Moral Imperatives

Kant, famously, argued that we have a duty to help those who are unable to help themselves whenever they are in a situation in which we ourselves, mutatis mutandis, would have a reasonable hope of being helped by others. Hadley Arkes, the redoubtable Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, developed this idea at some length in his excellent book, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton, 1986). On Arkes's account, there is a moral duty to vindicate the rights of others when they are unable to vindicate their rights themselves. This is an idea that is congenial to Catholic moral theory, which holds that, at the very least, it is never wrong to vindicate the rights of others, whether or not they are able to vindicate their rights for themselves. The question whether it is in fact a duty to vindicate the rights of others whenever they are unable to vindicate their rights for themselves is a rather more complicated question, but it seems to me that there are certain rather prime examples of times when it has seemed at least reasonable to think that there is such a duty (putting a stop to the Nazi genocide, for example, or bringing about the end of slavery, seem like such cases, though one may dispute the means by which the particular duty was carried out).

I mention all of this because I listened with great interest this morning to Sunday London Times correspondent Simon Jenkins argue that there is a moral duty to "intervene" in Myanmar, given the obstreperous refusal of the government of that country to do the right thing with regards to allowing foreign aid into the country (he has an article on this topic at the Huffington Post posted on Monday). He noted, with some reason, I thought, that although there were interventions in Kosovo and Iraq that went ahead without the approval or backing of the United Nations, the debate over whether the Iraq intervention had been justified/worth it was obscuring the need to intervene for humanitarian reasons in Myanmar. He's not talking about an intervention of the same sort that was made in either Kosovo or Iraq, however. He's claiming only that there are military resources ready and waiting off the coast of Myanmar that are prepared to deliver humanitarian aid into regions where the Myanmar authorities aren't even bothering to show up, and so there is no excuse not to take the relief supplies into these areas. And it seems to me that he has a very good point.

Ideally, of course, the Chinese, who seem to be rather more chummy with the idiots in charge of the ruling junta in Myanmar, would be the ones to look to for this sort of intervention, but they, famously, don't like to "intervene", even when it's the right thing to do, and, of course, they have problems of their own right now (apparently the Chinese military were sent into areas hit by the earthquake without even basic supplies such as masks and rubber gloves, which were supplied by citizens on site). Since the cool thing to do right now is snub the United States, perhaps somebody else could be found to volunteer for this job, but one way or another it is a job that has got to be done.


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