Suppose you’re a skilled swimmer walking along a beach. You hear a cry for assistance and observe someone struggling in the water a hundred feet offshore. Although it’s highly likely that you can bring the endangered swimmer safely to shore, there’s a small chance that you can’t, and a smaller but not negligible threat to your own safety. You also know that no one else can act with equal odds of success. Would it have been right to walk on by?
Since Kant, we have been familiar with the proposition that “ought implies can.” But in some circumstances, the reverse also holds: “can implies ought.” Our massive, ongoing investment in military capacity has a range of consequences for defense and diplomacy. It also has moral consequences. Because we can act in ways that others can’t, we are not as free as they are to ignore threats that we have the power to abate.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Power and Its Privileges
So bombing Libya is a humanitarian undertaking designed to prevent massacres of innocent civilians. The anti-genocide gals on Obama's team engineered it, we are told, as if to vouchsafe the innocence of its intent. That we are not taking similar measures in other places in no way vitiates our project in Libya. After all, we cannot be everywhere.
But why Libya and not Cote d'Ivoire? As Corinne Dufka writes in Foreign Policy, the situation there is at least as harrowing. The number of people at risk is almost certainly higher: the Times reports today that seven hundred thousand refugees are on the move, dwarfing any numbers reported out of Libya. And yet we not only don't bomb, we don't even press terribly hard for the sanctions and condemnations that routinely follow stolen elections.
And why Libya and not Congo? Six million dead already; the war ongoing; our own responsibilities for the catastrophe, in multiple acts of omission and commission over fifty years, engraved in history books. And yet we don't even consider a dozen possible options to alleviate the suffering of the peoples of Kivu.
And why Libya and not Darfur? After all, the cause that originally joined Power and Rice and Clinton was to stop mass murder in Sudan, where, after a modest hiatus, reports grow of increasing attacks on Darfuri citizens. And yet surely attacking Libya diminishes whatever chance we may have had to respond aggressively to Bashir's continuing violations.
And come to think of it, why Libya at all, since the money spent on saving lives there could be spent to much greater effect on development assistance? Millions die from the routine diseases of poverty. It costs $140 a year to treat someone with AIDS; American generosity keeps two million people alive, but around the world some 20 million more go untreated. We could have bought medicine for seven million people this year with the money we have already spent on the campaign in Libya.
But William Galston assures me that these questions are philosophically flawed:
But still I wonder: why save that swimmer, and not the other one, over there; or those five, by the river bank; or those ten infants drowning in the eddies? And why is it we never bother to save those ten, no matter how often we pass by, how often we watch them drown?