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Moral Cognition and the Law and Ethics of Armed Conflict: A Theory of Moral Discourse and International Norms



David Traven, CISAC

Date and Time

February 19, 2015 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


CISAC Central Conference Room, Encina Hall, 2nd Floor, 616 Serra St, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: In contemporary political science, many believe that normative restrictions on armed conflict are an outgrowth of Western culture and the Judeo-Christian just war tradition.  Drawing on historical evidence that shows that political actors in Ancient China and the early Islamic empire endorsed civilian protection rules, I claim that such norms are more common than most IR theorists suppose.  For IR theory, this raises an important puzzle: how can we explain why similar normative ideas emerged in human societies that are otherwise very different?  Building on research in cognitive science, social psychology, and social neuroscience, I argue that most people have natural cognitive and emotional predispositions that bias the emergence and transmission of cultural norms that protect non-combatants.  More specifically, capacities for perspective-taking and empathy shape how people interpret the limits of their moral commitments, and when these capacities are engaged, intuitional heuristics affect how they judge the morality of killing in war.  What is more, I claim that three key contextual variables modulate the connection between innate moral intuitions and the development of civilian protection norms: (1) societal interdependence; (2) the dispersion of power in ways that increase the agency of potential non-combatants; and (3) the creation of norms in argumentative contexts that require more impartial moral reasoning.  I argue that rationalist and constructivist theories of norm emergence will be able to better articulate the cross-cultural timing of emergence, the durability, and historical trajectory of the norms of war by incorporating this naturalistic theory of moral cognition.

About the Speaker: David Traven joined CISAC as a MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow in July 2014. He received his PhD. in Political Science at Ohio State University in 2013. From January 2013 to June 2014 he was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kenyon College. His research examines the evolution of the law and ethics of war in international relations, and he is particularly interested in understanding how moral cognition and emotion shape the creation of norms that protect the victims of armed conflict, especially civilians. Dr. Traven is currently working on a book manuscript that examines how moral intuitions influence the creation and the effectiveness of the norms of war across cultures.