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Ethics Primer Part I: Background and Theories

Sep 24, 2013

Ethics as Practice

The discipline of ethics begins with Socrates’ question: How should one live? Ethics is about choice. What values guide us? What standards do we use? What principles are at stake? And how do we choose between them. An ethical approach to a problem will inquire about ends (goals) and means (the instruments we use to achieve these goals) and the relationship between the two.

The philosopher Simon Blackburn writes that ethics takes as its starting point that: “Human beings are ethical animals…we grade, evaluate, and compare and admire, claim and justify…Events endlessly adjust our sense of responsibility, our guilt and our shame, our sense of our own worth and that of others…”[1] According to Blackburn, ethical inquiry is normative in the sense that it suggests “norms.” Norms are what we consider to be “expected and required” behavior. We all experience functional norms. For example, in continental Europe and the United States, drivers stay on the right-hand side of the road; in the United Kingdom, drivers keep to the left. We also experience moral norms. A moral norm consists of an expectation such as nondiscrimination in the workplace or the requirement to respect the needs of the most vulnerable members of society (e.g. children, the elderly, and the infirm). Moral norms are aspirational and prescriptive rather than functional and descriptive—they often paint the “ought” rather than the “is.” It is this type of norm—the moral norm—that is the focus of this chapter.

Looking at ethical inquiry this way, compliance with accepted norms and law is a useful beginning. But it is not enough. Compliance is merely a floor, a minimum upon which to build. Many actions in government, business, or private life comply with the law and commonly held norms but are not optimal from an ethical perspective. Examples are all around us. British members of parliament may not have broken laws when they used expense accounts to bill tax payers for lifestyle enhancements such as moat cleaning, the upkeep of expensive second homes, or the rental of adult movies. But surely this kind of behavior was wrong.

In more serious policy matters, during the global financial crisis of 2008 it may well be that most major banks and financial institutions were in full compliance with the law in the management of credit default swaps and derivative trading. Yet something went very wrong in the area of risk and responsibility. There are many decisions made that are in compliance with common norms and the law—but some of them are wrong. Ethical reasoning helps us to make these distinctions.

Despite the emphasis on something as vague as aspirational standards, ethical inquiry is not an idle philosophical pursuit—it is quite literally a practical enterprise. In his book, The Practice of Ethics, Hugh LaFollette writes: “just as we study medicine not only to learn about the body and its functions, but to make us better (to promote good health); so too we study ethics not just for philosophical enlightenment, but to improve our living conditions and to make our lives better.”[2] Ethics helps us to understand what we truly value and how to connect this with the practice of our daily lives, our individual choices, and the policies of the institutions of which we are a part. A good ethicist will link his or her work in some dialectical fashion to real-world experience. The goal is to find clarity and to choose wisely—to choose in ways that promote human well being and human flourishing.

It is important to keep in mind that ethics –especially as it relates to matters of public policy—is non-perfectionist in its character. Non-perfectionist does not equate with relativism. Rather, it suggests that conflict is natural and perfection is not possible: values inevitably overlap and conflict. As Isaiah Berlin reminds us, the pursuit of any single virtue will ultimately face the obstacles of competing virtues.[3] Freedom often conflicts with order, justice with mercy, truth with loyalty. There is no conflict-free path to a good life, just as there is no single model of the good life to be pursued by all people everywhere.

To get a full picture of the place of ethics in international affairs—it possibilities and limitations—three dimensions of activity deserve equal consideration: actors, systems, and social arrangements.

Ethics in Three Dimensions

The first dimension focuses on the decision maker—the actor or the agent who makes a choice. We can and should evaluate the acts of individuals, be they presidents, ministers, official representatives, CEOs, community leaders, advocates, employees, consumers or citizens. Each has a role as an autonomous actor.

In addition to single actors, a discussion of agency must also consider the identity, values, and acts of collective entities such as states, corporations, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations. One of the most important trends of our time is the growing power of non-state actors—especially multinational corporations. Wal-Mart, Microsoft, BP and other companies of this size and scope rival the capacities of many states in terms of their economic, political and social reach. It is therefore both necessary and proper to ask and answer questions relating to the moral choices of corporate entities. All are moral agents.

The second dimension of ethics has to do with the systems, social arrangements, and conditions that define our range of choices. In short, we need to examine the “rules of the game” by which we live and make decisions. We all live within sets of norms and expectations—some more fair and just than others. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this dimension is to show examples of when “rational” choices within a set of arrangements yield “bad” or less-than-desirable results. In other words, in some systems, when an actor does the “right thing” within the system, the net result is sub-optimal.

This problem exists on many levels of policy and institutional design. For example, consider the nuclear weapons doctrine of MAD—mutual assured destruction. The entire strategic framework is based on the idea of reciprocal threat. Within this system, to insure stability, the most rational thing to do is to make an immoral threat (and be prepared to carry it out).

There is something deeply troubling about MAD. Would it not be a worthy goal to try to create frameworks and policies where the “rational” thing to do would be more benign than to make a threat of mutual assured destruction? In brief then, this second dimension calls attention to the fact that we live within institutions, systems, and social arrangements of human design. The rules, norms, and conditions of these arrangements should be subject to ethical evaluation.

The third dimension of ethics is the assertion that we often have the opportunity to improve our situation—to do better. Consider a standard ethics scenario like this: My mother is sick. I cannot afford medicine. So I steal the medicine from a pharmacy whose managers will not even notice that it is gone. Is stealing the medicine in this circumstance the right thing or the wrong thing to do?

We can discuss this case in terms of my decision as a moral agent—whether I am a thief and villain, a rescuer and a hero, or both. Ethical questions are frequently raised as dilemmas such as this one. In many situations, there is a genuine need to choose between two competing and compelling claims, and ethical reasoning can help to sort these out. But we can also expand the inquiry to ask a broader question beyond the narrow question of whether to steal or not to steal. We can also ask: What kind of community denies medicine to sick people who cannot afford it? Is there something unfair or unethical about this system?

To further illustrate this third dimension, it is useful to note the distinction between charity and philanthropy. Charity is the duty to attend to immediate and acute human suffering. Charity translates to feeding the hungry, tending to the sick and destitute, providing relief to victims of natural and man made disasters, and giving shelter to the homeless. Philanthropy is something different—it is an endeavor that reaches above and beyond the imperatives of charity. Philanthropy explores new ways of living, new ideas and institutions to improve society.

While this distinction may sound abstract, a philanthropist like Andrew Carnegie was specific and practical in his interpretation. Carnegie believed that new institutions could improve public policy. Specifically, as an advocate for the peaceful resolution of international conflicts and disputes, Carnegie supported the mediation and arbitration movement that grew out of Geneva in the mid-19th century. The idea was simple yet profound. Just as legal mechanisms were created to arbitrate disputes in domestic society it should be possible to create similar mechanisms in international society for the same purpose. The concept of international law and organization was gaining momentum at the beginning of the 20th century—the movement merely needed new institutions to give it shape and force. In this spirit, Carnegie financed the building of the Peace Palace at The Hague, supported the establishment of the International Court of Justice, and lobbied for the establishment of the League of Nations. Carnegie devoted much of his philanthropy—and his personal energy—to promoting these new institutions and the ideas behind them.

As the Carnegie example illustrates, the third dimension of ethics expands the range of choices we have in front of us. It creates new possibilities. Sometimes genuine dilemmas are unavoidable—and there is no escape from tragic choices. But at other times we can and should use our creative talents to imagine alternate scenarios, to build new institutions and organizations, and to manufacture better options.

Realism Reconsidered

A hundred years ago Andrew Carnegie thought international relations was about to change forever. War would be abolished. Just as private war in the form of dueling had passed from the scene, so too would the slaughters of public war become a relic of a bygone age. Carnegie believed in moral progress. He had adopted a version of Social Darwinism popularized by Herbert Spencer: the world was evolving in a positive direction, attitudes and expectations were changing for the better. He had good reason to think this way. In his lifetime, slavery had been abolished and the industrial revolution was beginning to bring benefits to society in health, education, and personal opportunity. Living conditions were improving for the burgeoning middle classes and he was going to do his part to make a difference.

Despite the influence of idealists like Carnegie, the history of Western thought on interstate relations is dominated by the realist model.[4] From the beginning of recorded history, the inevitable centrality of power as the key element of politics was understood. As the Athenian generals put it in Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian wars, “The strong do what they will, the weak do what they must.” Machiavelli built on this idea, advising the Prince that state rulers must not be under any illusions—power and interests are the controlling variable of politics. According to Machiavelli, the good ruler must learn how to manipulate power to serve his own ends, and therefore, the best interests of the state. Thomas Hobbes later added to Machiavelli’s observations with his version of the Leviathan in which he describes life in the state of nature as “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Realists are well known for their profound skepticism over the possibilities for moral action. This skepticism stems from both their assessment of human nature and their observation of political life itself. According to realist theory, human nature has within it an animus dominandi—a will to power. In international society, this will to power combines with a lack of central authority and enforcement mechanisms to create a perpetual security dilemma. No one feels safe; the world is seen as a zero-sum game where one nation’s benefit is always another nation’s loss. As a consequence, power maximization—and therefore enhanced security—becomes all important. In this environment almost all actions are seen as necessities. Such a world leaves little room for choice.

As commonplace as it is, this simple version of realism does not explain everything. There is a competing account of international relations theory commonly referred to as the liberal internationalist model. This model has illustrious intellectual roots in the likes of Erasmus, Hugo Grotius and Immanuel Kant. For liberals, the human condition is subject to improvement. Man is not fated to engage in conflict—reason and the rational application of universal principles offer a potential path to a harmonious social order. In the liberal world there is no inevitable animus domanani that is not subject to potential amelioration. The will to power exists, but it can be tamed. It can be guided by rationality and principles of moral duty.

Generally thought of as heirs to the Enlightenment (although their roots can be traced to earlier times), liberals strive for human progress. They believe in the possibilities of social institutions—institutions that are created by the imperatives of morality and sustained by rational principles. Liberals place great faith in the positive effects of education and other social institutions (such as legal systems) that promote individual fulfillment and social harmony.

The liberal version of twentieth century history focuses on institutional developments. From the League of Nations to the United Nations, from the International Court of Justice to the International Criminal Court, progress has been made to expand the analogy of “rule of law” from the domestic sphere to the international sphere—just as Carnegie hoped for. As Robert Jackson writes in The Global Covenant a set of norms has been established, widely recognized by all states, shaping the parameters of acceptable behavior in international politics.[5] Among these norms are sovereign equality of states, expectation to refrain from using force, non-intervention, self-determination, and respect for human rights. We see these norms in action in organizations and regimes ranging from The Law of the Sea to the World Trade Organization (WTO). We also see them in various components of the UN system, especially through its alphabet soup of agencies: UNDP (development) UNEP (environment); WHO (health) and so on. The norms generated in these institutions are often not binding and frequently in conflict, yet they do offer a guiding framework.

In the first decades of the twenty-first century international institutions and international law remain relatively weak. As the realists would put it, international society is still primitive. It suffers from a lack of coherence, cohesiveness, and consensus. It also lacks political will and independent military power. Liberal internationalism is, at best, an incomplete project.

But for all of the shortcomings of the liberal internationalist model in both concept and performance, a simple realist account is equally deficient. Realism alone cannot account for enormous and influential shifts in expected and required behavior. Norms have shifted, especially in areas of labor rights, human rights, and the treatment of the natural world. Many of these norms are not universally accepted; but it is safe to say that over the past hundred years, we have seen wider and deeper recognition and acceptance of norms such as prohibitions against child labor, expectations of the equal treatment of women, and the duty to preserve and protect the natural environment.

An ethical approach to international affairs begins with the realist’s insights about power and human nature. Realism rightly points out that nations will act in their own interests, and that they are correct to do so. But the ethical approach goes beyond these insights to account for the very real weight of conscience, principle, responsibility, and restraint in decision-making.

A recent book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, suggests that conscience and principle may be having an effect on an issue as fundamental and intractable as armed conflict. Pinker argues that deaths due to war and conflict have decreased since the end of the Cold War.[6] Empirical study shows that despite perception and conventional wisdom, the global death toll due to violent conflict is trending downward. He asserts that norms and institutions have de-legitimized the instruments of industrial war (not to mention nuclear war) and suggests that we may actually be living through an era of measurable moral progress. War may be evolving into a much more restrained practice than the total wars of the twentieth century. War as we know it may begin to look more like policing (coercive force used selectively to maintain order) than the all-out massive slaughters we have become accustomed to. The first decades of the twenty-first century will put this hypothesis to the test.


Ethics does its work in the world by granting and withdrawing legitimacy. History shows that the mitigation and cessation of unjust practices ultimately comes from the assertion of core values. The end of slavery began with various revolutions and rebellions—yet the source of its ultimate demise was its loss of moral legitimacy. Communism, for the most part, ended in similar fashion. The Soviet Union collapsed when the values that held it together were no longer credible and sustainable. Its legitimacy evaporated. The same could be said of apartheid South Africa. There has been more regime change in recent years because of the power of principles rather than the power of the gun.

Surely, legitimacy played a critical role in the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East. Mubarak, Qaddafi and other Arab leaders faced a tipping point. When their rule and their regimes became perceived as illegitimate, this illegitimacy became the decisive force for change.

New struggles for legitimacy can be found everywhere. We see normative consensus forming rejecting the tactic of terrorism. We see movement on the need to address climate change. We see new initiatives to shore up the so-called nuclear taboo and to move toward radical reductions in the number of nuclear weapons. We see strong voices rejecting genocide and promoting humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. We see robust responses to issues of global health. We see serious attention given to the status of women. We see concern for global poverty and the plight of the least well off expressed in the aspirations of the UN’s Millennium Development goals. All of these issues are gaining normative legitimacy. They are providing leverage for action. They are even changing the way that individuals, corporate entities and nations perceive their own interests. But progress will take time, and debate around these issues will be the battleground for some time to come.

[1] Simon Blackburn, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 4.

[2] Hugh LaFollette, The Practice of Ethics (Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007) p. 1.

[3] Isaiah Berlin, “The First and the Last” New York Review of Books (May 14, 1998)

[4] Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986, 6th edition); John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[5] Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[6] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).

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