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The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 August 2011


Wars and interventions bring to the fore certain ethical issues. For instance, NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999 raised questions about the moral import of UN Security Council authorization (given that the Council did not authorize the action), and the means employed by interveners (given NATO's use of cluster bombs and its targeting of dual-use facilities). In what follows, I consider the moral permissibility of the NATO-led intervention in Libya and suggest that this particular intervention highlights three issues for the ethics of humanitarian intervention in general. The first issue is whether standard accounts of the ethics of humanitarian intervention, which draw heavily on just war theory, can capture the prospect of mission creep. The second issue is whether epistemic difficulties in assessing the intervention's likely long-term success mean that we should reject consequentialist approaches to humanitarian intervention. The third issue concerns selectivity. I outline an often overlooked way that selectivity can be problematic for humanitarian intervention.

Roundtable: Libya, RtoP, and Humanitarian Intervention
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2011

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1 Walzer, Michael, “The Case Against Our Attack on Libya,” New Republic, March 20, 2011Google Scholar;; and Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), p. 107Google Scholar.

2 See, e.g., Caney, Simon, Justice Beyond Borders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 236–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 247; and the symposium Walzer and the Moral Standing of States,” Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 4 (Winter 2009)Google Scholar.

3 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001)Google Scholar, p. XII; and Pattison, James, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 2024CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 A transcript of the speech is available at

5 To be sure, the death rate in Libya was difficult to determine accurately. See Downie, James, “When Numbers Lie: Why Isn't There an Accurate Death Toll in Libya?New Republic, April 1, 2011Google Scholar;

6 Note here that the considerations of proportionality bear on just cause according to my practically oriented version of just cause. I consider this point further in Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect, pp. 20–24.

7 The issue of intent is crucial since in the philosophy of action an agent's intentions are generally held to play a large part in classifying actions (e.g., in determining whether an act is regime change or humanitarian intervention).

8 I defend the moral importance of several of these factors in detail in Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. It may do less well on the internal support requirement, since it is unclear whether the domestic publics of the NATO states supported the action. Notably, in the United States the action did not receive Congressional approval.

9 See, especially, McMahan, Jeff, Killing in War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 I defend this view in James Pattison, The Morality of Private War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Also see McMahan, Jeff, “The Ethics of Killing in War,” Ethics 114, no. 4 (2004), pp. 693733CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at pp. 713–14; Toner, Christopher, “The Logical Structure of Just War Theory,” Journal of Ethics 14, no. 2 (2010), pp. 81102CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and especially Lango, John, “Generalizing and Temporalizing Just War Principles: Illustrated by the Principle of Just Cause,” in Brough, Michael, Lango, John, and van der Linden, Harry, eds., Rethinking the Just War Tradition (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), pp. 7595Google Scholar.

11 See, e.g., Doyle, Michael W., “A Few Words on Mill, Walzer, and Nonintervention,” Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 4 (Winter 2009), pp. 349–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 As Simon Chesterman notes in his contribution to this roundtable, perhaps most questionable is whether the coalition has a suitable strategy for a long-term resolution to the conflict that does not involve regime change. The establishment of such a strategy—which could, for instance, be to achieve a peace settlement and perhaps the deployment of UN peacekeeping troops—may be central to the future success of the action.

13 See, e.g., Hsieh, Nien-Hê, Strudler, Alan, and Wasserman, David, “The Numbers Problem,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 34, no. 3 (2006), pp. 352–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 For simplicity's sake, I focus on the importance of saving the most lives. It may also be that when faced with several potentially permissible humanitarian interventions, interveners should focus on the case in which they are likely to do best according to the other morally relevant factors, such as their likely fidelity to the principles of jus in bello.