The new edited volume Wicked Problems: The Ethics of Action for Peace, Rights, and Justice (Oxford University Press, 2022) brings together interdisciplinary authors to explore the ethical questions, dilemmas and obligations that both activists and academics have to confront in the midst of work to build a more just and peaceful world. The book was co-edited by Ernesto Verdeja, associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, associate professor of sociology at the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, and Douglas Irvin-Erickson, assistant professor and director of the Genocide Prevention Program, at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
The book grew out of conversations between the three editors about the lack of sustained ethical reflection in policymaking efforts and many social movements.
“The genesis came from noticing that there are all these opaque spots in our respective fields,” said Verdeja. “We wanted to write something that was a serious work of scholarship,and also accessible and punchy. We wanted it to draw in authors who have a foot in both the academic and practice worlds, and the book includes contributions not only from scholar-practitioners in academia, but also many practitioners working in peacebuilding everyday, from high-level policymaking to grassroots activism”
The result was an edited volume featuring 17 chapters exploring topics ranging from Black armed resistance and police abolition to nonviolent direct action to end poverty to rethinking the roles of allies in social movements and understanding dilemmas within transitional justice processes.
The final volume includes chapters by three additional Kroc Institute faculty members. Ashley Bohrer, assistant professor of gender and peace studies, explores “dilemmas of prefigurative and harm-reduction approaches” in social movement work, deconstructing the typical binary between working to achieve preferred ends in the present despite actions that might cause potential harm versus developing a movement where the methods and ends are in harmony.
Laurie Nathan, professor of the practice of mediation and director of the Kroc Institute’s Mediation Program, wrote a chapter focused on the ethics of negotiating with armed actors during armed conflict, a situation that often necessitates tradeoffs and compromise, and where the actions needed to ensure justice, accountability, and peace might be in conflict with one another. George Lopez, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., professor emeritus of peace studies, co-authored a chapter focused on establishing an ethical code for (re)building peace after the use of sanctions. Verdeja himself also wrote a chapter focused on the dilemma of making decisions that might cause harm in the present in order to prevent future atrocities.
“We hope that people will engage with the book as an opportunity to wrestle with the profound ethical dilemmas at stake in peace studies work,” said Verdeja. “Sometimes framing questions abstractly gets us away from the messiness of everyday practice, and we’re hoping that this book can help fundamentally reorient our approach to some of these challenging questions.”
The authors wrote the book with a wide range of audiences in mind, including academics, practitioners, people involved in ongoing movements for justice, lay people and students.
“The book was written in an accessible way because we want younger or early career people involved in peacebuilding and peace studies to explore these kinds of questions,” said Verdeja. “They are the future of the field and these movements.”
Listen to a podcast featuring a conversation between all three authors: