Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Whose Ethics?"

It is said that blogs emerged out of email conversations that were worth posting for a larger audience. When we talk about ethics in international affairs, as we do at the Carnegie Council, we are often asked: whose ethics? Whose ethics should we use when we apply them to foreign policy? Here is one such email conversation between a former Carnegie Council intern Sacha Tessier-Stall and me. Sacha had emailed to say hello, give me a nice comment about one of my recent articles, and drop a bomb: Is international ethics an oxymoron?

Devin Stewart: This is a complicated topic but in a nutshell, true ethics should be global; otherwise it is just parochial moralizing. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that there are many ethical systems and ethical “minds” (toward loyalty, purity, fairness, the group, the individual, etc.) in the world. What we try to do at the Carnegie Council is start with the most pluralistic approach to include as many voices for ethics as possible and highlight universal values of human rights and fairness.

Sacha Tessier-Stall: I see your point, but while pretty much everyone seems to agree on broad principles, definitions of what constitutes a crime can be incompatible. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong, but in some countries killing a woman because she's sitting alone in a car with a man doesn't count as murder. Whose ethics should we globalize?

DS: Crime (the law) and ethics are not the same. Although laws try to draw upon societal ethics, what is legal in not necessarily ethical and vice versa. And the same goes for morals. I think of ethics as the globalizing of morals or the universalizing of right action. When people ask, "Whose ethics?" The best answer is "our ethics," as in humanity's ethics for humanity's sake or on humanity’s behalf. That is what separates what is ethical from what is moral, in my mind. The example you mentioned is a case in which an unethical law is drawn from a parochial understanding of morals.

STS: I agree that ethics and the law are not the same. But in essence, the law has two functions: to preserve the stability of the societies in which they are adopted, and to represent those societies' ethics (however imperfectly). In the example I gave, the law in question is considered both moral and ethical by those who take it upon themselves to have it respected.

While I personally agree with you on the idea of globalizing "humanity's ethics for humanity's sake", many people—perhaps a majority in the world—would disagree. You and I take our ethics from humanism, broadly defined; however, billions take theirs not from anything temporal or terrestrial, but from religious sources—many (though by no means all) of which oppose the idea of any global ethics but their own. To them, there is no distinction between ethics and morality, because they take their ethics from static and unalterable sources—anything that is not in line with the Bible, the Quran or the Torah cannot be moral.

So when we speak of globalizing "humanity's ethics," what we're really talking about is humanist ethics, which I subscribe to, but which I have to admit is but one of the many paradigms that are out there.

DS: Law is supposed to represent a society's ethics, true. But again they are different and often contradict. In some sense, peace is forward looking and justice is backward looking. They are difficult to balance. The law may administer justice but that is certainly not necessarily ethical.

On religion, sure. Those who understand religion as advocating for right action, compassion, and ethics (which is in most traditions), they are correct. I have no problem with people drawing on religious tradition for their ethical system. The problem with basing ethical codes on religion, however, is that it also has a cosmological and mythological component, which just plain makes other angry (which is both Dalai Lama's and Ignatieff's point). In any case, yes, people do have other ethical codes. And I am taking a stand here by saying a global sense of ethics (enlightened self-interest, "wholesomeness,") is an ethical system that I would like to encourage. Others may say that oppressing women is ethical, but I would simply argue that they are wrong. I am willing to take that position. When a group harms the rights of individuals, that individual needs a path to recourse.

I recently hosted a Chinese delegation who tried to convince me that ethics should come from emotion and intuition. I got their point, but more importantly, humanity has a lot of work to do to come together.

STS: On the oppression of women being wrong: of course, I agree with you—but that's because you and I are starting from the same moral bases: 1) "all humans are equal and should be treated as such"; and 2) "equal treatment implies similar or identical treatment." I remember hearing Ahmadinejad say that Iran actually treats its women better than the West because it allows them to be "exempt from many responsibilities"—elevation through discrimination.

As long as people don't take their ethics from the same sources (e.g. a belief in the value of individual human lives vs. a determination to follow the precepts contained in one's scripture), we'll all agree that murder is bad without ever managing to agree on what murder actually is. This actually is quite reminiscent of current debates at the UN on the definition of terrorism. Everyone agrees on the equation "terrorism = bad," but for many, blowing up a kindergarten doesn't count as terrorism if it's done as part of a struggle for "national liberation."

So even with those religions that advocate for "right action, compassion, and ethics" (and which religion doesn't?), there's no guarantee that the ethical conclusions reached by their adherents will always be compatible with those of humanists, simply because the very logic of their moral thinking is different. After all, even adherents of the same religion can come to blows over different interpretations of the same texts or events - witness the Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland and the Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq (though of course religion is by no means the only reason for these problems).

Editor’s Postscript: Sacha and I acknowledged that this conversation could probably continue forever, but I suggested taking a look at Michael Ignatieff’s essay “Human Rights as Idolatry,” in which he argues that the best way to advance human rights is to empower the individual. Counter-intuitively, Ignatieff also shows how protecting the rights of individuals and empowering individuals to act prevents groups from abusing individual rights, making it less likely that human rights are advanced as a sort of cultural imperialism.

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