I’ve been thinking about “might makes right” recently because I’m reading Leif Wenar’s excellent Blood Oil, and this notion—or the international legal norm of “effectiveness”—is his chief target. Wenar central concern is that, globally, we grant the privilege to sell natural resources to whoever can effectively control those resources. In effect, this means that dictators and authoritarians can use those resources to enrich and further empower themselves at the expense of their true owners, namely “the people”. This particular privilege is an instantiation of the principle that possession of a resource entitles an agent to ownership. But Wenar also worries about other variants of “might makes right”, including the Westphalian norm that power over a territory—indeed, even when it ultimately arises from conquest—entitles the entity that possesses that power to sovereignty.
Before considering what might be said in its favour, I should make clear how I interpret “might makes right” in general terms. For the purposes of this discussion, I take “might makes right” to mean that the ability to do something—exclude others from using a resource, say, or physically control a territory—morally entitles one to do so (that is, gives one a “right”). This contrasts with other usages of the idiom. Often when we say “might makes right” we do not mean to make a point about what rights there are, but rather to cast a cynical eye on politics. After all, in the real world, don’t the “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” regardless of right? Or else, like Thrasymachus of The Republic, who argued that “the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger”, we mean to make a semantic or metaethical point. These usages, then, I set aside.
On the face of it, “might makes right” appears wildly implausible. Indeed, as long as we are in the business of determining what rights there are, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t power go to those who are entitled to it (including, presumably, those who are currently weak) rather than rights going to those who just happen to possess power, such that, as Lincoln put it in his 1860 Cooper Union Address, “right makes might”? Yet even if you worry about the interests of the weak—indeed, especially if you do—there are a couple arguments that can be deduced in its support.
For one thing, assigning rights to the powerful would seem to diminish the potential that the weak might engage in violence to secure their rights, an attempt that, given their weakness, would be to their own detriment. This argument wouldn’t make a great deal of sense were we perfectly “rational actors”, only disposed to leverage our power where the probability of success was in our favour. Yet, as Hobbes correctly observed, conflict is as often a function of our “prideful” nature as it is of a desire to protect ourselves in an uncertain world—and pride is surely hurt when we are not extended our entitlements. What better way to prevent already vulnerable people from being provoked into self-destructive behaviour, in other words, than be assigning rights to those who, if it came to a fight, would triumph regardless?
Besides diminishing the likelihood of counter-productive conflict, it might also be thought that assigning rights to the powerful would better incline them to use their power well by “investing” them in that which is now at their disposal. The classic argument in the property case is that if we grant ownership of a resource to the person already possessing it they will be less likely to allow its depreciation, and preventing depreciation can be to the benefit even of non-owners.
Again, this argument wouldn’t make much sense were we always and everywhere instrumentally rational in our choices, as the mere power to effectively control a resource should already give us sufficient reason to prevent its depreciation. But as with the previous argument, perhaps an appeal can be made to the “prideful” aspect of human character. There’s a long tradition in political theory, most closely associated with Hegel, of thinking of private property as holding up a mirror to our agential capacity. It isn’t too much of a leap from here to suppose that owners would not wish to despoil their property for fear of undermining their reputation with others. Turning back from the property to the sovereignty case, perhaps there is an echo of this argument in Hobbes’ otherwise credulous claim that “the riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strengths, and reputations of his subjects” (quoted by Wenar on p.23).
There are clearly serious problems with both arguments. Besides being paternalistic, the first ignores the possibility that, taking a cue from just war theory, we might simply require those who are ostensibly weak to pass a “probability of success” test if they are to permissibly fight to secure (what are nevertheless) their rights. And the second appears naïve in its psychological assumptions, which, in addition, sit uneasily with its other, more realistic (and realist), empirical premises. Indeed, both arguments are precariously dependent on the cynical assumption that power is decisive in politics. After all, to the extent that the mighty are currently restraining themselves so as to allow the weak to enjoy their rights, a shift to “might makes right” would increase the risk of conflict, and shift our hopes for the optimal exercise of rights from the firm ground of interest to the shakier ground of reputation.
Nevertheless, even if, for these reasons, might is neither sufficient nor necessary for right, I wonder if it ever contributes to right (in the sense of being a necessary element in a set of instantiated conditions that are jointly sufficient for right), if not in the property or sovereignty case then in some other instance. There’s an established tradition in the literatures on jurisprudence, legitimacy, and political obligation, for example, of thinking that the state’s authority and/or the obligations of citizenship are a function in part—if only in part—of the state’s power. Can a reverberation of one or other of these arguments be detected in this more plausible space?