Project Summary

Abstract

This research project aims to advance Political Theory’s contribution to the interdisciplinary study of political violence. The 21st century presents us with new forms of political violence that challenge our moral and cognitive capacities. Faced with controversies over genocide, terrorism, and torture, scholars must both reflect on what is actually happening and offer guidelines about how to alleviate the harm. Yet, the academic field in Political Theory appears to be at a standstill. Torn between an intransigent moralism and a complacent realism, it does not offer useful tools for grasping the fluid nature of violence and for re-imagining our world as a better place. While moralists overemphasize the binding force of ethical principles in political decision-making, realists state that no definition of genocide, terrorism and torture can be shielded from abuse and manipulation. And whereas moralists lose sight of what actually motivates people to engage in politics, realists insist that there are no evaluative standards external to politics. Building on insights from the philosophy of judgment and the pragmatist tradition, I will sketch a normative middle position between moralism and realism. The project’s main goal is to work towards a reinvigorated Political Theory, one that recognizes the guidance of ethical principles without disregarding real politics. This goal will be reached through a pragmatically grounded account of judgment. A set of case studies from a variety of contexts will supplement the theoretical work. While the project aims to contribute primarily to Political Theory, its approach is interdisciplinary in nature. The project will also benefit from a variety of dissemination measures, which will creatively combine academic knowledge production, institutional recommendations and outreach activities. These measures will deepen the project’s impact on civil society and decision-makers.

Objectives

The research objectives of this project are threefold:

  1. Interpretive reconstruction: The project seeks to reconstruct the historical emergence of legal codifications of political violence. It tries to show which definitions of genocide, terrorism and torture have become hegemonic after a period of heavy and persistent contestation. The main question the project tries to answer with respect to this research objective is: how have the currently dominant normative accounts of genocide, terrorism and torture been arrived at?
  2. Normative analysis: The project plans to explore the complex dimensions of defining an act of political violence. It will map and advance the philosophical debates around conceptualizations of genocide, terrorism and torture. The main question the project tries to answer with respect to this research objective is: is there a need to rethink the currently dominant normative accounts of genocide, terrorism and torture?
  3. Reformist critique: The project will cover the controversies around historical and contemporary definitions of genocide, terrorism and torture. It will therefore engage with those who draw our attention to the potential abuse of categories of political violence. The main question the project tries to answer with respect to this research objective is: in what way can we develop definitions of genocide, terrorism and torture that are less susceptible to abuse and manipulation?

In pursuing these three objectives, the project will draw on findings from Law, Philosophy, History, Political Science and Anthropology.