»There is no such thing«, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously proclaimed, »as society«. Presumably there are only individuals. On the other hand, as the saying goes, »no man is an island«. We are connected with each other and cannot exist without the assistance of others. Interestingly, much of contemporary liberal political philosophy seems to have followed Mrs. Thatcher by focusing strongly upon the individual. For John Rawls, the most significant moral and political philosophers post-World War II, individuals are the prime source of moral concern, entering into a hypothetical contract with each other to establish political institutions. Rawls, of course, was, rightly or wrongly, heavily criticised for this view by other political philosophers who were keen to point out the importance of our social attachments to philosophising about politics.
In any case, even if one agrees with a roughly liberal theoretical framework, it is clear that many contemporary policy challenges, as well as liberal political goals more generally, cannot be met unless individuals act together. Consider world poverty. In a famous thought experiment, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer asked us to imagine a child that has fallen into a shallow pond. You happen to be in the vicinity. What should you do? You should, many of us would argue, pull the child out of the water, even if doing so meant your new suit would be ruined. The example, Singer thinks, serves as a rough analogy of how we should think about our duties towards the world’s poorest people. If only things were that easy!
Individual action only goes so far when tackling the problem of world poverty. To discharge aid effectively, we need to coordinate our actions with others. There is also a broader question whether individuals are the right addressees of duties to aid those suffering from immense deprivation. David Miller, the Oxford political philosopher, argues that nations rather than individuals are the correct addressees of duties to aid. This position, however, raises many difficult questions. How can nations act? What makes them nations in the first place? In what sense can duties be assigned to them? And what does this mean for their individual members?
Another area where questions such as the above are pressing is war. Suppose a group of soldiers commits a war crime. Does this mean they are collectively responsibility for that crime? Or should we still prosecute their individual members? And what does this mean for the citizens of the state to whose army the group of soldiers belongs? Is there a sense in which they can be held responsible for war crimes? After all, their taxes, presumably, finance the armed forces of their state.
In order to discuss these and related issues, the current »Justitia Amplificata« post-doctoral fellows based at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften Juan Espíndola, Jesse Tomalty, have, together with Alex Leveringhaus, currently a member of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford brought together an international group of experts from the areas of philosophy, law, and political theory. Drawing on the expertise of these disciplines, the conference will produce a clearer picture of how we can confront some of the most difficult policy challenges in the 21st century, ranging from world poverty, domestic inequality, war crimes and climate change. Indeed, it will show how we can deal with those challenges together. (Alex Leveringhaus)
(FKH - 02.07.2012)