Current Events, Academic Philosophy

Against intervention – ex ante / ex post

As I explained in my previous post, military interventions are almost never morally acceptable. The basic reason is relatively straightforward. Such interventions fail much more often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake them.

Fernando disagrees. He believes that refraining from interventions is unacceptable. My view is too close to pacifism. I find this puzzling. I don’t see why getting closer to pacifism than the kind of wanton interventionism we see today counts as an objection. It’s a conclusion. And pretty clearly the right one at that, I’d say.

Fernando proposes that interventions, and in particular the Syrian one, are justified if three conditions are justified. Here are the conditions:

the Syria bombings will be justified if (1) they had a just cause; (2) the commander, Trump, weighed consequences responsibly, and (3) the bombings satisfied proportionality, that is, they turned out well.

It’s not clear to me (at all) why Fernando thinks this position actually licenses the interventions he wants. Right before concluding that the Syrian attacks are justified, he admits that “there are serious doubts about (2).” But, on his view, shouldn’t that mean that the intervention is wrong? I would add that there very serious doubts about (3) too. As I pointed out before, the track record of intervention gives us zero reason to believe this will work out. (And there are good reasons for believing that this trend will continue into the future.)

So if interventions are acceptable only if both nothing went wrong ahead of time, and things worked out in the end, then the Syrian case begins to look quite worrying. But Syria really isn’t exceptional in this way. The cases where both nothing went wrong ahead of time and things worked out in the end are few and far between. You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.* If interventions are justified only when both these things go well, means accepting an even more pacifist conclusion than I defend.

I actually think it’s better to choose how to evaluate interventions. Either we should judge them on how they work out ex post, or we should judge them on the decisions ex ante. In Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I offer several arguments for why a purely ex post approach won’t do. And these problems cannot be avoided in the standard ways. (That is, they don’t go away by simply saying that doing something that was ex ante wrong or irresponsible makes an agent culpable or excused, while the ex post wrongness makes the act unjustifiable. That’s a response that works well in most cases, but there are cases in which it’s obviously and deeply mistaken.**)

The best option, then, is to simply accept that being responsible ex ante is what matters. Of course that means that sometimes we might forego things that might have worked out in the end, simply because there was no good reason to believe they would do so. But that’s something I’m comfortable with. It also means sometimes doing things because it’s the right thing to do ex ante, and then accepting that, even though they didn’t work out, it was still the right thing to do. That’s something I’m less comfortable with, but still can accept. After all, if you’d put us in the same position, we’d do the same thing all over again. Stronger: we wouldn’t want anyone to do anything else.

Most theories of just war pay lip service to these ex ante ideas. They accept a “success condition” for justified intervention. The success condition is ex ante in nature – it refers to the prospects of success, not actual success. But as soon as we accept that, we must also accept that interventions are almost never justified. There is simply not enough reason to think, right now, that we’ll end up doing them well.


* There is a rich literature chronicling the crappy decision-making procedures used by intervening powers when deciding whether or not to attack. If you’re interested, this is a good starting point.

** I have offered a shorter version of the argument here. But much of my thinking about this has been shaped by the brilliant work of Michael Zimmerman’s, see e.g. here and here.

  • “military interventions are almost never morally acceptable. The basic
    reason is relatively straightforward. Such interventions fail much more
    often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake

    That has the same form as this:

    love affairs are almost never morally acceptable. The basic
    reason is relatively straightforward. Such affairs fail much more
    often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake

    And this:

    athletic careers are almost never morally acceptable. The basic
    reason is relatively straightforward. Such careers fail much more
    often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake

    Such examples can be multiplied. Do you endorse all the examples? If not, you have some explaining to do.

    • Rob Gressis

      Maybe the difference is that the costs of failed interventions are much greater, and affect more people, than the costs of a failed athletic career.

      • But the benefits of successful interventions may be much greater too. So I don’t think that difference is going to be a crucial one.

        • Sean II

          Exactly. The “fails more than it succeeds” argument counts mere occurrences, not weight of impact.

          It may well be that stopping one Hitler every now and again is worth 100 Black Hawk Down fiascos.

        • King Goat

          What do you think of the traditional medical commandment, ‘do no harm?’

          • It should not be, and is not, taken literally.

          • King Goat

            Not literally, perhaps, but is there a principle in there that has made it pass down through the ages as meeting so many people’s moral intuitions? Something about being extra hesitant about being the possible initiator of harm?

          • No. A surgeon inevitably does harm. What it means in practice is something like: do only those harms that a necessary for the overall well-being of the patient.

          • King Goat

            That seems like a living constitutionalism stretch of interpretation of what it says, if ever there were one. I don’t think that’s what most people who’ve recognized the moral intuitiveness of the commandment down through the ages have understood it to be saying.

          • You could rephrase what I said as: do no net harm. Surely that is intuitive?

          • King Goat

            The most natural reading involves a stronger aversion to mistakes of commission than omissions.

          • The most natural meaning says nothing about mistakes. It announces a prohibition. It is about acts not intentions.

          • King Goat

            Re my addition, the most natural reading of such prohibitions doesn’t have consequentialist theory read into them where the prohibited thing is actually prescribed sometimes.

          • Sean II

            It should be: “Don’t do net harm across populations”

            A principe against net harm in any individual case would rule out everything…including vaccines.

          • Sean II

            Right. That’s why one of the key stats in medicine is Number Needed to Harm.

            Oath writers tend to like poetry more than probability.

      • King Goat

        This makes me think of the choice of evils defense-and its limits-from the common law. We’ll let people play at consequentialism that effects others’ lives, but stop short when the stakes are raised (murder).

    • Basvandervossen

      Of course there is more to this than just the number of cases. If there were no risk of harms, there would be no reason not to try (other than the cost of trying). But that’s not our case.
      In the book, I devote an entire chapter to working this out with quite some precision. This is a blog post, so it’s not possible (or appropriate) to rehearse all the arguments in detail here. I hope you’ll check out the book when it comes out…

      • My examples did not assume no risk of harms. Failed love affairs can be
        devastating. The medical intervention example specifically stated that
        intervention had, in a high proportion of previous cases, resulted in
        harm. So you have not replied. I appreciate that you cannot repeat a
        book here. But does that really mean you can offer no reply?

        • Basvandervossen

          The relevant set of comparison will be cases in which our actions may lead to harms to people that are justifiable only as a lesser-evil – i.e. harms that are (roughly) morally acceptable only if they are instrumental in bringing about much more good.

          • So, does that mean that we whould modify your argument as follows?

            “military interventions are almost never morally acceptable. The basic
            reason is relatively straightforward. Such interventions are permissible or appear permissible in light of available information [you seem to confuse the two] only when the harms that they cause are outweighed by the harms that would accrue if they were not undertaken. But such interventions fail much more often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake them.”

            The third sentence (the new bit) seems to be doing no work, in which case it is irrelevant.

            Let’s change ‘military’ to ‘X surgical,’ where the ‘X’ stands in for a type of surgery performed under a type of circumstance, e.g. brain surgery performed on a cancerous tumour which it is possible but very difficult to remove and save the patient. Without surgery, the patient will die a horrible death within a few months. If surgery succeeds, the patient will live but will probably be killed by a recurrence a few years down the line. If the surgery fails, the patient will not survive the operation. In the majority of cases, surgery kills the patient (it all depends on what the surgeon finds when he starts to cut and on how sklful he is). What to do in this case?

            It is permissible for the surgeon to operate if the surgery would safely remove the tumour and give the patient at least a few more years of life. No one can know before the operation whether that it true.

            Given that no one knows whether it is permissible to operate, what shall we do?

            You have a rule: in most cases things go bad, so in this case we cannot operate. Surgeons generally do not follow that rule. They treat each case individually, have discussions with the patient and the family to make sure everyone understands the situation and then come to an agreement.

            The discussions and agreement do not miraculously generate knowledge about what is permissible. No one knows whether it is permissible to operate. All anyone can do is make a guess, take a risk. If we are lucky, things work out. If not, shit happens.

          • Basvandervossen

            This is getting a little tedious. I do not confuse “being permissible” with “appearing to be permissible”. The thesis I defend is that interventions are permissible only if there is ex ante evidence that they have a good enough chance of success. Sometimes, a little charitable reading might be advisable. Perhaps it’s inherent to the blog format. You’re not the only one doing this. But accusing me of such basic mistakes doesn’t make me want to engage much more.
            Perhaps you may want to look at either my article or the Zimmerman books – both linked to above. You seem to think that the doctor example constitutes some kind of gotcha. In fact, Frank Jackson’s example – which get this entire ex ante ball rolling, at least for Zimmerman and myself – is about a doctor. The example shows that uncertainty can put us in a position where we knowingly (!) do what we know is not the best in terms of outcomes (defended in terms of best outcomes, rights protections, of whatever – it doesn’t matter for this result). Hence, the example shows, I think, that the true standard of right action is not sensitive to outcomes (however defined) but sensitive to what we know (or better: our evidence) at the time we act.
            I’ll leave things at this.

          • I know exactly what you are saying, Bas. It is a standard position. But I think it is confused. Worse, I think it arises from cognitive dissonance, as I explain in a paper available here:


            In that paper, incidentally, I discuss Jackson’s doctor case and I argue that it does not at all show what you say it shows. But that is by the way because Jackson’s doctor case and the surgeon case that I introduced above have a different structure. In the surgeon case, unlike the doctor case, we do not know what the wrong action is.

            Your detour has therefore still not provided a reply to the objections I have been raising. So I agree that this is getting a little tedious. I have been saying that you propose a rule and offer an argument for it; but the argument is invalid, for reasons I have given.

  • Here’s another example.

    You have an awful disease that makes your life a misery. There is only one available treatment. In a high proportion of cases, it makes the patient worse off. In the other cases, it brings about a substantial improvement. There is no knowing in advance which sort of case yours will be if you have the treatment, though there are various rival medical opinions. What do you do? Well, you have told us: you don’t take the treatment, you just carry on living in misery, and you recommend all similarly-placed patients to do the same, “as a rule”.

    Does that seem right? Even if it is (turns out to be) right for you, surely there is no rule.

    • Sean II

      Might be a better analogy than you know.

      When desperate intervention fails, everyone blames the side effects of treatment and acts like the doctor conned them into it.

      When it succeeds, they just thank Jesus for a miracle.

      Before they know whether it will succeed or fail, they say “Just do everything!”

      Western military intervention may be getting judged like that here. No credit for the wins, and little nuance in assigning blame for the losses. A lot of White Man’s Burden thinking going on, such that third world bloodbaths never get blamed on local causes.

      Like me you’re probably old enough to recall how the Left tried to blame the Cambodian genocide on Richard Nixon!

      Bad should probably show his work in detail, in terms of what led him to the “nearly always fails” conclusion.

      • HermanStone

        This is slightly off topic, but…

        I try to make a habit of taking your arguments seriously even when I disagree with them, so l’d like to go give that a shot on an issue related to this thread. I’ve heard you mercilessly lambast the idea of blowback before. I’m going to avoid a direct confrontation and just ask you: Could you speed up the process of my understanding that view a bit better by recommending an article/book/author or two who make the case especially well?

        Thanks in advance for babysitting.

        • Sean II

          It’s a good question, but the better way to ask it is by putting proof on the positive: why would anyone ever believe in blowback to begin with? What evidence ever existed for it?

          Because the story was never very plausible. A man joins ISIS because they promise him a) an alternative to western civilization, b) rape slaves on earth and c) a guaranteed path to heaven. Soon he goes out and blows himself up to kill 10 other people while screaming “Allahu Akbar!” with a Koran in his pocket. Now a helpful fellow from the Cato Institute appears to tell us this young man man wasn’t crazy or evil, but simply concerned about the recent overreach in US foreign policy.

          That’s pretty much the opposite of parsimony, and we should demand extraordinary evidence before entertaining it. But attempts to find such evidence don’t fare very well:

          Meanwhile the blowback theory fails some obvious historical tests. If “American bombs wrecked my house” was a leading cause of suicidal fanaticism, then surely the explosive vest would have been invented in Germany 1945. There would have been more kamikaze attacks after the war than during it.

          What happened instead is that both Germany and Japan acted rationally, cut their losses, and set about building nice middle-class societies.

          Remember what blowback is purporting to explain. It’s one of the most self-destructive behavior patterns known to history. An entire region seems gripped by the urge to pick fights it can’t win. This is not a rational response to any stimulus.

          A Blackhawk blows up your goats, so you decide to make yourself dead along with them while declaring an inter-generational vendetta that will keep your children in peril and poverty forever? Interesting strategy. What should we blame here? The helicopter or the mentality?

          Consider: if a friend of yours was assaulted, you’d feel bad for him, try to help him any way you could. But if that friend responded to the trauma by spending all his money on guns, and all his time training for revenge, you’d call him crazy and get as far away from him as possible. You’d point out all the people who get assaulted without turning themselves into lunatic post-apocalyptic movie characters. You’d point out that none of his behaviors has the slightest chance of making his life better. Ultimately you’d probably conclude the fucker was crazy to begin with, and the assault was at best a trigger…but even more likely a product of his own underlying craziness.

          This is like that. The Middle East isn’t crazy because it got bombed. It gets bombed because it’s crazy.

          So my advice is: start by reading the case FOR blowback. You’ll see it was never very strong, and that above all it fails to account for the simple fact that the thing to be explained – i.e. an honor culture characterized by religious fanaticism and endless self-destructive vendettas – has been a fact of life in the Middle East long before American even existed.

  • Salem

    Do you apply this view to domestic law enforcement too, or is this a cultural/aesthetic opposition to the military?

    A bank robber takes hostages. What should we do? We’ll try and talk him into surrendering, but ultimately we’ll send in armed men to rescue the hostages and arrest him. There’s a narrow sense in which it would be more efficacious to pay him to release the hostages then let him go on his way, but all that would do is encourage more hostage-taking. A violent end to a hostage scenario is a failure, and likely to end in loss of innocent life, but all existing negotiations take place in the shadow of that threat. We can’t do without it.

    A tyrant is gassing his own people. What should we do? We’ll try and talk him into surrendering, but ultimately…

    Far from “wanton intervention,” our problem is that security, like any public good, is underprovided. Western governments intervene to enforce basic human rights infrequently and half-heartedly, but their occasional willingness to do so is all that restrains many despots from even worse acts. If we (whether through government or otherwise) have a responsibility to prevent aggression, then it’s hard to see how it stops at any particular border.

    How can you hold a view of government so capacious that it levies a guaranteed income, but so cramped that it won’t prevent mass murder?

    • Sean II

      Right on. If the thing you believe only works in a one-off, but fails once installed as a general rule, please call it anything other than universal moral philosophy.

    • Basvandervossen

      Sure, the view applies in general. Any time the use of force requires a “lesser evil” justification, something like the success condition applies.

      • The success condition being what? That in similar cases success must be more frequent than failure? There is much wrong with that condition, but I won’t spell it out until you conform that you really mean it.

      • Salem

        But that isn’t the criterion for police actions. We use the far more philosophically defensible notion that what matters is the global effect of the rule underlying the action. Almost no hostage rescue meets your “success criterion.” But they are justified by the global effect of the rule, consistently applied (the kidnappers who surrender, the potential kidnappers deterred).

        This isn’t some theoretical point, it applies directly to the case in hand. The US didn’t strike Assad’s forces because they thought that act in itself would rescue anyone or bring peace to Syria. It was a punitive act with the aim of re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons. Any time you actually have to apply your deterrent, it’s a failure – the true “success criterion” is that Assad doesn’t use chemical weapons in the first place. But far worse is to fail to apply the deterrent – Obama’s weakness there is what got us here in the first place.

        Now, a more sophisticated critic of US foreign policy would say that it’s too hard to establish consistent norms and a credible reputation in a democracy, particularly one where a sizeable chunk of the electorate “blame America first.” The costs of establishing credibility are too high, when Nixon’s credibility is going to be squandered by Carter and needs to be rebuilt all over again. But I think this is too pessimistic. For many years, the US pursued a consistent, credible, and bipartisan defence of human rights and liberty, regardless of the administration. As recently as Clinton, we had a Democratic President willing to stop genicide in Kosovo (albeit having had to learn a costly lesson at Srebrenica). That can happen again, if the Democrats get serious about their moral responsibilities – meaning philosophers have a responsibility to treat this seriously, not indulge them in their morally reprehensible pacifism.

        • This is a very different argument to the sorts that I have been pushing, but it is a good one.

          My arguments concern costs and benefits of particular cases. Your argument concerns enforcement of international law, which raises the question of who the international government or policeman is. The US is not that except by default; and it cannot afford to enforce all breaches of international law, so it has to pick and choose. That means we revert back to arguments about the costs and benefits of particular cases.

          • Salem

            The US can’t enforce all breaches of international law, but that doesn’t mean it can’t (or doesn’t) act on a more-or-less consistent basis. The Lex Americana may not be the same as international law, but it’s equally wrong to think that every intervention is retheorized ab initio. There are long-standing rules, policies and doctrines which individual cases are evaluated against. Indeed, anything else would be extremely dangerous – failure to predict US policy caused the First Gulf War.

            I’m not opposed to evaluating the costs and benefits of particular cases, but the net needs to be cast more widely than the narrow circumstances. Prof van der Vossen thinks that 9 civilian casualties is obviously disproportionate harm compared to the good done by the April 6 airbase. I am arguing that harm done needs to be compared not only to the (small) good done by degrading Assad’s air force, but by the global deterrent effect. If that saves 1000s of lives by discouraging Russian proxies from using chemical weapons in the Ukraine, then it’s an obvious win. But this stuff is hard to know, which is why caution, not Prof van der Vossen’s certainties, is required.

        • King Goat

          “Obama’s weakness there is what got us here in the first place.”

          You mean his weakness in seeking, and being refused, Congressional authority to strike and being refused that by the GOP led Congress?

          • Lacunaria

            You make a fair point that decisions of war should be left to Congress, but I also can’t find consistency in when Obama would or wouldn’t seek Congressional authority. Is it only when he draws a red line that he will then later decide to leave the response up to Congress?

          • King Goat

            That’s a fair point. Given Libya it’s hard to reconcile Obama re Syria perhaps. But for the right to criticize Obama on Syria without acknowledging that that’s where the resistance to him acting came from is chutzpah.

      • j_m_h

        I’m curious about the expansion of context regarding intervention. If we’re now looking at not only military but also all other intervention types settings so establishing the general rule — where does the track record stand?

    • King Goat

      That last paragraph runs both ways. It seems some people can only get behind positive government efforts or duties to save lives if it involves the near certainty of violent death of some people (almost always including some that we were trying to save as the justification in the first place).

  • Sean II

    “Closer to pacifism” works as an objection because pacifism is a pre-defeated idea, a fixed point of failure in this kind of argument. It’s a reductio ad absurdum; to approach it is to approach absurdity.

    Pacifism leads to a world ruled only by killers.

    Your philosophy flirts with that consequence. Hence the objection.

    And you can’t motte-and-bailey your way out of that objection by saying “yeah, but look what we have now!” That would be a different argument from the one you have been making. Banal, trivial, unoriginal, and worst of all unpublishable.

    No, I’m afraid you’ve performed the classic pratfall of moral philosophers by crafting an argument that works too well.


    I believe Danny, Sean, and Salem have this pretty well covered, but I can’t resist adding my $.02 to this fascinating discussion. Your argument here and in your prior post is pretty much inductive, i.e. past interventions have most often failed, and therefore future interventions will follow the same probability distribution. Perhaps you address this in your book, but there is an obvious objection. That is, you discount the possibility that decision-makers, or at least some subset of decision-makers, have learned something from history, such that future interventions will not mirror past outcomes. Certainly this is true in fields such as medicine, engineering, and (perhaps even) economics. I think you need an argument showing that this would not be true as well for humanitarian interventions.

    • Yes, that was one point I was going to make if Bas made a reply to what I had said – ‘the learning curve.’ The other point I was going to make is more fundamental, namely, that it is invalid to draw an inference about a single case from a premise about a probability distribution.


        Yeah, I knew you had it well covered.

    • Basvandervossen

      This is fair. Two things. First, when we’re deciding whether or not to intervene, we cannot but do induction. Second, in the book I offer three “structural” reasons why we shouldn’t expect the future distribution of successes/failures to be radically better than the past. (I discuss one in my previous post – about democratic incentives.)


        Danny can probably discuss this more intelligently than I, but as I understand it, the use of induction as a method of reasoning is controversial. Worse, it seems clear that no two interventions are exactly the same, nor do they have exactly the same ex ante probability of success, for a variety of obvious reasons. So, it’s not like the classic “every time I let go of a coin before it dropped to earth” scenario.

        • Basvandervossen

          Fair enough. But I don’t say that all interventions are the same or we know for certain that they will all fail.

          At the same time, we’re also not in a position of radical ignorance. We know *roughly* what kind of thing we are dealing with, and people *all the time* make predictions (including informed predictions) about whether these interventions will succeed.

          Of course we should recognize that there are important differences between different cases. And there is no sense pretending that this is a topic befitting of a one size fits all-answer. I do not deny that interventions can ever be justified. I say that as a rule, i.e. unless we’re dealing with a truly exceptional case, the evidence indicates they will likely go wrong.

          I’ll give you an example. I think that Rwandan genocide was probably a case where intervention would have been justified. A well organized and well planned intervention very likely would have saved a lot of lives there. (Romeo Dallaire’s memoire is pretty convincing on this point, I think.) That said, the fact that the intervening powers and the UN managed to make such a mess of even that promising a case is telling about the prospects of interventions in general.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks. In addition to the objections raised by others, I believe that where we differ is on the nature of moral agency. For example, I don’t believe a person with a drinking problem can appropriately reason as you have described. He can’t think “well most attempts to stop drinking fail, so I shouldn’t try.” He’s not the same person as all those other agents, and so must evaluate for himself the risks/rewards for him, his family, and so on. He can’t even appropriately think, “well I’ve tried before and failed…” because he’s not the same person he was even six months ago. I don’t see why its fundamentally different for a policy-maker. In short, we must learn from history, and not be imprisoned by it.

          • Basvandervossen

            Not sure if we’re disagreeing here.

            Of course, I agree that some countries might be more reliable interveners than others. And of course I agree that any country can do things that would improve their ability to successfully intervene. Who would deny that?

            In the book, I write that if countries – or international institutions, or whatever – did things that reliably improved their chances of succeeding, my conclusion would no longer hold. Allen Buchanan has offered some interesting proposals along these lines (see e.g. “Institutionalizing the Just War”).

            A world in which those things have happened might be preferable to ours. But as of today, alas, it is not our world. So, today, my conclusion stands. (I’m not interested in claiming that the presumption against intervention is somehow insensitive to the way the world is. That seems bizarre.)

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks again. I believe our disagreement can be captured by reference to the OP, where you say, “Such interventions fail much more often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake them.” (my emphasis). I don’t agree that the past failures (and successes) of humanitarian interventions grounds a “rule” against them. History merely provides raw data that is useful in formulating policy, it cannot supply a “rule.” This is not akin to physics, where we might say “the speed of light in a vacuum has always been x, so it will continue to be x in the future.” Each intervention involves a unique set of human actors, threats, costs, potential benefits (including those Salem has identified), etc. Human agency involves weighing all of these as best we can, and deciding whether a particular case falls into the “likely to fail” or “likely to succeed” category. No rules need apply.

          • Basvandervossen

            Mark, as I said the rule is based on the COMBINATION of the history of failure AND the reasons I offer to think that what made those past attempts fail are also going to be present in the future. Not sure why this seems so elusive…

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m not sure that your use of the all caps key improves your argument, nor that I have found your point elusive. I have not assumed that Interventions go wrong or (right) randomly; I am perfectly open to the idea that when they fail there are structural explanations (democratic incentives or whatever). At the same time, you acknowledge that interventions are sometimes warranted (although, oddly, you count the horrific results of non-intervention in Rwanda as supporting your “rule”). I would also add that the 1995 NATO bombing action in Bosnia (“Deliberate Force”) seems to go into the win column. Since you concede this, you must also concede that these structural factors are not dispositive in all cases. Thus, you have not actually answered my point about the futility of attempting to ground a rule for future conduct in past results. Each situation is unique, etc.

          • Basvandervossen

            Sorry about the caps. Was going for emphasis and I didn’t know you could italicize. (Still don’t know how.) No offense intended.

            You are right that Bosnia is usually cited as a success. When we look at the actual numbers of people saved and killed, I wouldn’t be so sure. (Let’s not forget Srebrenica and the role of interveners there.)

            In the book I discuss the Kosovo case, which is often said to have been an even greater success. (At least as long as we conveniently ignore the bombing of Belgrade.)

            However, using the way standard just war theory talks about the requirement of proportionality, the numbers of people saved and killed in even this instance make it a borderline case. That is, if we use the more optimistic estimates, the Kosovo case is just about (what is usually thought to be) proportional. If we use the median estimates, even that one becomes of questionable justification.

            So there’s another piece of evidence. Even the cases about which the interventionist crowd likes to boast as their slam dunk-cases (the terminology is intentional) are at best questionable. The rest, including most of the ones they propose, never mind.

            Hence, the “as a rule” conclusion. That’s meant as a presumption against intervention. Of course we should look at each case individually.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            On the empirical aspect of your comment, not only can reasonable libertarians disagree about the actual success/failure of particular interventions, but you have–to my mind–still not answered Salem’s point about the deterrent effects of humanitarian intercessions, which potentially licenses a far greater range of action.

            With respect to the “futility of a rule” argument I have made, it seems to me that any refutation must rest on the claim that your structural factors act mechanistically, such that they invariably doom all interventions. This seems highly implausible. Should a leader contemplating an intervention in Rwanda really presume that “I shouldn’t act, because I’ll probably just make it worse.” Worse than 700,000 murdered in cold blood? I don’t think so. In my opinion, the responsible thing to do is simply to take one’s knowledge of history, and apply it to these circumstances. Maybe in the end, the policy-maker reasonably concludes that indeed intervention would make it worse, but he need not apply any rule or presumption to get there. Nor would such a presumption be justified or helpful. Since we do seem to be talking past each other, you are welcome to the last word.

          • Basvandervossen

            Thanks. And you’re right – we do seem to be talking past each other. I mentioned above that I think Rwanda was actually one of the few cases where intervention would have been justified.

          • Lacunaria

            Excellent wrap up to this thread. Also, FWIW, here’s a nice list of HTML code that Disqus allows:


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            <s>Strikethrough text</s>
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            <a href=”“>Anchor text for a link to which HTML tags Disqus allows.</a>
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          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks, and thanks!

          • “I say that as a rule, i.e. unless we’re dealing with a truly exceptional case, the evidence indicates they [interventions] will likely go wrong.”

            The most that the evidence shows is that interventions have gone wrong in many more cases than they have gone right. What we do not know about the case we are trying to make a decision about is whether it is one of those that will go wrong or one of those that will go right. Even if in 90% of past cases interventions have gone wrong, this case we are dealing with might be one of the small percentage that will go right. If the past cases supply a rule for the future (which is debatable), the rule is not ‘do not intervene.’ It is rather, ‘intervene in 10% of cases.’ But that still leaves open the question: is this case one of the 10%? Ultimately (as in everything else) we have to make a guess.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            A more sophisticated and cogent expression of the point I have been attempting to make.

          • Yes, it’s a version of what you said. I wrote it before I got to your comment.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Always read my comments first. I might accidentally have said something good.

          • I am used to being an outsider. I never expect anyone to be saying the same thing as me.

          • King Goat

            Wait, what?

            Let’s take a variant of a hypothetical we’ve seen before here. A lady sublets the bottom floor of her two floor condo. In the past, 90% of ex-cons she’s rented to did not work out well. She’s faced with a new ex-con potential tenant. She’d be wrong to say ‘well, most leases to ex-cons didn’t work out well, so no more renting to them, period.’ Instead she should say ‘in 10% of the cases I’ve rented to ex-cons I got great results, so I should rent to ex-cons only 10% of the time, and I should see whether this particular ex-con falls into that 10%’?

          • That’s a very different case if understood in an ordinary way. But we can make it relevant. The lady is socially concerned and conscientious. she believes that ex-cons should be given a second chance; but her past experience has shown her that 90% of them are not worth the trouble. When the next ex-con turns up wanting to rent her question is: is this person in the 10% or the 90%? The fact that in the past 90% screwed up, does not automatically mean that she should write off this poor so-and-so. Whichever decision she makes it will be a guess.

          • King Goat

            So apply that to a proposed prohibition on Muslim refugees based on the idea that it has had bad consequences 90% of the time (of course the actual percentages are more than reverse of that). Faced with any refugee, we should not say ‘no, 90% of the time that’s gone badly’ but instead should say ‘that’s worked out ten percent of the time, let’s look into whether this fellow would fall into that 10%’ Right?

          • That is a more complex issue.

          • King Goat

            Now wait, this argument used the same form you use on Bas above (that is, ironically, tracking the form of your own argument but applied to a different topic, albeit one you have strong feelings about). Can’t he just say that military intervention is a more complex issue than love affairs and athletic careers?

            And while refugees might be a complex issue, obviously more complex than military intervention in unstable, far flung countries? Yeah, right.

          • Lacunaria

            In the landlord case, she’s primarily exposing herself to harm, while in the immigration case she’s exposing others.

            But sure, if you are going to take the risk anyway and can identify the 10%, then why not do so? This is part of the learning process which adjusts the percentages over time, which seems consistent with Danny’s and Mark’s argument.

            But I think we are drifting into disanalogy here since, as Salem notes, intercession is interesting because even a 90% (or growing!) rate of failed intercessions can be successful at deterring future incidents.

          • King Goat

            Maybe in the landlord case it’s only her (but maybe not, maybe she has family or other tenants), but that certainly can’t be said about military intervention, which was where Danny started with this line of thinking.

          • Lacunaria

            Yeah, that’s part of the breakdown of the analogy, but I don’t think Danny intended it to be a perfect analogy. Instead, he was more narrowly using it to point out that “risk” alone does not tell you whether an action is worth doing in any given instance.

            Overall, I think Bas’s major error is that his stats measure estimated violence per conflict, but he’s (mis-) using them as if they measure violence and justice overall. By abstracting away incidence, he’s drawing wrong conclusions, since not intervening can increase incidence.

          • Okay, not more complex; different type.

          • King Goat

            And there aren’t possible wide ranging effects of military interventions, which could include a flood of refugees from the area? Again, come on.

          • I think you are missing the point.

          • King Goat

            I don’t think so.

            When Bas mentions that most interventions are complex and don’t work out and so there should be a presumption against them, you say some of them work, so there shouldn’t, and, well, most love affairs and athletic careers don’t work out, but there shouldn’t be a presumption against them. When he says interventions are more complex you say, well, love affairs can be complex! When I say most rentals to ex-cons don’t work out so there should be a presumption against them, you say there shouldn’t be a presumption against them. Then I say, well, what about most refugee admissions? Interestingly, empirically, you’re on *worse* grounds here as most refugees into a country like the the US behave themselves well, though there may be a greater than ordinary risk from the group overall. But here is where you suddenly draw the line and say, like Bas did to you, ‘well, that’s different, this is a complex matter!’? Seems fishy.

          • You misrepresented Bas as well as me just there. But on your main point I think you may be right.

            Bas says ‘interventions usually work out badly, therefore we should not intervene “as a rule” (i.e. a rule with some rare exceptions).’

            I point out that the argument is invalid. I illustrate with some examples.

            Bas has not replied. He referred to a paper of his and a couple of books by Zimmerman, which rely on contemporary decision theory.

            I referred him to a paper of mine in which I argue that contemporary decision theory is tosh.

            That’s as far as we got.

            The form of Bas’s argument is: X% of actions of type T have turned out bad, therefore we should never do actions of type T, except perhaps in some rare cases in which it seems obvious that an action of type T is right. The ‘X’ represents a big number, perhaps 90.

            The argument is invalid because, if past experience is to be our guide (which is debatable) there will be (100-X)% of cases in which actions of type T do not turn out bad. Another reason the argument is invalid is that in cases in which the action of type T is punishment for a criminal or quasi-criminal act, the action has a deterrent effect, so all the bad acts prevented by it need to be weighed in the balance.

            In an entirely different connection I said something like: limiting immigration from particular countries may be beneficial because those countries have a backward culture and a large influx of immigrants from those places can undermine the freedoms we take for granted.

            You say: this argument has the same form as Bas’s argument. How do you make that out? Well, you say, the fact that a high percentage of immigrants from the countries in question have turned out to be uncivilised, does not mean that they all are, so we should try to assess immigrants on a case-by-case basis to allow in those who are okay.

            In principle, yes. The problems would be in the working out.

          • King Goat

            The problems in working out whether any given refugee will be a problem is certainly no more difficult than working out whether intervention in a far flung alien unstable nation will work out to the best. If we can’t have a general presumption against the latter, a general presumption against the former doesn’t seem justified.

          • I have made a couple of changes to my last message to make it more accurate, but they do not affect the main point. Back to the immigrants.

            A majority (probably the vast majority) of people from countries with backward cultures are uncivilised. Not all of them are. Some of them manage to adopt a critical attitude to their culture and distance themselves from the more uncivilised parts of it. Usually, they are educated people, because “the fundamental task of education is unlearning: making ourselves, and the ideas by which we conceive and create ourselves, strange and alien, and thus transcending our old selves” (William Warren Bartley). If some of the uncivilised ones immigrate to more civilised countries they may improve themselves by adopting the more civilised culture.

            But some immigrants resist assimilation. If we get a large influx of those over a short space of time, the effect can be an undermining of the more civilised culture, in a variety of ways, making the host people worse off, perhaps much worse off. It may therefore be right to restrict the numbers of uncivilised immigrants who are liable to resist integration.

            That poses a problem. The fact that this would-be immigrant comes from an uncivilised culture does not entail that he is uncivilised or that he will resist becoming civilised. It will be right to exclude him only if he is both. If we cannot tell whether he is both, then we cannot know whether it is right to exclude him, so we do not know what we ought to do about him. Let’s assume that this is usually the case. We then face the question: given that we do not know what we ought to do about him, what shall we do?

            We might say: mostly people from these places are resistant to civilisation, so let’s bar them all. That may be reasonable, though not right. If we do that, then, given our epistemic limitations, we are not blameworthy, even though we do something wrong.

            How does that compare with military interventions? We could take the same approach: most interventions are wrong, and it is difficult to know of any particular intervention whether it is right or wrong, so let’s do none (or hardly any). That is not quite what Bas says. He says that because most past interventions have been wrong and most future interventions are likely to be wrong, this particular intervention is wrong. That is just plainly invalid; and it seems valid to Bas only because he has been blinkered by contemporary decision theory. What he should say is this: because most interventions are wrong and because we can rarely tell for sure whether a particular intervention is right or wrong, we won’t do any interventions (and when we wrongly refuse to intervene we are not blameworthy, because of our epistemic situation).

            I am inclined to treat the two cases differently. I am not sure why. But it may be something like this. The state has to decide which immigrants to let in. It has limited resources. The costs of detailed vetting of individual immigrants would be very high and would still yield very inadequate information on which to make a decision about an individual. So it is not blameworthy for excluding some indivudals wrongly simply because they come from a country with an uncivilised culture. The state has to decide whether to intervene militarily. It can never be sure whether a particular interventon is right, but it has to make a decision one way or another. It is unacceptable to refuse all interventions, because that would give despots an incentive to run riot. So it has to make guesses about which situations demand an intervention.

            So my disagreement with Bas is on two points. First, whether interventions are always wrong. I say no; Bas says yes. It seems to me that only someone who has been screwed up by contemporary decision theory, or is otherwise confused, could agree with Bas on that point. Second, whether governments are blameworthy if they make informed guesses about which interventions are right and act accordingly. Bas, I think, says yes, almost always; I say it depends on the circumstances.

          • I meant to say: thank you for pressing me on this. I was inclined to see the differences between the two cases to the exclusion of the similarities.

          • King Goat

            No problem, I appreciate the discussion. I think we might disagree on the premises here some and the importance/necessity of interventions (I took Bas as talking about non-defensive actions, for example, perhaps I was wrong to do so) vs. admitting refugees (often recently the latter are tied to the former!), but that’s probably for another day.

          • Lacunaria

            They may be similarly difficult to analyze, but general presumptions are not justified merely on that basis.

            Is refusing entrance to a would-be immigrant on the same order as refusing to intercede to stop and deter mass murder? Do you morally distinguish between negative and positive liberties?

            Is “success” of an immigrant on the same order as “success” of a foreign intervention?

            Even a “failed” intervention can serve as a successful deterrent. What is the analogy to that in your immigration scenario?

          • King Goat

            “Refusing to intercede to stop and deter mass murder”

            you’re loading the question pretty heavy there to get your difference!

            Part of the point is that we don’t know what’s going on and what will work or even what ‘works’ means in many interventions.

            If we’re wrong about a refugee then they get relegated to a Third World hellhole where life is nasty, brutish and short, and we lose out on a productive member of society. It may also effect our image in the world, which can effect things like alliances. There’s all kinds of ripples here just as with interventions (ironically, as an empirical matter, much of the current refugee problem can be tied to recent Western interventions! Seems when you blow the hell out of a country people flee, sometimes they flee into a neighboring country that was close to instability already and then that country becomes blown the hell up and even more people flee).

          • Lacunaria

            I agree with most of what you wrote, so I’m not sure we are addressing the same questions.

            To simplify, is inviting someone into your home so he has a better life morally equivalent to stopping or deterring a murderer?

            Is there a failed immigration analog to the deterrent effect of a failed intervention?

    • Sean II

      “the possibility that decision-makers…have learned something from history…”

      Important to note there is powerful independent evidence of this. Fools and knaves though they usually are, decision makers speak in a language that suggests a kind of Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra pattern of learning from historical episodes.

      “Is this another Munich?” “How do we avoid a Dien Bien Phu scenario?” “Is this guy a Nasser or a Sadat?” That sort of thing.


        Kind sir, please dumb down your references to communicate with a really boring ex-corporate lawyer, who never got out much. “Darmok…etc.” No clue at all. Got the Munich, Dien Bien Phu part.

        • Sean II

          That reference was tailor made for people who never get out much.

          It’s from Star Trek!

          Very famous episode where they have to overcome a language barrier with a species that communicates entirely by anecdote and allegory.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hey, last time I was in a movie theater the films were in b & w. They has just brought in that newfangled sound thing. I remember Al Jolson when he was THE man.

          • Sean II

            Now he’s just prob-lo-maaaatic! (jazz-hands)

          • j_m_h

            Strictly speaking ST Next Generation.

          • Sean II

            I knew someone would punish me for that mistake.

            And rightly so.

          • j_m_h

            Would that such mistakes were all I was ever punished for! — But feared Mark would be even more confused if he choose to look up the reference.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I might have had a chance with the original ST. I can remember watching the TV episodes in college, you know, during the Garfield administration.

          • Sean II

            It is kind of accurate though, you must admit.

            I think a Beltway operator could totally get away with that speech pattern.

            Him: “Nixon, in Beijing.”

            Them: “He’s suggesting we use triangular diplomacy!”

            Him: “Galtieri, his ships sunk.”

            Them: “He means we mustn’t let domestic approval seeking drive our foreign policy and lure us into a fight we can’t win!”

            It could work, in a Chauncey Gardner sort of way. Bet you could get a fair salary out of AEI communicating only in such metaphors.

  • Bill Othon

    I’m on the side of just intervention here (as subjective as that might be).

    When does the United States make the unilateral decision to intervene? In this case, it was a punitive strike, since the damage had already been done. It reduced the capacity to deploy, but did not remove it. And we did not declare war, but just inflicted damage. It can’t be claimed we were trying to take over Syria. So it was a show of force against atrocity.

    Do we live in a world where the US must intercede, because we are the only ones with the capacity to respond? When after due diligence we decide response is necessary, it’s that sufficient for moral authority among nations? In the aftermath, the responses were predictable for and against.

  • King Goat

    It sure seems odd how a libertarian site draws so many folks strongly expressing their, and up voting others’ expressions of, defenses of government ‘top men’ being more active in ordering other men to be put in harm’s way based on the top men’s concededly precarious grasp of what will even come it all.

    • Lacunaria

      The main libertarian issue that you note seems to be ordering other men to be put in harm’s way, which depends most upon conscription and perhaps excessive punishment for resigning.

      The libertarian distaste for and distrust of government is because it is coercive beyond its legitimate license, so how much more should they oppose mass murderers?

      Where do you think serious attempts to stop and punish wanton mass murderers and failing should fall on the libertarian moral scale?

      • King Goat

        I think your first paragraph indicates a good place, don’t you?

        • Lacunaria

          History is replete with people sincerely convinced they’re saving lives and making a better world committing what in hindsight are history’s worst atrocities.

          Which of those were in pursuit of stopping mass murderers?

          Even if intervention fails in Bas’s sense that the intervention kills more than the mass murderer would have killed, there’s the vital question of whether those it killed were the ones supporting mass murder and whether it makes other would-be mass murderers stay their hand in the future.

          So, while caution is always warranted and the metrics we actually need to be using are extremely difficult to calculate, I don’t think your generalization is useful to these cases.

          • King Goat

            “Which of those were in pursuit of stopping mass murderers?”

            The Nazis were convinced they were stopping something like the horrors of ‘Bolshevikism’ to their East, the Communists long thought their actions were bulwarks against fascist rule and its attendant atrocities. Many of them were learned men in the ideologies and ‘science’ of their day, and really thought the threats demanded their interventions.

          • Lacunaria

            Their goals and actions are different. Violent intervention into extant genocide has little to do with who rules and everything to do with stopping the genocide and deterring future genocide. These specific, distinguishable cases are what you and Bas overlook by generalizing.

            If this is your way of saying that Fernando’s #1 “just cause” may not be true, or that reactions should be dependent upon the degree of our certainty and grossness of violation, then of course I agree.

          • King Goat

            They’re not different in that both involved people who honestly studied what they took to be a threat against fundamental human norms and decided they could, via force, achieve a utilitarian good.

          • Lacunaria

            Sure, but what do we gain by combining such morally distinguishable cases together, other than confusion and uncertainty?

  • Lacunaria

    I basically agree. I didn’t address collateral damage since Goat ironically didn’t mention it in his reflection of libertarianism. How much collateral damage is allowed is open for debate, but, in line with your other comments, even a reckless and incompetent actor who powerfully deters future atrocities could be moral.

    I don’t think a special duty inheres to the state — individuals or other (private) organizations have the same basic moral standing. However, I would say that the state is primarily organized by general agreement for defense of its people, and to that end, deterring mass murder might legitimately fall within its domain.

    Arguably, such defense could also pertain to epidemics but not on an individual basis. Willful mass murder belongs in a different moral category from individual disease and thus healthcare.

    I roughly define the moral “state” as an agreement that involves grave consequences open to coercion, so its scope should be minimized for moral reasons. The state is basically useful as a tiered framework for voluntary agreements. So, even if a people do want a form of group healthcare, it should be a separate agreement from defense.