On the Obligation to Conduct World Police Work[1]

LTC Dan Zupan



            Today many people in the U.S., both within and without the military community, are becoming increasingly concerned about our perceived role as a so-called world police force.  In this essay I will offer an understanding of the moral nature of that role[2] so that critics of it might change their minds and so that proponents might have a clearer perspective on, and hence sounder justification for, the policies they support.

            I want to start with the, what I hope is uncontroversial, notion that war is evil and that peace is something we should seek.  But of course we must be clear about what we mean when we say that war is evil.  For those who believe in the just war tradition and embrace the view that some wars are just, it can’t be the case that the fighting of wars per se is evil.  That is, it is not the case that any use of force by anyone is unjust.  When a country goes to war to resist an invasion by a totalitarian neighbor, for instance, we don’t generally say that the nation defending itself is doing something wrong by resorting to force.  It is rather like a policeman who uses force to subdue a criminal.  So I will note, then, in passing, and not argue for it in detail, that the judgments we make about the moral nature of violence are influenced at least in part by our assessment of the maxims we feel generate the use of violence.  We condemn, for instance, the violence of the thug who beats and robs the old lady; we (most of us) condone, perhaps laud, the action of the bystander or policeman who subdues the thug, using violence if necessary, while rescuing the lady.  In both instances, agents use violence, and our moral assessment of their violence seems to rest in large part upon the maxims from which are generated the acts of violence.  The robber’s maxim seems to be one of coercion and harming; the policeman’s seems to be one of defense and protection.

            So when we say that war is evil, we are condemning the unjust use of violence by an unjust aggressor.  Nonetheless, we are further stating that, even though there might be an initial judgment in favor of using force to resist aggression, it would be better if we could resolve the issue without war; short of that, we should end the war as quickly as possible (using, of course, only permissible means).  It also means that we should, when we can, do whatever we can do to prevent wars from either beginning or escalating, and we should be prepared to keep a peace that has been established.[3]  (Of course, we have the ultimate responsibility to work towards the elimination of conditions of injustice that usually foment wars.)  Furthermore, and this is the conviction underpinning this essay, we have a general, abiding moral duty to seek (eternal) peace.  Kant says:




(R)eason speaking from the throne of the highest legislative power condemns war as a method of finding what is right.  Reason makes (the achievement of) the state of peace a direct duty, and such a state of peace cannot be established or maintained without a treaty of the nations among themselves.  Therefore there must exist a union of a particular kind which we may call the pacific union…which would be distinguished from a peace treaty…by the fact that the latter tries to end merely one war, while the former tries to end all wars forever.[4]





            This is where a consideration of peacekeeping[5] comes into play insofar as peacekeeping is consistent with the end of eternal peace.  And since peacekeeping quite often takes the form of intervention, this discussion will apply to it as well.  In general, then, I am going to discuss the moral issues that arise whenever we, or anyone, are involved, or consider involving ourselves, in the affairs of other nations in roles having to do with humanitarian intervention, peacekeeping, or any of those operations other than war our participation in which seems to implicate us as world police.


The Permissibility of Intervention


            I want to briefly examine the issue of intervention as it relates to state sovereignty.  Michael Walzer says:


[T]he legal doctrine of sovereignty…defines the liberty of states as their independence from foreign control and coercion…the recognition of sovereignty is the only way we have of establishing an arena within which freedom can be fought for and (sometimes) won.  It is this arena and the activities that go on within it that we want to protect, and we protect them, much as we protect individual integrity, by marking out boundaries that cannot be crossed, rights that cannot be violated.  As with individuals, so with sovereign states:  there are things that we cannot do to them, even for their own ostensible good [my emphasis].[6]




            Given this conception of sovereignty, intervention is sometimes seen as a violation of the right to sovereignty.  Looked at in this way, the justification for intervention becomes difficult, at least on the surface, since, given what rights are, any violation of them seems morally problematic.  Walzer goes on to point out that, particularly with respect to humanitarian intervention, the conditions that might move one nation to intervene in the affairs of another are such that the right to sovereignty can be challenged.[7]  He says intervention is justified when:


   …the violation of human rights within a set of boundaries is so terrible that it makes talk of community or self-determination  or “arduous struggle” seem cynical and irrelevant, that is, in cases of enslavement or massacre.[8]





            The insight that Walzer is getting at is that there are circumstances under which the right to sovereignty is forfeit.  I think this is the way we should look at this issue in order to gain conceptual clarity.  It more accurately captures the reality of the situation, and it helps us avoid the inconvenience of attempting to justify that which we don’t normally see as justifiable, i.e., rights violation.

            To see more clearly why the right to sovereignty might be forfeit, we should consider the very purpose of asserting the existence of a state’s right to sovereignty and the corresponding obligation to respect that right.  I take it that states exist to secure and defend the rights of their individual members or citizens.  Walzer writes:


The moral standing of any particular state depends upon the reality of the common life it protects and the extent to which the sacrifices required by that protection are willingly accepted and thought worthwhile…most states do stand guard over the community of their citizens…[9]




We respect state sovereignty because it is the medium by which individual rights are protected.  States should be, then, the source of security and succor for their members.  When the state violates that very purpose, it forfeits the right to sovereignty[10] since it cannot reasonably be permitted to invoke protection under a right for the very purpose of violating that right.

            At this point I will introduce a domestic analogy upon which I will trade a great deal throughout this essay.  Consider the security or sovereignty, if you will, that we enjoy in our own homes.  We respect the sanctity of people’s homes because it is within them that people work out their lives:  the home provides dimension to the rights we think people have.  We feel that people should be secure in their homes; the home is a refuge, a place of safety.  Those who live in the home are supposed to be able enjoy privacy in an environment free from unjust coercion and violence.  So when someone enters uninvited into a house, we see him as violating the rights of the homeowners. 

            But now consider the case of an abusive husband.[11]  We don’t feel that the police violate that person’s rights when they break down the door to prevent him from beating his wife or children.[12]  Because he is violating the very purpose of the sanctity of the home, we feel his right to nonintervention is forfeit.  The police have not violated a right to the sovereignty of the home when they enter uninvited.[13]  We can look at the issue of international sovereignty in the same light.  At a certain point, when a nation is involved in the wholesale violation of the rights of its members, when it fails in its role as provider of security and succor, then, like the abusive husband, it has lost its right to sovereignty. 

            Again, this might seem like an obvious point.  There is growing worldwide sentiment that we can intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign nations when those nations commit gross human rights violations.  But my interest here is conceptual clarity.  It is important to understand that there isn’t a question here of conflicting rights, between the state’s right to sovereignty and noninterference and other rights, interests, or obligations on the part of victims or third parties committed to stopping abuse.  Since the abusive state has violated the values that sovereignty is meant to protect, it has, like the abusive husband, forfeited the right to sovereignty.  Hence, there is no conflict.  Looked at this way, we can more readily and easily dismiss the specious claims for protection under the aegis of sovereignty that evil and oppressive regimes historically make.  They have no more immunity for the wrong they do than does the wife-beater.


World Police, The International Community, and the State of Nature Model


            So if police are authorized – even required – to intervene in domestic affairs within the confines of peoples’ homes where no one besides the residents of that home are threatened, then it seems plausible to assert that we  (the international community or any particular members states of that community) are permitted to intervene for analogous reasons under analogous circumstances in the affairs of sovereign nations.  For example, we are permitted to intervene in situations involving ethnic cleansing.  But of course this analogy has, allegedly, a notorious point of disanalogy, namely the fact that there isn’t a world police force acting under the authority of a world sovereign.  That is, the domestic analogy is said to break down on the international scale because there is no world sovereign, hence no authorized/legitimate world police, hence no legitimate intervention, hence no permissibility.  Or even if we conceive that intervention might be generally permissible, it clearly can’t be obligatory since no one legitimately has that world police role.  This problem rests on a misconception of the relationship that obtains between nations.

            Many orthodox political or just war theorists conceive the relationship that obtains between states in the international arena in terms of the state of nature.[14]  And their model for this state of nature is the Hobbesian one.  In this Hobbesian state of nature, there is no sovereign.  Because there is no sovereign to enforce the law, there is no morality or immorality, no justice or injustice.[15]  People quit this state of nature out of pure motives of self-preservation.  Under this conception then, clearly there is no police force to enforce the law, since there is no sovereign whose power the police would represent.  No one has the responsibility, that is, to enforce laws.  Moreover, there really aren’t any laws to enforce in this Hobbesian state of nature, so the issue of permissibility or obligation with respect to enforcing the law of nature doesn’t arise.  As I’ll explain later, this feature of the Hobbesian conception of the state of nature has some important implications for our purposes.

            But we can appeal to another state of nature theorist in an effort to understand the international community.  John Locke, like Hobbes, sees the lack of a sovereign as one significant feature of the state of nature.[16]  But for Locke, unlike for Hobbes, there is morality in the state of nature; there are justice and injustice.  Men quit this state of nature because of the inconvenience of having to enforce the law of nature.  Men recognize that there is a moral law in this state of nature; furthermore, they recognize an obligation to enforce it within their capabilities.[17]

            The Lockean model corresponds more closely to our considered views about the relationships between states than does the Hobbesian model.  Although in public discourse we sometimes seem to embrace the Hobbesian model, in actuality we reject it.  Consider that we really do think one country wrongs another if, for example, it invades another simply for purposes of expansion, unprovoked by any wrongdoing on the part of the invaded country.  Such a judgment of wrongdoing is incoherent under the Hobbesian model.  In a state where there is no justice or injustice, it can’t be the case that anyone wrongs anyone else.  Recall that for Hobbes, everyone has equal rights to everything else, including one another’s person, in the state of nature.[18]  Hence, I do you no wrong when I assert my right to your person or property, since our rights claims are the same.  Of course, notions of permissibility and obligation also become irrelevant.  But insofar as we do consider wars of aggression as crimes, we embrace the Lockean view of the state of nature, where these notions become decisive.  In this state of nature, morality obtains, and our moral judgments about who can and should do what with respect to the moral law are independent of considerations of the existence or nonexistence of a sovereign. 

            If we admit the Lockean view, a different picture of the moral reality of international affairs emerges.  For one thing, the permission to intervene seems to follow since anyone can, in the absence of a designated police force, enforce the law of nature; our views here are consistent with our earlier argument, and the domestic analogy still appears relevant.  (And we should also emphasize that permission is required; recall that it’s not a consideration under the Hobbesian model.[19])  We can reinforce this conviction by reconsidering the domestic analogy.  If a private citizen is walking by a house and sees through the window that a man is violently beating a child, we feel that the private citizen has the right to intervene to protect the child.  It seems to be anyone’s right, regardless of whether he is the representative of the sovereign.  That is, he doesn’t need to be a police officer.  Furthermore, and Good Samaritan laws seem to address this insight, we feel that under certain circumstances, intervention to protect the child[20] is required.  Our considered judgment on this matter seems to be that people are morally required, not just permitted, to intervene on the behalf of a defenseless human being who is being brutalized. 

            So we have arrived at a view of the relationship holding between states that gives us a different perspective on the issues surrounding intervention and the force of the domestic analogy as it bears on intervention.  We don’t require a world sovereign who empowers a world police force in order to establish permission to intervene.  Even though states might be in a state of nature with respect to each other, there is morality in this state of nature and everyone has the permission or right to enforce the law of nature.  We also have an initial insight, generated by the domestic analogy and the robust morality in Locke’s state of nature – a morality that obligates us to love one another -- that, under reasonable conditions, there is an obligation to enforce the law of nature.  We can look at it in two different ways and reach the same conclusion.  Either we don’t need a sovereign and a designated world police to do world police work and even incur world police obligations.  Or, we are all world police insofar as, as members of humanity, we have a moral obligation to enforce the law of nature as conceived under the Lockean model, which is, I have argued, the proper model and the one we actually do embrace in our views of the international community.  I turn now to a more detailed examination of obligation.




            I have established, or perhaps reinforced, the conviction that intervention is permissible under certain circumstances.  But of course I want to make the stronger claim that it is obligatory under certain circumstances.  To get at the initial insights concerning this obligation, let’s return to the domestic analogy.

            As I have stated above, if it is within my power as a private citizen, i.e., not as a policeman, to prevent a child from being abused, it seems to be morally required of me to do so.  I make the somewhat vague stipulation that, in order for someone to be obligated to help, it must be within his power to do so.  I am simply acknowledging that mere proximity to or witness of the brutality does not automatically obligate.  Suppose I am extremely weak or disabled and the only way to save the child would be to suffer the same sort of abuse or even death.  Perhaps under these sorts of circumstances, I would not be obligated to intervene (later I will discuss the notion that ought implies can).  I am not concerned here with the details; I now only want to establish a general presumption in favor of asserting the duty. 

            One way to further the argument from here is to make the move that the duty is an imperfect one, corresponding to the duty towards beneficence.  Imperfect duties, sometimes called wide duties, admit of some degree of latitude; they do not obligate absolutely.  If I could establish that we had an imperfect duty to adopt the peacekeeping role, that in itself might prove very helpful in charting our moral mandates with respect to peacekeeping and intervention.  But exactly what the duty to beneficence requires of us – its extent and content – is considered fuzzy by many.  Besides, it seems to me that this obligation is more akin to a perfect duty, the sort that we are required to fulfill unfailingly.

            Consider that it doesn’t seem that I am being beneficent when I help the defenseless child.  It seems that, under many circumstances, I will be morally condemned if I don’t.  Again, Good Samaritan laws seem to support this moral insight.  And the reason it seems to be a perfect duty in this instance is because it is tied up with the negative rights of the victim, those rights that impose perfect obligations on others.  We are not simply helping the child further his ends, we are protecting the very conditions necessary for the furtherance of ends whatsoever.  Humanity as an end in itself acts as a limiting condition on the actions of others.  If there is a perfect duty to always treat humanity as an end in itself, then what is involved when we save someone who is being violated in this fundamental manner is not beneficence.

            As stated above, beneficence concerns what are sometimes called wide or imperfect duties.  Such are the duties to further one’s talents or to help another in his pursuit of his life ends.  For instance, we might help another person get an education by giving money, or the like.  We don’t have to do this all the time and for everyone we encounter in these circumstances.  This seems consistent with our more considered judgments; although we do feel a moral responsibility to help those in this kind of need, it is not the sort of responsibility that acts as a limiting condition, as one we must always, unerringly fulfill in clearly determinate ways. 

This is wholly unlike the situation that applies with respect to perfect, or  what are sometimes called narrow, duties.  There is no latitude with respect to the duty not to murder or rob another person, for instance.  Someone who claims moral sanctity because he almost always refrains from murder is someone who simply doesn’t understand perfect duties.  These duties correspond to the basic rights to freedom and noninterference, the necessary condition for the exercise of any other rights whatsoever.  That is why so much of Kant’s ethics focus on what we might call negative duties, prohibitions against certain actions.  These are generally correlated with perfect duties.  Kant is concerned with describing those moral warrants that are consistent with and promote universal principles of freedom as they relate to (human) rational beings.  We see how such negative concepts work in Kantian ethics when we consider what Kant means when he says that human beings are ends in themselves:


  …the end must here be thought not as an end to be effected but as an independently existing end, and hence thought only negatively, that is, as that which must never be acted against and which must therefore in every volition be estimated never merely as a means but always at the same time as an end [emphasis added].[21]




Human beings are not ends to be promoted or brought about, but pre-existing ends that act as limiting conditions on the actions of other human beings.  They are not the sort of value that can be promoted; rather, they are the sort of value that must be respected.  Christine Korsgaard puts it this way: 


Stated in very general terms, there are two kinds of obligatory ends.  Some are to be recognized and respected, and they include all free agents in whom the moral law resides – ourselves and every other human being – giving us all dignity, an absolute inner worth, beyond all price.  Other ends, based on the dignity of persons, are to be promoted and, when possible, achieved, and they are one’s own perfection and the happiness of others.[22]




Failure to properly value and respect the first kind of ends, say by assaulting a human being, constitutes a failure in fulfilling a perfect duty, one that morally obligates absolutely and always.  Intervention, I contend, on the part of anyone, to counteract gross violations of basic human rights, such as assault, is not an act of beneficence because it does not concern the sorts of rights and duties that are the proper subject matter of beneficence.  To think otherwise is to make a category mistake.  Beneficence has to do with the second kind of ends and is the stuff of imperfect duties.

            Consider our scenario of the threatened child from a different perspective.  Suppose, in fact, a police officer happens upon the scene and saves the child.  Clearly we don’t see him as acting beneficently.  There are several reasons for our viewing it in the way we do.  Obviously the police officer has special duties in virtue of his office such that when he helps or saves someone in the execution of his duties, he is simply fulfilling his obligation towards those who have commissioned him in that office.  We even expect him to face personal risk to perform his duties.  But there are other, deeper reasons why we don’t see his actions as beneficent, and they have to do with the status of the victim:  the rights of the victim that are being violated are his fundamental rights.  The sorts of rights that are being violated, and subsequently protected by the police officer, are not the sorts of rights whose protection we call beneficent.[23]  And this is key to understanding the analogy as it applies to the problem of intervention and peacekeeping.  We might see more clearly the nature of obligation for the situations under consideration if we consider the source of the police officer’s authority and his corresponding obligation.

            We must return to a consideration of the Lockean state of nature.[24]  In that state of nature, there was a moral law, and men generally recognized it and abided by it.  Men quit the state of nature because of the inconvenience of having to enforce the law of nature, a law based on a fundamental respect for humanity:


(W)e must consider what state all men are naturally in, …a state of perfect freedom…A state also of equality…equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.  This equality of men by nature …(is) the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men.[25]




Power is transferred to the sovereign, whose police wield the power to protect the shared and equal dignity of humanity.  The source, then, of police power is the right all men have to enforce the law of nature based on this obligation towards “mutual love amongst men.”  That is, all men have a certain value, an equal value worthy of respect (love) in virtue of which they have real rights in this state of nature, among them the exclusive rights to their person and property.  Any violation of these fundamental rights constitutes a moral wrong.  And since the sorts of rights that are in question are the sorts of rights that impose perfect duties on others, it can’t be the case that our protecting them in the absence of a designated police force is an act of beneficence; rather it is the performance of a perfect duty.  Furthermore, we can note that the source of the authority and the corresponding obligation is the same for all of us and that the obligation persists even in the absence of a sovereign, which is the situation that obtains, of course, among states in the international community.  Indeed, the very legitimacy of any civil laws that might be instituted and enforced under a sovereign rests on their conformity to the pre-civil, sovereign-independent, law of nature.  As Locke says:


The obligations of the law of nature cease not in society but only in many cases are drawn closer and have by human laws known penalties annexed to them to enforce their observation.  Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others.  The rules that they make…must…be conformable to the law of nature…[26]




All that I am trying to establish, all that I think can be established for that matter, is that if we conceive of the relationship between states as resembling the state of nature, then the model for that state of nature is the Lockean one.  And if it is the Lockean state of nature, then morality obtains in this state.  One doesn’t need a sovereign for there to be justice/injustice.  From this it follows that anyone has at least the right to enforce the moral law:  we don’t need a sovereign to justifiably act as police.  I make the further point that if the domestic analogy I have been using is plausible, then, insofar as we have an obligation to rescue the defenseless child, we have not only a right but also an obligation to intervene or peacekeep in order to protect the defenseless, insofar as peacekeeping tends towards eternal peace.  Furthermore, if my interpretation of Kant is reasonable, it seems plausible to consider this obligation in terms of perfect rather than imperfect duties.  I want to make two more points to round out the discussion.

The first point seeks to confirm the notion that we are under a Lockean, not a Hobbesian, state of nature.  For Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war of every man against every man, a state characterized by competition, not cooperation.  There are no valid or meaningful contracts or covenants in this state of nature, all such agreements being empty without the threat of the sovereign’s sword to hold men to their agreements.[27]  This is not at all Locke’s view of the state of nature, nor, I contend, is it our view of the relationship between states.  Consider the following passage from Locke:


It is often asked as a mighty objection, “Where are or ever were there any men in such a state of nature?”  To which it may suffice as an answer at present that since all princes and rulers of independent governments all through the world are in a state of nature, it is plain the world never was, nor ever will be, without numbers of men in that state.  I have named all governors of independent communities, whether they are, or are not, in league with others; for it is not every compact that puts an end to the state of nature between men, but only this one of agreeing together mutually to enter into one community and make one body politic; other promises and compacts men may make one with another and yet still be in the state of nature.  The promises and bargains for truck, etc., between the two men in the desert island...are binding to them though they are perfectly in a state of nature in reference to one another; for truth and keeping of faith belongs to men as men, and not as members of society.[28]




  I offer this rather long passage because it clearly confirms the conception of the state of nature that I attribute to Locke and because it also seems to represent the true nature of the relationship that obtains between states in the international community.  Notice that covenants are valid in this state of nature, that is, they carry moral authority, just as do treaties in the international community.  The only difference between the state of nature and the civil society is the lack of a common sovereign.  And since the nations of the world have not agreed to “make one body politic,” they remain in the state of nature with respect to one another.  Yet this is not a state of war; it is a moral state characterized by relationships about which we make moral judgments as often and with the same fervor that we make moral judgments about domestic affairs.

            The second point concerns the notion that ought implies can and derives from my initial inspiration for this essay.  Kant writes in Perpetual Peace:


It can be demonstrated that this idea of federalization possesses objective reality, that it can be realized by a gradual extension to all states, leading to eternal peace.  For if good fortune brings it to pass that a powerful and enlightened people develops a republican form of government which by nature is inclined toward peace, then such a republic will provide the central core for the federal union of other states.  For they can join this republic and can thus make secure among themselves the state of peace according to the idea of a law of nations, and can gradually extend themselves by additional connections of this sort.[29] 



            Since ought implies can and since Kant says we ought to seek perpetual peace, we need some suggestion as to how we can go about seeking it, about how it could possibly be attained.  Kant’s is a very appealing, perhaps compelling suggestion.[30]  Suppose we (America) are that enlightened people.  Then if this people’s existence and commitment to peace are necessary conditions for attaining eternal peace (the ground upon which the hope of attaining it motivates the desire to seek it), and if we have a moral obligation to seek peace, then we might in fact have the moral obligation to be world police under conditions whereby that is the only role consistent in a particular case with the end of world peace.  Although Kant is not advocating that the enlightened people be world police per se, clearly some sense of law enforcement is indicated in the role:


Reason must necessarily connect such a federation with the concept of a law of nations, if authority is to be conceived in such terms…For states in their relation to each other there cannot, according to reason, be any other way to get away from the lawless state which contains nothing but war than to give up…their wild and lawless freedom, to accept public and enforceable laws…[my emphasis][31]





If these laws are enforceable, then someone has to adopt the role of enforcer.  It seems reasonable to conclude that the requirement that this people be not only enlightened but also powerful implies that they have to play some part in enforcing this public law of nations.[32]  In general, it seems that anyone who could prevent a violent crime, or any nation that can prevent war or atrocity, has an obligation to do so if it is reasonably within his power.[33]


Loose ends:  work for future projects


            One issue concerns the scope of the obligation for which I am arguing.  Clearly there are limits to this obligation.  For instance, we cannot “be” everywhere.  We can’t reasonably be expected to respond to all crises everywhere at all times.  The notion that ought implies can gives us some insight into the way we might define the limits.  There are physical as well as political limitations.  What I am arguing for, borrowing terminology and insights from Barbara Herman,[34] is a sort of acknowledgment or commitment obligation as opposed to a performance obligation.  This entails acknowledging a moral obligation and adopting a “deliberative commitment”[35] to help when it is reasonably within our power to do so.[36]  It involves making a commitment to world peace and our responsibility to further it even if doing so involves positive measures such as adopting a so-called world police role.  Such a commitment would fundamentally alter the nature of the debate about this role since the question would not concern whether or not we had the role.[37]  Rather, since we do have it, we would then concern ourselves with what follows from it.

            Another problem, related to the previous one, concerns the nature of an intervening nation’s obligation to its own people.  There seem to be political and moral reasons for showing preference for one’s own people, although this claim is not altogether uncontroversial.  But we can appeal to a domestic analogy to show that the claim for some moral justification for preference has some plausibility.  Consider that a parent is not only morally permitted to show some preferences towards his own children, he is also morally obligated to do so.  If a parent allows his own child to starve to death because he sent all of his money to relief agencies so that these agencies could feed starving people elsewhere, he would be morally condemned and legally prosecuted.  If in some sense governments are to their citizens as parents are to their children (insofar as some special relationship holds between them), we should acknowledge some presumption in favor of justifying some bias in favor of one’s own people.  Hence, we can acknowledge as one legitimate reason to balk at a certain intervention the fact that its effect on one’s own people might be analogous to the effect that supporting a relief agency had on the parent’s own children in the example cited above.

            Nonetheless, we should note that, if I can help someone else’s children without undo threat to my own, then under certain circumstances, I am obligated to do so.  If I discover, for instance, that the neighbor’s kids have been abandoned and are starving to death next door, I do have some moral obligation to intervene on their behalf.  But this leads to another problem.

            Some might argue that when we intervene internationally, when we send soldiers into harm’s way, we are in effect risking our own children.  That is, on the analogy at hand, when we send our citizens into a dangerous situation, it is like submitting our own children to the same sorts of risks we are trying to avert for our neighbor’s kids – and this we feel is some sort of moral failure.  But a point of disanalogy seems decisive in meeting this objection, since the essential feature with respect to both classes of children is their helplessness, their defenselessness.  This is a feature not shared by soldiers.  Nonetheless this does point to a troubling insight.  We wonder if we are using our own soldiers improperly, if we are somehow devaluing them if we send them off to places posing no threat to our country to do things that seem to bear little impact on our national interests.  This leads to a deeply theoretical point about the nature of the role of the soldier.

            When we employ police to fight crimes or soldiers to fight wars or prevent crimes against humanity, we are not making some sort of trade-off, adding up the potential loss of a few police or soldiers against the potential saving of a few innocents.  We are not saying, that is, that the lives of policemen or soldiers are less valuable than the lives of others and hence more expendable.  What is involved, rather, is a deep respect for a value, the value of humanity and all that comes with it.  The constituting of a police force represents a commitment against lawlessness; the constituting of an army represents a commitment against aggression.  We are motivated not by cost benefit analysis, but by a respect for a value.  We manifest a deep commitment to rights; we don’t devalue the lives of soldiers or police officers; we don’t weigh the lives of some against the lives or security of others.  Police and soldiers are (some of) the members of our community who have said that they will face the danger and resist coercion so that others can be safe:  we will not capitulate to the rule of violence and coercion.  Such an acknowledgment of evil in the world and commitment to resist it motivates, I contend, our use of police force or military force.

            So insofar as we don’t see the use of police in domestic society as analogous to an improper risk of our own children – after all, we are “using” some of our children (citizens) to protect other of our children (citizens) – then it might be appropriate to view the role of the soldier in similar light.  Although police have special responsibilities and duties to members of their community, their precinct, the justification for their employment and the risks they undertake does not come from the nature of those special relationships.[38]  It comes from deep human values having to do with respect for persons and resistance to the evil that is coercion.

            I want to make a final point and will trade on yet another domestic analogy – the schoolyard bully.  In the final analysis, don’t we want him to get his comeuppance?  We want justice done on the part of the victim; we want to prevent his victimization when we can.  We want to stop the bully, or we want someone to stop him.  And what self-respecting police officer doesn’t want to actually be on hand to prevent the mugging and see to it that the mugger get what’s coming to him.  This is not just a visceral response, or not only that; it is a visceral, natural desire for justice.  And soldiers, at least some soldiers, are warriors.  At least part of what it is to be a warrior is to be committed to protecting the defenseless against the bullies of the world, against unjust aggression -- not this or that defenseless group against this or that instance of aggression – but aggression in general.  It is a commitment concerning the very categories, one might say the adoption of a universalizable maxim.  As universalizable, it is lawlike; as lawlike, it is impersonal.  Evil is rejected, that is, in all its forms.















[1] I am indebted to 2LT Megan Dempsey for many of the ideas represented in this paper.  I advised her senior thesis, on a similar topic, while she was a cadet at the United States Military Academy.  I benefited greatly from her many keen insights.  Of course, I am solely responsible for any shortcomings in the essay.

[2] I am not concerned with whether we are actually in that role.  Rather, I am looking at the moral issues attendant to such a role in general.

[3] This is not to endorse peace at all cost.  For instance, we should not be committed to appeasement in the face of something like Nazi aggression.  The overarching goal is the protection of the innocent and the promotion of justice.

[4] Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace” in Carl J. Friedrich, ed. The Philosophy of Kant.  (New York:  The Modern Library, 1993), p. 490.

[5] Peacekeeping can take several forms.  It might involve patrolling a border between two or more sovereign  states to prevent war; it might involve intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation to prevent gross human rights violations.  “Peacekeeping” is a general term meant to distinguish the use of military force in a so-called police role from the more traditional use of the military in a war fighting role.  My emphasis in this essay will be on intervention.

[6] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars:  A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 3d edition.  (New York:  Basic Books, 1977), p. 89.

[7] Ibid.  For a detailed and clear discussion of intervention, see pp. 86-108.  My purpose here is simply to set the stage for the discussion of the obligation to intervene.  Accepting the sorts of constraints that Walzer insists upon, I believe intervention for the right reasons is becoming increasingly acceptable, although my thesis does not rest on whether or not I am right about this.  See also Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor, New York:  Owl Books, 1997.

[8] Ibid., p.90.

[9] Ibid, p. 54.  Again, readers would benefit from Walzer’s detailed examination of the rights of political communities, pp. 51-55.

[10] The extent of the forfeiture and all that follows from it is not the focus of my paper.  Clearly the justification for intervention has limitations.  For example, the fact that some government is committing human rights violations against large portions of its population does not necessarily permit supplanting of that government.  Perhaps all that is permitted is a limited incursion to protect a besieged enclave within the country while further enforced suspension of the country’s civil processes would not be permitted.  I am only trying to establish the conceptual grounds upon which justification in general rests.


[11] I understand that there are also abusive wives.  We can view my discussion as representative, in general, of domestic abuse.

[12] Of course one could argue that the police are invited by those being abused.  Nonetheless, we can see the point of the analogy insofar as it is also the abuser’s house and he is not inviting the police.  Furthermore, it is troublingly common in domestic abuse cases for both victim and perpetrator to reject police interference.  Even in those cases where, say, the abused wife resists the police, the police are not violating the homeowners’ rights when they intervene to stop a crime.

[13] We could tell a similar story about firemen, although the perspective is different.  When the firemen enter the burning house, there is no violation.  Violations are those trespasses, generally, that threaten the safety and privacy that the house provides.  There is no safety in a burning building.  The key point to understand is the justification of our insistence on the respect for sovereignty, either domestically or internationally.  It concerns our notion that it provides the minimum conditions for respecting and promoting human rights.

[14] In The Ethics of War, A.J. Coates provides a very good discussion of this conception of international relations, describing the Hobbesian view in a discussion of realism, a commonly accepted term for this view.  See A.J. Coates, The Ethics of War.  (New York:  Manchester University Press, 1997), esp. pp 17-39.

[15] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.  (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1962), Chapter 13, esp. pp. 101-02.

[16] John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government.  (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1952), esp. Chapter II.

[17] Locke devotes most of his argument to establishing the equal right of all men in the state of nature to enforce the law of nature.  It might not seem as readily apparent that he envisions also an obligation to do so.  Nonetheless, there seem to be good reasons to think that he does feel it is an obligation -- perhaps an imperfect duty (I discuss imperfect duties later) -- to enforce the law.  Referring to Hooker, he cites the “great maxims of justice and charity” (Ibid., p. 5), and says:  “Everyone…ought…as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind…” (p. 6).  Furthermore, the moral order Locke describes seems to consist of more than one of rational egoists asserting their own rights and whose obligations extend only to noninterference with other rational egoists.  We have obligations to love our fellow human beings and our right to enforce the law of nature extends beyond mere self- defense:  there is an implicit obligation to seek justice on the behalf of humanity at large.  It is beyond the scope of my essay to explore this issue in greater detail, and in any case, my thesis does not rest solely on this point about Locke.  I use Locke mainly to reinforce the conviction that we are justified in intervening and to emphasize a particular conception of the normative order holding among states in the international arena.  My argument for an obligation to intervene rests heavily on a domestic analogy and certain Kantian insights.

[18] Hobbes, p. 103.

[19] To say that permission is required is simply to say that an assessment of the moral justification for intervention is required.  In the Lockean state of nature, states’ rights to sovereignty are exclusive; other nations have to respect the right to sovereignty.  Intervention is permitted, as I have argued, when the actions of a given state cause it to forfeit its right to the protection usually guaranteed under sovereignty.

[20] We feel the duty in the domestic sphere, to help, say, children because they are helpless.  It is the helplessness of certain classes of people, say ethnic minorities, that compels us to help them.  That is, the important moral distinction we are concerned with here is not between children and adults but between the defenseless and the (relatively) empowered.

[21] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Trans. Mary Gregor.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997), 4:437.

[22] Christine Korsgaard, Introduction. The Metaphysics of Morals.  By Immanuel Kant.  Trans. Mary Gregor. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. xvii.

[23] We can envision scenarios where police officers are acting beneficently even though they are performing duties that follow from their office.  For instance, if a policeman climbs a tree to save the little kid’s kitten (suppose he is a frustrated fireman at heart), we might see this as beneficent.

[24] I understand that there might be objections to the way I navigate between Kant and Locke here.  In many respects they had different projects.  Clearly, for instance, they envision a different grounding for human rights.   But insofar as I don’t misrepresent either philosopher’s views, it is helpful and appropriate to borrow insights from them both in order to develop a solution to a particular problem concerning international affairs. 

[25] Locke, pp. 4-5.  I take some poetic license to use somewhat interchangeably the terms love and respect.

[26] Ibid., p.77.

[27] Hobbes, p. 129.  He says:  “And covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

[28] Locke, P. 10, emphasis added.

[29] Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” p. 490;  my emphasis at “For if good fortune…” through “…federal union of other states.”

[30] This is in many respects an empirical question, though not entirely.  From the empirical perspective, in any case, the idea seems not only compelling, but perhaps the only reasonable one.

[31] Ibid, 491.  The reader will no doubt notice that Kant has a Hobbesian view of the state of nature and may accuse me of inconsistency here.  But my thesis does not rest on the similarity between Kant and Locke in this respect.  I think both philosophers speak to different insights with respect to the subject at hand.  On the one hand, Locke seems to capture the view that we have that there are deep normative strictures governing the relationship among nations.  On the other, Kant seems to address our conviction that we have a moral mandate to eliminate war.

[32] See Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals, esp. 6: 231, for his views on the justification for coercion.

[33] Since moral obligations obligate universally, we can see this as an obligation on the part of all nations to seek eternal peace, in the same way that everyone is obligated to refrain from doing injustice towards others.  So in many respects I am arguing for a special duty on the part of those who really do have the wherewithal to take on this task.  If there is a dominant power (and there is), it has an obligation to do the so-called police work that is different from those who lack the resources.  As more and more countries become part of what Kant sees as a federation, they begin to take on that role also, insofar as they are capable.

[34] Barbara Herman, The Practice of Moral Judgment.  (Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 1993), esp. 159-84.  The future project would certainly include a detailed development of this conception of obligation.

[35] Ibid., p. 181.

[36] Note that this does not necessarily seem to entail an obligation to go out looking for atrocities to prevent:  that is, it doesn’t imply the need for a world police state.  We don’t allow the policeman to look into everyone’s windows to see if all is in order.  Sovereignty, rightly understood, places moral limits on the extent intrusion and intervention are permitted, hence, required.  In some ways this point is moot, given the availability of information about the social conditions in any given state provided by the media, among other sources. 

[37] There is the related problem of agency:  who is the duty bearing agent when we refer to the duty of a country?  Clearly there are some problems with making claims about states’ duties from arguments about individual duties.  But that we do find it meaningful and helpful to talk about states as duty bearing agents is implicit in the domestic analogy.  Walzer, among many others, trades freely on this notion, for instance, in Just and Unjust Wars.  Also, the more democratic the state, the more this idea of the state as a duty bearing agent makes sense, a point Walzer makes in the same book, pp. 297-303.  

[38] Nonetheless, we must recognize that, as we assume a greater role in peacekeeping, we might have an obligation towards soldiers to inform them that they might be used in ways they might not have understood to be consistent with the roles they have chosen.  For instance, although we expect police officers to accept personal risk to protect the innocent, we don’t normally expect them to accept that risk in the form of fighting fires.  Some activities clearly do fall outside of the role of police and soldiers, even if the activities  involve saving the innocent.  There are moral limitations, then, having to do with respect owed to soldiers as human beings, on what we can require of soldiers