Won’t You Be My Niebuhr?

Given the topic Resolved: Placing political conditions on humanitarian aid to foreign countries is unjust, the answer comes out “obviously.” We can get that just by looking at synonyms for “unjust” like “unfair, prejudiced, biased, inequitable, discriminatory, one-sided.” But everybody’s going to have a definition of what’s just and what’s unjust, so let’s cut to the chase and put it in the context of trade-offs.

See, Reinhold Niebuhr explained the international community thusly:

It may be regarded as axiomatic that the less a community is held together by cohesive forces in the texture of its life the more it must be held together by power. This fact leads to the dismal conclusion that the international community lacking these inner cohesive forces, must first find its unity through coercive force to a larger degree than is compatible with the necessities of justice. Order will have to be purchased at the price of justice; though it is quite obvious that if too much justice is sacrificed to the necessities of order, the order will prove too vexatious to last.

But that’s pretty big. Let’s define some scope so we can get more specific:

Wikipedia’s working definition for humanitarian aid is “material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian crises including natural disaster and man-made disaster. The primary objective of humanitarian aid is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity.”

Note: “Justice” is not part of the goal of humanitarian aid. We can have humanitarian aid that successfully achieves its goals while being totally unjust to somebody or some government in the process… but only up to the point where it would undermine human dignity. Wikipedia on Human Dignity: “Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, legal, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. … Dignity is often used in proscriptive and cautionary ways: for example in politics it is usually used to critique the treatment of oppressed and vulnerable groups and peoples…” — In other words, in this case dignity is subjective based on the cultured definition of the nation that has enough power (that maintains order) to provide aid. Where this case is going is that Nation A will coercively and unjustly condition aid to Nation B based on its definition of human dignity; in point of fact it has to because otherwise it won’t be providing humanitarian aid — that’s how “and” logically works in that list of primary objectives — at least partially on the belief that sharing an understanding of human dignity promotes international peace and order.

We should be able to agree that “political conditions” are any conditions issued to the government of a specific foreign country that must be satisfied prior to the remittance of humanitarian aid to that country.

Now in dealing with a foreign government — and, indeed, in establishing “foreign countries” as differentiated from “this country” — we should focus this debate on nation-to-nation relations. By way of counterpoint, Doctors Without Borders is big into providing humanitarian aid, but their very name disavows the notion of “foreign countries” much less levying political conditions on them. The ability to place political conditions on an interaction with a foreign country requires a political entity and point of view in this country, whichever country this happens to be.

You may well expect me to tell you at this point that conditioned humanitarian aid is unjust and that’s a bad thing. But I’m not going to do that. I’m merely going to tell you that it’s unjust and that’s just the way it is because I value honesty. And when we evaluate the positions in this debate through a criterion of political realism (that places high value on conserving the imperfect status quo level of peace and order), I think you’re going to agree with me.

Note that in this situation we’re doing something odd with the value: instead of convincing the judge of the rightness of your value and, by association, your position, claiming a value of honesty here drives you to speak and then actually convince the judge on other grounds — specifically the rightness of your contentions. This is a necessary anomaly: society is acting according to the values of society which aren’t the values of the individual — that’s the point of this whole case, so to claim as an individual to value what the nation values would be a turn against yourself. Beyond that, it would make no sense to claim to value Justice on the affirmative while saying that political conditions are unjust since our nation is not opposed to them and it further makes no sense to claim to value Justice on the negative when we’re sending out humanitarian aid that leads to famines abroad and cutting food stamps at home. Justice is totally the wrong frame for this resolution (hence I focus on the affirmative); Mercy would’ve been a much more sensible frame. Anyway, point is that if you have to argue values, you’re going to come back to “honesty may not seem like much, but I can actually give you honesty — my opponent can’t actually give you Justice [or whatever your opponent is arguing for, but do find their weak links and break them].”

But let’s start with an anecdote that Niebuhr included in Moral Man and Immoral Society (from which I get just about everything today):

Sometimes the humanitarian impulses and the sentiment of justice, developed in these groups, serve the policy of official governments and seem to affect their actions. Thus the agitation of E. D. Morel against the atrocities in the Belgian Congo was supported by the British Government as long as it desired, for other reasons, to bring political pressure upon the Belgian King. Once this purpose was satisfied the British Cabinet dropped Mr. Morel’s campaign as quickly as it had espoused it. It is of course possible that the rational interest in international justice may become, on occasion, so widespread and influential that it will affect the diplomacy of states. But this is not usual. In other words the mind, which places a restraint upon impulses in individual life, exists only in a very inchoate form in the nation. It is moreover, much more remote from the will of the nation than in private individuals; for the government expresses the national will, and that will is moved by the emotions of the populace and the prudential self-interest of dominant economic classes.

The structure of this story which becomes a larger pattern is that an individual political agitator within a country may be concerned about foreign justice in a way that is useful to the government in its stewardship of the collective interest of its people, but the collective interest should not be mistaken for the individual’s ideology.

Contention 1: National interest is not coherently projected from individual interests

The development of social justice does depend to some degree upon the extension of rationality. But the limits of reason make it inevitable that pure moral action, particularly in the intricate, complex and collective relationships, should be an impossible goal. Men will never be wholly reasonable, and the proportion of reason to impulse becomes increasingly negative when we proceed from the life of individuals to that of social groups, among whom a common mind and purpose is always more or less inchoate and transitory, and who depend therefore upon a common impulse to bind them together. [ … But … ] Such is the social ignorance of peoples, that, far from doing justice to a foe or neighbor, they are as yet unable to conserve their own interests wisely. Since their ultimate interests are always protected best, by at least a measure of fairness toward their neighbors, the desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognise this fact, they usually recognise it too late.

And the incoherence of where our collective personal interests coalesce enough to become a national interest is why we’ll send food-aid to some parts of the world but not others will at the same time cutting back on food stamps domestically. The incoherence translates into non-uniform behavior which becomes somewhat arbitrary and opportunistic and necessarily unjust.

Contention 2: Injustice is normal; claims of international justice are myopic

The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. [… And …] the moralist may be as dangerous a guide as the political realist. He usually fails to recognise the elements of injustice and coercion which are present in any contemporary social peace. The coercive elements are covert, because dominant groups are able to avail themselves of the use of economic power, propaganda, the traditional processes of government, and other types of non-violent power.

Put another way, the conditions that we don’t put on aid that we may offer Australia or Costa Rica or Japan actually does have conditions on it — and those conditions are that they maintain our status quo of friendly normalized relations, the sort of relations we don’t have with Iran or North Korea or Cuba. The injustice is still there, it’s just that we’ve reduced it to a level where keeping the friendly normalized relations in each situation is preferable to openly arguing about international policies. Why do we merely pay lip-service to China’s human rights abuses? How are we maintaining relations with Germany and Brazil despite the NSA’s spying programs? By ensuring that maintaining friendly normalized relations is preferable to arguing over the coercion and injustice that come out of the exercise of power in international relations. Humanitarian aid, whether the political conditions are overt or merely implicit, is just another display of national power and international injustice.

Contention 3: … And claiming otherwise doesn’t make it so.

It’s a common debate tactic to show “two worlds” — like voting for one side or the other means something. Here it doesn’t; there’s only one world and it’s this world and in this world:

Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed or because they have discovered their own deceptions. Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise. [ … Furthermore … ] Our contemporary culture fails to realise the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations. It may be possible, though it is never easy, to establish just relations between individuals within a group purely by moral and rational suasion and accommodation. In inter-group relations this is practically an impossibility. The relations between groups must therefore always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group. The coercive factors, in distinction to the more purely moral and rational factors, in political relations can never by sharply differentiated and defined.

I now invite my opponent to demonstrate the correctness of my third contention.

But wait, we’re not done yet because your opponent will bring stuff up. And much of the stuff that may be brought up Niebuhr already shot down.

  • Locke’s Social Contract gets hit in The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness:

    John Locke, who thinks government necessary in order to overcome the “inconvenience of the state of nature,” sees self-interest in conflict with the general interest only on the low level where “self-preservation” stands in contrast to the interests of others. He therefore can express the sense of obligation to otheres in terms which assume no final conflict between egotism and the wider interest… [But] most of the gigantic conflicts of will in human history, whether between individuals or groups, take place on a level, where “self-preservation” is not immediately but only indirectly involved. They are conflicts of rival lusts and ambitions.

  • Kant’s Categorical Imperative that derives from Deontological Ethics is incompatible with the composite interests of a nation as covered in Moral Man and Immoral Society even before you try to force an ethical framework onto other people in a way that is incompatible with the content of that framework:

    Kant’s maxim that human beings must always be treated as ends and never as means, is not the axiom of rational ethics that he supposes. It cannot be, in fact, consistently applied in any rational ethical scheme. It is rather, a religious ideal inherited from Kant’s pietistic religious worldview.

  • Utilitarianism is a popular thing to claim, as Bentham did, but hard to make work, as Bentham confessed which Niebuhr quotes in Moral Man and Immoral Society about how everybody overestimates their own capacity for happiness:

    Writing in 1822, after many of his reform movements had failed to claim the popular support he had anticipated, Bentham confessed: “Now for some years past all inconsistencies, all surprises have vanished… A clue to the interior of the labyrinth has been found. It is the principle of self-preference. Man, from the very constitution of his nature, prefers his own happiness to that of all other sentient beings put together.”

As keen as I am on philosophers that work in the low-morality + high-individualism segment, Niebuhr does a particularly good job of documenting the difficulties of civilization in a way that invites the individual to engage with its imperfections. Hopefully the evidence in this case prompts your interest in his work.

Update: Bonus Baudrillard! This is to back up the counter against the social contract. To make it work, you have to establish that humanitarian aid is empowered by material wealth — i.e.: capital. Once you’ve got that, Baudrillard mocks the notion of justice being applied to it by some contract in Simulacra and Simulation writing that

[A]ll the recrimination that replaces the revolutionary thought today comes back to incriminate capital for not following the rules of the game. “Power is unjust, its justice is a class justice, capital exploits us, etc.” — as if capital were linked by a contract to the society it rules. It is the Left that holds out the mirror of equivalence to capital hoping that it will comply, comply with this phantasmagoria of the social contract and fulfill its obligations to the whole of society. … Capital, in fact, was never linked by a contract to the society that it dominates. It is a sorcery of social relations, it is a challenge to society, and it must be responded to as such. It is not a scandal to be denounced according to moral or economic rationality, but a challenge to take up according to symbolic law.

The thing that’s odd in here is that it’s not going after just/unjust but rather claiming that there’s “ajust” ground which cannot be evaluated in terms of justice. This means that it can be used against any neg that claims that preconditions can be just, but also used against any aff that is opposed to unjust preconditions (somehow tied to a social contract by means I’m unfamiliar with) by a neg that is content to argue simply that preconditions aren’t unjust without going so far as to claim the opposite (for which the “aff has a case to prove, default vote to the neg if they fail to prove it” bit of debate theory becomes a necessary observation). Do note where to cut the card before Baudrillard goes all post-modern, pretending to advocate action devoid of meaning.

Update: Get Real. Having judged a few rounds of LD on this topic, I’m seeing that competitors don’t really know what kind of political conditions would be set on aid. So let’s talk about that.

  1. The most obvious condition is “don’t shoot at us,” as is our behavior with regards to ongoing aid to North Korea. One of the crucial things you’re going to see here is that even if we value justice (we don’t — see above) we know that we can’t get justice from interacting with the known-unjust North Korean government. Furthermore-or-but, going back to the shadow block on Dignity, any aid that we unconditionally send to North Korea isn’t humanitarian because it can’t maintain their human dignity in the face of the unspeakable atrocities — documented in a 400-page UN special commission report in February 2014 — that the government perpetrates against its people. If we know our our supposedly humanitarian mission is going to fail, then we must have a non-topical ulterior motive for our actions. But we can look past that to in injustice of the North Korean regime and their songbun class system, as detailed by Robert Collins and summarized by Eberstadt: Songbun features

    50-plus distinct strata, ranging from highly favored ‘core’ classes to the so-called ‘hostile’ classes at the bottom. [… And …] during times of extreme food shortage the North Korean regime didn’t care too much if ‘hostile’ class members perished — and may actually have perceived some slight political benefit in those deaths.

    So the impartial and equitable distribution of aid can only be assured with political conditions that would circumvent North Korea’s current political conditions. This point can be argued for either side.

  2. The more common condition is “don’t get in the way,” and we see this in countries which have a weak central government, either due to benign incompetence or active corruption; either way, the donors (and these can be non-governmental donors) place the political condition on the aid they want to send into the nation that it be allowed to bypass the central government (political) controls. We can see examples of this push away from centralized aid in Kenya, and also in Haiti. (Of course, Haiti’s still not doing so well, but that’s neither here nor there.) But this is a clear example of how the intention to deliver aid is a power relation: the weak government is practically pushed aside so that the outsider can rescue their people. It’s not bad, but it’s not a just and equitable practice from government-to-government. And conversely, where the government has more power and control, the de facto political condition of being able to competently direct aid is already fulfilled so those governments don’t get overtly asked to stand aside. Simone Dietrich spells this out, arguing:

    that the selection of delivery mechanisms is not random but a selective response to the quality of recipient state institutions. Haiti’s state institutions are dysfunctional, fraught with corruption, and lacking developmental credibility. Tanzania, on the other hand, has managed to build institutions of intermediate strength, demonstrating indigenous capacity to pursue development-oriented policies. While Tanzania’s state institutions generate con fidence in eff ective aid implementation among donors, encouraging them to deliver more aid directly through the recipient government, Haiti’s weak state institutions undermine donor con fidence in the eff ective use of aid.

    See also Dietrich’s related paper on “Bypass or Engage?” for more on this topic.

  3. But let’s get back to Korea. The Congressional Research Service reports that even though North Korea’s people are in dire need of food aid,

    Providing food to North Korea poses a number of dilemmas. Pyongyang has resisted reforms that would allow the equitable distribution of food and help pay for food imports. The North Korean government restricts the ability of donors to operate in the country. Additionally, multiple sources have asserted that some of the food assistance is routinely diverted for resale in private markets or other uses.

    And that’s before we get into the question of human dignity, which North Korea undermines with both a class system and the mythologizing of their Dear Leader. Trevor Todd reports that

    At every site in the D.P.R.K. hang matching photos of the late Great Leader and his son Dear Leader. They hang in every household, schoolroom, and office throughout the country. … Great Leader’s face is found on the badge adorning the lapel of every citizen, irrespective of age. Korean television seems largely dedicated to illustrating the greatness of the Kim dynasty. … Every place they visited and all they have touched or commented on have become sacred. Their birthdays are national holidays; every aspect of their life has been mythologized. Both their birthplaces are holy shrines visited daily by throngs of pilgrims and foreign visitors.

    (For more on this, I suggest watching the documentary Kimjongilia.) And this cultural mythology places all of the people in the destructive hands of the government; Emberstadt explains:

    Apart perhaps from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Pyongyang has more completely demonetized its economy, and more successfully reduced its subjects to dependence upon direct provision of supplies from their rulers, than any modern government; when the supply pipeline dried up, many hundreds of thousands of those subjects were condemned to a rendezvous with death.

    And thus we’re in a difficult situation. In order to actually provide humanitarian aid, we have to go around their government, prevent their Dear Leader from distributing the blessings of food to his people as he sees fit, and actively disrespect their culture so we can promote our version of human dignity and save their lives. I can’t reasonably argue that this is just; indeed, contact with the bizarro perspective of North Korea denies fixing a definition to the word. But I would argue that it is the preferably humane thing to do — at least until we realize that

    North Korea’s ‘temporary’ food emergency has entered its 18th consecutive year, notwithstanding billions of dollars and millions of tons of humanitarian relief from the international community in the interim. So far as can be told, North Korea has lost the capacity to feed itself — an astonishing historical first for an urbanized, literate and industrialized [not to mention hyper-militarized and nuclear-armed] society.

    And then we throw up our hands in resignation and go find a country that will actually use our help to the benefit of its citizens. Is this really “just” to the starving North Koreans? No. But they’re not going to get justice anyway, so let’s focus on what we can do.

And that puts us right back at contention #3 above: there’s only one world and it’s this world and in this world “The relations between groups must therefore always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group. The coercive factors, in distinction to the more purely moral and rational factors, in political relations can never by sharply differentiated and defined.” At some point we have to accept that somebody’s always going to get screwed, always going to be suffering injustice, and then try to do good anyway. And that point is the point where the judge votes to affirm that Placing political conditions on humanitarian aid to foreign countries is unjust.