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International Ethics between Hypocrisy, Collective Arrogance, and Dirty Hands

Class at Faculty of Social Sciences |


Block Master’s (6 ECTS) seminar course, Summer Semester 2019  

Teaching sessions: always 14:00 to 16:50;

Thursday 21 February 2019 & Friday 22 February;

Thursday 11 April & Friday 12 April;

Thursday 9 May & Friday 10 May.  

Room: STAN317 at Staroměstské náměstí 4/1, 110 00 Praha 1

(Faculty of Social Sciences – FSV, 3rd floor)


Gandhi's brilliant and profound political and moral doctrine of non-violence and his continuing fight for Indian self-determination stand in contrast to his being, in some ways, a domestic tyrant. How can one reconcile these extreme attitudes? Jan Palach's 1969 sacrifice condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and even more so, Stefan Lux's suicide at a League of Nations meeting in 1936 ask the question of what individuals can do on their own to further freedom and peace in a significant way. Why did Lux's admirable letter to the British foreign minister pleading for a realist balance of power policy against the criminal Nazi regime make a lot of sense, while his message went unheard? Heinrich Himmler, while exhorting SS leaders in their duty to exterminate, was a good family man: how can that be? Kant's theory of morality, still at the center of current philosophical study was developed by this mysogynist; does that not vitiate his great doctrine? And, is it not surprising that Thucydides could picture his fellow Athenians as respectable democrats, this while describing the normal butchering and enslavement of the defeated Melians as the order of the day?

These questions -- and more so the stories they exemplify -- vividly depict the complexity of moral and ethical considerations, this especially in a multi-cultural world. Starting from them, the subject of international ethics will be developed. We shall analyze the inherent tensions between moral arrogance and hypocrisy, between unjust and Just War, a Just Peace and an imposed peace, between acceptable political acts and the moral norms these actions violate at times. The central topics and doctrines which will be developed are:

-- Pacifism and non-violence

-- Just War

-- Just Peace

-- Global Care

-- Human Rights, 'thin' and 'thick' morality and universal norms

-- Truth and morality (ambiguity & ambivalence of moral norms and values, personal vs. nation-state morality, true facts vs. 'fake news')

Aren’t nation-states, even democratic ones, simply ‘cold monsters’ primarily interested in their own power and security? The answer to both questions is a positive one. However, all is not black in this world torn between ethical ideals and Realpolitik considerations. Not only non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but states, too, are at times acting ethically. Why? When? How? And, 'thin' ethical precepts which are universal do exist – though they always apply through a kaleidoscope of local, historic 'thick' moralities grounded within particular cultures and epochs.

Although morality is first of all personal, its bases, possibilities, and limits are profoundly shaped by groups and institutions. Therefore, the practical, moral, and methodological question of going from a personal to a collective ethic is a crucial one. It is simpler for an individual to act morally than for a collective actor such as a nation-state. Politicians have to dirty their hands at times as they fulfill their moral duty of representing and acting for a multitude which is making contradictory assessments and seeking different goals, norms, and values.