Teaching Ethics and International Affairs (#2)

Conversation with David Clinton

This is one of three interviews with leading educators in the international affairs field, asking them to describe their teaching challenges (particularly after 9/11) and to discuss ways to meet these challenges. The interviews took place at the 2003 ISA Conference.

CARNEGIE COUNCIL (MARY-LEA COX):What courses are you currently teaching that fall under the heading of "ethics and international affairs"?

DAVID CLINTON: Some years ago, I attended one of the Carnegie Council's faculty development workshops. There I learned that one of the best ways to teach ethics is to integrate it into other courses. While I do teach one course specifically on ethics—called "Power, Morality, and International Relations" —I also try to integrate ethics into every IR course I teach.

This semester I'm teaching American foreign policy, and I'm teaching the introductory course in international relations. We have in both of those courses sections in which we discuss the ethical aspects.

As for the course entirely devoted to ethics—"Power, Morality, and International Relations"—I instituted this when I first came to Tulane, and it's been very successful. It's a mid-level undergraduate course, though I have had graduate students who would take it and do extra work to achieve graduate credit. The first semester I offered it, there was some confusion—it being a new course—and the course schedule for that semester listed it as "Power, Immorality and International Relations." Some people suggested that I leave it that way as this would improve enrollment. But we changed it to "morality," and it still has good enrollment.

I begin this course by looking at various systems of thought, ways of judging ethics and international relations. Then we go on to ethics as applied to issue areas—for example, human rights, distributive justice, and the ethics of the use of force, which is where I generally conclude the course.

My impression is, students are hungry for this kind of approach. It's something that they do not often find in other classes, which either set ethics aside entirely and say, well, that's nothing you can study scientifically and therefore we won't even touch the subject; or else have a very superficial view of what it means to act ethically in international affairs. We should all just be nice. Why can't we all get along? To really go into it—to look at particular policies and the way people who've thought deeply about this have tried to structure their thought—it's a subject that in my experience is fairly uncommon.

Was Tulane open to the idea of starting up this course when you first broached it?

I had no problem whatsoever in getting Tulane to accept my course as part of the international affairs curriculum. We offered it first on a one-year trial basis. It worked out well and got added to the regular schedule of classes on offer. It's my impression that courses of this type have become much more common than when I first began my teaching career.

But didn't you feel like something of a pioneer at the beginning?

I was helped by the tips I got from the Carnegie Council's faculty development seminar. In particular it was helpful to know that there were other people around the country interested in doing the same thing and to exchange ideas with them about how to construct such a course—readings and that sort of thing. To reiterate, I have found the general atmosphere at Tulane very open to this kind of class, and I think there's a great deal of interest from the students.

Are there special challenges of combining ethics with international affairs? You said that students have a superficial understanding of what that means. How do you get them to think more deeply? Is there some initial resistance?

There can be an attitude on the part of some of the students that you're needlessly complicating the subject by bringing in concepts like consequentialism, rule-based ethics, utilitarianism, or whatever it is. They think it's all unnecessary. But they just need a little time to see that the situation in which you apply ethical precepts is more complicated than they might think. Give them some real cases and ask them to say exactly what ought to be done, and they find that they begin to think in these terms.

They don't know they're thinking in these terms because they've never heard the academic names of these schools of thought, but they are in fact looking at the consequences or applying rules that should always be followed. And once they realize that, then we can get into the business of actually applying a name to it and saying now, other people have studied this, and here's a systematic way of thinking about this very thing you have been doing.

Then the case study method is the way to go?

I always begin the course with a case study. Let them think about how to do it first before introducing more abstract systems of thought—think about the problems that people in official positions of responsibility face if they want to try to act morally. And then, once they see some of the factors in play, we can begin to try to systematize those factors.

Can you give an example of a case study you might begin with?

I might tell them that they are the British cabinet in 1935, and they have to decide whether Britain is going to threaten or even use force to repel Mussolini's Abyssinian campaign.

People often have a very quick reaction either for or against the use of force. They don't take much time to think about it. But when you really press them, they begin to talk about the international system as a whole. Some people come out on the side of saying, well, we signed the League of Nations charter, and we promised to go to the aid of every country in the League; therefore we have to live up to our word—a rules-based approach. (Although they don't know it at the time, that's what they're doing.)

Then there are other people who say, well, what is likely to happen? Italy is basically backing us now against Germany. But what if we alienate Italy and then Mussolini switches over to Germany's side? Will that overall produce a worse circumstance than if we don't use force? Those who argue this line don't know that they're doing consequentialist reasoning, but in fact they are.

So if we can get people arguing in those terms—if we can get people to realize that they actually are applying a form of analysis and thought to a real-life problem—then we can go back and say, now here's how scholars have thought about the ways you've been approaching this real-life situation.

I was talking to Chris Brown of the LSE about these topics yesterday, and he thought that students need help with ethics as our society resists looking at issues through an ethical lens. Has that been your experience?

Definitely, there is a certain amount of resistance. On the one hand, there is a strong desire in modern American social science—which I suspect has found its way from the university level to the secondary level of teaching—that it must be science, it must be scientific; and ethics are difficult to fit into that form of analysis. They're normative.

I know colleagues who say normative theory is a contradiction in terms. You've got to have a hypothesis, independent variables, and dependent variables that can be tested. That's a very difficult way to approach ethics.

On the other hand, students of a certain age are unwilling to appear overly idealistic. They're afraid that if they start talking about, what's the moral thing to do, they will appear soft-headed, unsophisticated, and naive about the way the world really works. Cynicism is the safer way to go with their peers.

I wonder if 9/11 and its aftermath—nowadays the constant talk of war with Iraq—increases student interest in this area? Are they looking for ways to evaluate the latest developments in the war on terror?

That's certainly been my experience, and the experience of my institution. Since 9/11, more students have signed up to take international relations courses, and more have signed up to become international relations majors.

On the one hand, there is a suspicion in the minds of students that they don't really understand these things, that they don't know enough about these things. On the other hand, there is a very great desire to take some action: corrective action, retributive action, or whatever it may be—but to take action. What are we going to do? They're taking an international relations course to find out.

Of course the other thing that's very interesting is the increasing internationalization of American higher education. 9/11 hasn't stopped the influx of students from other countries coming to college in the United States.

Do you typically have quite a mix of nationalities in your classes?

A fair mix. Certainly there are institutions that have more of a mix than Tulane. We have a very heavy concentration of students who come from Latin America, given our geographical setting in New Orleans. There are quite a few families who for more than one generation have sent their children to Tulane. (They're of course not very representative of the population of Latin America as a whole if they have the resources to pay tuition at a private institution.)

We also have students from other parts of the world. For example, just by coincidence in my American foreign policy class, I have two students from Pakistan. They were not at Tulane together; they independently came and wound up in the same class. And they do see the world in quite a different way from the American students. They are more insistent that there are grievances on the other side that have to be addressed. It's not just grievances by Americans about what happened on 9/11, they say. We also need to look at American policy in the Gulf region, in the Middle East, and in South Asia—this, too, has contributed to the current situation.

I'm not saying that their perspective is right or wrong; it's just interesting to have it thrown into the mix.

Do the American students have a strong reaction to hearing American policy criticized?

I actively encourage discussion in my classes—particularly the one on power, morality and international relations. I expect each of my students to give me an opinion—an informed opinion, of course—based on their having thought about the materials assigned for that day.

The study of ethics raises many sensitive questions, and people can become emotionally involved in what they say. As a teacher you have to make sure that that doesn't go too far.

Actually, the sharpest exchange that I had when I taught that course in the fall was not between the Americans and anybody from an Islamic country; it was between an American student and a student from Germany. The whole number of disputes between Germany and the United States made their way into the positions these two students were taking, and I did have to intervene to stop them from arguing. But that's all right; it's a price worth paying to interest the students in these topics.

Do you have any recommendations for resources for educators already in this field or else wanting to get into it?

I have used the Carnegie Council case studies with some success—in particular, one on South Africa and apartheid, and another on West Germany's relations with the former East Germany. You can get case studies from a variety of sources—the Council's are part of the Pew series.

In addition to case studies, I would recommend Robert Jackson's book, The Global Covenant. It's a very useful book for teaching. Not only does it have a particular interpretation of what the international system is like—one that receives less attention than it ought—but it's also very explicit about why the normative approach to the study of international relations is useful and necessary. It's somewhat unusual to find both of those arguments together in one book. As you know, many social scientists want to take normative questions out of the study of everything; they prefer to study things that are scientific. The Global Covenant is an important work for students to be exposed to. It's a big, thick book—not an easy book by any means, but an important one.

According to my understanding, it's not just rational choice theorists who reject the normative approach; what about the cultural relativists who say we can't judge other people and their values?

I think students ought to be exposed to those who ask us to question our presuppositions, and who warn us against being so sure of ourselves that we take our ideas as the standards by which everybody ought to behave. A certain amount of tolerance ought to be present in international life, which is something that Jackson says.

You may say, well, this comes out of the Western tradition, but tolerance applies to ideas that come from outside of that tradition. That's what makes his book such a useful way of looking at international relations.

But what you just said is true. Students often comment, who is to say who's right about anything? That is also a challenge of teaching international ethics. It strikes at the very foundation of the enterprise. What is ethical for you is not for me, and vice versa.

When I teach ethics, we look at the arguments in favor of relativism—I think it's important for students to do that. But I would find it difficult to teach a whole semester based on the idea that it's impossible to say what is right and what is wrong. It rather defeats the purpose!

In fact I was having a brief conversation with a colleague on this very subject yesterday evening, and she was saying that this argument about who's to say who's right and who's wrong is particularly attractive to undergraduates because it's a useful way of undermining the authority of their parents. But most of the time this sort of resistance is rather superficial. If you press them—if you say, "Do you really believe that's the case, are you prepared to say that it's a matter of opinion?"—most of the time they will not stick to that line of reasoning.

It sounds as though it could be a life-changing experience, taking your course.

That's a high-flown way of putting it. But every good course in a way should be a life-changing experience. You should view the world in a different way by the end of the semester than when you began it. Certainly a course with this subject, dealing with questions of such a complicated nature, ought to be that.

My last question is about future trends in the field of ethics and international affairs—if indeed it is a field. Will it become a more popular approach, given all that's going on in the world?

I think that ethics should be incorporated into every course. In addition, I think it's a good thing having courses directly and specifically for ethics, addressing the various ways of systematically approaching subjects. Even if the proportion of courses looking at international ethics did not increase relative to the total number of international relations courses, an increase in the number of international relations courses is going to increase the number of courses in which international ethics is covered.

But in addition to that, I think that the proportion of ethics courses is going to increase. It is so much more on people's minds now than it used to be—the question of terrorism, all the questions relating to discrimination and the use of force, justifiability of the use of force, the role of international institutions (do nations need to seek legitimacy for their actions through endorsement by these institutions?). All of these questions people are thinking more about. So there are any number of aspects of international life that are going to receive renewed attention, all of which have ethical components.

But does the war on terror steal away some of the emphasis from human rights and global distributive justice? The Council's most recent Human Rights Dialogue explored the finding that nowadays people are more concerned with security than with human rights.

There's something to that. There's been an element of redistribution within the field of international ethics. Perennial questions like human rights or distributive justice will probably, at least for the immediate term, be less emphasized than questions having to do with security and the role and justifiability of force. More traditional questions of international systems have regained their prominence on the international agenda. If that's true in what you might call in the real world—governments are more willing to give priority to things like security than to counterbalancing values like open trade, freer migration, environmental cooperation, which were higher on their lists a few years ago—then it will also be true, at least to some extent, in academic studies.

I'll be talking to Al Pierce, of the U.S. Naval Academy, tomorrow about his experience of teaching these topics. I believe you have also had some experience teaching military officers; are there any insights you can share?

It has been my experience that military officers are not dismissive of questions of ethics. On the contrary, many of them are quite concerned with these questions. They see themselves as being in an honorable profession, and it is not part of their self-image to bring unnecessary harm to others.

Of course they have another perspective on these topics. They see a practical side to these issues that some people in the classroom wouldn't necessarily have thought of. But they are not reluctant to have international ethics brought up and discussed—and they are open to the idea that these concepts can be applied to real-life policymaking. In my experience, the military officers are sometimes more open minded when it comes to these topics than the civilians.

But do U.S. military officers already have a grounding in "just war" theory and related concepts when they come to your classes? For instance, is the notion of limiting collateral damage (civilian casualties and so on) part of their ordinary training and education?

Most have been exposed to aspects of "just war" thinking but not to "just war" theory in toto, any more than any other U.S. citizens have been. But they're certainly willing to learn . . .

Returning to the war with Iraq: It's been said that many members of the military do not go along with the Bush administration's thinking on the need for this war, particularly those who saw action during the Persian Gulf War—Colin Powell being a prime example.

I don't find a monolithic opinion among military officers on the use of force against Iraq. Certainly among the military officers I teach, there are some who are more in favor than others. They don't appear to be under pressure to observe a party line. In fact, I had to restrain one member of the class who kept bringing the discussion back to the war on Iraq and what a bad idea it was. I said right now we have other things to talk about, such as World War I! We'll get to the war on terrorism at the end of the term . . .

Read More: Warfare, Just War, Ethics, Ethics, International Relations

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