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What Is Affirmative Action? An Analysis Of The Temporary Arrangement Argument For Affirmative Action

The Ambiguity of Affirmative Action: Analysis of the Temporary Arrangement Argument

The policy of affirmative action has been suggested as a temporary arrangement, this article will attempt to discern on what basis and why such policies should be ended? First, this article will PROVIDE A brief overview of the policies of Affirmative Action. Second, it will explore the pejorative critiques. Third, it will outline five reasons inherent to the policy that make it ambiguous, arguing that this ambiguity results in self-perpetuation. Therefore, this article will assert that the concept of temporal arrangement is merely a way to placate pejorative critiques of the policy. Finally, this temporal ambiguity is necessary to continue affirmative action – in the liberal democratic context and elsewhere – which, while still problematic, should be adjusted to strategically target the disadvantaged beyond identity-markers given its positive outcomes on societal diversity and integration.

There is no universal definition of affirmative action[1], positive action[2] or positive discrimination[3], however the UN suggests that “Affirmative action is a coherent packet of measures, of a temporary character, aimed specifically at correcting the position of members of a target group in one or more aspects of their social life, in order to obtain effective equality.”[4] There are competing interpretations from the ECHR, ILO, ICCPR but for the purposes of this article, affirmative action can be generally defined as a liberal democratic approach to enhancing a disadvantaged groups’ equality of opportunity within the grasp of the state. At a practical level this policy has two direct outcomes; one can mean that when two equally qualified individuals apply for a position such as higher education[5] the individual belonging to a disadvantaged group is awarded the position; more controversially, it also can prohibit members of a non-designated group from applying for opportunities while less qualified members of a designated group with lower individual merit are awarded the position.  

The justifications for implementing an affirmative action policy are compelling. It is compensation against intentional or accidental discrimination and past grievances – such as slavery – perpetrated by the dominant ethnie[6] and/or gender. It is seen as a necessary enhancement of diversity in the public and private sector of a society against the perpetuation of wealth and segregated social networking.[7] It can facilitate symbolic achievement of a minority group individual thus improving their collective standing in the perceptions of the dominant ethnie. It seeks to move to a society of equality of opportunity meaning taking into account the substantive[8] legal disadvantages or differences that formal legal equality does not. It is not just combating discrimination based on inalienable ethnicity or gender but combating legal interpretations of equality that advantage the dominant ethnie  (white) and gender (male). Formal equality would allow Sandra Lovelace to be treated equally in relation to other Indian women but not equally to a male Indian under the provisions of the Canada’s Indian Act[9] which restricts the definition of Aboriginal membership by gender. Substantive equality and affirmative action are congruent legal concepts.

The pejorative critique of affirmative action almost overwhelms the justifications. While race and economic class converge at the bottom, the policy is inexact; it often advantages the socio-economically advantaged while under privileging the less skilled in a discriminated group while simultaneously disadvantaging the poor in the dominant ethnie who then mobilize through democratic means. Their consternation is about fairness and the individual versus group conceptions of equality. Should affluent African American children be beneficiaries of the policy? In addition, affirmative action fights racism by categorizing people using ethnicity: the very object of discrimination. Who decides who you are? Another common complaint is that weaker admitted candidates may do poorly through such programs and have a psychological backlash as demonstrated by the Madeline Heilman Study.[10] In addition, the most damaging critique is – according a prominent beneficiary of affirmative action; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas – these policies perpetuate inequality, disrespect and that the normative goal of the US “constitution [to be] color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerated classes of citizenship.”[11]

Ambiguity of Affirmative Action

This article accepts the positive outcomes of affirmative action policy as outweighing the pejorative critiques with some adjustments, and will now focus specifically on the question of affirmative action as a  temporary arrangement, arguing that a) ambiguity results in perpetuation of the policy and b) that a completion date for these policies is merely a way to placate pejorative critiques of the policy.

The Morawa article highlights the details of affirmative action as a temporary arrangement, first introduced in November of 1963. Quoting the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, affirmative action should protect disadvantaged groups “…however…such measures do not, as a consequence, lead to the maintenance of separate rights for different racial groups and that they shall not be continued after the objectives for which they were taken have been achieved.”[12] If this were true then why is there no proposed concrete mechanism or rubric specifying measurable completion and dismantling? The reality of most affirmative action policies is quite divergent from this assumption of temporary arrangement. The spectrum of continued affirmative action moves from immediate nullification to the disingenuous temporary status to permanence. Affirmative action has been given an end point but only forcibly through the will of the majority as was the case of Proposition 209 in California and Michigan Proposal 2006-2[13] and judicial adjustments to some policies. Never have affirmative action policies been dismantled on the basis of complete success in their objectives: the reasons are numerous but all fall under the idea of temporal ambiguity.

There are at least five reasons why affirmative action has an ambiguous end point that cannot be specified. Below are five specific ways in which affirmative action policies remain ambiguous on the matter of termination:

First, the most logically deduced answer to when affirmative action should cease is at the point where the number of employment or academic positions are proportionate to the groups percentage of the population. That is, the disadvantaged group demographic size mirrors and has reached equilibrium with the demographic representation within the public and private spheres of society. There are several problems here but most obvious is that once the policy has reached this watermark and is therefore effectively terminated, the subsequent absence of this policy would lead to decline in proportionality since establishing this proportionality required the express support of the state.[14] Therefore, affirmative action is a self-perpetuating policy that cannot be suddenly ended because it is an artificial imposition that cannot continue to work without the state. Some kind of gradual approach might remedy this first issue but there are other reasons for ambiguity.

The second problem is that, according to Morawa, affirmative action should be curbed based on whether the objective equality has been met. Objective equality is when  “no reasonable and objective criteria exist that would justify a differentiation in treatment.”[15] This then leads to questions of what it means to be objective and whether the equality is reasonable. Interpretation of these two words can have affirmative action nullified tomorrow or never depending on the political leanings of the policy-markers.

The third problem is that affirmative action is anticipated to produce side-effects requiring further policy measures to deal with new forms of discrimination created in the wake of the initial policy. Morawa argues that “…Even action taken with the legitimate intent to remedy existing inequality adversely affecting one particular group may have an ‘unjustifiable disparate impact’ upon, or ‘disproportionately affect’ the rights of another distinguishable group.”[16] If there is continued anticipation of new distinguishable groups then the policies are effectively permanent only changing the identities of the beneficiaries.

The fourth problem would be that, according to the variety of cross-sectional cases highlighted by Modood, simply knowing when equality has been achieved is difficult to empirical quantify. Not all companies in the private and even the public sphere record detailed recruitment statistic to verify if the policy actually works. The constantly changing demographics of new immigrants also makes empirical measurements of any kind dubious at best. Therefore, ascertaining whether the policy is improving the situation of disadvantaged groups and the exact extent of that improvement is not being empirical measured. It was not until the Clinton’s 1995 Affirmative Action Review, that there were calls for “continual process to review the effectiveness and fairness of affirmative action programmes.”[17] In light of this, if there is no rigorous assessment there will be no means of ascertain its end point.

The fifth problem that has led to ambiguity is that politicians and legal scholars have entrenched affirmative action policies into their constitutions. This is particularly apparent in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which gives provisions for Affirmative Action under Section 15 subsection 2.[18] The idea of a permanence in the policy conflicts with the goal of the policy as a longterm means to eventually do away to eventually eliminate prejudice. It suggests that since there will always be differences, there must always be discrimination and anti-discrimination. Implicit in the policy is that there is no end but continued permanence to an unspecified point. This article suggests this high degree of ambiguity regarding such policies serves to perpetuate them: it is a structural reality with no particular agency other than the original policy creators.

The question is why is it not clear when the policy should (if ever) be nullified: immediately, in 25 years or never? As is argued above, there is no limit for the foreseeable future unless it is forcibly nullified. Justice Sandra O’Connor’s claim, during the 2003 Grutter v Bollinger case, that the “[US Supreme] Court expects that twenty fiver years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today”[19] is so plainly arbitrary that it borders on rhetorical obfuscation. That is why, this article has argued that temporary arrangement claims are primarily a means of placating those who are not completely convinced of the virtues of affirmative action with the idea that it will not exist forever.  A completion date for these policies is merely a means for liberals to argue for its continued support since their belief in the sacred value of individual rights is contradicted by support for disadvantaged rights. Unless these policies are forcibly removed – which is not desirable – the effect of continuing the myth of a temporary status placates critiques of the policy since it is purposively not permanent while effectively entrenching an unspecified permanence to such policies.

The ambiguity of affirmative action ultimately does not resolve the complaints, shortcomings and the contravention of individual merits rights. The negative side-effects almost derail the positive outcomes as was outlined above but a temporary arrangement is not going to resolve the underline pejorative critiques. There are many previous groups who have risen from collective poverty in America to be successful integration without affirmative action, particularly the Irish case.[20] Meanwhile, there are visible minorities who continue to struggle with policies that entrench their legal differentiation from society. The numerous treaties signed between the Crown and Aboriginal peoples in Canada is a permanent form of affirmative action which has limited or mixed results far to complicated to be addressed within this short article.

In conclusion, this article will briefly focus on what is to done about the ambiguity of affirmative action policies. Affirmative action needs to change who it targets not be nullified. If there is continued anticipation of new distinguishable groups then the policies are effectively permanent only changing the identities of the beneficiaries.  Having said that, affirmative action has no limit as a permanent policy that contravenes individual merit with the goal of raising groups out of social inequality. There will always be somebody at the bottom and affirmative action will always have a role to play if the polity’s majority is willing to accept it. The policy of affirmative action has been suggested as a temporary arrangement, this article attempted to discern on what basis should such policies be ended by examining the policy of affirmative action with particular emphasis on the pejorative critiques which a temporary arrangement partly offsets but does not resolve. It outlined five reasons inherent to the policy that make it ambiguous and effectively permanent. Concluding that given this ambiguity of affirmative action policies, it should remain as long as the majority groups has tacitly accepted it and recognize that it is a permanent fixture that continues into future generations.

Work Cited

  • A. H. E. Morawa, “The Concept of Non-Discrimination: An Introductory Comment”, Journal of Ethnic and Minority Issues in Europe, 3, 2002
  • California Proposition 209: accessed 18.03.09: http://vote96.sos.ca.gov/BP/209text.html
  • Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom: accessed 18.03.09: http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/
  • E. Kaufmann, ‘National Formation, Ethnic Reformation: the Social Sources of the American Nation’, Geopolitics, 7 (2), 98-120.
  • Grutter v Bollinger 2003: accessed 18.03.09 http://www.enfacto.com/case/U.S./539/306/
  • Heilman, ME (2004). “Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks”. Journal of applied psychology (0021-9010), 89 (3), p. 416.
  • McGoldrick, Dominic. Canadian Indians, Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Committee. The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Jul., 1991), pp. 658-669.
  • Professor Jackson-Preece: “Irish Rise in America.” EU458: Seminar 15.03.09
  • T. Modood et. al, Developing Positive Action Policies: Learning from the Experiences of Europe and North America, 2006
  • United Nations, Concept and Practice of Affirmative Action, 2002
  • [1] Predominant term used in New World high immigrant countries such as Canada, the US and Australia
  • [2] Predominant term used in the EU and the United Kingdom in order to circumvent the pejorative connotations associated with the backlash against affirmative action in the new world context.
  • [3] Predominant term used to emphasize that negative discrimination against disadvantage groups is ubiquitous or alternatively to emphasize the policy is ‘unjust’ towards the dominant ethnie.
  • [4] United Nations, Concept and Practice of Affirmative Action, 2002
  • [5] An essential means of furthering equality of opportunity.
  • [6] Coined by Anthony Smith by used in the Introduction of Kaufmann: E. Kaufmann, ‘National Formation, Ethnic Reformation: the Social Sources of the American Nation’, Geopolitics, 7 (2), 98-120.
  • [7] As in low levels of integration because of limited opportunities to interethnic interaction within the society.
  • [8] Substantive equality: taking into account disadvantages.
  • [9] McGoldrick, Dominic. Canadian Indians, Cultural Rights and the Human Rights Committee. The International and Comparative Law Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Jul., 1991), pp. 667.
  • [10] Heilman, ME (2004). “Penalties for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male gender-typed tasks”. Journal of applied psychology (0021-9010), 89 (3), p. 416.
  • [11] Grutter v Bollinger 2003: accessed 18.03.09: http://www.enfacto.com/case/U.S./539/306/
  • [12] General Assembly Resolution 2106 (XX) of 21 December 1965, Article 1 ( 4). A. H. E. Morawa, “The Concept of Non-Discrimination: An Introductory Comment”, Journal of Ethnic and Minority Issues in Europe, 3, 2002, p. 9.
  • [13] Text of California Proposition 2009: http://vote96.sos.ca.gov/BP/209text.htm
  • [14] In addition, the point at which disadvantaged groups are over represented would lead to a backlash.
  • [15] Morowa, p. 11.
  • [16] Ibid, p. 10.
  • [17] Modood, p. 77.
  • [18] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom: accessed 18.03.09: http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/charter/
  • [19] Grutter v Bollinger 2003: accessed 18.03.09: http://www.enfacto.com/case/U.S./539/306/
  • [20] Professor Jackson-Preece: “Irish Rise in America.” EU458: Seminar 15.03.09

Impossibility of Equality: An Analysis of the Idea of Equality and What Degrees and Elements Can Be Achieved

Equality is a theory best expressed by the enlightenment thinkers but as a theory, it fails to be realized effectively in practical form. In this article, the concept of equality is channelled to explore Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, Bernard Williams’ The Idea of Equality, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed. The evidence will suggest that the concept of equality should not be the attempt to combat and equalize human uniqueness nor should inequality in economic, political and social spheres be supported. The theory that all humans are equal is flawed in practice since people are unique and unavoidably unequal in terms of social, cognitive, economic and political terms. Conversely, individuals should be treated equally regardless, as much as practically possible, in areas of respect, rights, and opportunities, in order to achieve maximum social mobility and thus create a meritocratic society.

One of the basic concepts (re)developed in the 18th Century is the idea of equality. Its basic idea, summed up in The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, was that “all men are created equal” (Perspectives, 381) in the eyes of God. However, in truth, theory fails to effectively be transferred into practice. Ironically, in this case, Thomas Jefferson was both a liberal theorist and a slave-owner. In the historical context of the time, he was greatly influenced by both liberalism and the unavoidable greed involved in capitalism. Of course, today slavery has been abolished but inequalities still remain due to capitalism and economic oppression. It is this conflict between capitalism and the basic liberal philosophy of equality that has plagued the modern world to this day and capitalism which attempts to measure value/price/cost, in part, is at the root of inequality.

In reality, “to say that all men are equal…is a patent falsehood” (Williams, 465). The theory of equality of all men, later women and non-whites, is unfortunately simply a theory that has been entrenched in law but misappropriated in practice. In the current world ,equality is elusive and impossible to achieve. Interestingly enough, even if it were fully achieved, however, it would be undesirable.

An excellent example of the theory of equality in practice is shown through Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron. The premise of the story is that a government has coerced all people to be equalized. Basic civil rights are completely abused as the characters of George and Hazel are mentally and physically repressed. By making sharp noises disrupting thought, the “handicap radio…Makes [them] all more equal” (Vonnegut, 6). In the end, their son is killed by the Handicapper General while attempting to break through the mould of mediocre equality.

What Vonnegut’s tale helps illustrate is that the actual implementation of equality, in its purest form, completely fails equal human respect, rights and opportunity. As revealed by the story, the government has forcibly made life completely incapacitating and void of uniqueness. The failure of the theory of equality is apparent, “Nobody [is] smarter. Nobody better looking. Nobody stronger or quicker” (Vonnegut, 6), there is only equally mediocre individuals fulfilling the concept that all humans are equal. This is clearly undesirable and yet it is the embodiment of the theory of equality in practise, where all humans are equalized. If human nature is bound in a theory that does not allow for proper human nature to grow, the theory both fails and is undesirable in practise. On a moral and rational standpoint actual equality is not a desirable theory. What needs to be realized, it is argued, is that full effectiveness of any theory of equality is not desired; instead improvement on society’s current understanding of equality must be made.

In the realistic and practical world, the disturbing reality of economic, social and political oppression is ubiquitous but for the purposes here, the reality can be looked at through Barbara Ehrenreich’s, Nickeled and Dimed. In this case, the theory of equality fails to protect the worker. The poor lower class suffer the difficulties of thank-less and virtually reward-less work, where the cost of living consumes most of their paycheques. Severe economic inequalities where “wages for people near the bottom of the labour market remain fairly flat, even ‘stagnant’” (Ehrenreich, 201) and political inequalities where Ehrenreich’s “purse could be searched by management at any time” (Enrenreich, 208), hinder the equality of an individual in the private job sector or the corporate sphere. Her basic civil rights seem to be obsolete according to the corporate agenda. She states the “Drug testing is another routine indignity…it is degrading to have to perform it at the command of some powerful other” (Ehrenreich, 209). Her social position is subordinate and there is no real respect for the minimum-wage worker. Ehrenreich’s book serves as an example of the inequality of respect, opportunity and rights of people who are judged to be unequal by economic, social, and political measurements. Clearly, there is much improvement on equality needed in society and her problems are best addressed by Williams’ analytical interpretations of the idea of equality.

Since equality has no weight when seen strictly as common humanity, according to Williams, it still exists that people should be equal in other, more practical, ways. Williams’ detailed argument emerges from the idea that humans should be equal in “political principles and aims” (465, Williams). It is argued, for overall happiness and harmony in the world, that different people should be treated equally regardless of finance, political or social arrangements. Naturally, individuals are not equal in their abilities or merit, after all, capitalistic economies, which are entrenched in most modern societies, place certain abilities or merits above others. Economics makes equality difficult because of its value system, which is antagonist to the goals of equality. People should be equal relatively speaking but cannot be perfectly or fully equal because it is undesirable.

In Williams’ essay The Idea of Equality, he attempts to address the problems of inequalities with two theories of respect and opportunity. There is a lack of equality of respect and equality of opportunity in society. It is imperative that better treatment be given for people in regard to equal respect, opportunity and in the sense of equality of rights. Any violation of the equality of rights is of the most appalling abuses of humanity, which must be alleviated. There also needs to a balance or harmony between equality of respect and equality of opportunity, according to Williams, in order to facilitate a better understanding in the public eye of the statement that all humans are equal.

Williams’ argument for equality of opportunity says that in order to have equality, one must exist under the same conditions. It could never be applied in its fullest form, neither would we seek it to be. Obviously, humans are not created equal in the sense that some people become Tennis Pros while others work at Sportsmart for a living. Disparity in opportunity is a natural result of scarcity in demand or supply of that opportunity. What should be expected of society and the government is an attempt to increase opportunity in a very real sense but not to the level of inhuman constructs. Healthcare, for example, should be transparent and equal for all people in society. In education, the same idea applies; education should be distributed amongst the people equally. Humans within the society are competitive by nature and only the government and the affluent can help save the poor.

Williams’ equality of respect concept is an ideal that focuses on treatment. Equality of respect is necessary for individuals in defence of the economic, social arrangement and political abuse as illustrate in Ehrenreich’s novel. Government should make an effort to increase the degree of equality of respect in the social sphere. It is impossible to completely remove disrespect, as people value different people unequally, however, an effort should be made to instil this concept. The government and the affluent should step in and realize that under rule of law, all humans deserve equal treatment. The root of the actual problem is capitalism and human nature, once again. One can easily blame greed and materialism for the problems Ehrenheich faces in Nickeled and Dimed. However, it should be the government’s responsibility to equalize, to an extent, economic inequalities. It is the duty of the government and the affluent to help the poor in any way possible to combat the ill affects of society. The equality of respect, equality of opportunity and equality of rights should the top priorities of government and the affluent members of society.

Although the theory of equality, in a literal sense, is not desirable, neither is the opposite where inequality affects ones ability to live happily. The statement “all humans are equal” implies the real notions of equal rights, an attempt to have equality of opportunity, and an attitude of equal respect and worth for all people. Following these guidelines, society would alleviate of the strain described in Nickeled and Dimed while avoiding the extremes of total equality in Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, creating a harmony between complex equalities and equally complex people. 

Works Cited

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001, pp. 193-221

Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. Perspectives from the Past. James M. Brophy and Steven Epstein eds.W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2002, pp. 381-384

Williams, Bernard. “The idea of equality,” Contemporary Moral Philosophy: An Anthology, Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit eds. Blackwells, 1997, pp. 465-475

Vonnegut, Kurt. “Harrison Bergeron,” Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Dell, 1968, pp 6-14

Contemporary Analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

The Value of Conventions: An Analysis of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War

By evaluating the theoretical implications of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, this essay will accomplish three objectives. First, it will describe human nature and human convention in the polis and their binary relationships with power and justice, respectively. Second, it will show that without conventions such as justice; human nature and unchecked power drive civilization into anarchy. Finally, the essay will demonstrate that without concertedly applying the convention of justice in the international sphere, civilization will continue to lapse into chaos throughout human history.

Thucydides states that his History is meant to last for all time given that “(human nature being what it is) [history] will, at some time or other in much the same way, be repeated in the future” (Thucydides, 1:22). He therefore believes that human nature is forever cruel and unjust. Explained similarly to the Hobbesian approach, without restraints, human nature will pursue whatever means necessary for self-interest and greed. Coinciding with human nature, power is based on self-interest and the need to control reality at any cost. Power, along with human nature, cannot be properly managed without the presence of a State and they both tend to undermine convention wherever possible. In the conflict with convention, human nature and power are together capable of great achievements when restrained. However, together they are also capable of depraved criminal action when the constructs of society decline into anarchy.

Peloponnesian war

In order to escape such destructive human nature, civilization is engineered with restraints to secure an ordered and thriving polis. This is the case in Athens and other Hellenic states detailed in Thucydides’ work. Within the domestic sphere (polis) of Athens, convention is defined as the collectively shared and agreed upon understandings of how individuals must interact. Examples of conventions are ubiquitous and subsequently shape human nature since even language by definition is a convention. For Pericles, for example, the traditional funeral is sacrosanct to the maintenance of respect and honour in civilized Athens (Thucydides, 2:35). Even while conventions are artificially constructed out of the need for collective-preservation, its principles are of paramount importance for functionality against the constant tension caused by primary human nature and the lust for power.

Invasion of Iraq

The most prominent convention for state safeguarding is justice. It operates in the Athenian polis to ensure stability as Pericles explains, “when it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law” (Thucydides, 2:37) adding that when negotiating the distribution of individual power “what counts is…the actual ability which the [person] possesses” (Thucydides, 2:37). As a convention, law is arrived at by mutual consent of the polis allowing power distribution to be peacefully negotiated within the domestic sphere. The moderation of the natural human desire for power requires the institutionalization of this artificial rule of law that protects individuals from each other. However, human nature can regress into anarchy if the polis undergoes institutional failure. This is demonstrated in the cases of the Athenian Plague and the Civil War in Corcyra.

The devastation of the Athenian Plague was not anticipated as part of the war effort. Under the plague, society entered a state of depolarization creating a vacuum for unregulated power-starved human nature to emerge. The consequence of the plague was that citizens “not knowing what would next happen to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law” (Thucydides, 2:52). Thucydides observes that even the convention of the funeral procedure crumbles when it is found to be more expedient to pile up bodies anonymously (Thucydides, 2:52). In the chaos of the plague, human nature is exposed as self-interested and desirous of public self-indulgence since the restraints that have made civilization possible disintegrate.

In the case of Corcyra, the violent civil war is caused by the hyper-polarization of political actors allowing natural aggression to rein supreme. In the midst of polarization between the ideologies of Athens and Sparta even the convention of language is under siege. Thucydides notes that “to fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meaning” (Thucydides, 3:82) adding for example “any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character” (Thucydides, 3:82). This stasis has changed collectively accepted discourse making lawlessness synonymous with just action.


The Plague of Athens

Athenian Plague and New Orleans
Instead of defending and sternly maintaining the conventions that had built up society, the Corcyrians allow their state to fragment because they failed to value the supremacy of justice over the natural human drive for political control.

In both domestic tragedies, Thucydides seems to assert that there is no moral universe that determines the fate of individuals’ lives. He furthers this argument when Nicias dies during the Sicilian Expedition, despite his posturing as a voice for moderation and prudence (Thucydides, 7:86). However, while there is no moral universe beyond human existence, it is argued that a moral universe should be constructed to stifle the human tendency towards self-interest and ‘inevitably’ self-destruction. What the plague and the civil war demonstrate is that unrestrained human nature destroys civilization if citizens collectively reject the necessity of restraint under the rule of law in the domestic sphere.

In the international sphere, Thucydides’ History deals with the war between Sparta and Athens. It is evident that the plague and the civil war serve as a foil to the Peloponnesian War itself since, similarly, anarchy thrives where there is no adherence to convention. Such is the reality in international relations. The realist theory that the balance of power is supreme is especially consistent with the Athenian perspective by the later stages of the conflict. While Thucydides details the downfall of the hegemon, a solution to repeated human error in history is to use the constructivist argument as this essay has come to suggest. Justice must be transplanted from the domestic sphere to the international and be made sacred above all else. This will ensure prosperity for all competing powers in an international system.

Different poleis have divergent traditions and conventions (such as language and religion), however, all political groups in Thucydides’ History universally accept the primacy of justice as a convention. All competing powers must have an understanding of the moral world where there are justified ends and means to every action. Unfortunately for the Athenians, they ignore morality and justify their empire by arguing it is in their nature to conquer the weak. Corinthians state that Athenians “are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so” (Thucydides 1:70). Throughout the History, the Athenians progressively come to believe that justice has no instrumental value in foreign affairs as they turn instead to a rationalized understanding of sheer power in dealing specifically with the autonomous island of Melos.

In the Melian Dialogue, the Athenians have completely ignored the convention of justice when addressing the expansion of their empire. For the purpose of self-interest, honour and security, the Athenians prescribe to the logic of ‘might is right’. In response to the Melian plea for fair play, the Athenian representative famously states that “the standard of justice depend on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept” (Thucydides, 5:89). While Pericles had once stated that justice must be made among equals, the Athenians have subsequently distorted justice so that, in the measure of power, the Melians should not be treated as equals. The Athenians thus rationally imply that the convention of justice is an ineffectual construct and consequently disregard any argument against their illegal action. It seems hypocritical that the Athenians argue for the ‘safe rule’ that one should “behave with deference towards one’s superiors, and to treat one’s inferiors with moderation” (Thucydides, 5:111) given their subsequent action. Their legitimacy, then, is undermined by power and human nature and their failure as moral agents, who do have a choice, thanks to their preponderance, but squandered it with realist logic. By not applying the same principle of fair play that readily functions in the domestic sphere, the Athenians engineer their own destruction.

international law and the athenians

In this History, it is evident that the common survival of all polis requires the supremacy of international law. Anyone breaking the sacred justice that is universal among all polis will be destroyed eventually by the perpetuation of the same transgression they have committed. Of course, the decision makers frequently pass away before the consequences of their actions come to fruition. At any rate, exploring the relationship between nature and convention and then relating it to power and justice, this essay finds it patently evident that the international community can only be made stable if there is an adherence to the conventions that have been applied properly on the domestic level. This argument is less pessimistic, believing that there is room for agency. Taking for example the modern United States, they seem on a similar path to that of Athens but they can reject the precedent of illegal war or risk the fate that Thucydides deems inevitable. Such is the nature of empires.

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