Book discussion: 'The Dark Sides of Virtue'.

Position:Proceedings of the One Hundredth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: A Just World Under Law

The discussion began at 12:30 p.m., Thursday, March 30, and was chaired by Rebecca Irwin of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia. Commentators included Professor Emmanuelle Jouannet of the Universite Paris I, Pantheon-Sorbonne, and Professor Robert Howse of the University of Michigan Law School.

The first part of Professor Jouannet's talk appraised the central argument presented in The Dark Sides of Virtue, namely that the liberal humanitarian movement has failed to accept the responsibility that accompanies its increasing power in the international policy field, leading it to ignore negative political consequences and necessitating a more pragmatic approach to humanitarian action. In the second part, Professor Jouannet critiqued Professor Kennedy's specific suggestions for resolving the political and ethical imperatives of humanitarianism.

Professor Jouannet began by offering her assessment of what makes Professor Kennedy's view special in a crowded field of criticism exploring "modernity and its failure through the failure humanitarianism." For her, the work is exceptional in that it builds bridges between law, ethics, and politics that are typically compartmentalized at this level of scholarship, making the book both compelling and personal.

Professor Jouannet then offered a general summary of the book's argument, which addresses first the pitfalls awaiting individual humanitarians and then the history of the humanitarian movement as a political force. It is here that Professor Jouannet introduced the theme of disenchantment, the self-perceived "failure and dissatisfaction in what has become humanitarianism." The realization of failure both causes disenchantment and also provides a way out: the embrace of "reality" that frees humanitarians from their blindness and allows them to accept both their position as "insiders" and the responsibility that accompanies that position.

Professor Jouannet's appraisal, like the underlying text, follows a deconstructionist approach. Central to this approach is the role of the "professional vocabulary" that simultaneously defines and serves as the instrument of humanitarian law. The rise of a professional vocabulary operates to limit the number of humanitarian practitioners, and the resulting monopoly on the interpretation and utilization of humanitarian law leads to a conservatism of thought, blocking the renewal of ideas and dulling the level of discourse. Four examples specific to...

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