The United Nations: Utilitarianism At Its Finest

October 23, 2011

Political Theory


It’s Model United Nations season again, and that means endless hours of work for me preparing discussion topics, writing releases, and praying that high school delegates don’t really know more about world politics and history than I do. Since I’ve devoted quite a bit of my time to it, I clearly care about the United Nations; however, some critics do not. It’s true that the UN passes resolutions that try to solve world problems, but there is an important issue that pertains directly to some of the topics that we are discussing concerning political theory: should we respect the autonomy of each nation, or should some of that be sacrificed for the greater good of humanity?

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary General.

You might want some background on the United Nations. If you’re looking for a brief summary, open the link and go to “How the UN Works”; if you want a deeper overview of the various bodies, the subcategories under “How the UN Works” have some pretty good information, too. A (very) brief history of the UN can be found on that page, too.

I can see why critics take issue with the UN. As of last Thursday, the US House of Representatives has begun significant work on a bill that would limit US payment into the UN on the basis of perceived inefficiency stemming from poor nation choices for various positions and a realization that US money can end up going against US interests when invested in the UN. Both of these are fair arguments. For example, I find it fundamentally difficult to support an organization that allows Saudi Arabia to serve on a board designed to enhance women’s rights. The fact that the UN can undermine the foreign policy of any of its paying members also makes me wonder if it’s really worth the investment. The fact that it takes some power away from individual countries in order to pass resolutions that everyone must follow also draws it significant criticism. Some argue that it isn’t fair to have one body make polices which every nation must follow; because every nation has a different economic system, demographic, GDP, language, culture, heritage, and identity, it’s best to have individual nations set the standards for themselves, critics argue. Given all its problems, why support the UN at all?

We support it because it’s the world’s best hope for lasting peace. Yes, the UN does go against the wishes of individual countries, but it always goes in favor of the wishes of humanity as a whole. That’s the beautiful thing about it. The UN  can transcend diplomatic alliances and serve as an international court of majority opinion where all nations can be heard and all ideas can be debated, then action can be taken that reflects the majority opinion. Nowhere else in the world does that happen. Currently, there are peacekeeping operations occurring on four continents; without the UN, none of these people would have the support that they currently receive in a timely, organized manner. While the UN does have its flaws, something has to be said for the ability of one organization to so unilaterally aid humanity around the globe.

UN Peacekeepers from Australia patrol the streets of East Timor.

As discussed earlier, the debate surrounding the UN itches two different ideologies head-to-head: those favoring freedom for each nation and those favoring the good of humanity. I have to side with the latter. Why? Utilitarianism, plain and simple. It’s in the best interest of the majority of the world to have a body like the UN around because the UN can represent the OVERALL wishes of world opinion. While each nation may want to have complete control over its decisions, the reality is that what is best for one nation might not be so good for the international community as a whole, and that poses a fundamental problem to the concept of independent, unlinked nation-states in a dependent, linked world. While there does not seem to be a compelling reason for the UN to take the place of federal governments around the world (passing laws for their citizens), it does seem both realistic and beneficial to keep the UN around because it has helped and will continue to help foster an international community that supports every nation, large and small, rich and poor, equally.

If we decided, as a world, to remove the UN, I wonder if any international body would be able to fill the void. As we talked about in class the other day, every person and every nation will act in its own self interest; this may be to the detriment of mankind as a whole. Without some sort of international agreement (Locke might call it a “contract”), nothing stops nations from following their own visions so far as to harm the interests of mankind. While utilitarianism can definitely be said to have its flaws, the overall benefit of something like the UN far outweighs potential shortfalls.

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4 Comments on “The United Nations: Utilitarianism At Its Finest”

  1. sgbraid Says:

    Your support of utilitarianism makes sense which is why I don’t understand your support of the United Nations.

    This post makes a good point of how absurd the United Nations, “For example, I find it fundamentally difficult to support an organization that allows Saudi Arabia to serve on a board designed to enhance women’s rights”. How can the United Nations be respected when it makes decisions such as this? And how can it be respected when it claims that the Israeli Defense Force (Israeli army) is the most inhumane army in the world and is the reason Israel can’t serve on the United Nations Security Council (when in fact it is probably the most humane defense force in the. Also, Lebanon, which is run by a terrorist organization called Hezbollah, is on the security council)? Additionally, how can the United Nations be respected when it wanted to approve a Palestinian State without a peace agreement or a clear discussion about the borders?

    I don’t think that the United Nations represents anything close to utilitarianism and want to suggest that the world would be better off without a United Nations.

  2. guysnick Says:

    While I definitely do not think that the United Nations is either all that effective in keeping peace in the world today or in furthering the common good for all of humanity, I do think that it is a utilitarian institution. As illustrated by John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism is a theory that emphasizes that decisions should be made with the common good of humanity in mind. Utilitarianism is his so-called “greatest-happiness principle.” While the U.N. is not very effective at accomplishing this “greatest-happiness principle,” I do think that, overall, it does make decisions based on a utilitarian ideology. The U.N. does send troops to disaster zones and to countries in the midst of humanitarian crises. However, the U.N.’s troops are peacekeepers, not peacemakers. Therefore, there is a limit on what they can do to further the common good of everyone involved. This is where I recognize the standpoint of the first commenter on this post. There is only so much the United Nations can do to maintain a utilitarian ideology for the world.

    This being said, as was pointed out in the post and by the first commenter, there is much that the United Nations can improve. It makes no sense for Saudi Arabia, a completely male-dominated society, to serve on a U.N. board designed to enhance women’s rights. And why would Lebanon be on the security council over Israel? There is plenty of room for the U.N. to improve in order to become a more effective proponent of utilitarianism.

  3. ksaukas Says:

    While its purposes have lately been muddled by personal opinions of what is right or wrong, humane or inhumane, I think we easily forget the main reason we have the United Nations: communication. It is easy to forget that Israel’s liberty was due to the UN (you may forget that the British held Israel until the UN came in and created a free Jewish state, and then set the first truce between Israel and the surrounding Arab states), and was one of the sole forms of communication between the USSR and the U.S. during the Cold War (not saying it stopped the Cold War but hey who knows).

    It may be hard for us to see the purposes the UN serves now, but let us look at its past and maybe we will see the greater function it can serve today. Before the UN we had a weak League of Nations no one used. They world of international politics was so messed up Czechoslovakia was handed over to Germany by France and Great Britain without their own appearance at the table (never mind there weren’t any other European countries there). The UN was set up to to have a table where all voices could be heard. Unfortunately, for some, all voices are heard at this table. This is where Israel’s army and other situations are called into question. Does America’s standard of woman’s rights dominate the whole of humanity’s view on woman’s rights? Of course not, maybe there are more countries that believe women need to serve the role they do in Saudi Arabia and that is where the utilitarianism comes in. If more people in the world people believe like Saudi Arabia than the U.S. they deserve a right at the woman’s rights table , if the UN is to be fair (personally I really wish they weren’t on the committee but this is how the UN system works).

    Yet should we not be a part of the conversation if we don’t agree with the majority of the world? No. How are we supposed to have a voice on what is going on in the international community if we aren’t an active member of it? Maybe we advocate for Israel’s Army and provide a better image of it, or we also serve on the committee for women’s rights and indirectly help bring about more liberty for women there and the rest of the world. We have talked many times about how voices should be heard in class, and I believe if we try to ignore those who disagree with us than it only leaves room for their ideas to spread not ours. That is why we need the UN, we need it to communicate our ideas (because we believe them to be correct) to the rest of the world so hopefully we end up on the same page.

  4. nnvirani Says:

    The United Nations, as a whole, was created to benefit both the countries involved and the world as a whole. The United States, along with the 192 other member states, work together to create international laws, strength economies, provide security against enemy states and to spread world peace. The issue at hand is that the United States is giving money to a program which might ultimately go against their interests. Conceptually, we can relate situation to a nation-state choosing between being independent and being under control of a central government. By nation-state, I am referring to a group of people that live among each other with no enforced laws, no army, etc.
    There are few benefits to being a nation-state but the costs of giving this up is substantially less than the benefits of joining a larger body. Above all else, the security and peace offered (as a public good) reign over the abdication of liberties. Although the circumstances might not be the same, the United States is in a similar situation with the United Nations. By choosing to withdraw from this worldwide organization, we are saying (with our actions) that we no longer want to be part of the push towards world peace and global security, a message we do not stand for.
    Despite a downward-sloping economy, the US is still one of the World’s major superpowers. In my opinion, the benefits of remaining with the program outweigh the costs of staying AND the costs of leaving would be greater than the benefits of leaving. By the most basic ideas of Utilitarianism, it is easy to see that the US should stay with the United Nations. Rather than pack up and leave, a more appropriate approach for the United States to take would be to change infrastructure within the organization.

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