State Intervention: An Ethical Perspective


Mankind, for the time being, has states as its prime form of political organization. History is rife with states violently intervening unasked in other states. We in the U.S. have grown accustomed to wars and other interventions in the name of national security or some other interest. We seem to forget that these interventions are a matter of life and death for all the peoples involved. In that forgetting, we become increasingly a brutal people. We badly need to evaluate our foreign interventions ethically.

The issue of state intervention comes down to what violence is called for (justifiable) and what is not called for, that is, what violent actions are ethical or just. This is the issue of just war. I do not address that subject here because I think that before getting into that topic, there is another that is equally important. We need to develop the habit of thinking about the state’s interventions in ethical terms. This article discusses the state’s violent foreign interventions against a background of ethics.

The proper ethics that I assume should guide us in assessing interventions are the standard prohibitions against such acts as theft, murder, pillage, and rape. More generally, they are the prohibitions against doing uncalled for violence against one’s fellow man and his property.

We need to frankly adopt the ethical perspective at the outset when we consider violent state interventions. What will this do for us? We’ll be able to understand the meaning of the violent acts of our state in terms of justice, not simply in terms of the so-called interests of the state. The latter are always vague and always reducible in any case to the interests of particular individuals. State officials use "interests" to bulldoze us so that we overlook the morality of the state’s actions. We’ll start thinking in terms of evaluating our existing institutions and our ways of dealing with interventions in terms of their contribution to justice. We will position ourselves to discover difficulties and lapses in the existing ways we handle interventions. We will point ourselves toward the improvements in our behavior, individual and social, that are consistent with underlying considerations of justice. We will begin to discern the difficulties we face in controlling the state’s interventions. These are the first steps in solving or ameliorating the problems raised by state interventions.

We can view the state in two ways. We can view it as an organization whose members act as the political agents of the people in the nation that the state rules. We might do this because the people financially, materially, and politically, support their state in its actions. They provide an active support, so to speak. Alternatively, we can view the state as an independent body, acting on its own, that interacts with the people it rules so as to extract the resources it requires. We might do this because the state has discretion in its actions. It leads and the people follow, more or less passively. It taxes to pay its bills. In this view, only imperfectly is the state the agent of the people. It acts on its own behalf.

Both views describe the reality. At least some of the people actively support the state. Many more are passive supporters. And a great many more provide the resources and actions that bring the state’s wishes to pass. But, on the other hand, the state’s members clearly instigate and coordinate most violent interventions. While not forgetting the role of the people at large, we should view the state’s members as the main proponents of violent interventions.

By considering the ethical responsibilities of an entire people and the members of its state, we emphasize that the state’s actions are first and foremost on a human level. We avoid the possibly misleading conception of discussing the state as some sort of abstract entity that interacts with other abstract entities because of vague interests. The U.S. does not merely invade Iraq, one abstraction against another abstraction. Real people of the U.S. violently act against real people of Iraq. Violent interventions typically involve large numbers of people of the affected countries. These are not bloodless and soulless confrontations.

Viewing the people of a nation at large as the active body in an intervention, we may say that one people is intervening violently and without invitation in the affairs of another people. Viewing the state as the active body that precipitates intervention, it is the state’s members who mobilize the population and its resources to intervene with another people.

A first theorem follows from recognizing that all actions are carried out by individuals: If a violent intervention is wrong, one or more individuals is responsible. The moral responsibility for a violent intervention is not a magician who does a disappearing act. It always lodges in some individuals. The responsibility does not disappear because the intervening nation spells out legal conditions in its constitution or in statutes that supposedly justify intervention. It does not disappear because the nation is a democracy, or because it is diffused over an amorphous mass of unidentified voters or public opinion. It does not disappear because of a supposed emergency or because conditions are said to demand action. It does not disappear because individuals are sworn in as state officials.

Taking the ethical perspective as axiomatic, we have a second simple theorem. Since the state acts on our behalf, we should ethically assess the state’s violent interventions. If we uphold those ethics, we should condemn both improper violent interventions and the individuals behind them. Ideally, the interventions should be assessed before the state acts. Ethics imply ethical responsibility. This means that if actions are improper, we may rightly morally condemn those responsible for the wrong-doing caused by those acts.

Society does not necessarily possess well-functioning or effective institutions of justice to provide legal recourse, remedies, or penalties for the state’s improper violent interventions. But, even if such institutions as exist are limited in scope, the ethical perspective points us in the direction of recognizing their importance, improving the functioning of those we do have, and finding new ones if the old ones don’t work.

Who is then ethically responsible for a state’s actions? A fine-tuned attribution of responsibility requires knowledge of the particulars of a given case and judgment. It is safe to say that, because of its support, the body of people bears some responsibility for what its state does. But since this responsibility is spread far and wide, it is also spread very thinly and unevenly.

More speculatively, we digress very little to observe that one set of non-state institutions that bears greater responsibility is the media. It reflects public opinion to an extent, but it also heavily influences public opinion. The media tend to act irresponsibly in situations that involve violent interventions by being cheerleaders. There is no obvious mechanism that subjects the media to sanctions or holds them responsible for their tendencies to stir up trouble, exaggerate tragedies, and support violent interventions. In fact, the opposite is the case. Major media companies are licensed by the state and fear the state’s retribution; and this factor leads them to be supportive of the state. Furthermore, many people who work in the media are educated by persons who are beholden to state support and inculcate the state’s values. The result of all this is that we have an institutionalized yellow press.

Because of the state’s primary role in every single detail, major and minor, that relates to violent intervention and because Congress has the legal power to declare war or otherwise attempt to place a legal glaze over an intervention, the responsibility is far and away the heaviest on those who compose the state than on those outside it who are its supporters and cheerleaders.

If society monitored the members of the state in some regular ways and exposed them to sanctions if they misbehaved ethically, they would behave better. As matters stand, we in America, not without some minor exceptions, virtually do the opposite. We adulate officials and pay them exorbitant pensions no matter how badly they behave in office. Officials are able to capture huge emoluments by speaking engagements and by writing books. The worse they behave, the greater attention they are accorded. Ignoring and/or ostracizing bad actors is something we don’t know how to do.

Again assuming the ethical perspective is axiomatic, we can state a third theorem: Violent state interventions must be (or should be) given ethical justification by the members of state. Otherwise, they are unethical. They necessarily have to be shown to be just. For if they are not so shown, then those who initiate violent intervention simply perpetrate uncalled for violence; and that is on the face of it unethical, q.e.d.

The important corollary is that the burden of proof for violent intervention logically rests on those who are urging the violent acts, which means primarily the members of the state. The logical presumption implied by the ethical perspective is a presumption that is analogous to a presumption of innocence. It is a presumption of no intervention. The members of the state are not justified in executing a violent intervention unless they have first proven that the intervention is proper. This is the same principle we apply to everyone else in society. No individual anywhere else in society is justified in perpetrating violent acts on another person without being justified. The members of the state are as much under the ethical law of non-violence as anyone else is.

In fact, we should logically expect society’s leaders to uphold even tougher and more restrictive ethical standards than the average person. That we do not in our contemporary American society observe this high expectation carried into practice, that we in fact observe flagrant disregard of it, proves that the general level of ethical knowledge and behavior is nowhere near where it should be. It tells us that our society has a very serious problem in regard to ethics.

How high should the standard of proof be? How thoroughly should the justice of an intervention be demonstrated? There are three major evidentiary standards in the U.S. Ranging from lowest to highest, they are the preponderance of the evidence (or the balance of probabilities), clear and convincing evidence, and beyond a reasonable doubt. Given the serious consequences that most interventions entail, the standards should be high. They should only be lowered if the potential costs of inaction are high; but it is very hard to think of a case of American intervention when the country would have suffered if it had done nothing.

When a country’s leaders propose or undertake interventions, we do not ordinarily think in terms of making them prove their case. We have no real institutional means of doing this. We do not have referenda on interventions. We do not have an independent body or bodies whose specific role is to assess the matter. Everything is done inside the legislative and executive branches; we rely solely on that division for the checking and balancing. We then rely on speeches and the press. This process doesn’t work.

We in fact have very severe weaknesses in the ways in which we assess the justice of an intervention. This can be seen by reviewing how this nation has been taken to war and into interventions. At times, the actions have been secret and/or CIA-led. At other times, all it has taken is a president’s speech, a perfunctory Congressional debate, and a one-sided vote, to lead us into a protracted war. Sometimes, the president has provoked a war. Sometimes, his executive orders and actions have created the intervention unilaterally. In all of these situations, there has been no significant burden of proof placed upon the state. There has been no due consideration of evidence in a manner that provided sufficient checks upon state power. The ethical perspective has more or less been buried. We have not been properly evaluating the rightness or wrongness (in ethical terms) of actions of the state that have extremely important consequences.

Certainly, we will find a great many commentators and individuals who react to any violent state intervention by assessing its morality. The ethical perspective is by no means absent. But we also observe a tendency to greater support than evaluation or criticism. We observe much biased support, much blind support, much mistaken support, much emotional support, much support based on pragmatic considerations, much support based on false historical interpretations, much support rooted in self-interest and potential profit, much laxity in terms of legal necessities, much one-sided propaganda from government officials, and much passive support or non-participation from those lacking a way to make their opinions known.

No individual can initiate violence without being called to account for it in a court. This usually happens after the fact because we do no know what an individual is contemplating or may do. In the case of a state making war or violently intervening in another country, matters are different. We are as a body publicly contemplating a violent act. In most cases, our representatives are leading the charge and provoking or strongly encouraging the act. Who is to be the conscience of the state? Who is to be the moral monitor? Who is to exercise self-control? We cannot allow the state to shoot first, after which we ask questions. By then, it is too late. By then, the nation is committed to a costly course of protracted action. If the burden of proof is upon the state that proposes to initiate violence, how is the proof to be presented? Who is the monitor or the court that can restrain the state?

We plainly are lacking in institutions for restraining the state’s interventions before they occur. Institutions cannot make a people good. Even good institutions will be subverted if people want to get out from under them. The American system of violent interventions, let run on and on no matter how improper they may be, is the system that many of us want, which is why it is in place. But the state is still the main player. The state wants the interventions. The Constitution has facilitated the growth of the American Empire. This was its domestic purpose and the mission was accomplished. But then foreign empire became the goal of the state; the Constitution proved to be no bulwark against that ambition. If we are bereft of institutions to stop the war machine, that has been the design for a long time. It is a little late in the game to observe the degraded and low state of ethics that the Empire and its interventions have spawned. But for the sake of future polities, it is well to spell out what has happened here and understand how and why it has happened. Had the American people had a firm commitment to and understanding of ethics backed up by appropriate institutional arrangements to prevent the state’s violent interventions, the world-straddling octopus that is the U.S. might never have occurred.

Another serious case occurs when violent intervention is triggered by some past treaty or agreement. In effect, the state commits itself via treaty to a possible future intervention contingent on some events coming to pass such as an attack on a partner nation. All of the reservations already expressed about intervention apply, and then some. The burden of proof is upon those who support the treaty. But a treaty looks to the future, and the future is highly uncertain. How can the state prove its case when the circumstances are so intangible? Why should this nation’s future be made to depend on the uncertain actions of other nations? The standard answer is that an alliance by treaty lowers the odds of a war by creating a stronger entity. However, in fact, the effects of alliances are ambiguous and depend on many factors such as the reliability of one’s allies.

And these questions do not get at the even more serious moral infractions that occur when the state acts in secret to provoke hostilities, or when the state manipulates or suppresses critical information, or when the state acts in haste or unilaterally, to take a nation into a war. In such instances, there is no real or unbiased public assessment of the intervention. If we think of the public as responsible because it has delegated this power to the state or because it fails to hold its public officials to account even after the fact, then the public has placed its collective conscience on the inmost recesses of a deep and dark closet shelf and forgotten where it is. If we think of the members of the state as responsible, then, in each of these cases there is also an inexcusable moral lapse of a most serious nature.

Is it possible for the national government to monitor itself and stop improper violent interventions before they occur? To a small degree, but it is not in its interest to monitor itself vigorously. We have divided government functions and divided financing. We do have a modicum of hearings, usually politically not ethically inspired, and we have occasional mention of possible impeachments. Perhaps even worse excesses are being avoided. But these control mechanisms are dreadfully weak. They have not kept the nation out of war.

A properly functioning country would not need a Department of Homeland Security. We would be able to rein in past errors, which we can’t seem to do. We would not be constantly prone, as we are, to committing new errors.

Our leadership is not raising and asking the ethical issues. It is not sanctioning improper violent interventions. It is causing them.

Since our society places such heavy reliance on its central government and its election system, we as a people are bereft of control over our state. The horrible human rights record in Iraq alone over the past 20 years and several administrations illustrates how out of control the U.S. state is. We have no workable institutions to change this situation except to elect different leaders. That hasn’t worked for a very long time because of party control of candidates.

We face big problems. Our system has grave institutional defects in restraining unethical foreign violent interventions. We as a people are ethically off course. The negative consequences of our state’s unethical actions around the world have come home to roost. This will continue.