Is this war good? An ethical commentary (*)

Georg Meggle (**)

For Georg Henrik von Wright & Sarah Rebecca Meggle


This is the English version of a talk I gave at several universities in Germany when NATO attacked Yugoslavia in spring '99. (For the original German version see: Ist dieser Krieg gut? Ein ethischer Kommentar. In: Reinhard Merkel (Ed.), Der Kosovo-Krieg und das Völkerrecht, Frankfurt / M. (Edition Suhrkamp) 2000.) Was this so-called "Humanitarian Intervention" a good thing - good in the moral sense? In order to be able to answer this question, we should at first be clear about what Humanitarian Interventions are and what are the necessary (and, maybe, jointly sufficient) conditions for them to be morally justified. These questions are answered here - and now the results are to be applied to the NATO-intervention in question.

0 The almost unanimous approval in Germany of NATO's current war against Yugoslavia is attributable to what is called its "humanitarian aim". The goal of our humanitarian intervention is to stop genocide - or, as it is sometimes described, to prevent "a second Auschwitz". Those who are against Auschwitz must approve of this war. This is the heaviest piece of moral artillery which has been wheeled out on our side during our moral war. It's certainly the most effective form of artillery, universally appealing right across the political spectrum, including former pacifists. But is this argument valid? Is this war good? Is this war really morally good?

I believe this question, at least the fundamental problem itself, can be answered relatively simply. It's certainly simpler than many other moral questions. Nevertheless, many of us find it very difficult to come up with a genuinely well-founded opinion on the ethical legitimacy of NATO's war against Yugoslavia - assuming we actually try to reach an opinion in the first place. I don't want to deny anyone the right to make up their own mind - but perhaps my comments will make it easier for some people to decide. I therefore invite you to consider with me step by step the fundamental moral decisions and the factual assumptions on which our moral assessment of NATO's intervention depends. Even if you still waver in your final opinion, as long as now you at least know why you do, I'll have achieved my aim.

1 Self-defence and emergency assistance

1.1 Let's start by taking the customary tack of self-defence and assistance in an emergency. If someone makes an attempt on my life and I can't ward off his attack in any other way, I may defend myself by killing him before he kills me. Note the use of 'may' - I am under no compulsion to do so. I might not value my life so much that I'm even prepared to kill in order to save it. Self-defence is a right, not an obligation.

By contrast, whenever emergency assistance is concerned, it's not my life which is at stake but that of at least one other person. Say a murderer wants to kill a defenceless child. If there's no other way of saving the child's life, may I try and kill the murderer? Of course I may. Indeed, it's probably my duty to do so. Although I may choose to relinquish my own life, I may not be able to refrain from saving the child's. In other words, we have a right both to self-defence and to grant assistance in an emergency - but the latter might also be an obligation. (Whether and the extent to which we are duty-bound to assist depends not only on the scale of the threat but also on what sort of risk can reasonably be expected of me in view of my own right to life. Moreover, the risk I'm prepared to take doubtless also depends on just how important the victim's life is to me.)

1.2 This approach based on reference to cases of self-defence and emergency assistance is almost always chosen when weighing up the moral justification of a licence or even a duty to kill. It is also used in other cases - including if war is involved. It's used to justify not only recruitment, but also waging war itself. After all, the general assumption goes, states are individuals too. And any individual, be it a single person or a collective of people organised in the form of a state, may defend its existence - even if this might mean the end of the attacking individual. Wars of defence are nothing more than cases of a state's self-defence, and wars of assistance (regardless of whether they are fought within the framework of a defence pact) are nothing more than cases of international emergency aid. Hence, according to the main argument, they are morally justified. And consequently, as far as the right to join wars (the jus ad bellum) is concerned, these wars are described as "just wars". So far, so good - perhaps.

1.3 But at this point a problem occurs. States themselves consist of individuals and thus of groups of individuals. Although the chief aim of a state is supposed to be to protect its citizens, not every state actually serves this purpose. What about cases in which the state apparatus turns against its own citizens, or usually of course against individual groups? Do they too have a corresponding right to self-defence if things vital to them (existence and human living conditions) are threatened? Of course they do. This is the famous right of resistance - a moral right which the threatened group has vis-à-vis its own state, even if such a right is not enshrined in the state's laws or is actually ruled out in them. Consequently, external parties have the right to provide assistance in an emergency in such cases too if the group under threat is unable to help itself.

1.4 However, groups - for example political parties, ethnic or religious groups etc. - may be threatened not only by states but also by other groups. The respective state is responsible for countering such threats in line with its main aim, its role of protector. However, this role still leaves much to be desired in some cases; moreover, the repression, expulsion or destruction of one group by at least one other group sometimes suits those in power, and as well as concealing it they might even encourage or initiate it. In this case, too, if the state ignores its responsibility, outsiders may come to the aid of those not sufficiently able to defend themselves.

1.5 Let me ask you a question: did you find it as easy to swallow the justification of self-defence and emergency assistance in the last two cases as the previous ones? If so, you have already crossed a critical boundary - the frontier of the state concerned. Those who concur with the principle that we may come of the aid of a group or population under threat in the last two cases too evidently believe that the provision of assistance itself is more important - more important than the source of this help, be it domestic or foreign.

And rightly so. If Hitler had not embarked upon foreign conquest and had only maintained concentration camps in Germany, should the rest of the world have stood idly by because his policy of extermination was kept local? Well, the world might have done so. But under no circumstances would this have been acceptable behaviour. This is where pacifism becomes a crime, and the view that "No more Auschwitz!" outweighs "No more war" is correct.

One of the moral premises most frequently used at present is also correct: If a second Auschwitz can be prevented, it must be prevented, regardless of its location. This can be easily generalised: violations of human rights are not domestic affairs. Compared to the violation of human rights, the violation of national borders is the lesser evil, and in fact no evil at all in the event of violations on the scale of Auschwitz. State sovereignty is not the highest good.

And if we reply that people as such have a right to organise themselves in the form of states - in other words, if we say that the question of states is itself a human rights issue - we have to bear in mind that there are serious and less serious human rights. The right to live on this or that side of the Bavarian border is certainly less serious than the right to life itself.

2 Humanitarian Intervention - the concept

2.1 Let's get down to business. Interventions by outside states can be justified in precisely this manner. We're not just talking about sending aid parcels and supplying weapons but also about military operations in the narrow sense, i.e. those in which the various armed services deploy the various means at their disposal. The so-called 'Humanitarian Interventions' can at least be justified in this way, as long as this term is used to mean interventions which closely fit the above justification strategy. The following definition fits best of all:

An intervention on the part of a state or a group of states X in another state Y to benefit Z (certain individuals or groups) is a Humanitarian Intervention iff X undertakes this intervention with the intention of preventing, ending or at least reducing current serious violations of human rights vis-à-vis Z (certain individuals or groups) which are caused, supported or at least not prevented by Y on the territory of Y.

Whether the conditions ought to include the stipulation that the members of the threatened group Z are citizens of Y (or at least were previously citizens of Y) is a moot point. Should a rescue operation in which the state X tries by means of military action to rescue its own citizens from a crisis area in Y be termed Humanitarian Intervention? Let's not go into this at the moment. In the following I'm anyway only going to deal with the current case in which those on whose behalf the intervention was started are citizens of another state. Using the symbol Y is thus rather fitting.

2.2 According to (HI), Humanitarian Interventions are actions directed towards a particular purpose. They have an aim: the action subject X intends by his intervention in Y to protect the group Z from the serious violations of human rights with which it is threatened. It is this humanitarian intention which makes the intervention Humanitarian, or rather, which is supposed to make it Humanitarian. Although according to (HI) the intervening X (the 'intervention subject') believes and hopes that the intervention will also actually achieve the proclaimed aim, whether this hope is indeed fulfilled depends on more than just the strength of his belief, and perhaps on completely different matters. Even if the intervention subject is naturally banking on the success of his intervention, everyone knows that not every purposeful action is successful, and interventions are no exception.

We would therefore do well to draw a distinction between interventions in the sense of attempts and successful interventions. An intervention is successful iff it actually achieves its aim in the way intended, i.e. by means of the intervention. Unless otherwise stated, 'interventions' shall in the following only be taken to mean attempted interventions. Of course, it is not the intervention itself which is being attempted; instead, an attempt is made to achieve the proclaimed aim. Humanitarian Interventions are special salvation attempts; attempts which, if they succeed, mean salvation for the group threatened.

2.3 Furthermore, we have to distinguish between a subjective and an objective interpretation of the above definition of Humanitarian Interventions. According to the subjective interpretation, a Humanitarian Intervention only applies if (a) the intervention subject X believes that Z is threatened and that this threat must be countered by means of intervention.

Humanitarian Interventions in this sense need not be reactions to actual threats; it would be enough if they were reactions to merely supposed attacks. Thus under certain circumstances such interventions could be regarded as Humanitarian without a hair of anybody's head being harmed prior to the intervention. According to this interpretation, an intervention is Humanitarian iff the intervention subject itself regards it as such.

2.4 On the other hand, many will already have understood the above definition - and this corresponds to the objective interpretation - to mean that a Humanitarian Intervention only applies if (b) Z is actually threatened and X believes he is able to counter this threat by means of intervention. X thus does not merely believe that Z is threatened, but actually knows this to be the case. In this interpretation, Humanitarian Intervention is therefore supplemented by the objective components of the actual threat. X then performs the intervention not merely with the intention of countering an emergency (perhaps merely assumed by X) suffered by the victim; the emergency actually exists - and X pursues with his intervention the aim of providing the victim with emergency assistance.

Those performing Humanitarian Intervention naturally believe that the threat they have assumed actually does exist. From the viewpoint of the intervention subject, Humanitarian Intervention is always objective. Whether this view is correct is of course quite a different matter.

2.5 Humanitarian Interventions must (in order to be such) be associated with appropriate Humanitarian intentions (of emergency assistance); according to the subjective interpretation, Humanitarian Interventions are such merely by virtue of their intentions. This is not the case regarding acts of self-defence and emergency assistance, at least as far as criminal law is concerned. According to criminal law, these actions are exclusively defined by reference to objective characteristics of a situation of self-defence substantiated by a present illegal attack. According to Section 32, paragraph 2 of the German Criminal Code, 'self-defence' constitutes the defence required to protect oneself or another person from such an attack. Moreover, pursuant to paragraph 1 of Section 32, those who perform such an act are not acting illegally. No mention is made of intentions. They only become involved at most in supposed acts of self-defence, i.e. when somebody wrongly assumes a need for self-defence to exist.

2.6 This difference between acts of self-defence or emergency assistance on the one hand and Humanitarian Interventions as a special (perhaps merely supposed) case thereof cannot be emphasised too strongly. What makes an action an act of self-defence is exclusively defined by objective characteristics of the situation; the action subject's viewpoint and the intention he has is irrelevant to whether what he is doing constitutes self-defence or not. In short, self-defence is something objective. By contrast, Humanitarian Interventions are (at least also) subjective. An intervention is Humanitarian (assuming the group Z is suffering an emergency situation) if it is connected with the right Humanitarian intention.

Having sorted out the concept of Humanitarian Intervention, let's now turn to the question of moral justification.

3 Justifying Humanitarian Interventions

3.1 In order to be morally justified by analogy with emergency assistance, Humanitarian Interventions must also correspond to their self-perception as cases of emergency assistance. Hence among the group to be protected by the intervention there must prevail a situation of emergency, i.e. a situation which corresponds to the scale of assistance. The threatened group must be suffering or directly threatened by serious violations of human rights. This condition is not trivially fulfilled in the case of Humanitarian Interventions; only in such in an objective sense.

3.2 Furthermore, the intervention must also be the final means available which can avert the danger or at least reduce the threat to Z. An intervention is thus only morally permissible if this danger cannot be prevented without intervention. Let's sum up these two points of view as follows:

A HI is only morally permissible if
(i*) serious violations of human rights cannot be prevented in any other way.

Any violation of human rights does not necessarily provide permissible grounds for intervention, otherwise a war of Humanitarian Intervention could be waged against countries like the USA. After all, the USA's use of the death penalty constitutes a clear violation of human rights in Amnesty International's view. This raises the extremely difficult question of how serious violations of human rights need to be in order to justify an intervention. I suggest that pro argumento we do something for the time being which we otherwise shouldn't: let's settle the argument about where violations of human rights cross the boundary at which intervention is deemed necessary simply by definition. Let's say, for instance, that massive crimes must have been carried out against humanity on the scale which we have been made to believe caused NATO to intervene in the Kosovo crisis, i.e. involving all the massacres, systematic rape, mass expulsion etc., which have been cited by the USA and other states as reasons for intervention. In the following, we shall refer to the scale of crimes contained in these reports as the Kosovo Dimension (KD). Then our first stipulation reads as follows:

A HI is only morally permissible if
(i) massive crimes against humanity (≥ KD) cannot be prevented in any other way.

In addition to sparing me the trouble of exact quantification, this rough stipulation also saves me the certainly much more painstaking task of verification. (As soon as we start drawing up opinions about the specific case, it will of course be impossible to avoid these painstaking tasks). Although the Kosovo Dimension is fortunately somewhat lower down the scale of everything represented by Auschwitz, the Kosovo Dimension - and this is exactly what my stipulation is driving at - ought to be sufficiently terrible in order to allow it to be considered a reason for Humanitarian Intervention. In other words: the Kosovo Dimension should be a genuine reason for Humanitarian Intervention.

3.3 The fact that a means is required to achieve an aim does not yet mean that the usage of this means also makes sense. Not every necessary means is also a useful means. To take a very trivial example, if you want to catch fish in a pond, you must cast a line or set fish traps etc. But none of these alternatively necessary means is any good if there are no fish in the pond in the first place. Or, to use an example closer to home, to make yourself comfortable in your freezing house you've got to light the fire. However, this isn't going to do a lot for the comfort factor if you've got a house full of gelignite which will blow up as soon as the first sparks waft around. The fact that a means is necessary is not sufficient; it must be an expedient means which will help the aim to be achieved. This demand should also hold for Humanitarian Interventions and their moral permissibility.

A HI is only morally permissible if
(ii) the type of intervention (a) is expedient to the aim of intervention.

This stipulation takes us into an examination of the conditions dealt with in theories of Just Warfare under the category of justice in war (of ius in bello). The first condition dealt with what it takes to make the launch of an intervention morally okay; now we are concerned with the moral limitations surrounding the intervention as a means to an end.

3.4 These limitations don't come out of the blue either. They mostly result from the corresponding moral limitations for general actions of self-defence and emergency assistance. Even in a situation of self-defence, the victim and those coming to his aid may not resort to any action whatsoever merely because such a situation has arisen. We state that the action must be "required", meaning that apart from the expedience mentioned above, the counteraction taken must be the mildest possible in the circumstances. To return to our example with the defenceless child threatened by a murderer, of course I may (if I have to) neutralise the killer, but not for instance by cutting his throat if I am sufficiently skilled in karate to knock him out with a couple of blows until the police arrive - and if by not resorting to my knife I don't put my own life at much greater risk than by using it.

As in the case of military interventions, referring to "the mildest possible counteraction" could sound cynical, I shall formulate the new condition (b) as follows:

A HI is only morally permissible if
(ii) the type of intervention (b) enables the aim of intervention to be achieved with the least possible harm to the intervention precipitator.

This translation is strictly geared towards the previous consideration, which only mentions that the party against whom the emergency assistance is directed must not be harmed more than necessary. Accordingly, the new condition (b) is also only aimed at the harm done to the party who provided the reason for intervention - in short, at the enemy against whom the intervention (or to be more accurate: against whose massive crimes against humanity) is directed, the 'intervention precipitator'.

3.5 The harm befalling the intervention precipitator is not the only damage which must be considered in the moral assessment of interventions. And probably not the most important damage. Those threatening those providing emergency assistance were just mentioned. Let's leave them aside for the time being. Those who in the course of normal self-defence or emergency assistance may not be harmed is clearly stated by the criminal regulations reserved for such cases: self-defence or emergency assistance may only be directed against the aggressor, not against outsiders' legal interests. The well-aimed sniper's bullet against the terrorist holding hostages, if this really is the last chance of saving the hostages, may be okay under criminal law, yet ceases to be so as soon as another innocent person is jeopardised by this bullet.

This ban is thoroughly acceptable within the framework of criminal law. Within moral consideration (our activity here), however, it will be impossible to maintain this ban under all circumstances. At this point we ought to embark upon a process of weighing-up similar to that acted out for or against utilitarianism in any introductory seminar course. To borrow one of the most common exercises, let us assume that a terrorist has taken 20 hostages, and let us assume we are all absolutely certain that as his demands have not been met, he will blow himself up together with all the hostages in the next few seconds. Shouldn't the SAS marksman who already has his sights trained on the terrorist be allowed to fire, even if he can't completely rule out the chance of hitting an innocent passer-by who suddenly appears and strays into his line of fire? And if you hesitate, would you do the same if the terrorist had taken 50 hostages? Or what about 200? Or 1,000? These reflection games are terrible. But ethics isn't supposed to be a barrel of laughs.

The Kosovo Dimension easily outweighs all bank-robber scenarios. Those who in view of this scale of difference accept Humanitarian Intervention as I have defined it as a prima-facie option, have already made up their minds. For moral reasons they are willing to overstep the bounds of what (in related contexts) is permissible under criminal law. We are thus entering a field where what is forbidden by criminal law is morally allowed. Military interventions which do not put external parties at risk simply do not exist. Even military interventions with the highest of Humanitarian Intentions are no exception. It's impossible to approve of Humanitarian Interventions and at the same time rule out others being put at risk.

This certainly does not mean that this hazard can be neglected in future. On the contrary: whenever during an operation a threat to external parties cannot be ruled out, everything must be done to ensure that this threat is minimised. This means in particular:

A HI is only morally permissible if
(ii) the type of intervention (c) minimises the threat to external parties.

3.6 Whosoever these external parties just mentioned might be, they certainly include neither those who precipitated the intervention and against whom the intervention is ultimately directed (in order to put a stop to their crimes), nor the intervention subject himself. Stipulation (b) dealt with the intervention precipitators; the intervention subject has so far been neglected by the previous stipulations. This omission is filled by condition (d):

A HI is only morally permissible if
(ii) the type of intervention (d) minimises the harm or threat to the intervening party himself.

Just to cite the extreme case, for example, this stipulation prevents an intervening state from simply using its own citizens as cannon-fodder to make intervention successful. Of course, this danger does not exist in the present case - at least, not at present. Yet the concept of harm or danger naturally encompasses a little more than the loss of human life. Not to be killed is not the only human value.

3.7 Stipulations (a) to (d) listed under (ii) cover the core of what is often also described as the demand to keep things in proportion. I can't go into the tricky question here of whether our above stipulations cover every aspect of proportion - and if not, how we could do justice to these outstanding points of view. This isn't a great loss, as the necessary conditions outlined so far are perfectly adequate to judge NATO's intervention.

3.8 To be on the safe side, however, and to make sure that nobody regards the sum of these conditions as even sufficient merely for the purpose of experimentation, I would like to include a safeguarding clause (even though many might believe it to be a matter of course):

A HI is only morally permissible as long as
(iii) it does not itself involve massive crimes against humanity.

This means that a Humanitarian Intervention is only morally justified if it doesn't involve the same things it's supposed to be combating, and from which the entire raison d'être of Humanitarian Interventions stems. Humanitarian Interventions which in comparison to the crimes they are supposed to prevent, themselves constitute massive crimes against humanity, cannot be morally permissible. Humanitarian Interventions may not for their part provide grounds for morally justified Humanitarian counter-Interventions.

4 Humanitarian Interventions and international law

4.1 One stipulation for the moral permissibility of Humanitarian Interventions is still lacking from our necessary conditions - namely that whose necessity has been the subject of the greatest controversy in the whole debate so far about the current war:

HI is only morally permissible if
(?-iv-?) the intervention is sanctioned by (a) international law and (b) in particular by a resolution passed by the UN Security Council.

4.2 Why is this demand lacking? Quite simply because the world is not yet ready for this stipulation to actually make sense now. International law is not sufficiently developed, and the Security Council's resolution procedure still has a long way to go, too.

4.3 This is (as we should have known before the start of the war) an extremely precarious situation. It concerns the relationship between law and morality. Moral questions are very closely linked to legal questions - and this is precisely why we must draw a sharp distinction between the two so that this close connection cannot lead to any confusion. If something is legally necessary, it is generally morally necessary too. Note the 'generally' - not always (otherwise there'd be no need whatsoever to discuss the moral justification of legal regulations). Isolated cases are conceivable in which it is not merely morally permissible but even morally necessary to violate existing laws, in which case what is legally necessary could even be morally forbidden. Of course, solid reasons are always going to be needed for such exceptions in view of the moral value (which cannot be assessed too highly) of binding legal norms - and these reasons probably only actually exist in very rare cases.

This potential difference between law and morality occurs in all areas of law - including in current international law. Cases are conceivable in which violation of the international laws presently in force is not only morally allowed but may in fact be morally imperative. Such a case would be my fictitious Auschwitz scenario above: Auschwitz and all the other concentration camps in Germany alone, no German wars of aggression. Moreover, if you also assume that this Nazi Germany is a member of the Security Council with the power of veto, show me those who in response to this situation would be prepared to demand what at present many seem willing to blindly sign petitions for: respect for international law - whatever the consequences. If the world complied with current international law, the consequence would be that the world would be forced to stand by and watch. Yet morality demands precisely the opposite. The Auschwitz Dimension cries out for Humanitarian Intervention - even in contravention of valid international law, and obviously even without the Security Council's approval (which anyway would not be forthcoming in the above situation owing to Nazi Germany's veto). The end of the fiction.

In order to really make this questionable stipulation concerning international law a necessary condition, international law must be changed such that in the case of the fictitious Auschwitz scenario, the morally necessary Humanitarian Intervention against Nazi Germany would no longer be blocked despite the veto of a member of the Security Council.

4.4 In order to make myself clear, I would now like to add a few points. Point 1: The Kosovo Dimension is, as mentioned above, not identical with the Auschwitz Dimension. Point 2: Yugoslavia is not Nazi Germany. Sub-point 2.1: Neither is Serbia. Point 3: Yugoslavia is not a member of the Security Council. In view of the Kosovo Dimension, merely invoking Auschwitz is not enough to reach the same conclusion for the actual Kosovo crisis as for the above fictitious Auschwitz crisis.

4.5 Another aspect has so far been totally neglected in the debate surrounding the validation of our current war under international law. This debate simply assumes that if in addition to NATO the UN was also in favour of this war, everything would be fine. This is at present legally correct, but in moral terms potentially wrong. It takes more than UN support for an intervention (even a Humanitarian Intervention) to be morally acceptable. As we have seen above, a few other conditions have to be met as well. And these could then be violated, even with the approval of the Security Council.

4.6 Let this suffice for the main topic at least of our Federal German discussion of the war. This discussion so far constitutes a brilliant victory for our renowned tradition of hermeneutics. Its domains are the diverse relations between wording and deeper sense. If the letter of international law really is opposed to our war, how can its spirit be determined such that the essence of this law can be reconciled with our Humanitarian consciousness and traditions? This is the question about which our Humanitarian writers, intervention ministers and other experts on international law have been arguing every day ever since the war began. In the meantime NATO has flown over 20,000 missions. Let's postpone the apologetic exegesis of international law until tomorrow. Today's question is: Is this war morally good?

5 Is this war good? The relevant questions

5.1 Is this war good? Is NATO's current intervention in Yugoslavia morally justified? Now that the central concepts have explained and the most relevant moral demands are known, 'all' we now need to answer this question is the facts. As usual, these can be divided into three categories: the clear facts, the less clear ones, and those we don't yet know at all. We should preferably try to support our case on the first category, the clear facts. But unfortunately it is this group which is the smallest - which is probably always the case as far as relevant facts during times of war are concerned. Therefore at such times one has to make to with the less clear facts - making the resulting moral judgement less solid.

5.2 Is our intervention in Yugoslavia morally permissible? This question can now be formulated more precisely: Have all the requirements which need to be met for such an intervention to be morally legitimate actually been met? We know what these requirements are. So let's subject the current NATO intervention - from now on I'll often just say the intervention for short - to the test of these demands.

5.3 The intervention covers a great deal. It can stand for the decision to militarily intervene, the launch of the intervention, the manner of the intervention (e.g. air raids instead of ground troops), the same thing but in more detail (e.g. only bombs dropped from a great height, thus magnifying the risk of collateral damage), the manner of the intervention today, etc. These are very different things. And similarly, moral judgement of these different things can also differ. However, it should always be clear what these and other things mean when we're talking about the intervention.

5.4 We must ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Was or is the intervention really necessary to eliminate the reason for the intervention?
  • Is the manner of the intervention actually beneficial for its aim?
  • Is the intervention being carried out such that for the intervening agents themselves the damage and the threat caused is kept to a minimum?
  • Is the intervention taking place such that it is accompanied by the least damage required to achieve the aim of intervention being inflicted on the intervention precipitator?
  • Is the intervention being carried out such that the risk to outside parties is minimised?
  • Is the intervention on our part connected with massive crimes against humanity?

5.5 An assessment of the intervention requires answering this list of questions as a whole. What "least possible damage" is supposed to mean in the three areas of damage to be taken into account (intervention subject, intervention precipitator, outside parties) can only be more closely identified by considering the minimisation of the overall damage. In doing so, we will not be able to dodge morally weighting the various damage minimisation requirements. Don't moral reasons make us devote priority to minimising damage to third parties over minimising damage to the intervention precipitator - and over minimising damage suffered by the intervention subject? It certainly cannot be said that the less harm suffered by the intervening party (at the cost of third parties), the more moral the intervention.

5.6 We're dealing with the moral evaluation of a concrete intervention - with the assessment of an action, not of an actor. What counts for this intervention assessment is thus primarily its consequences, not the (supposed or actual) intentions linked to it. Do we really have to remember that these are two different things? And that history contains enough examples of how the best intentions can lead to the most appalling consequences? And vice versa, even the worst intentions can sometimes result in good. We primarily take intentions into account when we are assessing the actor (the person, the acting institution); we study the consequences when we want to judge the act itself.

This distinction has a clear application: The mere fact that an intervention is Humanitarian (i.e. it is associated with a Humanitarian intention) does not by itself make an intervention good - not by a long chalk. The reason for this was stated above: The conditions for the moral justification of a Humanitarian Intervention are not merely fulfilled by virtue of the existence of a Humanitarian intention.

This separation between assessing an intention and assessing the consequences takes much of the alleged moral point out of the speculation about the true intentions of the intervening party. What really counts when somebody is in an emergency is for them to receive genuine assistance - not the motives behind the act bringing about this help (or not). These intentions and motives at most become relevant if we analyse reasons for equivalent behaviour in future cases.

5.7 During moral evaluations, one often falls into the fictitious da capo trap. You've married the wrong woman, you're in a right mess, and wonder what the best thing is for everyone, including the kids. The last thing that's going to help is, "I told you so" - as if you could simply slip out of the current situation and leap back to before you got together and then take the right decision this time. The relevant question is, what should be done now?

All well-meaning advice concerning what the various sides should or shouldn't have done beforehand so that the question "Intervention - yes or no?" wouldn't have had to be asked in the first place are equally irrelevant for a moral assessment of the current intervention. Being wise after the event should be put to good use in managing similar situations better in future; it's no good for a moral assessment of the current situation, which we evidently didn't manage better. Reference to the genesis of the current situation helps us to understand it; it doesn't solve the moral problems which only emerge once we're in the middle of it.


This brings to a close the part of my commentary which, unless you can convince me otherwise, bears so to speak my philosophical warranty. If this was a philosophical talk, we'd now come to what Max Weber would have described as a personal opinion. However, I think all the listeners ought to be able to work this out for themselves using the approach described here.

My own test of the necessary conditions listed here for the moral justifiability of Humanitarian Interventions currently (20 May 1999) brings me to the following result:

Question Answer
  • Was or is the intervention really necessary to eliminate the reason for the intervention?
Intervention yes, but not in this form.
  • Is the manner of the intervention actually beneficial for its aim?
Definitely not.
  • Is the intervention being carried out such that for the intervening agents themselves the damage caused is kept to a minimum?
As far as human life is concerned, yes.
  • Is the intervention taking place such that it is accompanied by the least damage required to achieve the aim of intervention being inflicted on the intervention precipitator?
Obviously yes.
  • Is the intervention being carried out such that the risk to outsiders is minimised?
  • Does the intervention for our part rule out massive crimes against humanity?
No. (Less so from day to day.)


*. This comment stems from talks I gave in early May 1999 in Leipzig, Münster and Frankfurt am Main. Apart from Georg Henrik von Wright and my daughter, I'd also like to express my grateful thanks for the help received from Jovan Babic, Kurt Bayertz, Lutz Eckensberger, Günther Grewendorf, Franz von Kutschera, Wolfgang Lenzen, Weyma Lübbe, Matthias Lutz-Bachmann, Thomas Metzinger, Richard Raatzsch, Veronika Reiss, Sabine Rieckhoff, Peter Rohs, Mark Siebel, and my right hand throughout this time, Christian Plunze.

This comment can also be found under the link Praktische Ethik (Practical Ethics), along with a brief summary of my personal view.

**. Georg Meggle was born in 1944 in Kempten/Allgäu. After studying philosophy at Munich, Oxford and Regensburg, he wrote a doctorate on communication theory in Regensburg under Franz von Kutschera in 1979. He was awarded the Habilitation in 1984 for his thesis on action theoretical semantics. Between 1985 and 1989 he was Professor of Logic and the Methodology of Science at Münster. From 1989 until 1994 he was Professor of Systematics and Ethics at Saarbrücken. Since 1994 he has been Professor of Philosophical Anthropology and Cognitive Sciences at Leipzig. He is director of the DFG research group Communicative Understanding and head of the SMWK project Art-Communication, involving co-operation with Leipzig Gallery of Contemporary Art.

Prof. Dr. Georg Meggle
Universität Leipzig
Institut für Philosophie
Burgstr. 21
D-04109 Leipzig

Tel: +49 (0) 341 973 5810/11
Fax +49 (0) 341 973 5848
e- mail: meggle@rz.uni-leipzig.de