Morality and Immorality in Politics: Ethics, Religion, Violence and Human Rights
Professor Brian Rathbun
Date and Time TBA
Office Hours TBD
This class will explore whether we can speak meaningfully of morality in politics, both
international and domestic. Is there such thing as ethics in the foreign policy behavior of
states or are they always subordinate to politics and interests? Ethics could restrain the
pursuit of interests resulting in less violence and greater respect for human rights. If there
is such a thing as ethics in world affairs, where do we see it? Is it increasing over time?
However, ethics are not the same as morality. Those driven by moral concerns might
make the world a better place, but they might not. Morality can nobly constrain but also
sanctimoniously repress. Of central concern is religion, which has been both a force
contributing to more ethical behavior in politics but also justifying unethical action.
Religions are based on morality and are the wellspring of human rights. However, they
also claim universal validity which might result in intolerance and sanctify violence
against those of different faiths. We will explore this complicated relationship
conceptually and historically. Where has religion contributed to ethics in international
relations? Where has it detracted from it? Has the relationship changed over time?
After a theoretical introduction, the course will move to different thematic topics.
However, these topics are arranged roughly chronologically, so we get a better sense of
the evolution of the relationship between ethics, religion, violence and human rights over
Your grade will be made up of the following components:
10% Participation in class discussions. This is not an attendance mark, but rather
based on actual contributions to our discussions. Students are expected to come
prepared, having done the reading, with their answers to discussion questions
distributed in advance. Those questions will guide our discussions.
25% Journal: Short, written responses every week to questions distributed in
advance to facilitate discussion in class, approximately 2 pages each.
10%: You will choose a country afflicted by human rights abuses during World
War II and use the Shoah Visual History Archive at USC to view testimonies of
those who survived the Holocaust in that country. Students will give in class
presentations on what they learned from this resource. The date of presentations
will be based on a sign-up sheet to be distributed in class.
Your “research paper” assignment will revolve around producing a truth
commission report. Often after major civil conflicts, countries set up commissions
that provide a definitive account of the conflict and a strategy for reconciliation.
You will choose such a conflict, subject to my approval and write three smaller
papers throughout the semester that will be joined together for a final report. Each
will be approximately 5-7 pages in length.
o The first paper will be a description and explanation of the conflict you are
writing about. What are the sources of the conflict? Who are the groups
involved? What are they fighting about? What are the milestones and
significant events in the conflict? This will be worth 15% of your grade. It
is due at the beginning of week #5‟s class.
o The second paper will be a comprehensive review of the human rights
abuses committed during this conflict. What atrocities have been
committed? Did they violate domestic and international law? Who
committed them? Were they committed by both sides? This will be worth
15% of your grade. It is due at the beginning of week #10.
o The third paper will recommend a course of action for reconciliation.
Should there be trials? Amnesty for the abusers? On what basis do you
reach your conclusion? Moral? Political? How do you reconcile these
competing principles? This will be worth 15%. It is due at the beginning
of week #15.
o When you turn in the third paper, you will also, based on my suggestions,
combine it with re-writes of earlier papers so that it is one comprehensive
paper that fits together. The grade for the entire paper will be worth 10%
of your grade. This will enable you to improve your writing, and be
rewarded for it.
Office hours: TBD
Statement on Disability
Any student requesting academic accommodations based on a disability is required to
register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of
verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP. Please be sure the
letter is delivered to me (or to TA) as early in the semester as possible. DSP is located in
STU 301 and is open 8:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. The phone number
for DSP is (213) 740-0776.
Statement on Academic Integrity
USC seeks to maintain an optimal learning environment. General principles of academic
honesty include the concept of respect for the intellectual property of others, the
expectation that individual work will be submitted unless otherwise allowed by an
instructor, and the obligations both to protect one‟s own academic work from misuse by
others as well as to avoid using another‟s work as one‟s own. All students are expected to
understand and abide by these principles. Scampus, the Student Guidebook, contains the
Student Conduct Code in Section 11.00, while the recommended sanctions are located in
Appendix A: http://www.usc.edu/dept/publications/SCAMPUS/gov/. Students will be
referred to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for further
review, should there be any suspicion of academic dishonesty. The Review process can
be found at: http://www.usc.edu/student-affairs/SJACS/.
Week 1. Ethics and Politics
The introductory week would explore the relationship between ethics and politics
conceptually. Are politics a function of ethics, or ethics of politics? Are the answers
different in domestic and international politics? We will consider the classic realist texts
that answer the latter, as well as their critics.
E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis (New York: Harper, 1964), pp. 1-43.
Nicholai Machiavelli, The Prince, pp. 128-156.
David Lumsdaine, Moral Vision in International Politics: The Foreign Aid Regime,
1949-1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 3-29.
Week 2. What are Human Rights?
In the first session, we will ask what a right is and how it differs from a good or a duty.
We will then move to a more specific discussion of the characteristics of human rights.
We will question what rights might fall into this category and which do not, while paying
careful attention to the criteria we might use. Are they based on religious values?
Timeless understandings of human dignity we take for granted? Or socially constructed
norms of our time? What is the appropriate baseline, or can their not be one? We will
consider the distinction between civil and political liberties on the one hand (sometimes
called negative rights) and economic and social rights on the other (sometimes called
Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2003), 8-51.
Rhoda E. Howard and Jack Donnelly, “Human Dignity, Human Rights and Political
Regimes,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 3 (1986), pp. 801-827.
Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 35-66.
Week 3: Religion and the Origin of Human Rights
The very idea of human rights has its origins in religion. We will trace the roots of the
idea to Judeo-Christian culture but also other religious sources as well. Another topic will
be at what point these core principles began to find their expression in liberal and secular
thinking and the way in which they were used to undermine monarchical rule. Of key
historical concern for this will be the French Revolution.
Micheline Ishlay, History of Human Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2004), pp. 30-122.
Week 4: Religion and Political Authority
Religion was once the foundation of political authority, whereas territorial sovereignty is
now the foundation of political organization. What explains this change? How did critics
and political opponents of religious authority undermine its influence? Did they use
equally moralistic claims about the sources of legitimate rule to undermine religious
control? Our main source of historical material will be the transition from the suzerain
system of Europe to one of territorial sovereignty by way of the Thirty Years‟ War
between Catholicism and Protestant selected pages. ism.
Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International
Relations ( Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 35-125.
Week 5: Religion and Colonialism
This week will explore the ambiguous contribution of religion to human rights in colonial
territories. On the one hand, religion sanctioned the great power practice of imperialism
by distinguishing between civilized and uncivilized peoples, “la mission civilatrice” or
the “White Man‟s Burden.” On the other hand, the first human rights movement, the
campaign against the slave trade, was driven by Protestant churches, particularly in Great
Neta Crawford, Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization and
Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 82-172.
Week 6: Explaining Mass Killing
This week address the question of when mass killing takes place. Why is it committed? Is
mass killing the work of just a few committed and fanatic individuals or does it involve
more widespread and willing participation? We will focus on the Holocaust and other
instances of genocide. We want to know in what way religion has acted as a constraint on
such action? Have the major instances of mass killing been prosecuted by atheistic
John Mueller, “The Banality of „Ethnic War‟” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 1
(Summer 2000), pp. 42-70.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the
Holocaust, (New York: Knopf 1996), pp. 180-202, 239-262.
Benjamin Valentino, Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century
(Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 66-91.
Weeks 7 and 8: Laws of War
What explains the origins of restrictions on the use of force in international relations?
What effects have they had. We will discuss both jus ad bello (laws concering going to
war) and jus in bellum (laws concerning behavior in war). Both are driven by those with
moral concern about the use of organized violence in international relations and have
found significant support historically by religious actors and church groups. We will
examine the Geneva Conventions, bans on particular weapons such as landmines and
chemical weapons, as well as efforts to prevent aggressive war such as the League of
Nations and the United Nations.
Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1996), pp. 85-120.
Third Geneva Convention, pp. 1-85
Charter of the United Nations, pp. 1-25.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), pp. 1-23.
Week 9: Decolonization
The world witnessed an explosion in movements of national self-determination after the
Second World that remade the global map. These movements were based on Western
ideas of liberty and independence and justified by reference to human rights. National
independence movements used them to morally delegitimize colonial rule. We will
discuss why decolonization occurred, why it happened so quickly, and how the process
differed in former French and British colonies.
Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, Freedom at Midnight (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1975), pp. 1-63.
Daniel Philpott, Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International
Relations ( Princeton University Press, 2001), 125-170.
Week 10: Transnational Human Rights Movements
Human rights are now referred to as a “secular religion.” Transnational social movements
committed to human rights now straddle the globe. To what extent do secular forces now
monopolize the issue of human rights? What is the source of their power and what effects
have they had? We will consider the origins and effects of prominent groups such as
Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in
International Politics (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 8-56.
Ann Marie Clark, Diplomacy of Conscience (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2001), pp. 20-64.
Week 11: Religion, Ethnicity and Civil War
Some of the most intractable conflicts are religious and ethnic in nature. Are civil wars
more violent when religious or ethnic? Why is this the case? Does fighting for a religious
cause increase the intensity of fighting by adding a moral or racial sanction? Does it
make it harder to reach a peace agreement? Or are all civil wars more or less the same?
We will compare different varieties of civil war and the degree of violence and difficulty
in resolving them.
Ron Hassner, “To Halve and to Hold: Conflicts over Sacred Space and the Problem of
Indivisibility,” Security Studies, Vol.12, No. 4 (2003), pp. 1–33.
Stacie E. Goddard, “Uncommon Ground: Indivisible Territory and the Politics of
Legitimacy,” International Organization, Vol. 60, No. 1 (2006), pp. 35-68.
V. P. Gagnon, “Ethnic Nationalism and International Conflict,” International Security,
Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 30–66.
Week 12: Domestic Reconciliation and Transitional Justice
During transitions following civil wars or severe domestic conflict, countries must decide
how to reconcile their societies. They must choose between (or perhaps balance) truth
and justice, exposing the atrocities committed and holding those responsible accountable
or granting amnesty in an effort to move forward. This raises difficult ethical questions.
We will discuss them as well as consider the choices made by different countries during
their transition processes and their success or failure. We will examine the role of the
church in these conflicts both during and after their resolution in an effort to identify
when religion contributes to national healing. Cases include Chile, Argentina and South
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden (entire).
Kathryn Sikkink, Mixed Signals: U.S. Human Rights Policy and Latin America (Cornell
University Press 2004), 25-45.
Week 13: International Justice
For the first time since Nuremberg, tribunals were constructed for the prosecution of
major war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Dissatisfaction with the ad
hoc nature of tribunals has led to two new innovations. The international community has
constructed an International Criminal Court. And increasingly states are practicing
“universal jurisdiction,” based on the legal idea that certain crimes are so severe that any
national court should be able to prosecute them, regardless of the nationality of the
accused or victim or where the crime was committed. We will explore this process and
whether it is good or bad for international relations.
Gary Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000),
John Bolton, “Courting Danger: What‟s Wrong with the International Criminal Court,”
The National Interest (Winter 1998), pp. 234-256.
L. Edward Day and Tracy Reilly, “The International Criminal Court: a Guide for
Criminal Justice Educators,” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Vol. 16, No. 2
(2005), pp. 359-378.
Week 14: Humanitarian Intervention
Humanitarian intervention is an effort by outside nations to reduce, stop or stabilize
humanitarian suffering in the context of war. Since the end of the Cold War, there has
been an explosion in peacekeeping and peacebuilding after the Cold War. Why has this
been the case and when does it work? Many such operations lead to unintended
consequences that arguably worsen, not improve the situation. Also, when is
humanitarian intervention morally justified? Peace enforcement comes at the expense of
the norm of self-determination in matters of internal affairs.
Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 1-
UN General Assembly, “The Fall of Srebrenica,” pp.102-107.
Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 19-51.
Madeleine Albright, “The End of Intervention,” New York Times (11 July 2008).
Week 15: Human Rights, Religion and Violence in the Age of Terror
Issues of human rights, religion and morality all converge in the issue of combating
terrorism. Do human rights have to be violated in order to protect the West‟s core values
and way of life, or are those values based on human rights? This dilemma is best
exemplified in the case of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Should they be afforded
human rights? What moral and practical dilemmas does this raise? There are great stakes.
To what extent will the fight against Islamic extremism affect the ability of the West and
the Middle East to pursue peaceful relations? Is some conflict inevitable?
Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2004), 1-41.
Renee de Nevers, “The Geneva Conventions and New Wars,” Political Science
Quarterly, Vol. 121, No. 3 (2006), pp. 369-395.
Jerome Slater, “Tragic Choices in the War on Terrorism: Should We Try to Regulate and
Control Torture,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 121, No. 2 (2006), pp. 191-215.
Brian Rathbun, Assistant Professor, School of International Relations - www.usc.edu/sir
This course was first offered in Spring 2010.
Development of this course was supported by Religion, Identity and Global Governance (RIGG) at USC
funded by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs. The Luce Foundation seeks
to increase America's capacity for international understanding with new focus on deepening public
understanding of religion as a critical but often neglected factor in policy issues throughout the world.
For further information contact, RIGGemail@example.com