In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics and Morality in International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Ethics and International Law
  • Ethics of Migration

International Relations Ethics and Morality in International Relations
Joseph Hoover
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0119


Ethical questions are central to the study of international relations, as it is a field of study concerned with war and peace, trade and production, and law and rights. Yet, a persistent conventional wisdom suggests ethics are marginal to international relations. This conventional wisdom has two sources. After World War II, as the discipline of international relations was taking shape in the United Kingdom and the United States, a number of prominent scholars holding a realist view on questions of ethics came to dominate the field. Figures such as Hans J. Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, and E. H. Carr criticized what they saw as the misplaced moralism of earlier scholars who put their faith in the power of law and institutions to reform international relations. Not long after this move toward a realist paradigm that was skeptical of ethics, the discipline also began to focus on developing a value-free social scientific approach that rejected ethical questions as part of the study of international relations, especially in the United States. Yet, these two early shifts in the discipline obscure the fact that questions of ethics have always been part of the study of international relations. International relations, however, is concerned with political events and social forces that impact the lives of individuals, communities, and the human species as a whole, making ethical considerations inescapable. There is a long tradition of ethical reflection on international relations, stretching as far back as human beings have been concerned with intercommunal relations, but these reflections have been a secondary focus to the consideration of ethics and politics within communities. In part, this is why ethical questions about international relations come to the fore during periods of imperial expansion. Just War theory has its roots in St. Augustine’s reflections on the duties of the Christian emperors of Rome to defend the empire. International law developed as a way of justly dividing the world between sovereign states and savage peoples in need of civilization during the era of European colonialism, and human rights have taken center stage since the end of the Cold War, as the global influence of the United States reached its peak. Today, ethics are increasingly seen as a central part of the study of international relations. This shift has come about partly through the work of critical scholars working in a variety of traditions, who have rejected the long dominance of realism and the aspiration to a value-free social science. These critical voices include liberal political theorists, feminists, critical theorists, postmodernists, and postcolonialists. These diverse traditions share a commitment to taking ethical questions about international relations seriously—though what they see as the scholar’s contribution differs greatly, ranging from offering normative prescriptions to deconstructing the conceptual distinctions that make ethical judgment possible. Along with this shift within the academic study of international relations, important changes have also taken place in the interactions between states. Without suggesting we have gone through an epochal change to a supposedly unprecedented era of globalization, it is clear that the traditional Westphalian state system has changed dramatically. There are more sovereign states than before with a greater equality of political and economic power between regions, while at the same time international institutions and global civil society have expanded, and individuals have more contact with each other outside of their national communities than was previously possible. Together with shifts in how we think about international relations, these social changes have put ethics back onto the agenda. As the current state of the field is defined by a diversity of perspectives and problems, this article is plural in the views represented and as wide ranging in its coverage as space will allow—although students should be aware that much more information is available. Hopefully, other scholars will appreciate that boundaries have to be drawn, and exclusions must be made.

General Overviews

Within the field of international relations, ethics took on a more prominent role starting in the 1980s with the rise of feminist approaches, illustrated in edited collections by Narayan and Harding 2000 and Whisnant and DesAutels 2010; the emergence of critical theory, notably in Linklater 1998; and increasing interest in postmodernist ethics, discussed in the edited volume by Campbell and Shapiro 1999, and traced with great clarity in Hutchings 1999. Further, a number of international relations scholars began reexamining the place of normative questions within the tradition of Western thought that forms the core of the discipline. Boucher 1998 traced the historical relationship between ethics and international politics, and Brown 1992 did similar work but focused on the re-emergence of ethical questions within the discipline of international relations. Keene 2005 provided a more focused intellectual history of international political thinking.

  • Boucher, David. Political Theories of International Relations: From Thucydides to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    An excellent overview of the relationship between political theory and international relations theory that provides both an account of their historical divergence and a useful account of how international political theory is defined by three traditions: empirical realism, universal moral order, and historical reason.

  • Brown, Chris. International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

    This text develops a normative international relations theory, drawing on historical and contemporary traditions within the discipline, while also building bridges between international relations and political theory. The core distinction between cosmopolitan and communitarian theories put forward in the book has been influential.

  • Campbell, David, and Michael J. Shapiro, eds. Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

    This edited collection draws together a number of postmodern thinkers from both international relations and political theory. It provides a good overview of approaches and issues in world politics covered by this tradition.

  • Hutchings, Kimberly. International Political Theory: Rethinking Ethics in a Global Era. London: SAGE, 1999.

    A very clear account of the development of international political theory as a form of normative international theory or global ethics, which also highlights the contributions made by critical theorists, feminists, and poststructuralists.

  • Keene, Edward. International Political Thought: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005.

    This text provides a history of political thought on international relations that focuses on conceptual changes in how relations between communities are conducted. It self-consciously avoids summarizing canonical thinkers and looks beyond the modern European state system.

  • Linklater, Andrew. The Transformation of Political Community: Ethical Foundations of the Post-Westphalian Era. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1998.

    This influential text argues against both the lack of ethical reflection in conventional international relations theory as well as the ethical skepticism of the realist tradition. In place of this amoral approach, Linklater offers a critical theory of international relations inspired by Jürgen Habermas, which moves beyond state-centric thinking and argues for the necessity of a cosmopolitan political order.

  • Narayan, Uma, and Sandra Harding, eds. Decentering the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

    This collection comes from outside international relations and draws on feminists and postcolonial philosophy, but clearly shows the influential work on international relations done within other disciplines.

  • Whisnant, Rebecca, and Peggy DesAutels, eds. Global Feminist Ethics: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.

    The collection brings out the important and innovative role that feminism has played in global ethics, steadfastly rejecting the notion of a value-free social science and discussing a long-standing concern with questions of political ethics that cross state boundaries.

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