Utilitarianism is inextricably linked to international ethics. The roots of the principle of utility can be traced to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was first employed by thinkers such as David Hume. However, it was Jeremy Bentham who first formulated utilitarianism in detail and carefully studied its implications. According to Bentham, happiness is a condition in which an individual enjoys more pleasure than pain. There are different varieties of utilitarianism, and what sets them apart from other ethical theories is their stipulation that whatever is of value should be maximized for all and whatever of disvalue should be minimized for all. For Bentham, pleasure is the ultimate value. Later, John Stuart Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures and argued that higher pleasures should be given greater weight. In the twentieth century, authors such as R. M. Hare determined that maximal satisfaction of preferences is the value to be sought. The utilitarian emphasis on maximization and its choice of values have generated much criticism from those who espoused human rights theories, such as John Rawls and those influenced by his work. At present, the scholarly literature dealing with issues related to international ethics mostly comes from those who are committed to human rights theory or who are committed to equality of outcomes for human beings.
Brooke Ackerly and Ying Zhang
The study of feminist ethics in international relations (IR) is the study of three topics. The first is the feminist contributions to key topics in international ethics and the research agenda that continues to further that enterprise. Feminists have made important contributions to IR thought on central ethical concepts. They rethink these concepts from the perspective of their impact on women, deconstruct the dichotomies of the concepts and their constituent parts, and reconsider how the field should be studied. Next, there is the feminist engagement with the epistemological construction of the discipline of IR itself, by which feminists make the construction of the field itself a normative subject. Finally, there is the feminist methodological contribution of a “meta-methodology”—a research ethic applicable in the research of all questions and able to improve the research practice of all methodologists. The contention here is that ethical IR research must be responsive to the injustices of the world, hence feminists have also explored the connections between scholarship and activism. And this in turn has meant exploring methodologies such as participatory action research that engages one with the political impact of research and methods. Furthermore, contemporary challenges related to climate, globalization, shifts in people, and shifts in global governance are encouraging feminists to work from multiple theoretical perspectives and to triangulate across multiple methods and questions, in order to contribute to our understanding of global problems and the politics of addressing them.
Torture has recently become the focus of renewed scholarly attention, including a philosophical and political debate about whether torture is ever justified. The basic parameters of the debate revolve around the question whether there should be an absolute prohibition against torture or whether it is a lesser evil to torture a suspect for information to prevent a greater evil that menaces society. Historically, torture was not only common in times of war and social upheaval, but it was also openly practiced in many societies as an integral part of the judicial system. It was seen as an effective technique for obtaining “true” information as well as an appropriate punishment for the immoral and a useful deterrent against future misconduct. Both democratic and nondemocratic forms of government engage in ill-treatment and torture, but the existence of liberal democratic institutions reduces the incidence of torture. Since 9/11, there has been considerable debate over state use of torture, as some scholars have suggested that there is a profound shift in attitudes toward torture following the 9/11 attacks. Numerous works have provided detailed analyses and documentary evidence of the Bush administration’s incarceration and interrogation policies in the war on terror. Critics of torture charge that it is immoral because it involves the inhumane treatment of human beings. On the other hand, a number of scholars have argued that individual acts of torture by state officials are warranted in extreme situations.
Literature concentrated on sovereignty’s location laid the groundwork for the distinctive sort of ethical detachment that has characterized sovereignty in international relations (IR). While it is customary to refer to sovereign absolutism as linking a logic of prerogative with sovereignty, mainstream IR theory has reproduced its own variation on the theme and done little until recently to decouple the two. Yet beginning in the late 1970s, the literature began to entertain the idea that interdependence and globalization impede, constrain, corrode, or diminish the core assumptions of sovereignty: the centralization of power and authority, the supremacy of the state, the state’s capabilities to achieve its objectives, and the degree of permissiveness afforded by an anarchical system. Put differently, the space within which sovereignty could operate unencumbered rapidly diminished in size and scope, and the sovereign state, by losing control over various functions, was becoming incoherent at minimum, and irrelevant at maximum. If these arguments focused on a narrow question, then a new literature emerged in the mid to late 1990s that focused on, and questioned, sovereignty as authority. Moreover, the debates about globalization underscored sovereignty’s disjunctive nature. Yet by linking it so closely with material structures and factors, the literature generally elided consideration of the constitutive effect of international norms on sovereignty and the ways the institution of sovereignty has changed over time.
The just war tradition is the most dominant framework for analyzing the morality of war. Just war theory is being challenged by proponents of two philosophical views: realism, which considers moral questions about war to be irrelevant, and pacifism, which rejects the idea that war can ever be moral. Realism and pacifism offer a useful starting point for thinking about the ethics of war and peace. Feminists have been engaged with the just war tradition, mainly by exposing the gendered biases of just war attempts to restrain and regulate war and studying the role that war and its regulation plays in defining masculinity. In particular, feminists claim that the two rules of just war, jus ad bellum and jus in bello, discriminate against women. In regard to contemporary warfare, such as post-Cold War humanitarian interventions and the War on Terror, feminists have questioned the appropriateness of just war concepts to deal with the specific ethical challenges that these conflicts produce. Instead of abstract moral reasoning, which they critique as being linked to the masculine ideals of autonomy and rationality, many feminist argue for certain varieties of an ethics of care. Further research is needed to elaborate the basis of an ethical response to violence that builds on philosophical work on feminist ethics. Key areas for future investigation include asking hard questions about whom we may kill, and how certain people become killable in war while others remain protected.
Amy E. Eckert
The social contract tradition derives its ethical force from the hypothetical agreement that parties would reach in an initial choice situation. This initial choice situation brings together a description of the circumstances of justice, various extra-contractarian moral assumptions, and an instrumental theory of rational choice. The circumstances of justice refer to the conditions that require principles of justice. These conditions include the existence of social cooperation along with moderate scarcity. In the absence of such conditions, principles of justice are either unnecessary or impossible to sustain. Social cooperation generates both benefits and burdens, and it is the allocation of those components of social cooperation that requires principles of justice. The application of the social contract to the domestic context dates back to the ancient Greeks, though their version of the contract was somewhat crude and rather one-sided in favor of state authority. Later versions of the social contract would oblige the state to provide much more to citizens in return for their allegiance. John Rawls is widely credited with resurrecting the social contract tradition in the twentieth century. His thought holds special significance for the international social contract, as he extends the contractual approach ethics into the international system where his predecessors declined to do so.
Anthony F. Lang
The concepts of ethics, justice, and security are inextricably linked within the field of International Relations (IR). In IR, three concepts are most often deployed in understanding the ethics of security: norms, rules, and laws. These norms, rules, and laws evaluate security, which is an alternative concept for describing what IR as a discipline has long sought to address: namely, war. Hence, norms, rules, and laws provide a means to evaluate violence and war. Using the first three concepts to evaluate the latter two is the heart of ethics and security. The concept of justice, however, suggests that simple norms, rules, and laws may not be enough. There have been debates about the use of military force since ancient times—the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic traditions have their own conceptions of how war and violence ought to be addressed. One of the more prominent ideas drawn from these debates is the concept of the “just war,” which emerged from Christian tradition. The concept of just war has played a role in constructing the international legal tradition. This tradition as an explicit moral one was subsumed into international law during the nineteenth century, but re-emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Today, it has become an influential source of critical reflection upon both legal and practical dilemmas in international security, informing a wide range of debates around the world.
Thomas E. Doyle
Deontological international ethics describes, analyzes, and assesses the principles governing the interactions of actors at and across various levels of society; focuses on the relations between states and other international actors; and is concerned with identifying and specifying the moral duties that each kind of international actor bears toward all others. The core theoretical elements of deontological international ethics include accounts of individual and collective agency, moral reason, the moral nature of action, and respect for the moral law as a necessary feature of ethical action. There are three historical phases of deontological international ethics: divine command and natural law ethics prior to Kant, late-modern thinker Immanuel Kant’s international ethics, and contemporary neo-Kantian approaches to nuclear ethics and transnational economic relations. The divine command ethical theories posit divine authority as the absolute and incontrovertible source of moral obligation. Meanwhile, natural law focuses on the intrinsically moral nature of military action and the centrality of moral agency and intention in the rightful use of force. On the other hand, Kant’s systemic deontological ethical theory posits individuals and states as autonomous and rational moral agents, identifies the categorical imperative as the supreme rational principle or morality and the concept of public right as its political corollary, describes a formal method for actors to determine their moral duty in ideal and non-ideal contexts, and applies this theory to the problems of interstate conflict and commerce.
Cosmopolitanism refers to the ideology that all human beings belong to a single community, based on a shared morality. A cosmopolitan community might be based on an inclusive morality, a shared economic relationship, or a political structure that encompasses different nations. The argument that all citizens of the world possess an equal moral status can be interpreted as a statement that all humans deserve to be given equal respect, or that their interests deserve to be treated equally. Cosmopolitanism was initially thought to have been established by the Cynics (classical cosmopolitanism), then further interpreted and elucidated by the Stoics, and later polished and cultivated by the Enlightenment scholars (enlightenment cosmopolitanism). Cosmopolitanism is an analytical viewpoint that defends the concept of global citizenship. Global citizenship is most commonly associated with a “way of creating a personal identity,” along with various ideas about one’s moral responsibilities and political rights. It is also worth noting how within the domain of international ethics, cosmopolitanism is currently being presented as a stand-alone paradigm, apart from rival approaches including nationalism, social libreralism, and realism. However, the difficulty of distinguishing cosmopolitanism from these rivals becomes apparent, and there are those who think that such discerning lines create more confusion than clarity about the various disagreements within the field.
Virtue Ethics (VE) is a way of thinking about how to behave well which focuses on the character of moral agents and the nature of the good life. This contrasts with dominant approaches to international ethics which prioritize the identification or development of moral rules or duties (deontological approaches) or the consequences of actions (consequentialist approaches). The relevance of virtue ethics to international affairs is established by setting out the critique of the dominant law-based approaches offered by VE and then exploring the positive contribution VE can make. Virtue ethicists argue that character and a concrete conception of the human good are central to ethics—that the right question to ask when working out what it means to be ethical is not “what should I do” but “what sort of person should I be?” The three central concepts in VE—virtue, practical wisdom, and flourishing—have not been applied systematically qua VE in international political theory or international relations, but their appearance in various guises in recent scholarship suggests avenues for future research. Four such avenues are identified, ranging from the moderate to the radical, which offer innovative ways to confront key ethical dilemmas faced in international affairs.