SharksWithLasers -- Seth Cooper

A CUTTING-EDGE BLOG FOR THE WORLD OF THE 21st CENTURY, Currently operated by Seth L. Cooper, a 27 year-old attorney in Seattle (sethlcooper at comcast dot net)

Thursday, January 27, 2005

ARKES ON FIGHTING TERROR, GIVING FREEDOM A CHANCE. As I continue reading though Amherst Professor and Claremont Institute Fellow Hadley Arkes’ excellent book First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles and Morals of Justice, I came across a profound section discussing international law and the doctrine of nonintervention.

Arkes discussed the idea of nonintervention in the context of the Vietnam War—as an argument leveled by cultural relativists. Of course, Arkes pointed out, such a doctrine of nonintervention can be no more than a prudential consideration. He states:
When the doctrine of nonintervention is mistaken for a substantive moral principle it can lead even some of the most urbane people to conclusions that turn the canons of moral reasoning inside out. (pg. 269)

And:
If the canons of moral reasoning imply anything, they must at least imply that moral conclusions may not be drawn from any condition, such as physical strength or weakness, which has in itself no moral significance. (pg. 270)

Arkes went on to describe, however, a notion of nonintervention that was tied to the notion of self-determination. This is an altogether difference conception of nonintervention, in that it would permit a nation to interfere with a civil war in a neighboring country in order to ensure that the people of that neighboring nation can exercise their own right of self-government. That makes a little more sense.

As Arkes continued his discussion, I could not help but marking several passages that seemed relevant to the current war in Iraq, and the claims of the critics’ that we are somehow “imposing” democracy on that nation and its people. In my view, we are giving the people of Iraq the chance to govern themselves, and anyone who cannot discern a moral difference between liberating a people so that they can exercise their self-determination and a war of conquest and plunder should not be taken seriously.

Here is key a passages from Arkes that expand upon this subject:

As [J.S.] Mill understood…free government may disappear in certain countries not because most people do not cherish it enough, but because the forces that would overturn it may be better armed and disciplined. At these moments, an outside power may be warranted in intervening to supply a deficit in arms that may otherwise imperil a decent government that is not wanting in popular support. The intervention may create dependencies lasting into the future; it may prove inexpedient in a number of ways. But it could not be regarded in principle as wrong. (pg. 269)

Pay particularly close attention to this final passage, which I find particularly pertinent in light of the war in Iraq:

It is entirely possible that elected governments with the support of their populations may still not be a match, in certain instances, for terrorist groups that are disciplined and unconstrained by tender sentiments. Certain populations may also be demoralized or lose their nerve more easily than others when they are faced with systematic error, and they may be more inclined to buy peace by accepting an accommodation, even with antidemocratic forces. But it should be apparent at the same time that nothing in this catalogue of weakness would affect in any way the moral claim of an elected government to survive that terrorism. And in that event…the cannons of moral reasoning would explain quite easily why a third party would be justified in going to the rescue and supplying the strength that the endangered government cannot summon by itself. Against the necessary force of these moral considerations, the doctrine of nonintervention must be reduced to a formula without moral substance. (pg. 271)


Right now our armed forces are engaged in an important struggle in Iraq, putting a nation of people on the path to constitutional self-government. We cannot let their fate rest in the hands of determined thugs and terrorists. Our brave soldiers are not letting that happen. They are giving Iraqi's a chance at governing themselves and living in freedom. We should continue to be grateful for their sacrifices and for all that they are doing in their historic mission.

(Downtown Seattle, WA)

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