Agency, explanation and ethics in international relations

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International affairs involve the actions of both state and non-state actors. Some of these actions appear to be legitimate objects of moral judgement. But what assumptions underlie this judgement? Typically, actors in international relations contexts are not individuals, with individual consciences, but bodies of diverse and distributed decision-makers. Under which conditions, then, does it make sense to attribute moral responsibility to them? This is a particularly important question within international relations scholarship because international relations scholars have generally under-utilized the concept of moral agency. Toni Erskine puts the point this way:

. . . while, inter alia, realist, neorealist, neoliberal institutionalist, and some constructivist approaches rely on the agency of the state, the idea that the state might be a bearer of moral burdens is either precluded or (perhaps most notably in the case of classical realist positions) allowed but unexamined. This combination of an uncritical acceptance of the state as an agent and the rejection, or evasion, of its possible role as a moral agent is a puzzling feature of much International Relations scholarship
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Ethics and International Relations
EditorsBrent Steele, Eric Heinze
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781317535492
ISBN (Print)9781138840201
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2018


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