Nick Fotion

Philosophy Department

Emory University

Atlanta GA 30322



            By definition, a keynote speech sets the tone for what follows.   This talk will do that.  It will focus on the keynote of this conference:  INTERVENTION.  I will not even pretend to write the music based on the keynote.  Writing the music is the job of the speakers who follow me later today and tomorrow.  Rather, what I will do is dwell on the nature of the keynote itself to make sure we know what kind of music we are supposed to be listening to.

            Literally speaking ‘intervention’ means ‘coming between,’ or ‘getting between.’  The latter sense is better since it suggests that intervening is something we do, that is, is an activity. Other words that could be used here are intercept (sounds like football), interfere (football again), interrupt (sounds rude), intercede and interpose.  The idea is that when we intervene or interpose ourselves we try to stop some process that we oppose.  As the word ‘interfere’ suggests, to interfere or intervene can sometimes be bad, but, as we will see, it can also be good.

About intervention, perhaps the first thing we should understand is how wide spread it is.  I don’t mean that we intervene in the affairs of others all the time.  Rather, I   mean that we practice intervention in all aspects of our lives. For a starter, think of a scenario where two children playing in the yard.  But they are no longer just playing. One, the bigger one, is beating up on the other.   If I butt in to stop the pummeling, you can think of what I do as humanitarian intervention in miniature.  To anticipate things, notice that I can intervene because just cause, a principle of Just War Theory, is present.  My intervention is intended to keep the harm being done to the smaller child to a minimum. So the principle of good intentions is found here too.  Notice also that as an older person, and as a philosopher to boot, I have proper authorization for stopping the beating.  We can even cite likelihood of success, another Just War Theory principle, in this situation.  My intervention does indeed have a high likelihood of success since I am bigger and stronger than the two kids combined.

            Take another case.  This past summer I was merrily driving from Iowa to Atlanta with my family.  While still in Iowa, I was intervened by a highway patrolman.  It all happened suddenly.  As I had just reached the bottom of one of the many hills in the area, picking up speed all the time, the patrolman came over the crest of the hill from the opposite direction.  Like an Apache helicopter he suddenly came into view and instantly painted me with his radar.  I was a dead duck.  I was going 68 MPH on a double-nickel highway. 

Did the patrolman have a good reason or just cause for intervening?  He sure did.  I was going fast enough to cause injury to somebody.  Besides I was breaking the law.  Did he have proper authorization?  Of course he did, that is his official job to be a professional intervener.  Did he have a high likelihood of succeeding? Well, his intervention stopped me dead in my tracks and, after that, I didn’t dare go beyond 55 until I left Iowa.  Even when I got out of the state I drove more cautiously since, understandably, I didn’t want to suffer the embarrassment and the cost of getting another ticket.

            Here is still another case of intervention.  We are in a medical setting now.  The patient has cancer and the doctor is planning a surgical intervention.  Does he have just cause, or a good reason, for intervening?  Surely he does.  The intervention might very well stop the cancer and lead to better health for the patient.  What about proper authorization?  If the patient consents and the doctor has the credentials for performing the operation, then we have satisfied that criterion as well.  What about last resort?  If the doctor and the patient have considered or actually tried the other less invasive options, then they have reached the point of last resort and thus satisfied that principle of Just War Theory also.

So my first point is that intervening is something we are all familiar with in all walks of life.  We do it not only in the yard where children are playing, on the highway where drivers are racing too fast, in hospital settings but also in school where we intervene when we think a student is in trouble, on the street when we see that drugs have taken over the life a young person, in the family where we see that one of its members is out of control and in business when we see Enron and it’s the people from Arthur Anderson engaged in very shady practices that harmed and continue to harm its employees, stockholders and the business community in general.. 

My second point has already been anticipated.  Something very close to Just War Theory can be applied to help us decide when we should intervene. Some, but not necessarily all, of the principles we are familiar with in Just War Theory are present in these non-military settings.  But putting it that way gets it exactly backwards.  The key that tells us whether we should intervene or not in all of life’s settings is not Just War Theory.  Rather the key is what I will call Exceptions Theory.  Look at it this way. Ethical, legal and societal rules guide our lives.  We normally follow them.  We do not normally interfere with kids playing in the street, with drivers going to Atlanta and with the functioning of our patient’s bodies.  But there are times when we make exceptions to these rules that normally demand no intervention or interference. Almost all rules and principles, perhaps all, have exceptions.  Exceptions Theory helps us decide when we can make exceptions to our rules.  It presents us with a set of principles, guidelines, etc. that help tell us that in this case we can intervene but not in that one.  Put this way, we see Just War Theory as a species of Exceptions Theory, not the other way around.

            There is a big advantage in seeing Just War Theory as part of a larger theory.  As it developed historically, there is a tendency to see Just War Theory as applying only to nation states.  When one has to deal with the ethics of civil wars, insurrections and terrorism, we find that we can apply that theory awkwardly at best.  We are apologetic because the criteria of Just War Theory for states don’t quite fit when, for example, we are fighting a rebel guerrilla group.  We have trouble, for instance, applying the proper authorization principle of Just War Theory to these cases.  What sense does it make to demand that the guerrillas have proper authorization before they can act militarily to further their cause?  But if we see that the more fundamental theory is Exceptions Theory, we realize that we don’t have to employ all of the criteria that were designed for states when we are dealing with non-traditional war and non-war problems.  And, even if we do employ them, we don’t have to do so in quite the same way as when dealing with states.  The criteria for making exceptions in medicine, for example, will overlap those for war to a considerable extent.   Just cause is present for both.  We don’t intervene medically or militarily unless we have a just cause (i.e., a very good reason).  But the criteria do not have to be exactly the same.  Doctors don’t, for instance, intervene medically in response to aggression.  Their intervention is tied more closely to satisfying humanitarian needs.  In other words, once we view things from the point of view of Exceptions Theory we see that we can tailor the sub-theories of Just War Theory, Just Medical Theory, Just Family Theory, etc. by adding and subtracting criteria to fit the situation.

            In the time remaining, permit me to briefly characterize two kinds of military interventions to see how Exceptions Theory works.  Let us intervene first in a setting where a major humanitarian disaster is taking place.  Yes, nations have rights against intervention but this disaster encourages to think that an exception against this right is appropriate.   Rights of non-interference are not absolute.  In terms of just cause, the only question to ask here is: how serious is the disaster?  Without cataloging how all other criteria might be applied, notice that there are special problems with last resort and good intentions in this kind of case. We can’t wait too long to apply last resort when humanitarian disasters are in progress since, obviously, the longer we wait the more people die and suffer.  Presumably, the resorts prior to intervention have already been tried and wanting. 

As to good intentions there is the special problem of reading the intentions of the interveners.  Thee intentions of individuals are rarely pure, but the intentions of governments are never pure. Some of those in power with the intervening state will inevitably have good intentions, some not.  What we need to do if Exceptions Theory, and the sub-theory of Just War, are to be followed is to keep our eyes on the ball.  The ball here is just cause.  Is the intervening party’s intention in accord with just cause?  Is that party actually trying to save the people it says are in need humanitarian help?  If the answer to these questions is “Yes,” it does not matter that the intervener has other motives such as getting its hands on more oil.

            Although humanitarian intervention puts some strain on Just War Theory, by and large this application of the theory is fairly straightforward.  Such is not the case with interventions aimed against terrorist groups that have the capability moving about.  Not being necessarily nation based, it may be difficult to know with whom one is at war when fighting terrorists.  Let us suppose that it is known for certain that Al Qaeda is responsible for the September 11 events.  It follows that the US has just cause to respond militarily and in other ways against this group.  Of course it did respond, primarily in Afghanistan – Al Qaeda’s main base.  In so responding, the US and its allies also attacked the government in that country that supported Al Qaeda.  All well and good -- especially if it is easy to apply the other criteria of Just War Theory to the response.  But now if one is at war with Al Qaeda, is one at war also with a group of terrorists who receive some money from Al Qaeda, but otherwise is an independent group?  Is one at war with still another terrorist group whose leader two years ago had two meetings with Bin Laden, but has not had any dealings with him or his group since then?  Is one at war with yet still another group that has never had an association with Bin Laden and his group?  Is one at war with any of these groups even if they have not yet perpetrated any terrorist acts against the US or any of its allies?

            How does one answer all of these questions?  Traditional Just War Theory answers “No” to most.  That theory allows for preemptive strikes against a nation or group.  But that means that the threat must be clear, present and serious.  One can strike only if the potential enemy is in the process of striking or just about to strike a blow.  However, Just War Theory does not permit preventive strikes.  These strikes try to prevent attacks that are in the future – distant future.   So preventive strikes are not allowed because steps can be taken to avoid wars in the distant future.  A nation has time to negotiate, build up one’s defenses, etc.  In effect, preventive strikes are not permitted because one has not yet satisfied the principle of last resort.

            But this patterns of reason giving doesn’t work too well when dealing with amorphous terrorists groups.  It isn’t clear how one can reach last resort with these groups since it is often difficult to communicate with them, know where they are and even know whether they exist.  If they are actually located physically at some point in time, trying to negotiate with them just gives them an opportunity to go into hiding again.  So another pattern of reason giving needs to be tried when dealing with these people.  Here is a suggestion as to how it should go.

            Go back to Exceptions Theory and reconsider the Just War Theory proscription concerning preventive strikes (and preventive police actions).  Since these terrorists are hard to find and since they can cause a great amount of harm without even a moment’s notice, preventive strikes should be allowed when dealing with them.  We should consider this change in outlook as part of a modified version of last resort. In those circumstances when a nation is dealing with terrorists of a certain sort, one should consider that one is at war with them even if they have not struck yet and even if they are not affiliated with terrorist groups that have already struck.

            However, there are dangers in this proposed change.  It encourages nations to accuse other nations and groups of being terrorists, and then automatically to trigger wars right and left.  So this modification of the last resort criterion needs to be controlled. Yet it is not clear to me how it can be controlled.

I leave you, then, with a suggestion concerning a certain sort of intervention.  But it is no more than a suggestion since, in the end, it may have little to recommend it.  I also, obviously, leave you not just with a suggestion that you study this topic, but with a strong recommendation that you do so.