On the Competition for Recognition Part VIIID Procedural Democracy & the American Left Walzer versus Rorty

Both Michael Walzer and Richard Rorty engage in situational philosophy. That is, both attend to the particular conditions under which ethical judgments are made. Both endorse the requirement that in making such judgments, one must be guided by a common set of procedural norms, second order norms, which are instantiated in making primary level substantive judgments. The issue of humanitarian intervention illustrates this position. Why insist that a humanitarian intervention in Rwanda to mitigate the genocide would have been justified but military intervention in Myanmar to stop and reverse the persecution and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya would not be?

The answer is not as complicated as it might seem. For these are clear cut cases. There are at least four different orders of rules to make a decision to intervene or not.  First, there is the end of the intervention. Stopping or mitigating a political act of genocide is not the same as stopping, mitigating and reversing a process of ethnic cleansing. The evil must be extreme to justify intervention at this point in human history. Second, in the case of Rwanda, the UN had formally authorized an international military force for that country, under which authority the intervention could be justified. There was no equivalent international formal authorization in the case of the abhorrent actions of the military rulers in Myanmar. Even the UN Security Council resolution a year ago simply to criticize the government of Myanmar for its human rights abuses against the Rohingya was opposed by both China and Russia.

Third, in Rwanda it was feasible to intervene. The international community controlled the airport in Kigali and there were already thousands of troops on the ground with over 2,000 highly trained Belgian forces. The support for the genocide by the army of Rwanda was divided and, in any case, the greatest proportion of the forces was tied up holding back a rebellious army on the road to victory. Finally, the military leadership and political will for intervention were there on the ground. General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian in charge of the military force, was willing, indeed eager, to use his peacekeeping force to intervene against the genocide, the latter overwhelmingly the work of poorly armed para-military forces and civilians.

Not one of these conditions was present in the case of Myanmar. Canadians subsequently tried to make humanitarian intervention an obligation and not just a right in the document The Responsibility to Protect. When the principle was endorsed unanimously by the UN, that endorsement only took place when the document was disemboweled; the consent of the state in which the intervention was to take place was required. There was now a right to intervene but not a legal obligation.

In Rwanda, it was wrong not to have intervened, but there was no obligation to do so. In Myanmar, whether it would have been correct or not to intervene was much more a matter of discussion. The situation was far from achieving an overlapping consensus about the responsibility to protect, which states would assume that responsibility, how far that responsibility would extend – would there be authority to reverse the damage done and ensure the return and support for Rohingya to reestablish their lives in Myanmar? And what about other sources of harm and other minorities suffering under the authoritarian military regime?

Whereas Richard Rorty is more invested in an unqualified commitment to a set of substantive beliefs, secular humanism and American pragmatism, Walzer’s commitments always seem to be engaged in a far greater, more thorough and detached reflective consideration of procedural norms with less concern with a specific framework. Hence, Michael Walzer’s most famous two books, Just and Unjust Wars (JUW, 1977) and Spheres of Justice (SJ, 1983), are far more concerned with second order norms to control the misuse of collective violence by either democratic or non-democratic regimes or to govern the norms in dealing with refugees, whereas Rorty’s commitments are directed towards strengthening the mainstays of domestic democracy.

For Walzer, there is a central issue of competing loyalties, both among groups with different values and within oneself. In an archetypal story of lighting Chanukah candles, there are four different types of people in a forced labour camp in Nazi Germany or in a gulag of the USSR:

  1. Those who share a religious faith and rely in the end on a higher being;
  2. Those kapos and sellouts to the NAZI regimes, for example, who did anything to secure extra rations and their own survival;
  3. Those wedded to an allegiance to historical laws which, in their belief, would determine the future – the only requirement is that one act to advance those laws;
  4. The so-called “intellectuals,” ordinary doctors and dentists and others, who use reason to thrash out options and determine what to do and which actions are appropriate, including, for example, deciding on a measurement technique, a set of rules for distribution – equality or for each according to need – and the process for appointing someone to divide the food according to those principles.

What happens if you are a member of the “intellectual” group, your fourteen-year-old son is in the camp, he becomes sick and presumably needs more nourishment? However, the person elected to divide up the food fairly according to pre-established principles, is dividing unfairly according to you, or is interpreting the rules in such a way as not to take into consideration the conditions of your son. Then your loyalty to those principles, including the principle of selection, may be challenged because of your intense loyalty to your son’s well-being. That is why case studies of famine are so important in articulating the principle governing both the choice of administrators and the rules governing their actions.

The same type of tension can be found in modern post-industrial economies which, propelled by international firms, favour cheap labour abroad rather than traditional industrial labour domestically, thereby squeezing the industrial worker out of the middle class. No country has developed a system for riding on both these rails in the same direction. The propensity of globalist liberals has been to favour enhanced justice for those abroad and, implicitly, decreased distributive justice for workers in the domestic economic arena. However, Walzer in Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (TT, 1994) rejected even the possibility that a common set of principles could provide an escape from such conundrums. Opposed to Rawls, where reason is at odds with sentiment and reason rules in favour of globalism and a universal set of principles, the norms of different groups vary and they are developed and applied in different ways. The problem is to work towards developing a consensus which takes into consideration different sentiments instead of believing that reason can ignore or ride roughshod over sentiment.

“Morality is thick from the beginning, culturally integrated, fully resonant, and it reveals itself thinly only on special occasions, when moral language is turned to special purposes.” There is a tension between the detailed and rich narratives one can relay about one’s own family and one’s “tribe” versus the thin and relatively abstract narrative of the history of the world. Moral reasoning begins with trust among a closely-knit group – a family, a tribe, a nation – and becomes thinnest when applied to all of humanity. But the latter is where it must head if we are to avoid war and violent conflict. Unless you are John Rawls or Immanuel Kant, the average person does not start with first principles, adhering first to an abstract proposition, a universal obligation to a principle of justice kept pure by an immunity to irrational feelings.

Can a Walzer moral code ever have a universal reach without insisting that the moral system is universally valid? Yes, but only if we make it so through our inter-state treaties and agreements, but not a priori. For Walzer, one will never find a context-free source of validation in practical reason or ethics. For even if we say another people are like ourselves in needing a basic food intake, they are not like ourselves in determining the minimal amount of food to distribute, how it should be distributed and under whose authority. They may be like ourselves in determining unacceptable forms of warfare – hence universal laws in their reach (versus formal universality) for initiating and conducting wars – but they are not like ourselves sufficiently to establish a universal and eternal peace. We may be reasonable in why we go to war and how we fight a war, but we are not reasonable in determining whether or not we should go to war.

Contrast Walzer with members of the Trump tribe. Take Mike Pompeo, the current Secretary of State and former Director of the CIA. International relations, for him, are not based on reasonable people agreeing to disagree but nevertheless seeking a way to live with one another, but a system of distrust, of bluff, of what he called “swagger diplomacy” that has no governing ethic except self-interest – hence the prioritizing of transactional relations with the Saudi regime over bringing the Saudi prince to justice for the murder of Jamal Kashoggi, Time’s Man of the Year. Hence, Pompeo’s unwillingness to even share power with Congress as required by the American Constitution when the Senate, with its majority of Republicans, voted 63 to 37 to halt aid for Riyadh in its fight against the Houthi in Yemen.

The Trump administration could and did scrap the Iranian nuclear deal, but the unilateralism induced the Europeans to begin to denominate its oil trade in Euros rather than American dollars. Thus, self-centered policy turns out not to serve self-interests as it undercuts the rule of law by exhibiting a horror of sweet reason. This is also true on the state level as defeated Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin use the lame duck period to limit the governor’s authority and enhance the unfairness towards those who vote Democratic by using gerrymandering to ensure a majority of Republican state representatives even though a clear majority of voters overall indicated that they prefer Democrats. Constitutions that are based on applying rules uniformly are undermined when one “tribe” tries to stack the deck against the other.

In Wisconsin, Democrats won the popular vote by 54:46 but took 36 seats compared to the GOP’s 63. The GOP prefers to try to lock in power rather than give into the wishes of the people, but to do so by insisting that some people (rural) in a democracy are entitled to greater representation. Walzer, Rorty and Rawls would all criticize such moves, for ethics must be valued over self-interest in the governance of the polis and in its relationship with other polities even if the rationale for that opposition differs.

Let me end by adumbrating my next blog focused on the contrast between Walzer’s communitarian liberalism as a form of progressivism compared to a social democratic ethos. Thus far, the philosophical left on the liberal side of the political spectrum has ranged from centrists (Rawls) to individualist liberals (Rorty) to communitarian liberals (Walzer). I will next take up the rationale for social democrats at the left end of the liberal spectrum.

Communitarianism contrasts with social democracy, which has become a permanent presence alongside of and sometimes conjoined with liberal politics. “Liberals and social democrats alike share a commitment to economic growth and cope (although in different ways) with the deracinated social forms that growth produces.”

I will explore those similarities and differences in the next blog.



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