Inaugural annual workshop

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Our inaugural annual workshop took place on Thursday October 1st at City University London, kindly sponsored by City University, the LSE Centre for International Studies and the Millennium: Journal of International Studies.

Entitled, Between Impossibility and Virtue: New Configurations of Ethics in World Politics, the goal of the workshop was to take the measure of the contemporary state of the field, across disciplines and subject areas. Panels addressed the broad theme of how we study and teach ethics and world politics given its location Between Impossibility and Virtue. If we can no longer presume the regulative power of ethics, but also reject the separation of politics from ethics, then we must attend to the interstices of ethics and politics. This need is reflected in giving increased attention to the politics of our ethics, the importance of everyday practices and the way we alter the relationship between ethics and politics as scholars and teachers.

The workshop featured three themes (below) in a roundtable format. Each theme was introduced by short participant contributions, however, the goal was to generate and foster a wider discussion among all attendees, rather than present formal papers. To conclude the workshop we held a final session to discuss plans for the formal application for recognition of the working group from BISA, as well as future plans.


1) After the Ethical Turn

At the end of his critique of the ethical turn, Jacque Rancière suggests that ‘stepping out of today’s ethical configuration, returning the inventions of politics and art to their differences entails rejecting the phantasm of their purity, giving back to these inventions their status as always being ambiguous, precarious, litigious cuts.’ With the prohibition of talk of ethics lifted in both the practice and the study of world politics, we confront the danger that such talk lacks meaning and that we are stuck between ethics making a virtue of the merely conventional, or preserving it in a space of practical impossibility. What would it mean for ethics to be ambiguous, precarious, litigious? And what political role do our ethical claims have?

2) Towards a Worldly Ethics

While there is no shortage of calls for ethical reflection to be applied to political practice (Chris Brown once described international political theory as applied international ethics) there is a persistent gap between the abstract reflections of the ethical theorist and, for want of a better phrase, the “real” world. In philosophy there have been calls for an experimental ethics, but this has tended toward incorporating insights from psychology or conducting surveys to assess our existing intuitions. Welcome as such engagements may be, they retain a certain distance between the theorist and political actors. What are the dangers of this privilege granted to the scholar working in abstraction? Do our studies of ethics and world politics need to engage with histories, traditions and understanding of ethics that have been excluded and ignored? How do our intellectual reflections relate to the practice of politics?

3) Learning to be Good: Teaching Ethics in a Perilous World

The relationship between ethics and world politics is constituted in part by how we understand it. As scholars and teachers we have an important role to play in creating and challenging this understanding. In this roundtable we want to consider the distinctive challenges and responsibilities that go along with teaching ethics and world politics. From the use of suffering and violence in our teaching, to the goal of enabling students to make their own judgments, our field presents unique opportunities for teachers to not only inform students but potentially transform their self-understandings and actions. There is, however, a corollary obligation to attend to how we mobilise the power ethical claims have both on our students and as all too often unquestioned presumptions of the social order.