The Arrogance of Justice

A 1973 bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden became famous after hostages empathized with the robbers and turned on the police. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was soon coined to describe the psychological phenomenon where hostages bond with their captors. Few will argue that hostages under this type of duress genuinely sympathize with their captors and would defend them if given the freedom to choose and the time to clearly consider the facts. During the robbery the hostages were manipulated victims, ignorant, and in need of intervention. You could say the Swedish police had an “obligation” to rescue them. Consider now the 18th century Jesuit missions in South America that purposely set out to prosthelytize native tribes who where surely living in plenary freedom and in harmony with nature. The Jesuits would claim that the natives were ignorant and in need of salvation – a similar argument to the case for rescuing the Swedish hostages. I suspect most of the time people will side against whomever they dislike the most – the Swedish police or the Jesuits – but less extreme and contrasting scenarios are quite common and siding with reason is harder than we might imagine. Was the Jesuit intervention in South America justified or was it an arrogant expression of presumed cultural superiority? More generally, is cross-cultural intervention more or less objectionable than cross-cultural abstention? I contend that cross-cultural intervention is not only justified but indeed morally necessary.
What grounds could possibly support a claim as bold as one that suggests that keeping to oneself is more objectionable than obtruding in cases where aid is not only unsought but rejected? At the heart of this question is the distinction between liberty-rights and claim-rights. A liberty-right can be thought of as permission to act without the interference of someone else while a claim-right suggests an outside duty toward the right-holder. Liberty-rights might be easier to define, exemplify, and defend – few might argue against your right to live as a hermit – but the same rights can often be affirmed as claim-rights – hermits may also need assurance that a safe place to “hermitize” exists. In the case of the Stockholm hostages, they were rescued by the exercise of their claim-right to freedom, personal security, or some other life related right that the Swedish government guaranteed. The Jesuits would probably argue that the natives were catechized through an exercise of their claim-right to enter the Kingdom of God. As absurd as that claim may sound to many of us, we contribute in a similar manner today through public schooling for the rearing of our children, a claim-right to education. To cite a more extreme example, how absurd would it be for a new mother to only respect a newborn’s liberty-right to her milk and not their claim-right? “If he wants my milk I won’t stop him from climbing on my lap and helping himself; if he doesn’t, well he can just lie there in his crib and starve.” The common denominator in all these scenarios is the ignorance or defenseless nature of the right-holders but we have established that there is an arguable claim-right to knowledge, truth, enlightenment, or nurture and consequently a duty to guarantee it by those who can.
The question now becomes “how do we know who is defenseless, enslaved, or ignorant and who is independent, free, and enlightened?” To take another real-life example, there are probably as many overweight people who claim they are “free to eat whatever they want and are happy accepting themselves and their bodies as they are” as there are formerly overweight people who assert that they “never knew they could feel so good and that they used to be slaves to their cravings.” Who should we believe? Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant presents an approach to freedom that might help us answer this question. According to Kant, “to act freely is not to choose the best means to a given end; it is to choose the end itself, for its own sake” (Sandel, 109). A drug addict for example, is not exercising freedom when he or she takes drugs – the drug addict is a slave to the vice. This view of freedom is important since it will help us determine the ultimate good in any situation and dictate the most appropriate moral choices. Suppose the Swedish police officers decided to help the hostages only because they knew they would get a pay bonus if the rescue mission were successful. According to Kant, they would not be acting freely. Again suppose the Jesuits chose to spread their mission through South America strictly because they sought power and political influence. They would not be acting freely either. Only when we are free can we make the proper moral choices, insubordinate to any passion or inclination. Kant then intelligently applies our free and untethered understanding of what is good in itself to determine a general moral maxim that applies to everyone. That rule known as the “categorical imperative” is to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Kant, 31). In other – poorer – words behave the way you would like everyone else to behave. The real life consequences of accepting this imperative may be difficult – unless you want others to lie, don’t lie, ever, under any circumstance. Supposing the Swedish police officers would want someone to rescue them under similar situations, they must attempt to rescue others if they are to act morally. In turn, if a Jesuit truly believes there actually is some type of Heaven or Kingdom of God and would want someone else to help him enter it, then he is morally obligated to do the same for others. This applies to Muslims, Buddhists, communists, and Satanists alike. Intervention then seems morally necessary for those in a position to intervene.
A common objection to the position that claim-rights exist and that others are morally obligated to uphold them is that across cultural lines and between different groups moral principles vary. This position is known as moral relativism and exists in several flavors. I will explore some of those views in no particular order of absurdity or plausibility. One type of moral relativism claims that each group, culture, or society dictates rules and that any particular action is right or wrong only within that group. For example, bullfighting has been practiced in Spain for centuries as an artistic expression of their culture and tradition. A moral relativist might claim that for a Spaniard, within Spain, it is acceptable to practice bullfighting but it might be unethical for a Spaniard to try to practice bullfighting outside Spain. A fundamental problem with this type of moral relativism “surround[s] the identification of a society” (Williams, 21). Spaniards have colonized much of the Americas and defining Spanish cultural borders has become difficult; furthermore, within Spain today there is a generational gap that expresses repudiation toward bullfighting. Societal lines are blurry and therefore too unreliable to define moral barriers. Another type of moral relativism – meta-ethical relativism – suggests that two people might both reason logically toward completely different conclusions and that although these two conclusions may be entirely at odds with each other they may both be correct. A comforting thought indeed if one is to advocate a class of unexamined diplomacy where very little is at stake but difficult to prove or even exemplify. A debate between two religions about what is the ultimate good might fall into that category. The more general point however is that beyond the value of a mere anthropological observation, moral relativism seems to presume a neutral ground so as not to make any judgment in favor of or against cultural values of any kind. Let us apply moral relativism in the following scenario:

  1.   Society A holds that it is morally appropriate to judge other societies.
  2.   Society B holds that it is NOT morally appropriate to judge other societies.
  3.   Moral relativist C holds that is NOT appropriate to judge other societies.
  4.   C effectively sides with B and therefore is not neutral.

There is an obvious contradiction within the tenets of moral relativism, namely lack of universality that renders it unenforceable. The Swedish police may have indeed been acting according to societal norms rather than a carefully reasoned ethical precept but that does not disqualify the validity of their actions. The same applies to the Jesuits. Ethical decisions may rarely be reduced to one defining decision. They are more often a morass of steps – or missteps – that invite cross-cultural conflict.
The implications that cross-cultural intervention is not only justified but indeed morally necessary are dangerous. The applied intervention itself however is answerable to the same logic and moral demands as those that prescribed the decision to intervene. In other words, it would probably be morally questionable for the Swedish police to turn around and kidnap relatives of the robbers and hold them hostages in order to negotiate the hostage’s release. It would also be morally questionable for the Jesuits to employ terror tactics in order to teach the natives about the Kingdom of God. The proposition that one should intervene is not a license to blindly enforce a point of view at any cost. Rather it is first and foremost a summons to reason. The moral conviction that leads to intervention must not be one made in haste or it risks failing the test of Kant’s categorical imperative or any other normative philosophical concept. In fact, moral relativism itself may serve as a useful tool in the examination of any moral conviction. After all it seems even moral relativist seek justice in their attempt to respect multiple points of view. Only after a thorough and repeated audit of the moral convictions that lead to some type of “cross-cultural aid”, should the type of intervention be considered. “Intervention” in its modern use is a loaded word and often invokes military imagery. Let us put that imagery aside and consider a novel approach to intervention. Intervention fails the practical test of advancing justice if it does not observe a cause of “increasing [our] ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us” (Rorty, 129). There are generally sensible people on all sides of any debate and no matter the degree of conviction that one side may have; it is impossible, in practical terms, to effectively advance that conviction if a prudent effort to truly convince and not merely impose oneself on the other side is not made. Intervention then is reduced to peaceful sharing of ideas.

Sandel, Michael J. “What Matters Is the Motive / Immanuel Kant.” Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 103-39. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. “Section II: Transition from Popular Moral Philosophy to Metaphysics of Morals.” Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1998. 18-43. Print.

Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen. “Interlude: Relativism.” Morality: An Introduction to Ethics. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 20-24. Print.