On the Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention

As I listened and contributed to discussions in my Humanitarian Intervention class, my feverish mind produced more questions about the ethics of intervention than it answered.  I chronicle a few of my thoughts below.

1.  One of the pieces we read for class was titled, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” by Peter Singer.  In it, he gives an analogy of a man who sees a drowning child.  Most students in the class felt that the man was obligated to save the drowning child (or, if not obligated, at least the man should save the child).

Singer extends his analogy to include children who are drowning (or in poverty, without water and food, ill, etc.) across the globe.  Since we possess an obligation to save the child who drowns in the pond 3 feet away from us, we also possess an obligation to save the child who drowns 700,000 miles from our home.

I question his extension for the following reasons.

First, we cannot help every person, every child, in the world.  We have a limited amount of time and resources with which to help those who suffer.  We must choose which children and people to assist.  Thoughtful discrimination is vital.  On what basis, therefore, should we discriminate?

Surely we should not discriminate on the basis of race or citizenship.  Should we then discriminate based on the chance of patient recovery?  Such a criteria holds frightening consequences; from a health care perspective, older citizens would be ignored and the younger served.  The disabled would be neglected and the severely injured left to die.

Should we then discriminate based on the severity of suffering?  If we accept this method of discrimination, we must define suffering.  Is the suffering mental, spiritual, physical, material?  Which compels us most to action?  And if we discriminate based on the severity of suffering, will we leave the lesser suffering that occurs near us in order to prevent the greater suffering that happens far away?  Will we leave the child who broke his leg in order to help the child who chokes?  Admittedly (and bypassing the problem of how we measure severity of suffering), this scenario holds the greatest appeal.  After helping the second child, we can return to the first.

But what happens when we are faced with two children who choke simultaneously?  How do we then discriminate?  In the US, we call medical personnel to help both children.  Must we then rely upon institutions, requiring each institution to help a specific group of suffering people?

Here, perhaps we should include some economic analysis.  Each individual should help according to comparative advantage.  Examining society through an economic lens, we notice that each individual will help another at an opportunity cost.  If I help the drowning child, I might be late to my next, crucial appointment.  In this situation, the opportunity cost of helping the drowning child (missing my appointment) appears minimal in comparison to the opportunity cost of keeping my appointment (the child dies.)

But say person A must choose between two possibilities of moral validity: leaving America for Afghanistan to provide crucial medical aid or flying to Myanmar to help smuggle refugees out of the country and away from persecution.  How can we determine which choice person A should make?

Perhaps here the market arrives – person A can better determine the opportunity cost of his decision than I can.  His heart might ache more for Burmese refugees; thus, his opportunity cost would be greater if he flew to Afghanistan.  Or, he might have a deep conviction that he can bless another human being most through medical care.  In that case, helping refugees flee a country would ignore his deep convictions.

Additionally, if we mandate (through a national or international government) that persons must provide humanitarian aid (non-military), we fail to allow citizens to help whole-heartedly.  We’ve made them angry prisoners bound to obey our moral code and have denied them the pleasure of freely sacrificing for a greater cause.  And yet, what of those who suffer?  We already force individuals to comply with standards of legal justice – not murdering, stealing, etc.  Can we force them to not only avoid moral bads, but also pursue moral goods?  I’m inclined to respond negatively, but have yet to flesh out my reasons.

Secondly, when one utilizes military humanitarian intervention, how should one weigh the costs and benefits?  Take, for example, the possibility that aerial bombers are covering a territory in which human rights abuses are occurring; they drop bombs in an attempt to damage the corrupt armed forces, but hit civilians in their blind drops.  Here, “collateral damage” is a rampant cost of this type of military intervention.

But say the military intervention determines to use helicopters instead of aerial bombers.  The pilots can be much more accurate as they hunt their targets.  Now the pilots are exposed to a Black Hawk Down.

Should we prefer the latter situation because the soldiers have chosen to place themselves at risk by virtue of their profession?  The armed forces rely heavily upon the chain of command; many are likely there, not from humanitarian purposes, but because they were ordered there.  Can we justify the increased possibility of their death without their consent?  How can we weigh the deadly costs of these two opportunities?

3.  Again on the military subject: If a state condones military intervention for humanitarian purposes, that state may not possess the ability to legitimately recall its troops if it hasn’t achieved its humanitarian objective.  From this perspective, the response to Black Hawk Down couldn’t have been legitimately justified.

But if the combatant death toll is too high, doesn’t the commander-in-chief rightly possess the ability to determine that the previous goal has passed the limit of acceptable cost to attain it?  And in a state like the U.S., democracy overrides any of the rhetoric utilized to declare actions; if the people determine that the troops must be recalled, the troops will be recalled.  Here, a discussion on the benefits of democracy would be relevant, but too lengthy in scope.

Finally, with regard to the drowning child example, most students agreed that a passer-by has the obligation to save the child.  Conversely, does the child possess the right to be saved?