International Ethics

Terry Nardin

in The Oxford Handbook of International Relations

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


 International Ethics

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This article provides both an overview of the field of international ethics and an argument for rethinking its identity and foundations. It begins with its present identity as a branch of applied ethics and considers some disadvantages of that identity, which invites too easy a transition from the realm of personal morality to the realm of politics, and which alternative labels such as ‘global’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ ethics do little to overcome. It takes up the question of foundations, arguing that a coherent theory of international ethics that acknowledges the claims of politics must rest on the idea of justice as properly enforceable obligations — a claim defended by examining the ideas of interest, agreement, rights, and morality as foundational alternatives to the idea of justice. This conception of justice is then used to illuminate some key topics in international ethics: the pluralism of a world divided not only into legally autonomous states but also along religious, ethnic, and other lines; the inequalities of a world divided between rich and poor; and the insecurity of a world in which war remains endemic and inescapable. The article concludes by suggesting how attention to the history of political thought and comparative ethics can make the study of international ethics more critical and autonomous. Focusing on justice as enforceable obligations can help the field move past dead-end debates over cosmopolitanism to acquire a coherent identity as concerned with freedom, coercion, law, and politics.

Keywords: international relations; identity; morality; politics; justice; pluralism; political thought; comparative ethics; cosmopolitanism

Article.  8185 words. 

Subjects: Politics ; International Relations ; Political Theory

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