Friday, September 28, 2018

Nationalism 008: The Rights of Peoples

What may you legitimately do to other people in order to protect your culture, practices, institutions, and way of life?

This question concerns the following article: Miller, David (2011), "Territorial Rights: Concept and Justifiation", Political Studies, Volume 60, Issue 2, pp. 252-269,, accessed Sept. 28, 2018.

What justifies a nation's control over its territory?

According To David Miller, these rights are justified by the fact that a group of people have improved the value of the land, economically and culturally, and have come to attach cultural significance to the land through their continued occupation and shared history.

In order to secure these values, the people who hold those values need to have jurisdictional control over the territory in order to determine what happens to the lands and entities that hold those values. A part of the problem is that the "value" of territory cannot be expressed purely in economic terms. There are cultural factors to consider. For example, a group of people may have built a culture around herding animals along the rocky slopes of a mountain range where they graze their herds first in one district or another. They would not be able to protect this practice without jurisdictional control

They also need to be able to control the use of its natural resources because the ways in which they are used will have an impact on those values, since the manner in which those resources are secured and marketed will have impacts on the culture and its people. How those resources are extracted and marketed will have an influence on who has economic and political power within the community. Also, the question of how to harvest and market these resources must be done in a way that preserves peace. There are also resources - such as sacred forests or national parks established for conservation that have value without being harvested.

Finally, the society needs to be able to control who may cross its borders - and, in particular, needs to be able to take up residence, in order to preserve its culture and its values. New people will create economic demands that may threaten cultural values - such as pressure to turn historic battlefields into residential areas or shopping centers. They also bring new ideas that risk swamping and, ultimately, extinguishing the culture of the people who were originally there.

All of this is built on an intrinsic right of a group of people to protect and preserve "their way of life".

A lot depends on what that "way of life" happens to be.

The Confederate States of America saw themselves as having a particular culture, a particular way of life, a particular culture, and a particular set of values that they sought to protect. It was a white supremacist culture that expressed its values through, among other things, the institution of slavery. They could use Miller's argument quite effectively.

They needed jurisdiction over the Confederate states in order to protect their institutions and practices. They needed to control the methods by which their resources were harvested - particularly concerning the ways in which their agricultural lands produced cotton that could then be marketed. Finally, they needed to be able to control who might enter or leave their land in order to preserve and protect those institutions. Particularly, they needed to keep out northern abolitionists and free blacks, and they needed to prevent slaves from escaping.

The existence of the Confederacy suggests that there may be certain values that transcend Miller's rights to national sovereignty. It raises the question of what, exactly, may a group do to other people in order to preserve their cultural values? Enslave them? If enslaving them crosses a moral boundary, then there is at least an argument to be made that jurisdictional control - passing laws that limit their freedom for the sake of protecting cultural values - may also be going too far. Excluding them from the potential benefits of natural resources and restricted their freedom of movement are also, at least, morally questionable.

The mere fact that people place a certain type of value in certain institutions, practices, and lands may certainly be a value worth considering - when those values fall within a certain range of legitimate concerns. However, it comes with limits. We may well have reason to respect and try to preserve the traditions of a people who traditionally herd animals across the rocky slopes of a mountain range. Yet, if we accept certain animal rights claims, this constitutes a practice as bad or worse than slavery.

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