I posed a large and unanswerable question and then abruptly left town. The result was a lengthy, thoughtful, extremely interesting discussion, enlivened by personal reflections on Chile, India, China, and the international agreements regulating a trans-Atlantic flight. Clearly, I should leave town more often.
I posed the question in part as a reaction to a quotation from Noam Chomsky concerning U. S. and NATO installation of anti-ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe, and in part because I find myself again and again puzzled when I think about international affairs. It is, of course, always open to me to respond to any international situation simply by asking where my preferences and sentiments lie, but when I ask what I ought to think, what is the right course of action or point of view, I come up against the same problem, which is that I cannot imagine what my standpoint ought to be.
For example, what ought I to think about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians it holds in bondage? [And simply asking the question that way is wildly prejudicial, but never mind.] Here are four possible answers: (1) we should accept the current facts on the ground as established reality and proceed to reason from there; (2) we should take as our starting point the borders established at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war; (3) we should take as our starting point the political arrangements that existed before the 1947 Partition of Palestine; (4) We should take as our starting point the borders of the Kingdom of Israel and Judea between 1050 and 930 BCE. There are committed partisans of all four responses. The third and fourth, you will say, are fanciful, whereas the first and second need to be taken seriously. But why? Ought we to accept as legitimate the borders drawn in the Middle East by European diplomats when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the Treaty of Sèvres? Why? And so on and on.
The source of our befuddlement, as I see it, is this: All of us in one way or another function intellectually with some version of what political philosophers call social contract theory [save for anarchists, but that is the null hypothesis so far as these questions are concerned.] That is to say, we understand political legitimacy to be grounded in a unanimous collective agreement binding on all those who have entered into it [and their descendants, but let us leave that problem to one side for the moment.] The original social contract theorists were quite clear that sovereigns [i.e. kings] were in a state of nature with respect to one another inasmuch as they had not entered into a social contract, and as Hobbes so evocatively expressed it, in the absence of a social contract we are left with the war of all against all.
Modern versions of social contract theory, like that of Rawls, leave us with the same problem, the work of people like Tom Pogge notwithstanding. So, to put it simply, there is no answer to the question I posed. I do not mean there is no way of enforcing an answer. I mean that there is no answer. The matter is what mathematicians would call undetermined.
Now, about those Tar Heels.