Ethics, Human Security, and Peace Building

by Laurie Calhoun

Political realists tend to dismiss "just war" and other ethical theory-based approaches to international affairs as naïve or even quixotic. In this essay (chapter), I hope to bring out the important connections between ethics and the most basic prerequisites to international communication needed in order to effect and maintain a peaceful and more secure world.

There are many ways of thinking of the world in which we live. Each of these ways represents a perspective, a point of view commencing from a set of values and interests. We can adopt an aesthetic perspective of the world, evaluating all that we encounter in terms of concepts such as beauty and symmetry. We can adopt an economic perspective, assessing the worth of all things in terms of monetary value and net efficiency. In our dealings with others, we often speak in terms of morality or ethics. The ethical perspective, in contrast to the aesthetic and the economic perspectives, commences from the idea of moral worth and the entities that possess it. The basis for the ethical perspective is that moral persons have a special sort of value, some would say "dignity," that non-persons do not. To adopt an ethical perspective toward other people requires that one be willing (indeed, obliged) to consider them as having a moral worth equal to one's own.

Just as in our dealings with other individuals we may commence from an aesthetic, an economic, or an ethical perspective, so, too, can we regard international affairs from these various vistas. The rationale for applying ethical concepts to other nations is of course that nations comprise no more and no less than groups of people, no different in moral essence from the people of our own nation, the members of our own families, or our selves.

We have arrived at a curious time in history, when ethical concepts are bandied about by spokesmen for nations as though their policies were grounded in moral considerations, while, upon close examination, one finds that this is not usually the case, at least not according to any orthodox view of the requirements upon any genuinely moral theory (as opposed to stances that merely masquerade as moral). To conduct one's self ethically, to take morality seriously, is to accord all others equally situated the same rights (and responsibilities) that one accords one's self. Extrapolating to the international case, then, a nation that wishes to conduct itself in conformity with the dictates of morality in its dealings with other nations, must, too, accord to all other nations the rights (and responsibilities) which it accords to itself. I mention responsibility here because all too often military and political leaders assert their nation's own rights (to "self-defense," etc.) without taking any responsibility for the devastation and death that their own policies wreak upon the people of other nations. In my view, standard "collateral damage" apologies, and what has become the wholesale diffusion of responsibility (to the point of denial) regarding the negative consequences of war, need to be subjected to close analysis and criticism in the public realm in order to promote peace and security in the global community.

The most basic requirement of rationality, the requirement of simple consistency, is expressed by the law of non-contradiction, ~(p &~p). As it turns out, this rational requirement serves also as the most fundamental constraint upon any moral theory. Consider, for example, the formal principle of justice "treat equals equally," or "treat like cases alike." This content-free principle does not imply that any particular mode of conduct is morally required, but only that, whatever practices and policies are decided upon by the community, must be applied to all relevant cases.

International law must apply to all nations, if any. Restrictions upon weapons proliferation must apply to all nations, if any. In order to satisfy this basic requirement of morality, if treaties are binding upon some nations, then they must be binding upon all. There is no room for "free-riders" in international affairs any more than there is room for "free-riders" at the level of interpersonal morality. The basis for a peaceful world is the same as the basis for a peaceful community: the members of the group in question must treat others with the same respect with which they expect others to treat them.

This requirement of simple consistency is sometimes characterized by ethical theorists as the requirement of "universalizability" and is arguably an indispensable part of any truly moral perspective. For example, in the view of Immanuel Kant, the requirement of universalizability takes the explicit form of the test for the Categorical Imperative, that one act only upon those maxims that one can will all others to act upon as well. In the view of John Stuart Mill and other utilitarians, the requirement of universalizability is embedded directly in the principle of utility, that one ought always to act so as to maximize the happiness of the greatest number (of moral persons).

The perspective of human rights, according to which all human beings possess an inalienable right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, also insists upon the equal worth of all people, whether they live within or outside of one's own country. The current military paradigm of problem solving conflicts with the concern of human rights advocates to protect all people from aggression, for it assumes that some people (so-called "collateral damage" victims) can be stripped of their lives. Furthermore, from the perspectives of the civilians living in countries under bombardment, their own subjective (phenomenological) experience of what is transpiring is empirically indistinguishable from the threat of terrorist attack with which citizens of the United States became familiar only on September 11, 2001. From the perspectives of those threatened with the use of deadly force against them in retaliation to other people's actions, they are being unjustly punished for the crimes of the guilty no less than were the victims of the September 11th attacks.

To look at war from an ethical, as opposed to a political or an economic perspective, requires that we consider the perspectives of individuals, for only individual centers of consciousness are subject to and presumably protected by morality. But it also requires that a person's citizenship (or lack thereof) not be used as a basis for deciding whether or not that person has rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Given the longstanding traditions regarding patriotism in virtually every existent nation, few recognize that such chauvinism is morally equivalent to the very racism and sexism that have been roundly and overtly rejected in our modern democratic societies. This does not mean that people are, in principle, incapable of seeing the analogy of their own favoritism of their compatriots to racism and sexism. But it does mean that we have a quite a lot of work to do before the paradigm of cosmopolitanism favored by Kofi Annan and many others concerned with the future of the world and the species will be accepted by everyone (or, more realistically, most people) everywhere.

Although political realists are wont to dismiss ethical theorists as living in fantasy worlds of childish concepts, in fact, the ethical perspective carries with it many practical implications for the conduct of nations and their associated institutions (many of which, in my view, were brashly disregarded by the Bush Administration in their decision to wage war upon Iraq preemptively and outside the bounds of international law). The policies adopted by a nation are done so in the name of the people, who must, in consistency, allow that the same policies are equally valid for other nations acting in the name of their people. Can anyone rationally condone the policy of "preemptive attack" in a general way?

To take another example, if it is wrong for some countries to wield nuclear warheads, then it is wrong for every country to do so (or threaten to do so-in this connection, see The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, available online at: If it is wrong for some countries to develop biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, then it is wrong for every country to do so.

In a world in which one nation possesses and wields overwhelming military superiority while rejecting the validity of any possible International Criminal Court, the prospects may seem dim for the role of ethics at the international level. However, when the citizens of such a nation themselves express dissent from the policies and practices of their leaders, then the possibility exists to change the administration to one that recognizes the importance of the ethical perspective and so does not systematically apply double standards, one set to itself, and another to "outsider" nations. The fact that leaders persistently offer moral interpretations of their actions itself illustrates that the populace is moved by moral considerations. The challenge becomes to make graphic the double standards and contradictions in an administration, so that the people themselves will choose to effect a change. Might makes "right," in the sense that contemporaneously the will of the strong prevails, at least for a time, but history can be, is, and will be revised.

Democracy is founded upon open dialogue and the possibility of dissent. Ideas that survive in a democratic society do so because they make sense to the people. At any given point in time, some of the practices and policies of any government comprising fallible human beings will be wrong. But it is one of the crowning virtues of democracy that no policy is etched in stone for eternity. The United States and many other nations used to condone racial and sexual discrimination, and even slavery. These practices contradict the basic principle "treat equals equally," given that race and gender are not morally relevant properties, and after many, many years of dissent by those who recognized the injustices of racist and sexist practices, our laws have changed. This was not easy, and many lives were sacrificed in this fight, but, in the end, reason prevailed, and while some racists and sexists persist, their views are no longer codified as law.

I believe that the same power of democracy must be brought to bear upon the challenges that the international community currently faces. It is unfortunate that economic factors often persuade administrators to be more accommodating of unjust policies than they might otherwise be. But the same problem occurred in pre-Civil War America. Slave-owners were always wary of abolitionists, and they had every economic reason in the world to be so, but eventually the ethical perspective prevailed.

Freedom of speech is fundamental to peaceful societies, both within a country and internationally, because members of any community must regard one another as interlocutors in a dialogue that is always advancing through stages of change. So long as weapons exports reap hefty profits for the associated corporate interests, the economic perspective will be a powerful enemy to the adoption of truly ethical policies at the international level. But skepticism among the populace with regard to their generous funding (via federal taxation) of weapons production, many of which end up in the hands of potential enemies (bear in mind that the U.S. exports half of all weapons), will increase in direct proportion as ignorance diminishes.