International Ethics

Sergio Vieira de Mello
Image via Wikipedia

So right now I’m working my way through the first half of Samantha Power’s excellent book Sergio. It’s a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello (pictured), who the back cover describes as “a charismatic peacemaker and troubleshooter with the United Nations.” Oh, and also, “a ‘cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.’”

Vieira de Mello himself is a fascinating tour guide, but what makes his story relevant — and not merely compelling — is that his career took him through the slow, painful birth of our current world order. From 1969 to his death in 2003, he watched the bipolar world disappear, Westphalian sovereignty begin to mutate and erode, humanitarianism’s role in foreign affairs change, and terrorism rear its ugly head.

One thing that I think makes Vieira de Mello a particularly good guide to these issues is his philosophical background. He actually juggled his UN duties with earning a doctorate at the Sorbonne, and it’s clear that he made an effort to integrate what he learned about academic philosophy into his thinking on the UN’s mission. It seems that he didn’t have a choice: Power quotes a letter he wrote while taking undergraduate courses at the Sorbonne in which he says he would “never abandon philosophy,” and that, “to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do — to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.”

Unfortunately, we only get little snippets of his philosophical writing on problems related to foreign policy. Early on, there’s a passing reference to intersubjectivity (in phenomenology, the perception of another as a subject rather than an object) as the basis for dealing with foreign powers. And a little later, we learn that his doctoral dissertation, called “Philosophical History and Real History: The Relevance of Kant’s Political Thought in Current Times,” he argued for a global Kantian “federation of states” that would not breach the sovereignty of other states unless their internal political instability proved to be an international threat.

I mostly picked up this book due to my deepening interest in international relations, but the philosophical angle is an intriguing one. I’m used to thinking about ethics in terms of how individual actors interact with one another, but states are not individual actors in the same way people are. Creating a just society is one thing; imagining just arbitration between societies that are just to varying degrees is another. But when I try to think of philosophers who have addressed this head-on, it’s hard to name any. I know Kant talked about international relations, but I haven’t read the source material itself. I think Kymlicka talked a little about it too.

Who else? Help me out, fellow philosophy nerds.

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