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A JOURNAL OF
Online content from Vol. 7 no. 1 (2003)
A Finnish translation of this interview by Fijavan Brenk is now available.
You've been highly critical of the Bush administration's
The criticisms that I have made of the Bush
administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war follow pretty
closely, I think, the argument in Just and Unjust
Wars (see the chapter on 'Anticipations'). But my critique of
French and German policy doesn't have much to do with just war
theory. It is a much more general moral/political critique, having
to do with hypocrisy and irresponsibility rather than with
What should be the role of
You make some very cogent points about the attitude
of the European powers, but the analysis leaves two kinds of
question outstanding. First, you are obviously implying that
military action to implement a 'strongly coercive containment
regime' would have been justified. But is it in your view ever
justified to intervene militarily in order to effect regime
change? I am reminded of the doctrine of double effect in relation
to chronically sick patients, whereby pain relief can be given
even if it will cause death, so long as causing death is not the
primary purpose of the treatment. It is clear that some elements
Humanitarian interventions to stop mass murder
and 'ethnic cleansing' will obviously aim
at regime change, since the regime's criminal behaviour is the
reason for the intervention. Thus
A second area concerns the problem of what should
have been done given the
attitude of the French, Germans and Russians, no matter how
reprehensible the latters' attitudes are held to be. British
public opinion is apparently judging the legitimacy of the war
within two distinct frames of reference. On the one hand, there is
the (more or less clearly articulated) perspective of just war
principles: just cause, proportionality, last resort and so on. On
the other hand, there is the pragmatic frame of reference, which
renders a war legitimate only if a) the House of Commons votes in
favour b) there is relatively unified public support, with a large
majority in favour of war and c) the intervention conforms with
international law. The current political anguish in Britain
derives not only from the fact that Britain's leadership appears
to be crushed between the rock of the Pentagon and the hard place
of Europe, but because neither condition b) nor condition c)
appears to be met. This is why the issue of the second UN
resolution assumed a significance on this side of the water that
it perhaps did not possess in the
It is a good idea to strengthen the UN and to
take whatever steps are possible to establish a global rule of
law. It is a very bad idea to pretend that a strong UN and a
global rule of law already exist. Most of the just uses of
military force in the last thirty or forty years have not been
authorised by the UN: the Vietnamese and Tanzanian interventions
that I just mentioned; the Indian war against Pakistan that
resulted in the secession of Bangla Desh and the return of
millions of refugees; the Israeli pre-emptive strike against Egypt
in 1967, after the abject withdrawal of UN forces from the Sinai;
the Kosovo war in 1999. So far as justice, that is, moral
legitimacy is concerned, if the
As for your condition (b), I doubt that you would
want to defend the proposition that democratic decisions should be
made via opinion polls or mass demonstrations rather than by
parliamentary majorities. We organise demonstrations to influence
the parliamentary majority, and if we don't do that, we wait until
the next election. Watching from the
You have been very critical of the American left's
opposition to the war in
I supported the war in
In Just and
Unjust Wars you take a strong stand on the issues of war
crimes, guerrilla war, reprisals, and terrorism in general. How do
you view the current crisis in
This is a hard question for me to answer with
any sort of brevity, given my long involvement in Zionist politics
in the Jewish diaspora and in Israeli politics
too, as a frequent visitor. I recently published an article in Dissent, 'The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine,'
explaining my position, which I will try to summarise here. These
are the four wars: there is a Palestinian war to destroy and
replace the state of
Since I have often been a critic of Israeli governments,
I am reluctant to call such criticism anti-Semitic. But it does
seem to me that there is an oddly disproportionate hostility
A number of US intellectuals have been reassessing their commitment to civil liberties which they now see as a liability to security, post September 11. This reassessment has led to torture being placed on the political agenda, as in the case of Alan Dershowitz. What are your views and feelings with respect to this new climate of debate?
I don't think that I have changed my position except perhaps in the way I distribute the burden of argument. After 9/11, those of us who want to defend civil liberties have to accept a greater burden than before. It isn't enough to point to The Patriot Act and scream 'Fascism!' We have to make the case to our fellow citizens that the government can defend them against terrorism within the constitutional constraints, whatever they are, that we believe necessary to personal freedom and democratic politics. Only if we can't make that case would we have to consider modifying the constitutional regime. Right now, I think that we can make the case; I only regret that so many people on the left don't believe that they have to make it. They talk about this question as if the last thing they want to worry about is the safety of their fellow citizens.
Back in the early 1970s, I published an article called 'Dirty Hands' that dealt with the responsibility of political leaders in extreme situations, where the safety of their people seemed to require immoral acts. One of my examples was the 'ticking bomb' case, where a captured terrorist knows, but refuses to reveal, the location of a bomb that is timed to go off soon in a school building. I argued that a political leader in such a case might be bound to order the torture of the prisoner, but that we should regard this as a moral paradox, where the right thing to do was also wrong. The leader would have to bear the guilt and opprobrium of the wrongful act he had ordered, and we should want leaders who were prepared both to give the order and to bear the guilt. This was widely criticised at the time as an incoherent position, and the article has been frequently reprinted, most often, I think, as an example of philosophical incoherence. But I am inclined to think that the moral world is much less tidy than most moral philosophers are prepared to admit. Now Dershowitz has cited my argument in his defence of torture in extreme cases (though he insists on a judicial warrant before anything at all can be done to the prisoner).
But extreme cases make bad law. Yes, I would do whatever was necessary to extract information in the ticking bomb case that is, I would make the same argument after 9/11 that I made 30 years before. But I don't want to generalise from cases like that; I don't want to rewrite the rule against torture to incorporate this exception. Rules are rules, and exceptions are exceptions. I want political leaders to accept the rule, to understand its reasons, even to internalise it. I also want them to be smart enough to know when to break it. And finally, because they believe in the rule, I want them to feel guilty about breaking it which is the only guarantee they can offer us that they won't break it too often.
More generally, in Thick and Thin you offered an account of universal ideals of justice - such as 'human rights' - which sought to explain how people with different histories and political traditions can come to share a commitment to these ideals even though they are not foundational for, or even integral to, their diverse understandings of justice. Your claim there was that such ideals are minimalist, or 'thin', and that their reiteration across political traditions explains why we can understand what people in contexts utterly different from ours are calling for when they march carrying signs simply stating 'Truth' or 'Justice'. If this account is correct, then if commitment to, for example, human rights is eroded within a significant number of powerful political traditions as was suggested by the last question does it become legitimate for the ideal of human rights to disappear from the landscape of international justice?
The people carrying signs in my account are
Czechs in 1989, during the 'velvet revolution.'
They hadn't been able to defend truth or justice in public
for many years, yet Czechs watching the demonstration knew what
the words meant, and so did we know, watching from farther away.
If civil liberties are curtailed in the
But your question is really just another invitation
to make the relativist/anti-relativist argument of Philosophy 101.
So let me restate the question in the strongest possible form.
Suppose that the Nazis had conquered the world, and that the Third
Reich lasted the full thousand years that Hitler promised. Would
the ideal of human rights, at the end of that time, have
disappeared 'from the landscape of international justice'? I don't
know the answer to that question, and I don't think that anyone
else does. But I hope that people in different parts of the world
would resist the Nazis and when they did (I am paraphrasing my
argument in Thick and Thin now) they would discover that though they had
different histories and cultures, their experience of tyranny was
similar, and so was their response to it. And out of these
commonalities they would fashion a minimal morality that would
serve the purposes of their struggle. 'It would be a jerry-built
and ramshackle affair as hastily put together as the signs for
You are also well-known for your influential work on 'complex equality' in Spheres of Justice. Elizabeth Anderson has recently asked the following hypothetical question: 'if much recent academic work defending equality had been secretly penned by conservatives, could the results be any more embarrassing for egalitarians?' How do you view current philosophical work on equality, especially with respect to its relevance for the left?
I think that
For myself, I think that one great mistake of
contemporary academic philosophers, starting with Rawls himself,
is the claim that our natural endowments are 'arbitrary from a
moral point of view' and should not be allowed to have effects in
the social world or, better, the effects they have should never
be philosophically ratified. As Rawls wrote, we have to 'nullify
the accidents of natural endowment.' This
puts philosophy radically at odds with ordinary morality.
Sometimes, of course, that is a useful conflict, but in this
particular encounter, philosophy does not fare well. Our natural
endowments make us what we are, and what we are necessarily has
consequences in the social world, and some, at least, of these
consequences must be legitimate. John Rawls deserved the honours
he won by writing A Theory of Justice even if
his intelligence was an accidental effect of the natural lottery.
Beautiful men and women may not deserve the sexual and marriage
offers that they get (we have different, but not entirely
different, ideas about intelligence and beauty); still, they
cannot be obliged to share their wealth or, as Phillipe Van Parijs
has suggested, to compensate the losers in love. This last is one
How does your view of complex equality relate to the contemporary tendency (in the US and Europe) for policy on the welfare state to move away from a focus on need to a much more conditional conception of welfare?
I don't think that is the right way to describe the current debate. Conservative critics of the welfare state claim that many of the people receiving welfare don't 'need' it in any reasonable sense of that word. These people, it is said, are capable of working, and society would be better served if they were enabled, or even required, to work. Now, there is an old left argument remarkably similar to this: that the first priority of a socialist state should be to provide decent jobs for all its citizens; welfare is necessary only for people who cannot work. 'From each according to his ability,' is as important as 'to each according to his need.' It is much better to be an independent worker than a client of the state. Two things are wrong with the conservatives' version of this argument: first, ttives generally don't deny the legitimate claims of 'need,' but most of them have no sense of what it means to be needy. I doubt that you can address this lack with a philosophical argument alone; you also need to evoke the sense of compassion. Here politics follows the affiliative or sympathetic emotions.
Given your influential discussion of 'blocked exchanges' inSpheres of Justice, what do you think of the emerging or possible markets in human organs and tissues, genetic material, and so on. How should we think about goods like this, which seem tightly bound up with personhood, on the one hand, and are easily commodifiable on the other?
What things are there in the world that are
not 'easily commodifiable'? It is in the nature of the sphere of
money and commodities that its extent is unlimited until we
limit it. Consider the debate in the
But maybe people will turn out to be remarkably detached from their organs (we've never seen them, after all), and that will make an organ market fairly easy to defend. And then the problems we will face will have less to do with 'personhood' than with distributive justice in a more immediate sense. For it is likely to be only the very poor, in the third world as well as at home, whose organs are collected, and there are sure to be patterns of coercion and pressure that will make the collection exploitative. Commodities are legitimately distributed only in a free-market. Whenever inequalities of power interfere with that freedom, the market requires, as this market surely will, extensive regulation.
The left in the
I take it this is not a philosophical question.
The picture is not quite as bleak as you describe. The feminist
movement continues to make progress in the
People on the left can work, with varying degrees of hopefulness, in a number of different places over the next decade. The first is the Democratic Party, where we have to be engaged because that is where the largest number of 'our' people are. The New Party was a good idea because it involved supporting Democratic candidates while seeking, at the local level, to organise a base of our own. But that strategy has now failed. The Green Party campaign in 2000 was a very bad idea, the product in part of Ralph Nader's narcissism and in part of old left sectarianism. The sharp right turn of American politics is the direct result of that campaign.
The second place is the labour movement. This
is a very old fashioned recommendation, I suppose, but there are
still significant sectors of the American economy where organising
is possible, and this remains the best way of expanding the base
of the left. The politics of welfare and redistribution still
depend in significant ways on the labour movement. And as
The third place is the famous but not always easy to locate 'civil society,' where organisations of all sorts proliferate, and some of them are ours: environmentalists, feminists, defenders of civil liberties, advocates on behalf of minority groups, and so on. These are the 'fragments' of a left politics that still has not come together and may not come together anytime soon. But the fragments are important in themselves, the more the better, and the people who work in them constitute a kind of civil service of the left. Anything we can do to expand these groups is worth doing, even if many of them are wholly engaged in a rear-guard, defensive politics.
Do you think that the recent deaths of John Rawls
and Robert Nozick have marked the end of an era for political
I spent much of the sixties and early seventies
learning to 'do' political philosophy rather than doing it, and
Rawls and Nozick were two of my teachers. There was a discussion
group that met every month in those years, in
The Rawls/Nozick debate was, I think, pretty much over even before their deaths. In the philosophical world, Rawls and the Rawlsians won decisively; in the political world, I am afraid, the Nozickians won, but it isn't philosophers, it is economists, who relish the victory. Right now, the forces aren't engaged: consider how little criticism of the market model is carried in the journal that came out of our discussion group: Philosophy and Public Affairs.
In a sense, the key argument now, or the one that seems central to me, though I stand at a distance from it, takes place within the Rawlsian camp: between those, including Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge, who would extend the principles of A Theory of Justice, and especially the difference principle, to global society and those, including Rawls, who resist the extension. For myself, I think that a strong critique of global inequalities and a persuasive claim that we are obligated to help the poorest countries can be derived from an historical account of how the world economy developed, and from an account of what Rawls called our 'natural duties.' I am a little dubious about the global reach of moral commitments that grow up within, and seem dependent on the solidarity of, a particular political community. One day, maybe
You say that you support
As I suggested before, I do respect, though I don't always admire, academic philosophy in its more detached and abstract modes. It may even be the case the philosophical innovation is most likely to take place at very high levels of abstraction, even if most of what goes on up there isn't particularly innovative. But when philosophers write about public affairs, I believe that they must attend to the political and moral realities of the world whose affairs these are. Thomas Pogge's recent writings on global justice provide a useful model: he has gone to school with the political economists and writes knowledgeably about international terms of trade and the political context in which states borrow money and sell natural resources. That is the sort of work we have to do if we want to call ourselves 'engaged.'
What are you working on now?
I am just finishing up a little book with the
working title 'The Exclusions of Liberal Theory.'
This will be a critique of standard liberalism, though not
in any sense a rejection of it. My argument is that liberalism
would be a more effectively egalitarian doctrine if it
acknowledged the power of involuntary association; accommodated
group life, even in its more intense forms; and recognised the
role of passion in political conflict. It is a plea for a more
sociologically and psychologically sophisticated liberal political
theory. An even littler version of this book has already appeared
I am also involved in a big collaborative project that will eventually produce four volumes of texts and commentaries that represent (our version of) The Jewish Political Tradition. Volume one, dealing with all the arguments about authority and legitimacy, came out in 2000; volume two, on membership, deals with the attempts, over three thousand years, to answer the question, Who is a Jew? It has just come out (April 2003). On my part, the project is an effort to deny that the tradition 'belongs' exclusively to orthodox Jews or even to religious Jews. I am also arguing that Jewish political experience, above all, the experience of statelessness, of collective survival without territory or sovereignty, should be of interest to anyone interested in politics, whatever their religion or ethnicity (or lack thereof).
Finally, Dissent magazine takes
a lot of my time. It is hard work trying to sustain an
oppositionist politics in the