What is a Philosopher to Do?: Thoughts on the Realities of Human Rights, Conflict, and Justice

I was invited to attend a small workshop called “Human Rights—In and After Conflict”,  sponsored by The Oxford Program on Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, Merton College, Oxford. The workshop took place late March, and months later, I am still processing what I learned.


Through a generous travel grant from the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy, I was able to attend the workshop, with roughly twenty participants ranging from undergraduates in a special intensive course on humanitarian work, to graduate students working in peace and conflict resolution studies, to philosophy professors and graduate students. As a philosopher, I have never been to a workshop like this one. The best philosophy conferences aspire to be intellectually stimulating, but this workshop was compelling on a different level. While sophisticated academic work was never sacrificed, the realities of our subject matter—Armed Conflict—were never merely intellectualized. The workshop was lead by Hugo Slim, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Program on Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, who has worked with international humanitarian aid agencies in addition to extensively researching the realities of civilian deaths during war. In addition to a keynote talk by Dr. Henry Shue, the foremost philosopher on human rights, presentations were given by an international law expert on human rights and humanitarian law, a top Oxfam humanitarian aid coordinator, and a member of the Conciliation Resources, an organization that helps facilitate peace negotiations in conflict zones. 

            All of us prepared for the conference by reading materials ranging from humanitarian organizations’ protocols to Hugo Slim’s book Killing Civilians, which outlines in great detail the ways that war and armed conflict disrupt entire social orders, often blurring the line between combatant and civilian. As a political theorist, I don’t normally work with many facts in my research, but these facts are exactly the sorts of things that I think philosophers must consider when they are working through principles of justice or moral guidelines for disaster. The clean distinctions made at the theoretical level are inevitably blurry, obscure, or even dissolved at the practical level, and realizing this should force us to theorize differently.

I want to recount a few stories that show just how messy the practice of human rights and humanitarian intervention can be. The tidy theories and exceptionless duties that I love so much simply cannot account for the real situations that most need justice.

            One woman from Oxfam described her attempt to get a warlord in rural area that she did not want to identify to stop one of his soldiers from raping local women. She went to this man, the de facto political authority of the area, with some of the local people and implored him for hours. Finally, he agreed that something should be done. As the group was leaving, he formed a gun with his hand and pointed it at his own head, pulling an imaginary trigger. The Oxfam worker and the local group hurried out, and she was left to wonder if she had just convinced this commander to summarily execute one of his men. These kinds of unpredictable events make the realities of humanitarian aid so much messier than our theories can account for.

            Another story that repeatedly came up throughout the conference was the problems of reintegrating social groups after an armed conflict has happened. In many of the African disputes, the men who have become armed combatants with various non-state armed groups have nowhere to return to once the peace treaty has been signed because they themselves may have terrorized the villages they are from. Unlike the easy mobility we have in the global north, there is little chance of just settling in a new village—one’s home and life are tied to the village, the family, the area one grew up in. Thus, many projects in Darfur and other war torn regions of Africa have centered on reintegrating former soldiers back into the villages they terrorized. One story in particular stood out. When one man had joined a non-state armed group, he had raped and killed the daughter of an older woman and killed the older woman’s son in front of her. When the conflict was over, the man needed to return to the village, but how could he face the victims he had harmed? How could this woman live so close to the man who raped and killed her children? With some work, through village-wide reconciliation ceremonies, she forgave him. But, when these kind of reconciliation stories do not happen, often roving bands of the former non-state armed group have nowhere to settle. Almost inevitably they are hired to fight in conflicts elsewhere because they have no where to go and no way to make a living a part from being a soldier.

These stories are compelling, and the raw humanity of the double binds that people in these conflicts are presented with is far beyond what political philosophers seem to consider. I was left wondering if I can incorporate these realities into my own work. What exactly is the role of a philosopher who cares deeply about justice? It cannot be to just become a sociologist or humanitarian worker. I am not trained to carry out studies or interpret them, nor am I the best person to go to that village to ask that woman if she will meet the murderer and rapist of her children. Political philosophers need to be taking the realities of war (and economic policy, and energy policy, etc) into account, but it is not easy to know how to do so.

            I had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Henry Shue about this question after his keynote presentation. Dr. Shue wrote one of the first books in philosophy on human rights and global justice, Basic Rights, and he has been working on war, torture, and climate change as elements of global justice for years. He gave a keynote presentation on how US energy policy violates the rights of the global poor. It was impressive not only because it gave a sophisticated but elegant argument for how the actions of one government can violate the human rights of citizens of other nations, but also because he showed a huge command of the scientific research and proposed policy solutions around carbon emissions. I asked him how he has managed to work between traditional philosophy and real political issues, which are often much more concrete than the blunt abstract tools that philosophy provides. He talked about being at institutions like the Oxford Program on Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, which he co-founded. Collaboration between philosophers, who do have important skills and tools for normative evaluation, and others who work in sociology, science, economics, political science, and law is the key to proposing real solutions for the concrete problems of war and conflict.

            This workshop was perfect for my work for this reason—the real problems surrounding conflict were presented to me. The people I met at the workshop in addition to the facts I learned will force me to think through my own work differently. But more than interdisciplanarity is needed. One needs to build theories with an eye toward their application.  I recently spoke with Thomas Pogge, another philosopher of human rights who has worked with Dr. Shue, about this. He said that he once asked renowned political philosopher John Rawls if his first principle of justice was fulfilled in the US. Rawls replied that he had no idea. He had never thought of that. Pogge argued that if you are talking about justice and propose a principle, you should be able to give an example of what fulfilling that principle actually looks like.

            This workshop forced me to evaluate my research from the perspective of those who work at trying to make the world a more just place. I hope to carry that perspective with me in all my work, but I also understand that I enjoy a luxury as a philosopher that practitioners of human rights and humanitarian law don’t: the time to work through complicated problems and the ability to abstract from particular situations to draw broader conclusions. I also have different critical and normative tools than those who work in the social science, so our collaborations are essential. As Shue demonstrated, philosophers can deal with complex empirical data without losing the force of critical normative argumentation. I hope my work can reflect some of this complexity of the world without loosing the value of moral theory.

About Amelia M. Wirts, Esq.

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers or They/Their/Theirs I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Washington, Seattle, and I work on philosophy of law, social/political philosophy, and feminism. My current research project argues that the criminal justice system in the United States oppresses people through policing, courts and punishments, and collateral consequences of convictions and arrests. Because this system is an oppressive one, I argue that those engaged in anti-rape and anti-domestic violence activism should not avail themselves of the criminal justice system to achieve their goals. Looking for other ways of fighting rape and domestic violence will actually serve victims and their communities better. In addition to obtaining my Ph.D. from Boston College in 2020, I also graduated from Boston College Law School in 2017 as a part of a dual degree program in philosophy and law at Boston College. I was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in January 2018.
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