The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, February 25, 2005

Nations Are People Too

This post is an expansion of a comment I made this morning at Belmont Club. In the context of discriminating between moral and pragmatic criticisms, I said in part:
"Lawless" and "unilateral" refer to the United States's refusal to submit to international law as embodied in the United Nations; they can be moral criticisms only if you accept international law as a good in and of itself. (This position seems to be widely held, despite its obvious stupidity and immorality -- I call it the "nations are people too" fallacy.)
Much of the writing on international relations today is based on this fallacy. The spurious anthropomorphization makes for superficially plausible lines of argument, like the objection that America was "bullying" Iraq (notably here; all-you-can-drink here). You can even find people claiming, straight-faced, that "nations should be free" -- not meaning the citizens of those nations, but the nations themselves.

So we have to laboriously state axioms which should be too self-evident to even articulate.

1) Nations are not living beings. They are organizations, formed by humans, with certain characteristics (notably the ability to control some territory).

2) Nations have no feelings; no rights; and no moral existence of their own.

2a) Nations cannot do evil -- though their rulers, soldiers or other citizens certainly can.

2b) Nations cannot suffer -- though their inhabitants surely can.

2c) The "death" of a nation is morally meaningless.

Armed with these axioms, we can approach a sort of theorem. To wit: international law is not a good in itself. It may be a means to protect the (real) rights and aspirations of real human beings; or it may be a protective shield for massive cruelty and death. But it must be evaluated by its effects.