The Ambiguous Morality of Foreign Intervention in Syria

As the atrocious violence in Syria intensifies, more and more people seem to be saying that the outside world–the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, the “West,” the “international community”–has a moral obligation to intervene, with force if need be, in order to stop the killing there. I don’t think the moral case for intervention is nearly as clear as those calls presume it to be, and I’d like to explain why.

I’ll start with two moral principles. First, murder is wrong. Second, when choosing among various possible courses of action, we should select the one that will produce the greatest happiness without violating any fundamental rights. The first of these principles is virtually universal. The second is more specific to modern liberalism, but I suspect it is accepted by many of the people calling for more forceful intervention in Syria.

Now, bearing those two principles in mind, let’s think about the morality of intervening in the following situations. Assume that there is no police force to call, and that you are better armed than the neighbor in question.

  • Your neighbor is murderously abusing his wife and several children. This is obviously wrong, and you have a moral duty to try to stop it.
  • Your neighbor and his wife are murderously abusing their several children. In moral terms, this isn’t really different from the first scenario, and you still have a duty to try to stop it.
  • Your neighbor and his wife are murderously abusing their children, but your intervention might also lead to the deaths of some or all of the people involved, including your own. For example, some of the children might get caught in the crossfire or be executed by the parents before they can be freed, or you might get killed in the attempt. Aware of this, you might decide to intervene without direct force–say, by cutting off his utilities and supplies–but these actions are not selective and could harm the children as well as the parents. This is a more difficult call. In the worst case, you lose three more lives (the parents and your own), while in the best case, you save several. If you believed the parents are eventually going to kill the children, intervention may still look like the right thing to do, but only if you think it stands a decent chance of succeeding.
  • Your neighbor and his wife are murderously abusing their children, but your intervention might lead to some or all of their deaths, and it will probably start a wider, violent feud among families in the neighborhood. This situation is far more complicated, and it is no longer clear at all that intervention is the best course of action. If you don’t act, several children will die. But if you do act, those children still might die, and so might many other people involved in the ensuing feud. As awful as it sounds, it is be morally right not to intervene in this situation, or at least not to intervene in ways that would set off the wider feud. In this case, action motivated by one moral principle (murder is wrong) would end up violating a second (greatest happiness), and partly through more transgressions of the first.

When I look at the current situation in Syria, I see the last of those scenarios. Foreign military intervention–to include arming the Syrian opposition or attempting to establish humanitarian corridors or “safe zones” without permission from the Syrian government–could save some lives, but it would cost others, and it stands a good chance of starting (or intensify, depending on how you look at it) a regional conflict that could kill many, many more.

What’s more, the scenarios I’ve described so far leave out two important elements of international politics that only complicate things further. The first is the problem of opportunity costs–the other things you can’t do once you commit to a particular course of action. Imagine that you’re a doctor, and that while your neighbor is murderously abusing his wife and several children, many other children in your neighborhood are dying from a disease you can usually cure.  What if intervening to stop the abuse meant you no longer had the time and money to obtain and deliver the cure for that disease?

In the real world, there are diseases like malaria and diarrhea that are preventable and curable and kill literally millions of people every year, yet we do not demand that our governments do all they can to stop those deaths. The more of our governments’ resources we tie up in wars, the less those governments can do to address these quiet crises that clearly transgress the second of the two moral principles I outlined at the start of this post: to seek the greatest happiness.

The second added element is time. All of the scenarios described so far involved a single situation, but the real world involves countless situations unfolding over time.

When time is added to the equation, it becomes clearer that what you do now will set a precedent that will affect the future actions of others. On the one hand, intervening forcefully now might deter other regimes from doing similar things in the future, for fear that they will be punished in a similar way. On the other hand, intervening now might lead future resistance movements to believe that they will receive comparable international protection. That belief might encourage them to rise up in strategically unfavorable circumstances, creating more Syria-like situations in a world that is not well prepared to handle them.

It will rarely be clear which way this balance tips, but the fact that a mass killing is happening in Syria so soon after international intervention in Libya shows that it does not lean decisively in favor of intervention. Certainly, the Libyan intervention was not sufficient to deter future atrocities. I don’t know nearly enough about the Syrian opposition to judge whether the Libyan intervention had any effect on their decision-making, but I gather that it might have emboldened some of its elements, especially ones outside the country (for evidence, see the last paragraph of the section called “The Struggle” in this excellent essay).

Taking all of these aspects into consideration, I conclude that the moral course of action in Syria today is not to intervene militarily–by attacking government forces, attempting to establish “safe zones,” or supplying arms to rebel groups. I’ll admit that I’m not 100% certain in this judgment. I hate what it implies for civilians under fire or imprisoned in Syria right now, and I am sure that some reasonable people who accept the same principles will reach a different conclusion. All I’m hoping to do here is to show that the morality of this situation is far more ambiguous than a simple “The killing must be stopped” statement allows.

And, if it were my family that was being killed, I would be screaming at the world to stop it now.

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  1. I think that you are largely right in you analysis. My personal opinion is that armed intervention should only be attempted if the following things can be guaranteed:

    * No weapon deliveries into the hands of unaccountable and untraceable groups
    * Broad international consensus (which includes important regional powers)
    * Will and capability of the intervening countries to commit themselves long-term, though with a clearly communicated exist strategy
    * International participation in the intervening force

    Clearly, these circumstances are not given in the current situation in Syria. The best alternative route would thus be to concentrate on peaceful means, by helping the political opponents of the Assad regime to unite and by working on guarantees for the minorities in Syria and for Russia that their interests will be guarded in a post-Assad era.

  2. I feel as if this whole debate is analogous to a receiver about to catch a pass over the middle. Perfect pass right into his hands, but there’s a linebacker about to knock his helmet off the second he makes the catch. Before the ball hits his hands, he takes his eye off the ball to prep for the hit. Ball bounces off his hands and he still gets lit up with no gain. All the problems with zero benefit.
    It’s important to try to figure out the third and fourth order effects but I think it is folly to believe we can, in any way, predict past a very finite period of time. The main element of this story is that people are being killed in the hundreds if not thousands. It is simply a matter of differing moralities. I, for one, believe that the main impetus should be to end the illegal killings in any way possible. Not all deaths are equal. Simply saying that more people will die is not enough. Which people? Syrian security forces are actively committing crimes against humanity and the opposition is dying trying to combat the regime. Civilians are dying in the crossfire. If there is any way to end even some of the deaths of innocent people I think it has to be taken.

  3. A couple of points that I think are missed: the “wider, violent feud” is not just a risk with intervention, it is also a risk without intervention.

    And on the opportunity costs issue: there is a moral and legal difference between deliberate murder and death by accident, disease, or poverty. Further, war tends to increase incidence of death by accident, disease, and poverty, leading anyone wanting to tackle these problems back to the original problem of how to stop the killing as quickly as possible and at the lowest death toll possible.

  4. orit perlov

     /  February 28, 2012

    Great analysis but wrong conclusion. now let me elaborate:

    1. Reality is always complicated and a one color picture is either fake or incomplete.

    2. When you have a “clean” rational discussion of right or wrong the conclusions will always be half chances. realistic people will tell “dont interfere” and emotional ppl wiil tell you “you must interfere” and both are equally right.

    3. But if you chose to examine this issue in terms of values the gaining/losing question should not be taken into account

    4. When dealing with questions of morality there is no place for questions of right/wrong gaining/losing. it’s either you choose to act out of moral obligation or not. it’s black and white.

    5. if you decide to act out of moral obligation your gain is your morality and because of that it’s the right thing to do.

    6. if you chose not to act out of a moral value you will find all the excuses and stories you can find to justify why u chose not to act out of a moral aspect.

    • “1. Reality is always complicated and a one color picture is either fake or incomplete.”

      The picture painted by the author is hardly monochromatic. The fact that you cannot see this may have more to do with your vision than with the picture.

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