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Government policy and personal moral responsibility

julia1          5 May 2015 06:43 PM

Centuries ago genocide, mass murder and ethnic cleansings were considered to be a natural feature of history. We are fortunate to live in a different era. Genocide in Rwanda, mass murder in Darfur, ethnic cleansing of religious minorities in the Middle East, all such events draw a flood of criticism from journalists, NGOs and government agencies. In practice, though, apart from official protests and token humanitarian assistance, our governments usually prefer to watch such event from the sidelines. The question is: is it morally right for our governments to do nothing? And if it is not, do we, as citizens of our countries, share moral responsibility for our government inaction?

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Dahlen 6 May 2015 12:51 PM

Things look different from the top. Government decisions are not -- and should not be -- made on the basis of one's gut reaction to a situation, doubly so in cases of large-scale conflicts. There are questions that precede that of whether the bad guys du jour deserve some serious smacking around -- questions of international responses to an intervention, diplomatic relations with the countries involved, economic expenses, expected chance of success, possible domestic and foreign casualties etc. Generally speaking, there is little opportunity for a ruler to express his or her own personal morality, and when they do it's usually not scandalously psychopathic. While they may not be role models of ethical behavior, at the same time not every politician is Elizabeth Bathory. After all strategic considerations are made, there's little wiggle room for how one's instinct of right and wrong may sway.

In the particular case you mentioned, many people see American interventionism as eventually worse than every country sorting out its own problems. Playing world police can be easily interpreted as hegemonic action against other states; even though there's some sense in which you think you're helping, other states can interpret it as a threat to their own sovereignty.

No, citizens can't be considered complicit in most government policy, considering that we don't vote on policy, we vote on policy makers (which can very well make decisions independently of what they had promised to do while in office). To a large degree people are subjects to their government rather than participants in it.


melian 7 May 2015 11:22 AM

many people see American interventionism as eventually worse than every country sorting out its own problems.

Many people see it this way and in numerous cases they are correct. Still, it is scary to imagine how the world would like if the U.S. stood aside during the WWII.

No, citizens can't be considered complicit in most government policy, considering that we don't vote on policy, we vote on policy makers

The importance of votes should not be underestimated. The problem is that voters are pretty indifferent to the results of foreign policy unless they have domestic implications. The failed invasions of Haiti and Somalia and the failure to intervene in Rwanda had not stopped Clinton from winning reelection. Bush’s later failures in Iraq had not stopped him from winning his.


ChristianKl 18 May 2015 05:15 PM

The US only declared war against Japan after Japan attack Pearl Harbour. It only attack Germany in WWII after Germany declared war against the US.
Defending oneself isn't interventionism.

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julia1 7 May 2015 06:41 PM

One can argue that by doing nothing to change the government policies, every individual citizen is complicit. There are ways citizens can affect the policy: by activism, writing a blog, educating other people through various outlets etc. If they try and fail to affect the policy, it's another story. But are they morally obligated to try?

Is there really that much difference morally between governments standing on the side and ignoring mass murder and individual citizens doing the same?

Also, do you seriously believe that if some country mass-murders or ethnically cleanses its people (like what happened in Rwanda), it is morally justified to let this happen, when an intervention could make a difference and save millions of innocent lives? Another example is the hunger in North Korea in the 90's that killed millions - all these people could have been saved, even if it meant forcibly removing their regime.


ChristianKl 8 May 2015 07:34 AM

Attacking North Korea means that North Korea attacks Seoul with biological and chemical weapons. Mortars aren't complicated technology and the distance to Seoul is short.

Given low stockpiles of food the war would also likely kill a lot of North Koreans as transporting food during times of war is even harder than without war.

China likely would got engaged into the military conflict and not simply allowed the US to invade North Korea.

War very often leads to worse outcomes than the person who starts the war expects. A China that fights the US in North Korea might be more willing to attack Taiwan.

The civilian death of the Rwandan genoicide are comparable with the civilian deaths that resulted from the US invasion of Iraq.


DonaldMcIntyre 7 May 2015 09:26 PM

I understand there is an international tradition not to interfere in other states' internal affairs, but I think this has to be revised in the case of genocide crimes and equivalents.

I think there is little sense of moral responsibility, for example currently the majority of Americans don't want intervention in the Middle East even if they see the attrocities of ISIS.


Fwiffo 19 May 2015 04:12 PM

Some time ago the US central intelligence agency CIA did flights that contained prisoners that just crisscrossed across europe. The likely motive was that they could do shady things such as making the prisons unconfortable without the same kind of restrictions they would have faced if they did it back home.

This activity did come to light. Since this was potentially torture happening in our airspace, there was pressure to have the thing investigated. However there is the issue that even if evidence was covered of activities everyone assumes takes place you couldn't really go "bust the bad guys". Our goverment would not want to strain their US relations and there is little chance that they would give up their CIA agents or have them accountable in their courts. Not to mention how bad things could get if things couldn't be pinned on indviduals but the activity would be organised and be attributed as to the organization.

However our parliament did a formal question to our goverment that the efforts to find out what happened were not sufficient and whether we really are going to let US get off this one with a slap on their wrist? Nothing utterly serious occured in result to that, but nobody really argued that it was a bad question. In practice we will probably focus on preemptive measures, so that it won't be so utterly handy to do shady practises like these. In effect they need to fly elsewhere since we are not really in a position to argue them to stop what they are doing.

US citizen if you do not believe in Jack Bauer could you please ensure that your national security is properly kept in check and can live to the norms expected of a first world country?

I would also like bring focus that the issue migth not be underdeveloped countries. For example for a superpower there is nobody to make them be good if they don't want. Keeping your foot on the power can taste better than actualizing your ideals. A big part of western nations have lost a lot of privacy and are burdened by additional security measures to go throught. Pretty suddenly, in the grand scheme of things, privacy isn't that big of a value to actually act on. I am not saying that goverments have done this kind of shift against the will of the people. But it would serve one well by which actions they have shown their consent for this move and whether it is somehthing that is good to happen partly on behalf of you too.


Fwiffo 16 May 2015 06:29 PM

You are asking whether we should not respect other countries soveirnity if we happen to disagree about them in a social issue?

That is like saying that if you neighbour swears you should be allowed to use force to enter through their door to go slap them for bad behaviour. Swearing doesn't make breaking and entering or assault legal (use of or threat of deadly force might).

Your goverment is your goverment. Your goverment is not the world goverment. If you hold your goverment to be a world goverment I would like to say I support my goverment for not yielding to yours.


melian 16 May 2015 07:13 PM

That is like saying that if you neighbour swears you should be allowed to use force to enter through their door to go slap them for bad behaviour.

I think when we consider stopping a genocide, a better analogy might be a neighbor who tries to strangle his wife.


Fwiffo 19 May 2015 03:38 PM

Hmmm on the citizen level it is frowned upon to take law on your own hands and become a vigilante. However at the level of states there is no police department, maybe the closest being UN security council. But then again if the council blessing are not required to successfully go to war it is not exactly effective. For example in the eve online universe there is such a thing as legally sanctioned war.

There are attempts at building international courts but those are "opt-in" and the bigger countries don't want to be limited by them.

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