Utilitarianism and Rawlsian Liberalism in International Legal Theory

Utilitarianism(n.): The idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all persons.

Rawlsian Liberalism(n.): A political/legal philosophy based off of the ideas of John Rawls, principally including in this context that the moral worth of an action or law is determined by its respect to basic, inherent rights as opposed to the overall good of the society.

For the last thirty years or so, there has been a staunch debate in legal and political theorists' circles about the qualitative merits of Rawlsian liberalism and its closest ideological competitor, rule-based utilitarianism. Rule-based utilitarianism differs from straight utilitarianism in that it provides a less hedonistic structure for utility--instead it says that the overall good of the society must be the determinant goal in all actions, except within certain contexts where rights are compromised. Rule-based utilitarians would say that rights are indeed utile to the society, and thusly must be preserved.

America, being the birthplace of John Rawls, has a pretty strong Rawlsian liberalist tradition, and it's only been increased in the last twenty to thirty years thanks to John Rawls' work on reviving political philosophy as a legitimate subject for students and lawyers to study. The rest of the world (especially the UK and Western Europe) is a bit more utilitarian-friendly in their views, however, and the first supernational conflicts between these two theories are beginning to work themselves out in international dialogue chambers like the UN and NATO. With the growth of the power and number of supernational organizations, the international debate over this theoretical wonkery is fleshing itself out in more tangible arenas. The United Nations, for example, has pushed through a number of conventions, such as the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, that would be no-brainers as far as American justice is concerned. Yet the U.S. refuses to ratify these because of an ill-conceived fear of losing its national sovereignty to organizations like the UN. The UN Convention decriminalizing homosexuality met a similar fate earlier this year, and it has been only another step in a continual pattern of needless international obstructionism propped up by an irrational fear of our peers.

Antagonists to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which of all the member states of the UN, only the US and Somalia refuse to ratify) argue that if we were to ratify such a treaty, it would infringe on the American laws regarding childrens' rights, and make ambiguous concessions in areas that some of our population might not be comfortable with (the convention states that children should be given the access to their own choices of information, for example.) No mind to those opposed to such a convention that in all cases heretofore, a country's own sovereign law has superceded the role of the UN, or that any action taken by the UN would have to go through the United States first on such matters. No, those against such a convention display a lack of perception about the structure of law and consequences in our brave new supernational world. They automatically assume that because a body is international, that its jurisdiction and power would supercede national law, and would have any kind of forbearance on a sovereign entity. The United States has refused to join the ICJ for similar reasons--a lack of perception that embroils fears of the United States losing her sovereignty to a cold, anti-American bogeyman that doesn't even exist. As has been seen in other member countries of the ICJ, this is clearly not the case. The United Nations is aware of its role and position, and that position is not to police the world from a kind of Orwellian durge.

The problem is perception. We have a deep-seated fear of all things internationalist in our country, although with any luck, that will change in the next eight years. Secy. of State appointee Clinton and President-Elect Obama have all shown their strains of internationalism in ways that previous administrations have not, and I look forward to seeing an alliance with Europe strengthened, as well as our leadership roles in the United Nations and other supernational bodies. There is even word that the 111th Congress may take up passing a couple of these conventions and pave the route for American super-exceptionalism to fade. We can no longer afford to be raging bulls in a world where cooperation with our foreign peers demands a more calm demeanor.

This all gets back to Rawls, however. During his self-championed rebirth of liberalist political philosophy, an unfortunate side-effect occurred: a growth of American arrogance. One of his main tenants was that if you sat people down--any people down--and removed from them their own personal inhibitions, and asked them to make rules to govern themselves, that they would always come up with the same rules, based on the same series of inherent rights. We have seen in our world, that this is not practically the case--instead, cultural relativism has proven to be the norm, and in international bodies, we must come to respect that for the sake of utility. Utilitarianism should have a rebirth in our country, as it is beginning to in Europe, as a way to offset the arrogant nature of American diplomacy. We must recognize that not everyone sees the world the same as we do, and that's alright. There are certainly some things that we should all come together and agree are wrong--like, for instance, that killing someone based on their sexual orientation is a bad thing--but we must also learn to approach dialogue in a respectful manner and not assume a veil of arrogance. Our new international structure of the twenty-first century demands that we engage in global dialogue with a sense of utility and symbolism--if we do not go down this path, then our alliances with important nations will continue to strain, as they have in the last ten years. We can no longer afford to be a raging bull in a world full of matadors, and we can no longer be a gladiator in a college of actors with no desire for such primitive skirmishes. It will cost us in the future in terms of aid and functionality if we do not learn to be more receptive to global functions. It is for the utility and efficiency of U.S. foreign policy that we must change our way.

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    This is a bit above my pay grade (none / 0) (#1)
    by andgarden on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 08:41:01 PM EST
    You know, you can argue the merits all day long, but come the end, I'm always going to feel that my values are right, and your differing values are wrong.

    Someone repeated a Robert Frost quip to me recently, and I think it applies here: "a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in an argument."

    Theory Discussions (none / 0) (#2)
    by Dalton Hoffine on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 09:13:33 PM EST
    What're you gonna do without 'em, 'eh? :P

    I've always liked that quote, though. It was something I always felt proud of being a liberal--never being so sure of myself that I wasn't listening to the other person. Of course, there's a bit of irony in believing that to the absolute as well.


    I'm a bad liberal (none / 0) (#3)
    by andgarden on Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 09:34:10 PM EST
    because I really don't listen.