Announcements, Rights Theory

Intervention and Revolution

I’ve been writing lately about war. Bas van der Vossen and I have a volume upcoming at Oxford University Press entitled Debating Humanitarian Intervention. Today I published a post over at the Stockholm Center for the Ethics of War and Peace summarizing my views on the relationship between intervention and revolution, presented in Chapter 3 of the book. Here’s the link. An excerpt:

It is widely held that violent revolution can be justified to end tyranny. It is equally widely held that foreign intervention is not justified to end tyranny. Intervention is justified, if at all, in a much narrower range of cases – perhaps to halt massacre or genocide, but not to end ‘ordinary’ oppression. On this view, state oppression may be sufficient to furnish internal revolutionaries with a just cause for violence, but simultaneously insufficient to generate a just cause for outside parties to do the same. Can this difference be justified? … I answer in the negative: the just cause for humanitarian intervention is exactly the same as the just cause for revolution, and both are subject to the same principles of proportionality (call this the equivalence thesis.) On my view, there may be cases in which intervention is impermissible while revolution is permissible, but this is simply because, for contingent reasons, the intervention will be disproportionate while the revolution will not. Their differential moral status does not depend on a difference between their respective just causes.


Published on:
Author: Fernando Teson
  • Nicholas Weininger

    Yup, this seems a clear consequence of non-nationalism. Of course, you can argue consistently with this that *neither* revolution nor intervention is typically justified even to end tyranny, and for example this is Bryan Caplan’s view if I understand it correctly. Also, one can consistently with this say that neither revolutionaries not interveners are justified in funding themselves using tax money or conscripting people into their cause.

    It is also worth noting the *prudential* reasons to think intervention less often justified than revolution. For example, most people are nationalists even though they ought not be, and this means their resentment of foreign occupiers will hamper the effectiveness even of morally justified interventions.

    • Fernando Teson

      Entirely agree. Thanks for the comment.

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  • Bloke in North Dorset

    Off topic but I’m, sure someone here will be able to help.

    Someone wrote “a letter to my lefty friends” straight after the crash that set out all the problems the State had caused that led to the crash. I used to have a link but seem to have lost in and now can’t even remember who wrote it.

    Thanks in advance, Simon

  • martinbrock

    I can agree in principle, but in practice, any justification for war becomes the rhetoric of any state wishing to wage a war. The Libyan intervention was sold on (dubious) humanitarian grounds, but the results hardly justify anything on these grounds.

    • Fernando Teson

      Agreed. On Libya I would say, perhaps, that given the disastrous results, neither the revolution nor the intervention were justified. There are no deep distinctions between the two from the standpoint of justification. (There is a further issue about justification ex ante and ex post, but I assume the Libyan revolutionaries were aware of the subsequent debacle, and maybe even intended it.)

  • johnbarri

    So appeasement by Chamberlain was ok and intervention by Britain was not ok (iro Hitler)? And we should continue to stand aside and watch like imbeciles while tyrants like Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Putin (amongst others) have their way in the world?

    I do not know the full story behind every intervention in the world’s history and freely admit that they are not all driven by the purest of motives and indeed many are products of outright evil, but I would rather be condemned for intervening when I though appropriate than for standing on the sidelines when I knew that intervention was not only justifiable but demanded of one as a human being.

    Life is never simple. Better to err when trying to do good than never to do good. What is good of course, is a matter for another debate.

    • Fernando Teson

      I agree. My post makes a conceptual point, not a normative point.

      • Lacunaria

        Theoretically, I think you are correct, assuming a single, known, coherent moral system: good is good, whether it comes from the inside or outside.

        However, I think your conclusions are compromised by avoiding practical normative concerns which justify non-equivalence.

        Namely, it is the people of each country who ultimately define “tyranny”, including which trade-offs they are willing to put up with from their government. This grants them a unique moral authority that external actors do not have.

        Moreover, the availability of external intervention lowers the internal cost of rebellion, regardless of justifiability, which alters valuations and complicates the moral calculus.

        In other words, there’s a moral knowledge problem which is partially solved by the localization of political power (including local rebellion, local government, federalism, etc.) and buffers of external non-interference in service to mutual defense, except in glaringly clear moral cases.

  • A. Ezhutachan

    ‘: the just cause for humanitarian intervention is exactly the same as the just cause for revolution, and both are subject to the same principles of proportionality (call this the equivalence thesis.)’

    Interestingly, this is the same argument made by Al Zawahiri in regards to the ‘far jihad’ whose humanitarian intervention consists of reminding Nineveh of the Nemesis of final things.

    It is widely held that pedagogues are shite. But that doesn’t mean that ALL pedagogues really are shite. Still, it’s nice to see that BHL furnishes evidence only to confirm ad captum vulgi truth.

  • Bill Othon

    I think a person within the borders of a sovereign nation has a more legitimate stake in outcomes there, since it impacts more directly “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Any external agent is making a judgement about other people, which might be correct or might not.

    Should we impose American democracy on China by force? As much as our sensibilities might make us believe our approach is better, I’m not sure the Chinese citizens would agree. On the other hand, if there were enough “American-style Democrats” within the boundary of China that felt compelled to “dissolve the political bonds” through violent revolution, would they be justified?

    At some point, such as genocide, I think intervention by external agents is warranted where feasible. The point of the flawed UN is to make those external interventions as legitimate as possible. And of course there are non-violent alternatives to extract change such as embargoes. But the continuum between libertarianism and usurpation is wide, and the lines drawn between them can be very subjective. Which is why leaving the matter to those within a particular sovereign nation should always be the first course of a action.

  • 1h45h

    Totally agree!

  • Lacunaria

    At the very least, your article seems to acknowledge that a justifiable foreign intervention depends upon there first existing a justifiable resistance or revolution. In other words, unlike locals, foreign actors can only justifiably help, not initiate.