Ethics and International Relations

6 credits

Teacher responsible: Prof. Ian Carter

This course investigates ethical problems concerning some of the most crucial aspects of international relations, problems that involve deciding what, in a moral sense, is the right thing for states or individuals to do.

In discussing these problems, we shall take for granted certain facts about the international world: that states exist, lay claim to territories, and exercise coercive power; that states protect, but also violate, human rights; that conflicts, including armed conflicts, arise between states, and between groups within and across states. We shall be trying to explain, not these facts themselves, but our moral reactions to them, and the moral duties and claims that we think states, groups, and individuals have with respect to one another in the various contexts that these facts create. Such moral duties and claims might or might not turn out to coincide with the dictates of international law.

Many of the moral dilemmas to be discussed in this course can be understood as conflicts between different kinds of moral right. We shall therefore begin by discussing the concept of a right and, more generally, the contrast between deontological and consequentialist forms of moral reasoning. We shall then move on to discuss four interrelated topics:

1. Human rights and international distributive justice. What kind of a right is a human right? Are duties of global justice best understood as deriving from human rights? Are basic rights best understood as rights against being harmed?

2. Territorial rights. How, if at all, can a state come to have a moral right to govern and control a particular territory? Are territorial rights like property rights? What are the ethical grounds of national self-determination? Is there a right of secession?

3. The right of free movement, and the rights and duties of states with respect to migrants. Is there a human right to freedom of movement? On what ethical grounds may a state limit immigration?

4. The ethics of security and war. May liberty be sacrificed for security? When is a state morally justified in going to war? What is terrorism? Do civilians, soldiers, and terrorists differ in their degrees of moral immunity to attack, imprisonment or torture? When is “collateral damage” morally acceptable?

We shall discuss these issues with the help of a selection of readings which, as well as constituting influential contributions by prominent political philosophers, are representative of particular (often conflicting) ethical standpoints. Students are encouraged to adopt a critical approach to these readings.

The course includes a mixture of lectures, seminars, and formal debates. The seminars will include discussions aimed at the clarification and criticism of the relevant readings, exercises in critical argumentation, and application to particular cases.

Preparatory readings:
Students with no experience of political philosophy should consult an introductory text such as Jonathan Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press), Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction (Oxford University Press) chs 1-4, or Colin Bird, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Cambridge University Press).
More specific preparatory reading can include some or all of the following:
P. Pettit, “Consequentialism” and N.A. Davis, “Contemporary Deontology”, in The Blackwell Companion to Ethics;
J. Waldron, “Rights” and C. Brown, “International Affairs”, in The Blackwell Companion to Political Philosophy;
M. Black, “Immigration” and C.A.J. Coady, “War and Terrorism”, in The Blackwell Companion to Applied Ethics.

Enrolled students may view the full course syllabus via Kiro.