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Professional Geoethics, Prescriptive Geoethics and Analytical Geoethics. For a constructivist approach of the ethical dimension of geographical space

Arnaud Brennetot
Cet article est une traduction de :
Géoéthique professionnelle, géoéthique prescriptive et géoéthique analytique. Pour une approche constructiviste de la dimension éthique de l’espace des sociétés


This article proposes a research framework for analyzing the role of ideas and ethical norms in the construction of the spatiality of societies. After recalling the existence of three possible uses of the term ‘geoethics’ within the academic sphere (professional, prescriptive and analytical), a second part presents five possible epistemological approaches of geoethical analysis (the naturalistic, idealistic, rational choice, holistic and constructivist approaches). In doing so, the heuristic interest of a constructivist and multifactorial approach to geoethical norms in the regulation of the spatiality of societies will be underlined. In a last part, the conditions for the conceptual and methodological implementation of a constructivist analysis of geoethical norms, regimes and controversies are introduced. The article closes with the proposal of a classification aimed at highlighting the role of geoethical norms in the construction of some major currents of thought constitutive of political modernity.
Keywords: constructivism, geoethics, norms, moral values, territorial governance

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Introduction: Geoethics, geosciences, and geography

1Conceived along the same lines as ‘bioethics’, the term ‘geoethics’ has been used for the past fifteen years or so by specialists in Earth Sciences to make clear their desire to reflect on what might constitute good professional practice in the context of prescriptive approaches to the social uses to which scientific knowledge is put (Abel, 2006 ; Varet, 2008 ; Martínez-Frías, 2011 ; Matteuci, 2012 ; Peppoloni, 2012 ; Bobrowsky, 2017 ; Peppoloni, 2017). Various organisations have seen the light of day (The International Association for Promoting Geoethics and The International Association for Geoethics) and events have regularly focused on discussing the moral issues raised by the development of geoscientific culture. Edited volumes and textbooks have been published in recent years (Lollino, 2014; Wyss, 2015, Bohle, 2019), in 2016 a special volume of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health was devoted to the question of ‘Gender and Geoethics in the Geosciences’, and in 2017 wo special issues were published in 2017 in the journals Geosciences and Annals of Geophysics. The aim of all these initiatives is to involve the scientific community in societal debate focusing on topics relating to the geosciences: for example, managing and preserving resources or preventing environmental risks. In this context, geoethics seems to be a branch of the environmental ethics that has been developing for several decades at the intersection of moral philosophy and environmental studies. Calls for geoethics can be seen as an academic endeavour involving two relationships to ethics: a professional ethic, which considers the proper use of geosciences, and a prescriptive (or normative) ethic, in which researchers participate in societal debates about the appropriate use of geophysical resources.

2Such a definition of geoethics might, however, seem artificially limited. There has been ethical discussion for several decades now in the social sciences that suggests that the purview of geoethics might be extended to all geographical questions. While this obviously includes the geophysical environment, geoethics can also be applied to other spatial phenomena on earth: the living conditions of populations, the location of human settlements (activities and housing), and the mobility of people, as well as the spatial dimensions of political power, cultures, and social organisations. The recourse to the contracted "geo-ethical" form avoids the use of a cumbersome periphrase to designate the ethical dimension of the space of human societies in its various aspects. Reflection on geoethics is therefore potentially at the crossroads of environmental sciences, in the field of geosciences for example, and the social sciences of space (territorial sciences, urban sociology, architecture, international relations, regional science, etc.). There is no doubt that, in such a framework, geography has an important place to play.

3The rapprochement of ethics and geography represents several important epistemological issues unequally taken into account by the scholarly community. To account for this, this article begins by presenting three possible meanings of the term "geoethics" (professional, prescriptive and analytical), pointing out that academic research has so far favoured the first two meanings, neglecting the latter in a detrimental way. In a second part, it shows that geoethical analysis can be carried out starting from distinct and competing scientific paradigms and that, among them, the constructivist approach appears as the most fruitful. Finally, the last part presents the conditions for the conceptual and methodological implementation of a constructivist approach to geoethical analysis, taking into account the relationships between ideas, discourses and practices, in order to propose a widely applicable framework.

Professional geoethics, prescriptive geoethics and analytical geoethics. Three possible forms for the combination of ethics and geography

4While the term geoethics itself is seldom used in geography (Lynn, 1998; Cutchin, 2002; Pumain, 2009; author, 2010), many geographers have given substantial focus to the ethical scope of geographical issues.

Professional geoethics

5Until the end of the 1990s, the rare publications addressing the ethical dimension of geography had principally focused on the ethics of research practices, i.e. professional ethics: collecting and processing data, relationships to fieldwork and respondents, modes of publishing and representing results, how results were used, and their effects on development and planning policies, etc. (Mitchell, 1982; Curry, 1991; Winchester, 1996). These concerns continue to fuel academic reflection, for example, on issues related to the digitization of spatial data or the generalization of contractual funding. To the extent that it is likely to affect the individuals and social groups it studies, academic geography inevitably involves the ethical responsibility of the researchers it mobilizes. It thus shares a range of ethical concerns with other scientific fields at the crossroads of the social sciences and geosciences. An interdisciplinary discussion on the ethical issues raised by the various practices in spatial sciences would foster the collective responsibility of individuals and research institutions. In a political context characterized by an exacerbated tension between the dynamics of technocratic instrumentalization of institutional research and popular mistrust of established knowledge, the work remains crucial. However, geoethical reflection goes beyond the framework of researchers' professional ethics alone.

Prescriptive geoethics

6A second possible meaning of geoethics concerns the prescriptive, or normative, dimension of the discourses produced by academic geography, i.e., all the ethical judgments expressed by researchers about how space should be organized. Two postures of prescriptive geoethics can be identified in the scholarly discourse: the first takes the form of a deliberate and explicit will to integrate a normative ethic within geographical reflection, while the second concerns the diffuse and implicit integration of moral or ideological judgments within academic discourse, without necessarily claiming a clear and transparent ethical stance.

7For the past thirty years or so, the first posture has been discernible in regularly expressed pleas for a closer relationship between geography and moral philosophy. At the end of the 1990s, several works outlining the beginning of a collective structuring are published (Light, 1997 ; Campbell, 1999 ; Proctor, 1999 ; Smith, 2004). Academic journals are opening their pages more and more to ethical positions taken by geographers. This is the case for example of Progress in Human Geography, Ethics, Place and Environment or Justice Spatiale/Spatial Justice. At the time, geographer D.M. Smith even raised the possibility of a "moral turn" in geography (Smith, 1997b). This posture can be found, for example, within the so-called "humanist" current of geography, which aims at searching for the geographical foundations of a good life, insisting in particular on the possibilities of a moral ecology (Buttimer, 1974 ; Tuan, 1986, 1989 ; Berque, 1996 ; Sack 1997 ; Ferrier, 1999). Other authors adopt a broader point of view, focusing their moral questioning on geographical themes such as the political organization of territories (Reynolds, 1985 ; Shapiro, 1994 ; Slater, 1997), urban and spatial planning (Jackson, 1984 ; Driver, 1988 ; Entrikin, 1994 ; Campbell, 2006 ; Wright, 2009), spaces of daily life (Birdsall, 1996), relationships between categories, classes or genders (Kobayashi, 1994, 2000) or environmental justice (Livingstone, 1991 ; Bryant, 1995 ; Cutter, 1995 ; Valentine, 2003). Some authors are interested in the relationship between ethics and the didactics of geography (Havelberg, 1990 ; Hay, 1998 ; Kenreich, 2013) or the links between ethics and cartographic representation (Harley, 1991 ; Monmonier, 1991 ; Lake, 1993 ; Crampton, 1995). Most of these studies draw on elements from existing debate in moral philosophy and transpose them into ethical reflection in geography, like the debate organized by Cybergeo in 2019 (Guermond, 2019) in response to the Theory of Spatial Justice proposed by Jacques Lévy a few months earlier (Lévy, 2018). These works often focus on the debates between universalism and differentialism. (Corbridge, 1993, 1998 ; Bridge, 2000) or the comparative benefits of empirical or rationalist approaches of morality (Bret, 2001 ; Soja, 2010 ; Barnett, 2011a, 2013). While geographers have certainly contributed to renewing moral debate within the social sciences, for several years now there has been a decline in publications explicitly taking a moral or ethical approach to geography. Since 2004, no edited volume has been published in English, for example, on the relationship between geography and moral philosophy. In 2010, the journal Ethics, Place and Environment, A Journal of Philosophy & Geography was renamed Ethics, Policy & Environment to signal the new editors’ desire to open up their editorial line to other disciplines and set aside the specifically geographical approach emphasised previously. Looking purely at publications, the prospect of a ‘moral turn’ in geography does not seem to have been particularly long-lasting. Does this shift mean that, despite the growing trend towards geoethics in the geosciences, there is now a lack of interest in ethical issues among current geographers? Running counter to this hypothesis, it should be noted that although ethical reflection in geography has not taken the shape of a structured theoretical debate, geographers’ observations have nevertheless continued to go hand-in-hand with many moral considerations, thus testifying to a genuine propensity for geoethical thinking.

8This is a second posture that corresponds to indirect prescriptive geoethics, since the judgments expressed are not necessarily associated with an assumed ethical will integrated into a formalized conception of spatial justice. Considering values such as sustainability, diversity, integrity, competitiveness, power, equity, authenticity, prosperity, security, development, attractiveness or cohesion of territories as legitimate and relevant qualities for questioning the geographical reality indirectly amounts to importing ethical standards into geographical thinking. Whenever researchers express a prescriptive point of view on the geographical reality, to praise or criticize it, they convey geoethical standards. Through their positions in discussions on the ideal organization of space and on the best way to arrange it, many geographers are in fact engaged in prescriptive geoethics. The history of academic geography is full of such judgments. Many works of applied geography, geography of development (and its avatars), geopolitics, critical, radical, Marxist or feminist geography reflect the projection of different moral norms on geographical reality. For example, for the past fifty years, the critical gaze that radical geography has projected on the space of contemporary societies has been based on evaluation criteria that are themselves inspired by ethical convictions, in this case the idea that domination within societies is harmful. The condemnation of the spatial regimes implemented by the social-liberal lefts or by the new populist rights on the part of many researchers influenced by neo-marxism, poststructuralism or postmodern thought represents a moral commitment, which may be akin to a prescriptive geoethics approach. The formalization of such geoethical postures allows scientists to contribute to social discussions on space and, hopefully, to bring rigor, clarity and tangibility to these debates. Similarly, geographers who intend to study spatial justice and injustice often do so from a morally engaged perspective, whether expressing radical and dissenting (Harvey, 1973; Soja, 2010) or more reformist (Bret, 2015; Lévy, 2018) views.

9Against the Weberian perspective of axiological neutrality, geographers who adopt such a posture do not merely describe or explain what is, but express what they believe should or should not be. This prescriptive geography then presents itself as a"moral science", i.e. a science engaged in moral and political discussions. Many people therefore practice prescriptive geoethics empirically, without always recognizing it, by participating in expert missions to decision-makers, leading public controversies or challenging the established order. There is no doubt that the various current spatial changes and those to come will give academic geographers the opportunity to continue for a long time to engage in rich geoethical debates.

Analytical geoethics

10Academic engagement in the debate of geoethical ideas is a laudable and useful task, but it can also be thankless or disconcerting, especially since it rarely produces effects commensurate with the issues at stake. Indeed, it is not enough to express arguments or formulate sophisticated doctrines on spatial justice or injustice to produce effects on the geographical organisation of societies. Researchers or intellectuals are neither the only nor necessarily the most powerful actors to contribute to the definition of the geoethical norms actually prevailing in the social life. It is not uncommon for geoethical recommendations expressed within the scholarly sphere to fail to have concrete effects, whether because their heterodoxy confines them to social circles on the margins of power, or because their banality reduces them to legitimising the established order. This is why intellectual commitment is only worthwhile if it is accompanied by a reflection on the social conditions of production and reception of moral ideas.

11Such an observation invites us to pay attention to the ethical values that social actors as a whole, beyond the academic sphere, attribute to space, and to characterize their axiological content and practical uses. This is why I propose a program of research dedicated to the study of the moral values that societies ascribe to the space they inhabit, which I call geoethical analysis. This means considering geographical morality not as a truth that scholars would have to discover and promote, but as a set of norms, beliefs and conventions produced by social actors to regulate their spatial interactions. The geoethical analysis can cover most of the usual objects of interest to geographers: the configuration of places, the localization of resources, the organization and management of territories, the spatialization of social relations, etc. Why do some observers consider phenomena such as urbanization, globalization or migration as morally acceptable or even beneficial transformations, while others fiercely disapprove of them? Why do some people come to terms with geographical inequalities when others see them as intolerable injustices? The questions that geoethical analysis attempts to answer open up a vast field of research, crossing the scientific study of morality and the space of societies. In geography, some works on geographical ideologies (Anderson, 1973; Claval, 1978, 1985, 2008; Murphy, 2005) or on regimes of territorial legitimation (Murphy, 1990, 2015) are indirectly interested in the ethical values that social actors attach to space. In the same vein, ecological approaches in electoral sociology seek to highlight the links between people's ideological and political convictions and their living environment (Taylor, 1979). Other researchers interpret territorial policies in the light of the doctrines and ideologies that are supposed to inspire them. However, the scholarly community has never attempted to build a research programme aimed at studying in a systematic, theorised and reflexive way, the moral values ascribed by human societies to the spaces they inhabit. In most of the geoethical analyses that can be found within academic production, moral values appear to be drowned among other elements, often within the broader framework of the study of geographical representations carried out in different fields of geography, in social geography, cultural geography and political geography in particular. The development of a formalised and structured analytical framework should, however, lead to a better understanding of the ethical relationships that societies have with the space they produce. To this end, the following two parts aim to justify the need for a constructivist approach to the geoethical reality and then to propose methodological guidelines for the implementation of such an approach.

For a constructivist approach of geoethical analysis

12From an epistemological point of view, the relevance of conducting geoethical analyses is not obvious. Although geographers have so far invested little in such a field of research, the work carried out in the field of the sociology of morality allows us to consider that such a project is both possible and potentially interesting, particularly within the framework of a constructivist approach to geoethical norms.

Moral values, an object for the social sciences

13There is a long tradition within the social sciences of taking as the object of study the values and moral norms produced by societies over time (Abend, 2010). Since the 19th century, several authors have been interested in the sociological study of moral values (Martineau, 1838 ; Lévy-Bruhl, 1903 ; Weber, 1905 ; Durkheim, 1906, 1912 ; Elias, 1939 ; Gurvitch, 1960, 1973 ; Ossowska, 1963, 1970). Such a perspective implies breaking with the epistemological tradition establishing a distinction between facts and values and to consider the latter as fully-fledged social facts. This implies that moral norms are social realities that can be described, characterised and explained using scientific methods.

14Today, the social study of moral ideas is not an academically structured object of study. There is a wide dispersion of work carried out in various academic fields: social psychology, neurosciences, the history of mentalities and ideas, the economics of conventions, the sociology of values, cultural studies, political science or the study of organisations, for example. Most of these studies seek to show how values and moral rules resonate with various aspects of collective life (family, work, religion, health, politics, etc.). According to some observers, this work is more widespread in France than in English-speaking countries, in particular thanks to the structuring action of the Centre de sociologie de l'éthique, co-founded by P. Ladrière and F.A. Isambert at the end of the 1970s (Abend, 2010). Subsequently, various works in the sociology of ethics, sociology of values and moral psychology were regularly published in France. In Switzerland, the work of J. Kellerhals has also focused on social representations of moral values such as justice or responsibility (Kellerhals, 1986 to 2000). Although they remain scattered, similar studies also exist in Anglophone research (Adams, 1965; Moore, 1978; Hamilton, 1980; Hochschild, 1981; Hitlin, 2010; Haidt, 2012), particularly in the field of social psychology regarding the analysis of individual perceptions (Cook, 1983; Folger, 1984; Sabbagh, 2016). More recently, a will to better structure the research undertaken in the field of the sociology of moral values has been formulated (Abend, 2008). In addition to studies dealing explicitly with moral issues, much of the work devoted to the study of social norms indirectly addresses those relating to morality, while also integrating other forms of norms, technical or aesthetic for example (Hechter, 2001; Dubois, 2004; Bicchieri, 2006; Xenitidou, 2014). Thus the innumerable studies on representations, beliefs, ideologies, social choices or legitimising discourses indirectly enter the field of the sociology of morality.

15The interest in studying the values and ethical norms that societies attribute to geographical space depends in fact on the scientific paradigms in which academic communities recognise themselves. The scientific interest in studying geoethical norms changes according to the epistemological approaches that are favoured. Without claiming to be exhaustive, five main approaches to geoethical values and norms can be identified. Among them, the constructivist approach is the one that best allows us to grasp the complex role that geoethical values and norms play in regulating the spatiality of societies.

Naturalistic approaches

16An ancient naturalist current views moral values as the result of the physico-psychological complexion of human beings. As early as the 18th century, the Scottish philosopher F. Hutcheson hypothesized that every human being would be endowed by nature with a "moral sense", equivalent to the other ordinary senses (Hutcheson, 1728). Shortly afterwards, A. Smith, for his part, considered sympathy as the general cause of moral feelings (Smith, 1759), while E. Kant associated morality with reason (Kant, 1785). Some advocates of such approaches now seek to associate observable moral values with natural functions specific to the human species. Moral inclinations, such as selfishness or altruism, would result from the adaptation of human beings to changes in their environment, in accordance with the theory of natural selection. This is how a current of 'evolutionary' ethics developed (Dawkins, 1976; Wright, 2005; Baumard, 2010). Neuroethics research that followed sought to show how the natural evolution of the human brain would have led it to develop certain moral predispositions (Verplaeste, 2009). Research in the field of social psychology, on the other hand, attempts to test links between certain moral propensities of individuals and biological characteristics, such as gender or age (regardless of socialisation conditions). All these approaches aim to identify invariants (Piaget, 1932). Analysing geoethical norms from such an angle is equivalent to looking for universal laws of idealization of space. In such a perspective, human societies are driven by universal principles of spatial justice. While convenient to justify recourse to these universalist conceptions, such approaches are hampered by the effective heterogeneity of moral aspirations that can be observed between the different societies of the world. For example, although it has been a powerful source of inspiration in the history of the Westernization of the world, the doctrine of natural rights, according to which all human beings would enjoy equal rights, has never been universally accepted, neither in time nor in space. In order to explain its historical success and the recurrent challenges it has been subject to, account must be taken of the geohistorical contexts in which geoethical norms are produced and mobilised. Several contextualist approaches present themselves as alternatives to this naturalistic perspective.

Idealistic approaches

17Idealistic approaches consider moral ideas as a powerful driving force of action of individuals and social groups. From this perspective, human beings adopt behaviours guided by their subjective representations of morality, which in turn are derived from individual and autonomous thinking skills. Conceptions of what is right or wrong, produced by individuals, are supposed to have a performative effect on the whole social world. Interpretations that present certain practical mutations as the direct result of changes in ways of thinking are based on such a reading grid. For some interpreters, for example, the French Revolution would be the direct consequence of a convergence of individual convictions in favour of the ideas of the Enlightenment (Tocqueville, 1856). A geoethical analysis based on such an approach assumes that geographical behaviours and the arguments produced to justify them result above all from the moral convictions of the actors involved. From this point of view, territorial regimes reflect the moral ideas of those who implement them. In France, for example, the invention of the départements was the result of the rationalism and spirit of geometry that inspired the deputies of the National Assembly (Gombrich, 1979 ; Ozouf-Marignier, 1989).

18This kind of idealistic interpretation can be criticised for its overestimation of the coherence and independence of the moral conscience of individuals and its relative indifference to the material and institutional contexts of the production and mobilisation of ideas. In this approach, the spatial conditions in which geoethical norms are produced play a secondary role, since every human being, regardless of his or her geographical location, is supposed to be able to activate an ability to experience sensations, moral reflections and to produce his or her own subjective ideas. This perspective explains the particular attention paid to the ideas of the great philosophers in the field of the classical history of ideas, considered as the illustrious representatives of such creative capacities (Skornicki, 2015). In this framework, geoethical analysis would be artificially reduced to the history of the ideas of great thinkers and the schools they inspire, seen as the only actors worthy of being taken into account to capture the Zeitgeist. Against this idealism, which lends the human mind autonomous and spontaneous creative capacities, certain theories that can be described as realistic consider, on the contrary, that moral ideas play the role of a resulting variable and that they are above all a reflection, more or less veiled, of other more fundamental contextual factors.

The rational choice approach

19Among the realistic approaches, rational choice theory postulates that social preferences depend on the well-understood interest of actors. (Friedman, 1953 ; Meadwell, 2002 ; Sen, 2005). In this perspective, social actors are supposed to have known and rationalised objective interests, leading to a search for self-preservation and self-satisfaction. They then tend to adopt moral positions that maximise their usefulness, i.e. their own well-being (Harsanyi, 1977). The geoethical norms mobilised within a society then result from the collective arrangement of individual interests. Many of the explanations for NIMBY-type mobilisations are based on this type of reasoning, with inhabitants opposed to a particular development project being encouraged to use general geoethical arguments (e.g. safeguarding the environment, heritage or the right to property) to make the defence of their particular geographical interest acceptable (Hunter, 1995 ; Hermansson, 2007). On a broader scale, most realistic theories postulate that states develop interest maximisation strategies to explain the geopolitical functioning of international relations (Hooker, 2013). The moral justifications produced to legitimise international law then appear as a result of the balance of forces and interests (Weingast, 1995 ; Guzman, 2008 ; Bolloyer, 2009). The study of geoethical norms (the principle of self-determination of nations, the principle of interference or irredentist claims, for example) is reduced to the analysis of the discursive and argumentative games played by actors in the international political arena in order to maximise the satisfaction of their interests (Goldsmith, 2000). Discourses on spatial justice would then have a fluctuating content, depending on the changing geographical configuration of the interests of those making them. The geopolitical analysis of States and their territorial strategies adopts, often implicitly, this realistic perspective, which consists in considering normative representations as veils masking underlying spatial interests, while seeking to preserve them. Geopolitical actors would then tend to defend geoethical solutions that guarantee the safeguarding of their geographical interests (in terms of defence, power or territorial resilience for example).

20Such an approach postulates that the actors would have a sufficiently clear awareness of their interest to act rationally. As a result, it overlooks the fact that they may be confronted with situations of ethical dilemmas, the existence of inner turmoil and doubts, states of uncertainty and confusion that make it impossible to rationally define one's own interest. In addition, the complexity of social relations places actors in unstable situations, making it difficult to instantly assess the advantages and disadvantages of their decisions. Under such conditions, uncertainty forces actors to resort to other logics than the calculation of their sole interest.

Holistic approaches

21Le Holistic approaches, on the other hand, consider that social norms are the result of overarching collective functions linked to the need to ensure the social integration of individuals. Inherited from the sociology of É. Durkheim, stressing the difference between organic and mechanical solidarity links, holistic approaches consider moral values as factors of cohesion of social groups (Merchiers, 2004). In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, morality is seen as a way of ordering society (Durkheim, 1912). From this perspective, moral norms are not seen as the result of individual and autonomous reflections, but as collective productions that contribute to the constitution of identities and the distribution of functions within self-organised social structures.

22Communitarian epistemologies thus consider geoethical norms as instruments of territorial integration for cultural groups such as clans, nations or civilisations. In so doing, these norms contribute to the expression of territorial claims and to the spatial integration or exclusion of individuals according to their community membership. For example, the worship of territorial emblems, such as borders or the sites of important battles, can be read as a means for a state to foster the cohesion of its various components around the unifying commemoration and glorification of the national myth (Penrose, 2003 ; Paasi, 2007). Geographical space is then envisaged as a substance more or less capable of facilitating the territorial identification and differentiation of community groups.

23Marxist approaches represent another type of holistic approach, which considers moral norms as "ideologies", i.e. ways for the bourgeoisie (or the ruling classes) to impose on other social classes a hegemonic thought in the service of justifying its own advantages and interests (Marx, 1845 ; Kymlicka, 1990). In such a paradigm, geoethical positions are explained by the struggle between social classes: geoethical justifications aim to legitimise the spatial order imposed by the dominant categories for their own benefit. In this perspective, the analysis of the geoethical conceptions mobilised by the representatives of dominant thought would have no other scientific interest than to account for the variety of forms of ideological manipulation that capitalism would be capable of producing.

24This critique of ideology as a means of domination was extended and renewed in the twentieth century by A. Gramsci's reflections on cultural hegemony (Gramsci, 1996). In this perspective, moral ideas and discourses have a more important function than in classical materialist approaches, since these Gramscian-inspired analyses explain how the control of the imaginary contributes to the political reproduction of social relations of domination.

25Post-structuralist analyses also insist on the role of moral discourses in the formation of social orders (Foucault, 1970). According to P. Bourdieu, for example, the social structuring of legitimacy is based on the exercise of symbolic forms of violence, conveying norms that individuals internalise through their habitus (Bourdieu, 1994 ; Merchiers, 2004). Several empirical studies have thus shown that equality tends to be seen as a basis for justice in the most fragile social categories, whereas individuals in a more advantageous position see it more as a function of merit and individual performance (Selznick, 1969 ; Goodman, 1974 ; Robinson, 1978 ; Shepelak, 1986). In these holistic approaches of social organisation, geoethical norms serve to impose cognitive and moral frameworks, locking the dominated into a state of intellectual subordination.

26In geography, neogramscian and postructuralist approaches have inspired much of the work of critical geopolitics (Lorot, 1995 ; Ó Tuathail, 1996, 1998 ; Claval, 1997 ; Rosière, 2003 ; Lacoste, 2008 ; Zajec, 2016), which see discourse as a way for actors to legitimise their own interests, often to the benefit of dominant forces (Dalby, 1991 ; Sharp, 1996 ; Mamadouh, 2006). The attention paid to the latter explains the focus of many critical geography studies on the production of hegemonic norms, although some postmodern approaches also focus on subordinate actors and the way in which they internalise dominant norms, sometimes by subverting them or inventing parallel normative orders. In these critical approaches, discourses play an important role in the construction of geopolitical orders, maintaining a dialectical relationship with material realities (Agnew, 1995). The attention of critical geopolitics to the moral visions imposed by the most powerful actors is particularly evident in the interest given to the media and the way in which popular narratives contribute to the fabrication of collective consent to the geoethical norms produced by the dominant powers (Sharp, 1996 ; Falah, 2006 ; Dittmer, 2008). In these critical epistemologies, the hegemonic geoethical norms reflect the interest of the dominant socio-spatial classes, which are themselves located in the most powerful centres (richest countries and regions, large metropolises, business districts and places of power). Geographical ideologies imposed by these dominant forces serve to legitimise the geography of material inequalities and the spatial logics of reproduction of social subordination.

27All these structuralist approaches often reduce discourse to instruments of persuasion and political propaganda and neglect the existence of geoethical controversies. As a result, they underestimate the capacity of actors, including those at the head of the most powerful institutions, to mobilise for reasons other than their own interest and fall into the same trap as realistic approaches inspired by rational choice theory. In general, holistic theories underestimate the role of agency in structuring normative regimes. They ignore the fact that some actors choose to infiltrate institutions in order to influence their functioning and the decisions they produce on the basis of geoethical beliefs and convictions that go beyond their class interest. These structuralist approaches therefore fail to take into account the fact that power networks can be invested by actors with contradictory motivations, which can complicate the capacity of institutions to hold coherent and hegemonic geoethical discourses.

28By favouring parsimonious theoretical frameworks, the different approaches presented until now seek to highlight logical coherences and determining factors at the origin of the geoethical organisation of societies. In doing so, they tend to mask the complexity of geoethical reality and exaggerate the role of ideas and norms in some cases or understate it in others.

The heuristic interest of a constructivist approach

29Constructivist theories seek to escape the reductionism to which most other approaches of values and moral norms succumb. For this, they are based on the assumption that social realities result from the encounter of intersubjectivities and the objective structures that these intersubjectivities generate in practice (Berger, 1966). These approaches emphasise the systemic interdependence of factors, moral ideas being both influenced by and a source of influence for other factors. Constructivism makes it possible to grasp the dual relationship that moral ideas have with practices, by showing how moral convictions partly inspire the behaviour and choices of actors on the one hand, and by highlighting how, on the other hand, collective structures, the organisation of institutions, the social distribution of interests or power condition the content and the social distribution of moral values (Demeulenaere, 2003 ; Lemieux, 2007).

30Constructivist approaches give significant importance to the reflexivity of the actors. From this perspective, their moral conceptions and behaviours depend on their knowledge of reality, their psyche and their sensitivity, which explains why the ethical commitments of a given actor are not necessarily rational, stable and coherent in time and space. The knowledge and reflexivity acquired through their experience of social life would enable individuals to develop action strategies.

31In constructivist approaches, actors also remain sensitive to the contexts in which they interact and, therefore, to structural effects. The socialisation of individuals, their culture and education in particular, condition the strategies they are likely to implement. In Max Weber's case, for example, moral values make it possible to activate forms of rationality, guide behaviour and generate social commitments. This is why the "Protestant ethic" explain how certain social categories have come to engage in strategies of wealth accumulation, leading to the forging of a certain "spirit of capitalism" (Weber, 1905). In Economy and Society (Weber, 1921), Weber insists on the role of culture in the moral structuring of individuals. The role of education is also underlined by N. Elias, in the "history of manners" (Elias, 1939) which led to the construction of what he calls the "society of individuals". (Elias, 1987). From this perspective, ethical norms can be seen as 'rational myths' (Meyer, 1977), organised into 'paradigms' (Hall, 1989), 'frames of reference' (Jobert, 1987) or 'belief systems' (Sabatier, 1998) which guide actors without determining them mechanically. Nor are they considered to be the result of a simple individual reflection on the way each human being perceives and conceives reality, unlike the postulate made by studies in the field of social psychology. Geoethical ideas are not seen as an independent production of the mind of individuals, but rather as an intersubjective construction mediated by discussion (Habermas, 1992). They thus appear as particular discursive productions, which influence the subjective perceptions and reflexivity of actors on the one hand and which, on the other hand, condition and regulate collective behaviour and the structuring of social institutions (Van Dijk, 1993, 2006). This constructivist approach then converges with the neo-institutionalist approaches developed in political science (Hall, 1996). By insisting on the combined role of ideas, interests, institutions and social, historical and geographical contexts, neo-institutionalist analyses are particularly suited to taking into account the plurality and interdependence of the factors at the origin of the social construction of geoethical norms.

32To be activated, a geoethical norm depends on several interlocking factors. Among these, moral beliefs have only a relative role. Interests, i.e. the concerns that arise from the practice of reality, also count. Depending on the context, these subjective concerns may vary and motivate the use of different norms that are unequally suited to solving practical problems. For example, the principle of equal freedom, which is the basis of the doctrine of natural rights, offers little interest to justify access to rival goods such as control over land. For this reason, other ideas of justice, such as utility, traditions, private property or the emancipation of the oppressed, must be mobilised to solve such a problem. The convictions or interests of actors are not the only factors conditioning the social construction of geoethical values. Institutions, i.e. the set of formal and informal rules in force in a given social context, also play a role in the capacity of a given norm to be effectively respected, put into practice or, on the contrary, challenged. Geoethical analysis thus involves a cross study of the content of ideas and the institutional contexts in which they are used. Some ideas may actually be introduced as a result of the social affirmation of new actors, be they social classes, institutions or cultural groups. They may also emerge as a result of structural reconfigurations that are significant enough for traditional authorities to adjust their geoethical agenda. The emergence of new norms is indeed likely to generate systemic effects on existing geoethical regimes, to challenge other norms and to generate resistance and opposition. The legitimisation of emerging norms, such as environmental protection or the equalisation of the rights of sexual minorities, for example, may come up against the fear of some institutional leaders that these innovations will undermine other older norms, such as productivism or attachment to the traditional family, which are seen as contributing to the protection of the established order. The relative inertia of institutional systems explains why geoethical changes more often take the form of complex and unstable compromises than clear-cut and radical ruptures, justifying the consideration of institutional trajectories in the analysis of the social construction of geoethical norms. The social legitimacy of geoethical norms is therefore partly conditioned by the support and opposition they are likely to generate within more or less stable institutional systems.

33Constructivist analysis therefore considers geoethical norms as the result of multifactorial conjunctions, variable in space and time. In this framework, geographical space intervenes in several ways. First of all, it plays a role in the capacity of actors to meet, to exchange ideas and to build norms in an intersubjective way, which presupposes the existence of spaces for collective discussion and mediation (places of exchange, media networks, deliberation bodies, etc.). Space also influences geoethical norms to the extent that it contributes to the social distribution of individual and collective interests, spatial configurations affecting the way actors evaluate and ethically project themselves in reality. As an example, it can be assumed that an actor will be all the more inclined to consider spatial justice as a universal and ubiquitous ideal, as he himself lives in an open, fluid and integrated space. Geographical space also conditions the deployment of geoethical standards insofar as it contributes to the territorialisation of institutions. The spatial configuration of the latter, their perimeter of exercise, their scalar imbrication, the unequal porosity of their limits or their internal composition constrain the capacity of geoethical norms to be put into practice in an efficient and coherent way. The compartmentalization of space into distinct institutional territories complicates, for example, the realization of universalist values more than communitarian projects.

34Faced with the constraints implied by any spatial configuration, institutional actors must find a way to articulate their geoethical aspirations and their effective capacities for territorial action. The practical difficulties involved in such a task explain why effective geoethical regimes often correspond to accommodations that are less coherent and more confused than the moral doctrines imagined by philosophers. The constructivist approach often appears to be better suited than parsimonious approaches to highlight the plurality and axiological ambiguity that characterise many concrete situations. For example, Marxist-inspired neostructuralist approaches postulate that regulatory systems would be built on coherent sets of norms, arguing, for example, that a neoliberal regime of spatial regulation would have replaced a 'Keynesian' spatial welfare state regime in most Western countries in the early 1970s (Brenner, 2003). A constructivist analysis shows, on the contrary, that some forms of neo-liberal regulation of space existed before the 1970s: ordoliberal policies in West Germany, monetary reforms in Italy in 1947, economic reforms inspired by P. Thorneycroft in the United Kingdom in the 1950s or by J. Rueff in 1958 in France, the establishment of the Common Market in the years that followed. Moreover, while many neo-liberal reforms have favoured economic competition between territories, it can be observed, within the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), that policies of social and territorial solidarity have continued to be implemented after the 1970s, leading to an uninterrupted rise in the weight of social spending and a perpetuation of territorial redistribution mechanisms. The actual geoethical regime that characterises the policies implemented within these States thus reveals a structural heterogeneity and axiological ambiguity that is not taken into account by more parsimonious approaches.

35This ambiguity stems from the fact that, in order to achieve certain geoethical objectives that are a priority for them, social actors are often led to make compromises, to renounce other ambitions, to defer them over time or to develop axiological combinations, for reasons of opportunism or pragmatism. The institutionalisation of ideas then results less from the existence of a moral consensus between decision-makers than from the capacity of these ideas to satisfy heterogeneous interests and to make different institutional agendas compatible. This is why the standards actually implemented often correspond to what Pierre Muller and Bruno Jobert call 'soft ideologies' (1987), i.e. ideas that are sufficiently vague and malleable to make possible the convergence of the ambitions and strategies of heterogeneous actors. This is the case for general values such as justice, equality or freedom, but also for more circumscribed political references such as "growth" and "development" in the past, or "sustainable development" and "resilience" today. Nicolas Jabko thus showed how, in the mid-1980s, the European Commission, chaired by Jacques Delors, used the idea of the "large market" as a mobilising theme to overcome the diversity of the geopolitical interests of the main players involved (European institutions, Member States, private players) and get the European Community out of "eurosclerosis". Acting as a protean axiological vector (the market as a constraint, a norm, a space and a talisman), the idea of the large market has enabled the main stakeholders to commit themselves, each with different justifications, to a scalar transfer of competences from the Member States to the European level, thus triggering a new cycle of neoliberalisation of European policies (Jabko, 2006). Faced with the plasticity of the geoethical norms implemented, many institutional systems thus present a propensity for axiological pluralism and irenicism. However, this ability to construct unifying normative combinations rarely leads to hegemonic situations, contrary to the postulates of Gramscian-inspired neostructuralist studies. Indeed, within democratic situations, it is common for a certain pluralism to be expressed, in a more or less agonistic way, through controversies and social struggles, as most institutional systems are likely to incorporate norms promoted by marginal actors. Certain ideas initially put forward by peripheral or dissenting actors may, when conditions are favourable, be appropriated by institutional decision-makers and join the category of constituent norms of political orthodoxy, alongside other values more or less consistent with them. Decentralising ideas, such as neoliberal or ecological ideas, for example, have thus been the subject of progressive standardisation and institutionalisation processes, starting in the last third of the 20th century, in most of the most developed countries. Their concomitant development has taken place in an incremental, gradual and irregular manner, thanks to complex contextual evolutions mobilising institutional actors with heterogeneous ideas and interests. It is therefore understandable why the European Commission, at the same time as it promoted a new phase of neoliberalisation within the framework of the Single Market in the second half of the 1980s, was able to support reforms in favour of environmental protection or the strengthening of solidarity between regions. The constructivist approach thus makes it possible to grasp with much more nuance the processes of transformation of geoethical regimes than can be done by Marxist-inspired neostructuralist analyses, which envisage time as a succession of distinct modes of spatial regulation, generated by the passage from one regime of accumulation to another. The constructivist approach thus provides a framework particularly suited to the analysis of the many situations of geoethical complexity and ambiguity encountered in reality, making it possible to overcome the reductionism in which more parsimonious approaches remain trapped.

Concepts and methods of geoethical analysis

36The implementation of a constructivist analysis of geoethical norms presupposes the definition of a framework of observation, concepts and methods of analysis, which this last part proposes to present in a synthetic way.

Grasping geoethical commitments

37Taken both as a result and as one factor among others in the regulation of spatiality, in the same way as interests and institutions, geoethical ideas can be analysed within the framework of methods open to the diversity of available sources. Geoethical reality manifests itself in a variety of empirical forms: intimate feelings and convictions (e.g. sympathy for people who save others in disasters), formalised opinions (e.g. telling people that they have a lot of merit) or internalized mores in practical behaviour (e.g. actually going to the rescue of people under threat when a disaster occurs). All these forms of ethical action can be analysed by different and complementary methods, as summarised in document 1.

Document 1 : Geoethical Norms Analysis Framework

Document 1 : Geoethical Norms Analysis Framework

Realization: A. Brennetot, july 2017.

Comparing and classifying geoethical norms

38Au-delà du repérage des différentes formes de manifestation empirique de la réalité géoéthique, l’analyse de celle-ci implique un cadre d’étude permettant la comparaison et la généralisation des observations. If opinions, speeches or geoethical behaviour are the result of personal commitments, their content rarely corresponds to pure invention. They often recycle social norms, i.e. general reference points anchored in collective practices. A "geoethical norm" is any prescriptive rule used collectively to advocate certain forms of behaviour or geographical organisation in the name of morality. Certain norms are embedded in the culture of individuals, as are many traditions, morals and habits that prohibit certain behaviours in public places or religious buildings (Hall, 1966). Others are explicit and take the form of normative discourses, declarations, institutionalized codes such as laws and rules.

39The variety of empirically observable geoethical norms is not infinite. These can be modelled in the form of axiological categories that are commonly associated with currents of thought, ideologies or conceptions of spatial justice. The analytical classifications proposed in the field of moral philosophy or the study of political ideas provide a useful basis for conducting comparative analyses (Walzer, 1983 ; Kymlicka, 1990 ; Heywood, 1992 ; Vincent, 1992 ; Eatwell, 1993 ; Boltanski, 2006 ; Hoffman, 2006). In geography, some authors have thus sought to categorise "geoethical theories" (Cutchin, 2002 ; Hay, 1995 ; Proctor, 1998). D.M. Smith is the geographer who, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, pushed furthest, and most consistently, the effort to map the theoretical forms that "moral geographies" can take (Smith, 1994 à 2001). I myself have tried to continue this effort to classify conceptions of spatial justice, in order to use it as a framework for analysing the geoethical opinions expressed in various arenas of public debate (Brennetot, 2010).

40Document 2 presents an attempt to classify geoethical norms according to the way in which the major currents of political thought that have characterised Western modernity have considered the possible moralisation of geographical space. This classification does not exhaust the diversity of geoethical norms that social actors are likely to mobilise. However, it offers an analytical framework that can help to inform and compare observable geoethical commitments by relating them to an identification grid constructed from some of the major currents of thought that have structured the world's political history since the Renaissance. The rise in generality of geoethical analysis thus implies an important work of identification within the history of moral and political ideas, the objective not being to demonstrate the influence of the doctrines imagined by the great thinkers on the spatial practices of societies, but rather to use them as categories of classification.

41The difficulty then comes from the fact that these categories are often used in parallel by social actors to justify their own ethical commitments, at the frequent price of instrumentalization, recuperation, distortion, confusion and controversy over the meaning of the labels. Characterising an opinion, discourse or non-verbal act as "liberal" or "Marxist", for example, is not self-evident and can be contested because of the lack of academic consensus on the meaning to be given to such labels. Only meticulous genealogical work is capable of tracing the evolution and diversification of the meaning of the labels used, leading to sufficient refinement to reduce their possible ambivalence and make their objectification possible. Genealogical analysis shows, for example, that part of the ambiguity that weighs on 'liberalism' as an analytical category is due to the dual semantic origin of the term: the adjective "liberal" was first used in English by Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations (1776), to designate a political system favourable to the free exchange of goods, before being given a second meaning, independent of the previous one, to describe the insurrectional movements that developed in Spain, from 1814 onwards, in favour of the jusnaturalist values of the French Revolution. Widely practised for two centuries, the confusion of these two historical meanings makes the use of the term "liberal" unclear and heuristically unsatisfactory. This is why I propose to use more precise categories, distinguishing between "liberal utilitarianism" and "liberal republicanism", in order to better define certain geoethical commitments observable in reality. Pour chaque situation, il importe donc de mobiliser des catégories dont le sens est suffisamment précis pour caractériser les engagements géoéthiques des acteurs étudiés et dévoiler l’ambiguïté éventuelle générée par les discours de légitimation ou de disqualification, produits à leur endroit dans le débat public.

Contextualising the use of geoethical norms

42Another part of the geoethical analysis deals with the link between the content of the norms highlighted and the geohistorical contexts in which they are mobilised. Within the framework of a constructivist approach, this implies studying the relationships between the geoethical contents of the discourses produced by the actors and the effects they can expect to produce on their environment. For this, it is also necessary to take into account their political and economic interests and the room for manoeuvre they have to develop geoethical strategies. The analysis of these contexts can be based, among other things, on the methods developed within the framework of neo-institutionalist approaches (Hall, 1996), as already indicated. The explanation of geoethical phenomena then takes a multifactorial form, capable of restoring their complexity and grasping the respective role of the commitments of the actors and the social and material configurations in which they are integrated. We can thus apprehend the way in which geoethical norms are practically conceived and implemented, their purposes, the modalities of their social reception, the way in which they are appropriated, respected or subverted and their effects on the structuring of space. One can also grasp how these norms articulate with each other, within the framework of axiological systems, what can be called geoethical regimes. These regimes are complex and are often characterised by a high degree of ethical heterogeneity and ambiguity.

43Geoethical regimes are also evolutionary and change according to the way the various factors affecting them combine. Certain norms may thus see their social influence grow or diminish over time, spread or contract in space. A change in the state of knowledge of social actors may, for example, lead them to revise their diagnosis of reality and, consequently, the way they should behave. However, the transformation of individuals' ethical convictions is rarely sufficient to bring about large-scale changes in the way in which geoethical regimes regulate the spatiality of societies. Favourable conditions, commonly referred to as windows of opportunity (Cortell, 1999), are often necessary for strategically placed institutional entrepreneurs to see their reforms succeed in significantly transforming the content of the geoethical norms actually observed within a society. These mutations sometimes take the form of brutal turns, as in revolutions, but most of them are more complex incremental processes. Accounting for the geohistorical evolution of geoethical regimes involves analysing the ideas and norms that interacting actors mobilise to coordinate their response to the problems they encounter. Process analysis of ideas and discourses enables us to reconstruct the way in which transactions between actors take place and the collective reconfiguration of geoethical agendas. It is therefore necessary for the implementation of a constructivist analysis of geoethical norms.

Paper 2: Proposal for the classification of geoethical norms according to some ideologies inherited from political modernity

Ideological schools

(and well-known representatives)

Fundamental ethical values

The form of ideal space

Political conditions of spatial justice


(Machiavelli, Hobbes, Metternich, Bismarck, Kissinger)

Order and security

• A group of juxtaposed territories, placed under the sovereignty of independent States and separated by hermetic borders. The grid pattern can be heterogeneous.

• Domestic centralism, ensuring security and public order.

• Balance of power at an inter-State level or normalisation by a hegemonic power.

According to this geoethical conception, spatial justice is embodied by public order. States uphold that order through the power they hold. In the territories over which they are sovereign, they must implement the form of government most likely to ensure public order. Between States, only mutual respect of domestic sovereignty and the balance of power can resolve the problem of anarchy (or of the absence of one universal power). In situations of international instability, each State must seek to ensure its own security through strategic alliances and by accumulating domestic power.


(Herder, Heine, Huntington, Taylor)

Identity and respecting traditions

• A group of territories inhabited by cultural communities with a shared identity

• The grid pattern can be heterogeneous.

• The communities must be spatially separated or subject to different norms when they coexist.

From the communitarian perspective, spatial justice results from different social and political institutions recognising natural or historical communities. Territories must be organised in keeping with how these communities are spatially settled. Within territories, forms of spatial occupation must depend upon the norms and traditions that underpin each community’s identity. Relationships between territories must be founded on respect of each community’s right to its own identity. When several communities coexist within the same space, several solutions are possible: multicultural coexistence, ghettoization, or social cleansing.


(Bastiat, Rothbard, Nozick)

Private property

• A mosaic of parcels of land controlled by private property owners

• Free trade of property on markets

Spatial justice resides in respecting property acquired by individuals and groups of individuals on free markets. Social institutions should be organised such that they allow absolute respect of property owners’ rights to do what they want with the portions of space they have freely acquired. States are not entitled to prevent any individual whatsoever from accessing different markets, including beyond their borders.

Liberal republicanism (Vitoria, Locke, Paine, Kant, Wilson, Rawls)

Equal rights and freedoms

• The ubiquity of law and political authorities conforming to the resulting universal rules

• A public space that offers equal rights and opportunities, particularly for the freedoms necessary to exercising citizenship

Spatial justice resides in individuals being given the universal possibility to enjoy equal rights. Territories must be organised so as to allow equitable coexistence of interests and preferences: individuals and groups of individuals must be able to acquire property on markets providing that externalities, and particularly neighbourhood effects, are favourable to equalising individual freedoms. This entails public intervention aimed at creating the necessary regulatory and material conditions for territorial equity at all levels.

Liberal utilitarianism (Hume, Smith, Bentham, Stuart Mill, Friedman)

Maximising collective well-being

• Integrating territories in a trade system aimed at optimising territorial division and productive specialisation

• Respecting territorial interdependency

Spatial justice is achieved when geographical space is organised such that it maximises collective well-being. For public authorities, this involves implementing the means likely to increase individuals’ utility (equipment, services, etc.). Most utilitarians consider the market as one of the instruments most likely to achieve this, thanks to the alleged mutual advantages of free trade. Achieving this situation involves making space more fluid (infrastructures for circulation and opening territories up to one another).


(Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin)

Autonomy of individuals and associations

• A group of local territories inhabited by freely associated individuals

• Local territories can become associated in a non-constrained fashion

Spatial justice is achieved when individuals have the possibility to be autonomous. On a geographical level, this entails spontaneous organisation of local collectives in charge of managing labour and the distribution of resources. Each territorial unit should aim for self-sufficiency as far as possible. Anarchist geoethics also presupposes eradicating traditional institutions in favour of a flexible and non-constrained bottom-up federative organisation.

Revolutionary socialism (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxembourg)

Eradicating all relations of domination

Equal conditions

• A mosaic of centralised and sovereign state territories in which space is forcibly collectivised (communist model)

• A group of self-run communes placed under the protection of a central State (municipal socialism model)

Spatial justice resides in removing the structures responsible for class domination, notably aristocratic or bourgeois States. Collective property must replace private ownership of means of production. There is still hesitation among revolutionary socialists regarding what territorial form society should take in the future, particularly in terms of the degree of centralisation of political institutions. Some advocate State interventionism, as embodied by the communist experiments in the twentieth century, while others favour a more decentralised municipal socialism.

Reformist socialism

(De Paepe, Kautsky)

• The progressive public appropriation of space, while respecting positive law

Spatial justice is achieved when structures of domination are progressively eradicated within the territorial frameworks inherited from modern bourgeois politics. This entails public powers progressively socialising geographical space at all institutional levels, deploying public services, and collectivising means of production and housing. Historically, the territorial ideal promoted by reformist socialism has been associated with liberal republicanism, particularly through social democracy, but the two remain different.


44This paper has shown that geoethics can refer to three ways of linking ethics and geography. The first, professional geoethics, consists in reflecting, discussing and organizing the conditions of production and use of academic research on the spaces of societies, in accordance with the use given to this term in geosciences over the last decade. There is also a prescriptive geoethics that concerns the moral commitments that geographers, but also all researchers in social sciences, can make in the debate of ideas, for or against certain conceptions of spatial justice. Finally, geoethics can designate a heuristic approach, consisting in analyzing the moral values that societies attribute to geographical space. Close to the sociology of morality, geoethical analysis is today poorly developed and little structured academically. However, it represents an important epistemological task for those who wish to grasp the role of ideas and moral values in the regulation of the spatiality of societies. A constructivist approach to geoethical analysis offers promising research opportunities in this regard. In contrast to more parsimonious approaches, this approach favours a multifactorial reading that is sensitive to the complexity and ambiguity of geoethical phenomena, aiming to capture both the form of subjective commitments and the effects of contexts responsible for the social structuring of geoethical norms. From this perspective, geoethical norms are important because they represent a resource that actors have at their disposal to produce social understanding, collective mobilization, to generate commitment, to build legitimacy or contestation, to generate support or criticism, to overcome conflicts or create consensus, i.e. to build geoethical regimes or activate controversies. The constructivist approach then considers geoethical norms as one factor among others in the regulation of geographical space, in the same way as interests, material strength, culture or institutions.

45Although they vary in terms of their objectives and the methods they mobilise, the different forms of geoethics (professional, prescriptive and analytical) are complementary. The axiological neutrality required by the comparative analysis of geoethical norms in no way excludes the possibility of taking moral positions, for or against some of these norms, when controversies arise. A professional ethic concerned with respect for the diversity of opinions implies, however, that this commitment, whether critical or promotional, should not be to the detriment of the rigour and precision of the analyses provided. This is why geoethical analysis, considered within the framework of a constructivist approach, represents a major epistemological and political challenge for those who want to understand how norms contribute to the effective spatial regulation of societies and to grasp the horizons that open up for those who are motivated by reasonable and responsible commitments.

46Such a project is legitimate in itself. However, it is also justified in view of the profound geoethical recomposition affecting the contemporary world. Several large-scale transformations today underline the need to question the geoethical changes through the prism of the ideological realignments currently underway: the decline of liberal internationalism in all its forms, the rise of populism and unilateralism, the recurrent outbursts of sovereignist and nationalist reactions, the persistence of the temptation to withdraw into communitarianism, the accentuation of environmental concerns and the permanent renewal of egalitarian demands show anyone who still doubts it that the hypothesis of an end of ideologies or an end of history linked to the victory of liberalism is irremediably compromised. On the contrary, everywhere in the world we are witnessing a questioning of the political referentials inherited from the 20th century, opening up a phase of instability and axiological uncertainty which makes it necessary to renew moral reflections on space that take into account the actual conditions in which norms, regimes and geoethical controversies are constructed.

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Arnaud Brennetot, « Professional Geoethics, Prescriptive Geoethics and Analytical Geoethics. For a constructivist approach of the ethical dimension of geographical space », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Politique, Culture, Représentations, document 959, mis en ligne le 09 février 2021, consulté le 01 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Arnaud Brennetot

University of Rouen Normandy, UMR CNRS 6266 IDEES, Professeur de géographie, France

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