Urgent need for ethics in global governance and international affairs


While the rate of globalisation has accelerated and our actions are increasingly interconnected at the global scale, there is, to date, no credible ethics of global governance, or even a credible ethics of international politics as traditionally conceived. A new research project, headed by Professor Jan Klabbers, is to fill that gap, by concentrating on the possibility of devising a virtue ethics applicable to individuals – and hence to actors more broadly – operating within the international realm, whether as leaders of international organisations, policy advisers, managers of global corporations, heads of state or government, or in any other capacity.

“Virtue ethics concentrates on the character of the actor. Instead of asking whether a certain action was in accordance with a certain rule, be it legal, social or ethical, virtue ethics asks whether the actor concerned acted charitably, or honestly, or just,” Professor Klabbers from the University of Helsinki explains. He was appointed by the Academy of Finland as the first Martti Ahtisaari Academy Professor in November last year. His Academy Professorship starts in July.

According to Klabbers, virtue ethics has the potential to apply precisely in those interstices between rules where rules turn out to be problematic. For instance, he refers to situations where rules are absent, or conflicting, or leave decision-makers with a lot of discretion. “There may be different virtues – or different variations of the same virtues – attaching to different professional roles in global governance. The demands placed on the Secretary-General of the UN can’t be the same as those placed on the bankers meeting in the Basel Committee or the leaders of states.”

Principally, the project will concentrate on what characteristics, and what kind of action, may legitimately be expected from those who govern the globe and those who allow themselves to be governed. “Such an approach is radically different, because it doesn’t posit any duties or rules that actors should obey. Still, it may help to prevent conflicts from starting or worsening, and perhaps even assist in their solution.”

More information:
Professor Jan Klabbers, University of Helsinki, tel.  +358 9 191 23 141, jan.klabbers(at)

Academy of Finland Communications
Riitta Tirronen
Communications Manager
tel. +358 29 533 5118


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