We’re thrilled to announce we’ve appointed Dr Gwilym David Blunt as an Ethics Centre Fellow.

A writer and commentator on global politics and philosophy, David has spent time as a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at City, University of London and as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Cambridge. Now based in Australia, David has published numerous books, appeared on ABC The Drum and Monocle Daily, and has written for The Conversation, ABC and International Affairs.

To welcome him, we sat down with David to discuss the important role ethics can play when it comes to politics, human rights and philanthropy.

What attracts you to the field of philosophy?

We are often told to ‘go with your gut’ when making decisions. This has always struck me as genuinely terrible advice. Our instincts can be conditioned by any number of prejudices or misconceptions. Philosophy is a way of interrogating these instincts and thinking systematically about hard questions.

How does your background in international politics and human rights shape your approach to philosophy and ethics?

International politics fascinates me because it is often treated as a place where ethics don’t apply. It’s seen as a place in which raw power determines the norms that govern politics, something that few would say is acceptable in domestic politics. Yet, this seems ridiculous.

Take the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many people around the world reacted in horror because wars of aggression are wrong. This is more than an intuition. Self-determination is grounded in an ethical judgement that people have a right to determine their collective destiny without interference. We might question the scope of this right, but most people will agree that at the very minimum it prohibits wars of aggression. There is clearly a place for ethics in world politics.

In fact it is more than a place, there is an urgency for ethics in world politics. The Covid-19 pandemic clearly showed how humanity as a whole faces shared challenges. The viruses that cause pandemics and the greenhouse gases that cause climate change don’t respect the arbitrary lines we draw on maps. We cannot hide behind closed borders and hope it all just goes away. These threats raise ethical questions about duties and responsibilities, where burdens lie, and what we owe to the future.

What kind of work will you be engaging with at The Ethics Centre?

The Ethics Centre is hosting me while I work on my next book which is on philanthropy. This is a topic that I’ve been interested in for a long time, but was on the side burner until the pandemic brought it back into focus. My work usually looks at the grimmer aspects of political philosophy, such as war, terrorism, and extreme inequality. So, it is nice to be working on something that gives some reasons to be hopeful about humanity. Although philanthropy raises a lot of interesting questions about justice, reputation laundering, and fairness.

I’ll also be writing some articles and assisting as a media spokesperson.

Which philosopher has most impacted the way you think?

It’s difficult to pick one, but I think it would have to be Philip Pettit, who isn’t a household name, but, along with Quentin Skinner, revived republicanism in political philosophy, which is what grounds my work. Now, don’t confuse republicanism with Donald Trump or right-wing MAGA politics or even with anti-monarchism. Republicanism is at its core a philosophy of freedom; it’s central claim is no person can be free if they are under the arbitrary power of someone else.

You have also done a lot of research on poverty and the distribution of wealth. What role do you think philanthropy and charity has or should have in that space?

I like to compare philanthropy with the façade of a building. It is something that beautifies, but it isn’t necessary to create a stable and functional structure. To continue this analogy, the parts of a building that keep it up, foundations and reinforced concrete, these are the province of justice. My worry with philanthropy is that it is taking up those structural roles, that it is subverting the role of justice. This isn’t a trivial matter because philanthropy is often characterised by the arbitrary power that republicans tend to worry about. Access to healthcare or education should not rest on the whim of a wealthy person, even if they are a good person, these are things that all people are owed as matter of right.

Your recent book Global Poverty, Injustice and Resistance argues our right to politically resist. We’re currently seeing some extreme cases of human right infringements around the world – what’s an example of resistance you’ve noticed that seems to be having a significant effect?

Resistance is such an interesting subject, because it covers such a wide range of activities. Most people tend to think of revolutions or mass civil disobedience as the paradigm examples of resistance, but I find the less visible forms of resistance more compelling.

I think the best example is illegal or irregular immigration for socio-economic reasons. This topic is one that generates a lot of extreme feelings in wealthy states like Australia and the United States, which is why I find it interesting. People who flee extreme poverty are voting with their feet against our current global political system, where many people are denied a reasonably dignified human life simply because they were born in the wrong country.

Many people’s first instinct is to say that illegal immigrants are doing something wrong, because they are breaking the law, but this goes back to what I said that the beginning of this interview: our instincts can be wrong.

We need to seriously start asking questions about why people cross borders illegally. It takes a lot for someone to leave their home to go to a distant land where they might know no one, have to learn new customs and language, and there is a chance they might die in the journey. We need to think about our complicity with the economic systems that produce avoidable poverty and exacerbate climate change, the push factors for this sort of migration. My hope is that this may help to create systemic change.

What are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment?

For work, I’m finishing up reading Paul Vallely’s massive Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg which is a good accessible examination of philanthropy and re-reading Will MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future for a short piece I’m working on. And I’m also revisiting some of the greatest hits of republicanism from Pettit and Skinner for a new YouTube series I’m doing.

For pleasure, I’m reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which is really amazingly written. She’s one of those people who makes me actively jealous of their wordcraft. And I’m reading my wife I, Claudius before bed.

Watching, we are doing a nostalgia trip and rewatching the X-Files, which is fun even if the last few seasons are pretty bad. The sad thing about watching it in 2023 is that fringy, conspiracy theory stuff was just fun entertainment 30 years ago and now it has turned extremely sinister, which kind of drains a bit of the joy out of it.

Listening, I’m a big Last Podcast on the Left fan, because sometimes I just need to learn about cults, aliens, cryptids, and true crime. And since moving to Australia I’ve been getting into Australian music and have been bingeing King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Lastly, the big one – what does ethics mean to you?

Putting it simply, ethics is my ‘bullshit detector’; it helps me recognise my own bullshit, which keeps me from being complacent, and the bullshit of society at large, which seems to be really piling up.