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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.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. As a utilitarian/consequentialist I very much agree with this, at least in general. We should be weighing the costs/benefits of action vs inaction, and opting for the best strategy based on available evidence. Choosing inaction does not absolve us from this responsibility.

    I think there is a caveat, however. It's not practical to make cost-benefit calculations every time we make a decision, let alone every time we *don't* make a decision (and therefore don't act). That's why we create rules (for ourselves and for each other), and in this context it does seem reasonable to me to insist on a more robust analysis in the case of action than in cases of inaction. There are just too many of the latter for this to be practicable.

    In the case of Libya, though, I don't think this really applies. The fact is that there is so much attention being focused on this issue that the "you can't analyse everything" argument rings very hollow in this case. So whatever stance we might take on the merits or drawbacks of action, I agree that the idea that action would make us "more responsible" is flawed.

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    One can agree with Zack that intuition is not a good reason for rejecting negative responsibility. But this does not imply that its rejection is not justified.
    Imagine that we lived in a world where the intentions of all persons and all of the consequences of their actions or inactions were known by all – we might in this case conclude that there was no intrinsic logical difference inaction and the host of other possible actions.

    In the real world, however, there are real differences between actions and inactions.
    To list just three :
    1. the question of intention – applies to actions but does not, outside extreme cases, apply to inactions.
    2. the likelihood that the consequences of inaction are generally even harder to foresee than those of specific actions – I can mount a realistic hypothesis on the possible consequences of one action, but how can I mount one for the consequences of unspecifiable inaction ?
    3. An action often entails other actions – in the case of Libya, for example, intervention entails a longer-term commitment to the welfare of its people. This does not seem to be the case with inaction.

  3. Anthony, count me unpersuaded that any of the differences you list are capable of generating a morally relevant distinction in kind between action and inaction. Even if I spot you all three of those, I still don't see how that makes inaction, morally speaking, anything other than an empirically peculiar sort of action. But I also think inaction entails all three of things you list.

    Intention: surely, when we choose not to act, we are intending to bring about a particular state of affairs – namely, the state of affairs in which the proposed action does not take place. When, for example, I choose not to aim a gun at you, my intention is to not point a gun at you, not scare you by threatening force, etc. So long as there is a choice between action and inaction, there will always be some aim intended by the choice of inaction. This seems clear to me – perhaps we're operating under different definitions of intention?

    Predictability: I don't see why there's a reason to believe that the consequences of not acting are any more or less predictable than the consequences of acting. It's not like inaction is unspecifiable in any meaningful sense – it's simply a continuation of the status quo. If one can make judgments about what's happening in the status quo, then one can make consequences about the consequences of inaction. If anything, one would think that acting would have less predictable consequences then not acting (that's certainly been the assumption made by the critics of intervention in Libya, and intervention more broadly).

    Entailment: I also don't see this as being the case. Choosing not to act in a particular circumstance can lock you in to a course of action in the future as securely as choosing to act. For example, if I decide not to attend one friend's birthday party, that might lock me in to not attending another friend's birthday party as well for fear of offending the first friend.

  4. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for your courtesy in replying, Zack. Briefly, here is a response :

    Intention : If I deliberately push a man off Thames Bridge into the river, I have a certain intention : that is, I have sought, planned and acted to bring about a specific outcome. I think you have a special private definition of intention if you maintain that in not jumping in to save a man from drowning because he has fallen under Thames Bridge, I also intend for him to drown. (I do not deny that his drowning could be a consequence of my inaction.)

    Predictability: agreed, you are right – the consequences of my intervening in Libya are perhaps as unpredictable as those of my non-intervention. However, in interfering in a sphere outside my authority where my knowledge of what is really happening is limited, am I not more likely to miscalculate? Evidence from interventions in the past suggests to me that this is often the case.

    Entailment: I agree that precedent can work in both directions, so to speak. Nonetheless, it strikes me that empirically it is easier to get sucked into unforeseen conflicts through intervention than through non-intervention. Again, history can illustrate this through Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq …
    I guess this is why Ross Douthat (rightly, in my view) puts the "onus of proof" on the proponents of intervention.

  5. "in interfering in a sphere outside my authority where my knowledge of what is really happening is limited, am I not more likely to miscalculate?"

    I think a better question is: "in this particular case, is the result of inaction more or less predictable than the result of (a certain proposed) action." it's not really clear to me that this was the case. Not of course that predictability is the only criterion: in this case one could say that the consequences of inaction were all too depressingly predictable.

    "empirically it is easier to get sucked into unforeseen conflicts through intervention than throughout non-intervention". The examples given all relate to military interventions, so I think we need to distinguish between the general ethical issue and the specific case of military interventions. Another way to interpret those examples is that military interventions tend to go badly. But then that is an argument against military intervention, not an argument in favour of linking responsibility to intervention.

    Regarding intention, I think a fairer comparison would be between jumping in to save a person from drowning and deciding not to. You do not become more responsible for saving the person by deciding to jump in.

  6. A large and important facet of this debate that has been mostly ignored is the importance of visibility and press coverage on the international stage. There are many gruesome conflicts occurring at this moment but Libya is one of the conflicts that has received international attention and due to that attention has been made most urgent, regardless of its relative severity or the frequency of atrocities around the world. Regardless of the 'moral' implications of acting or not acting, most nations, I would argue act in the ways that befits the image they wish to project to the international community. The moral implications are secondary because if we were to adopt a solely deontological outlook, nations would intervene in every major conflict. This is obviously not possible.

  7. "If we were to adopt a solely deontological outlook, nations would intervene in every major conflict. This is obviously not possible."

    Because it is not possible, it would not be the outcome of such a "solely deontological outlook". Instead nations would choose to intervene in those conflicts where they can be most effective. But I agree that in practice nations tend to act in ways that befit the image they wish to project to the international community. It's not perfect, but at least there is an international community. If there wasn't, it would be pure realpolitik, and the nation that didn't play by this rule would lose.

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