In the early 1900s, government policy makers in America and France wanted a set of scientifically validated, incontrovertible moral laws. In America these would be used to support moral reform; in France, moral education. Enter the relatively new discipline of sociology, which billed itself as a ‘moral science’. It was asked to ‘discover’ such a set of universal moral laws and prove that they were binding across all societies. (Technically speaking, the sociologists based their proofs on an appeal to moral objectivism.)
Sociology gave the governments and reform movements some level of validation that their set of moral laws were all universally binding. Thus a reform movement could argue that every individual being, place, and practice should be held to these laws. This led to a moral claim that a government or a culture has the right, and even the duty, to intervene in their own culture or the cultures of others. In this way, one could argue that one’s interventionist policies are just, morally permissible, and perhaps even morally required.
Today, for example, we believe that we can justly intervene wherever the universal moral principle of human rights is being violated. Most countries hold that a systematic violation of human rights within another government’s borders can deprive that government of its sovereign right to non-intervention. Intervention, including armed intervention, is thus morally permissible. (Consider our response to any nation that practices genocide.) But not all moral laws are thought by all to be universally binding. As a result, they do not always have complete international or popular support. And our beliefs can also change over time.
For example, during the golden age of imperialism (1870-1910) Western nations (North America and Western Europe) carved up Africa into colonies. Part of the rationale for this political intervention into local governance was an appeal to what was called “the Civilizing Mission.” This awarded equal rights and citizenship to those peoples who adopted the colonizer’s culture. This including primary use of the colonizer’s language, wearing Western clothes, and conversion to Christianity. Today there is not international agreement that all governments have a moral right and duty to convert those with different religious preferences.
In practice, it is also very difficult for a moral interventionist to determine which local moral codes are to be overwritten and to what degree. It is much easier for the interventionist to unilaterally apply her own moral principles. This is often done without a critical examination of the metaethical foundations, as opposed to the normative content, of her beliefs . And an overriding commitment to the principle of local moral autonomy is seldom the one chosen. Instead, she often dismisses her backward targets’ moral principles by citing their lack of valid justification.Of course, the local culture may continue to believe that their moral claims are valid and universal as well. In such cases, might often makes right.
Sociologists in the West thus tend to base their right to intervene on what they collectively hold to be absolute moral laws. In practice, they can find themselves in the role of Derrida’s
” . . . humanitarian paratroopers, human rights combined with the right of intervention as the sole means of assistance, the full bellied Western fortress giving moral lessons to those starving the world over, the morose dictatorship of a narrow oligarchy of financiers, professional politicians and TV presenters.”