States do not act in anarchic environment: professor

TEHRAN, Aug. 7 (MNA) - Old Dominion University professor Dale E. Miller says that countries do not act in anarchic milieu as countries observe certain principles.

“There are some principles to which many countries attach some weight, either because these principles enjoy internal support there or because of the weight of world opinion,” Miller said in interview with the Mehr News Agency.

Miller said, “Some of these principles will be reflected in international treaties and documents such as the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Convention, or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Are there persistent ethical principles in the international system?

A: I take these questions to be asking whether there is a stable set of ethical principles that all or nearly all countries and other actors follow in their dealings with one another, and if so, where they come from. The short answer is that there are some principles to which many countries attach some weight, either because these principles enjoy internal support there or because of the weight of world opinion. Some of these principles will be reflected in international treaties and documents such as the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Convention, or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Of course, countries who profess allegiance to these principles and even countries who are signatories to documents that formalize them may not always obey them. In this case, they may try to conceal their violations, they may justify their actions by advancing a strained interpretation of the principle or treaty in question, they may argue that a rival’s violations of these treaties or principles nullify their own obligations, or in extreme cases they may simply plead necessity. This is obvious to everyone, as is the fact that there are increasingly powerful non-state actors who are certainly not signatories to any international treaties and who openly violate principles---such as the principle that forbids the intentional targeting of civilians---that nation-states would usually at least claim to obey. These non-state actors may argue that they are fighting against countries that do not obey these principles, that it is necessary for them to violate these principles in order to match up with powerful nation-states, or perhaps even sometimes that the rightness of their cause justifies the use of any and all means. Clearly the existence of these groups poses ethical challenges for the countries that contend with them. For example, should a nation-state obey the Geneva Conventions in dealing with militants from a non-state group who make no pretense of following the conventions themselves?

Q: The main subject of the World Philosophy Day in 2010 in Iran is “Philosophy: Theory and Practice”. Can this subject develop deep dialogues between Western and Eastern philosophers?

A: The topic is certainly an important one, because in the West philosophy is often wrongly seen as “ivory tower” speculation that has no practical consequences. I have a vague sense that this is less true in the East, although I know so little about Eastern philosophy that I cannot speak about this with any authority. Deep dialogue between philosophers who come from very different traditions is always challenging because of the lack of a common vocabulary and frame of reference. But there are philosophers who are conversant with both traditions, and they may be able to help bridge these differences.

Q: Is it morally correct that university professors defend of their own viewpoints in class?

A: Let me reverse the order of these very important questions first and comment on the ethical obligations of university professors generally. The purpose of university-level training in a subject about which intelligent and informed people can disagree---philosophy, theology, politics, and so on---ought to be to bring students to the point where they can make their own reasoned decisions about what to believe. This means that they must be presented with a diversity of positions and with the best arguments for and against those different positions, and the professor has an ethical obligation to do this. Moreover, in evaluating students the professor has an absolute ethical obligation not to judge the students’ work based on how closely it conforms to his or her own views. The students must be given every encouragement to think for themselves.

So the question about whether professors should defend their own viewpoints in class is largely a question about what means will most effectively achieve the end of encouraging students to reason independently. I don’t believe that the answer to this question is obvious. If professors do defend their own viewpoints, then there is a danger that students will be too intimidated to argue for different positions, even if the professor encourages them to do so. (Or perhaps they will be too eager to please the instructor to disagree, or simply too impressed by him or her.) But there is a danger if the professor conceals his or her own views, too, and presents different positions without revealing which one he or she holds. The danger is that the instructor will, perhaps unintentionally and unknowingly, shade his or her presentation in a way that favors his or her own viewpoint, and that because the students won’t be aware that this is the professor’s personal view they won’t be on guard against this.

My own preference is usually not to reveal my beliefs to students. I present arguments for different views, and objections to those arguments, without revealing which arguments I ultimately find persuasive. However, I understand why some instructors make a different choice. And I should add that most of my teaching is at the undergraduate level. If I were teaching postgraduates then I would be much less worried about their being influenced by whatever I happen to believe. I would also expect some of them to be familiar with my published work, which would make it impossible to keep up the pretense of neutrality on certain topics.

Q: Your new book is about John Stuart Mill. Why Mill’s ideas are still worthy of attention?

A: My book J. S. Mill: Moral, Social and Political Thought is published by Polity Press and distributed by Wiley-Blackwell. John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher and economist who lived from 1806-1873. He was also an employee of the East India Company for many years, so he was involved in British imperialism.

In the area of moral philosophy or ethics, Mill defends a version of “utilitarianism.” As a utilitarian, Mill believes that the happiness of humans (and of animals, insofar as they can experience happiness) is the foundation of morality. More specifically, I argue, he believes that we can judge social rules by how much happiness would result from their acceptance. The true rules of morality, he further believes, are those rules whose acceptance would result in the enjoyment of the greatest possible amount of happiness. It is not the happiness of any one person that is relevant here, but rather the sum-total or aggregate of each individual’s happiness. This is an entirely secular view of morality; Mill considers only happiness in this world.

Mill makes use of his utilitarianism to offer a classic defense of principles that are central to Western thinking about social and political questions.

Indeed, Mill’s own influence is part of the reason that these principles are so widely accepted in the West today. One of these principles is that governments or societies more generally should only limit an adult’s freedom when doing so is necessary to protect another individual from harm. Protecting the person against self-harm or preventing others from being offended is not a sufficient reason to limit liberty, Mill argues. Another of Mill’s principles is democracy, although he favors an unusual version of democracy that gives more votes to the better educated. A third principle that Mill defends is the equality of the sexes. Mill served briefly in the British Parliament, during which time he was the first to propose that women should have the vote on equal terms with men.

Of course Mill has many critics in the West. Nevertheless, there is no single thinker who offers a better window the Western mind so far as moral, social and political questions are concerned.

Dale E. Miller is associate Professor of the philosophy department of Old Dominion University. Dr. Miller's primary research interests are in moral and social-political philosophy; he is especially interested in consequentialist approaches to moral theory, democratic theory, and the work of John Stuart Mill.




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