Ethical Encounters – Encountering Ethics


Our final post reflecting on the forum itself is from Professor Kimberly Hutchings, she is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. She is a leading scholar in international relations theory. She has extensively researched and published on international political theory in respect to Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, international and global ethics, Feminist theory and philosophy, and politics and violence. Her work is influenced by the scholarly tradition that produced the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. Previous posts can be found here: Myriam, Joe, Elke, Jillian and Diego.  *Note: all images provided by Joe – Kim bears no responsibility for the cheap visual gags!

Ethics as a term encompasses every-day and more specialised meanings. It is used to refer to existing moral commitments, standards and values embedded in actual contexts and influencing or governing practice. It is also used to refer to philosophical justifications of moral standards and values. One encounters ethics in both senses in reflecting on the contributions to ‘Ethical Encounters’. All of these encounters seek to speak to dimensions of practice: war, development, migration, rights claims in the name of humanity. All of them also seek to shift the philosophical assumptions and implications of predominant approaches to international ethics. In summary, they all ask ethical questions about doing ethics in theory and practice. For all of the contributors encountering ethics is itself an ethical encounter. Of course they do not all say the same thing, and in what follows I want to pick out some of the commonalities and some of the differences between them. This will not be in order to resolve or transcend differences, or to develop a synthesis of the views expressed, but rather to bear further witness to what Elke calls the ‘ethicality of ethics’, which I want to suggest is intimately related to unresolvable but also unavoidable questions of authority and judgment.

Myriam, Joe, Elke, Jillian and Diego are all against a certain kind of international ethics, which they see as globally dominant in theory and practice in the worlds of the western academy and liberal international policy. They are against ethics understood ultimately as a matter of universal truths, which can be translated into the terms of binding prescriptive rules, laws and codes of practice. It is pretty clear, although he is not necessarily named, that Public Enemy Number One is Kant, with Bentham a close second, followed of course by the recent deontological, contractarian and utilitarian inspired generation of cosmopolitan moral and political theorists and their allies in law and policy.

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Ethical Encounters – Parsing the Pluriverse: empathy and deliberation in a post-MDG ethics of international development


Our fifth post in the forum is a guest post from Diego de Merich. Diego got his PhD from LSE and is now an LSE 100 Fellow and a research associate at the Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy at Simon Fraser University. His work focuses on human empathy and the ethics of care in service of alternative frameworks for International Development (post-Millennium Development Goals). For earlier posts in the forum do look for Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, focus has turned to a new framework which might replace them. Heavily influenced by the Human Capabilities Approach (HCA), the MDGs and the recently-proposed ‘Golden Thread’ frameworks posit a relatively monolithic, liberal understanding of what ‘development’ is meant to signify. As such, each new iteration of an international agreement on development seems destined to miss the potential for more creative and context-appropriate political action in response to the shortcomings of the approaches which preceded them. Using as a starting point Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development, I suggest that his notion of the pluriverse – which stands in opposition to the ‘universal and homolingual thrust of modernity’ – both challenges the post-2015 discourse and implies the need for different ethical practices upon which ‘development’ might instead be re-cast. Realisation of the pluriverse and notions of care, responsibility, democracy and pluralism would require that closer attention be paid to narrative voice and to the role that empathic processes should play in the deliberation surrounding development.

The ‘promise’ of empathy in pursuit of a post-MDG development practice can be understood by contrasting two approaches to deliberative democracy – one which would hold the HCA as its guiding ethical impulse and one which suggests that an ethics of care and responsibility in international development requires a better appreciation for the role that empathy and narrative play in understanding the development possibilities and realities of the constituent elements of Escobar’s pluriverse. Here, the focus of ethical enquiry is shifted from a more abstract notion of social justice to a recognition of shared/lived vulnerability, alternatively-imagined ways of being and thus, to an ‘international development’ which is differently understood and practiced.

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Ethical Encounters – Care in Counterinsurgency: Feminist Ethics and the Morality of ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’

Processed with VSCOcam with lv01 preset

This guest post, by Jillian Terry, is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Jillian is in the final stages of completing her PhD in International Relations at the LSE, where her research explores the relationship between feminist ethics and post-9/11 war. Recently, Jillian has published her research in the International Feminist Journal of Politics and has contributed a chapter to the edited volume Gender and Private Security in Global Politics, edited by Maya Eichler (OUP, 2015). For earlier posts, see Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

In thinking of twenty-first century war, questions of ethics in the realm of counterinsurgency are embodied in a wide range of encounters between combatants, civilians, and counterinsurgents. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed tactics, strategies, and mechanisms in the name of COIN operations ranging from population control and detention to targeted killings and the implementation of the Human Terrain System, resulting in a set of complex realities about what it means to ‘do’ counterinsurgency in the contemporary era. Nevertheless, much of what we talk about when we think through questions of ethics and counterinsurgency remains tied to its manifestation in formal, legal mechanisms – namely the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) – and their insistence on counterinsurgency as a practice of ‘winning hearts and minds’. Like much mainstream work on the ethics of war in IR, this has resulted in ethical conversations around counterinsurgency operations that are theorized with respect to just war doctrine, applying principles of jus in bello and jus ad bellum to determine the moral status of counterinsurgency as a means of warfighting. Here, I see a vital disconnect between existing analyses of COIN and how it is actually experienced and felt by insurgents and civilian populations – experiences and encounters that are irreducible to the strict criteria of the just war framework. To bridge this disconnect, I suggest a reorienting of our ethical lens away from just war thinking and towards a feminist ethics premised on care, empathy, and relationality. Such a perspective is more attuned to considering the practical realm of counterinsurgency rather than remaining mired in abstract debates about the semantics and theory of COIN operations. Given that the practical realm is one in which the truly relational nature of counterinsurgency becomes apparent, it is logical to look towards feminist ethics for an alternative viewpoint that prioritizes the lived experiences of individuals over legalistic interpretations of counterinsurgency as it appears on paper. A feminist ethics rooted in understandings of care and relationality will allow us to move beyond the formal articulation of COIN as is found in FM 3-24 and instead think about the encounters of those affected by counterinsurgency operations in a genuine and meaningful way.

U.S. Army PFC Danny Comley during patrol in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, February 2010.

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Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

This is the third post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam’s post can be found here, Joe’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.

The relationship between ethics and politics is complex; in theory, as in practice. Against a contemporary background where hitherto morally prohibited acts, such as assassinations by drones strikes in non-military zones, are instituted as legitimate and justifiable practices, it becomes vital to understand anew the relationship between politics, violence and ethics, and its limits, particularly when such acts are underwritten by innovative military technologies that open new horizons for ethical considerations in international politics.

Ethics, in the context of politics – including international politics – is presently predominantly conceived in terms of applied ethics and chiefly concerned with the search for an ethical theory that can be arrived at through abstraction and applied to real world ethical dilemmas. While burgeoning poststructuralist scholarship in the late 1990s sought to address ethics in terms that consider aspects of contingency, alterity and potentiality, the events unfolding in the aftermath of 9/11 appear to have given way to a more practically oriented approach to thinking about ethics in international politics, giving priority to the application of ethical principles of warring. Such practical approaches often mirror scientific processes, or algorithmic logics in trying to find ‘correct’ outcomes.

While just war traditions of ethics in war have always had a close relationship with the analytical procedures and structures of international law, the practical turn in contemporary political ethics means that concerns addressed in the international and global context are primarily framed in terms of finding and applying appropriate principles, codes and rules in trying to resolve ‘real moral problems’. Problem solving through rational procedures, and scientific rationales thus stands at the heart of practical considerations of the ethics of political violence and war. This is exemplified in the IF/THEN logic of current discourses on the ethics of war or in the structures of target selections for lethal drone strikes. Among others, Seth Lazar’s recent work on the morality of war, presented at a philosophy workshop at the LSE in 2013 for example, considers approaches to moral decision making in uncertainty in the following terms: “one plausible approach to decision-making under uncertainty is to determine the expected moral value (EV) of the outcomes available to me, and to choose the best one. So, I am permitted to ƒ if and only if EV(ƒ) ³ EV(¬ƒ)”. Similarly, Bradley Strawser’s defence of the ethical obligation to use drones as a weapon of choice relies on a selection of variables (X, Y, G) and principles (principle of unnecessary risk – PUR) that, combined, serve to confirm the hypothesis, namely that using drones is an ethical obligation. This procedural algorithmic logic speaks to a technoscientific-subjectivity with which ethical outcomes are ascertained, problems solved. Ethics becomes a technical matter that can be solved through procedures and thus has natural limits. It is only able to assess, whether an outcome was achieved through the correct logical theoretical trajectory, not through the particularities of the moment.

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

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Ethical Encounters – The Special Ambiguity of Humanity

This is the second post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam Fotou’s original post can be accessed here, Elke’s is here, and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.

Encountering Humanity

Humanity is special. This sounds like a very conventional claim. We are used to hearing appeals to our common humanity. The appeal works on the presumption that there is something in human beings that we not only share as humans but which also calls us to respond in particular ways when we encounter each other. We are said to have human rights that exceed any of our particular belongings to states, faiths or ethnicities. We intervene to protect human beings beset by violence and catastrophe, disregarding the norms of sovereignty that prevent outside interference. We appeal to our common humanity to solicit resources for distant strangers, often depicted in their suffering as vulnerable human bodies to shake us from our everyday disregard. Humanity is appealed to as a matter of routine, but what does our humanity consist in?

Reflection on the meaning of humanity is less common than our appeals to it, yet this deeper rumination also comes with practiced ease. Knowing what our humanity is has long been a matter of divining what is distinctive about human beings and then moving to grant our distinctively human capacities an exalted status, claiming it as our essential nature. Humanity, as something to which we appeal, is conventionally a judgment on what is prized in human nature, marking out what is elevated amongst all the contradictions of our all too human nature.

Huge Manatee

Humanity then works not only as an appeal – “for the love of humanity!” – but also as a standard to which we should be held. Knowing what is properly human provides a guide to our interactions. What do we owe each other? To be treated in accordance with our essential nature. In a typically modern and Western formulation: to be treated as rational beings, to have our individual freedom respected. These sorts of claims have long echoes and many sources. They also have dissonant reverberations because the standard of humanity not only marks off the human from the animal or the divine, but also differences between those human beings recognised as fully and properly human and those denied recognition, and in their denial degraded as sub-human, primitive and savage. This exclusion from full humanity of the non-human negates the appeal and standard of humanity, opening up the non-human to forms of violence, degradation and abuse. Women, savages, barbarians, Jews, Muslims, Asians, Africans, queers, lunatics, cripples; a brutal list of exceptions to the defining standard, such that even its partial enumeration raises questions about humanity as a standard. Nearly as insidious is the way the self-appointed arbiters of humanity use such distinctions to exculpate themselves. Those who fight for humanity against savagery are always noble in their own eyes. Continue reading

Ethical Encounters – Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality

s200_myriam.fotouThis guest post, by Myriam Fotou, is the first in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at LSE, she is also a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway and City University London. Joe’s post can be found here, Elke’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.

Let us consider this negative sentence: “death has no border”
J. Derrida, Aporias

Framing the problem

In mid-January 2014, approximately five nautical miles off the coast of Turkey and near the Greek islet of Farmakonisi, eleven non-Europeans, including babies and children, were drowned. Amid adverse weather conditions, their boat had capsized during an attempt by the Greek coastguard to tow the old smuggling boat. Accounts of what happened are contradictory: survivors argue that they were being pushed back to Turkey, shouted at and threatened, and that the drowned were not inadvertently killed; Greek authorities, on the other hand, argue that they were towing the boat to Greek waters and safety, that the conditions did not allow for the people on the old, adrift vessel to be taken aboard the coastguard’s vessel, that the “illegal” immigrants coming from Asia did not know anything about the sea and navigating, how to swim or orient themselves. By gathering on one side of the boat after one of them fell overboard, they caused the vessel to capsize themselves. These contradictory stories, which although might not make much of a difference in the end result (almost half of the people on board were drowned), in essence symbolise the contradiction between the law and its application, the inherent violence in both, and in European states’ backpedalling on their hospitality obligations.


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What We Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action

We, the garden of technology. We, undecidable

– John Cage, 1988

“Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, John Cage once famously quipped. I hadn’t really given this line much thought until I watched a friend perform with his ensemble of free improvisationalists and began to understand – rather late, admittedly, – the creative interconnectivity of musical improvisation with aspects of political and ethical life. Encapsulated in Cage’s comment is the close enmeshment of creation and performance, fabrication and action, production and interaction, set against a modernist ontology of profound uncertainty, pertinent beyond disciplinary analytical divides. Simultaneously embracing and resisting the scientifically and technologically mediated quest for certainty in his time, John Cage, along with other experimental musicians and artists, perpetually sought to challenge a reliance on that which can be decided, by finding different disruptive and unfamiliar techniques.

These techniques are not merely aesthetic choices or practices, but rather, as forms of encounters, have also ethical and political relevance. Whether it is through shock, as in Marcel Duchamp’s work in art (Fountain – a urinal as art!), or experimentation in John Cage’s work in music (4’33 – silence as music!), such disruptions emanate propositions of drastic undecidability – albeit against an always specific socio-political background. Residing in these practices of radical alterity is a production of subjectivity, of a modus vivendi, and with it an ethico-political dimension. As Maurizio Lazzarato duly notes, such techniques are ethico-politico-aesthetic techniques to wrest with the nature of disciplinary and security societies. Embracing this transdisciplinary approach, I thus take the principles of free improvisation as a stimulus to rethink, in positive ways, how to deal with the modern modus of fluid ground, uncertainty and undecidability, in politics and ethics through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction.


Challenging the practical turn in contemporary conceptualisations of ethics in politics was my core theme for this year’s ISA conference, so I came equipped with not one but three papers on ethics and politics. Each sought to problematize the prevalence of applied ethics in theorizing international politics more broadly and political violence specifically. The first paper develops a critique of practical ethics as the dominant way of thinking about the ethics of political violence (watch this space for more on that). The second paper considers the prevalence of ethics as a scientific-technological matter in the use of unmanned and autonomous military technology. In this third and final paper, I try to rethink ethics in trans-disciplinary ways and turn to an unlikely source: free improvisation in music. Drawing on the principles of free improvisation, I suggest, allows us to conceptualise ethics as action rather than an applied abstract concept or epithet. In other words, to overcome the shortcomings of traditional modes of theorizing ethics in political theory, I look to free improvisation in music to rethink ethics and politics in less familiar ways, through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction. I am very much still in the process of thinking all this through, so bear that in mind if you decide to read on. Suggestions, critiques and feedback welcome!

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