On Wars of Choice, Las Casas, Transatlantic federations, and Reparations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/03/2020 - 11:19pm in

Now the fact that one must refrain from war, and even tolerate the death of a few innocent persons, is proved by arguments and many authorities.
The first argument is this: According to the rule of right reason when we are confronted by two choices that are evil both as to moral guilt and punishment and we cannot avoid both of them, we ought t0 choose the lesser evil. For in comparison with the greater evil, the choice of the lesser evil has the quality of a good. This is what the Philosopher  teaches. Now the death of a small number of innocent persons is a lesser evil than the eternal damnation of countless numbers of persons killed in the fury of war.

Again, the death of the innocent is better or less evil than the complete destruction of entire kingdoms, cities. and strongholds. For not all of them eat the flesh of the innocent but only the rulers or priests, who do the sacrificing, whereas war brings the destruction of countless innocent persons who do not deserve any such thing. Therefore if those evils cannot be removed in any other way than by waging war, one must refrain from it and evils of this kind must be tolerated.
Furthermore, it is incomparably less disastrous that a few innocent persons die than that Christ's holy name be blasphemed by unbelievers and that the Christian religion be brought into ill repute and be hated by those peoples and by others to whom word of this flies, when they hear how many women, children, and aged people of their nation have been killed by the Christians without cause, as will unavoidably happen, and indeed has happened, in the fury of war. What, I ask, will be the result, if not a perpetual barrier to their salvation, so that there will be no further hope for their conversion? Therefore when there is a question of war over a cause of this kind it is better to let a few innocent persons be oppressed or suffer an unjust death. In fact it would be a very great sin, and against the natural, to wage war on these unbelievers for this reason. This is proved in the following way.
According to right reason, and therefore the natural law, it is evident that in every case and in every matter that concerns two evils, especially those involving moral guilt, one must choose that which is less harmful or is thought to be less harmful. Therefore to seek to free innocent persons in the case proposed, within their territories, as has been proposed, would be against the natural la,v and a sin, which, although not mortal, is very serious indeed. This is evident because the greater the damage sin inflicts the more serious it is, according to St. Thomas. And this is true even if that damage is not intended or foreseen, since everything that necessarily follows upon a sin belongs in some way to the very species of the sin. From such a war a countless number of innocent persons of both sexes and all ages will unavoidably perish, and the other evils that have been mentioned will necessarily follow upon that war. Therefore anyone who would try to free those who suffer evils of this type by means of war would commit a very serious mortal sin. ---Las Casas (1550-1552) In Defense of the Indians, chapter 28, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 191-2. 

During the The Valladolid debate (1550–1551), Sepúlveda, the spokesperson for Spanish landlords in the Americas, articulated (recall) the case for humanitarian intervention on behalf of natives exploited by 'savage' indigenous practices. In particular, Sepúlveda called attention to the way vulnerable natives may be subject to human sacrifice and cannibalism. He, thereby, sketched their existence in terms of a proto-Hobbesian state of nature. At bottom his argument rests on two thoughts: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. The benefits include not just protection from local oppression, but also access to Christian conversion. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may justifiably invite humanitarian intervention.

There is little doubt that Sepúlveda's argument is offered in bad faith. But, as Las Casas recognizes, that is not sufficient to undermine it. On the question of sacrifice and cannibalism, Las Casas' strategy is not to deny its existence. But, first, he minimizes it frequency. Second, he claims that in many cases what looks like sacrifice is merely a legally sanctioned death sentence (and so unobjectionable). Third, that leaves a small number of victims from practices that serve a religious or (non-juridical) political function in indigenous societies. The question is, then, do these victims justify humanitarian intervention? And this question is pursued both as a contribution to just war theory (in particular, jus ad bellum) as well as a contribution to the borders of the Church and the role of the emperor in imposing these.

Because the natives never posed any threat to the Spanish, and no Christians were present in the Americas, the issue becomes  really a question about to what degree one can choose war under the pretext or in the service of humanitarian intervention. As is clear from the first paragraphs of the quoted passage above, Las Casas' answer is an unambiguous rejection of war under such circumstances. For, in war many  innocents will die necessarily. Las Casas adds many gruesome descriptions of how likely it is that in the fog of war enemy combatants and innocent bystanders are confused (and the latter harmed or killed) and that war always provides cover for other harms (including looting, plunder, rape, etc.). 

In these cases the dead innocent bystanders are harmed twice over: they get killed and they have no chance to be converted (and so receive eternal salvation, etc.). Moreover, while he does not emphasize this as much, the soldiers are put in great temptation to sin and fall into eternal damnation. So, the cost of war of choice in the service of humanitarian intervention is material and spiritual. Even if one does not share Las Casas' theological commitments, it is not difficult to articulate the spiritual costs in more psychological/social terms (PTSDs, broken social ties, etc.) that due justice to a more secular metaphysics.

In addition, and Las Casas is not shy about this point, if the ultimate point is voluntary conversion then exposing would be converted to great risks, even enormous harms, is self-undermining: "war is not a suitable means for spreading Christ's glory and the truth of the gospel, but rather for making the Christian name hateful and detestable for those who suffer the disasters of war." (355) As Las Casas repeatedly notes, the natural response to Spanish conquest and plunder is loathing of Spanish religion. So, while the particular details of the consequences of wars of choice may not be explicitly intended, they are foreseeable in a certain generic (one may be tempted to say statistical) way as belonging to a class of foreseeable "unavoidable" harms (even if the particular detail is not foreseen). Among the harms are epidemic illnesses, as Las Casas recognized.*  

Las Casas' argument presupposes here (and he argues it throughout the book) that because the indigenous are unbelievers  the Church has no prior dominion over them. In fact, because he treats the indigenous as self-governing polities with natural right to self-defense (“Every nation, no matter how barbaric, has the right to defend itself against a more civilized one that wants to conquer it and take away its freedom,” (355)), they also have a natural right to their own religious practices (which he assures his reader are theistic in practice).  In virtue of some such comments, Las Casas comes very close to finding the whole Spanish presence in the Americas illegal. 

He draws back from this conclusion for two reasons, one theological and one political (intimately connected). The political reason is that he needs the power of the emperor to subdue the Spanish landlords (and reform their abuses) and control the conquistadors. But the emperor and his court rely on income from the Americas; the emperor is in a zero-sum competition with other European powers, and the emperor has opportunity to extend his dominion and power by incorporating the American colonies in a pacific, imperial project in which the emperor becomes a protector of self-governing natives against their oppressors in the same way he is a protector of burghers against feudal landlords (see, e.g., the New Laws of Charles V). In addition, and this is connected to the theological reason, the emperor can create conditions for possibility of peaceful missions to convert of the indigenous. This is also the interest of the Church to hold on to colonial enterprise (and is explicitly present in the various papal degrees.)

Before I conclude, and as an aside, it is worth emphasizing that Las Casas develops here the foundations for the pacific federations based on shared and ever closer, converging values and shared interests familiar from the history of liberalism (recall here; and neo-Liberalism  (recall hereherehere)). And this also suggests that we can tell an alternative to Foucault's story. Recall that for Foucault 'Europe' was discovered when the Westphalian, non-zero sum system presupposed a zero-sum extra-European relationship that extracts wealth from would be enemies (in what we may call the Global South). On this view a zone of open-ended progress requires the domination of the backward global. Prior to the development of this system, there were opportunities for a more mutualistic relationships with the Global South.+  

The very possibility of a more mutualist, equitable approach founders on the limitations of imperial state capacity and the power inequality between the natives and Spanish. The Imperial state is, even when willing,** incapable of genuinely controlling the Spanish landlords from afar when their interests align against it. This means that Las Casas' own proposal --  "what has been taken unjustly" must be "restored" (362) -- is doomed to failure. This despite the fact that Las Casas' proposal is itself a compromise with political reality. I put it like that because his arguments entail a more radical conclusion, not just restoration but also, "reparation for injuries." (4)++


*The point is more explicit in Memorial de Remedios para las Indias (1516), where he advocates building hospitals for the locals.

+I do not want to overstate this. Clearly, even the most humane-minded Europeans assumed the superiority of their religion (even if they were critical of their civilization). 

**It clearly seems willing when the influence of non-Spanish (low-countries) courtiers is at its peak at the Court of Emperor V. These clearly recognize that the Spanish nobility is developing a new source of power and income in the Americas.

++This is not anachronism because the point is made explicit  by a fifteenth century editor of Las Casas, Bartolome de la Vega in the preface he attached to the Defense.

Book Review: The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal by Martha C. Nussbaum

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 06/02/2020 - 12:34am in

In The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal, renowned philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum offers a set of essays that take their cue from the Cynic and Stoic traditions to explore the tensions within the cosmopolitan ideal through the works of Cicero, Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith. Questioning the book’s positioning of the nation state as the practical and moral site for realising cosmopolitan goals, Alex Sager argues that far from being a ‘noble but flawed’ ideal, a commitment to cosmopolitanism may be our best hope of survival. 

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. Martha C. Nussbaum. Harvard University Press. 2019.

Find this book: amazon-logo

During the brief interval of hope after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Martha Nussbaum’s Boston Review essay ‘Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism’ played a central role in resurrecting cosmopolitan ethics. Invoking Diogenes the Cynic’s proclamation, ‘I am a citizen of the world’, Nussbaum thoughtfully discussed Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, The Home and the World, to defend a cosmopolitan ideal against a politics of nationalism, patriotism or ethnic or religious difference. Even then, Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism was largely a benign moral ideal, coupled with a tepid vision for multicultural education. Still, it may come as a surprise for some that, 25 years later, Nussbaum has cast her lot with the nationalists. She affirms the nation state not only as a practical site for realising cosmopolitan goals, but, following Grotius, holds that the nation state has a fundamental moral role as ‘the largest unit that is an effective unit of human autonomy and accountability to people’s voices’ (14).

The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal is based around four loosely connected essays that take their cue from Cynic and Stoic cosmopolitanism. Nussbaum identifies the Cynic and Stoic traditions as a central source of the insight that humans possess equal worth and dignity, independently of their social membership. Nonetheless, she sees this tradition as committed to a problematically radical ideal of self-sufficiency in which virtue alone is good and the human flourishing of Stoic sages is unaffected by events beyond their control; misfortune, extreme poverty, and even slavery, do not undermine the sage’s human flourishing.

Nussbaum traces the influence of these ideas in Cicero, Hugo Grotius and Adam Smith. She sees Cicero as pioneering a fundamental distinction between duties of justice and duties of beneficence. Duties of justice are universal duties based on the law of nature, and extend beyond the boundaries of political communities; they forbid harming others and protect private property. Duties of beneficence demand material aid, are less stringent and are owed only to compatriots. Grotius extends Stoic ideals of respect for humanity to international relations and makes headway on moral duties to aid, as well as psychological questions about motivating international duties while maintaining allegiance to one’s nation state. Smith, especially in The Wealth of Nations, provides a sophisticated analysis of how economic institutions such as wage labour under the factory system can crush human dignity and debase human capacities.

Nonetheless, on Nussbaum’s reading, Grotius and Smith do not go far enough in overcoming their Stoic influences. Smith, in particular, continues to adopt a macho-Stoical idealisation of self-command and indifference to misfortune in his moral philosophy. Instead, the tradition culminates in Nussbaum’s version of the capabilities approach in which justice requires that people are able to exercise substantial freedoms to enjoy life, bodily health and bodily integrity; exercise their senses, imagination and thought; develop attachments to other people; associate with groups where they are treated with dignity and respect; form a conception of the good; live with non-human animals, plants and nature; play; and exercise control over one’s political and material environment (241-42). Nussbaum sees these capabilities most likely to be realised by liberal nationalism (8-9).

The most glaring shortcoming of Nussbaum’s wide-ranging narrative is that it is unclear that she plausibly identifies a cosmopolitan tradition (let alone the cosmopolitan tradition). Cicero famously privileges the Republic and Grotius articulates the first major philosophical defence of the nation state. While Smith is frequently identified as a proponent of economic cosmopolitanism, his nuanced view of international relations complicates his cosmopolitan credentials. We could just as easily appropriate Cicero, Grotius and Smith for a history of nationalism.

Furthermore, Nussbaum does not attempt to situate Cicero, Grotius and Smith in their own political and social contexts, but rather to use them to tell a story. Unsurprisingly, she finds them wanting from the vantage point of contemporary, liberal egalitarian philosophy, especially insofar as they were influenced by the Stoic rejection of the need for external goods. Whatever effect Stoic self-sufficiency had on Cicero, Grotius and Smith, it holds little sway over contemporary cosmopolitanism. Indeed, readers may wonder if anyone has written any cosmopolitan theory worth noting since Nussbaum’s Boston Review essay. She makes no mention of theoretical developments by scholars such as Daniele Archibugi, Ulrich Beck, Seyla Benhabib, Gillian Brock, Luis Cabrera, Gerard Delanty, David Held, Alejandra Mancilla or Thomas Pogge (to name only a few).

Finally, we should be wary of Nussbaum’s turn to liberal nationalism as a middle way between resurgent, racist nationalism and neoliberal globalisation. Readers searching for a nuanced defence of the nation state will not find it here. Instead, Nussbaum does little more than decry the ‘me-first tub-thumping nationalism that is too familiar in our time’ (11). She declares that: ‘If one sees the history of the United States as built upon a commitment to human equality – as does Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (albeit with some historical implausibility) – then it is possible to see this experiment as fostering, as well, respect for human dignity all over the world’ (211). Unfortunately, she provides little guidance for how one might reconcile this vision of the United States with chattel slavery, the dispossession, expulsion and confinement of Native Americans, brutality toward immigrants and imperialist wars.

A central task for cosmopolitans today is to reconcile the local and global in forms of political organisation that take us beyond the parochial horizons of the nation state. Climate change and forced migration may well make human flourishing or dignity impossible unless we create supranational political institutions. While Nussbaum has retreated to nationalism, other scholars have been advancing the cosmopolitan tradition to meet these challenges. Far from being a noble but flawed ideal, a commitment to cosmopolitanism may be our best hope of survival.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit: Statue of Hugo Grotius (waterwin CC BY SA 2.0)


On Johnson's Victory

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 14/12/2019 - 4:28am in

We broke the deadlock, we ended the gridlock, we smashed the roadblock and in this glorious, glorious pre-breakfast moment, before a new dawn rises on a new day and a new government, I want first of all to pay tribute to good colleagues who lost their seats through no fault of their own in the election just gone by. And of course I want to congratulate absolutely everybody involved in securing the biggest Conservative majority since the 1980s. "Literally, literally - as I look around - literally before many of you were born....

[T]his election means that getting Brexit done is now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people. And with this election, I think we've put an end to all those miserable threats of a second referendum. I have a message to all those who voted for us yesterday, especially those who voted for us Conservatives, one-nation Conservatives for the first time. "You may only have lent us your vote and you may not think of yourself as a natural Tory. And as I think I said 11 years ago to the people of London when I was elected in what was thought of as a Labour city, your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box and you may intend to return to Labour next time round. And if that is the case, I am humbled that you have put your trust in me, and that you have put your trust in us. And I, and we, will never take your support for granted.--Boris Johnson "Election victory speech"

Johnson's victory speech is extraordinary ungraceful and ungenerous toward Jeremy Corbyn: his only mention of his vanquished opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, is this remark, "You also voted to be Corbyn neutral by Christmas by the way and we'll do that too." Even President Trump, in a moment of humanity, managed to be a lot more generous to Hillary Clinton in his victory speech (against his audience's wishes). This cruel gesture does not bode well for the future of democratic norms in the United Kingdom under this man’s leadership.

Not unlike Trump, Johnson has been systematically underestimated by his opponents. But his willingness to drop his party’s Northern Irish allies ruthlessly in order to break the Brexit logjam and, thereby (recall), to retreat from more than a century of commitment to unity with northern Ireland, showed that he is willing to be a ruthless and opportunistic leader when he judges it in his interest. This signaled he was going to try to forge a new electoral alliance. He is lucky, too, because Jeremy Corbyn, who had the upper parliamentary hand, recklessly gave Johnson what he desperately needed– an early election – without getting anything meaningful in return.

Corbyn, who had showed impressive (and to my surprising) skill as a parliamentary tactician in opposition, misunderstood the nature of this election. This was always going to be a Brexit election. And while his desire to keep the traditional Labour coalition together a mixture of multicultural, cosmopolitan big city-folk and the more nationalist traditional (white) working class vote was understandable, it was a strategic mistake. Brexit is initiating, and itself an expression of, a realignment, as Stephen Davies and I have argued (recall). He never managed to unite the remain vote, and – given his clear ambivalence about Brexit – would never have done so. But without a reasonably unified remain vote, he could never hope to thwart a Johnson victory especially after Farage decided to capitulate.

Because Corbyn and his supporters believed that this was the best chance to reorient British political economy in a generation, they failed to pursue a parliamentary coalition to block Brexit when given the opportunity. The price for that was always clear: Corbyn had to step aside. Instead, he preferred the roll the dice in an election.*

And in that election he refused to defend unambiguously the open borders (supported by his own party membership) that are the most immediate way to help the poor and vulnerable everywhere. In so doing, Corbyn – and his lengthy constructive ambiguity about Brexit -- also retreated from the internationalism and solidarity that characterized the commitment to a pan-European project by European social democracy for several generations. In his unwillingness to defend the European dream of ever “closer union,” Corbyn both failed to mobilize his voting potential and, more amazingly yet, lost the moral high ground.  

If my post seems rancorous, I have to admit that I have been very disappointed in my well-meaning Labour leaning intellectual colleagues, who stuck with party come what may and never truly defended the principles of international solidarity and mostly hid behind obfuscation or tactful silence. (We liberals, even the most skeptical ones, have a shameful past, too, so I don't mean to suggest our silences are any more excusable!)

I have said nothing so far about Antisemitism. I truly and honestly deplore, what we may call, the weaponization of antisemitism (recall) (and indirectly here) by those who are callous about the rights and dignity of minorities, who deport people of color, and who promote detention centers to deter refugees and the despairing. I find the unprincipled alliance with Johnson’s Tories by my Zionist friends shortsighted and callous. (I have defended the legitimacy of Zionism, even in the context of its injustice.) Unlike other Zionists, I think Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause is nothing to be ashamed of. Humanity demands advocacy for the underdog and Israel is going to need genuine intermediaries to return from its present strategic cul-de-sac of open-ended low grade war. I never thought Corbyn has an unhealthy obsession with Jews (or even Zionism). But I have regretfully come to believe that he did have an insensitive attitude toward Zionism supporting Jews. (See, especially, the offensively tone-deaf remarks recorded and reported here.) On this point, too, Labour intellectuals did not cover themselves in glory.

In one sense the fate of Labour and its intellectuals is only of academic interest to me. But I also have come to believe that the renewal of a true liberalism, also requires the survival and so, thus, revival of social democracy. For liberalism needs rivals willing to advance liberal or parliamentary democracy. Johnson’s remarks reveal that he understands the slender basis of his current coalition. And his big-spending promises – “we will deliver a long-term NHS budget enshrined in law, 650 million pounds extra every week…record spending on schools…Colossal new investments in infrastructure, in science, using our incredible technological advantages to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth with the most far-reaching environmental programme,” – suggests that the party of Thatcher has reinterpreted and stakes its future on its one nation roots in defense of a paternalistic hierarchy.

Together with Helen de Cruz (see here), I have treated Brexit as a political transformative expierience. I felt confident that it would accelerate a radical change in political landscape--one that would be hard to believe to people ahead of the vote. But it is increasingly becoming clear that since (as I wrote in my book) the “survival” of “liberal society cannot be presupposed even in its historical heartland.” The bravery of the people of Hong Kong reminds us daily that liberal ideas are still the natural refuge in the face of tyranny and repression of the police state. It is such moving images that inspire a modest hope that not all is lost.