A Critical-Historical Investigation into the Philosophical Roots of Realist Ethics in International Relations Theory

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


In 1997 the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook proclaimed that Labour was going to add 'an ethical dimension' to British foreign policy. Events since 1997 demonstrate the difficulties in conducting such a policy. Labour has struggled to reconcile its policies with its ethics. Labour has notmerely used ethics as a fig leaf for its pursuit of power on the world stage, but, like other administrations that have pledged to promote moral agendas, e.g., the Woodrow Wilson Presidency in the aftermath of WW1 or the Carter Presidency of the 1970s, have not given sufficient thought to the nature and limits of moral possibility in global politics. The common failure of these administrations is to accept uncritically the claims of universalist ethical positions which fail to recognise the political context in which moral action is possible only to recognise too late the unworkable nature of these ethical positions.

The major question of this research is should a state's foreign policy be built on universal principles or should it proceed on a case-by-case basis directed by a morality predicated on prudence and the observation of the national interest? To give a concrete example, Britain has developed a tradition of involving itself in humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights, yet Britain cannot pursue this policy universally. Britain, together with its NATO allies justified intervention in Kosovo on humanitarian grounds, but does not apply these arguments to places like Tibet where a Superpower holds sway, or in an area like Darfur, where no vital strategic or regional interests are at stake. This begs the question of whether or not these human rights are not solely subject to moral theory, but also considerations of political power. The ancient motto, fiat justitia pereat mundus, is as Kant described it, 'a sturdy principle of right,' but in the current context there is a distressing possibility that it must be taken literally, i.e., that the world will perish if justice were to be done in every case where an injustice occurs.

Realist ethics proceed from different bases. Rather than posit what is desirable as the basis for ethics, it asks what is possible? Rather than seeking to achieve a potentially forever delayed juridical system in which the universal rights of states and individuals can be achieved, it asks what can a statesman do in existing international society that does the least amount of harm? Rather than resting on rigid formulae and a legal system that would require the complete overhaul of the international order, it relies on a species of political logic in which prudence and moderation inform the necessary judgments that underpin making any kind of ethical decision in an imperfect world. In short, Realist ethics recognise rather than ignore the fact that moral choices do not occur in a political vacuum.

In this project I examine the emergence and development of Realist ethical theory's answers to these questions by reference to the Twentieth Century's most prominent Realist authors, E.H. Carr and Hans J. Morgenthau. My intention is to thoroughly investigate the philosophical underpinnings of their writings on ethics in the works of Machiavelli, Spinoza, James, Niebuhr and Weber. I demonstrate that Realism, often dismissed as an amoral or immoral theory of International Relations, in fact has two distinct ethical positions - a pragmatic Realist ethics developed by E.H. Carr and an existential ethics developed in part as a critique of Carr's ethics by Hans J. Morgenthau.

Realist ethics can provide an effective critique of the impractical universalistic principles that underpin, but also undermine, previous attempts at 'ethical' foreign policy. Realist ethics could also provide the basis for an alternative understanding of what an ethical foreign policy could be. This research, therefore is important because it addresses the very values that inform the conduct of foreign policy.

Planned Impact

International Relations has the advantage that almost by definition it appeals to a worldwide audience and hence has the potential for worldwide impact, e.g., I have published in British, American and European journals that specialise in IR and this work has been cited in journals and monographs written in Britain, America, Spain, Italy, Brazil and India. I believe my new project which evolves from my earlier work on Realism in general has the potential to exceed the impact of my earlier work.

This research will primarily benefit academics working in the fields of the intellectual history of IR Theory, those who work in IR Theory more broadly understood, and those who work in international ethics, particularly those who are attempting to develop a Realist ethics of IR and those who are trying to understand that position vis a vis their own position. In terms of the wider intellectual community, other beneficiaries of this research would be those interested in applying continental theory, in this case Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault, to questions of how to understand the emergence, divergence and development of ideas over time.

This project is, in the words of the AHRC's guide (p. 41), 'Blue-skies 'research or research without immediate or obvious impact' and (p. 43) 'excellent research without obvious or immediate impact [that] will continue to be funded by the AHRC and will not be disadvantaged as a result of the introduction of these new sections.'

The benefits from this research will be historical and theoretical in nature. The overall benefit will be of putting the debates about the nature and potential of Realist ethics on a more secure footing.

Historical Benefits: IR Theory is in need of more, and more critical and revisionist, history of its fundamental assumptions about what constitutes the core of its research agenda, i.e., the theories that underpin its debates and discourses. The debates between Realism and other theories of IR have all too often degenerated into a series of strawman oppositions from which much heat but little light is generated. The first step to achieving a deeper, more effective debate between Realism and its competitors in terms of international ethics is to remind those engaged in ethical discourse in IR that Realism does have a series of ethical positions which can serve as part of the wider discourse, as opposed to being dismissed as amoral or even immoral. This benefit can be achieved historically, i.e., by returning to the texts of the authors under consideration in this project and demonstrating the nature and potential of their contribution to contemporary debates and contrasting what the Realists actually wrote against what they are presumed to have written.

Theoretical Benefits: Since the death of Hans J. Morgenthau, Realists have struggled with the moral dimension of IR. My research is designed to reinvigorate Realism as a moral theory of International Relations. Carr's pragmatic ethics and Morgenthau's existential ethics provide a fascinating counterpoint to the universalist ethics of cosmopolitanism. Rediscovering and developing Realist ideas such as prudence, judgment and the lesser evil is an important contribution to the theoretical debates of international ethics.

Communication:I will be presenting this work at leading IR conferences and publishing in relevant journals.

Relevant experience and Track Record: I have published a monograph on Realist theory and have had six journal articles related to various aspects of Realist thought published. I have also published three book chapters on Realism or in which Realism plays a role. I have an international reputation as an authority on Realist thought in general.


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Description I have discovered that Realism, one of the most prominent theories of International Relations is, despite persistent claims to the contrary from its detractors, replete with ethical content. This has important implications for the conduct of foreign policy by major powers such as the United Kingdom in that it offers the ability to think about this complex field of political theory in a manner distinct from and critical of, the often vague platitudes employed by those charged with the responsibility for this vital aspect of British foreign relations.
Exploitation Route My findings would be very useful to those charged with the conduct of foreign policy, providing them with access to a series of concepts that are designed to find the ethical within the political as opposed to trying to shoehorn the political into an unaccommodating moral space.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description I wrote an article for The Scotsman in 2013 regarding the inadvisability of intervention in Syria in the absence of a thorough knowledge of the forces involved and the implications of supporting rebels who may be quite as bad, if not worse, than al-Assad.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal