1:Rosemary (writes Parallel Republic) says:

I think a preference for the status quo has to weigh in to some extent.

All else being equal, sure, I agree with the “any group large enough that it isn’t ludicrous on its face has a right to self-determination” standard.

But all else is almost never equal. Someone wants to secede and someone else wants to conquer—and all of that is enormously disruptive to many other someones.

So I think there’s an immediately obvious utilitarian bias towards the status quo of, oh, the last decade or so. Governments are heavy, complicated things, and I think a group who wants to disrupt that needs to make an affirmative argument based on something other than “self determination” that this is a good idea and all the disruption is worth it for the sake of things being better in the long run.

Which unfortunately gets us nowhere because it brings us right back to debates about culture and history etc.

I don’t like this philosophically, but I have to admit that in the real world it’s the only way any of this is ever going to work.


Self-Determination is a sort of weird right, because it is inherently a right afforded to groups of people, but not individuals (unless you are an extremely principled libertarian). I think granting rights to groups that are independent of the rights of the constituent individuals makes very little sense. Groups don’t have subjective experiences besides the subjective experiences of the individuals, and they can’t decide to exercise their rights in the same way that individuals can because they can’t want things or make decisions.

I also think the scoping problem is even worse than you say. A defining characteristic of a state is that some group in power (often the majority) can enforce their will on every one else. Why would it be the case that the group in power has the right to their power, but the larger entity having even more power doesn’t?

Agreed about the weird right. This paper, which I linked in the original, tries to discuss what group rights would mean, although it ends up settling on them being simple if a group has a government that claims to speak for them, which most secessionist regions do.

As for the second paragraph, I’m imagining some situation like - India is mostly Hindu. But some subregion of India is mostly Muslim. But some guy in that subregion is a Hindu. Perhaps the subregion is sad being ruled by Hindus, but that guy is happy. If we let the subregion get independence, the majority will be happy, but that one Hindu will be sad.

Is there any reason not to go with the greatest good for the greatest number here (and allow the secession)? Maybe (counterfactual) India is very liberal and both Hindus and Muslims in that subregion have lots of rights, but if the region were allowed to secede it would become a Muslim fundamentalist state that oppressed its minorities.

This seems a lot like the original Confederacy problem, in that it takes the usual world-policeman moral dilemma of “should good countries conquer bad countries to prevent them from being bad?” and twists it into the “should good countries prevent bad countries from gaining independence, to prevent them from being bad?” I’m not sure how to think about these questions.

3: Evan Þ writes:

My immediate response to “what about the Confederacy?” is to say that yes, the people of the South had the right to secede in 1861 if they wanted to - but they didn’t.

For one, there was a huge Black population - a majority in South Carolina, and at least a large minority elsewhere - who didn’t get to vote, and would presumably have opposed secession.

For another, even the white population probably opposed secession in most places. Many secession conventions had a majority of delegates elected as Unionists who eventually voted for secession. I believe Texas was the only state where it was even submitted to referendum. Admittedly, the delegates would’ve argued that circumstances changed between their election and their vote - but even ignoring the restricted franchise, this casts their democratic legitimacy in severe doubt.

So, I believe it’s quite consistent to support secession in theory but oppose the 1861 secession in practice.

A lot of people had this objection, which I don’t find very interesting. I don’t know what the real-world numbers for the Confederacy looked like, but it seems possible in principle that, say, all white citizens supported, all black citizens opposed, and blacks were a minority so it passed. I don’t think that scenario would be very different, ethically, from what really happened, so I don’t want to hang my opposition to what really happened on its differences from that scenario.

People seem to put a lot of effort into proving that some democratic process which returned a morally abhorrent result wasn’t really democratic (eg Trump losing the popular vote, Hitler gaining power through a complicated process that wasn’t just democracy). Often they’re right, but who cares? If you want to make the case that democracy necessarily returns non-abhorrent results, I’d be very interested to hear that argument. Otherwise I think we should accept that possibility and try to plan around it when coming up with moral and political philosophies.

4:jumpingjacksplash writes:

That’s nothing on the conclusions being consistent on this leads you to. Consider the following:

Austria/Sudetenland/Danzig circa 1938

Biafra/Tigray/redrawing every border in Africa


Northern Ireland as a patchwork of mono-confessional enclaves

Israeli settlements

An Afrikaner volkstaat

ISIS (in western Iraq and parts of Syria)

Various small American cities seceding as a tourist gimmick

I’m mostly willing to bite these bullets. The one that bothers me the most is Israeli settlements - there ought to be some rule against sneaking in under cover of night, setting up a town on someone else’s land, and then seceding and saying it’s yours. This rule can’t be absolute and permanent - European colonization of the US was basically this, and nobody thinks we should give it back to the Indians now - but it should exist enough to prevent exploitation. I think this rule would cover ISIS and South Africa too.

I’m definitely willing to bite US cities seceding as tourist gimmicks - see eg the Conch Republic.

5:Robert Benkeser (writes Humble Pie) says:

Every oblast in Ukraine, including Crimea, voted for independence. Support ranged from over 95 percent in western Ukraine and the Kiev region to 54 percent in Crimea, where ethnic Russians form a substantial majority of the population.

Based on sources like this, I think the most likely scenario is that the Crimeans voted yes by a hair in ‘91, then became less excited as time went on. It might also be relevant that the ‘91 vote was about the Soviet Union, vs. later votes where the alternative was Russia.

6:Jacob (writes Streams of Consciousness) says:

Tokelau is a remote southern Pacific Ocean Island currently owned by New Zealand with a population of ~1500 and currently on the UN list of non-self-governing territories. The UN has pushed for referendums towards statehood, two of which have failed. In this case, it seems that by virtue of being an Island rather than just a small town off the interstate, Tokelau may deserve self determination. It’s not clear what a 1500-member nation would look like.

Yeah, being an island does seem like a pretty good replacement for being in a Civilization game, among the type of people who care about these things.

7:Mike G writes:

Good article but people make this stuff way to complicated. It’s not about morality orethics but simply might makes right, and the victors get to write the history books. We didn’t defeat the Nazis because the Nazis were bad and evil, we firebombed Dresden and killed them until they gave up. The answer to the question “Who gets self-determination?” is whoever can take it. If it can’t be won peacefully, it must be won through force (see Clausewitz, Carl). Kill more of them then they kill you until they give up. This is the way it has always been and the way it always will be.

Everyone keeps saying this and I think it’s overly cynical.

There’s an international norm that says you can’t launch unprovoked aggressive invasions. You could ask “how many battalions do international norms have?”, but the answer would be “quite a lot!” The fact that Russia broke the norm led lots of countries to sanction it and otherwise cause it grief. I’m not saying this norm is foolproof - if it had been a stronger and more popular country like the US, maybe they could have gotten away with it. But the norm isn’t totally toothless either. I bet all the time there are dictators who think “should I invade my neighbor? No, that would mean I’m violating an international norm and I’d get in trouble.”

Saying “might makes right” is ignoring this valuable and powerful system. Worse, it’s hyperstitionally weakening the system - as long as everyone knows everyone knows everyone … that there are international norms, the norms will be real.

Cf. why nobody uses nuclear weapons during war.

TGGP asks:

Doesn’t the US being strong enough to repeatedly evade the norm indicate that might really is the determining factor, and that Russia just isn’t mighty enough to defy the US that effectively?

Sort of? I think of it as something like - we have norms against murder. Those norms are real and important, but sometimes police (or, in some countries, organized crime) kill people and get away with it, because they’re powerful. We shouldn’t pretend the norms against murder are magic and work regardless of power relations. But we also shouldn’t dismiss them entirely and agree norms are meaningless and we’re in the state of nature. Instead we should be grateful that norms exist which constrain the little guys, be grateful that even powerful people at least have to think really hard before violating norms, and work to expand the norms so that even the powerful people follow them.

8:Obormot on DSL says:

I would prefer that you read all of Unqualified Reservations, but that might be a bit much to ask, realistically. So why not start with this piece: https://www.unqualified-reservations.org/2008/05/ol5-shortest-way-to-world-peace/. (It comes in the middle of a long sequence, true, but I think it’s readable enough on its own.)

The post argues…well, it argues a lot of things, but mostly that modern norms of international law perpetuate rather than prevent conflicts. Insurgents count on support from pacifists in the country they’re fighting against and from global policemen (eg the US), which makes insurgency worthwhile (ie they might win). If everyone (including foreign countries and voters/politicians in the country they were fighting) just agreed that every country was sovereign and had the right to do what it wanted in its own borders and anyone who disagreed would be crushed, then anyone who disagreed would actually consistently get crushed, and nobody would be dumb enough to disagree. Peace!

This ties into a lot of other UR assumptions I can’t argue with in the depth they deserve here. A poor and unfair summary might be: I actually don’t want countries doing as much genocide and repression as they want, and I think historic attempts to pressure them not to do these things have often been successful (though it’s hard to count since we don’t record atrocities that don’t happen). Rebels will absolutely rebel even in the absence of domestic and foreign aid, and have done so from the Zealots to the Taiping Rebellion through today. Moldbug’s claim that the pre-WWI system was good at preventing wars and atrocities is dubious given how many wars and atrocities there were before WWI (I would guess eg more conflict deaths per capita in the 19th century than the 21st, although I know this sort of thing is hard to quantify).

9:Joel Long writes:

I think the question of historical investment has some relevance here. If Texas wants to secede, fine, but the USA has invested heavily in it over the years…what’s the divorce bill? Similar issue with US independence regarding taxation and Britain’s capital and military investments.

From the outside, this was one of the most interesting parts of the Brexit negotiations.

Of course, given that the ethics of multi-generational collective debt/guilt/obligation are difficult in general, I don’t think this simplifies the discussion.

10:Peter Gerdes writes:

I feel the whole assumption there is some list of features that grant a group of people the right to self-determination is kind of a category mistake. Sometimes it will make the world better to let a group of people form a separate country sometimes it won’t. The difference between Ukraine and the confederacy is as simple as: the world was better off not letting the confederacy self-determine and worse if Russia stops Ukraine from doing so. It even plausibly depends on who the occupier is and how they treat them (if the Basque region was in China not Spain no question it would be better to allow self-determination…as of now unclear to me as it imposes costs on both sides).

I think “makes the world better” is always your ultimate criterion, but in real life you try to have simple rules to address disagreements. In some sense I want whether some guy goes to jail to depend on whether it “makes the world better” for him to be there, but in an actual society it’s easier to have some laws where you go to jail if you break them.

I feel the same way about Alex Mennen’s comment:

My position on this question is that trying to have consistent principles on this issue is bad actually, and I will unapologetically evaluate self-determination issues on a case-by-case basis.

I disagree that letting whatever nontrivially-sized place secede is good, because states getting smaller and more numerous makes coordination problems on large scales worse (I’m aware there are plenty of arguments for the reverse, but I’m not going to expand on this issue for now). And a norm that every group gets a right to self-determination in the future if and only if they already have it now offers a lot of advantages in terms of stability; not redrawing borders at all can cut down on warfare. But neither of these heuristics seem like good reasons not to have taken away Serbia’s ability to genocide Kosovar Albanians. Russia taking Crimea from Ukraine doesn’t change how many different countries need to be involved in large-scale coordination challenges, and that particular operation didn’t even involve any bloodshed, so you could make a case that that undercuts my argument that border changes are bad because war is bad. But this won’t stop me from opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, because Russia agreed not to do that without Ukraine’s consent as part of an agreement for Ukraine to give up nuclear weapons, and undermining incentives for states to give up nuclear weapons is bad.

If you come up with a consistent principle, you’ll inevitably encounter situations where it turned out your principle was missing something important. The actual principle I’m using here is “a group of people gets self-determination if and only if it is best for the world for them to get self-determination”, but I’m not counting that as a real principle because it’s too underspecified. Why should I adopt a different principle instead? It seems to me that if “what’s best for the world” ends up conflicting with some more well-specified principle, I should go with what’s best for the world.

One possible answer to this is that different people have different opinions about what’s best for the world, and can end up in conflict over it, but if they can all agree to follow certain consistent principles instead, this can avoid conflict. I agree this is an issue (and isn’t even the only source of conflict here; some people will simply have more provincial concerns than what’s best for the world), but using consistent principles doesn’t actually solve this, because there will be conflict over which principles to use. If you think self-determination is generally good, and I think too much self-determination creates too much coordination-problem headaches to be worth it, then “any at-least-city-sized group of people who want independence gets it” does not work as a compromise. I’d actually prefer just letting you choose every time, since then if there’s some situation where letting some specific city declare independence ends up being obviously terrible, you might notice this and put a stop to it. Groups with conflicting interests can negotiate compromises without having clear abstract ethical principles behind their compromises, and that’s okay. If the principles you come up with so that there doesn’t need to be any conflict doesn’t include anything like “… unless it’s on this side of this arbitrary line, because we need to placate France”, you’re doing it wrong, and should probably stop trying to follow principles.

11:Name99 writes:

You missed one obvious aspect of the ‘right’ to “declare yourself to be independent”, namely some version of fairness. Otherwise as soon as oil gets discovered, the oil-rich province decides it would rather secede than share the loot. This was, of course, a large part of the background in Biafra and the Second Sudanese Civil War, and versions of this seem (as far as I can tell) to be relevant to other places, from East Timor to various Myanmar would-be independence movements.

This seems to be one of those weathervane causes, where people will spin from loving to hating it depending on the details you insert into the story. Should a leftist go with the self-determination argument, or with the sharing argument? Decisions, decisions.

I agree letting the people on top of the oil have it is weird, but it doesn’t seem weirder than the fact that Qatar gets to be incredibly rich because it has oil and doesn’t have to share it with eg Afghanistan.

12:ogogmad (writes Ogogmad’s Newsletter) says:

I don’t think anywhere you’ve mentioned what I thought the real “rule” was, in international law:

By default, no one has the right to secede from their country. The only exception is when they’ve been persecuted by their country. In that exceptional case, they have the right to secede.

More broadly, I think that existing borders are sacred, unless something exceptional happens that necessitates changing them.

Yeah, this is a pretty good point.

I think the real-world solution closest to what I philosophically want is something like: by default we respect existing borders, because transaction costs. If someone invades an existing state, even an existing state without a great justification for existing, the international community condemns it, to prevent the norm from being eroded. If a minority group in an existing country wants independence, then on a philosophical level they should get it, but realistically there are lots of things that should happen and nobody has time or energy to support all of them. If the parent country is a democracy that wouldn’t be harmed too badly by the secession, they should let them go. If not, and it isn’t urgent (ie they’re not being horribly oppressed), the group should avoid forcing the issue. If they do feel horribly oppressed, they should force the issue, and the international community should vaguely take their side, proportional to how oppressed they are and how much trouble it’s going to cause for them to leave.

This is a lot like the current system except that I think if ethical people happen to be in charge of a country, they have a (weak, potentially balanced by other things) obligation to let people leave, even if they’re not especially oppressed. This seems to be the way the UK is treating Scotland, and I give them a lot of credit for it.