The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States

By Robert Jackson | Go to book overview

6 The Situation Ethics of Independent Statecraft

Because sovereign states are the foundation of the international societas, the people who are responsible for acting on their behalf are the foremost subjects of international ethics. The ethics of statecraft is the heartland of international ethics. This chapter outlines a classical approach to the subject that interrogates the following connected topics: international ethics as a special ethical sphere, the distinction between standards and circumstances, the relationship of power and responsibility, the situational character of international responsibility, and the political virtues that statespeople are called upon to possess. The thrust of the argument is to bury the erroneous belief that foreign policy and other international activities of statespeople are devoid of normative direction or content. It also rejects the illusory belief that the conduct of statespeople can be judged by applying the theories of moral philosophers. That doctrine might appeal to some scholars but it is misleading: it places the proverbial cart (moral theory; scholars) before the horse (moral practice; politicians). The chapter argues that academics can only judge statespeople by their standards.


States and Statespeople

International ethics must begin, in the classical manner, with the ethics of statecraft because statespeople—leaders of the major powers especially—are the ones who have the greatest ability and opportunity to affect the lives of the largest number of people around the world, particularly, with regard to military power. That alone makes it a fundamentally important subject. I am not suggesting that our normative enquiries can or should stop at that point. There are other important ethical subjects in world politics and some of them are discussed in later chapters. But when we come to discuss them we cannot avoid looking carefully at the principal players on the stage of world politics: statespeople.

Statecraft is a differentiated sphere with its own ethics. That is the ancient Greek way of thinking about ethics and it is still the most discerning way. 1

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