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Self-Interest and the Distant Vulnerable


What interests do states have in assisting and protecting vulnerable populations beyond their borders? While some political leaders and commentators promote a circumscribed understanding of the national interest that rules out accepting substantial risks and costs for the sake of the distant vulnerable, others endorse an “enlightened” conception of the national interest that recognizes the long-term utility to be gained by helping them. However, while this notion of “enlightened” self-interest gives states reason to act in some instances, it fails to prompt action in other cases where the suffering of strangers is less strategically important. Some leaders and commentators have responded to this problem by reaching for some other, less material conception of the national interest to justify assisting the distant vulnerable, but they have often struggled to find the language they need. This article finds a solution in the debates about self-interest waged in seventeenth-century Europe. Dissatisfied both with Hobbes's narrow understanding of self-interest and Pufendorf's more “enlightened” understanding, Leibniz defended a more generous and “disinterested” conception, grounded not in considerations of material utility but in the pleasure to be derived from helping those in need. This article demonstrates two ways in which this “disinterested” conception of self-interest can be of use today. First, it provides resources for explaining why states already sometimes act in “disinterested” and altruistic ways. Second, it provides leaders with a tool for persuading people to help the distant vulnerable, even when it appears to be in neither their narrow nor their “enlightened” interests to do so.

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1 John R. Bolton, “Irresponsible: Against a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ in Foreign Affairs,” National Review, April 18, 2011. For a more nuanced nationalist argument that provides greater scope for duties beyond borders, see David Miller, National Responsibility and Global Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

2 Michael Lewis, “Obama's Way,” Vanity Fair, October 2012. For a classic realist argument that offers a more expansive vision of the moral choices available to political leaders, see Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962).

3 Ibid.

4 Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya,” March 28, 2011, For endorsement of this interpretation of America's national interest, see Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Interests vs. Values? Misunderstanding Obama's Libya Strategy,” New York Review of Books, March 30, 2011.

5 Paulo Pinheiro, “We Share Responsibility for Syria's Murderous Stalemate. We Must Come Together to Break It,” Guardian, June 18, 2015.

6 “Why Welcoming More Refugees Makes Economic Sense for Europe,” New Scientist, September 9, 2015. See also Alexander Betts, Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan, and Naohiko Omata, Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions (Oxford: Humanitarian Innovation Project, 2014).

7 Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly,” September 28, 2015,

8 Somini Sengupta, “Refugee Crisis in Europe Prompts Western Engagement in Syria,” New York Times, September 30, 2015.

9 Madeleine Albright, “Why the Central African Republic Crisis Is a Security Problem for the United States,” Defense One, January 2, 2014.

10 Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly.”

11 Quoted in James Pattison, Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect: Who Should Intervene? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 177, note 6.

12 John Donne, The Works of John Donne, vol. III, edited by Henry Alford (London: John W. Parker, 1839), Meditation 17, p. 575.

13 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by G. C. A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), XIII.6‒9, pp. 83‒84.

14 Ibid., XIII.12, p. 85.

15 Ibid., XXI.8, p. 142.

16 See, for example, Noel Malcolm, Aspects of Hobbes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 432‒56.

17 Hobbes, Leviathan, XXII.29, XXIV.4, XXIX.22, pp. 157, 163‒64, 221; Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, edited by Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), III.27n, p. 54.

18 Hobbes, On the Citizen, XIII.7, pp. 144‒45; see also Hobbes, Leviathan, XV.36, p. 105.

19 In a response to his critics, published in 1686, Pufendorf claimed that “the basic premise from which I draw the law of nature stands in direct opposition to the theory of Hobbes. For I come very close to the reasonable theory of the Stoics, whereas Hobbes serves up a rechauffé of Epicurean theories.” Quoted in Anthony Pagden, The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 58. However, some scholars charge that Pufendorf's efforts to distance himself from Hobbes were insincere and that his theory was fundamentally much closer to that of Hobbes than he was willing to admit. See Palladini Fiammetta, “Pufendorf Disciple of Hobbes: The Nature of Man and the State of Nature: The Doctrine of Socialitas ,” History of European Ideas 34, no. 1 (2008), pp. 2660 .

20 Samuel Pufendorf, De Jure Naturae et Gentium Libri Octo, vol. 2, edited by C. H. Oldfather and W. A. Oldfather (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), II.3.15, p. 208. See generally II.2‒3, pp. 154‒230.

21 Ibid., II.3.16, pp. 209‒11.

22 Ibid., II.2.9, p. 172.

23 For a contextualist reading of Pufendorf, see Richard Tuck, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 140‒65.

24 Pufendorf, De Jure Naturae et Gentium, III.3.9, pp. 365‒66.

25 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, “Opinion on the Principles of Pufendorf,” in Political Writings, edited by Patrick Riley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 65, 67.

26 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), I.7-8, pp. 10‒14; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III.25, quoted in Patrick Riley, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence: Justice as the Charity of the Wise (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 152.

27 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, “Elements of Natural Law,” in Philosophical Papers and Letters, 2nd ed., edited by Leroy E. Loemker (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1969), p. 134.

28 See Riley, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence, pp. 144‒52.

29 Quoted in Patrick Riley, “Introduction,” in Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 19. It is worth acknowledging that the phrase “disinterested self-interest,” which I use to encapsulate Leibniz's approach to self-interest, was not one that Leibniz used. He preferred the language of “disinterested love.” However, as the quoted passage makes clear, he insisted that “disinterested love” should generate pleasure for oneself and thus was closely tied to one's own self-interest. Leibniz, Brown explains, thereby “found a way of reconciling his psychological egoism with the possibility of altruism.” Gregory Brown, “Leibniz's Moral Philosophy,” in Nicholas Jolley, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 413.

30 Leibniz, “Codex Iuris Gentium,” in Political Writings, p. 171.

31 Leibniz, “Judgment of the Works of the Earl of Shaftesbury,” in Political Writings, p. 197.

32 Leibniz, “Felicity,” in Political Writings, p. 83.

33 For excellent works that situate Leibniz's treatment of pleasure and perfection within his broader theology, see Donald Rutherford, Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 7–67; Brown, “Leibniz's Moral Philosophy”; Gregory Brown, “Happiness and Justice,” in Maria Rosa Antognazza, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Leibniz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

34 Leibniz, “Felicity,” p. 84.

35 Leibniz, “Considerations Relating to Peace and War,” quoted in Riley, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence, p. 257; Leibniz, “Portrait of the Prince,” in Political Writings, p. 98. For excellent overviews of Leibniz's international thought, see Riley, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence, pp. 236–60; Janneke Nijman, “Leibniz's Theory of Relative Sovereignty and International Legal Personality: Justice and Stability or the Last Great Defence of the Holy Roman Empire,” IILJ Working Paper 2004/2 (New York: Institute for International Law and Justice, New York University School of Law, 2004); and Friedrich Beiderbeck, “Leibniz's Political Vision for Europe,” in Antognazza, Oxford Handbook of Leibniz.

36 For the idea of “universal benevolence,” see Riley, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence, p. 152. For Wolff and Vattel's works on the law of nations, see Christian Wolff, Jus Gentium Methodo Scientifica Pertractatum, vol. 2, translated by Joseph H. Drake (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934); Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations, edited by Béla Kapossy and Richard Whatmore (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2008).

37 See, for example, Vattel, The Law of Nations, II.1.3, p. 262. Vattel did, however, give some indication that, in contributing to the wellbeing and happiness of vulnerable people beyond borders, states were contributing to the perfection of themselves. See, for example, II.1.13, p. 267.

38 “Germany a ‘Hippie State Being Led By Its Emotions’ – Professor Anthony Glees,” BBC World Service, September 9, 2015,

39 Mihret Yohannes, “Angela Merkel Welcomes Refugees to Germany Despite Rising Anti-Immigration Movement,” Washington Times, September 10, 2015; Federal Government (Germany), “Refugee and Asylum Policy: German Government Presents Overall Strategy,” September 7, 2015,;jsessionid=722E57087DF252CB8D3373DC13F49F12.s4t1?nn=393830.

40 Interestingly, just as the pursuit of “enlightened” self-interests can produce long-term material benefits, the satisfaction of pleasure-based self-interests can produce long-term nonmaterial benefits. Consider, for example, how seventy years after the event, the people of Denmark continue to take pride in their risky and costly efforts to protect Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. See Nicole Stokes-DuPass, Integration and New Limits on Citizenship Rights: Denmark and Beyond (New York: Palgrave, 2015), p. 83; and Leo Goldberger, ed., The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress (New York: New York University Press, 1987).

41 See, among many examples, Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), pp. 52‒84; A. Maurits van der Veen, Ideas, Interests and Foreign Aid (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

42 See Sasley Brent E., “Theorizing States’ Emotions,” International Studies Review 13, no. 3 (2011), pp. 452‒76; and the forum on Emotions and World Politics” in International Theory 6, no. 3 (2014), pp. 490594 .

43 Nadelmann Ethan A., “Global Prohibition Regimes: The Evolution of Norms in International Society,” International Organization 44, no. 4 (1990), pp. 479526 , at p. 524. On emotions and constructivism, see Ross Andrew A. G., “Coming in From the Cold: Constructivism and Emotions,” European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 2 (2006), pp. 197222 ; Renée Jeffery, Reason and Emotion in International Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 11‒12.

44 See, for example, Sherman Nancy, “Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention,” Ethics & International Affairs 12, no. 1 (1998), pp. 103‒19; Marlier Grant and Crawford Neta C., “Incomplete and Imperfect Institutionalisation of Empathy and Altruism in the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Doctrine,” Global Responsibility to Protect 5, no. 4 (2013), pp. 397422 ; Hutchison Emma, “A Global Politics of Pity? Disaster Imagery and the Emotional Construction of Solidarity after the 2004 Asian Tsunami,” International Political Sociology 8, no. 1 (2014), pp. 119 ; Andrew A. G. Ross, “Beyond Empathy and Compassion: Genocide and the Emotional Complexities of Humanitarian Politics,” in Thomas Brudholm and Johannes Lang, eds., The Uproar of Emotions: Studying Genocide after the Emotional Turn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

45 Sherman, “Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention”; Jeffery, Reason and Emotion in International Ethics.

46 For discussion, see Pierre Force, Self-Interest before Adam Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

47 For discussion, see Sasley, “Theorizing States' Emotions”; for application, see Saurette Paul, “You Dissin Me? Humiliation and Post 9/11 Global Politics,” Review of International Studies 32, no. 3 (2006), pp. 495522 , esp. pp. 510–18.

48 Anthony Faiola, “For Refugees, It's Destination Germany,” Washington Post, September 5, 2015; Stefan Wagstyl, “Germany: Merkel Opens Door to Her Opponents,” Financial Times, October 27, 2015.

49 Andrew A. G. Ross, Mixed Emotions: Beyond Fear and Hatred in International Conflict (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 57; Todd H. Hall, Emotional Diplomacy: Official Emotion on the International Stage (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2015), p. 192.

50 “Migrant Crisis: Merkel Warns EU of ‘Failure,’” BBC News, August 31, 2015; “Germany to Spend Extra €6bn to Fund Record Influx of 800,000 Refugees,” Guardian, September 7, 2015.

51 Ross, Mixed Emotions, p. 56.

52 David Cameron, “PM Speech at G8 Nutrition for Growth Event,” June 8, 2013, For analysis of Cameron's personal and political commitment to foreign aid and development, see Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowden, Cameron at 10: The Inside Story (London: William Collins, 2015), ch. 38.

53 Sherman, “Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention”; Jeffery, Reason and Emotion in International Ethics. Crawford additionally points to how emotions can be “institutionalized” such that particular responses to distant suffering develop a taken-for-granted quality. Crawford Neta C., “Institutionalizing Passion in World Politics: Fear and Empathy,” International Theory 6, no. 3 (2014), pp. 535‒57.

54 See, variously, Leo d'Anjou and John Van Male, “The Abominable Traffic: The Abolition Movement and Emotions,” Paper for Conference on Emotions and Social Movements, New York University (1999); Gary J. Bass, Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008); David Campbell, “The Iconography of Famine,” in Geoffrey Batchen, Mick Gidley, Nancy K. Miller, and Jay Prosser, eds., Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Emma Hutchison, “A Global Politics of Pity?”

55 Ross, Mixed Emotions, p. 156.

56 Heather Horn, “Germany: Where Leadership is on Trial,” Atlantic, January 25, 2016,; “Merkel Wants to ‘Drastically Reduce’ Refugee Arrivals in Germany,” Reuters, December 13, 2015,

57 George Eaton, “The German Elections Weren't a Protest against Angela Merkel's Refugee Policy,” New Statesman, March 14, 2016,; Anne Applebaum, “The Headlines Are Wrong: Angela Merkel's Rule is Not in Doubt,” Washington Post, March 17, 2016.

58 Hall, Emotional Diplomacy, p. 192.

59 Emma Hutchison, Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions after Trauma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 297–301.

60 See Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile: Or on Education, edited and translated by Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College Press, 2010), bk. IV–V, pp. 361–675; Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 6.457, p. 205; Sherman, “Empathy, Respect, and Humanitarian Intervention,” pp. 118‒19.

61 Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration.

62 On the potential for empathy as an antidote to fear in international relations, see Crawford, “Institutionalizing Passion in World Politics.” Relatedly, see Carty Anthony, “New Philosophical Foundations for International Law: From an Order of Fear to One of Respect,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2006), pp. 311–30.

63 For classic critiques of “the moral dignity of the national interest” arguments offered by some realists, see Charles R. Beitz, Political Theory and International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979); and Cohen Marshall, “Moral Skepticism and International Relations,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13, no. 4 (1984), pp. 299346 .

64 For a valuable application of such ideas to present-day thinking about international ethics, see Jeffery, Reason and Emotion in International Ethics.

65 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, edited by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 4.398, p. 14.

66 Jenny Edkins, Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid (Minneapolis, Minn.: Minnesota University Press, 2000); Hutchison, “A Global Politics of Pity?”; Ross, “Beyond Empathy and Compassion.”

67 Leibniz, “Felicity,” p. 83. For further discussion, see Brown, “Happiness and Justice.”

68 See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eeerdmans, 2011).

69 See Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

* I am grateful to Alex Bellamy, Ben Day, Toni Erskine, Emma Hutchison, Andrew Ross, Wes Widmaier, Ben Zala, members of the UNSW Canberra International Ethics Research Group, three anonymous reviewers, and the Ethics & International Affairs editorial team for helpful comments and suggestions that strengthened this article.

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