Letters

Who Can Intervene

Dear Editors,

In response to “A Solution From Hell” (Issue Twelve), there are at least two further questions about humanitarian intervention that should be asked, but almost never are. The first is: even if there seems to be a strong case for intervention of some kind, does it follow that any and all state actors are equally well placed to conduct it? G. A. Cohen has recently explored in Rescuing Justice and Equality the different arguments that can, and cannot, justifiably be made in particular interpersonal settings: the judgment that “You’d better negotiate” with a kidnapper might be morally and politically appropriate coming from a police officer, but not from the kidnapper him or herself. Both morally and politically, and also prudentially, the idea that the US and the UK—with their particular histories in the region—were the right states to carry out even an impeccable humanitarian justification for war in Iraq (had one existed) was hard to credit.

The second question, which the piece rather evades, is whether hypocrisy in intervening in some cases but not others is morally indefensible. Do mixed motives, in which the intervener might also have a political or commercial interest, impugn the validity of intervening there? Although ethical standards derive their force from their universal appeal, their application is always haphazard and often distorted. There will always be more wrongs than there are people or states willing to put them right. That might justify selective intervention, if intervention can ever be justified at all. But it doesn’t justify selective criticism or ignoring comparable cases if the singling out of one newly baptized pariah state becomes so influential as to defy any possible comparison. Douglas Hurd’s unconscionable policy in Bosnia was justified by the claim that “The light shone by the media is not the regular sweep of the lighthouse, but a random searchlight directed at the whim of its controllers” (quoted in Brendan Simms’s Unfinest Hour, Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia). To some extent we can’t help but operate moral searchlights, but there is a moral duty to sweep the light as well as to focus it.

—Melissa Lane

Reading Cavell

Dear Editors,

Mark Greif’s “Cavell as Educator” (Issue Twelve) offers a refreshingly accessible introduction to the ideas of one of America’s best living philosophers. But it made me wonder: if Cavell’s main ideas are as relevant and available as Greif claims they are, then why, unless one has sat in his class at Harvard (as Greif did), or gone to graduate school in philosophy (as I belatedly did), is an American today still so likely to need such an introduction?

More from Issue 13

Issue 13 Machine Politics

One started a chant about love transcending all. We repeated it, trailing off with groans when the meaning sank in.

Issue 13 Machine Politics

At its inception, the movement was both inarticulate and surpassingly eloquent, in the way of a cry of pain.

Issue 13 Machine Politics

Laws, courts, the forming of States, the charters of cities, the going and coming of commerce and malls, are all for you.

Issue 13 Machine Politics
Raise the Crime Rate
Issue 13 Machine Politics

Lvovsky is a good poet. But how do I know he’s an original poet, a new poet?

Issue 13 Machine Politics
Issue 13 Machine Politics

Docuscope had passed the test. Was it the only program that could do so?

Issue 13 Machine Politics
Issue 13 Machine Politics

Computers are near-omnipotent cauldrons of processing power, but they’re also stupid.

Issue 13 Machine Politics
Issue 13 Machine Politics

Duly initiated in sock videos, artists graduate to a handful of galleries, where their advanced degrees reassure collectors.

Issue 13 Machine Politics

These girls seemed immune to New York’s damning seasons, which always threaten to expose one’s tax bracket, especially if it…

More by this Author

Issue 6 Mainstream

The new “how to read” books convey a sense that schools are no longer teaching people that skill.

Issue 7 Correction

The america our new president inherits bears an uncanny resemblance to our old enemy, the Soviet Union—right before it went under.

January 8, 2016
Year in Review: 2015
February 13, 2013

If your only priority over at B of A is your bottom line, such practices aren’t panning out from a fiscal standpoint.

Issue 10 Self-Improvement

Today it’s the bearers of culture rather than the wielders of power who are taxed with elitism

April 19, 2016

Recommended reading for the New York primary.