Libya and Moral Responsibility
Much of the ongoing debate about Libya has rested on what I believe to the mistaken philosophical premise that the United States, or any other potential intervening party, becomes more morally responsible for the fate of Libya if it chooses to intervene than if it doesn’t. Ross Douthat presents the most sophisticated defense in this post. Most relevant line:
But America’s leaders are not directly responsible for governing any country besides their own, which means that almost by definition, they/we bear less responsibility for tragedies that result from our staying out of foreign conflicts than for tragedies that flow from our attempts at intervention.
Douthat here is equivocating two senses of “responsibility;” the first empirical, and the second philosophical. It is true that the United States is only “directly responsible” for governing its own citizens in a contingent sense: the only people subject to U.S. law are, well, Americans. But that brute fact says nothing “by definition” about who to whom the American government is morally responsible. Douthat’s arguments rest on the foundation that empirical responsibility entails moral responsibility: that if we cause something, we are more morally responsible for it than we would have been otherwise. But is this position defensible?
Douthat’s argument about moral responsibility takes the following abstract form: because X was the empirical cause of bad thing Y, X bears more moral responsibility for Y rather than an equal moral bad, Z, that X could have prevented but did not directly cause. This is a denial of the principle of negative responsibility: the idea in the classic case of a person drowning in the middle of a lake, a bystander who could save the drowning person is as morally responsible for the person’s death if they choose not to save them as the person that pushed the drowner into the lake in the first place.
Douthat’s only argument against negative responsibility is intuitive:
I think this is intuitively obvious when one starts to consider real world examples. Does anyone seriously think that the United States bears just as much responsibility for the horrors of the Congolese civil war (which we “let fester,” in Feaver’s phrase) as it does for the post-invasion violence in Iraq?
But intuition alone is a notoriously unreliable guide both to morality and non-moral truth. We intuitively assume many false premises about Newtonian physics, and people used to think it was “intuitively” obvious that whites were morally superior to non-whites. Reasonable people can also disagree about what intuitions they have in the same case: I, for example, find negative responsibility intuitively plausible (set aside questions about whether I’m reasonable for the moment).
Further, intuition can go both ways depending on how you structure the question. If, instead of Douthat’s examples, one had asked about the drowning case referenced above, or “do we think the United States would be as morally responsible for the Holocaust if it had stayed out of World War II as it was for deaths caused by its sale of arms during the Iran-Iraq War?,” I suspect most people’s intuitions would have been different. The fact that this result might have something to do with the special role the Holocaust occupies in our collective historical consciousness sharpens the claim that intuitions are in part culturally produced.
So if instead of assuming that we all share Douthat’s intuitions, we instead consider the issue logically, the denial of negative responsibility appears incoherent. In principle, it’s hard to see any difference between “choosing to actively inflict X” and “choosing to allow X to happen when one could have stopped it.” In both cases, one is making a choice to take a particular course of action: there is nothing logically intrinsic to inaction to distinguish it from any other possible course of action. If no logical distinction can be made between inaction and other actions, then we have no reason to believe inaction is anything but a particular subset of action. Any intuition that the two are morally distinct likely tracks cognitive biases rather than moral truth.
If I’m right, and Douthat’s reliance on intuition in this case is highly suspect, then his claim that strong moral responsibility attaches to the United States (or any other state) if and only if intervention takes place falls apart. If inaction is the same as action, morally speaking, then policymakers who refuse to take action on Libya are as morally responsible for whatever comes to pass there as they would be if they chose to intervene. The fact that policymakers chose or did not choose to drop bombs in Libya makes no difference to the moral question of whether they should have dropped any in the first place.
A brief addendum: Douthat claims that my position would “multiply American obligations beyond reason” by making the U.S. responsible for every global catastrophe. This is a silly argument. Just because a moral principle implies things we don’t like doesn’t mean we should reject it. Further, the mere fact that American leaders would be morally responsible for failing to intervene to Libya, the Congo, or any other place does not necessarily imply that they must take action in Libya. One still has to weigh the moral costs, including the costs associated with taking on too many military engagements at once, against the costs of inaction.