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Reconciling Just Causes for Armed Humanitarian Intervention


Michael Walzer argues that the just cause for humanitarian intervention is not met if there are only “ordinary” levels of human rights abuses within a state because he believes that respecting the right to collective self-determination is more morally important than protecting other individual rights. Several prominent critics of Walzer advocate for a more permissive account of a just cause. They argue that protecting individuals’ human rights is more morally important than respecting a right to collective self-determination. I argue that these two accounts are far more similar than either Walzer or his critics realize because collective self-determination requires the protection of some human rights in order to allow each person the opportunity to participate in collective choices. Consequently, the just cause for intervention is met whenever at least some important human rights of one person are violated and others are being credibly threatened. The counter intuitive conclusion of my argument is that justified interventions can actually promote rather than undermine collective self-determination because just interventions allow innocents, who otherwise would have excluded from this process, the opportunity to contribute to collective choices. Of course, a just cause is insufficient in itself for intervention to be permissible because other just war precepts must also be met.

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  1. I exclude discussion of a third, amoral strand of realism, because I am interested in the morality of intervention.

  2. For a view on why democracy requires the protection of certain individual rights, see (Beetham 1999).

  3. Wellman’s ideas about state legitimacy seem to have evolved between his 2009 book that he co-authored with Altman and his 2012 single authored article.

  4. Monty Marshall and Keith Jaggers, “Polity IV Data,” 2010.

  5. An exception to the impermissibility of intentionally targeting just intervening soldiers is when intervening soldiers violate jus in bello rules. For instance, if a fighter pilot who is on the side with a just cause sought revenge for a colleague’s death by intentionally targeting an apartment building in which everyone in it is innocent, it would be permissible for the unjust combatant to intentionally target the pilot. Innocent civilians who would be killed by just combatants as an unintentional although foreseeable result of a just war might also permissibly defend themselves against the just combatants. See respectively, McMahan, Killing in War, 16 and section 2.1.

  6. Walzer allows the intentional targeting of civilians who are involved in efforts that are exclusively involved in war such as building tanks, but not duel use products such as food because food can feed soldiers or civilians (Walzer, Just And Unjust Wars, 145–146.).

  7. Some of these would technically not be interventions because they have the consent of the target state. The typical justification for intervention of saving innocents’ lives is also contestable; the US government generally justifies them by arguing it keeps Americans safer than they would be without such strikes.

  8. For a similar method of argument, see (Christiano 2011).


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Correspondence to Eamon Aloyo.

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Aloyo, E. Reconciling Just Causes for Armed Humanitarian Intervention. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 19, 313–328 (2016).

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  • Humanitarian intervention
  • Just war theory
  • Collective self-determination
  • Human rights
  • Sovereignty
  • Just cause