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Work In Progress

‘Interstitial Moral Reasoning: Justice and the Global Commons’ Work-In-Progress presentation by Peri Roberts and Peter Sutch 13.02.2019

6 March 2019

On the 13th of February 2019, Dr Peri Roberts and Professor Peter Sutch, both of the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University, presented their work-In-progress paper entitled ‘Interstitial Moral Reasoning: Justice and the Global Commons’ at the ISRU WIP seminar. 

A Senior Lecturer in Politics, Dr Roberts’ research focuses on normative political theory in domestic and global justice with a particular interest in debates concerning distributive justice and the work of John Rawls.  Peter Sutch is a Professor of Politics whose research explores questions of international justice, particularly, in relation to Just War Theory, international law and organisations and humanitarian intervention. 

The pair have worked collaboratively for many years, having met as PGRs at Swansea University where they shared an office while completing their PhDs. They have since worked together co-authoring several publications such as ‘An Introduction to Political Thought: A Conceptual Toolkit’ in 2004. Dr Roberts and Professor Sutchhave previously collaborated on a book chapter exploring questions of distributive justice in the Global Commons Regimes (GCR). However, in this article Professor Sutch and Dr Roberts go beyond such debates in their engagement with the global commons, using this context to elaborate their own framework for IMR (Institutional Moral Reasoning) that they call Interstitial Moral Reasoning. 

The authors follow existing law to define GCRs as ‘resource domains which fall either outside the jurisdiction of states or which have been identified as of particular significance to the welfare of all.’ Examples of such resources are the resource pools and environmental sinks such as the seabed, the atmosphere and Outer Space. Global commons resources, they argue, seem to embody key questions of distributive and restorative justice, environmental protection, security, and thus demand a level of normative debate and reflection. 

One of the reasons that GCRs are so interesting, particularly to International Political Theorists, is because the existing regimes imply a certain degree of success in terms of attempts to build claims of fairness and justice into international institutions. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III of 1982) not only established the sea bed as a global commons, but equally, the convention created institutions to ensure that commercial exploitation be regulated to the benefit of less developed countries (LDCs), land-locked states and unborn generations. These GCR provisions are seemingly quite extraordinary in the context of international relations and institutions, often believed to be characterised by self-interested nation states and a degree of immobilism. Indeed, the authors explained how,when presenting their work at conferences,audiences are often shocked at the existing provisions of GCRs.

Despite this, the authors highlight the increasing threats posed to existing GCRs.For example, Part XI of the UNCLOS III was diluted in the mid-1990s,seriously undermining some of the Convention’s claims to justice. Equally, technological advances have made the commercial exploitation of certain global commons, previously impossible, viable and commercially attractive. In the Arctic, climate change and the melting of sea ice is unlocking areas previously unreachable. We are witnessing increasing securitisation of and commercial interest in exploiting the global commons (like Outer Space) previously hidden away in these areas beyond national jurisdiction. 

And so, how can we conceptualise these ideas of justice and global commons in what seems to be a progressively hostile environment to these such notions themselves?For Professor Sutch and Dr Roberts, one of the critical problems is that legal and international political theory is overly reliant on normative hierarchies when thinking about order and justice. Even those scholars who adopt ‘A Practical Approach’ to real world moral challenges – relying on norms-in-use to gain political traction for their arguments about justice – purport to find moral and legal hierarchies. In this paper, using IMR rather than pure moral theory, the authors seek toopen up the intellectual space for the consideration of the justice of the global commons by emphasising the rich normative texture of the politics of the global commons. 

WhenI sat down with them to discuss their research following their presentation at the ISRU seminar they explained to me that their previous research in this area, such as the book chapter, focused broadly on picking apart much of the existing literature and moral frameworks about IMR (Institutional Moral Reasoning) and GCRs. 

For the authors, the existing literature is characterised by an attempt to impose an ordering principle and a form of hierarchical structure in IMR. For them, IMR is like rocky terrain with overlapping and sometimes seemingly contradictory legal and normative frameworks and principles. Many authors have suggested that in order to create a framework for moral reasoning in such a context it is necessary to pick out an ordering principle, seen as superior to the other principles that characterise this bumpy terrain, such as International Legal Human Rights (ILHR).

For Dr Roberts and Professor Sutch, hierarchical approaches to IMR act to marginalise other valid concerns. Taking this analogy of navigating the rocky terrain of IMR further, the authors describe hierarchical approaches as like identifying the best vehicle at the outset. If you did this, you could only use certain routes to certain destinations, and it may make it impossible to see some of the landscape. 

Indeed, hierarchical approaches, such as those that prioritise ILHR, would seem to allow the distributive justice or environmental protection concerns, embodied by the existing GCR, fall to the wayside. And thus, Roberts and Sutch propose Interstitial Moral Reasoning as a framework that avoids neglecting or undermining valid normative concerns such as justice that are often overlooked by hierarchical approaches to IMR. 

After their presentation at the ISRU seminar, I sat down withProfessor Sutch and Dr Roberts whowere kind enough to talk to me about their research, the global commons and moral reasoning in international politics


For the benefit of those who were not present at the WIP seminar and have not read the paper could you briefly explain Interstitial Moral Reasoning and how it overcomes the problems you identify as inherent to hierarchical approaches? 


This framework is about understanding the complexity of moral reasoning in international politics. The landscape of moral reasoning is made of different, sometimes connected, sometimes overlapping, sometimes non-relational legal and moral principles. Rather than attempting to find and pull out a supreme ordering norm, our interstitial framework reflects how any international decision-making process involves considering and balancing reasons and arguments of these various sorts. There is no formula or checklist that determines how we must do this as is implied by the imposition of a normative hierarchy. Our interstitial model is about enabling the navigation of a path through the complex web of reasons and the interstices between regimes and context


At the risk of taking our navigation analogy too far, interstitial moral reasoning can be likened to the metaphor of orientation. Beyond the intricacies of actual orientation, the basic notion of this metaphor is that about locating yourself within unknown terrain and building an understanding of the surrounding terrain. Developing this understanding of your surroundings is a necessary part of planning any journey. 

In this context, this analogy reflects how interstitial moral reasoning involves navigating through a complex terrain of international legal, political and normative orders. We will face choices about how to navigate through this landscape, but it’s about allowing a full understanding of the features of the landscape to inform those choices. With regard to the GCR, this enables us to see certain central claims, particularly in terms of distributive justice and environmental concerns. Being able to engage with these normative frameworks is vital to conceptualising the GCR, and yet, these would be subordinated in many hierarchical frameworks of moral reasoning. 


Have you developed Interstitial moral reasoning developed uniquely for the GCR because of its particularities? Or can Interstitial Moral Reasoning be applied to other contexts of IMR? Is the GCR just a great example that you have chosen to demonstrate the functioning of interstitial moral reasoning?


Interstitial moral reasoning is something we have developed for all forms IMR, it’s not a framework that can only be applied to the global commons. However, I must admit in terms of the development of this research project; we started by looking at questions of justice in GCRs. We looked at the structures already in place and were shocked by the way in which the seemed have so successfully built in normative concerns such as distributive justice, environmental protection, post-colonial justice. We felt that the existing frameworks in terms of IMR just didn’t tell the whole story or leave room for normative moral frameworks. After dissecting much of the existing IMR frameworks developed by scholars, through our use of the example of the GCR, we eventually decided to try and develop our own framework to understand the complexities of moral reasoning. In short, interstitial moral reasoning was born from our research on the GCR but it can be applied to many other aspects of IMR.


You are Peri clearly have quite a different normative approach to your work from what I can gather. How does that impact your collaborative work? 


There are obviously many things we do not agree on in terms of international political theory, and there are certain areas where co-authorship would simply not be possible. However, one of the areas in which we can collaborate is in terms of research with regard to IMR. IMR is very much about moral reasoning in practice, within and between international institutions and frameworks. So even if my research tends to be normatively motivated, and Peter’s more contextual, with regard to moral reasoning and decision making within the institutions of international politics a more practice orientated moral framework is something we can agree on. 


Also, even though we may not share the same way of reaching our conclusions in terms of moral reasoning, we are both fundamentally committed to ideas of justice and distributive justice in international politics. 


You spoke in the paper about the dilution of GCR and some of the contemporary challenges that existing global common frameworks face, is this scary time for GCR? 


Although there are clearly massive challenges facing the global commons, a lot of the current literature seems to have a sort of feeling of impending doom and inevitability, as though there is nothing that can be done to prevent the deregulation and dilution of GCR. Indeed, for us, one of the problems with existing hierarchical approaches to IMR is that they squeeze out the room for normative engagement in response to these challenges. We think that interstitial moral reasoning leaves open spaces for these normative claims that are vital to valorising and protecting the existing GCR. 


Thank you so much for presenting your paper for the ISRU and taking the time to talk to me!