Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

The Moral Standing of States Revisited

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

The Moral Standing of States Revisited

Article excerpt

"The Moral Standing of States is the title of an essay Michael Walzer wrote in response to four critics of the theory of nonintervention defended in Just and Unjust Wars (of which I was one). (1) The essay was written nearly thirty years ago and is still read today. This is not only because it clarifies and deepens the argument about the nonintervention principle presented in the book. That principle belongs to a wider conception of what we might call global political justice, so an account of the principle's grounds and requirements also sheds light on this wider conception. And the wider conception is a matter of both theoretical and practical interest, perhaps even more so now than when the book and article were written.

In this paper I want to reconsider the subject of "Moral Standing" and try to put Walzer's views about intervention, and particularly humanitarian intervention, in the context of a conception of global justice in which the value of collective self-determination is central. The main elements of that conception can be found in Just and Unjust Wars and "Moral Standing," but to see its full force we must look also at some subsequent essays on states and nations, the prospects for global governance, and the practice of humanitarian intervention. Walzer's writings on these topics over the years exhibit both consistency and growth, the latter indicated especially by a developing internationalism that was implicit from the beginning but has become more pronounced since the close of the cold war. As I suggest at the end of this paper, this is an essential element of the wider view as it applies to a world like ours.


The "moral standing" referred to in the title of Walzer's essay is the idea that states have a certain kind of right of due regard in global politics: each state is bound to respect the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of other states by refraining from coercive interference in their internal affairs. In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer presents the nonintervention principle as part of a conception he calls "the legalist paradigm," the "primary form" of the "theory of aggression." (2) I will not summarize it here except to recall that the main organizing idea is that of the domestic analogy, the thought that the global normative order is best understood as a society of states that stand in a relation to each other similar to that of individuals in domestic society. (3) Individual rights to life and liberty correspond to states' rights to territorial integrity and political sovereignty. Violations of these rights are crimes, and those whose rights are violated, as well as those who are in a position to address these violations, are justified in using force both to defend against the violations and to punish the violators.

The domestic analogy gives us the legalist paradigm in its pure form. This includes an almost exceptionless prohibition of coercive intervention: it is permissible only when justified by considerations of defense against or punishment of injustice between states. A corollary is that "humanitarian" intervention is never permissible: "domestic heresy and injustice are never actionable in a world of states." (4)

Walzer does not defend the legalist paradigm in its pure form; the position he adopts incorporates several revisions (or "rules of disregard"). These allow exceptions to the nonintervention principle when intervention would support a secessionist movement that has demonstrated its representative character, when it would contest a prior (and unjustified) intervention by another state, and when it would put an end to acts that "shock the moral conscience of mankind." The last of these is important because it would permit humanitarian military intervention, although only in a limited range of circumstances (the examples in Just and Unjust Wars are massacre and enslavement, to which in "Moral Standing" he adds mass explusion). …

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