David Reidy and Michael Blake: “Humanitarian Intervention and Human Rights” Now Available

The free podcast of the discussion between Professors David Reidy and Michael Blake on the issue of humanitarian intervention and human rights is now available from the OSU iTunes site.

David Reidy and Michael Blake

David Reidy and Michael Blake

The conversation between these two philosophers centers not so much on whether coercive intervention is permissible today or should in fact be a duty (both agree that coercive intervention using military force was probably required of the world community in a case such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda). Instead, the question they pursue, in broad terms, is whether coercive intervention ought to be used by liberal democratic societies as a means to promote human rights in societies that are not necessarily liberal democracies. For instance, while it may not be a good idea to invade a society such as Saudi Arabia in order to get it to extend civil and political rights to women, does that mean that liberal democracies should not find other ways to coerce Saudi Arabia to respect human rights?

Check out the conversation, add your thoughts in the comments section, and check out the photos from the evening with philosophers on the right!



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8 responses to “David Reidy and Michael Blake: “Humanitarian Intervention and Human Rights” Now Available

  1. ideasmatter2009

    A question comes in from an audience member:

    “It seems like people are socialized or indoctrinated at a young age into believing some combination of liberal democracy and David’s moral floor. Assuming the right to self-organize if the other criteria are met, what should a liberal democracy do about (or to) a group that wants to peacefully and democratically split off from an existing liberal democracy? Is that right covered under the ‘moral floor’? How about under the UDHR?”

  2. ideasmatter2009

    David Reidy responds to audience member:

    As a matter of international law and practice, the
    ‘right’ to ‘collective self-determination’ is quite controversial. Various documents speak of some such right, but no one is quite sure what to make of it. Everyone agrees that read too strongly it is absurd– leading to an infinite proliferation of polities as dissenting groups exercise their ‘right’ to ‘collective self-determination’ anytime they
    don’t get what they want from their polity.

    So, since the law is unclear, let’s consider the question as a moral(not legal) matter. Here’s the first thing we can say: There is no right to secession from a liberal democracy, since a liberal democracy is a legitimate state within which basic human rights are secured. Of course, a voluntary secession, mutually agreed upon by both sides, is
    fine. Here I broadly follow Allen Buchanan in his “Justice, Legitimacy
    and Self-Determination.” The right to secession
    is a remedial right that comes into play only where there are human rights abuses sufficient to render a regime’s rule over a population illegitimate. The right to collective self-determination belongs to
    legitimate states qua states or organized political communities. There may be discrete minorities within legitimate states with a strong interest in some degree of autonomy or self-rule vis a vis the
    legitimate state of which they’re a part. Their interest in self-determination can be, and in a just state would be, secured. But this doesn’t require that they have their own state. There are many
    ways a discrete minority group can have its interest in self-determination met. (Consider the ways in which Native American tribes may be given a certain amount of authority for self-rule without giving them a state.) In any case, I don’t think it makes sense to say that discrete minority groups within legitimate liberal democracies have
    a right, whether a human right or constitutional/civil right within their liberal democracy, to collective self-determination as a group. They have an interest, to be sure. And a just liberal democracy will try to meet that interest to some degree. But insofar as they live in a legitimate liberal democracy, their human
    rights are met. And while they may have an interest in group self-determination within their legitimate liberal democracy, that interest
    is not protected by a constitutional or civil right as a matter of existing law, nor must it be. Indeed, there are good reasons not to link this interest with a constitutional or civil right. That said, of
    course, the interest can raise legitimate questions of justice.
    Remember, not every issue of justice is an issue of rights. And not every issue of rights is an issue of human rights.

    I hope this helps.


    David Reidy

  3. Anonymous

    You know, coming from a philosopher, “Everyone agrees” isn’t a compelling argument.

    As smart as Mr. Reidy seems, he also seems to fall into the trap of being dismissive of anything he or his peers don’t like by simply dismissing it as (gasp!) ‘controversial’ or claiming that no one really takes it seriously.

    Heck, it sounds kind of like this, even.

  4. Michael Blake

    I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree with David on this – which is sad, because I really prefer disagreeing with him.

    I think Buchanan has it right. There are two broad approaches to when you get to secede. The first looks to intrinsic goods like community and culture, and argues that every nation (understood in cultural terms) gets a right to secede – perhaps with some sort of democratic spin to it, like a majority vote in the seceding region. The second looks to secession as a remedy for serious abuses of human rights. You can distinguish the two by looking at, say, Quebec. The Parti Quebecois argues that the language and culture of Quebec are sufficiently distinct that they ought to have a right to secede if a majority of the Quebecois want it. So, they support the first conception. But assuming that Quebec isn’t a subject of major human rights abuses (which I take to be true), then it wouldn’t have any such right under the second conception.

    My own view is that the first conception is really quite flawed. First, it assumes that there is such a thing as a nation, which precedes a state: that is, that there really are distinct cultures which are marked off as homogeneous wholes. I think this is wrong for two reasons: it doesn’t notice that states can produce their own nations – see the differences between Canada and the U.S., for example – and it doesn’t notice that there is rarely a sharp boundary between the cultures we see in the world. Second, it ignores the fact of territory. Territory is never purely assigned to any one group – every chunk of land on earth, I think, has been stolen at least once. Populations are mottled and complex. So arguing that “this land is the place for this sort of person” is an argument that inevitably ends up excluding and marginalizing big chunks of a population.

    So, I think David’s arguments are broadly right. He might support more rights within a democratic system for a cultural minority than I would – I think he’s more of a fan of the idea that distinct peoples ought to be allowed self-determination. (On my view, self-determination is the same thing as a right to democracy; we get self-determination not when our cultural group gets its own powers, but when we’re part of a democratic country.) With this difference, though, I think we’re roughly in agreement.

    Michael Blake

  5. Jonathan Kaplan


    David’s comment re “everyone agrees” is best read not as an argument from popular opinion, but as a note that the argument that follows has wide support, and as that section is about *legal* questions, wide support matters in a way that it doesn’t if the issue is strictly moral.

    On the absurdity issue, I take it that it isn’t even clear what a general ‘right’ to secession would look like. When I & my two neighbors decide to secede, do we get to keep the road? The sewers? The copper in the power lines? The land? What’s the minimum size of a ‘secede-able’ group? So read strongly, from a legal point of view, such a right would indeed be crazy — impossible in practice and w/o theoretical justification. From a moral point of view, I think the above criticisms are telling, as well. But that’s a different issue.

    Jonathan Kaplan

  6. David Reidy

    Thanks Michael and Jonathan. We’re agreed on all points, including Michael’s suspicion that I may be more comfortable than he with the idea that even within a liberal democracy there may be discrete minorities with a justice-based claim (though no right) to accommodations aimed at supporting some measure of collective self-determination.

    And to Anonymous: There are some things I don’t take very seriously. I do practical political and legal philosophy. Further, my methodology commits me to reasoning from a normative, practical point of view internal to existing institutions and practices; that is, I reason from the point of view of an engaged participant in these institutions and practices eager to determine what they really mean for us, how we might continue to perfect them, and so on. So, I don’t take seriously, as an example, the question of whether we ought to have states. Or at least I don’t take it very seriously. I suppose I might be driven, even from the point of view my methodology commits me to, to the view that there is no morally valuable purpose to be served by states, that we’d be best without them. But I’d come to that position only as a last resort, only if there were no possible way for me to see the state system as morally vindicable, as something worth preserving and perfecting. I suppose that’s a possible outcome, but it seems unlikely. And in any case, I’d be taking seriously claims to the effect that we ought to do without states only as a final possibility, not as a first possibility.

    I acknowledge, of course, that others may do political and legal philosophy in a different way — perhaps as a branch of a more purely theoretical exercise of moral philosophy from a point of view external to existing institutions and practices. Those who do may take seriously claims that I do not, and vice versa.

    By the way, isn’t it better, in all sorts of ways, to post under one’s name?

  7. Dennis


    Thanks for your responses (this is the same anonymous, by the way). They are articulated in such a way that makes my disagreement quite clear (and no, I don’t have the time or energy to go into where those disagreements lie).

    re: anonymity….. it is sometimes better to post under one’s name. Rightly or wrongly, on this one, I chose anonymity.

  8. David Reidy

    Thanks Dennis. I hope always at least to be able to express myself in such a way that those who disagree are clear exactly where the disagreement lies. And for the most part I long ago gave up on being able to express myself in such a way as to win over most, let alone all, who disagree. Very often such disagreements are quite reasonable, and thus largely intractable. We live with and do our best in practical and political life to work around them. In any event, thanks for your comment/question and thus the opportunity to set out my view as clearly as I was able.

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