We may be entering a new Age of Revolution. Revolutions have recently occurred across North Africa, while the brutal revolutionary conflict in Syria continues. The recent flowering of just war theory has not yet explicitly extended its reach to revolutions, perhaps due to a suspicion that revolutions present ethical issues that are not amenable to a tradition of theorizing that focuses on conflicts between states, rather than on those in which (some of) the people of a state seek to overthrow the government. Of course, one major element of an ethics of revolution has occupied a central role in Western political thought: Locke, for example, has a good deal to say about what qualifies as a just cause for revolution, and the idea of just cause is a key component of jus ad bellum doctrine. The question of whether the other components of jus ad bellum theories developed for interstate wars apply to the quite different situation of revolution has not been addressed; nor has a jus in bello theory been developed for revolutionary conflicts.
Both the humanitarian law of war and contemporary just war theory do, however, address one issue that a comprehensive ethics of revolution, in its jus in bello part, should include: namely, the ethics of ‘irregular’ combatants, fighters who do not wear identifying insignia and who mingle with the civilian population. But as I shall argue, developing a plausible doctrine on that issue would comprise only one small part of a comprehensive ethics of revolution.
Similarly, although recent work on the ethics of terrorism (and counterterrorism) clearly has implications for the jus in bello part of an ethics of revolutions—since revolutionaries often resort to terrorism—it falls far short of a thoroughgoing investigation of the ethics of revolution. For one thing, the focus of the literature on the ethics of terrorism has been acts of violence against noncombatants intended to influence the behavior of those in political power (by causing fear or terror in their constituencies, who will then exert pressure on their leaders to change course). But revolutionaries frequently use violence and sometimes outright acts of terrorism against other noncombatants—namely, other oppressed people—not to change the behavior of the regime, but to increase participation in the struggle or to eliminate rivals for leadership of the revolution.4 Such acts are morally problematic to say the least, but to my knowledge they have not been considered in the recent literature on terrorism. This omission is both a deficiency in theorizing about the ethics of terrorism and a failure to engage with an important element of the ethics of revolution.
Writing on the ethics of humanitarian intervention has tended to focus on interventions to stop genocides or large-scale killings, not on revolutions. It is true that some supporters of the United States–led invasion of Iraq in 2003 claimed that it was justified as a case of forcible democratization, a democratic revolution from without, as it were (and that the absence of weapons of mass destruction was therefore irrelevant to the justification of the war). But they did not argue, and could not plausibly have argued, that the invasion was an effort to support a revolution, because no revolution was underway at the time of the invasion.
This is not to say that current theorizing about the ethics of humanitarian intervention has no implications for revolution. A popular stance on the ethics of humanitarian intervention (in its jus ad bellum part) is that it is not justified unless there is large-scale violence, and this stricture could be understood to apply to revolutionary conflicts as well as ethnonational conflicts of the sort that have been the focus of the humanitarian intervention literature. Nonetheless, neither contemporary just war theories, nor theories of the ethics of terrorism, nor theories of the ethics of humanitarian intervention have engaged seriously with the ethics of revolution considered as a legitimate object of normative analysis in its own right.
In this article, I begin a systematic exploration of the ethics of revolution, focusing first on the ethics of those who typically initiate revolutions, whom I will refer to as The Aspiring Revolutionary Leadership (ARL for brevity). Then I will consider the ethics of intervention in revolutions.
In the first part of the article, I argue that in the cases in which the Just Cause Requirement is most clearly and fully satisfied, structural features of the revolutionary situation will often make it extremely difficult or impossible for revolutionaries to satisfy reasonable jus in bello principles, while at the same time satisfying the jus ad bellum Reasonable Likelihood of Success Requirement. My initial disturbing conclusion in this first part of the article is that it is seldom morally justifiable to initiate revolution in the very cases in which the cause for revolting is most clearly and fully just. Second, I then argue that when the initiation of revolution is not morally permissible, participation in a revolution that has already begun can nonetheless be justified. So, a third conclusion will be that it is unhelpful to ask whether a revolution was justified. Instead, the moral assessment must be disaggregated, distinguishing between two subjects of evaluation: the initiation of the revolution and its continuance. Paradoxical though it may seem, there is nothing inconsistent in acknowledging that the actions by which a revolution is initiated—and which must be performed if the revolution is to have a significant chance of succeeding—are morally unjustifiable, while at the same time asserting that the revolution is morally justifiable, where this means that the continuation of the revolutionary struggle is morally permissible. Next, I argue that on further analysis some of the prima facie morally impermissible tactics ARLs often employ—in particular, some uses of coercion against fellow oppressed people to overcome regime-imposed obstacles to collective action against the regime—are morally justifiable, while others are not.
The second part of the article uses the first part's findings concerning the ethics of revolution to explore the ethics of intervention in revolution. There I argue for three main conclusions. First, even if the initiation of a revolution is severely tainted by immoral actions perpetrated by the ARL, it may nonetheless be morally justifiable for third parties to intervene in support of it.
Second, given a proper understanding of the tactics frequently employed by the ARL—and that they often must use if revolution is to have a significant chance of succeeding—the practical value of two seemingly plausible principles of intervention turns out to be much less than has been thought. Both the principle that intervention should not occur until there is widespread support for a revolution (Mill's Principle) and the principle that intervention should not occur without the “consent” or “approval” of the people (the Consent Principle) figure prominently in the contemporary literature on the ethics of intervention. Both still enjoy considerable popularity, though both have been criticized. I will advance novel criticisms of them, showing that proponents of these principles have failed to see that the behavior of the ARL will frequently undercut the rationale for these principles. I conclude that Mill's Principle and the Consent Principle were designed for a world quite different from that in which revolutions typically occur, in blissful ignorance of the grim facts about revolutions in our world. Finally, I then argue that there is a reason in favor of early intervention that has not been appreciated: in principle it can avoid the spiral of coercion that occurs as the regime tries to thwart the ARL's attempt to solve the collective action problem of mass participation by raising the costs of participation in the revolution and the ARL responds by increasing coercive pressure on the masses to participate by raising the costs of not participating.
My methodology in this article is distinctive: I approach the ethics of revolution by focusing on the problems that the initiators of revolution typically face, drawing on relevant social-science literature, including historical work on actual revolutions, and also on the literature on collective action problems. Then, instead of attempting to apply a theory of intervention developed for other sorts of cases (in particular, intervention to stop massive ethnonational violence), I draw out the implications of a factually informed investigation of the ethics of revolution for developing an ethics of intervention in revolutions.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Buchanan: The Ethics of Revolution and Its Implications for the Ethics of Intervention
Allen Buchanan (Duke Univ. - Law and Philosophy) has published The Ethics of Revolution and Its Implications for the Ethics of Intervention (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 291–323, Fall 2013). Here's the introduction: