Scant-Fact Zones

I think studying philosophy as an undergraduate is excellent preparation for being a political pundit -- it's a lot of arguing, a lot of playing with words, and a lot of learning about how to make a contribution to a discussion without a lot of factual background on the subject at hand. At the same time, these shared attributes of the disciplines can lead to some dangerous wrongheaded conclusions about specific things. Here's Chris Betram thinking about philosophy:

I’ve recently had to advise some students who wanted to write papers on the topic of humanitarian intervention. Not for the first time, it brought home to me how strong the disciplinary pressures towards a particular perspective can be. Political philosophy (of the Rawlsian/Kantian variety) isn’t an entirely fact-free zone, but the way we often discuss matters of principle tends to push us towards favouring policies independently of the way things actually are. So we might ask, what should be the foreign policy of a just liberal state and what attitude should such a state have to “outlaw regimes” which are engaged in systematic human rights violations. And, in the light of such thinking, what would the laws of a just international order look like? What rights against interference would states have? When would there be a duty to intervene? And so on.

Straightforward answers come easily and slickly along: states don’t have any immunity to intervention as such, since they only exist for the protection and benefit of their citizens. If they are actively harming their citizens and we can act to stop this, then we, the just liberal state, should do so. And maybe there should be special permissions granted to bona fide democracies, giving them more extensive rights of intervention than other states. Etc etc. (I rather agree with some of this in the abstract, but it is not hard to see how one might thereby build up enthusiasm for the Iraq war—to pick an example at random—without ever troubling to acquire further information about the country, its history, people, society etc.)

To some extent I think Iraq, which generated a lot of discussion over a prolonged period of time, suffered less from this in the punditsphere (the trouble was more that a lot of people were operating with made up facts rather than with no facts per se) than have a lot of other issues. But I think discussion of Darfur, and then the brief moment of hype around invading Burma, and then again Zimbabwe from time to time tends to partake of rather a lot of this. Robert Mugabe and his regime have no real ethical claims on anyone, so, hey, why not invade?

And of course since it's all non-specialists out having the argument it's difficult to say with authority in detail what would likely go wrong with an invasion of Burma. What's needed is to recover the time-honored sense of a very strong predisposition against attacking other countries.