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.


Myriam stresses the repetition of violent and hierarchical relations between self and other reproduced by European legalism over the EU’s borders, in spite of the EU’s explicit commitment to universal values. Joe complains about the actual exclusivity of commitments to free and equal individuality that are premised on the supposedly universal category of humanity. Elke and Jillian are both critical of attempts to articulate just war thinking in terms of algorithms, which can be applied to cases and generate moral certainties about the right thing to do. Diego and Jillian both criticise the lack of attention to the ethical significance of empathy and affect in mainstream thinking about the ethics of development and counterinsurgency respectively. In summary, mainstream ethics is accused of being apparently universal and egalitarian and actually exclusive and hierarchical, of confusing moral claims with other kinds of truth claims, of reducing ethics to an exercise in problem-solving, and of excessive rationalism and abstraction.

These are not new complaints. They have been part of Marxist, communitarian, feminist and poststructuralist responses to Kantian and utilitarian ethics for a long time. In western philosophy and the modern academy there are many ways of countering these critiques. Some responses argue that critics often implicitly rely on precisely the kinds of moral universalism they claim to reject. Others argue that the critics rely on a ‘straw person’ version of mainstream ethics. I am not concerned to pursue these claims and counter-claims here, what interests me is what follows from the critical starting point in each case. How do each of the contributors want to take ethics forward, and what are the ethical issues raised by their projects? Let’s start, to borrow Diego’s phrase, to parse this out.

This is not an easy task, since the ethical encounters differ and overlap in quite complex ways. For example, the concept of responsibility crosses between Myriam, Elke, Diego and Jillian. But it isn’t necessarily being used in the same way. Myriam and Elke link the concept to Levinas and the idea of the primacy – prior to any actual empirical engagement – of the infinite demand of the other on the self. For Diego and Jillian responsibility is understood more contextually and relationally, as being drawn out of worldly, pre-existing ethical relationships with others, Diego uses the language of politics and imagination in ways that resonate with Joe’s argument, however his invocation of affect and empathy suggests a more foundational story about what underlies the politics of ethics. This is true too of Elke, who also wants to bring politics in, but links her critique of applied ethics with a much more transcendental language.

Any attempt to confine the approaches to neat categories will fail to do them justice. However, I think we could find a (necessarily unjust) way into comparison by following clues in terms of the names and approaches invoked in the encounters as offering a constructive alternative to mainstream ethics. For example, Myriam and Elke both call on the name of Levinas. Myriam also references Derrida, and Elke references Arendt. Joe invokes Dewey, Diego references anti-colonial thought and he and Jillian both draw on the feminist ethic of care. This suggests an initial grouping in which Elke and Diego are ambivalently placed. First we have an ethics of absolute responsibility and undecideability, associated with Levinas and Derrida. Second we have a democratic/ pragmatic political ethics associated with Dewey and with the anti-colonial thought of Escobar. Third, we have an ethics based on affect and sympathy, associated with the concept of empathy and exemplified by a feminist ethic of care. Myriam is firmly in the first, Joe in the second and Jillian in the third category. Elke and Diego shift between different ethical languages, in Elke’s case between Levinasian absolute responsibility and the language of politics. Diego between the language of politics and that of moral sentiment.

Pursuing this necessarily unjust line of argument for the moment – why should we take any of these three approaches seriously? I suggest that they deserve to be taken seriously insofar as they are aware that to recognise problems thrown up by mainstream ethical approaches is not to transcend them. Issues of power and hierarchy, epistemic authority, the uneasy relation between theory and practice, and abstraction all continue to haunt these alternative ethical pathways, though to different extents and in different ways. They become unpersuasive only when they cease to pay attention to these spectres. For example, in the arguments of Myriam, Elke and Jillian, there is clearly a desire not simply to critique existing ways of thinking about the ethics of migration policy, targeted killing or counterinsurgency but also to push towards an alternative. For Myriam and Elke it remains very unclear what this alternative would be in the realm of action, in Jillian’s case an alternative counterinsurgency ethics is sketched out. In all three cases, this follows from their awareness of the dangers of claims to moral authority and codifications of moral prescription. This testifies to twin dangers: on the one hand, recognising the risk of claims to moral authority can be paralysing in its effects, on the other hand identifying with an alternative ground of moral authority can encourage the kinds of moral certainty that take ethics back to problem-solving, and re-establish the moral theorist as the moral judge. In a similar way, one could argue that Joe’s urge to think about ethics experimentally or Diego’s to address issues of power in deliberation of ethical alternatives may either tend to postpone the work of ethics indefinitely or encourage over-confidence about the outcomes of some conversations rather than others.


All of these ethical encounters are driven by the view that ethics involves turning towards the world rather than away from it. All of them then struggle to work out philosophically what this worldliness (an Arendtian term of course) should mean. But these philosophical travels present their own ethical challenges. Here I think the most important message to emerge from the encounters is the fundamentally political nature of the ethical encounter, something that is recognised by all of the contributors and stressed in particular by Elke, Joe and Diego. The ethical encounter is always one in which claims to authority are made within a relational, interactive context marked by complex relations of power. The twin temptations for those inspired by values of equality and justice, however understood, are those of refusal and certainty. On the one hand refusing to participate because of one’s understanding of the fragility of one’s own moral authority, on the other hand an eagerness to legislate from an authoritative ground beyond the messiness in which ethical encounters actually unravel. Ethical encounters with ethics in the realm of thought negotiate between these twin temptations. And all of the encounters considered here suggest interesting and productive ways of conducting this negotiation, as well as the dangers that always attend such efforts. 


5 thoughts on “Ethical Encounters – Encountering Ethics

  1. Pingback: Ethical Encounters – Encountering Ethics | cristalemagnetism

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