Humanitarian Paratroopers

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.”

2 thoughts on “Humanitarian Paratroopers

  1. Matt Aronson

    Enjoyed this piece, too… Gracias Padre Tiempo.

    Seems to me that it’s often a self-aware kind of critique that “humanitarian paratroopers” aim, most often at institutions they see as generating/perpetuating various forms of systematic disadvantage. The banana farms of Central America for instance, cacao production in parts of Africa, efforts toward “social forestry” in Mexico, or the cut flower industry in Colombia. As far as I can tell, much academic activism is conducted with a genuine interest in and collaboration with local residents (or at least it’s very genuine-looking) so as to facilitate “positive” social change. A fraught term indeed, but labeled “positive” because a kind of change meant to alter the distribution of power in favor of working folks who’ve so long been deprived of what even they (not simply Western academics) would define as “just” compensation for their labor.

    As well, I know of no sociologist working today who considers her subjects to be “backward,” and I know of no sociologist who isn’t aware of how fraught the term “positive social change” is. It’s just that many scholars-activists are okay with laying bare their moral commitments–often based in a pragmatist position, or a critical realist one–and then working within that framework, even if they may agree with you about its metaethical problems/limitations.

    Consider, for instance, those humanitarian paratroopers who urge for Western officials to intervene in other cultures, especially in non-Western ones, calling foul about what they’d define as “gender-based oppression” (the cutting of clitorises comes to mind, but also hijab-wearing, sex enslavement, human trafficking, not allowing women to own property or drive automobiles, etc.). Even in cases where an activist is self-aware about the ideological nature of egalitarian human rights discourse, I’d argue that her appeal to such an ideological discourse should not be attacked simply because it’s ideological. (After all, what isn’t ideological?) On the merits, academic-activists have worked to alleviate human suffering through anti-poverty efforts or by collaborating with local folks to enhance workplace democracy. Sometimes, things that one could accurately call ideological are, in the end, “good” for people.

    At this moment, I can’t tell whether my comments are more or less aligned with or contrary to your position…Maybe you will straighten things out.


    1. father time Post author

      Quick reply

      M: As far as I can tell, much academic activism is conducted with a genuine interest in and collaboration with local residents (or at least it’s very genuine-looking) so as to facilitate “positive” social change.
      FT: If the local residents voted against the sociologists’ proposed moral change, what would the sociologists do then? ‘Positive’ social change is a normative concept. Who sets the norms – the Western sociologists or the local residents? What degrees of freedom do the sociologists allow the locals? Aren’t societies which practice clitoral excisions thought by many sociologists to be backward even though the sociologist may not say it out loud.

      M: Sometimes, things that one could accurately call ideological are, in the end, “good” for people.
      FT: Just started an interesting book. The Sacred Project of Sociology, Christian Smith. He writes – “If we had to characterize American sociology’s sacred project in brief, therefore, we might say that it stands in the modern liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/ postmodernist ‘tradition’.” (I would add animal rights and the environment.) This tradition sees a particular set of moral laws as obviously, always and already right.

      In a more skeptical tone, one might also argue that giving this tradition in the West a limited sense of success (and making surface changes in the as yet to be converted target societies) is an example of what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’ or the techniques and strategies by which a society is rendered governable, which produce the citizen best suited to fulfill those government’s policies. But that’s for another day.

      The Good Father tries to stay away from discussion of how one view of what is “good” for people is better than other views. He remains more interested in how we warrant our moral claims, what rights we think they give us, and what we think we can and should do with them. So on your specific examples of good change, he remains a quietist.

      Thanks for the well-considered reply.


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