This interview is part of a series of interviews with academics and practitioners early in their careers. Current research results and projects as well as advice for other young scientists are discussed in the interviews.
Sean Fleming is a Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge. His research focuses on the role of collective responsibility in contemporary politics and in early modern political thought. His monograph, Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility, will be published by Princeton University Press in November 2020. His articles have been published in both IR and political theory journals, including the European Journal for International Relations, International theory, The Journal of Political Philosophy, and the European journal of political theory.
What (or who) made the most important changes in your thinking or encouraged you to pursue your research area?
I came across my field of research around 2011 when I was a student at Memorial University of Newfoundland. During a lecture I was impressed by all the responsibility discussion about states: Greece is in debt; Iraq was punished with economic sanctions; Germany paid reparations; Developing countries are bound by investment agreements; etc. So I decided to write my thesis on the role of the corporate agency and responsibility in IR theory. Since then, I have thought and written about these and related topics.
My undergraduate supervisor Luke Ashworth was a huge influence on me. At that time I was immersed in American IR theory and analytical philosophy. Ashworth taught me the importance of history to IR and introduced me to many of the classics of international thought, from Ibn Khaldun to E. H. Carr. My MA supervisor Antonio Franceschet also had a great influence on me. When I started my MA in 2012, I was still an analytical philosopher at heart: I was looking for the most abstract abstractions and the most general generalizations. Franceschet urged me to think more deeply about real institutions and especially about international law. Duncan Bell and David Runciman, my primary and secondary graduate students, have shaped my thinking in countless ways. Bell not only gave me valuable advice every step of the way, but also encouraged me to think outside of the box and think outside the box. Runciman got me interested in technology and his work on Hobbes inspired me.
Your doctoral thesis dealt with theories of state responsibility. Could you outline the “Hobbesian” theory of state responsibility you developed?
Let me start with a little background. A theory of state responsibility is essentially an answer to the following question: Why and under what conditions should responsibilities be entrusted to entire states rather than individual leaders or officials? A theory of state responsibility aims to justify the practice of holding states “entrepreneurially” responsible and determining when entrepreneurial rather than individual responsibility should apply. For example, if a dictator lends money, should the debt be assigned to the state or just to the dictator as an individual? Should sanctions be in response to a war of aggression against the entire state (as in an embargo) or only against the leadership (as in an asset freeze)?
In the introduction to Leviathan on a leash, I break the practice of state responsibility into three parts and three related questions. The first part is “Attribution”: What is the difference between a state act and a private act? In order to determine what a state is responsible for, it must first be determined whose actions can be assigned to this state. The second part is “Identity”: How can a state persist despite changes in its territory, membership or institutions over time? The continuity of the powers of the state presupposes the continuity of the state itself. The third part is “Distribution”: Who should bear the costs and burdens of government responsibility? Since a state cannot act alone, its responsibility must ultimately be “shared” among the individual in order to be fulfilled.
Hobbes’ theory of state responsibility contains a number of answers to these three questions. What defines the “Hobbesian” theory is that Hobbes’ account of personality is its starting point. The central idea is that states can be understood as “persons” in the Hobbes sense – ie as units that can speak and act on behalf of authorized representatives. The relationship between authorization and representation determines whose actions are attributable to the state, to what extent the state persists over time, and how the costs and burdens of the responsibilities of the state should be divided among its members.
What implications does Hobbes’ theory of state responsibility have for the role of collective responsibility in modern politics?
A theoretical implication of Hobbes’ theory is that collective responsibility need not depend on metaphysical statements about groups. Practices such as sovereign debt, contract drafting, and reparation can be perfectly understood without the assumption that states are rational or deliberate actors. Hobbes’ crucial step that I am following is to decouple the personality from the agency. An entity doesn’t even have to be real to be a person in the Hobbesian sense; It just needs to be an agent acting on his behalf. As Hobbes says, “an idol or other figure of the brain can even be personified” provided someone is authorized to represent the idol. Here he is thinking of the Roman gods who, through their legal representatives, could buy and sell property. The state, too, is “a mere invention of the brain,” but it can borrow money, wage war and sign treaties through the people acting on its behalf. And when the state does these things – albeit vicariously – the resulting debts and obligations are more related to the state than to its individual representatives. Hobbes’ theory of state responsibility thus explains how short-lived, fictional people – with no more freedom of choice than the Roman gods – owe money, pay reparations and keep contractual obligations.
Another theoretical implication of Hobbes’ theory is that analogies between collective and individual forms of responsibility are often misleading. The predominant theories of state responsibility in IR, political theory, and international law are based on analogies between state responsibility and some form of individual responsibility. I contend that these analogies, although sometimes useful heuristics, are misleading. For example, contracts differ in important ways from contracts between individuals. Although contracts are like contracts in that they are voluntary agreements, contracts differ from contracts in that they bind third parties – namely the members of the state – who have not consented to them. In addition, unlike contracts between individuals, contracts can long outlive the people who sign them. Hobbes’ theory helps to shed light on the ethically complex facets of state responsibility that are obscured by analogies to individual forms of responsibility.
The main normative implication of Hobbes’ theory is that state responsibility for misconduct should be understood as reparative rather than punitive. When we follow Hobbes, it is difficult to see how a condition – a “mere invention of the brain” – could be punished for not feeling guilty or for suffering the pain of punishment. The main purpose of holding states accountable for wrongdoing is to provide a source of compensation for large-scale harm and atrocity. It is difficult to identify the individual perpetrators and orchestrators of a war or genocide. And even if they can be identified, it may be impossible to get adequate compensation from them, either because they lack cash or because they have already passed away. States, on the other hand, have deep pockets and a long lifespan. They can – at least financially – “pay” for misconduct committed on their behalf.
You have argued that it is not necessary to hold states criminally accountable. Why is that and what are the advantages?
Since we are used to thinking and speaking of states as individuals, it is tempting to hold states criminally accountable as we do with individuals. Anthony Lang has argued that international criminal law should apply to states, just as criminal law applies to companies in many national legal systems. I claim that it is not necessary to hold states criminally accountable, as individual criminal responsibility (before national and international courts) already offers an opportunity for punishment in the international arena. It is not necessary to hold both states and individuals criminally accountable. Instead, I propose that there is a “division of labor” between state responsibility (which is reparative) and individual responsibility (which is punishable by law).
A purely reparative conception of state responsibility has several advantages over penal concepts. I discuss some of these in a recent article. I just want to mention one advantage here. If state responsibility is understood as reparative, it is less likely to become a pretext for revenge. Without an impartial authority that can assess whether a state has committed a crime and, if so, what its punishment should be, “punishment” would be little more than vigilance. If states can decide for themselves whether a “criminal state” has “paid for its crimes”, they are asked to take the sanctions too far. Furthermore, punishing states is an all-too-simple justification for war and intervention. Of course, reparative forms of state responsibility can also be abused without an impartial judicial authority – think of the overwhelming “reparations” imposed on Germany after the First World War or on Iraq after the First Gulf War. But the gratuitous infliction of suffering is easier to justify in the name of punishment than in the name of reparation. One can only imagine the extent of the cruelty that could be justified by the idea of ”punitive damages” against states.
Your next project is about extending the “artificial personality” to non-corporate units such as nature and robots. What are the problems with new technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence?
I contend that the responsibility problems that arise from new technologies are often the same as those that arise from collective action. For example, if a driverless car injures a pedestrian, who should be held liable – the user, owner, programmer, or manufacturer? It is often difficult to attribute the behavior of an autonomous system to particular human actors, since there are many people involved and the chains of causality and intentionality are blurred and tangled. The same problem arises with collective action. When many people work together, as in a state or corporation, they can achieve results that neither of them individually caused, foreseen, or intended. For example, there are many instances where planes have crashed and ships capsized as a result of the combined actions of hundreds or thousands of people. For the same reasons that it is difficult to determine responsibility for the consequences of collective action, it is difficult to determine responsibility for the behavior of autonomous systems. As I suggest in the end Leviathan on a leashAn autonomous system can be understood as collective action in an object. Of course, new technologies pose a lot of really new problems. But I think the problems of responsibility that new technologies are usually less new than they first appear.
What are you working on right now?
Speaking of technology, I just finished an article on Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and the rise of new radical anti-tech groups. I first discover the origins of Kaczynski’s ideas and then feel his influence on later thinkers and movements. I contend that anti-tech radicalism is a distinct ideological cluster and an emerging threat. This threat has gone under the radar because the new anti-tech radicals were mistaken for environmental radicals. However, as I show, anti-tech radicals are much more likely to be violent. My guess is that the Unabomber is a harbinger of things to come and that anti-tech terrorism will become a major form of political violence in this century. This article is part of an ongoing side project on techno-ideologies such as acceleration, eco-modernism and neo-Luddism.
I am now revising an article on the idea of time-limiting contracts. The idea that every treaty should have an expiration date was not uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it’s now taken for granted that treaties can bind states permanently. I feel that the idea of temporary contracts should be reconsidered, not least because many long-term and perpetual contracts are tied to the legacy of imperialism (such as the Cuban-American relationship treaties, which serve to legitimize the American presence in Cuba ).
What is the most important advice you can give young scientists?
This piece of advice helped me as a PhD student: write your ideas in writing and try to get them publicized early. There are three reasons for this. First, it will help you get used to criticism and failure. I’ve had so many magazine rejections – between 20 and 25 – that I no longer worry about them. Negative ratings are an occupational hazard in this area of work. Second, ideas don’t always get better over time. sometimes they just get stale. When you think of an article as a snapshot of your ideas at a point in time – many of which you will change or give up on – it makes it easier to get over your perfectionism and get started. And if you don’t publish your ideas now, you may not publish them at all because you will be occupied with other ideas later. Third, and most obviously, early publication is professionally beneficial. But I think the other two reasons are equally important.
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