Morality of the existence of the UN

Given that the United Nations has been in the news a lot lately I was interested in how people see it in terms of morality. Oh, and if this has been done before, please close the thread and link me, I could not find anything so…

I am not really interested in it relevancy or lack thereof. Personally I find it fairly irrelevant as an organisation, bu that is neither here nor there.

What I am interested in is peoples arguments for its existence in terms of morality. What I mean by this is: since the United Nations accepts nations with what can only be termed hideous regimes as members, without any real qualification (think Cuba, Burma, Iraq…there are too many to list), can it have any moral standing in terms of any pronouncements it makes as a body?

My own thoughts are that it has all the moral force of a rock - none. I fail to see how an organisation that accepts members without reservation can be said to have any moral authority at all. I see that an appeal to the U.N. (is this a fallacy of appeal to authority?) is fairly popular amongst the Left. Is this justifiable, as that appeal often seems to imply ethical grounds for using the U.N?

OKI, I know I have worded this badly, and if anyone wants clarification please ask, and I shall do my best to clarify what I mean.


If nations join the UN and agree to abide by its strictures in a solemn treaty arrangement, how can its pronouncements not have moral authority?

When they disagree with the ones you want them to make, according to the current crop of drumbeaters.

I’ve always thought that the U.N. as imperfect as it is, is much better than the alternative. Consider returning to the secrect alliances of the 1800s

While it may not be an organization which can make compelling pronouncements on the entire range of moral issues it does to some degree represent the entire planet. That is, it represents the few moral positions we can all agree to through our representitives. Certainly this “has all the moral force of a rock”. But it at least provides a forum to discuss how much moral force that rock has.

Now wether or not that amount of moral force is worth the expense is another thread altogether. :slight_smile:

Either you believe in the moral legitimacy of democratic institutions or you do not, Unwritten.

In your OP you suggest that b/c certain member nations don’t meet your moral standards, then perhaps the UN itself doesn’t meet moral standards. Well, that’s sort of the rub in any democratic institution whether national or international. As an American I may question the morality of many of my fellow citizens; I may even question the morality of the majority, or a large political party. But should I then make the leap to concluding that democracy itself is illegitimate? That’s in essence the line of reasoning you’re contemplating.

Let me also point out that there are various checks on the UN as a democratic body. Notice that right now the controversy surrounds the Security Council, not the UN in its entirety. As you probably know the SC has permanent and non-permanent members, with the permanent members holding a veto power that no non-permanent members, and no other UN members can exercise. One might want to argue that the composition of the SC is out-of-date: but in either case it’s hard to see how the UN functions in a straightforward “majority rules” fashion and therefore hard to see why its moral legitimacy should be disqualified because of a few nations that you deem hideous. (A separate question raised by your OP is this one: if we begin to exclude nations on grounds of their hideousness should we also exclude natons for aiding the hideous? Should France and the US be excluded for having helped Iraq’s hideous regime at various times when it suited their purposes to do so?)

Finally what do you propose as a more moral alternative to the UN? Would straightforward domination by the strongest be superior? Since you think the UN is irrelevant, I don’t come away with the sense that you feel that it currently dominates the world. Do you think the world would somehow be a better place if the UN didn’t exist?

OK, but, putting aside for a moment whether or not you necessarily agree with what those strictures might be, is it not the case that many of those members flout them anyway, solemn treaty be damned? Those nations who practice torture come to mind…
Given that open flouting (and incredibly some of them end up on the UN Human Rights council) does that not weaken the moral authority of the UN as a body?

Frankly I would pull out of/disband the UN, but that belongs elsewhere - not this thread

I don’t see the clear and necessary connection between the proclamations of the UN and the behavior of some of its members. Please elaborate this for me. Does the fact criminals exist and at one time presumably voted for their representatives make the legislature any less morally binding?

Not at all, but we tend not to let them vote while they are continuing their criminal activites (we punish them as a rule).

Aye, there’s the rub. IF you hold that democracy (in whatever form) is a fundamental attribute of a legitimate government, then supporting the UN is problematic as the institution is clearly NOT democratic. There is no requirement that its member states be democracies (and a very large percentage of them are not), and the very institutional structure of the UN is non-democratic at its core.

Ah, but the UN is NOT democratic, as your examples below clearly prove.

Yes, let’s take a look at the Security Council. The nations that sit on the Security Council are not all elected to the position by the General Assembly or randomly chosen from among its members. No, 5 of them are permanent members, with a veto that the other (non-permanent) members completly lack. How is it democratic for only 5 of the Security Council membrs to be permanent? Or to have a veto power that the other members lack?

And let’s take a closer look at those 5 members - are they all democracies? The US is, and so are Britian and France. Russia is struggling to develop a functioning government, but is arguably democratic; however, the Soviet Union (from which Russia inherited the Security Council seat) clearly was not. China is also not a democracy.

Clearly , the permanent members of the Security Council did NOT get their positions (or their veto power) because they were exemplars of democratic principles. In fact, they got their position and veto powers as a recognition that those nations (in the post WW II) era, wielded so much power that their cooperation was essential to get the fledgling UN off the ground - the veto power was a frank concession to the Great Powers of the time.

In the UN, some nations ARE more equal than others. This is hardly a principle that accords with democratic governance.

Perhaps because it’s hard to trust a governing organization (which seems to be what many of the UN’s supporters want it to be) that gives illegitimate governments authority equal to that of legitimate ones.

Would YOU trust your local authorities (the cops, the town mayor) if it turned out that many of them had open ties with the Mob, or the KKK, or if they were openly contemptuous of the rule of law and of democratic principles? Would you have a problem being tried by a jury composed of felons, under the authority of a judge who might be accepting payoffs from the prosecuting attorney?

That’s the problem with using the UN in its current form as some sort of world government - as long as non-democratic nations hold positions of power within it, the fox is guarding the henhouse. The UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be beautiful documents, but they are utterly meaningless if not enforced - and non-democratic nations don’t ever WANT to see them enforced, as doing so would destroy their current governments. (Remember, the governments of non-democratic nations are primarily concerned with what is in the REGIME’S best interest, not necessarily with what is in their people’s best interest.)

Oddly enough, it might be in some ways - people would clearly see in that case that international relationships is just based on naked power politics (which, in truth, it is), and wouldn’t hold expectations that the current UN cannot possibly meet.

Artemis thanks for expressing my train of thought in terms far more clear than I was able. That last comment is particularly interesting and has given me food for thought. Again, thanks.

The analogy there is flawed. A better analogy would be the behavior of US states as compared to the US as a whole. Cuba is not a person. Iraq is not a person. Allowing a nation into the UN grants it validity, and such validity should not be granted to nations which have no respect for basic human rights.

Generally speaking, I would say the moral authority of the UN is limited by the motivations of its member states. For example, many make the argument that to wage war on Iraq would be immoral, because the UN disagrees, and the UN has a degree of moral authority. But what about when you consider that the objections of the strongest anti-war members - France and Russia - have nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with personal gain? How does that make the opinion of the UN any more morally founded than that of the US?

Or how about the fact that Israel is criticized for human rights abuses, while Cuba gets a free ride? The US is kicked off the Human Rights Commission, while Libya takes the chair? The machinations of the UN have everything to do with politics, and little to do with morality in any meaningful sense.

The UN is - at best - a morally neutral construct that represents a series of compromises between nations of varying degrees of “goodness”. It can perform acts that are good, and it can perform acts that are evil, but pretending that the UN represents some global force of benevolence is naive in the extreme.

Damn. Artemis said everything I said, and more eloquently, as well. Good job!


artemis, I have to write this in haste so I hope it will live up to the complex issues you’ve introduced.

No, the UN is not a pure (representative, international) democracy. Yet one could easily argue that in falling short of purity it emulates most (so-called) democracies in the modern world. All representative democracies are a compromise of sorts; and in the US institutions such as the Supreme Court, and the electoral college, and the overall distribution of power among different branches represent constitutional checks and balances that were deliberately put in place by the framers to counteract what were then seen (and to a large degree still are seen) as the pitfalls of representative democracies.

But, yes, to be sure, the UN is much less of a pure democracy than the US government is. Undoubtedly the structure of the UN was what was required to get all major players at that time to consent to it. (I would, by the way, argue for a restructuring of the Security Council but the details would be a hijack).

Whereas Unwritten seems to be concerned about member nations such as Burma, you seem to be concerned about SC nations such as China. Both of your would justify such exclusions on grounds of moral illegitimacy.

This is a complicated issue but bear in mind that the goal of the UN is utilitarian (to promote peace) and not merely idealistic (to do so by the most fair, just, cooperative means). It makes no more sense to exclude China from a body designed to help reach peaceful solutions on international conflicts than it would have made to exclude the former Soviet Union from its original structure. What would be the purpose of trying to negotiate peace only with those countries with whom we are very unlikely ever to contemplate war?

Let’s also not pretend that Western countries such as the US don’t already legitimate all kinds of non-liberal non-democratic countries. The US has been very keen to trade with China. How can we possibly say that it’s “moral” to trade with China but “immoral” to give that country a role in negotiating peace.

(On a more philosophical note, how can we exclude countries with whom we with disagree in the name of democracy?)

" Oddly enough, [straightforward domination by the strongest] might be in some ways - people would clearly see in that case that international relationships is just based on naked power politics (which, in truth, it is), and wouldn’t hold expectations that the current UN cannot possibly meet."

I don’t happen to agree that international relationships are based “just” on “naked power politics”–at least not in the narrow sense of the phrase that you seem to mean. More important, we both agree that the UN is not purely democratic, but structured in such a way as to express power differentials. Outdatedness aside, its structure is meant to balance democratic principles with asymmetries of power.

Most important, let’s not rush to assume that UN isn’t meeting at least some expectations. At the moment, it’s meeting my expectations just fine in the sense that the world seems to be agreed that the one remaining superpower–the US–ought to adhere to its UN commitments before making war. Without the UN it would be very hard for the world–from the relatively powerful in Europe, to the relatively powerless in, say, Africa–it express itself as effectively. The UN has thus curbed what was most arrogant and dangerous in the hawkish Bush administration policy: a policy, I might add, that is not fully supported by the majority of the US people (Bush’s hamfisted remarks on the recent protests show that democratic principles are hardly foremost on his mind).

You seem to want it both ways: to damn the UN for not being idealistic and democratic enough; but also to damn it for not measuring up to the “reality” (as you see it) of naked power politics.

Yes, the UN is full of contradictions, and we could talk meaningfully about how to improve it. But nothing in your analysis, which is itself partly characterized by those same contradictions, provides evidence for the theory that the world would be better off without the UN.

The UN is a fundamentally flawed idea. It works remarkably well, given that.

It is essentially based on the idea that the best way to run the world is through National Sovereignty, the Nation State, and National Self Determination. The UN is essentially, because of this, toothless. Look at Zimbabwe, what can we do there? Look at Iraq, what can we do there?

If, say, the Governor of Texas, or the Representative of Chisholm, broke the law, abused the trust of the people under his care, and generally disregarded the basic human rights we’ve decided are pretty much the way we think things should be, we would 1) arrest the individual(s) concerned, 2) jail the individual(s) concerned. The rest of the USA would not invade Texas because the Texan Governor mistreated Texans, even if the Texan Governor was as shitty as Saddam. Of course, the Texan Governor could never get to be as shitty as Saddam, because he’s be out on his ear far before then.

The strange, ironic thing is that we seem to think that the only way to deal with disputes between nations is via the same methods that we tried for, oh, about forever, within the constructions we now call Nation States, before we invented the Nation State to deal with the problem of everyone beating the shit out of each other.

The moment people realise that Sovereignty is derived from the people, not the land, nor the government’s existence, and sets the UN (or a new supra-national body) up to reflect that, we’ll have very nearly started to make sense. As it is, the UN succeeds admirably in not making quite as many mistakes as it could.

Don’t hold your breath. A lot of the folks who voted Dubya for president loathe the UN for what they perceive to be infringements on national sovereignty. They won’t be eager to give up that sovereignty to an overriding authority – especially if, say, the French now have a vote, too.

However, now we have Dubya deriding the UN as an “ineffectual debating society.” Is he arguing, in effect, that the UN should be given authority over sovereign nations?

Presumably so; just not his.

Ironic that those who believes in ‘States Rights’ seek to overturn the government of another nation-state.