Those Who Don’t Sign: How We Treat People Removed from the Social Contract

December 6, 2011

Military, Political Theory


I was recently reading an article about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how civilians are in great danger from the fighting going on.  I thought about the ways in which their rights are being infringed upon and wondered how I could apply some of our readings to the situation.

Part of the official position put forward by our government is that we are in the region helping the citizens of these countries.  We invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a dictator that oppressed his people and we are similarly helping the people of Afghanistan escape the rule of extremist militant groups like the Taliban.  Now, I’m not particularly interested in whether or not this is the truth of the matter.  I would rather take the admittedly naive approach and assume that this really is the case and analyze the situation from there.

Yay, assumptions!

Does a government have any obligation or right to try and protect people that are not members of its society?  This issue has received little to no attention in the texts that we have read.  In fact, the people outside of a certain social contract are only really mentioned as people who must be defended against by the government.  Rousseau states that societies are formed in order to advance the “general will” of all of its individual members.  It then seems to follow that aid should only be given to outsiders if the act will somehow benefit the giving society.  I think that Machiavelli would also agree with this way of thinking since self-preservation and self-gain are the basic tenets he recommends to base one’s decisions on.

What about writers like Locke, who talk about basic rights?  Well, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke says that, “The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.”  Hear he says that people all have rights, but society is only responsible for protecting the rights of those within the social contract.  Again, it seems that this protection does not extend to those outside of the contract.

I personally believe that if, for example, a genocide is taking place in another country and no one else is stopping it, we as a country have an obligation to help those in need.  This seems to be reflected in things like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This is a set of rights declared to be the property of every human being and violating them should subject the offender to some sort of punishment by the international community.  However, it is also a valid argument that as a country we have no business interfering in foreign affairs that don’t concern us and we should simply worry about our own citizens.

Where do you fall on the issue? Do you agree with my interpretations of our theorists? Should we involve ourselves in order to protect people even if they are not members of our social contract? Let me know.

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3 Comments on “Those Who Don’t Sign: How We Treat People Removed from the Social Contract”

  1. elyssashea Says:

    I would agree with you that if a genocide is taking place in another country, we have a responsibility to help those in need. While Locke does seem to exclude those outside of the US’s social contract from being on the receiving end of any aid from us, I would argue that there are other theorists who would say we have a responsibility. In the discussion of cosmopolitanism, universalism and cultural relativism, we have questioned whether interference into other countries is our responsibility, or whether it appears as imperialism. I believe that Kwame Anthony Appiah, as he appeared in the “Appiah on Cosmpolitanism” video, would say that we need to take up a position of cosmopolitanism. In cosmopolitanism, we would accept that there are differences between people, such as our country and Iraq or Afghanistan, but then ultimately search for a framework that could be applied everywhere. Appiah would argue that we have a responsibility as global citizens in this cosmopolitan world, and it is therefore our duty as Americans to help those suffering injustice. Interfering in another nation’s affairs would therefore not be imperialism, but rather an exercising of our responsibility to the globe.

  2. ajnovo Says:

    I feel that the conflict between helping people who are not US citizens is more a problem of dirty hands than anything else. One of the few cases where the United States offers help without getting involved politically is when we provide aid for natural disasters.

    For example, there’s a famine in Somalia (Read more here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/world/africa/02somalia.html), and the US really has not contributed that much aid due to the fact that we do not have the resources to get involved in another rebel terrorist group conflict. Also, the failure of trying to aid Somalia the 1990s hasn’t been forgotten by the government or people. Conditions have been improving (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/19/world/africa/somalia-famine-eases-with-rainfall-and-aid.html?scp=7&sq=somalia&st=cse), but it is still unlikely that the US will ever become involved.

    Ideally everyone would be treated humanely in the world, but that is not true, and I do not think it is the US’s responsibility to correct every wrong government especially now that we’re in several wars, and our economy is weak.

  3. Brian Hall Says:

    I think genocide and extreme human rights violations are really the only valid times when we should be able to justify military intervention. Clearly non-interventionism at all times is the best policy for avoiding unethical influence in others’ affairs, but there are cases which require intervention based on the absurdity of events. We cannot stand by and let millions of people be massacred. This is for the same reason that you cannot watch a person being beaten to death on the side of the street and not feel obligated to do something to help him based on an intrinsic sense of human compassion. By the same token, I think that there are situations that warrant international intervention. For lack of a better means of determining when this is appropriate, the scale of violence is the easiest way of assessing these situations. The UN has taken a bipolar approach to intervention, assisting in Bosnia but ignoring Rwanda and the Khmer Rouge among other incidents of genocide (in fact Bosnia is the only genocide they did decide to act on in recent memory), which has not been helpful in terms of coming to a conclusion on the appropriate sequence of action in these situations.

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