Politics and Ethics go Hand in Hand – Fabian Schuppert considers political theory a very practical matter

Prof. Dr. Fabian Schuppert | Photo: Tobias Hopfgarten
Source: Tobias Hopfgarten
Prof. Dr. Fabian Schuppert

Mountains or Sea? Fabian Schuppert should decide – “Mountains”. Car or Bike? He is sitting in his office in Griebnitzsee, which he moved into only a few days ago and answers my questions – “Bike”. Reform or Revolution? It’s March 20 and in a few days the Coronavirus pandemic will have forced Germany into a standstill that may drastically affect society for years to come. One crisis gives birth to the next. – “Revolution”. Schuppert knows a lot about crises. He is Professor of Political Theory at the University of Potsdam and researches republicanism, social injustice as well as systemic risks and their consequences, for example the global financial crisis of 2008. He also focuses on the question of how to implement environmental policy in the climate crisis without triggering new injustices or inequalities. The keyword is climate justice. He considers our society ill-equipped for the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic: “We may currently protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus but not those vulnerable to the resulting social crisis,” says the researcher.

Fabian Schuppert’s academic passion is the theory that forms the basis of politics - or at least that should form it. Too often this is not the case, he explains. Normative values are often deliberately omitted in essential political debates - or used almost devoid of any content. “When Wolfgang Schäuble says in an interview that he thinks social justice is less important than for everyone to have a job, this drives me up the wall,” says Schuppert. “How can having a job be sweepingly placed above other values such as justice?” The inflationary and often unfounded use of value judgments is hardly any better. “That coffee is more sustainable, this action is fairer. It is often –neither acknowledged nor reflected how difficult it actually is to weigh or simply assess conflicting normative evaluations.” Ultimately, problems like these allure the researcher. He wants to build bridges between theory and practice. “Basic research is important to me, but its application is, too,” he says. “I have always been interested in specific political, economic, and social issues and want to help find solutions for them. Formal logical coherence is not as important to me as the question of how we can weigh or combine values in such a way that a decision is ultimately possible.”

There is a system behind the risk

That this is as difficult as it is important became apparent during the global financial crisis of 2008 because it revealed systemic risks of the financial world. “The analysis of this crisis has shown: The action or failure of individuals cannot be identified as the sole cause,” he explains. “Rather, many players acted in an uncoordinated manner - for the most part within the legal framework - but together they created a risk that threatened to collapse the whole system.” This is particularly problematic because the risk lies in the financial sector but has serious effects on almost the entire business and working world. The negative consequences of the crash were not only felt by bankers, hedge fund managers, and stock traders but also by innumerable people who were not involved in the system. Schuppert, therefore, researches two important aspects related to systemic risks.
“In terms of moral philosophy, it is important to clarify if individual players of the financial sector could have known more than others? Do we have to limit the possible actions in this system or what should governments do to protect their citizens from future financial crises?,” says the researcher. On the political-theoretical side, it is important to find out how institutions can adapt to these risks and reduce them. Should the state, which is repeatedly invoked as the last resort in major crises, act more as a framework setter again? “There is no such thing as absolute security, especially not in the financial system. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t discuss how we as a society deal with these risks and their consequences.”

As a professor of political theory, Schuppert brings together political science, political philosophy, and ethics - always with an eye to the particular political contexts and processes. “There are researchers who like working on pure political theory as the theory of politics and who look at processes, structures, and their functionality,” he says. “I’m approaching it from a different direction: I’m interested in the big normative concepts and the question of how to apply them to reality because I think politics and ethics ultimately go hand in hand.”

From Che Guevara to climate justice

Schuppert has always been at home between disciplines. He studied politics, philosophy, and history in Göttingen. At first he wanted to work as a journalist. But an internship with the German television news channel n24 proved him wrong. “I quickly realized that it was all about: Who has the best story, the fastest sound bite?,” he says. “I wasn’t interested in the flashy quotes, however, but the arguments. Then I soon realized that I would like to work academically.” In the second semester, he began working as a student assistant and got involved relatively early as an editor of a magazine for postgraduates. Not only was he already attracted to research during his studies but also to travelling. An Erasmus stay in Poland, during which Fabian Schuppert also met his future wife, put him on track. After his intermediate exams he decided to go to Glasgow. He studied European culture, dealt intensively with 20th century French philosophy and Polish literature, wrote his master’s thesis on the sellout of the revolutionary thought of Che Guevara and Mao. He then followed his wife to her Finnish homeland for a short time before he received a doctoral scholarship in Belfast. With his dissertation on a republican theory of justice, he created the core of his academic home there - between the worlds of philosophy and political science. “The line of thinkers I have attached to extends from Hegel to John Rawls and Axel Honneth. I wanted to explore what it means when we want to have a society in which we all interact as equals. Do we all have to own the same things? Hardly. How to structure such a society - formally and informally? If, for example, cultures allow everyday sexism, we cannot assume that men and women actually meet as equals.”

Right after earning his doctorate he moved on to the Center for Ethics in Zurich - and took his topic with him. He was already reflecting on intergenerational and climate justice as a PhD student, but these two issues simply hadn’t come into play in his dissertation. He was also increasingly interested in social justice and alternative political economies. “After all, it makes little sense to talk about social justice without talking about economics.” But it is neither possible to restructure the financial system nor establish a socially just and fair climate policy overnight. Over the years, the climate crisis has become more important in his research, too. “If we accept that climate change is anthropogenic, we have to make radical cuts. There is no moral-philosophical justification for continuing as before.” But efforts to avert the worst could also create new problems. “How can you fight climate change effectively, fairly and with the right politics? How can the measures be legitimized more or less democratically - locally, nationally but also globally? That is not trivial at all,” says Schuppert. In current debates, one proposal, for example, is to plant trees on a large scale to counter the massive increase in CO2 emissions. But where? In Africa! “That’s a colonial perspective!”

Schuppert wants to contribute to putting climate policy on a fair foundation with his research because only then can it be successful in the long term. He is investigating, for example, how initiatives to improve land use cannot only help the climate but also the people who - so far - have lived on it or cultivated it. It is currently hotly debated whether bioenergy should be generated worldwide and on a large scale and whether CO2 should be stored underground. “That would have an impact on the use of land the size of Australia - and of course on a lot of people,” Schuppert explains. “Not always to their advantage.” At the same time, there is a lot that can be done on a small scale and especially together with farmers, indigenous groups, and local initiatives - CO2 storage at ground level (soil organic carbon), changed crop rotations, or better irrigation. “Climate policy that not only intervenes top down but acts cooperatively and does not neglect other values is fair and should be more successful.”

Crises demonstrate where we have to change something

After three years in Switzerland, Schuppert continued his academic trip through Europe and returned to Belfast in 2013. He possibly would have kept moving - had it not been for Potsdam. He actually did not expect to return to Germany in the foreseeable future, Schuppert says. “But what is being done in Potsdam - with the special focus of the department at the university, the close cooperation with the PIK and the IASS - that convinced me. The only thing that I miss is the sea. Well, I should have said ‘Sea’ at the beginning of our conversation ...”

Schuppert brought his wide spectrum of research interests with him and he doesn’t intend to take it easy now. In the light of current and recent crises there is no reason for it. “Crises give us the opportunity to see where our system is failing and where something has to be changed.” To accomplish such changes many people need to rethink. That, in turn, can only be achieved slowly. “Sometimes it seems more promising to start a revolution. But what good should come of it? I prefer reforms - my answer was probably wrong here, too.” First you have to achieve on an informal level that people consider something as desirable and feasible. And that can only be done step by step, says Schuppert. “This is where my work begins: You must not stop asking questions and questioning what is taken for granted. When you want to change something normatively this also includes conflicts. You also have to voice controversial ideas.”

The Researcher

Prof. Fabian Schuppert studied politics, philosophy, and history at the University of Göttingen and European culture in Glasgow. After working in Helsinki, Belfast, and Zurich he has been Professor of Political Theory at the University of Potsdam since 2020.
Mail: Sabine.Eichleruni-potsdamde (secretariat)

Ten Questions

Mountains or Sea?

Protest or Petition?

Car or Bike?

Welfare State or Free Market Economy?
Welfare State.

Water or Wine?

Philosophy or Political Science?
Aargh, my heart says philosophy.

Email or Phone?

Revolution or Reform?

Paper or Book?

Unconditional basic income for all – Yes or No?

Fruit or Chocolate?

Equality or Justice?
This is a false dichotomy: Justice has a lot to do with equality.


This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2020 „Health“.