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1 - Introduction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2022

Jan Klabbers
University of Helsinki


We live in a normative universe: a world of rules. Those rules can be legal rules, moral rules, sports rules, rules of the game. They can be formal or informal. On the road, we are subject to traffic rules. At home, we are embedded in frameworks set by rules concerning marriage, childcare, education. And when we tell our children how to behave, we tend to refer to rules. In Peter French’s pithy formulation: “We teach rules, not lives.”

Virtue in Global Governance
Judgment and Discretion
, pp. 1 - 26
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

1.1 Introduction

We live in a normative universe: a world of rules. Those rules can be legal rules, moral rules, sports rules, rules of the game. They can be formal or informal. On the road, we are subject to traffic rules. At home, we are embedded in frameworks set by rules concerning marriage, childcare, education. And when we tell our children how to behave, we tend to refer to rules. In Peter French’s pithy formulation: “We teach rules, not lives.”Footnote 1

Some of those rules stem from the law. Others stem from social convention – such as the convention that within families, mothers are often the primary caretakers and are often blamed if things go wrong;Footnote 2 and some may be the result of negotiations with spouses (“When you cook, I do the dishes, and vice versa”). At work, there are professional rules we may have to abide by; there are rules on what to do in our professions, and there are more general rules about due diligence and the avoidance of negligence. When we give way to the playful person inside us (homo ludens), even then we nonetheless often do so with rules. Whether playing soccer, tennis, or chess, rules are everywhere; indeed, so much that the game is often constituted by its rules: playing on a chess board with chess pieces but with different rules is playing something other than chess. And even in our mundane everyday activities, there are rules to be observed: whether these are the rules relating to preparing a decent meal or how best to grow tomatoes in our backyard. Obviously, not all these rules are legal rules or ethical rules, but rules they are. Nick Onuf summarizes it nicely: “How can anyone whose great concern is the world as given not realize that rules are everywhere? Rules make their presence felt when we so much as look at the world, when we talk, when we judge, when we choose, when we act upon our own and others’ choices, whenever and however we carry on.”Footnote 3

Despite all this – or because of it, as Onuf’s words suggest – we also live in a world of judgment. It is reasonably clear that we cannot follow the rules blindly without regard for the context, without deciding to prioritize some aspects over others. Even the simplest act of classification, as Dewey realized in the late nineteenth century, involves a judgment of some kind.Footnote 4 While playing soccer, we may have to conclude that a call of “handling” is inappropriate if the player was shot against his hands and could not get out of the way. When cooking a meal, we may realize that following the recipe to the letter may still not result in very good food, or that an extra pinch of salt is needed to improve the dish. And when raising our children, we may (hopefully) come to realize that their needs include not only food and shelter but also things such as love and attention – things that cannot fully be ordained by commands. We live by rules, but we do not live by rules alone. Rules do not exhaust the moral universe; they do not and should not deactivate our sense of morality. In truth, we could not live by rules alone – we also have to exercise judgment concerning what the situation demands, and exercise judgment concerning what we think the rules propose we do. And sometimes, when a rule does not formally apply, it may still be appropriate to act in its spirit.

There are various reasons why we cannot live by rules alone, quite apart from the issue that capturing things in matters of rules, rights, and obligations tends to undermine the fabric of society.Footnote 5 One is that rules never apply themselves. Rules also tend to be both overinclusive and underinclusive; they capture more behavior than they were intended to, and less behavior as well.Footnote 6 Third, rules often come with exceptions, and indeed often need to come with exceptions precisely so as to limit their under- and overinclusiveness. Absolute rules (“Never under any circumstances do X”) exist, and there may be settings where they are appropriate, but many settings require a more sophist approach.Footnote 7 Fourth, rules often create room for judgment at any rate when allowing for discretion. Additionally, discretion is a necessary element of any institutional design and any kind of representational relationship.Footnote 8 Since those who make the law cannot cover any possible contingency in explicit terms, they will have to end up delegating some measure of discretion.

Hence, no matter how well crafted our rules, they need to be applied, whether by judges, administrators, or other decision-makers, either on their own or through institutions comprising several of them (a court, a college of advisers, a conseil d’état). And precisely because our rules do not themselves specify how and when they should be applied, in what circumstances, and taking which precise elements into account, it transpires that when it comes to applying the rules we cannot rely on those rules alone – we also need to take something else into account.Footnote 9

This is often enough recognized, in both the mainstream and more critical international legal literature.Footnote 10 It is not uncommon to read appeals for an “ethic of responsibility,” calling on individuals to be aware of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and the possible ramifications. Likewise, the most prominent international lawyer of his generation has famously called for a “culture of formalism” to be adopted, or (related) a “constitutional mindset.”Footnote 11 And yet, as Johns has perceptively observed, these and similar calls often remain somewhat abstract. As she writes under reference to some of David Kennedy’s recommendations but possibly of much broader application, these seem “too noble and too generalised to connect to the mundane work in which many international lawyers see themselves engaged today.”Footnote 12

In this study, I propose that the call for an “ethic of responsibility” can be given some concrete operationalization by zooming in on the character traits of the individuals (individually and collectively) applying the rules. Often enough the choice is not between one solution that is absolutely right and an alternative that is hopelessly indefensible, but rather between two or more viable and defensible readings of the same rule. As Rosalyn Higgins, a former president of the International Court of Justice, once put it: “Legal submissions to a judge are rarely simply ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The judge is often deciding which of two perfectly decent alternatives is to prevail.”Footnote 13 And what applies to the judge also applies elsewhere.

In other words: rules (and norms, and principles, and standards, and guidelines, and codes of conduct, and “best practices”) always require some kind of judgment, both in interpretation and in application.Footnote 14 The philosopher Robert Audi puts it well: “ethical obligations are often matters of judgment that cannot be codified to the extent required for legislation and legal enforcement. Even if they could be codified, ethics asks of us more than the minimum it requires of us.”Footnote 15

The insight that judgment at some point will enter the picture is not a novel one – it goes back to ancient Greece, at least, and was forcefully formulated by thinkers associated with the Scottish Enlightenment, most specifically David Hume and Adam Smith. More surprising still, according to some, is that even Immanuel Kant included a doctrine of the virtues in his work. Kant is usually referred to as the most systematic and strict thinker of an ethics based on rules and duties (a deontological ethics, in jargon), and indeed posited some rules with rather absolute force: one should never, for example, tell a lie. And if one sticks to rules in absolute form, then indeed there would seem to be no need for judgment. Surely, if one should never tell a lie, then one need not be able to tell the difference between the lie and the truthful proposition; nor does one need to be able to distinguish the situation that calls for a truthful response from one where a “little white lie” might be appropriate. This, however, as Kant realized, was too simple: one would still need to be able to recognize the sort of situation that might call for a lie, and this, so he suggested, required a sense of judgment.Footnote 16

One of the reasons we often appeal to Kant (without necessarily invoking his virtue doctrine, and regardless of whether this is a plausible appeal or not) is the realization that in a complex society, we need to live by rules. As a bare minimum, we need to know what side of the road to drive on; how to trade the things we produce; how to treat and how not to treat our neighbors. We cannot rely on our neighbors doing what they should be doing, “doing the right thing” – after all, we often hardly know our neighbors, let alone people in distant countries with whom we do business, such as renting their apartment via Airbnb. We might think it obvious that the buyer insures products during transportation; others might hold that the seller should insure them rather than the buyer. We might think landlords should not expel tenants without prior notice; others might disagree.

In such situations, clear and explicit rules have several advantages. The most important of these is that we no longer have to rely on our neighbor understanding what is expected of them: the rule exists precisely to make this easier, regardless of the precise contents of the rule. This is why early theorists of the idea of the “rule of law,” such as Max Weber, could endorse a rule of law that was normatively empty.Footnote 17 For Weber, it was far more important that there was some law, regardless of its contents; it was more important that law existed than what this law would actually say.Footnote 18 Sociolegal studies already confirmed this basic idea long ago: it is not so much the case that people look to the details of the law for each and every activity they aim to undertake, but rather that they are assured by the existence of some rules to fall back on: much bargaining, for instance, takes place “in the shadow of the law.”Footnote 19

If the rule is supposed to replace our “natural reliance” on our neighbors, it probably follows that this is better achieved if those neighbors realize the same rules also apply to us, and have the same effect on us. And this, in turn, is best achieved if the rule is externally set. If I tell my tenant to vacate the premises immediately because that is what I want them to do, then they may be tempted to argue that I am not a nice person. But if I can tell them that the law says so, and the law would apply to me in exactly the same way, then they cannot legitimately get mad at me – not in quite the same way, at any rate. The existence of a legal rule means that I can invoke the legal rule and that I can hide behind it. Either way, the argument entails that in a complex world, where we are forced to deal with many individuals we do not know personally and thus cannot trust, the existence of objective, neutral, and clear rules makes it possible to live side by side with complete strangers, sit with them on the bus, and buy their products and services.

But, as seen, those rules – legal or otherwise – can never capture all forms of behavior in all circumstances, and there can be disagreement over what they say or whether they apply. Hence, we place our trust in small and selective groups of individuals – courts and judges – typically people who have studied law.Footnote 20 These groups can be expected to apply the rules in a fair and equitable manner. Should they get it wrong, we can appeal to some who have studied a bit longer or harder and sit on appellate courts, or perhaps even to the best and brightest sitting in a supreme court. Here, though, typically, the buck stops.Footnote 21

For this to work, though, we insist that our judges be trustworthy.Footnote 22 For that reason, we sometimes lay down a rule saying that a judge shall not, at the same time, be a member of government, for example, or the CEO of a large company; we have strict rules on how judges should be appointed and under what conditions they should serve – for instance, appointments for life after senatorial approval, as with US Supreme Court justices. We sometimes lay down a rule saying that we expect our judges to be of “high moral character,” or words to this effect. Hence, even in our rule-based systems, the final word is often left to individuals whom we have no choice but to trust, and whom we need to trust because no matter how well crafted and detailed our rules, they will always leave room for different opinions.

And in the end, we do the same with most of our decision-makers. We elect those to whom we entrust stewardship of our countries, as presidents or prime ministers. We go to the polls every four years or so, and trust that whoever we vote into office will do a decent job – regardless of how each of us individually would define “decent.” In some countries we also vote for sheriffs and prosecutors and other important public servants; in other countries we let those be appointed by people we have just elected, and much the same happens on the international level, where individuals get appointed to positions of leadership by the governments of states. There is much here that goes wrong in practice: sometimes positions of trust are given to individuals whose countries happen to be large donors of the particular organization the position is part of, without any serious screening of the candidate concerned. Additionally, sometimes – or rather often, perhaps, but usually outside the public view – states engage in horse-trading (“support my candidate here, and I will vote for yours there”) and do so unashamedly: there is a huge market in votes operating behind the scenes, rarely discussed by international lawyers and others who should know.Footnote 23 Likewise, people are often only nominated or appointed if they belong to the right country or the right language group. Considerations of skill and merit are sometimes less prominent than they should be, and considerations of character seem to play no role whatsoever. And yet, while invoking ethics is by no means politically innocent,Footnote 24 the tradition of virtue ethics would seem to have something to offer to both the practice and study of global governance.

1.2 The Plan of This Book and a Note on Terminology

There are, in principle, numerous ways to set up a study on the virtues in global governance. One might concentrate on the effects of the virtues – will they lead to trust, or will they not? Or one might focus on how the virtues serve particular individuals or institutions. A study on the virtues could be empirical in nature: to what extent do leaders or institutions actually behave virtuously? Such a study could zoom in closely on developing specific concepts that may be closely linked to the virtues, in particular perhaps accountability and responsibility.Footnote 25 It could concentrate on specific virtues: a study on humility in global governance perhaps, or on honesty in international politics. It could likewise analyze specific functions (statesman, secretary-general) or specific institutions (courts, nongovernmental organizations) from a virtue-inspired perspective, and indeed such works exist.Footnote 26 Or it could focus on the relationship between ethics and power, looking at how the virtues can be used for disciplining purposes or in order to exercise authority.

For all their merits and possibilities, however, such work would be bound to remain incidental, ad hoc-ish, and a little fragmented. It seemed to me that there might be mileage in the idea of trying to develop a more general framework, which could not just cover particular political roles, offices, or individuals but also allow for more general analysis; which would not just cover humility or honesty but also the virtues at large; which would not only zoom in on responsibility or accountability but also on the connections to the political world more broadly. In short, it seemed necessary to develop a framework for looking at the virtues in global governance, broadly conceived.

This has one important ramification, and that is that this study rarely goes in depth. I aim to accommodate this a little in Chapters 79, discussing concrete exemplars and examples of individuals or institutions facing ethical conflict, but at its core, this is a study aiming to be broad rather than deep. It aims to bring together insights from law, ethics, philosophy, international relations, leadership studies, and a handful of other disciplines, skimming the surface but hopefully, in the process, creating something worthwhile – a framework for applying a virtue-based perspective to the study and practice of global governance.

The central tenet of this study is this: we live in a world of rules, but cannot live by rules alone. Rules need people to interpret and apply them, people of flesh and blood. Hence, there might be some merit in trying to figure out whether we may expect the individuals who are charged with doing that sort of thing, whether individually or collectively as governments or courts or advisory bodies, to have certain character traits and, if so, what kind of character traits. To put the same point differently, there is an important sense in which rules and virtues go hand in hand: “To train a person for moral action,” says philosopher Robert Roberts, “is to train him in the virtues. But this is also a training in rules if we conceive these as including the grammar of the virtues.”Footnote 27 Just as the competent linguist speaks a language (i.e. applies the rules of a language) without always realizing how and why or actively knowing the grammar, the competent moral agent will behave in ethical fashion by disposition and training.

I will do so in a limited context: the context of global governance. I am trained as an international lawyer and international relations scholar – global governance is, so to speak, my natural habitat or area of expertise.Footnote 28 I will not specifically address business ethics or the ethics of public administration, although I will sometimes draw on the relevant literature. Instead, the focus will rest on manifestations of global governance, broadly conceived.

I will speak of “global governance” in general terms, without having a strong commitment as to whether we should speak of global governance (which suggests a focus on governance rather than politics), or international relations (which suggests the priority of the state), or world politics (which suggests politics on a global level). As an international lawyer, much of what I write is influenced by legal thought, legal concepts, and legal cases, but it seemed that limiting myself to international law alone would be uncalled for. Lawyers might be united in thinking that public intellectuals or religious leaders do not make law, but given that someone like Albert Camus has a strong hold on our imagination and on our collective sense of ethical behavior (the number of references made in the popular press to his novel The Plague upon the outbreak in late 2019 of the Covid-19 virus is voluminous), and given the influence exercised by opinion leaders, celebrities, and “influencers” (the word itself speaks volumes), it seemed appropriate to include a brief discussion on such an individual, even if no legal analytical framework is available to capture such a role. Likewise, as illustrated time and again by popes and imams, religious leaders may well exercise influence incommensurate with their formal legal status and powers.

Chapters 26 will address a number of preliminary questions, effectively putting a framework for analysis in place. Chapter 2 addresses the question whether there even is a need for virtue ethics: would it not suffice, as is often thought or implied, to have strict rules and strict enforcement mechanisms? A virtue perspective entails some attention to the role of individuals in global governance, yet global governance studies are typically state-centric. Hence, Chapter 3 addresses the question whether it is at all possible or helpful to concentrate on individuals in studying global governance. Chapter 4 takes on a different challenge: even if it were accepted that the virtues can affect individuals, does it make sense to think of the virtues in connection with global governance to begin with? Chapter 5 zooms in more specifically on the relationship between the virtues and law, whereas Chapter 6 is dedicated to operationalizing the virtues: how can a virtue perspective on global governance be workable? Chapters 79 will illustrate how, through concrete examples, the virtues can inform the study of global governance. The underlying idea is that the virtues can do so in three major ways: by helping to understand, describe and define, and evaluate and guide political conduct.

Throughout this book, I shall consistently use the terminology of virtue ethics. Experience suggests that doing so might not be self-evident, for a variety of reasons. One is that the term has been commandeered by Ayn Rand’s short book The Virtue of Selfishness, which, in harmony with Rand’s general philosophical system, outlines a Hobbesian world of all against all in which all one can do – and should do – is look out for oneself. It is only when everyone does so that, miraculously, some sort of social order comes into being.Footnote 29 The conclusion could be drawn that if selfishness can be labelled a virtue, then the label has lost much of its significance, and would be better left unused.

Among international lawyers, a similar point can be made ever since the influential David Kennedy published a collection of his essays under the title The Dark Side of Virtue. The point he aimed to make is that aspiring to do good in the world does not always actually result in doing good: bad results can emanate from good intentions (“the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” as they say), and movements composed of individuals with good intentions nonetheless run the risk of turning into bureaucracies or oppressive machineries – the very opposite of what brought those people together to begin with.Footnote 30

In such cases, then, the term “virtue” has been used for somewhat different purposes. Rand clearly hijacked the term as a marketing or branding exercise: selling something with negative connotations (selfishness) as something benign by calling it virtue. Kennedy, in turn, did not use the term “virtue” in its traditional philosophical sense, but rather as shorthand to capture attempts at doing good in the world, treating humanitarianism much like a faith.

Still, I felt it opportune to stick to the vocabulary. In part this is because no unblemished vocabulary is available at any rate. Other terms (think of “goodness,”Footnote 31 for example, or “love,”Footnote 32 “civility,”Footnote 33 or “decency”Footnote 34) will either come with their own connotations and associations or will be derived from the rich tradition of virtue ethics, so there seems little room for escape at any rate, as becomes clear when studying texts revolving around those words. And while pairing terms in unexpected ways may help create an air of mystery and therewith feed further discussion, it may also lead readers astray. International lawyer Martti Koskenniemi’s endorsement of a “culture of formalism,”Footnote 35 for instance, has often been read as a surprising and retrograde embrace of legal formalism, instead of a more compelling reading as endorsing the virtues.Footnote 36 Since the inspiration behind this work is the body of ethical thought usually referred to as virtue ethics, this might as well be acknowledged, though I will not slavishly follow Aristotle, or any other thinker for that matter.Footnote 37

A second point to make is that I shall mostly speak of “virtue ethics,” rather than, say, “virtue theory.” The reason is not particularly deep: this simply follows standard usages. Purists may object, and might point out, with some justification, that “ethics” is not the same as “theory,” and that to the extent that I think a virtue perspective can explain practices, I should speak of “theory” rather than ethics. The point is well taken, and aligns with how the terms are often used: virtue ethicists endorse a normative project (“it would be nice if people were to behave virtuously”), while virtue theorists are more interested in explaining and justifying virtue.Footnote 38

In fact, it would seem I do both, but perhaps with a little twist. My main ambitions are twofold, and it is probably useful to spell these out. First, it seems to me that it might be academically useful to add the vocabulary of the virtues to discussions on international law and global governance. And when I say “academically useful,” I mean no more than to suggest that doing so might help deepen our understanding.Footnote 39 The utility thus identified is not related to any particular project, as in “it would be useful for cosmopolitans to embrace the virtues” or “the fight against impunity demands embracing the virtues.” Such conclusions are not precluded, but they are not where my interest resides, and would require additional argument at any rate. I merely maintain that our understanding of global governance and international affairs may be enriched by a virtue perspective; a virtue perspective may help understand, define, and evaluate behavior.Footnote 40

Second, my ambition in this monograph is to develop a framework (a methodology, if you will, revolving around discrete professional roles) for applying the virtues to global governance, and here it is useful to be trained in international law. The study of global governance is impossible to do properly without a firm understanding of international law. The law helps to structure international society, and is thus an excellent place to commence studying global governance – possibly even more so than adjoining academic disciplines.Footnote 41 It is no coincidence that while his background is in the field of international relations, Jamie Gaskarth, thus far the only scholar to have tried to operationalize the virtues in global governance (as will be discussed later), has nonetheless felt compelled to invoke legal institutions and the application of legal rules to operationalize the virtues. It could hardly be otherwise.

The form this study takes is perhaps a little unorthodox, as it brings together reflections on why the virtues could be of use and specific illustrations of how the virtues could be of use, and this dual approach creates issues of composition – how best to organize the relevant materials? In some cases, where authors have profiled individuals (as here), the emphasis rests on the individual profiles, interspersed with some more general remarks. This applies to a classic such as Kennedy’s Profiles in CourageFootnote 42 and, in a way, also to some work in business ethics.Footnote 43 The advantage is that the stories take center-stage, considerably enhancing readability – the stories “open up” the general points, so to speak. The downside, however, is that the general aspects remain asserted, rather than fully argued. The reader of Badaracco’s work, for example, will get a good sense of the character traits he deems relevant for business leaders, but will have to work out for themselves why precisely those characteristics are considered important, how they hang together, and how a focus on them can be justified. These preliminary issues often remain hanging in the air.

Hence, this book is set up in a different manner, precisely because it seemed useful to discuss those preliminary questions: the focus on individuals, the setting of global governance, the links to law, and the necessary operationalization (i.e. Chapters 36). These issues do not always lend themselves to illustration with the help of stories, anecdotes, or vignettes. And yet, telling stories seems the only (or, at least, most) feasible way of illustrating the virtues and their possible relevance for global governance. Consequently, these had to be given a separate place in Chapters 79, organized around the three main uses of a virtue perspective: understanding, describing, and evaluating. The latter, moreover, may even slide into offering concrete guidance: often enough, once it becomes clear what not to do, it may simultaneously become clear what the right course of action may be.

1.3 Virtue as Skill, and Virtue Rules

There are quite a few versions of virtue ethics in existence, some Aristotelian in inspiration,Footnote 44 others edging toward consequentialism,Footnote 45 and yet others with a Nietzschean streak.Footnote 46 As will become clear in what follows, the idea of virtue underlying this study is, in a nutshell, that of “virtue as skill,” developed most recently by Julia AnnasFootnote 47 and with kinship to some work in sociology.Footnote 48

The tradition of virtue ethics will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 4; at this juncture, though, a few introductory words need to be relayed, leading to a brief discussion of the idea of virtue as skill. For Aristotle, the virtues were individual dispositions or character traits (honesty, courage, temperance, and justice, in particular), which together would help humans to lead a flourishing life – to achieve eudaimonia, often also translated as happiness. The thought survives in political culture: think only of the United States Declaration of Independence, dedicated as it is to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But what, then, is required in order to be virtuous? This is where the idea of virtue as skill comes in. There are those who suggest that virtues need to reach beyond being skills, in that the intention behind acting in character should be seen as an inextricable part of acting virtuously. “A virtue,” writes Philippa Foot, “is not, like a skill or an art, a mere capacity: it must actually engage the will.”Footnote 49 And some even suggest that the will (or the motive) is in fact all-decisive: if the motive is virtuous, then the resulting behavior will be virtuous.Footnote 50 Such versions of virtue ethics are referred to as “agent-based,” as only the agent is considered relevant. By contrast, other versions leave some room for other considerations (settings, possible effects) and are thus, in a way, less dependent on the agent: these (often neo-Aristotelian) are referred to as “agent-focused.”

Annas, espousing an agent-focused virtue ethics, suggests that not too much should be made of motives alone, and to the extent motives play a role, they may inhere in action. While Foot holds that one first figures out what is virtuous and then motivates oneself to act accordingly, things are better seen the other way around: our motivations “are not extra ingredients.” As Annas explains, a brave person “is someone whose existing character tendencies have been formed in such a way that he acts, reasons, and reacts bravely, rather than in some other way.”Footnote 51

A different critique (avant la lettre) was formulated by G. H. von Wright.Footnote 52 For him, the virtues could not be likened to skills for two main reasons. First, one cannot turn a virtue into an activity: carpentry may be a skill, but bravery or courage is different. Second, virtues cannot be discussed in terms of achievements, at least not in the same way as one can discuss achievements related to skill. The cook can make a tasty dinner; the carpenter a beautiful bookcase.Footnote 53 But courage, or honesty, or humility, or justice lead to no such tangible results – not even the slain tiger is necessarily the result of courage. Note, however, that von Wright’s view is premised on a highly analytical approach: the semantic qualities of skills differ from those of virtues. From a more function-oriented perspective, however, such as that of Annas, these semantic differences do not seem all that relevant, and its orientation on function makes Annas’ conception appealing for a study such as the present one, aiming to develop a fairly practical framework.

For Annas, the virtues are dispositions that work (or function) in a similar way to skills, without lapsing into mindless habits. The latter is an important element: it helps prevent reducing the virtues into the sometimes shallow idea of skills, as if education in the virtues were some kind of vocational training.Footnote 54 The proper analogy, therefore, is with skills such as those involved in making music or speaking a foreign language. The great pianist does not play their sonata following a rulebook; nor do they pause after every bar to figure out how to play the next bar. The skillful pianist has taken lessons, no doubt, and has received instructions on how best to play the piano, but will have developed the techniques and internalized the instructions, so much so that they can play without having to think about the rules of piano playing, or without having to calculate how to play for maximum effect. In a similar vein, Isaiah Berlin speaks of “semi-instinctive skill – like the ability to read without simultaneous awareness of the rules of the language.”Footnote 55

This account of virtue as skill is, as Annas suggests, “both intuitive and readily accessible,”Footnote 56 and it ties in nicely with a view of the virtues as role-specific. In much the same way as the carpenter needs different skills from the pianist and the cook, so too the judge needs different skills from the statesperson or the religious leader. Indeed, this applies even within roughly the same group of activities: within the domain of law, judging is not the same as prosecuting, advocating, or consulting, even if all those activities take place within the broad domain of the law. They require different skills, in terms of both technical skills and dispositions. Or, perhaps more accurately, the same virtues may come in handy, but will have a different way of being applied: prosecutors may be generous or courageous, as may judges, but their generosity or courage may take on different contours.Footnote 57

Finally, on a philosophy of virtue as skill, it is by no means eccentric to say that virtue ethics can be action-guiding. Annas follows Hursthouse in this respect, who has pointed out that often enough, the virtuous person knows exactly what to do in any specific circumstance, and that is the case because they use rules different in form from our usual prohibitions. The usual form that action-guiding rules take is toward (or away from) specific acts: “Thou shalt not lie” is such a command, leaving it to the user to figure out when they should apply the rule and refrain from lying. Likewise, “thou shalt help people in need” urges particular action, but without being able to specify when, otherwise than when people are “in need” – but that is rather open-ended.

Hursthouse, by contrast, developed the notion of “virtue rules” (“V-rules”): rules that are cast in a different form.Footnote 58 “Be honest” would be an example that carries much greater clarity than “thou shalt not lie”; “be honest” is a standing instruction, applicable in all sorts of situations without the need to figure out whether the situation calls for it – yet it differs from the Kantian rule “never tell a lie” by not being absolute.Footnote 59 The skillful ethical agent will have developed a sense of when and how to be honest, and whether to combine honesty with other virtues.Footnote 60 One may expect a doctor, for example, to be able to temper honesty with compassion; otherwise their bedside manner leaves a thing or two to be desired.Footnote 61 Either way, as Hursthouse suggests, the practical differences with deontology in particular may not be all that large. The deontologist will tell you not to lie because “thou shalt not lie”; the virtue ethicist may reach the same conclusion because one should strive for honesty.Footnote 62 In short, this study will assume that the virtues are not unlike skills: they can be learned, they may be specific to particular professional roles, and they can be cast in the form of virtue rules.

1.4 Ethics and Global Governance: A Brief Overview

If rules need people to apply them, it would seem to follow that there is merit in looking into the character traits of persons in positions of leadership in international affairs and this, in turn, usuallyFootnote 63 means turning to ethics.

While there is a vast literature on ethics generally, there is not all that much (relative to the general attention for ethics) on international ethics, and even less – considerably less – on the virtues in international affairs. There is, to be sure, some literature on ethics or morality in international affairs (I shall use the terms interchangeably, though with a preference for the more individualist notion of ethicsFootnote 64), but much of this revolves around different questions.

A first set of questions sometimes addressed is whether it is even possible to think of ethics in conjunction with international affairs or, from a state-centric perspective, in conjunction with foreign policy.Footnote 65 A typical issue is whether a state should allow the sale of military equipment to an oppressive regime. On the one hand, the receiving regime might use it for nasty purposes, which makes the exporting state and its companies complicit; on the other hand, producing military equipment creates employment and is economically beneficial and this, so the argument (however implicitly often) goes, has an ethical quality in and of itself. Similarly, some argue that upholding sovereign immunity or the immunity of heads of state may lead to impunity, whereas others may hold that immunities make unhindered communication possible, which taps into an ethical value as well, relating to the value of deliberation and overcoming or accommodating disagreement.Footnote 66

Second, there is a body of literature on whether ethical precepts are, can be, or should be applicable in global governance and reflected in international law.Footnote 67 Typically, this concentrates on single issues or issues in isolation: should humanitarian intervention be allowed? How should migration be addressed, and how should we act in the face of climate change?Footnote 68 How and when can war be justified?Footnote 69 Which human rights are worthy of international protection,Footnote 70 and is human rights the appropriate vocabulary or should one rather talk of human capabilities?Footnote 71 Are international institutions sufficiently democratic?Footnote 72 Is global deliberative democracy possible?Footnote 73 And sometimes it is asked whether the system of international law itself is sufficiently ethical,Footnote 74 or whether international society is (or should be) going through a process of constitutionalization – for the putative constitutionalization of international law is usually closely linked to particular ethical values.Footnote 75

A third category investigates the specific ethical obligations of specific participants in international politics and global governance. This work often focuses on duties and rules. Thus, there is recent work available on the ethics of arbitrators,Footnote 76 on the international bar,Footnote 77 on legal advisers,Footnote 78 and (ethical in part) on international judges.Footnote 79 And in a similar vein, there is some, albeit rather limited, work available on the ethics of statecraft.Footnote 80

A fourth group of writers, more ambitiously perhaps, concentrates on international justice. Here the lawyers rarely participate; this terrain is mostly occupied by philosophers and political theorists, sometimes extending work they have earlier done in domestic settings;Footnote 81 sometimes specifically aiming to reconcile the domestic and international levels;Footnote 82 sometimes zooming in on how leadership could contribute to justice;Footnote 83 sometimes explicitly integrating general jurisprudential insights into international scholarship;Footnote 84 and sometimes suggesting that the distinction between the two is not all that relevant.Footnote 85

But for all this activity, little attention has been paid to the virtues and their possible application to international affairs or global governance. This circumstance owes something to what Machiavelli had already discovered and many statespersons have tapped into over the intervening centuries: it is often possible to present oneself as virtuous without actually being very virtuous. Machiavelli went so far as to suggest that the virtues could be harmful, but the appearance of virtue would be useful: a prince “should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.” And Machiavelli concludes that ideally the prince “should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary.”Footnote 86

1.5 Two Forerunners

Be that as it may, very little attention has been paid to a possible role for the virtues in global governance.Footnote 87 Only two authors come to mind whose work can be seen to go somewhat in that direction, and in both cases, it would seem to be mostly virtue ethics with a twist or two. Of these two authors, the best known is surely Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian political theorist and (former) politician. Ignatieff is a seasoned thinker about politics, who studied with and wrote a splendid biography of Sir Isaiah Berlin,Footnote 88 and is known as a moderate, liberal critic of too strong an emphasis on human rights. For Ignatieff, it seems clear that no matter how useful human rights can be, they cannot and should not replace proper political action (in this sense he is rather Aristotelian) and, what is more, reliance on human rights might tempt people to give up on their ethical impulses. For example, humans have a great capacity for empathy and charity, but attempts to carve these in the stone of human rights might not be very helpful: “We need to stop thinking of human rights as trumps and begin thinking of them as a language that creates the basis for deliberation.”Footnote 89

In a recent study,Footnote 90 Ignatieff tours the world and visits conflict-ridden zones hoping to find ways in which people can, or have learned to, live together. The tour takes him from rough neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles to corruption-ridden Brazil, and from the erstwhile battlefields of Bosnia to the current battlefields of Myanmar. His conclusion is that communities, even highly divided ones, can come to live together in relative peace if the component elements realize they can trust one another. Where local authorities prove corrupt and partisan, do not deliver on their promises, and break their word time and again, peaceful coexistence becomes difficult, perhaps impossible. Put colloquially, peaceful coexistence is not just a matter of being free from torture (although it is that too), but also depends on whether the beat cop can be trusted, whether the fire department responds when called into action, and whether the garbage is picked up on time.

Ignatieff places much emphasis on trust and reconciliation, and rightly so, but what is curious is that these are not usually considered virtues.Footnote 91 Therewith, his interest seems to reside more with the possible effects (or byproducts, perhaps) of virtue than with the virtues themselves. His interest, in yet other words, resides not so much with the traits of individual leaders as with the social effects that may be generated when people apply themselves to decent, virtuous behavior. Trust, after all, is predominantly relational, and much the same applies to reconciliation.Footnote 92 Trust is not an individual virtue, but a relational category, inspired no doubt by, and related to, individual virtues, but analytically differently structured.Footnote 93 As we will see, virtues tend to be strongly individual dispositions or traits, whether concerning courage, or empathy, or magnanimity, or honesty – trust does not fall into the same category. That is not to say trust is not important, for it is (as Ignatieff shows) crucially important – but trust is mischaracterized as a virtue.

Much the same applies to reconciliation, albeit in a different way. Reconciliation is the result, the end station if you will, of a social process involving trust. I can decide to be reconciliatory, but I cannot reconcile with an erstwhile enemy on my own: I need their cooperation to achieve this state of affairs. It is no good smoking the peace pipe on my own, although my wish to reconcile is no doubt an important element of reaching a state of reconciliation, and demands on my part that I am being reconciliatory, which in turn builds on forgiveness; empathy perhaps; magnificence.

Ignatieff’s is a curious study, partly because it is not altogether clear what he argues. That trust and reconciliation are important is well taken, but not very well described by a vocabulary invoking the virtues. And if his argument is that society is better off relying on the virtues than on human rights, he may well be playing with fire. To be sure, he does not say this in so many words, but on occasion he comes close,Footnote 94 for instance when claiming with respect to the plight of refugees that “it is possible that pure pity has done more real work to save victims than the language of rights.”Footnote 95

If Ignatieff uses the vocabulary of the virtues but does not engage in virtue ethics or virtue theory as these terms are commonly understood, the only attempt (as far as I am aware) to apply the virtues to international affairs is contained in two articles written by British international relations scholar Jamie Gaskarth. Gaskarth is to be praised for his pioneering work but, as is often the case with pioneering work, his is not entirely persuasive: it is better seen as paving the way than as providing the final word. The first published of his two articlesFootnote 96 starts with an overview of ethical debate in international affairs, followed by a general discussion of virtue ethics and some of the weaknesses attributed to it. The remainder of the article analyzes the virtues of former UK prime minister Tony Blair, and distills from Blair’s rhetoric three fundamental “virtues”: political will, belief, and foresight.Footnote 97 Thereafter, he continues by sketching some alternative virtues that might have prevented Blair from his “misjudgment”Footnote 98 in favoring the 2003 invasion of Iraq, such as self-mastery, reflection, foresight (again), and caution.

This is curious – and unpersuasive – for two main reasons. First, the elements he identifies as the virtues Blair relied on (political will, belief, and foresight) are rarely seen as virtues, and for good reason, as none of them have any direct connection to character dispositions.Footnote 99 The “alternative virtues” come a little closer to a standard conception of virtue, and would indeed have served Blair better, but even so: this list too is somewhat removed from what normally constitutes a virtue ethics approach and remains curiously underdiscussed: is “reflection” to be understood as “practical wisdom,” or is it something more generic? Is “caution” related to courage, and if so, how exactly?

More curious still, second, is his methodology: surely one cannot distill virtues from political speeches in this manner. Speeches typically serve to persuade or pacify or entertain an audience. Analyzing political speeches can be a useful form of discourse analysis,Footnote 100 but doing so will not say much about the speaker’s character traits, partly because at best it would constitute an exercise in self-reporting. The speaker calling themselves courageous need not actually be courageous; the speaker calling themselves honest may actually be lying through their teeth.

There is an additional reason why Gaskarth’s approach is not fully persuasive, and this resides in his instrumentalism and ill-hidden consequentialism. The virtues, it transpires, would have been of use to Blair not so much in order to make him more virtuous, but to prevent him from making policy mistakes. A similar instrumentalism informs his second article, where he suggests that the virtues lead “to good conduct and [are] supportive of the norms, rules and principles of a given social sphere.” The sphere in question (what MacIntyre would have called a “practice,” so Gaskarth insists) is international politics.Footnote 101 He then goes on to illustrate the relevance of the virtues by analyzing the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Gaskarth’s intuition is laudable, and can be shared: there is a decent possibility that having virtuous political leadership might make the world a better place. Gaskarth’s discussion of the ICC is interesting, and he rightly highlights that ICC officials may demonstrate virtues such as humility or courage. Again, though, whether these can be derived from speeches or similar statements, as he does, seems highly questionable, as is his assumption of identity between the virtues of an institution such as the ICC and its spokespersons.

Finally, rather problematic is his conclusion that the particular virtues a statesperson promotes “tell … us something about the preferred form of international society (and the types of norms within it) they wish to establish or maintain.”Footnote 102 This is an untenable proposition, giving undue weight to the virtues as analytical tools. As will be demonstrated, a virtue ethics perspective can aid in understanding incidents and events, but it is probably too much to ask it to serve as a major analytical tool for the study of international affairs.

Having established that little attention has been paid to the virtues in global governance, and that the little attention there has been is unpersuasive, it might be asked whether there is even a role for the virtues conceivable in political decision-making generally and global governance in particular. It is to these issues that I now turn.


1 Peter French, Responsibility Matters (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992), 121.

2 Indeed, as Lang puts it, “power structures create roles for individuals that lead to attributions of responsibility.” See Anthony F. Lang, Jr., “Shared Political Responsibility,” in André Nollkaemper and Dov Jacobs (eds.), Distribution of Responsibilities in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 62–86, 69.

3 Nicholas G. Onuf, “Empirical Products: Response to Gavan Duffy,” in Harry D. Gould (ed.), The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and His Critics (London: Routledge, 2017), 40–42, 41.

4 John Dewey, Principles of Instrumental Logic: John Dewey’s Lectures in Ethics and Political Ethics, 1895–1896 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998, Koch ed.), 33–38.

5 See, for example, Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991). The problems with rules will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

6 See Frederick Schauer, Playing by the Rules: A Philosophical Examination of Rule-Based Decision-Making in Law and in Life (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991).

7 Franck helpfully spoke of “idiot rules” when referring to absolute prohibitions of a general nature. See Thomas M. Franck, The Power of Legitimacy among Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

8 Elster suggests that in many cases, the role of institutions is to limit or harness discretion. Jon Elster, Local Justice: How Institutions Allocate Scarce Goods and Necessary Burdens (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1992), 163167.

9 A seminal critique of the idea that moral conduct can be a matter of rule following alone is Judith Shklar, Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986 [1964]).

10 D’Aspremont in particular has done much work on law in the absence of determinacy. See Jean d’Aspremont, Epistemic Forces in International Law: Foundational Doctrines and Techniques of International Legal Argumentation (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015); Jean d’Aspremont, International Law as a Belief System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

11 Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Martti Koskenniemi, “Constitutionalism as Mindset: Reflections on Kantian Themes about International Law and Globalization” (2007) 8 Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 936.

12 Fleur Johns, Non-Legality in International Law: Unruly Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 18. Kennedy finishes an essay by suggesting: “When we make war, humanitarian and military professionals together, let us experience politics as our vocation and responsibility as our fate.” See David Kennedy, Of War and Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 172.

13 Rosalyn Higgins, “Cleveringa Lecture 2009: Ethics and International Law” (2010) 23 Leiden Journal of International Law, 277289, 287.

14 I make the distinction between interpretation and application for purely analytical reasons. In practice, it would be impossible, on any philosophy of interpretation bar the most mechanistic and implausible, to apply a rule without simultaneously interpreting it.

15 Robert Audi, Business Ethics and Ethical Business (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 129.

16 See also Chapter 4. To claim that Hume, Smith, and Kant all resorted to the virtues should not be taken to imply that they all thought the same: their doctrines of virtue differed from each other, and differed from the Aristotelian account. The point for present purposes is merely to suggest that it seems that some account of virtue is indispensable in ethics.

17 See Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, Roth and Wittich eds.).

18 Useful on the rule of law is Brian Tamanaha, On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

19 Stewart Macauley, “Non-Contractual Relations in Business: A Preliminary Study” (1963) 28 American Sociological Review, 5567. That said, it obviously is welcome if the law favors your position rather than that of the other party.

20 Though not always: “judges of the peace” are an exception, as are “commissions of wise persons” and similar constructions, including the “Kadi justice” identified by Weber, Economy and Society, 976–978, and trial by jury does not rely on trained lawyers either.

21 See also Jan Klabbers, “The Virtues of Expertise,” in Monika Ambrus et al. (eds.), The Role of “Experts” in International and European Decision-Making Processes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 82101.

22 A former president of the International Court of Justice seriously questioned the political judgment of many international lawyers: “frankly they are the very last people I would trust with a political decision,” he wrote in a letter to law professor and former student Vera Gowlland-Debbas. See Christine Jennings, Robbie: The Life of Sir Robert Jennings (Leicester: Matador, 2019), 505.

23 For a fairly positive appraisal largely on utilitarian grounds, see Ofer Eldar, “Vote Trading in International Institutions” (2008) 19 European Journal of International Law, 341.

24 Franco la Cecla and Piero Zanini, The Culture of Ethics (Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm, 2013, Cochrane transl.); Martti Koskenniemi, “‘The Lady Doth Protest Too Much’: Kosovo and the Turn to Ethics in International Law” (2002) 65 Modern Law Review, 159175.

25 Seminal, though without explicitly invoking the virtues, is Daniel Warner, An Ethics of Responsibility in International Relations (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1991).

26 One excellent example is Manuel Fröhlich, Political Ethics and the United Nations: Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008).

27 Robert C. Roberts, “Virtues and Rules” (1991) 51 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 325343, 343.

28 This study therewith follows Hoffmann’s lovely suggestion of being engaged in “uplifting politics.” See Stanley Hoffmann, Duties beyond Borders: On the Limits and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 2. Others speak of “experimentalism” as a related approach to ethics: Eric Weber, Morality, Leadership, and Public Policy: On Experimentalism in Ethics (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).

29 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964).

30 David Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). Bickel likewise used the term “virtues” in an unexpected manner, describing judicial techniques: Alexander Bickel, “Foreword: The Passive Virtues” (1961) 75 Harvard Law Review, 4079.

31 Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001 [1970]).

32 Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000). A particular version of love was endorsed by Dr. Martin Luther King under the heading of agape; for an analysis, see Robert K. Vischer, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Morality of Legal Practice: Lessons in Love and Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

33 John A. Hall, The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); note that Hall seems a little embarrassed about his own use of the term.

34 Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996, Goldblum transl.).

35 Martti Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

36 Jan Klabbers, “Towards a Culture of Formalism? Martti Koskenniemi and the Virtues” (2013) 27 Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, 417435. Note that more recently, in similar vein, Koskenniemi advocated not the pursuit of truth but the pursuit of truthfulness. See Martti Koskenniemi, International Law and the Far Right: Reflections on Law and Cynicism (The Hague: Asser Press, 2019).

37 Ironically perhaps, I side here with Shklar’s view that “joining a movement and submitting to a collective belief system strikes … as a betrayal of intellectual values.” See Judith Shklar, “A Life of Learning,” American Council of Learned Societies Occasional Paper No. 9 (1989) 13.

38 For the distinction, see Nancy Snow, “Models of Virtue,” in Lorraine L. Besser and Michael Slote (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Virtue Ethics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 359373.

39 This does not entail that the virtues exclude other explanations for conduct and events. A striking illustration of the role of organization culture and random circumstance (the appointment of a new commander just prior to deployment, the spread of a military unit over several locations) is Donna Winslow, “Misplaced Loyalties: The Role of Military Culture in the Breakdown of Discipline in Peace Operations” (1998) 35 Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 345367.

40 Dugard goes further, it seems: “Failure to address the human factor results in failure to improve political decision-making, judicial decisions and the progressive development of the law.” John Dugard, “What’s Wrong with International Lawyers?,” in Cedric Ryngaert et al. (eds.), What’s Wrong with International Law? Liber Amicorum A.H.A. Soons (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2015), 467–478, 468.

41 The structuring role of the law is well recognized in the constructivist tradition in International Relations; for a recent exposition, see Friedrich Kratochwil, The Status of Law in World Society: Meditations on the Role and Rule of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

42 John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: Harper, 2006 [1956]).

43 Joseph Badaracco, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing(Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002); Joseph Badaracco, Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose between Right and Right (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1997); Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel, Moral Intelligence: Enhancing Business Performance and Leadership Success (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, 2005).

44 Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

45 An example is Julia Driver, Uneasy Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

46 See, for example, Christine Swanton, Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). For an anthology comprising different versions, see Jennifer Welchman (ed.), The Practice of Virtue: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Virtue Ethics (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006).

47 Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); a useful overview is Julia Annas, “Applying Virtue to Ethics (Society of Applied Philosophy Annual Lecture 2014) (2015) 32 Journal of Applied Philosophy, 114.

48 See in particular the work of Sennett, built as it is around notions of craftsmanship and cooperation. See, for example, Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism (New York: Norton, 1998); Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (London: Penguin, 2012).

49 Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 [1978]), 8. See also Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 12: “The just person aims at keeping promises” (emphasis in original).

50 Michael Slote, Morals from Motives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

51 Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 10.

52 Georg Henrik von Wright, The Varieties of Goodness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), 139143.

53 Then again, speaking a foreign language involves considerable skill without there being a tangible achievement discernible: being fluent in a foreign language is a skill without end product – and it is scarcely a coincidence that Annas, in Intelligent Virtue, repeatedly refers to precisely such a skill.

54 The warning stems from Raimond Gaita, A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, 2nd ed. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000), 232.

55 Isaiah Berlin, “Political Judgement,” in Isaiah Berlin, The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History (London: Pimlico, 1996, Hardy ed.), 40–53, 45; at 51 he speaks of “semi-instinctive knowledge.”

56 Annas, Intelligent Virtue, 20.

57 This will be further detailed in Chapter 6.

58 This, in turn, might owe something to Williams’ conception of “thick” concepts: a virtue like “courage” simultaneously describes and evaluates, and has an “independent ethical content of its own,” as Annas puts it (Intelligent Virtue, 42). See Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 129–131, 140142. This needs to be distinguished from how Walzer uses concepts such as “thick” and “thin” to juxtapose parochial and universal values. See Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).

59 Baker adds further nuance when suggesting that virtues may be internalized as social norms, which in turn help stimulate virtuous behavior; an example might be running after someone who has just dropped their wallet. See Jennifer Baker, “Virtue Ethics and Practical Guidance” (2013) 30 Social Philosophy and Policy, 297313.

60 Note, moreover, that Hursthouse accepts the proposition that some activities are simply not done: there is no need for the virtues to suggest that murder is a bad idea. See Rosalind Hursthouse, “What Does the Aristotelian Phronimos Know?,” in Lawrence Jost and Julian Wuerth (eds.), Perfecting Virtue: New Essays on Kantian Ethics and Virtue Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3857.

61 Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics.

62 Footnote Ibid., 38. See also Rosalind Hursthouse, “Normative Virtue Ethics,” in Roger Crisp (ed.), How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 1936; Julia Annas, “Why Virtue Ethics Does Not Have a Problem with Right Action” (2014) 4 Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, 1333.

63 Alternatively, one could think of further studying the psychology of leadership, as noted by Terry L. Price, Leadership Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 93101.

64 It is sometimes suggested that ethics refers to our own behavior, while morality refers to what guides our communities.

65 Hoffmann, Duties beyond Borders; Mervyn Frost, Ethics in International Relations: A Constitutive Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Terry Nardin and David Mapel (eds.), Traditions of International Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Donald Childress III (ed.), The Role of Ethics in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

66 See, for example, though without reference to international affairs, Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Christopher McMahon, Reasonable Disagreement: A Theory of Political Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

67 See, for example, Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004).

68 See, for example, Mathias Risse, Global Political Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Simon Caney, Justice beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

69 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

70 Classic is Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

71 Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

72 Andrew Kuper, Democracy beyond Borders: Justice and Representation in Global Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

73 John Dryzek, Global Deliberative Politics (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).

74 Thomas M. Franck, Fairness in International Law and Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Steven Ratner, The Thin Justice of International Law: A Moral Reckoning of the Law of Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Eyal Benvenisti, “Sovereigns as Trustees of Humanity: On the Accountability of States to Foreign Stakeholders” (2013) 107 American Journal of International Law, 295333; Eyal Benvenisti and Georg Nolte (eds.), Community Interests Across International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

75 Jan Klabbers, Anne Peters, and Geir Ulfstein, The Constitutionalization of International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jeffrey L. Dunoff and Joel P. Trachtman (eds.), Ruling the World: Constitutionalism, International Law, and Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

76 Catherine A. Rogers, Ethics in International Arbitration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

77 Armin Sarvarian, Professional Ethics at the International Bar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

78 Matthew Windsor, Advising States: The Government Lawyer in International Law (doctoral thesis, Cambridge University, 2019). To be fair, Windsor’s interest is metaethical rather than deontological.

79 Daniel Terris, Cesare Romano, and Leigh Swigart, The International Judge: An Introduction to the Men and Women Who Decide the World’s Cases (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

80 Cathal J. Nolan (ed.), Ethics and Statecraft: The Moral Dimensions of International Affairs, 3rd ed. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2015).

81 This applies most notably perhaps to John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); an earlier attempt to do so by one of his pupils is Charles R. Beitz, Political Theory and International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999 [1979]).

82 Kok Chor Tan, Justice without Borders: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism and Patriotism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

83 Douglas A. Hicks and Thad Williamson (eds.), Leadership and Global Justice (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Mark Menaldo, Leadership and Transformative Ambition in International Relations (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2013).

84 Jan Klabbers and Touko Piiparinen (eds.), Normative Pluralism and International Law: Exploring Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Jutta Brunnée and Stephen Toope, Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Jan Klabbers et al. (eds.), Towards Responsible Global Governance (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 2018).

85 Jan Klabbers and Gianluigi Palombella (eds.), The Challenge of Inter-Legality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

86 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (London: Penguin, 2004, Bull transl., first published 1531–2), 75–76.

87 It is sometimes suggested that the virtues are unsuitable for politics. This, however, is contested: see Berry Tholen, “Political Responsibility as a Virtue: Nussbaum, MacIntyre, and Ricoeur on the Fragility of Politics” (2018) 43 Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 2234. Indeed, politics may well be considered a practice in the way that term is used by MacIntyre: see Mark C. Murphy, “MacIntyre’s Political Philosophy,” in Mark C. Murphy (ed.), Alasdair MacIntyre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 152176, 162164.

88 Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (London: Vintage, 1998).

89 Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 95.

90 Michael Ignatieff, The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).

91 Most virtue ethicists would broadly agree that virtues “are attributes of human beings, and what virtues there are depends on what patterns of feeling, desiring, choosing, and acting it makes sense for human beings to have.” See Daniel C. Russell, Practical Intelligence and the Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 158.

92 Marek Kohn, Trust: Self-Interest and the Common Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Gert Tinggaard Svendsen, Trust (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014).

93 Annette Baier sensibly distinguishes trust from trustworthiness, and further observes that a certain amount of trust is required to develop the virtues: those of us who feel they cannot trust others might have a hard time developing such traits as generosity or truthfulness. See Annette C. Baier, “Demoralization, Trust, and the Virtues,” in Annette C. Baier, Reflections on How We Live (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 172188.

94 And elsewhere he comes closer still, aiming to rescue ordinary decency from what he holds to be the unrealistic demands of human rights law and refugee law in times of crisis: see Michael Ignatieff, “The Refugee as Invasive Other” (2017) 84 Social Research: An International Quarterly, 223231.

95 Ignatieff, Ordinary Virtues, 213.

96 Jamie Gaskarth, “Where Would We Be without Rules? A Virtue Ethics Approach to Foreign Policy Analysis” (2011) 37 Review of International Studies, 393415.

97 Footnote Ibid., 405–410.

99 To his credit, Gaskarth himself regards this as “a rather idiosyncratic set of virtues”; Footnote ibid., 405.

100 A fine example of such analysis, in this case of newspaper reports, is Philip Liste, Völkerrecht-Sprechen (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2012).

101 Jamie Gaskarth, “The Virtues in International Society” (2012) 18 European Journal of International Relations, 431453, 435.

102 Footnote Ibid., 448.

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  • Introduction
  • Jan Klabbers, University of Helsinki
  • Book: Virtue in Global Governance
  • Online publication: 28 July 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats

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  • Introduction
  • Jan Klabbers, University of Helsinki
  • Book: Virtue in Global Governance
  • Online publication: 28 July 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Introduction
  • Jan Klabbers, University of Helsinki
  • Book: Virtue in Global Governance
  • Online publication: 28 July 2022
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats