Teaching Ethics and International Affairs (#1)

Conversation with Chris Brown

March 8, 2003

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 do you currently teach at the London School of Economics that come under the heading of "ethics and international affairs"?

CHRIS BROWN: I teach a course called "Sovereignty, Rights and Justice," which is predominantly for graduate students, but there's a version of the same course for undergraduate (third-year) students. It's a year-long course for our one-year Master's program. I don't teach anything that's called "international ethics," but a lot of the teaching I do is about ethics. On this particular course I address normative questions about human rights, international intervention, global distributive justice—trying to look at particular cases but in terms of contemporary political theory. So the way I teach international ethics is basically by teaching international political theory.

Does teaching ethics and international affairs carry any special challenges? How does it differ from teaching straightforward IR?

The thing I find—and I believe I have this in common with everyone else teaching these subjects—is that students are characteristically relativist about ethics. They see ethics as being a matter of opinion rather than as a subject that can be taught.

So I think a large part of the exercise is to persuade students that you're not trying to teach them what they ought to think about a particular topic. What you're trying to do, rather, is to get them to address ethical issues in a systematic, scholarly way, to think through the implications of the positions they hold, and to see how those positions would work in more general terms; but also to spot the fact that the kind of ethical positions we take in international relations are very ambiguous—they're about going in lots of different directions.

I tend to focus the discussion around a clash between two sets of norms or two sets of basic rights. On the one hand, you've got a normative framework that's based on sovereignty and nonintervention. On the other hand, you've got a normative framework that's based on human rights and the rights of individuals. Clearly, these two positions clash—quite frequently. Students, at least initially, are unwilling to acknowledge the existence of that; they're in denial about it.

Why are they in denial about it? Why does it take going to graduate school for students to discover that ethics plays a role in international relations?

Probably because of the nature of undergraduate education. Quite often it doesn't stress the ethical dimensions. I think it also has something to do with society as a whole. People are very unwilling to challenge ethical beliefs; they seem to regard beliefs as a kind of private matter. The fact that someone holds an opinion doesn't make it right or wrong. There's an unwillingness to address ethical issues more widely that feeds across.

Notably, one finds this attitude even in the United States, where people tend to be far more religious than we are in England. In America, too, there is a very strong current of unspoken ethical relativism. If you can pull students in, you can get them to overcome some of this.

That said, some of the clashes are difficult for them to come to terms with. I find it very striking, for example, that people in favor of human rights—a good chunk of my students are Amnesty International members (as indeed I am)—tend to resist doctrines of force or humanitarian intervention, even though in many cases the only possible chance for human rights is by intervention.

So that's what I mean about being in denial sometimes. If you're in favor of amnesty, you don't like to think that the only way you can do anything about this is by violence sometimes. It causes real problems, and people prefer not to think about it.

A related issue that always comes up in the classroom is motivation for state action. Students are incredibly unwilling to accept that states can have multiple motives. So the Gulf War of 1990: it's either got to be about oil, or it's about the liberation of Kuwait. It can't be about both, which it actually was. (There's a lovely New Yorker cartoon, with two crusaders going to the Holy Land on their horses, with one saying to another, let's face it, it's basically about olive oil, isn't it?)

To overcome this, I try to relate it to ordinary life. I sometimes ask my students, why have you come to university? "I'm interested in the subject and I also want to get a job." So I say, "Well, you've got mixed motives."

And in this case, the two motives don't cancel each other out; they're both valid. At the same time, one has to acknowledge that there's a genuine problem of dirty hands, as it's called in the literature—you do harm whatever you do. Most of the time it's not about choosing the best; it's about choosing the lesser of two evils.

Again, people don't like to think about that. This by the way is the reason why Noam Chomsky has lost credibility: he can't understand the basic notion that to act purely isn't always possible.

So are you saying that part of the challenge of teaching this topic is that young people tend to be idealistic?

Yes, they don't want to hear us old fogies saying, life is tough; quite often you don't get what you want.

Another thing that's challenging about teaching international ethics is that there's not much of a reality check. This makes it very different from personal ethics. Our relationships with other people are very difficult to dodge because, you know, these people are there, standing in front of us. Someone wants me to do something; I don't want to do it. How should I handle it? At an interpersonal level, people are obliged to confront the implications of the beliefs that they hold, even though they may not put it that way; whereas at the international level, they're not obliged to confront anything. I'm in favor of human rights and I'm against war; you're never really forced to confront this or make a decision about what to do. So you simply put it aside.

Has there been any more interest in this combination of topics since 9/11 and all the recent talk of war with Iraq? In Britain, I understand that the prospect of a second Gulf War has generated a great deal of controversy.

I haven't been teaching this year, so I haven't been addressing the war on Iraq in the classroom. Last year, the war on terrorism had some impact on classroom discussions though not a lot. Remember, I teach very few Brits. The LSE has a heavily international body. The largest contingent in the course last year were Canadians, actually—then Americans, then Scandinavians, and then Brits. These are the four main groups.

Still, it's obvious that the prospect of war with Iraq has affected students in a very big way. There have been very big demonstrations out of the LSE, but I found it interesting that a lot of the students in international relations were not taking part. They felt conflicted about the whole thing.

The other aspect is, students who take international relations tend to be much more skeptical about the UN; they say, "We know how the UN works, and the fact that they don't want us to go to war doesn't mean a great deal."

The period after 9/11 was interesting as well. The real thing that 9/11 brought home was that until now, the central precept of international relations was that it was based on power and interest—you know, the Hobbesian view of the world. Whereas what al-Qaeda demonstrated—in a very unpleasant way—was that there are people out there whose value systems simply aren't compatible with that kind of worldview. You know, you can't deter a suicide bomber.

The thing that's been remarkable since 9/11 is that values the West has forgotten are still tremendously important—to large numbers of people. This is possibly more striking in Britain than it is in the States, where religious belief is much more prevalent.

Recently Cherie Blair (our Prime Minister's wife) caused a bit of a furore by talking about suicide bombers in Israel. She said that, well, of course it is terrible what they were doing but on the other hand, we ought to be concerned with their situation of deprivation. In other words, the only way we can interpret what they do, within a Western framework, is to say it's about property. I don't think it's about property really.

The same week as Cherie Blair's remark, the BBC commentator in Israel interviewed the mother of a suicide bomber. This woman looked the BBC interviewer straight in the eye and said, "My son is already in paradise. Your children will go to hell."

That is incomprehensible from the point of view of Western rationalism, our kind of secularist idea that politics is really about economics. For many people now politics is about religion; it's about value systems. And I think international ethics is the best framework for handling that—better than the theory you will find in mainstream IR courses.

So 9/11 and aftermath has given some impetus to the need for including ethics in IR courses?

Yes, and this series of events has also raised some really interesting questions about violence: when is violence justified, can we adjust "just war" criteria to fit anti-terrorist campaigns, how do we handle non-state violence, how do we handle situations where non-state actors are operating out of states (as in the Afghan case).

Many of these issues were there before 9/11 but have since been catapaulted onto the front pages. Until recently, the great enemy, if you like, of international ethics was the realist position in international relations.

What's striking to me about the post-9/11 Bush administration is the lack of influence of realists. On the one hand, you've got traditional multilateralists; on the other hand, you've got hard Wilsonians, people who want to get out there and promote American values. So you have a debate going between different kinds of idealists rather than between idealists and realists. And that again feeds into the study of international ethics.

Was this shunting aside of realists surprising?

I think a lot of people had pinned the second George Bush down as a kind of realist. His statements on international affairs before the election was that it was all about American interests. So the post-9/11 turn of the Bush administration has been slightly surprising. Once upon a time in America, the hawks were realists of one kind or another, but they're not any more really. They're keen to use U.S. power to promote U.S. values. Basically, Saddam is not a threat to the United States. On the other hand, his existence is a standing reproach to everything Americans—along with Brits and many Europeans—hold dear. So there is a kind of different agenda emerging.

Moving back to the teaching of ethics and international affairs, do you have any advice on resources, teaching techniques, any new works you'd recommend to people in the field? I know it's a broad question. . .

The two things I do are fairly obvious. One is not to make it pure theory. You need to use case studies. Getting people to understand a clash of values is so much easier if you play it through in the context of a real-life situation.

For example, Kosovo: here's a case where there was a multilateral military intervention without a UN resolution. It's a very complex issue. If you take your students through it, and ask them what they would have done, that gets them thinking.

That's how I try to get across the notion that even though I teach quite a lot of abstract political theory, this is practical ethics, not a theoretical course in ethics. International situations are not something one encounters in everyday life, as I was saying earlier. Because of that, you've got to get your students into it.

The other thing to stress is the importance of limiting class size. I teach international ethics to groups of ten or twelve at graduate level, where you can get a genuine discussion going, particularly if you've got good students (which we have). Anything above twelve becomes very unwieldy. Especially the kind of resistance people have to international ethics, you've got to engage in some Socratic dialogue. So keeping the class size down is very important.

Of course if you're stuck in a situation where you're teaching international Ethics 101 to 200 people, as can be the case in American universities, this is not very helpful advice. I'm lucky I teach at the LSE, which is very competitive to get into—only the Americans with the top GPAs get in, and we also have some very good Europeans. Scandinavians in particular tend to be well informed on general political philosophy. Some of them have even read Kant!

International ethics is a tough subject to teach, I find, and I feel privileged to be doing it in a place that attracts such a high caliber of students.

Where do you see the field of international ethics going? Will it become a field like legal ethics, business ethics, and medical ethics?

I prefer to integrate ethics with other subjects rather than teach it as a separate subject. My understanding is that in most law schools, legal ethics aren't taken very seriously, and certainly business ethics don't seem to have made much of an impact.

Marginalizing international ethics—saying that here's the international ethics course—implies that the rest of the program doesn't have any ethical content, whereas I would want to argue that all of international relations is suffused with ethical questions. So there is something to be said for having separate courses but not for ghettoizing the topic. Ethical questions infuse everything else.

Where it's going—if you'd asked me that three years ago, I'd have said the future lies in globalization issues and international business ethics. But I'm less convinced of that nowadays partly because of the things we're discussing. I suspect that religion and culture are going to be much more central than we ever thought.

So Sam Huntington was right?

Well, he was on the right page but he was reading it wrong. I don't think civilizations can clash, but people can.

He was absolutely right, however, in stating that a lot of the important normative questions of the future are not going to be the ones thrown up by the traditional state agenda. Rather, they will be about basic values, religions; and even though the way he shaped it wasn't particularly good, I would give him credit for spotting the trend when he did.

Incidentally, I was noticing that on tomorrow's ISA agenda there's a session on religion and international affairs, but the session on business ethics has been cancelled.

I think it's interesting that the Vietnam War was more of an ideological clash, and now that the Cold War is over, we're contemplating a war on ethical, religious, and cultural grounds—which could perhaps make the Vietnam War look tame.

You can read it another way. Christopher Hitchens is my hero on these matters; and there are a couple of other radical journalists in Britain who've gone against the trend and are much more positive about this war.

They're all saying the same thing, which is that the agenda has changed in quite a dramatic way. For most of the Cold War period, the United States was the leader of the capitalist coalition; it was fighting against people who were engaging in wars of national liberation. And for a large part of that time in the Third World, the people of the West were the bad guys. One might not be terribly enthused about the Viet Cong, but there was a sense in which this was a traditional struggle between the haves (South Vietnamese) and have nots (North Vietnamese).

The point Chris Hitchens is making is that this is not actually what we're about now. Theocratic terrorism in the hands of al-Qaeda—this is not the voice of the oppressed; this is the voice of the oppressors. Indeed, in terms of any kind of traditional, left-right progressive agenda, the United States is a far more progressive society than the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or whatever. And again, the potential war against Saddam is much closer to an anti-fascist campaign than it is to a capitalist campaign against national liberation.

I sincerely believe—and I have already shocked a few of my American colleagues at ISA by saying this—that George W. is right, that the American troops will be greeted as liberators in many parts of Iraq, The irony is that the only safe Arab capital for Brits or Americans may eventually be Baghdad!

This is slightly worrying . . . You know, I do think that the rate at which events are unfolding at the moment means we're not thinking very clearly about the new context. We're using ideas and value structures that apply to the old context: U.S. imperialism is bad. Maybe what we're having now is a contest of imperialisms. U.S. imperialism is more progressive than some of the others. . .

Of course the people who would recognize this better than many are traditional Marxists. Read Karl Marx on British imperialism in India. British imperialism there was a good thing as far as he was concerned, fighting against the forces of culture and religion. Very politically incorrect, but that's how he saw it.

All of this changes the agenda—making international ethics incredibly interesting for the foreseeable future. We're going to have to take culture, religion, and ethnicity far more seriously than we have done in the past.

Does that mean finally moving beyond cultural relativism, the idea that however people behave is fine because that's part of their culture?

I think people confuse having respect for other cultures with respecting other cultures, if you like. Sure, one should respect other people's belief systems; but the idea that we're unable to distinguish between these systems and say that one is better than another is pretty silly, and not a part of our normal life.