Ethics and morality in international relations

Lavina Lee*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In this chapter our aim is to understand how particular theories of international relations approach the issue of ethics and morality in interstate conduct. These issues are often marginalized in the discipline because of a desire to produce research that is practically useful to policymakers, on the assumption that ethical and moral questions are of little relevance to problem-solving. What is often not recognized is how particular international relations theories are styled as scientific, objective and descriptive, claiming to divorce ethics from politics, whilst in reality advocating practices that are prescriptive with ethical implications. What should be clear at the end of the chapter is that the two dominant political approaches in international relations we will focus upon-Realism and Liberalism-are not devoid of ethical implications and that these should be discussed and debated. In the chapter to follow we will differentiate between the terms morality and ethics, identify categories of ethical action drawn from moral philosophy, discover the realist, Liberal and Just War theory approaches to questions about the values and principles that ought to govern relations between states and the possible duties owed to individuals beyond state boundaries. We will show how realist approaches are far from purely descriptive of the reality of international politics, but in fact contain normative assumptions about how national interests ought to be defined and which privilege conceptions of 'necessity' and prudence as having primacy over moral considerations. We will also discuss how the universal morality espoused by Liberal approaches to international relations contain their own moral dilemmas. Specifically, this includes contestation over how universal human rights actually are, and whether the promotion of liberal values by force could endanger international stability, and is ultimately counterproductive to the wellbeing of individual human beings in other states. This is followed by an explanation of the ethical principles governing the use of force developed under the Just War tradition. Finally, we then examine how ethical and moral arguments are used to evaluate and assess the use of force in international relations using the Iraq War of 2003 as a case study.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncounters with world affairs
Subtitle of host publicationan introduction to international relations
EditorsEmilian Kavalski
Place of PublicationNew York, NY
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781315579498, 9781317143857
ISBN (Print)9781472411150, 9781472411167
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Categorical imperative
  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Defensive liberalism
  • Democratic peace theory
  • Ethic of responsibility
  • Ethical norms
  • Harmony of interests
  • Iraq war 2003
  • Just war theory
  • Liberal institutionalism
  • Liberalism
  • Moral norms
  • Offensive liberalism
  • Perpetual peace
  • Pluralism
  • Prudence
  • Raison d'état
  • Realism
  • Utilitarianism


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