Aristotle still on the agenda

Aristotle still on the agenda

12 Apr 2018

The Dutchman Jan Klabbers, working at the University of Helsinki, is an internationally renowned legal scholar, who has also written several books on international contract law and law issues concerning international organisations, mainly published by Cambridge. The Academy of Finland chose him as the first Martti Ahtisaari Academy Professor to promote research in the management of international conflicts.

Professor Klabbers’s five-year tenure as an Academy Professor began in 2013 and will end in June 2018. Returning from his leave of absence back to teaching, he has been busy planning courses for this autumn.

Klabbers has found the research period funded by the Academy of Finland rewarding and a valuable detachment from the daily routines of university life. “The leave of absence that came with the Academy Professorship was very important, because I was able to devote my time – previously taken up by teaching and the university’s administrative duties – to nothing but research,” says Klabbers, who normally runs seven to eight courses a year.

“Funding by the Academy of Finland has been sufficient, and I haven’t needed to apply for any extra funding. In my field, I don’t need money for expensive laboratory research, for example, because my work mostly consists of following world events, reading, thinking and developing theories. The funding freed up my time and enabled me to focus on research without interruptions.”

Previously, Klabbers also worked in the Centre of Excellence in Global Governance Research, funded by the Academy of Finland, in which issues were studied from the viewpoints of international law, international politics and social anthropology.

“I’m particularly pleased that the people we trained in the Towards a Credible Ethics for Global Governance project have already established several top units of their own.”

The importance of responsibility

Klabbers stresses that international law is such a diverse and complex field that no individual person can master all of it thoroughly.

“We have half a dozen people working on international law at the University of Helsinki, all with their own special field, but sometimes it’s difficult to achieve a comprehensive debate between us, because everyone knows their own field well but not much about anyone else’s.”

“I specialise in states as actors and how they organise their mutual cooperation, with agreements as their instruments. These often involve numerous problems and challenges, which I study from the viewpoint of jurisprudence but also from the viewpoint of social sciences and philosophy. I try to see the big picture, acting as a kind of jack of all trades in international law.

During his Martti Ahtisaari Academy Professorship, Klabbers has studied virtue ethics and will continue to promote the development of credible ethics for global governance in professional roles.

Plato was a strong proponent of virtue ethics and so was Aristotle, who claimed that important virtues included courage, moderation, generosity, friendship, honesty and justice. In today’s world, Professor Klabbers wants to emphasise responsibility as a virtue that should be required from leaders in important positions.

Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi are names that are high on Klabbers’s list of virtuous leaders who acted responsibly. As to Finns, Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen were presidents who did good work. Klabbers says he is happy Sauli Niinistö was re-elected, but he would not have minded if Pekka Haavisto had won.

On the other hand, the nominations of the last three managing directors of the International Monetary Fund are somewhat questionable for him. Would they have been selected if the selection criteria had focused on the candidates’ acts and character?

“As the most important criterion for the Managing Director of the IMF seems to be that they must be European, with experience in politics and economy, it has turned out that the last three – Rodrigo Rato, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Christine Lagarde – have been accused of crimes in their home countries. Rato even served a prison sentence for tax fraud! I hope that future leaders would be required to display more responsibility and honesty of character.”

Klabbers says that schools too should apply the learning of virtue ethics so that instead of supporting more and more competition, children would be taught how to build communities in which social injustices could be addressed openly and safely, taking responsibility for our common world and to make good deeds for the benefits of us all.

Amsterdam – Helsinki

Klabbers completed his doctorate at the University of Amsterdam. He could have stayed in Holland to build his career, but ended up in Finland in the early 1990s in the wake of a Finnish woman. They had a son, who is already in his twenties today. The relationship ended, but his new partner, now his wife, is also Finnish.

Klabbers does not want to be away from his family for long periods, so his wife and daughter accompanied him to New York when he worked for four months at New York University, which he rates as the world’s best law university. Although Klabbers has claimed international renown and had job offers abroad along the years, he has no plans of leaving Finland or his tenure at the University of Helsinki.

“I like it in Helsinki and enjoy my work at the University of Helsinki, where it has been my pleasure to work with Martti Koskenniemi, who is one of the world’s foremost experts in international law. My six-year-old daughter will be going to school soon, and I value the Finnish education system highly, which is another reason for staying in Finland.”

“I’ve been living in Helsinki already for so long that when I visit Amsterdam, I realise that I miss the space that I have become so accustomed to in Finland. However, I don’t want to ride a bike here, because it seems so unpredictable and dangerous, compared to the organised chaos in Amsterdam where everyone is used to dodging each other.”

Klabbers does not see great differences between the Finnish and Dutch academic worlds – except in the entrance examinations.

“In Holland, whoever completes upper secondary school can continue their studies in higher education institutions. There are no entrance examinations. As a result, the number of participants on courses may be so high to begin with that higher education institutions may have to rent film theatres or even churches to fit in all the students for lectures or examinations. The number of students starting a course in Finland may be 200, while the Dutch figure could be as much as 1,000. But not everyone graduates as students gradually drop out along the way.”

Although Klabbers defines himself primarily as an academic researcher, most Dutch lawyers are, in the opinion of Klabbers, primarily pragmatists. Theoretical orientation has been very rare.

“The Dutch are, in general, very pragmatic, and have a relaxed and conciliatory nature. This derives from the fact that they all live close to each other in a very small area, where it makes no sense to be angry with your neighbours for two decades. It has also been very important for a trading nation to get along with all manner of people and in many languages.”

The research continues

Although Klabbers’s Academy Professorship ends in June and teaching and the university’s administrative duties will fill his calendar as of September, he will not end his research but will continue it alongside his other duties. In future, he wants to focus more on the privatisation of organisations.

The final conference of the research group led by Klabbers will also be held in June. The virtue ethics expert is pleased that references to his publications are already popping up around the world – some sceptical and some less so. He is particularly intrigued by the idea that even before the conference, a law student in Bucharest had completed his dissertation in four years based on research made by Klabbers’s group. The international pioneer in applying virtue ethics is getting new, enthusiastic followers.

Original text in Finnish and photo by Suvi Ruotsi

Last modified 12 Apr 2018
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