s a message of philosophical modesty, not hubris. (And I would add that there’s something valuable in philosophers highlighting when we have no ethically defensible options; it’s an important counterweight to the ‘we have to do something, so let’s do this foolish thing’ mentality that often seems to prevail in foreign policy.)Report
Working in bioethics one can note a difference between those who are famous for taking positions and the usually far less famous whose work tends to show just how complicated the questions are.
People often ask me what I think about topic x or y and though its a bit cute sounding, I usually tell them that my job is not to answer questions but to question accepted answers.Report
Oh, come on. We surely answer all sorts of moral questions from our armchairs, quite comfortably. A philosopher who teaches a bioethics course without making positive claims about the moral duties of medical professionals is, quite simply, not doing her job. We can express uncertainty about some moral claims without expressing uncertainty about all moral claims. I’m tempted to go through the entries of this blog for the millions of times when philosophers “ascertain the right thing to do” in various circumstances.
Nevertheless, I agree that the goal of the discipline is not to manufacture bite sized nuggets of wisdom for the unthinking masses — far from it. The distinction between “lover of wisdom” and “wise guy” is important. In tremendously complex circumstances, it is hard to know what is right to do. But it isn’t hard to identify relevant moral principles, and to suggest ways that they might be applied.Report
I just don’t see how the current situation in Syria meets the criteria set down by just-war theory of consent, proportionality, just intentions, legality, exhaustion of non bellicose options etc.
We need to keep in mind that the Atlantic is run by neocons like David Frum (who coined the ‘Axis of Evil’ term for Bush in order to sell his Iraq war). In the past they have always tried to make a case for intervention. Also I have a very poor assessment of most journalists and in general I do not trust their summary of specialists’ views such as philosophical views. In my experience they have often attributed views to people which are wholly contrary to their proponents’ actual views. I’ve seen this with a contributor here (Jason Brennan who told me via email that he was quoted out of context when a Washington Post reporter attributed a position to him he explicitly argued against).
Given these considerations I am skeptical that most just war theorists are ambivalent about the situation as the article suggests. I would think that they would be far more against intervention especially given the recent history of failures such as in Iraq, Libya and Syria.Report
The traditional categories of just-war theory, while not useless, seem to me ill-equipped to provide a lot of insight into the Syrian situation, partly because of its enormous complexity (i.e., an ‘internationalized’ civil war, in which all sides have committed war crimes or violated relevant int’l law, and in which Assad, w the support of his allies, is engaged in what can prob. be described as the functional equivalent of genocide). Anyway the article doesn’t pose the question to just-war theorists (Sherman and Singer are not just-war theorists; I don’t know about Frowe), but to moral philosophers, which is a broader category.Report
Helena Frowe is one of the most well known and visible “younger” just war theorists, (as well as very smart) for what that’s worth. She has a couple of books and many papers directly on a wide range of relevant topics.Report
(I don’t know what I’ve added an extra “a” to the end of Frowe’s first name. As many people have said before, and edit function for small, silly mistakes would be great here!)Report
Humanitarian war (or intervention) is the kind of war being advocated by proponents of Syrian intervention. This kind of war is very commonly debated within just war theory. It’s complexities are discussed within the literature (see McMahan’s “Killing in War” for a great introduction)
Also Peter Singer has indeed published on the ethics of war. Granted they were not in philosophical journals but in magazines and papers directed at a general audience. Nancy Sherman is a very well known scholar on the ethics of war.Report
I don’t disagree with Justin’s comments in the OP. But I think there are other, more direct, reasons for philosophers to answer “I don’t know”: namely, that the question turns partly on very difficult questions of geopolitics and military strategy.
Here’s a completely reasonable question to ask a moral philosopher:
“Under what sort of general circumstances, if any, is military intervention in other countries potentially justifiable?”
Here’s a more or less reasonable question to ask a moral philosopher:
“A planned intervention in Syria has the following possible outcomes:
– Military defeat of the Assad regime, establishment of a broadly-functional government in Syria at about the level of stability and autocracy as contemporary Egypt, and casualties of order 100 US military, 30,000 Syrian military, 70,000 Syrian civilians (15% likely)
– Continuation of the status quo in Syria with a reduction of Assad-backed chemical-weapon use over an 18-month period, reducing civilian casualties by c.10,000 but without longer-term effects, and casualties of order 10 US military, 2,000 Syrian military, 5,000 Syrian civilians (45% likely)
– Long-term engagement of US forces in Syria, with consequences and casualties roughly comparable to the Iraq war (35% likely)
– Great-power conflict with Russia with an unpredictable likelihood of escalation to nuclear exchange (5% likely).
Should we carry out this planned intervention?”
Here’s a completely unreasonable question to ask a moral philosopher:
“What should we do about Syria?”Report
“What should we do about Syria?”
I thought this was a perfectly reasonable question. It is dependent on the “general circumstances” question and also to the issues about strategy and facts relevant to Syria (whether it really was Assad who used chemical weapons or it was Al Qaeda, a foreign government, etc).
However as the article noted, the burden of proof out to be on the people advocating for military intervention. Since modern wars tend to have very high civilian casualties and they are often illegal and disastrous in other ways, that standard of proof ought to be very high. The three philosophers she interviewed all seem to say that Syria doesn’t meet those high standards and yet the impression the article gave was that they “just don’t know”.Report
Come for the OP, stay for the David Wallace comments.Report
I am not a professional philosopher but would like to weigh in on this issue. My perspective is that the “correct” answer for the moral philosophers is the answer they all gave, “I don’t know.” Whatever your discipline, if you are asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, is the same as these philosophers gave.
I suspect that they don’t know because the question involves issues outside of the usual sphere of knowledge of academic philosophers. I would expect them to have an in-depth understanding of the ethical issues involved, e.g., does the U. S. have an ethical responsibility to intervene in Syria if they used chemical weapons.
However, the specifics of what we should do (if anything) requires information that most of us don’t know. For example, how certain are we that the Syrian government was responsible?
Another important question has to do with what the range of military options there are if military force makes sense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff probably know, but most of us don’t.
As a practical matter, we should be knowledgeable about International Law as it pertains to the use of chemical weapons. Are their laws governing the appropriate body to carry out a response? Is it the U. N. ? Can the U. S. unilaterally take action? Are there restrictions on the types of reactions that are legally allowed? I don’t think a philosopher should be expected to be knowledgeable about all of the questions I have listed.
A final practical matter that I will mention is the full cost of any response. Would a specific intervention lead to war with Russia? Would it result in greater loss of life? Is it a problem from a financial perspective?
My conclusion is that philosohers have a lot of useful ideas to offer, but they should not be expected to get too specific in response to the question, “What should we do?”
It’s no mistake to think that philosophers can answer moral questions. Lots of what applied philosophers do is answering the question “what should we do?” It is absolutely true that very often we can’t identify a uniquely correct solution. But not always: reasonably often (and sometimes for questions that are regarded by the media as open questions) we can answer the question. Is abortion permissible? Yes. Is it okay to enhance intelligence? Granted there are hard questions left (is abortion permissible when the foetus is 8 months old? I don’t know). But there is a range of questions we can answer confidently.Report
Just one comment, in case it’s helpful. The article is somewhat misleading, as these things often are. I did, for example, say quite clearly what the US *shouldn’t* do – namely, carry out military intervention. I suppose that ruling out courses of action isn’t the same as prescribing a course of action. But in this situation, identifying what we shouldn’t do seems at least as important as identifying what we should do. I did also suggest positive courses of action, such as taking in more refugees. But my overall (and, I thought, quite emphatic) response was that the risks of escalation, the dim prospect of deterring future CW attacks, the risks of collateral harm, Trump’s mental instability and the fact that force of the kind being considered has no prospect of saving lives present a pretty overwhelming case against military intervention. Similarly, I doubt that either Nancy or Peter were quite “at a loss” in the way the reporter implies.
My response of “Christ, I don’t know” was an initial response to being asked what I would do if I were Donald Trump – a concept hard to grasp on many levels (I wonder whether Nancy’s ‘I don’t know’ was a response to the same question). To be fair to the reporter, I did then also give a fuller answer that, in a sense, amounted to “I don’t know”. But to be fair to me, I made it clear that that answer was based on the difference in mine and Trump’s epistemic positions (as pointed out above, the question of what one would do if one had access to all the relevant intelligence is pretty hard to answer if one doesn’t have access to all the relevant intelligence). The article has been corrected insofar as they’ve removed the claim that I said *only* “I don’t know” – the reporter says her editor added that without her knowledge. But it does seem that she wanted to emphasise the ‘startling’ and apparently unified response of “I don’t know” more than she wanted to accurately convey what I (and perhaps the others) said. But, I guess that coming up with striking headlines is part of being a journalist, so perhaps that’s unsurprising.
However, I do think the article as a whole, if we ignore the spin / headline, does give a fairly reasonable picture of at least some of the relevant moral issues. It’s just a shame that it might also invite or encourage the idea that philosophers are all a bit useless.
Everyone should totally read my Trolley paper, though.Report
At least they were in the same neighborhood in quoting you, just lacking in the proper context. As I stated above, I have experienced many instances where reporters attributed views that were contrary to the person they interviewed. Most of the mainstream media is pro war and they will contort views as best they could to support a pro war message.Report
The popular misconception that it is philosophers’ — particularly ethicists’ — job to “ascertain the right thing to do in any given situation” is getting a boost these days from TV’s “The Good Place.” I’m guessing the popularity of that show was a driver for Samuel’s article.Report
It is the obligation of every American citizen to have an opinion on what its government should do in situations like these. The idea that such matters should be left to “military experts” is not just absurd based on the history of what those “experts” have recommended in the past; it is counter to the principle of civilian control of the military which, as originally understood, meant that acts of war would be grounded in the consent of ordinary citizens (hence, the old fashioned idea that wars should be declared via maximum public input). Whether or not citizens of other countries are so obliged is a separate matter. Political philosophers who work on these issues are obliged to contribute to intelligent policy discussions, if they regard their role as participating in the civic dialogue (not all of them do). If a political philosopher works on these issues and really has no idea what to think of current actions in Syria, I would suggest they work a bit harder.Report
Excellent comment. I also just wanted to say that I use your paper “Self Defense, Pacifism, and the Possibility of Killing” in all my introductory level ethics courses. It is outstanding, and I am very grateful to you for it! I recommend it to everyone here.Report
America and some of its allies have been engaged in illegal and unjust wars for the better part of two decades, and most just war theorists have been silent (or nearly silent) on the justice of these wars, preferring to tinker with hypothetical trolley-style cases. One might think the problem is not with this case, or with moral philosophy in general, but with the methods and questions dominant in just war theory at the moment.
It sounds like Prof Frowe gave exactly the right answer to the reporter, which is that the US/allies should not intervene, not engage in military action, and do much more humanitarian work to support refugees. Prof Ryan’s comment above is exactly right–everyone has a duty to have a view on these questions, and moral philosophers have special role based duties to contribute to public discussions. It would be an abandonment of that duty to simply say, ‘With all the training I have on this topic and the time I am given to think and teach about it, I can tell you why it is a hard question’.Report
I agree that just war theorists can probably raise their voice much more especially given how disastrous wars the west have waged have been. But I do not think that is a problem for just war theory but because of common human frailties. People are afraid of career and social backlash for speaking out.
There are a couple of additional issues. First our media rarely allows anti-war voices. See FAIR’s study of the pre-Iraq war propaganda just as one example. The few voices that are heard are often immediately silenced and even punished. Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura and Ashley Banfield were the few mainstream voices who doubted the official Iraq narrative in the mainstream media just before the war and Donohue and Ventura were fired while Banfield was demoted (her office was moved to a basement closet). I’ve read one theorists (McMahan) account who said he asked other people working in the practical ethics if they were ever asked by the government or the media for their views before the Iraq war. He said none had been asked. Often professional opinions (legal, philosophical, economic, medical, etc) are not important to policy makers. I think that’s a common misperception that policy is informed by considerations of public welfare or even the truth in the US and other western “democracies”. Rather it’s determined by internal political forces in these places.
Secondly I think there is a misconception of what just war theory is. It’s somewhat of a misnomer. There is no singular just war theory. Much like quantum “theory” there are many “theories” (many worlds, random collapse, bohmian, etc etc inthe case of quantum mechanics). Opinions can differ obviously but I suspect that the majority would be against intervention in Syria. If the Bush admin had listened to just war theorists in 2003, I also suspect that we would not have had that criminal war.Report
So now we’ve see the US, UK and France make targeted strikes on chemical weapons facilities with no civilian casualties after a chemical weapon attack. And *ALL* the philosophers of war we’ve heard from say that’s a *bad* thing to have done? Sounds like the discipline’s moral compass is going awry…Report
Someone’s moral compass has gone awry, for sure.Report
Davidoff – strange how blowing up “chemical weapons facilities” doesn’t result in releasing chemical agents that kill civilians – isn’t it? Unless of course those chemical weapons facilities don’t exist at all, and its just the latest in the endless series of Western war propaganda aimed at “remaking” the Middle East.Report
If philosophers are fearful of public displays of doubt about the value of philosophy and if that doubt is misguided, then why don’t five or so extremely able philosophers band together and write a slim, popular book of meta-philosophy—expertly edited for force and clarity—in which their sole task is a powerful defense of the value of philosophy? (Title the book “Why Philosophy is Invaluable” or, more modestly, “Why Philosophy is Valuable.”) Being able to suggest such a book to anyone like Sigal Samuel is, I take it, preferable to cowering.
“To those who are prepared simply to abandon philosophy . . ., we can have little to say. (How can one reason with those who deny the . . . propriety of reasoning?) But with those who *argue* for its abandonment, we can do something—once we have enrolled them in the community as fellow theorists with a position of their own. F.H. Bradley hit the nail on the head: ‘The man who is ready to prove that metaphysical knowledge is impossible . . . is a brother metaphysician with a rival theory of first principles.’ One can abandon philosophy, but one cannot *advocate* its abandonment through rational argumentation without philosophizing.” —”The Cambridge Companion to Philosophical Methodology”Report
I don’t keep up w the literature on just war theory, but for those interested the Winter 2017 issue of Daedalus on “The Changing Rules of War” seems relevant, to judge by the t.o.c., and perhaps esp. the essay by Seth Lazar, “Evaluating the Revisionist Critique of Just War Theory.”Report
With all due respect, Justin, I think you have it exactly wrong. It is precisely the job of normative ethics to answer questions like, ‘just what ought we do here and now in these circumstances?’. That question is sometimes extremely hard to answer, and when it is practicing ethicists surely should ‘I don’t know’ when pressed. That said, it is something of a professional shame that so many practicing ethicists do not see discovering the truth about what we ought to do as a central part of their job. If it is not your job, who’s is it? And it is no one’s in particular, why should we care about what ethicists have to say? To what end theory, never mind meta-theory, if the theoretical practice never yields actionable advice?Report
Hoorah Bruce! Well said. If alleged professionals are unable to offer more than what any Joe can come up with in a difficult situation, then quo vadis professionalism? This is an example of scholasticism at its worst, assuming it can get any worse. If the best one can do, after “studying” a subject as current and relevant as ethics, presumably for many years and the best you can come up with is “I don’t know”, then get a job doing something useful where, like the majority of the human race, you have to make decisions based on less-than-perfect information on a day-to-day basis. This was not the intent of the earlist philosophers, and the spirit of value of knowledge being an agent for progress has always been there, albeit conveniently sidelined by those who seek an easy ride just studying stuff.
As Heidegger said, ” We come to know what a hammer is, not by staring at it, but grabbing it by the handle and using it”Report
I seem to recall some old philosopher known for admitting that he did not know things. I always thought, for example, that the contrast between Euthyphro righteously hurrying up to the courthouse and the old guy left frozen by doubt at the entrance was precisely the point: that when you truly don’t know then you do in fact know that you should do nothing.
And somehow I thought that was also the part of the point of the little speech the same old guy gave a few weeks later, this time inside the court rather than on the steps. That sometimes a hung jury is the right decision, and not, instead, yet another jury of hangmen.Report
I too don’t trust the mainstream media to accurately report, well… anything. So, I place exactly zero trust in the content of this article. However, having said this, it’s quite obvious what America should do: Obey international law, seek evidence from impartial bodies before acting, and stop committing war crimes and atrocities.
Sure, there are hard moral questions, but this isn’t one of them. We most certainly should not have illegally and criminally attacked Syria.
But what is the point in this appraisal? None of us have any power to do anything. No matter who we vote for, Bush, Obama, Trump, the atrocities continue.Report
“Should we obey international law?” sounds like a pretty hard question to me. After all, a large fraction of legal philosophers think there’s no moral obligation per se to obey domestic law, and domestic law is set by an at-least-somewhat-accountable democratic government and is embedded in a framework that gives authoritative rulings on contentious questions of law. By contrast, “international law”, insofar as it’s defined at all, is the result of a bunch of messy compromises between the victors of the Second World War (think about the membership of the Security Council), is not governed by anything with democratic credentials, and has no effective mechanism to resolve contentious questions, so that different players have radically different interpretations of it. (The British government, ever since the Balkan interventions in the 1990s, has consistently claimed that international law permits foreign intervention when there is a sufficiently pressing humanitarian need.)
So it looks to me like a pretty hard question even to decide what “international law” says about a given intervention, let alone whether a given government should conform to it.Report
Here’s a nice article on the subject, in the context of Syria: https://lawfareblog.com/un-charter-lawReport
Did you really just post an article by Jack Goldsmith of the Bush administration and senior fellow at the Hoover institute?
I was impressed that even he had to admit that the strikes were illegal.
“As Oona Hathaway and I have argued, the U.N. Charter clearly prohibits the strikes, and none of the three recognized exceptions—consent, self-defense, Security Council authorization—are present here.”
I see no point responding to your other comments.Report
I posted it precisely because it demonstrates the legal landscape and even the meaning of “international law” is controversial. I’m not sure the provenance of the speaker matters much to the quality or otherwise of the analysis.
There’s not a lot I can say in response to “I see no point in responding”! I do continue to find it weird that people who are often pretty cynical about domestic law lean on international law as if it were some unquestioned shibboleth.Report
Just as a postscript, the idea that a professor at Harvard Law School and former assistant Attorney General could have nothing interesting to say on a matter of law just because he worked for a Republican administration does rather illustrate the issue of conservative marginalization in the academy that’s been discussed here before.Report
To set the record straight, I never said Jack Goldsmith had nothing interesting to say. In fact, I endorsed what he said at the beginning of his article. He also has a lot of interest to say here: https://www.lawfareblog.com/bad-legal-arguments-syria-airstrikes
However, in general, when trying to convince someone that yet another unauthorized military action is perfectly fine, one doesn’t choose someone from the Hoover institute and Bush administration, hence my rhetorical question regarding your choice.Report
For the record, I’m opposed to this particular intervention. My comment was on the fact that “should we obey international law?” Is a hard question, not on the overall Syria question.Report
I have to say that I am impressed by the amount and degree of silly and morally odious things David Wallace managed to pack into relatively short posts. That takes real ability.
Even if we are not to take international law seriously in this matter, I think most decent people will say that we ought to take morally relevant principles and facts into account (which I happen to think international law does in general track very closely especially on matters of war). But even if we don’t take into account law per se, these principles seem very justified.
First on humanitarian intervention, we have to ask whether there is some degree of consent from those for whom we are bombing. If we are killing or occupying or overthrowing other people’s government, do they actually consent to it? Have we tried to obtain consent in any way from everyday Syrians? Do they want the US to “help” them like we helped their neighbors in Iraq or in Libya?
Second there is proportionality. What guarantees can the US, French and UK government give us that shows this bombing would work? Trump has bombed Syria in the past year using the same justification (chemical weapon attack). That bombing killed civilians. Did that work in stopping further chemical attacks? The US’s record on humanitarian wars have not only proven to be insincere but grossly disproportionate in the past. Iraq and Libya are just example in recent history and there is a risk of spiraling further involvement. So what evidence has been presented that the US attack this time will work and be proportionate?
So even if we are to concede that Assad was the one that did this chemical attack (if I had to wager money, I would say that it is far more likely it was the terrorists that did it) we still don’t know if our bombing and possible occupation (as UN ambassador Haley seemed to suggest would happen into the foreseeable future) would work in deterring further attacks. The risks of instigating more violence (as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), destabilizing the region further producing more terrorists and radicalizing moderate rebels, getting into a hot war with Syria’s ally Russia (which would be apocalyptically bad) seem to be far greater than the benefits.
Which brings us to the factual issues. There has been no independent investigation so far into the allegations that it was the Syrian government responsible for the attacks. We know that the rebels and terrorists groups in Syria has used chemical weapons on civilians in the past from OPCW investigations and reporting by journalists and independent weapons inspectors/scientists (Seymour Hersh, Ted Postol, e.g.). So attacking a country blindly trusting unsubstantiated claims by the governments that have a history of lying us into disastrous wars seem to me to be irresponsible to put it mildly.
The burden of proof is not on those who are against these bombings and occupation to prove that they are unjust. It is on those who support it to prove they are just.Report
I’m fairly sure that I said “questions of international law are hard questions”, not, “the attack on Syria is fine”. If you think what I said about international law is either silly or morally odious, I’d appreciate an actual explanation as to why, rather than gratuitous rudeness.Report
“questions of international law are hard questions”,
This is an attempt to muddy the waters. International law is as clear as can be on a war of aggression and as serious about it as the gallows at Nuremberg where many Nazis were hanged for this crime.
There are difficult cases and easy cases. Even your cited sources (Goldsmith and Hathaway) agree that it is illegal. I haven’t seen any legitimate sources that say it was legal and I can provide many that say very clearly it is illegal (within both international law and domestic law).
But more importantly, the reason some people brought up international law is because it seems to track rather clear moral principles in this case. I haven’t seen an argument by anyone that the two diverge in this case and that we ought not follow the law. Any mention of difficult cases within international law or of justified instances where disobeying the law is simply irrelevant and distracting.Report
I’ve no idea why you think I’d want to “muddy the waters” – what on Earth would my incentive be? – but in any case, if that’s your starting point for discussion then there’s obviously no point engaging further.Report
On reflection I can’t resist dwelling on this slightly longer, as I think it’s a really interesting microcosm of the pathologies of online discussion.
I’m fairly used to accusations of bad faith in online discussions, but at least usually I can see what I might have to gain in the eyes of the critic. Yes, I probably have benefitted from the PGR ecosystem; yes, I’m a white male; yes, I work on (for some definitions) “mainstream” topics; yes, more generally, I’m an interested player in the philosophy career world. So while obviously I stand by various comments I’ve made on issues in the profession, I can at least get into the head of someone who thinks I’m disingenuously protecting my own interests.
But here we have an anonymous commentator accusing me of bad faith in a fairly arcane comment on geopolitics. I don’t work in political theory or IR; I don’t have connections in the US government; I’m not even invested in the particular issue, since as I’ve already said elsewhere on this thread, I don’t support this particular intervention. But it’s still assumed, at least by this particular commentator, that I must be arguing in bad faith rather than advancing my (let’s stipulate, idiotic) position in good faith. The only reconstruction I can imagine is that people who disagree must *by definition* be arguing in bad faith, and we’ll worry about their motivations later.
I suppose, in this particular commentator’s defense, their “hopeless misanthrope” nom de plume is something of a clue to the degree of charity and courtesy they’re planning to show.Report
To David Wallace (regarding the last ‘bad faith’ comment): please don’t be discouraged! I for one enjoy reading your comments very much, and I often learn something new when I do so.Report
FWIW the accusations of “bad faith” strike me as clearly absurd. Your comments help me learn as well.Report
What’s curious about this particular intervention, and the one which preceded it, is that both seem ill-fitted to a discussion on the validity of such interventions. Both appear to have quite likely been sham interventions, feints, symbolic non-attacks. In the most recent one, no one was killed, and there was no damage to crucial infrastructure. (There is some debate as to whether this was due to the excellence of SAAF air defenses, or if it was by design.) In any event, there are much better and clearer examples of US, NATO, and NATO-allied interventions which unambiguously violate both moral precept and international law, and which have caused monumental suffering. I’m thinking at the moment of the bombing of the port in Yemen, but there are many more examples.
If Trump’s recent (plausibly symbolic) bombings are wrong, then so must be all those that preceded it, Trump appears to be making an effort to wind down this non-declared war, to withdraw from Syria, and to allow Russia to take the lead on sorting out how best to proceed in its aftermath. That is a course of action worth supporting, endorsing, and seeing the moral wisdom of. Now, Trump is so erratic and inchoate that attributing consistency to this recapitulation of his approach would be foolhardy. But to the degree that there’s a chance that Trump is pursuing disengagement, the discussion should be framed around disengagement as a goal. Does this particular bombing (the most recent one) advance that goal?
There’s the argument (one step back, two steps forward) that in doing a shambolic bombing Trump was temporarily appeasing domestic hawks for which no degree of intervention seems insufficient. This is the crowd that both supported Mrs. Clinton’s no-fly zone and would like to see Syria’s air defenses crushed still. The Atlantic is certainly in that crowd, as other comments here have noted.Report
I think Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Bentham, Mill, and Singer would disagree. To be sure, the normative theory may be false, but on the assumption that it is true, practical consequences follow (obviously along with empirical premises)Report
After all is said and done, a lot has been said and not much done. Correction! Nothing is done. The repartee printed here has the same weight as would a discussion among any group of individuals with the gift of language. Explain to me in one paragraph or less the benefit of an advanced education because I am damned if I see anyReport
Whatever the specific question(s) posed, I think different philosophers, those with more relevant background and expertise in these topics, would have been more informative if not provocative in answering them. Among those who come quickest to mind: C.A. J. Coady, Allen Buchanan, Larry May, Sari Nusseibeh, David Luban, or even Noam Chomsky.Report
In reading these contributions to the argument, I am appalled at the callousness of the contributors. The issue appears to be singlemindedly a legal or ethical issue of whether an act of aggression was or was not legitimate according to the rules of the game. They need to be reminded that this is not a game. The issue is not a point of law, but one of civilians being attacked, maimed and killed, whether by chemical weapons, as designated “bad” tools of war, or by,what? with a “good” weapon like being put to sleep gently with carbon monoxide poisoning? When you see your neighbor brutally assaulting his wife, beating her with a whip say, do you stand behind his rights to privacy and walk by on the other side of the road, or do you intervene and save the poor woman from continued pain and suffering? If you refuse to do so on the grounds you might get hurt too, I can respect you more – not much mind, but some – than if you dare to retreat behind some philosophical voodoo about legality and the rights of the individual to act as he chooses on his own property. Laws are not made to be broken capriciously, but they are the best, hopefully, the people involved can devise at the time and as such are far from perfect. It does nobody credit, when they are found to be lacking, to blindly follow them as if handed down from above by your particular flavor of the Almighty, and it is certainly reprehensible in the extreme if used as a shield against taking ugly action. I don’t believe “cowardice in the face of the enemy”
was ever intended to be an ethical principle, but it seems to have become one.
As Orwell, or Kipling or whoever the hell it was, once said, ” We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm”. There comes a time when the cojones have to drop and we have to be the “rough men”.Report
The discussion of international law wasn’t “was this legitimate according to the rules of the game”; it was “does it matter whether it was legitimate according to the rules of the game?” (I don’t know if you’ll think that’s better or worse?)
I for one am pretty sympathetic to the view that *if* some large-scale atrocity can be stopped by military force without major second-order consequences, *then* it’s right to do it even if it’s against international law. (NATO’s interventions in the former Yugoslavia are probably the best illustration of this: it’s at best questionable whether they were legal under international law, but there’s a reasonably good – though contestable – case to be made that they saved lives and stabilized the region.)
But that’s only the beginning of the discussion. There’s still the bigger question of whether there’s anything Western intervention in general can do to prevent recurrence of chemical attacks, and whether this particular intervention is going to achieve anything. If you think (a) that the facts on the ground make it difficult for the West to use military force effectively without provoking great-power conflict, with vastly larger casualties than anything we’ve seen so far, and (b) that the current US administration does not (to put it kindly) inspire unswerving confidence in the coherence and competence of its overall Syria policy, then you might well be skeptical of last week’s military action even while being willing to support other such actions in different circumstances. (Good-faith critics of intervention are no more indifferent to the victims of Assad’s chemical weapons, than good-faith supporters of intervention are to the unintended casualties of Western military action.)
Neither (a) nor (b) are incontestable, and both (a) and (b) turn on issues far from the core competence of moral philosophers… which was the point of my original comment on this thread.Report
Ah! There you have it in a nutshell. Will this action, absent any high minded thoughts of right, wrong, legal, or illegal, actually do anything to relieve the situation? It seems to have done the trick in Yugoslavia. What is the difference here? Other than an establishment distaste for any move made by Trump – who does have style of his own certainly – but would the outcry be as loud if, say it was the work of JFK? Who also kicked over a few buckets in his time. But done so much more elegantly. You made my point by, at last, bringing the plight of the poor bloody Syrians taking all the heat with no recourse from anyone, boorish or otherwise. If this starts a war, was it worth it?Report
I have a great deal of respect for “rough men” and that’s one of the reasons I served in the US military for a few years. When the time is right for violent action I’m more than happy to support it and, if appropriate, do my part. But any intelligent observer of the last few years should be able to see that military interventions often have tragic unintended consequences. The US has done a lot to contribute to the instability of the Middle East, for example by pushing regime change on Iraq and Libya. We are at least partly responsible for the awful violence still occurring in both of those nations.
When I was a young man I supported George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. By the time of the Arab Spring I’d wised up, but unfortunately the decision-makers hadn’t. Now Libya is a wreck. Is there any good reason to think getting involved in Syria will have a better outcome? I’m skeptical.Report
All good points. I don’t know either. But I am not setting myself up as arbitrator. I simply ask that human questions be addressed as such, and not on the basis of fine points of impersonal legal or philosophical argument.
As Genghis Khan was supposed to have based his approach to leadership, “He did not concern himself with what you thought or believe, but in what you can do”. In this debate I detect an excess of thought and a dearth of ‘do’Report
I don’t want to argue here about the lawfulness or otherwise of this particular action by US/UK/France, but I do want to make a general point about international law, in response to the exchange above between ‘hopeless misanthrope’ and David Wallace.
Although I’m not an international law scholar, I do know something about international law (having both a law degree and a PhD in IR). David Wallace is right that questions of international law are very often far from open-and-shut or clear-cut; on almost all matters that make the news and have an international-law dimension, you will find reputable international lawyers on both sides of the question, or at least offering a range of different analyses. That applies to this airstrike as well. For ex., Kevin Jon Heller and Harold Koh have offered different perspectives. Go to the Opinio Juris blog and you can find Heller’s posts and, in the trackbacks, a link to Koh’s at the Just Security site.Report
p.s. There’s also been a long comment thread on this issue at Crooked Timber and while a number of the comments there have generated more heat than light, at least a few of them led me to think again about certain things and realize again how tangled the situation is and how resistant to easy, confident, sweeping assertions.Report
The question isn’t whether there *are* difficult cases in international law. There are difficult cases in every human subject, physics, math, science, law. The question is whether “humanitarian intervention” without UN security council approval is one of these “difficult” cases. Neither you nor David Wallace has shown it to be one of these. His cited sources of Goldsmith and Hathaway agree that it was illegal. Every single legal scholar of international law (which you admit you are not) that I have read knows it is. I would like for you to present an argument with evidence that it is difficult in this case. If you cannot I do not see why you would bring up “difficult cases” other than to muddy the waters as I believe David Wallace is trying to do. It may be that he isn’t trying to do this and is simply lacking in very basic critical thinking skills.Report
I think the very posts you are replying to give a reference to Harold Koh – Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale and former legal adviser to the Obama State Department – making the case that intervention here is at least potentially legally justified on humanitarian grounds, even though the US government hasn’t done enough to establish its case. On quick reading his case is along the same lines as the advice published by the UK government on April 14, explaining why the government’s legal advisors think the intervention is legal.
I could be wrong, of course, lacking “very basic critical thinking skills” as I do. (And, more seriously, I find this whole conversation fairly ironic. As I keep saying, I think the Syrian intervention is a bad idea! I just don’t think international law is a good reason to think that, both because it is so open to multiple interpretations and because it’s not obvious that “it’s against international law” is a good reason not to do something, absent other reasons.)Report
I’m not sure if you or “Louis” even read Koh’s article. I did. He did not deny that Obama’s threat of force was “per se illegal” which he admitted was the common interpretation among legal scholars of international law.
Instead he argued that had Obama acted, it would have made a ‘lawmaking moment” possible for the “crafting” of future law so that in extreme situations such interventions could become legal even with a veto at the SC.
So again, I am holding my view that the view that it is illegal is pretty standard and widely accepted. It’s not a “difficult” case by legal standards even Koh’s controversial interpretation of “lawmaking” notwithstanding (which he argued in 2013 in the context of another Syrian chemical attack).
Koh also claimed that a “persistent veto” was one of the necessary criteria needed to justify this “lawmaking move”. There were no persistent vetoes in this case. He also said that the nations who wished to intervene had to exhaust “all other remedies reasonably available under the circumstances.” Additionally Koh said that the intervention had to demonstrate it would “improve the humanitarian situation.” He listed many other strengthening factors that do not obtain in this case.
BTW, I didn’t say you lacked critical thinking skills. I said I think you are either attempting to muddy the waters or lacking in critical thinking skills. (I am leaning toward the first disjunct).Report
I still a wait any remotely plausible account of my incentives to muddy the water. And I notice that “every single legal scholar … knows it is [illegal]” (HopelessMisanthrope, 4/17) is quite a lot stronger than “the view that it is illegal is pretty standard and widely accepted” (HopelessMisanthrope, 4/18), and that you haven’t engaged with the views of the British government’s lawyers.
Beyond that (and I’m writing to interested third parties) I think we’re at the point of diminishing returns: there is enough visible discussion for you to draw your own conclusions (or follow up in the literature) both on the first order questions and on the question of my (and perhaps another’s) intellectual integrity and critical thinking. I won’t respond further to posts by HopelessMisanthrope.Report
Now this is very disingenuous of you to chop up my quote. I did not say “every single” legal scholar said…I said all the ones *I have read.* Again, this adds further evidence that you are muddying the waters.Report
You are the one making reference to Harold Soh selectively and disingenuously. I offer three quotes from Soh’s article on the potential intervention under Obama in 2013: https://www.justsecurity.org/1506/koh-syria-part2/
“I believe that international law has evolved sufficiently to permit morally legitimate action to prevent atrocities by responding to the deliberate use of chemical weapons.”
“Among international legal commentators, the emerging party line seems to be that President Obama was threatening blatantly illegal military action in Syria, for the simple reason that the Russians were not on board. The conventional argument, set forth by among others, my Yale friends and colleagues Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, is ‘per se illegality:’ in their view, Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter permits individual and collective self-defense but bars any and all other forms of intervention without express Security Council authorization. They see the Syrian crisis as a moment to reaffirm that acting without an UN Security Council Resolution is per se illegal. But is that really what international law requires?”
“On reflection, a ‘per se illegal’ rule is plainly overbroad.”
If you think the “consensus” is right and Soh is wrong, so be it, but it’s dishonest to pretend Soh himself isn’t giving a defense of the legality of military intervention under circumstances like those in Syria. I encourage anyone interested to read the article I linked above.
For the record, I’m strongly opposed to any US military intervention in Syria at this time, and have been from the beginning of the Syrian conflict.Report
The first quote from Harold Koh (not “Soh”) you cited was:
“I believe that international law has evolved sufficiently to permit morally legitimate action to prevent atrocities by responding to the deliberate use of chemical weapons.”
However, no one denies that international law allows this. I certainly don’t. I have support humanitarian intervention in the past.
The issue rather, is legality of humanitarian intervention when there is a security council veto or (as in this case) without a SC vote.
Instead of running through Koh’s argument and repeatedly quoting from his article, I will just quote his last paragraph which makes it abundantly clear that he is not aiming at describing the law as it is now but prescribing what it ought to be. Here he is paraphrasing Lou Henkin:
“Is it better to leave the law alone, while turning a blind eye (and a deaf ear) to violations that had compelling moral justification? Or should [Syria] move us to push the law along to bring it closer to what the law ought to be?”
You’ve repeatedly quoted Koh out of context as he was referring to a previous chemical attack in 2013 under Obama and under a completely different set of legal circumstances. I would only hope that for those who are sincerely interested they read Koh entire article.
War is in the business of killing and killing is serious business. I would expect philosophers (and those in training) to have more sincerity and seriousness in dealing with it. I would hope that you and David Wallace are outliers but from what I have seen here and elsewhere, this behavior is rather common. I am glad not to be in academic philosophy.Report
I screwed up Koh’s name, and for that I apologize. On the other hand, you say I quoted Koh out of context, and that he was actually talking about a previous attack in 2013. Yet if you had actually read my reply, you would see that I explicitly wrote: “I offer three quotes from [Koh]’s article on the potential intervention under Obama in 2013.”
I’m happy to let interested third parties read the article for themselves so they can judge for themselves who is misrepresenting whom.Report
As various well-known international law scholars have persuasively argued at the foremost blogs in international law, the recent retaliatory air strikes in Syria conducted jointly by the U.S, U.K., and France were egregious violations against the international law prohibition on the use of force: these “unauthorized armed reprisals are [always] unlawful,” for they “do not fit the exception to the prohibition on the use of force for self-defence,” thus they “violat[e] the jus cogens prohibition of the use of force that is enshrined in Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter.” In addition, in the case of the U.S., they were/are a violation of U.S. constitutional law, as Garrett Epps well explains in his article for The Atlantic, “The Unconstitutional Strike on Syria” (April 14, 2008). No one who believes otherwise should read Epps. As for the arguments from int’l law scholars, see indeed, Kevin Jon Heller’s postat Opinio Juris from April 12, just prior to the air strikes, the posts from Mary Ellen O’Connell (April 12) and Marko Milanovic (April 15) (he demolishes the UK’s argument) at EJIL: Talk!, the blog of the European Journal of International Law, and, has been mentioned upthread, the post by Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway at Just Security (crossposted at Lawfare) (April 14). For an expert analysis of the putative legal “humanitarian intervention” argument, please see Professor Anthony Gaughan’s post, “The International Law Implications of Bombing Syria.” at The Faculty Lounge on April 11.
Both Milanovic (directly) and O’Connell (indirectly) have address the customary international law claim (Legal Views/Argument? There is none.) And at Just Security, Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway note that
“…there is no exception to the U.N. Charter regime for humanitarian intervention. Former Secretary General Kofi Annan, one of the best known early advocates for the principle often referenced as a basis for humanitarian intervention, the ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ made clear that the principle required action through the U.N., not around it: ‘Building on our evolved understanding of sovereignty, R2P asserts that when states cannot or will not protect their populations from the worst crimes, other states, acting through the U.N., should do so.’ A very small number of states have endorsed the principle that humanitarian intervention can be taken unilaterally. But that remains a minority opinion.”
Even Harold Koh (at Just Security, April 16) admits that the Trump administration’s rationale for the retaliatory bombing strikes did not meet most of the criteria he has elaborated “for judging the international lawfulness of claimed humanitarian interventions.” He concludes:
“While uncertainty about these factors makes it premature to judge Trump’s action lawful, what is not premature is the increasingly obvious need for the United States to articulate its long-overdue legal justification for using military intervention for genuinely humanitarian purposes. The United States government missed its chance to state that legal rationale during the Kosovo intervention nearly two decades ago, instead listing amorphous ‘factors’ that it believed made that intervention ‘illegal but legitimate.’ It failed again to state that rationale in 2013, when President Obama did not defend his own announced ‘red line’ in Syria. As additional humanitarian crises have triggered repeated American actions in the years since, the glaring absence of an official U.S. legal justification for humanitarian intervention has plainly reached the crisis point.” No shit!
Finally, I have shared portions of and summarized a few of the above arguments at my post at Religious Left Law, “Bomb Power and the Degradation of the Rule of Law in a Compromised Democratic Polity,” (April 16). I have also provided a list of the relevant literature, including links to three of my bibliographies chock full of titles germane to this discussion: International Criminal Law; International Law; and Violent Conflict & The Laws of War: http://www.religiousleftlaw.com/2018/04/bomb-power-and-the-degradation-of-the-rule-of-law-in-a-compromised-democratic-polity.htmlReport