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Photo by HealthyMond on Unsplash

Ethics Primer Part II: Concepts and Methodologies

Sep 24, 2013

The core of ethics and international affairs can be accessed through three normative concepts: pluralism; rights and responsibilities; and fairness. A standard method of inquiry would begin with description of a normative issue and proceed through an analysis of the moral arguments and the justifications it engenders. Returning to the theme of non-perfection, it is important to emphasize given that there are multiple views of what is good, then it follows that some disagreements on both ends and means are inevitable. Often the best we can do is to document places where parties agree to disagree.


Ideology presents a significant hurdle. Many political ideologies—“isms” and doctrines that are absolute and universal—result in what Hans Morgenthau called “the crusading spirit.” Absolutes and moral abstractions in politics can be problematic for the ethicist. Ideologies like nationalism, Marxism, communism, religious fundamentalism and even Western liberalism in the wrong hands, have been great simplifiers, prone to excesses of political operators who use them to cloak their political interests in the guise of high-minded moral purpose.

Ideology and moral abstractions in politics tend to lead to what philosophers call a monism: a commitment to a single unified doctrine. Historians point out that monisms in politics have long been a road to ruin. The atrocities of the twentieth century are largely attributed to the monisms of the fascists and the communists (Hitler, Stalin, Mao)—utopians all, each with a universal project that would entertain no resistance.

Moral aspirations never stand outside of the context of power and interests. Woodrow Wilson’s post-World War I dream to “make the world safe for democracy” by instituting collective security through a League of Nations was indeed a laudable, moral goal, as was Carnegie’s similar dream before the war. But Carnegie and Wilson missed an important point. The aspiration alone was not enough. Nations act on their perceived interests. Collective security depends on all nations within the system to see their interests the same way—to see the same threats, and to be willing the pay similar costs in blood and treasure. This wasn’t the case then, and it’s not yet the case now.

As a nation with deep Calvinist roots, the political discourse of the United States is filled with moral language and images, and its political culture demands a moral dimension. We hear of America as exemplar: as the “city on a hill.” We hear of America as redeemer: the champion of human rights and democracy. American political leaders regularly refer to the United States a moral nation, whether it is Jimmy Carter’s policies of human rights promotion, Ronald Reagan’s targeting of the Soviet “evil empire,” or George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.”

Yet it is important to note that purity, whether it is in the service of human rights, the just war, or the promotion of democracy, just isn’t possible. Those who look for it always come to grief by the hands of their own moral certainty. Utopian thinking always fails because it does not conform to the realities of lived experience. Think of the utopian novels: Animal Farm, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. All utopias end in dystopia. Why? They fail because they attempt to perfect the imperfectible.

Moral arguments are not won by ascribing moral motives to one side and evil deeds to another. Moral standing is achieved by understanding difficult choices between competing moral claims and recognizing that tradeoffs and uneasy compromises are often necessary. The Native American Cherokee parable summarizes this idea in a single image. We all have two wolves within us, one good and the other evil. There is a struggle between them. Which one will win? As the parable says, the one that wins will be the one that we feed. We can never eradicate the evil we see in the world, just as we can never eradicate the evil capacities that lay dormant within each and every person.

American pluralism is based on the idea that the nation is working “toward a more perfect union;” and as the cliché goes, it is about the journey, not the destination. The United States is a nation born in sin—slavery marked it from the beginning. Even the “good” wars demanded terrible costs: the use of the atomic weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is perhaps the most dramatic reminder. A moral approach takes on these difficult cases, confronts them, and challenges the simplified, sentimental, and utopian versions of the story. Moral actors are willing to reckon with consequences, be accountable, and be open to self-criticism and self-correction.[1]

The moralists and monists of the past century and recent years missed a sense of proportion and contingency in their responses to the evils and injustices they have seen. No single moral imperative can make a citizen’s or a statesman’s choices automatic. Pluralism is the term used to recognize the irreconcilable nature of many of the moral claims that motivate us. Pluralism is empathy for diversity while recognizing what is common in the human experience. Pluralism is a pragmatic approach as compared to the ideological approach we see from the purveyors of moral clarity, whether they be war-on-terror advocates on the political right or human rights advocates on the political left.

We feel the full weight of pluralism when we view a great work of art or read a classic text. Through these encounters, we can understand the experiences and the value systems of others. We enter into another world and experience part of it as others do. As Isaiah Berlin puts it, monism holds that “only one set of values is true, all others are false.” Relativism holds that “my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right.”[2] Pluralism rejects both monism and relativism, charting a course of its own.

In response to Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, paints a compelling portrait of pluralism in action. The essence of his argument is captured in the title of his book, The Dignity of Difference. Sacks’s portrait is especially noteworthy because it comes from a man of religious faith. While many people of religious faith are monists of one sort or another, Sacks is a determined pluralist. Using the Bible story of the Tower of Babel as his illustration, Sacks tells of the attempt to bring the entire world together to speak one language and follow a single operating system:

God saw that Babel was…the first totalitarianism, the first imperialism, the first attempt at fundamentalism. How am I defining fundamentalism here? I would say it is an attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world. And having seen the building of the Tower as attempted fundamentalism, God confused the languages of humanity at Babel and said, “From here on there will be many languages, many cultures, many civilizations, and I want you to live together in peace.”

Thus God calls on one man, one nation, to be different in order to teach all humanity the dignity of difference. God lives in difference, and the proof is that his people are given that mission to be different.[3]

This commentary emphasizes the paradox of pluralism. Humanity is shared as a common experience. Yet what unites us is the fact of our differences. And so, Sacks embraces diversity while reminding us of our essential sameness. When this idea is put to work in arranging social institutions, the premium is on managing differences. The goal is not to make everyone the same; it is rather to find ways to build on basic commonalities, live with differences and to escape the all controlling moral dogmas that frequently shape our lives.

Rights and Responsibilities

Rights are protections and entitlements in relation to corresponding duties and responsibilities. There have been many attempts at forging general agreement on the composition of human rights—the best known being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and additional international agreement such as the Refugee Convention. The challenge with arguing for rights and responsibilities as an essential concept for the study of ethics and international affairs is that while we can achieve agreement at levels of high abstraction, the agreement begins to fray as we get down to cases. This is because at some point in the analysis, arguments become political—they become about differing values and interests. This realization need not be debilitating. But it does speak to challenge of forging moral agreement in ways that are actionable in policy terms.

The concept of rights has within it a suggestion of universality—a universal moral sense based on sympathy and mutuality. In preparing for the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947-48, the philosopher Jacques Maritain famously wrote, “We agree on these rights on the condition that no one asks us why.” Pragmatists have argued that in the end, foundational arguments, that is, where rights come from, may not really matter. Simple, factual observation of the need for human rights and the work that human rights arguments do to provide protections may be sufficient. After all, the facts of the genocides and gulags in such recent memory should be sufficient to make the case that protections are needed. The argument is simple. As Michael Ignatieff puts it: Why rights? Well, where would we be without them? The sad historical experiences of genocide and tyranny suggest that rights offer protection from the de-humanization that fuels gross injustices and deadly conflicts.[4] When a person or group is seen as less than human—when they are not bearers of basic rights—exploitation often follows.

Despite unending controversies over the origin, standing, and composition of rights, one aspect seems widely accepted. That is, any rights claim implies a corresponding set of duties and responsibilities. The assignment of duties and responsibilities is especially relevant to the study of globalization. One way to clarify the issue of responsibility is to consider rights claims in terms of “perfect” and “imperfect” obligations. Perfect obligations are specific and direct. For example, we have the perfect obligation not to torture. Imperfect obligations are more general, less specific, and inexactly targeted. So in the case of torture, there is the requirement to consider the ways and means through which torture can be prevented.. The exercise of an imperfect duty such as preventing torture is far from altruism. It should be self-evident that it would be in one’s own self-interest to live in a world where torture is not permitted.

Looking at global concerns today there are several obvious cases where both direct and indirect participation in the causing and alleviating of harms is inevitable. Whether it is the global economy, the global climate, or in areas such as humanitarian relief and the “responsibility to protect,” there is no dodging the questions. We are all connected by virtue of economic integration, climate conditions, and the real-time flow of information. Who will lead in addressing collective action problems? Who will play supporting roles? Who will design and create new arrangements? What about the role of individual citizens acting outside of state institutions? These questions about fair contribution are open-ended, but inevitable, given concern over rights and responsibilities. If international politics were about power and power only, these questions of responsibility would not be debated so seriously. But they are. So indeed, ethics matter.


Fairness addresses normative standards for appropriate contribution, equal regard and just desert. Contemporary methods for thinking through these standards include John Rawls’s “difference principle,” Amartya Sen’s “capabilities approach,” Peter Singer’s “one world,” and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “cosmopolitanism” just to name a few.[5]

Ideas about fairness are highly subjective and heavily influenced by circumstances. In the study of international affairs, fairness is a tool to critique social arrangements. The concept of fairness signals concern for the least well off, points to imbalances of prerogative and privilege, and helps us to understand the bases for legitimacy within social and political entities.

Much of the literature on fairness is found in the sub-field of distributive justice. Distributive justice is concerned with mechanisms for the fair division of goods. Rawls famously offers his “veil of ignorance” as a thought experiment to help answer this question. Ronald Dworkin suggests a “social insurance model” in a similar vein.[6] Michael Walzer captures the main challenge in his depiction of “complex equality.” As Walzer puts it, “The regime of complex equality is the opposite of tyranny. It establishes a set of relationships such that domination is impossible. In formal terms, complex equality means that no citizens standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good.” He then goes on to elaborate on the three essential principles of distributive justice: free exchange, desert, and need.[7]

On the global level, fairness implies at least a minimal amount of empathy and reciprocity. As a normative concern, fairness suggests that what is good for you is often linked to be what is good for others involved. This is the nature of complex problems and decisions. It is not hard to see this connection in light of pressing issues like climate change, public health concerns like AIDS or SARS, and global poverty issues where the fate of those hundreds of millions of people living on less than $2 per day is entwined with the fate of the more developed world.

Fairness may become an increasingly relevant element of public policy. Complex systems enabled by global integration require significant elements of reciprocity and “other regarding” behaviors to be sustainable. There will many opportunities—in fact, there will be many necessities—that will require cooperation and “non-zero” thinking. The non-zero approach, championed by Robert Wright, emphasizes win-win outcomes over winner-take-all strategies. In the increasingly globally interconnected world in which we live such an approach requires fair contribution to collective action challenges and recognition of the interests of others. Wright’s work is itself a contribution to a potential normative shift in the direction of enhanced cooperation around issues of common concern.[8]

Normative Shift

The aim of ethics and international affairs is not to set the stage for world government. Schemes for world government have foundered on basic and by now well-understood structural challenges. Rather, an understanding of ethics and international affairs should help us evolve within the structures we have already built and suggest new arrangements where necessary, feasible and compatible with local support. In the street-fight that is often the reality of international affairs, there should be moral minimums (things to be avoided) as well as desired outcomes (global aspirations). The aim should be to create a sense of direction.

In his book, Dreams of Peace and Freedom, historian Jay Winter writes of “minor utopias,” or “moments of possibility” when new ideas moved from the margin to the center of public life, each suggesting a better future on a global scale. Examples include 1919 when self-determination came into its own; 1948 when human rights became an international standard; 1968 when the idea of liberation launched student movements around the world; and 1992 when the concept of global citizenship gained notoriety in a variety of international forums. Each moment of possibility introduced a new principle to be reckoned with. Each changed the way the world was understood.[9]

Are we looking at another moment of possibility now? Maybe so. This moment is being leveraged by leaders more clear-eyed and realistic than many of their predecessors. There are many examples of normative shift in emergence. We see it in areas such as security, climate and education. Projects are springing up that are ambitious but incremental. The purpose of each is to change expectations to reflect the demands of a global ethic.

In considering the security agenda, there is the example of former Senator Sam Nunn the leader of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), the engine behind the Global Zero campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The campaign was started by Nunn along with George Shultz, William Perry and Henry Kissinger to confront the alarming fact that disarmament and non-proliferation has not proceeded as efficiently as these Cold War leaders had hoped. NTI develops new strategies and new partnerships to work toward the reduction of nuclear threats and the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Whether they reach their ultimate goal of abolition or not, “Global Zero” has entered the consciousness of a new generation of strategists, policy makers, and concerned citizens.

The climate agenda has generated numerous examples of a global ethic in the making. One of the most promising is the C40 Climate Leadership Group co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. C40 is an organization that brings together the leaders of the world’s largest cities to share best practices on local efforts that will help to address climate change globally The C40 works by “planning and measuring the impact of local initiatives that reduce emissions from energy, waste, water supply and transport, and policies that increase cities’ resilience to climate change.” The C40 creates a forum for leaders from Helsinki to Hong Kong, Beijing to Berlin. These chief executives share information and policy ideas in areas ranging from green building codes and weatherization programs to low emission transport systems and seawater heating initiatives.

The education agenda is similarly well-positioned to evolve, energized by the possibilities of instant world-wide communication. A prime example is Professor Michael Sandel who is leveraging this opportunity by taking his Harvard lectures on “Justice” to online audiences around the world. In a recent New York Times column he is quoted as saying, “Students everywhere are hungry for discussion of the big ethical questions we confront in our everyday lives ….My dream is to create a video-linked global classroom, connecting students across cultures and national boundaries — to think through these hard moral questions together, to see what we can learn from one another.”[10] With this initiative and others like it, education has reached a new stage. A truly educated person in the twenty-first century will have to take account of ideas and information from sources around the world.

How will we know when new norms might be making a difference? Meaningful normative shifts toward accepting a global ethic will shape personal identity. Individuals in even the most remote locations will begin see themselves as part of a global economy, a global climate, and a global information system. Values and priorities will evolve to take into account global-level concerns. Zero-sum thinking will begin to give way in some circumstances. Political and social arrangements will evolve. More and more, systems and structures will be designed to align with global expectations while preserving local autonomy and flavor.

Done well, ethics and international affairs in the twenty-first would inspire, not legislate; it would offer insight not rules and regulations. Its goal would not be to make everyone the same or impose consensus. It would be, rather, to preserve liberty and diversity by recognizing a new reality and norms that must come along with it.

A moral world is not the same as a world in which everyone acts with perfect ethical result. This is not possible. However, it is possible to have a world in which the idea of morality is central to decision making. If we can create a world where pluralism, responsibility, and fairness are taken seriously, then the study of ethics and international affairs may indeed be a useful and practical art.

[1] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977)

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

[3] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid a Clash of Civilizations (London: Continuum, 2002).

[4] Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (New York: Norton, 2006).

[6] Ronald Dworkin, Justice for Hedgehogs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[7] Michael Walzer, (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[8] Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Pantheon, 2000).

[9] Jay Winter, Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the 20th Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[10] Thomas Friedman, “Justice Goes Global,” New York Times, June 14, 2011.

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