The Ethics of Realism

Jack Donnelly

in The Oxford Handbook of International Relations

Published in print August 2008 | ISBN: 9780199219322
Published online September 2009 | | DOI:


 The Ethics of Realism

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This article focuses on the standard realist argument that international politics ‘is a practical exercise and not a moral one’, that ‘no ethical standards are applicable to relations between states’, and that ‘universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states’. The article also looks at the idea that the ‘reality’ of international politics ‘justifies and necessitates political policies which a purely individualistic ethic must always find embarrassing’. It is shown that such categorical denials of the ethical dimension of international relations, although rooted in important insights, are both descriptively inaccurate and prescriptively perverse. Realism is best read as a cautionary ethic of political prudence rooted in a narrow yet insightful vision of international politics.

Keywords: international relations; international politics; universal moral principles; states; realism

Article.  5261 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; International Relations ; Political Theory

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