Are we linguistically left-handed?: In search of responsible, ethical subjects.

Author:Warner, Daniel
Position:Reprint
 
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Abstract

The concept of responsibility provides an appropriate entry point for a socially based ethics of international relations. It places the parameters for such an ethics within the dynamics of interaction for both the activities being judged as well as the determination of the criteria for judgment. Legal methodology provides an invaluable tool for understanding responsibility, especially in international law. Rather than beginning from an abstract principle or a predetermined agent, responsibility determination in international law begins from an observed fact and then tries to impute responsibility for that fact to someone or something. In this sense, as shown by recent Security Council Resolutions, the subject is contextualized and linked to a specific situation.

Keywords

responsibility, subjectivity, UN Security Council, legal methodology, humanitarian intervention

In recent conversations at work, I have come to refer more and more to Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. By that, I mean to begin from the future to the present chronologically: "Let's begin from when everything is due, and then work our way backwards to today to set up a timetable." I notice that this is quite disconcerting to colleagues who would prefer to begin with, "What do we do now?"

Is there a fundamental difference in thinking between beginning from the left or right, even metaphorically? I raise this question because most Western languages are written and read from left-to-right and there are, I believe, important implications of this which touch on elements of responsibility and subjectivity. (1)

One of the most intriguing implications of the differences between left-to-right and right-to-left reading and writing involves the legal, moral, and diplomatic problem of causation and responsibility. (2) The concept of responsibility provides a most appropriate entry point for a socially based ethics of international relations as well as giving important insights into diplomacy and international law. It places the parameters within the dynamics of interaction for both the activities being judged as well as the determination of the criteria for judgment. To be responsible for something and to someone are contextual, situational, ethical judgments. Moreover, legal methodology provides an invaluable tool for understanding responsibility, especially in international law. Rather than beginning from an abstract principle or a predetermined agent, responsibility determination in international law begins from an observed fact and then tries to impute responsibility for that fact to someone or something.

For example, and to begin with domestic law, A walks through the woods and throws a lighted cigarette on a pile of dry leaves. A fire ensues. One could quickly say; "He did it," implying the direct causation between the action of someone throwing the cigarette and the fire. Or, one could say: "There was a fire. In order to impute responsibility for the fire, we will have to determine that a pile of dead leaves burning caused the fire and that A threw his lighted cigarette on a pile of dry leaves. The fire stayed lit. A breeze then blew the fire from the pile throughout the forest. We can hold A9 then, to some extent responsible for the fire." (3)

Even in this simple example, we can see that although we wind up by saying that "He did it," the process of reaching that conclusion involves several steps beginning from the fire and working backwards in the reasoning. We have an active agent, A, and an objective fact, the fire. Our Western thinking, since we usually begin our sentences with subject and then move to verb and object, would be to simply say: "A started the fire." Would there be a difference if we said, "A was liable or responsible for the fire?" I think there is, and I think it is an important distinction. A similar example comes when people say "Americans drive too many cars," or say "There is a green-house problem and the United States uses up a large percentage of the world's carbon products by driving many cars which reduces the ozone layer."

My analysis of the metaphorical differences between left- and right-handed in terms of responsible subjectivity will be in five parts. First, I will introduce several general differences between going from left-to-right and right-to-left. This will enable me to focus on two different types of subjects that are signified in the different directional readings. I will then introduce two recent examples of Resolutions by the United Nations Security Council to show how in practice the Council used right-to-left reasoning to justify its legitimization of intervention and its implications for international relations and diplomacy. Beyond the subject, special attention will be given in the next section to different readings for free will and passivity. We will discuss Peter Strawson's classic essay on "Freedom and Resentment" and refer to Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas in their analyses of the relation of the individual to the Other before concluding with some general observations on subjects, responsibility, and ethical judgments.

Distinctions between Left- and Right-Handed

The first distinction is that for Westerners to begin with a clearly defined subject, we must eliminate the possibility that there is no obvious subject in a given situation and that if there is a subject the subject could be not human. A decision of a court in New Zealand, for example, once attributed responsibility for a plane crash to the organigram of a company, not to any individual; no individual person was held responsible for the crash, even for the design of the corporate structure. This is also the case in responsibility for companies or governments. Corporate responsibility as well as international responsibility raises the problem of separating individuals from structures. (4)

Moreover, we prefer to understand individuals as active agents and often use the domestic analogy--as the individual is to the nation-state so the nation-state is to the international community--to project individual attributes to collectives as well as corporations (5) --the United States is declining, for example. Is it possible to consider that the government of the United States or the country of the United States is in decline? Unfortunately, it seems, we are linguistically challenged to find other ways to talk about organizations such as corporations (6) or institutions. The domestic analogy allows us to overcome this problem with all the fallacies of attributing human characteristics to nonhuman entities as well as individual characteristics to groups.

The two problems referred to here, the problem of how to speak of the collective responsibility of groups and the problem of speaking of responsibility of nonhuman subjects, are both intertwined in the use of the domestic analogy. Both of these problems derive from the type of subject identified in the domestic analogy. In international relations terms, the solution is often the use of the misnomer nation-state, where the first considers a homogeneous group and the second a corporate identity. Rarely in history have the two been the same. (7) We often equate the two, but there is a vast difference between them. The use of the domestic analogy hides several problems within the traditional black boxed state I am trying to unpack through an examination of subjectivity through responsibility. Through the domestic analogy and sovereignty, the modem subject becomes the modem state, with all its particularities and inherent contradictions. (8)

A good, recent example of the structural or nonhuman dilemma of collective responsibility and subjectivity is the case of the cyclone in Myanmar in 2008. An enormous cyclone destroyed large parts of the country, leaving tens of thousands dead and almost as many missing. The government of Myanmar, the primary source of responsibility for its citizens, restricted deliveries of food supplies from outside countries and international agencies. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, among others, called upon the government to accept international aid as the international community cried out for "someone to do something."

The issue in Myanmar's reaction to the May 3 cyclone is not who is responsible for the cyclone, although discussions about preventive housing measures and proper weather forecasting might be relevant, the real question involves who is responsible for getting assistance to the victims, for doing something. The first answer, obviously, is that the government of Myanmar is responsible for those residing on its territory, citizens, and others. But, what happens when a government is unwilling or unable to take care of its citizens? Clearly frustrated by the negative reactions of the military junta ruling Myanmar, Ban Ki-moon said, "This is not about politics, it is about saving people's lives. There is absolutely no time to lose." (9)

The problem of "saving people's lives" or state responsibility when a government is unable or unwilling to assist was touched upon in a report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) (10) established by the government of Canada and major foundations in September 2000. The Report shifts the focus of debate on human security from sovereignty-intervention to responsibility to protect individuals, in effect piercing the veil of state impunity when dealing with its citizens or those living on its territory. If a state fails to protect its citizens or those on its territory, the Report argues that the international community, in some form, has the responsibility to protect people of whatever citizenship under certain conditions. The Report further argues for responsibility to provide full assistance with recovery, reconstruction, and reconciliation in situations of disaster. (11) In other words, instead of beginning by looking at the state structure as the major...

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