Arrrrrr….pirates and principles
Global Justice and Moral Obligations
In mid-April, pirates off the coast of Somalia took the captain of an American container ship hostage sparking a 4-day standoff with the U.S. Navy. Out of gas, food and water, the pirates found themselves face-to-face with a 500-foot guided missile destroyer. Affiliated pirates, seeking ways to improve their partners’ bargaining power, threatened to kill other (non-American) hostages being held further out at sea if the standoff ended in the death or capture of the pirates. The U.S. was undeterred. On April 12, Navy SEALS, with authorization from President Obama to act if the captain’s life was perceived to be in danger, shot all three pirates and rescued Captain Richard Phillips.
What was otherwise a relatively simple decision for the President was made morally complex by the pirates’ threat to kill the other hostages. No longer was the choice simply about how much risk to take in rescuing the one hostage (ie. whether to act immediately or wait until the conditions were just right). There were now two distinct normative questions at play: the degree to which we may give greater weight to the interests of Americans over those of non-Americans; and whether the President (in his role as president) must promote the interests of Americans above those of others. Though these may look similar, they arise from distinct philosophical issues.
The first question is at the core of debates over global justice: may we (and to what degree) prioritize the interests of compatriots? One view, the Nationalist Idea or the Priority Thesis, argues that we can – “compatriots take priority,” claims Oxford philosopher Henry Shue. The justification of this view, also defended by John Rawls and NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel, may lie foundationally, in the value of special relationships; in consequentialist arguments that giving priority to compatriots is most likely to maximize justice; or in the contractarian view that the principles of justice extend only to those engaged in social-political cooperation (i.e. statehood).
The opposing cosmopolitan idea claims just the opposite: that on issues of justice we must give equal weight to each individual’s interests regardless of nationality. At the core of the cosmopolitan argument, defended most prominently by Princeton’s Charles Beitz and Yale’s Thomas Pogge, is the belief that the national ideal discriminates by prescribing unequal treatment on the basis of nationality, a trait that is (most often) not chosen. Cosmopolitans might counter the Nationalists’ justifications by challenging their various empirical assumptions: that the foundational argument is flawed because modern countries are so large that it is a stretch to characterize the relationships between citizens as “special;” that the consequentialist view requires a background of equally distributed resource and talents; or that the global economy is so interdependent that the idea of isolated self-sufficient nations each engaged in a distinct social contract, as required by the contractarian view, is laughably simple.
The second question, on the other hand, begins in the literature on moral obligations and is somewhat less controversial. At issue is whether the act of voluntarily accepting a position creates an obligation to perform the positional duties that come with that office. In other words, is President Obama morally (not just legally) obligated to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of the presidency (regardless of their content) because he voluntarily accepted the position. Connected to this normative question is a legal one: does the Presidential oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” and any other positional duties of the presidency require President Obama to give greater weight to the interests of Americans in making foreign policy decisions. In order to conclude that the President must promote the interests of Americans ahead of others, one must answer in the affirmative to both the normative question – that there exists a moral obligation to execute the duties of the office – and the legal question – that these duties include a requirement to prioritize the interests of Americans.
Of course, drawing a conclusion on either one of the larger normative questions only creates a prima facie case for a specific course of action. For it is entirely possible for one to be a cosmopolitan and also believe that the President has a special obligation to American citizens.
One reason that philosophers have largely abandoned the public arena is its messiness – it is rare to find public policy debates that do not require difficult choices between deeply held, yet conflicting moral principles. Recognizing these core principles is step one. We will address how one makes choices between them later.