Making Sense of International Ethics

(Node your homework!)
To get started, consider this hypothetical example:

P is driving his pickup truck from Dallas to Houston with three passengers, Q, R, and S. Along the way, they spot three hikers going the same direction. For whatever reason, P parks the truck a mile down the road, and with Q’s help, retrieves a long wooden beam from the truckbed. It’s so heavy that it takes two people to wield it. When the hikers approach, P and Q together swing the pole at them, bludgeoning them to death. Meanwhile, R and S scream objections and try to prevent the assault-—S by redirecting the beam, and R by standing in the way. R is killed. S manages to escape with a broken arm. Afterwards, P retrieves the dead hikers' wallets and attempts to distribute the money, but Q and S decline—-Q because she feels guilty for the attack, and S because he views it as wrong. Now here’s the question: In determining whether the wooden beam has acted immorally, what principles should we apply?

The question is absurd—-and why?—-because although the example presents a number of morally-evaluable behaviors, none of them pertain to the wooden beam itself. The beam did not act; its human wielders acted. Morality, whatever its origins, concerns itself with evaluating and guiding the actions of people only. Applying morality to other things is incoherent. I offer that it is as unreasonable to gauge a nation's actions for moral worth as it is to gauge the wooden beam's.

An obvious objection is that while nations are not people, they are (at least partly) composed of people who either decide what actions to take, or personally act on the nation's behalf. Elected leaders are people, as are soldiers, voter-citizens, and policymakers. So perhaps their "collective actions" should be subject to moral scrutiny; maybe the set, 'PQRSB,' [the B being for Beam] collectively, is more apt than the beam alone, at representing a nation.

But what moral principles apply to the actions of PQRSB collectively? The individuals have not engaged in any unified activity other than being present. The set, PQRSB has simultaneously murdered and sacrificed itself to prevent that very murder. It is composed of animate and inanimate entities. It has robbed, done nothing at all, and declined to rob—all at once.

Even supposing we temporarily assumed that some entity "PQRSB" were responsible for the hikers' deaths despite some constituent-members' attempts at preventing those deaths, it raises the question, why is PQRSB a set? Why not two of the hikers and one of the beam-wielders?

The truth is there's nothing morally relevant that makes PQRSB a set at all. It is a motley collection of four individuals and a prop, with only the morally unimportant affiliation of location. (It brings to mind nationhood).

Since there is nothing that truly and relevantly connects the four people together as a set, it is hard to see anything that might be worth preserving about their relationship to each other when seeing them in a moral light. The set PQRSB is not a person, and therefore, its collective behavior cannot be judged by morality. Each member must be judged as an individual, because each one is making choices concerning his/her own behavior.

Now, applying this idea to 'nations', which are in the same situation, has some troubling consequences. It seems to effectively justify powerful nations' aggression, imperialism, and exploitation, while dismissing the plights of their powerless victims. It seems to imply that any and all self-interested national actions are morally justifiable, and equally so.

But look closely at its true implications. It in fact implies something crucially different: that from the perspective of a nation, all 'international actions' are morally neutral. The 'actions' of a nation have neutral moral value because a nation is not a person. It is a construction of social consensus. Accepting this fact is immensely important to making sense of international ethics. Nations don't commit acts—-people do. Nations don’t behave morally or immorally—-individuals do. The distinction between nations and people will prove to be far from semantic.