By Michael Walzer

Humanitarianism is probably the most important "ism" in the world today, given the collapse of communism, the discrediting of neoliberalism, and the general distrust of large-scale political ideologies. Its activists often claim to escape or transcend partisan politics. We think of humanitarian aid, for example, first of all as a form of philanthropy -- a response to an earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Asia, which is obviously a good thing, an effort to relieve human suffering and save lives, an act of international benevolence. But there is a puzzle here, for helping people in desperate need is something that we ought to do; it would be wrong not to do it -- in which case it is more like justice than benevolence. Words such as "charity" and "philanthropy" describe a voluntary act, a matter of kindness rather than duty. But international humanitarianism seems more like duty than kindness, or maybe it is a combination: two in one, a gift that we have to give.

Individuals send contributions to charitable organizations when there is a humanitarian crisis, and then these organizations rush trained aid workers into the zone of danger and desperate need. But governments also send help, spending tax money that is coercively collected rather than freely given. Are individual citizens free not to give? Are governments free not to act? Does it matter whether the money is a gift or a tax?

The dilemma is even clearer in the case of humanitarian intervention. Governments may use force to stop a massacre -- as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States are claiming to do in Libya and as someone should have done in Rwanda. We can think of this as a gift to the people being rescued, and what is given is substantial, since it may include the lives of some of the interveners. But is the state that intervenes acting charitably? Isn't stopping a massacre morally necessary? And think of the diplomatic preparations for the intervention, the strategic arguments about how to do it, the necessary calculations of proportionality, the marshaling of military resources, the actual use of force, the problems of reconstruction afterward -- none of that feels like a philanthropic enterprise. This is more like political work, governed by the rules of justice and prudence, not kindness. And yet, we call it "humanitarian" because we want to believe that what underlies and motivates the intervention, at the deepest level, is human sympathy, freely flowing fellow feeling. It is two in one again: a spontaneous act and a necessary one.

But what if the combination doesn't work -- what if the fellow feeling doesn't flow freely?


I have been puzzling over these kinds of questions in the course of helping edit a volume in the series The Jewish Political Tradition, one dealing with, among other things, charity and taxation -- giving and taking. It should be easy to distinguish the two, shouldn't it? Individuals give, freely and spontaneously; the state takes, with threats and penalties. Yet it turns out that the distinction is not so easy to make. The difficulty is signaled by the Hebrew word tzedakah, which is commonly translated as "charity" but which comes from the same root as the word for "justice." This suggests that charity is not only good but also right. The same message is conveyed by the Hebrew word mitzvah, which in the Bible means "commandment" but has come colloquially to mean "a good deed" or "an act of human kindness" -- although still something that you have to do.

One can see how these versions of the two-in-one argument might develop among a stateless people. With little or no coercive power, the Jewish communities in the Diaspora had to rely heavily on the charitable contributions of their members. The contributions were indeed necessary, for without them there would be no way, for example, to ransom Jewish captives (a major concern of the Diaspora communities throughout the Middle Ages), help the poor and the sick, provide for orphans, or fund synagogues and schools.

And so the medieval philosopher Maimonides argued, following Talmudic precedents, that insofar as Jewish communities in the Diaspora had coercive power, they could legitimately force their members to give tzedakah. The kahal, the autonomous or semiautonomous Diaspora community, could compel people to give what they were supposed to give freely, and it still counted as a charitable gift. It was distinct (although often hard to distinguish) from the taxes imposed, usually by the gentile overlord, which were levied on individuals by the Jewish rulers of the kahal, the tovei ha-ir (the good men of the city).

In the Jewish tradition, this view of tzedakah as an expression of justice was sometimes described in theological language. The idea is that God has heard and responded to the cries of the poor and, in principle at least, has given them what they need. You may possess some part of what they need, but you possess it only as an agent of God, and if you do not pass it on to the poor, if you do not contribute, say, to the communal charity fund, you are robbing the poor of what in fact already belongs to them. The negative act of not contributing is a positive theft. And since theft is unjust, you are acting not only uncharitably but also unjustly by not giving -- which is why coerced tzedakah is legitimate. I called this a theological argument, but it is possible even for nonbelievers to accept that, in some sense, it is true and right. Or nonbelievers can translate the argument into secular language: some part of everyone's wealth belongs to the political community, which makes economic activity and peaceful accumulation possible -- and it can and should be used to promote the well-being of all the members of the community.

Fundraising in the contemporary Diaspora still partakes of this two-in-one character. I celebrated my bar mitzvah in 1948 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. That year, my parents brought me with them, as a new member of the community, to the annual banquet of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), the main fundraising event on the Johnstown Jewish calendar. The year 1948 was a critical one, and every Jew in town was there; no one really had a choice about whether or not to come. There was a speaker from New York who talked with great emotion about the founding of Israel, the war that was then going on, and the desperate needs of the refugees waiting in Europe. Pledge cards were distributed, filled out at the table, and then put in an envelope and passed to the head of the table. There sat the owner of one of the biggest stores in town -- let's call him Sam Shapiro. Sam knew everybody else's business: who was doing well and who was not, who was paying college tuition for their children, who had a sick mother, who had recently made a loan to a bankrupt brother, who had money to spare. He opened each envelope, looked at the pledge, and if he thought that it was not enough, he tore the card in half and passed it back down the table. That is how the Jews of Johnstown raised money, without a Jewish state, without -- or supposedly without -- coercive power. Was that charity, or was it the functional equivalent of taxation? Was it giving, or was it taking? Tzedakah signals something of both.

What moral or philosophical principle was Sam enforcing? He probably could not have answered that question, but the answer seems obvious: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." That line is from Karl Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program. Sam was not a Marxist, not by a long shot, but he adjusted the demands he made on each of us to his knowledge of our ability to pay. And we all believed that the UJA would distribute the money to those most in need. "From each, to each" is another example of two in one, for it describes equally well charitable giving and justified taking. This is the principle that Marx believed would apply after the withering away of the state -- that is, in a condition of statelessness.

The idea of obligatory charitable giving is not peculiar to the Jews; there are many non-Jewish charities whose staffs would happily collect money the way the Johnstown UJA did, if they could, and would believe themselves to be acting justly. The two-in-one argument comes in Christian and Muslim versions; tithing, for example, is also understood as an act of justice and charity together. But the centuries of statelessness give the Jewish version a special force. Recall the powerful line in the book of Isaiah denouncing those who "grind the faces of the poor." I think of UJA fundraising as grinding the faces of the rich, and although that may or may not be nice, it certainly seems right.

But what should be done with the money collected? What does it mean to address the needs of the poor? This, too, is a question not only of charity but also of justice. Maimonides has a famous discussion of the eight levels of tzedakah, but only two need concern us here. The highest form of charitable giving, he wrote, is to set up a poor man in business or in work of some sort, to make him independent. This is the height of tzedakah because it recognizes and respects the dignity of the person who is being helped -- which is also, obviously, a requirement of justice. When charity perpetuates dependency and subordination, it is unjust. Maimonides also insists that tzedakah in its highest form should be anonymous, for if the poor do not know the names of their benefactors, they cannot defer to them. The encounter of helplessness, on one side, and condescending benevolence, on the other, is humiliating for the needy, and so it should be avoided. Here, charitable giving among a stateless people takes on the most important feature of a decent welfare state, where the people receiving benefits are not obligated to any particular benefactor. They are helped as citizens by their fellow citizens, acting collectively.

Tzedakah in actual Jewish communities has often not taken the forms that Maimonides recommended. In many cases, it has been the product of noblesse oblige (which is not the same thing as moral obligation), and there have certainly been many poor people humiliated by gifts for which they had to beg. But the ideal, the collective sense of what tzedakah should be, was shaped by the belief that charity had to be governed by the demands of justice. And this two-in-one conception arises from the experience of statelessness.


Jewish statelessness can help us understand what charity more generally is or should be. It can also provide us with the crucial categories for thinking about humanitarianism in international society. When you do not have a state, charity and justice come two in one. Individuals decide which good deeds, out of many possible ones, they will undertake, which needs they will recognize and how much of their time, energy, and money they will give. But decisions of this sort cannot be made appropriately without understanding what justice requires.

There will be disagreement about what justice requires, of course, and in the absence of a state, there will not be any established procedures for resolving the disagreement -- hence, no democratic debates and no democratically chosen policies. And in that situation, the richest and most powerful members of the community will have inordinate influence. Any community that relies heavily on the charitable contributions of its members will be oligarchic in character. It will be ruled by people such as Sam Shapiro, who will sometimes be righteous and kind, as Sam was, and sometimes not.

This is the most important leftist criticism of charity -- that it concedes the power of the powerful and forces the poor into the position of beggars. Jewish beggars were known to be unusually demanding, insisting on their entitlements, as if they were expounding the deep meaning of the word tzedakah. But they were beggars still. Even when there is a state, but not a fully just state, one that fails to provide generously for education and welfare, the rich and powerful will play a dominant role -- as they do, these days, in the United States. Think of the significant role played by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, in shaping the current debate about educational policy, and perhaps determining its outcome, in the United States' inadequately funded public school system.

But if there were a strong and effective welfare state relying on a just system of taxation and taking care of basic needs, then charitable giving would achieve a kind of independence. Now, the giver would be free to follow the impulse of his or her heart, helping other people or improving the common life in any number of ways: volunteering to work in a daycare center, hospital, or nursing home; visiting the sick; supporting charitable projects of a church or synagogue or mosque; giving money to organizations defending civil liberties or human rights; teaching in a local prison or school; contributing to cultural societies, museums, symphonies, and theatrical groups; helping underfunded political magazines.

These choices will have an impact on the quality of life in the larger society, and the accumulation of benevolent acts will shape its overall goodness. But since in our hypothetical good state, the most important decisions about social policy will be made democratically, no individual's choices will have a determining effect. There will be limits on the influence of the rich and powerful. Only in this context would charity mean what we have always taken it to mean: freely chosen acts of kindness, acts that reflect a generosity of spirit, free from the imperatives of justice, free from the urgency of other people's desperate need.


In international society, however, there is no global state. Here, the condition of the Jews for 2,000 years is everyone's condition, although it is felt most acutely by those for whom statelessness is doubled, at both the global and the national level -- people without a state, or living in failed states, or in states torn by civil wars. There is no higher authority to which such people can appeal for help. The United Nations sometimes claims to be such an authority, but its repeated failure to rescue those in need of rescuing gives the lie to that claim. The UN Security Council rarely acts effectively in crises, not only because of the veto power of its leading members but also because its members do not have a strong sense of responsibility for global security, for the survival of minority peoples, for public health and environmental safety, or for general well-being. They pursue their own national interests while the world burns.

This is the context in which we have to think about humanitarianism, which cannot in the circumstances of statelessness be a freely chosen gift, which has to respond to urgency and need. It is like tzedakah: if it does not connect with justice, it will not be what it should be. Religious men and women can reasonably think that God has already determined what we owe to the global poor, and the sick, and the hungry, and that our task is just to figure it out. And secular men and women can acknowledge that whether or not God exists, this is not a bad way of thinking about these things.

But even when driven by religious motives, humanitarianism is a political project. And because it is, it carries risks with it that are not usually associated with charitable work. Indeed, recent literature on humanitarian aid suggests that the work can go very badly when its organizers are not politically informed, committed to justice, and ready to make prudential calculations. You can, for example, deliver aid in ways that bring in new predators to feed on the provisions and resources intended for the poor, or you can insist on the military or police forces necessary to keep the predators out. You can act through governments that are often corrupt, or you can send your own people into the zones of need and danger and work directly with local individuals and groups. These are choices that primarily involve calculations of effectiveness.

But there are also choices of a different kind. You can help desperately needy people in ways that disempower them and turn them into permanent clients, or you can help them in ways that promote their independence and enable them to help themselves. You can attempt to maintain your political neutrality, or you can take sides in civil wars and ethnic or party conflicts. You can act nonviolently, or you can decide to use or support the use of force. You can aim at relief, or you can aim at repair, sustaining the status quo or trying to transform it. No doubt, different cases require different choices, but in all the cases, these are going to be political choices, and they are likely to be made badly if they are governed chiefly by philanthropic considerations. There is not much room here for post-partisanship. Instead, it is necessary to think about the two-in-one character of humanitarian aid and to ask what justice requires. Similarly, when we judge the value of particular humanitarian projects, we cannot consider only the goodness, the warm-heartedness, the self-sacrifice of the aid workers; we must also ask whether they are acting justly and respectfully toward the people they are trying to help.

Who should make the critical decisions? Who are the agents of international humanitarianism, of charity and justice together? Just as rich and powerful individuals have disproportionate influence in determining the character and direction of domestic philanthropy, we have to worry that the richest and most powerful states and organizations will have a disproportionate influence in determining how aid is delivered and to whom. The big aid organizations are not accountable to the people they claim to help. Won't they often act in their own institutional interests? Don't states always defend their national interests even when they are engaged in humanitarian work?


This seems especially worrisome in the case of humanitarian intervention, which involves the use of force in someone else's country. And indeed, there is a lot of suspicion, especially on the left (but not only there), of any use of force for humanitarian purposes. There are people who claim that all military interventions will inevitably be the work of rich and powerful states acting imperially and will all end in domination. This claim is right -- sometimes, which means that it is not inevitably right. Suspicion in these cases invites suspicion in turn, for the original suspicion sometimes follows from a refusal to recognize the extent of the crisis that calls for intervention.

Opposition to all interventions is a mistake, although opposition to some is sure to be morally necessary. Libya may provide a useful example, since the decision to intervene, at the moment it was made, probably did not meet the proportionality test, which is a requirement of justice. And at this moment, as I am writing, the intervention seems to have prolonged, rather than stopped, the killing, which is neither charitable nor just. I doubt that the United States and NATO intend to dominate Libya (for the sake of its oil, say, which was readily available before the intervention). Their motives were and are humanitarian, but not sufficiently shaped by considerations of prudence and justice.

Still, military interventions will sometimes deserve our support, without regard to who the interveners are, so long as they meet the two-in-one criteria. Although we do not want powerful states to dominate international society, we do want access to their resources, precisely to their wealth and power -- in the same way that we want access to the resources of wealthy individuals in domestic society, which is why it is right to grind the face of the rich. Charity and justice together require that rich and powerful states contribute disproportionately to the common good or, better, that they contribute in proportion to their disproportionate wealth -- "from each, to each." It is more often the case that powerful states don't do enough, or don't do anything at all, in response to desperate need than that they respond in imperialist ways. Humanitarian crises are more often ignored than seized on as an excuse for domination. There cannot be many countries eager to dominate Haiti or Rwanda. So we need to look for ways of pressing rich and powerful states to do what they ought to do.

In fact, there are actually many states in international society that are capable of acting as humanitarian agents. In contrast to ordinary individuals in domestic society, ordinary states, even those far from being great powers, can act effectively in crises because of their ability to collect taxes and recruit aid workers and soldiers. So it is possible to imagine a division of humanitarian labor. Consider the role of the Vietnamese in shutting down the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or the Indian role in ending state terrorism in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), or the role of the Tanzanians in overthrowing the murderous regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. Military intervention in these countries did not require the wealth and power of the United States; it was entirely within the reach of states with much smaller budgets and armies. The case is the same with regard to nonmilitary humanitarian aid, for which many states and many organizations have had a hand in shaping the international efforts -- and for which disproportionate influence probably comes more from dedication than from wealth, as the achievements of the Scandinavian states and their aid workers around the world suggest.

Again, this dedication is not merely philanthropic. It arises also from a commitment to justice; like tzedakah, it is two in one. And a commitment to justice is not voluntary; it is a commitment that we are all bound to make, as individuals and as citizens, and that all states are bound to make. We are not in a position where we can let generosity and warm-heartedness determine what states do in international society. In the absence of a global welfare state, there are many things that individual states have to do. But here is the agency question again: Which states have to do what?


International humanitarianism is an imperfect duty. In any crisis situation, different states are capable of acting, but no single state is the designated actor. There is no established procedure that will tell us the proper name of the agent. Aid organizations often respond to a crisis in very large numbers, but without anyone assigned to take charge. The work should be coordinated, for the sake of its effectiveness -- and justice requires effectiveness -- but there is no named coordinator. We might look for UN designations of responsibility, both when military intervention is called for and when massive aid is called for. But we are likely to look in vain for timely or consistent assignments. In these circumstances, decisions about intervention and aid will often have to be made unilaterally -- as by Vietnam, India, and Tanzania in the cases mentioned above. The governing principle is, Whoever can, should.

That is not a principle that can be legally enforced, but there is a political process of enforcement -- not very effective, to be sure, but worth considering. It works through public criticism, shaming, moral appeal, and sometimes popular mobilization. The NATO intervention in Kosovo probably had a lot to do with shame over not preventing the Srebrenica massacre; U.S. President Bill Clinton's apology to the people of Rwanda for the United States' failure to prevent the 1994 massacre there was a response of sorts to fierce criticism of the U.S. posture at the UN that year. The unsuccessful campaign for intervention in Darfur involved tens of thousands of activists and sympathizers in a number of countries. This, too, is political work, and what drives it is not only humanitarian benevolence but also a strong sense of what justice requires.

The same combination, two in one, should determine the character and purpose of aid and intervention. It is, of course, immediately necessary to feed the hungry, to stop the killing. Relief comes before repair, but repair, despite the risks it brings with it, should always be the long-term goal -- so that crises do not become recurrent and routine. As with tzedakah according to Maimonides, aid workers and soldiers should do what they can, the best that they can, to promote the independence of individuals and states. In international society, this means building states that can defend the lives of their citizens and helping them help themselves. What must be avoided is enduring economic or political dependency -- the creation of pauper populations or of satellite states and puppet governments. Although we are often told that the state system must be transcended, sovereignty is in fact humanitarianism's morally necessary end: a decent state, capable of providing security, welfare, economic management, and education for all its citizens. Then, the aid workers and the intervening armies can go home. If they have created the conditions for self-determination, we know that they have acted both charitably and justly.

So state building can be a form of humanitarian work, even though we don't know anywhere near enough about how to do it. Regime change, however, is something different. When the Red Army tried to bring communism to Poland in 1919 and when the U.S. Army tried to bring democracy to Iraq in 2003 (and to Libya in 2011?), these were ideological, not humanitarian, projects. They aimed at repair but not at relief, whereas humanitarianism aims at repair only after, and in order to sustain, relief. It is the critical need for relief that generates the two-in-one response that we call humanitarian.

Relief and repair can take a long time, and there will be hard choices to make along the way, without any international procedure for making them. There is also no legal way to conscript people or states to do the necessary work or to regulate the work they do. That is, again, what global statelessness means. And so we must search for more informal ways of pressing people into humanitarian service and evaluating and criticizing what they do (and don't do). Since there are few effective laws in international society, we need principles of charity and justice that will shape our own contributions and also our judgments of what other people contribute.

Humanitarianism has to be an ongoing argument: What ought to be done right now? The answer to that question will change depending on the existing needs, the political circumstances, the resources that benevolence can provide, and the requirements of justice. But once we have figured out an answer, we can think of humanitarianism as the two-in-one enterprise that I have been describing. As individual men and women, as members of or contributors to nongovernmental organizations, as citizens of powerful states, it invites us to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do.


Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study and co-Editor of Dissent.


Available at

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World

Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (The Contemporary Middle East)

Enemies of Intelligence

The End of History and the Last Man

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?

Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

The Great Gamble

At War with the Weather: Managing Large-Scale Risks in a New Era of Catastrophes

Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century

Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

Uprising: Will Emerging Markets Shape or Shake the World Economy


Copyright © Foreign Affairs

World - On Humanitarianism: Is Helping Others Charity or Duty or Both? | Global Viewpoint