[Mains 2016] International ethics: Role of traditions & strategies in decision making


Dear students,

Note the following points before you deep dive into the main article:

* Only once question was asked on international ethics in previous years.
* Question is expected on this particular topic in this year

* Important areas from where question could be asked are

1. Morality of economic sanctions
2. Justification of war
3. Drone attacks
4. Human rights

Ethical traditions play an indispensable role in international relations. Although ethical traditions & perspectives vary greatly in terms of the nature and relevance in global politics, they play an important role in the conduct of foreign relations, providing ethical road maps to decision makers. Thus, when statesman develop and implement foreign policies, they utilise particular ethical frameworks that establish the parameters within which issues are debated and decided.

In a world in which moral values are being increasingly neglected, undermined or misused, traditions provides structure for identifying and applying moral norms to international relations. By illuminating widely shared moral values ethics traditions help guide individual and collective political action thereby contributing to the development of humane foreign policies and just international structures.

Ethical traditions also provide the moral architecture necessary to critique and assess the foreign policy behaviour of states and the international structures of global society. Ethical traditions are not self validating. As a result the plurality of traditions requires that the competing and conflicting claims of different traditions be examined with care and reconciled when possible.

In fact ethical traditions refers to a system of substantive moral rules and normative principles that have been passed along from generation to generation and that have been recognised as imposing binding obligations, achieving authority that is something equivalent to the “force of law”. All the traditions are based on a variety of sources including religion, political consent, law and culture widespread customary practice is essential in the development of a tradition.Indeed traditions’ authority is a direct by product of the extent to which its values, practices and customs has been institutionalized.

Although many traditions have guided modern international politics but there has been 3 most important traditions which have influenced International politics and Foreign Policy realism, idealism and principled realism.

#1. Realism

It is one of the oldest tradition.

Important elements are –

  • Realist assume that human nature is motivated mainly by self interest. Individuals and groups tends to see their own interest first at the expense of the interest of others.
  • In developing political order realist believe that political action should always be guided by how human beings are likely to behave rather than on how they ought to behave. They hold a pessimistic view of human nature, they believe that development of order and just in the anarchic global community can be advanced through policies based on power.


  • They assume that peace is a by product of international balance of power, that is only by balancing and counterbalancing the power of other states can a state contribute to global order and establish the preconditions for international justice.


  • realism emphasizes power , that politics is an essentially struggle of power


  • realism is characterized by its state centric approach.


  • realism assumes that the international community is a decentralized anarchic environment, that is, a self help system. Such a system is the one in which those who do not help themselves or who do less effectively than others will fail to prosper and they will lay themselves open to dangers and finally they will suffer.


Because there is no common authority in the world each states’ survival and well-being ultimately depends on its own capabilities and resources. Realist assumed that military force is the most important. The States seek to deter aggression by expanding the military resources and establishing alliances.


  • finally realim is characterized by its reliance on consequential ethics. Realism is often criticised as being an amoral approach to International politics because power is regarded as the main instrument of foreign policy and national security as its principle end.


E.g. US intervention in Grenada

#2. Idealism

Core features


  • Political idealism is optimistic about political life including the establishment and maintenance of a just international order. For most idealist this optimistic view of international affairs is rooted in a benign view of human nature. Idealism have faith in the long-term benevolent of human nature believing that human nature will eventually express its true interest in peace and a thoroughly reformed International system. Because human beings are fundamentally good the evil and injustice in the world is due largely to the unjust and imperfect political and economic structures of global society.


  • A distinctive feature of idealism is the important role assigned to moral values in defining foreign policy interest and strategies. Where is realism struggle for power leaves little room for moral judgement in Foreign Affairs,Idealism emphasizes moral norms in developing and implementing foreign policy. Moreover to the extent that realist to make room for Ethical judgement in international relations, they do so through a consequentialist strategy. Idealist, by contrast, emphasize rule-based ethics, seeking to ensure that the goals, intentions, outcomes are consistent with common morality.


  • Idealism give priority to human rights and to the constitutional structures essential to protecting these rights. Because the ideaist tradition is rooted in liberalism, individual rights, human dignity and political freedom are primary.


  • Finally, they give priority to international law and transnational organisations. Wherease realism emphasizes the balance of power in promoting international order, idealist believe that law and international structures – especially regimes and International Governmental and non governmental organisations -can contribute decisively to the development of global corporation and World order.


E.g.    US President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy

Panchsheel in India’s foreign policy

#3. Principled Realism

Core features –


  • Principled realism combines with the moral values of idealism and the power politics of realism, it is based on elements of both utopia and reality.


  • principled realism integrates political morality with the responsible use of power. Like real- ism, this tradition regards the world as an anarchic community where power is necessary to secure and protect vital interest. Moreover, principled realism is sceptical of the role of global institutions in maintaining global order, promoting human rights and protecting global commons.


  • unlike realism, however, this perspective assume that the quality of domestic politics will shape Global order. More specifically, it assumes that domestic Institutions like the rule of law, constitutional Government and human rights will influence not only foreign policy but also the nature of global politics.


  • principled realist believe that foreign policy decisions necessarily entails moral values both in defining interest and in devising strategies to pursue them. Whereas realist emphasis security above all else ,principled realist recognise that other moral values, including Liberty ,human rights and protection of global commons, must also have priority in public affairs.


  • since foreign policy involves competing and conflicting interest and goals, Statesman must device policies that have the greatest prospect of advancing the national and global welfare. Pursuing foreign policy from a principled realist perspective will necessitates both wisdom and courage, that is, wisdom to choose among competing values and interest and courage to reconcile moral ideals with power.


  • The principled realist tradition is well illustrated in the American foreign policy of Ronald Reagan. His approach is captured by the so-called Reagan Doctrine, which sought to advance the cause of human freedom by supporting fragile democratic governments while undermining expansionist communist regimes. For example, to combat the Marxist Revolutionary insurgency in El Salvador the Reagan administration provided significant political and economic resources to support the country’s fragile democratic government, at the same time the US government provided significant covered military covert to undermine the Revolutionary influence.


  • In contemporary times many scholars advanced tradition of principled realism. In this two strands have been specially noteworthy –


  • the first empahizing the global expansion of democracy and human rights and
  • the other emphasising a more constraint, prudential use of power in advancing moral ideals.


Example of Principled Realism : Bush doctrine in post 9/11 – war on terror

Ethical Strategies

Ethics is defined as the identification, interpretation and application of moral principles to specific issues or problems. In carrying out this task in the political sphere, the Statesman and political thinkers rely on distinct traditions and strategies.


Ethical traditions provide substantive framework that structure moral reasoning and action. Apart from ethical traditions there is also role of ethical strategies that offer alternative methodologies to decision making based on different emphasis being given to goals, means and consequences.


Unlike ethical traditions which provide a normative structure of rules and principles that are regarded as authoritative,ethical strategies are mainly methodological tools for guiding decision making . Both ethical traditions and ethical strategies are important in international relations because they provide perspectives, approaches and tools by which political morality is applied to thought and action in global society.

#1. End based action


  • This approach is also known as consequentialism or teleological ethics.
  • It assumes that the morality of the action must be ultimately judged by the good results that are realised.
  • In contrast to rule based action which assumes that the morality of the decisions should be judged by the faithfulness with which moral rules are applied, consequentialism believes that the most important moral criterion is the overall outcome.
  • Political actions typically involve three distinct elements that is goals or intentions ,means and results. Although all three elements are incorporated into end based thinking, the consequences of human choices are given priority.
  • Moral legitimacy of an action ultimately depends on its consequences .Policies involving questionable means or even morally ambiguous goals ,maybe morally permissible if outcomes are beneficial.

For example :

In October 1983 US military forces intervened in Grenada toppling its Marxist Revolutionary government. Although the intervention was legally dubious and morally questionable the action was ultimately deemed just because

  • it restored public order on the island,
  • it reestablished the basis for electoral democracy.
  • Most significantly and overwhelming majority of the Grenadines expressed their approval of US military action.


Thus, from end based perspective ,the US military intervention was morally justified by its beneficial outcomes -that is, the protection of human life, the establishment of civic order and the restoration of democracy.


  • One of the major phlilosophical expressions of end based thinking is utilitarianism, a doctrine that assumes that individual and collective action should be judged mainly by their utility or results. The task of government is thus to establish policies that maximizes collective pleasure and minimise collective pain. It can be summed up in a utilitarian principle or formula that the” greatest good for the greatest number”.


  • More recently, political philosophers have distinguished between two types of utilitarianism– rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism.


  1. Rule utilitarianism applies the principle of utility to rules and procedures ,holding that such norms derive their ethical legitimacy from their procedural utility ,that is , rule utilitarianism judges the inherent usefulness of policies and structures in terms of their consequences.
  2. However, by contrast, act utilitarianism applies the utility criterion to particular actions holding that the moral legitimacy of decision must be based on the extent to which overall good is maximized in each particular circumstances. Political action is based on act utilitarianism are thus judged in terms of their anticipated results.


One of the example of end based strategy is “ ethics of nuclear deterrence

#2. Rule based action


  • It is also known as the deontological thinking, it asserts that action should be judged by their inherent rightness and validity but not by the goodness of badness of policy outcomes.
  • It place a premium on duty and right intention, not the results of decisions.
  • Thus this approach and methodology appeals to the goodness of policy themselves, not to their effects.As a result, ethical decision making is determined mainly by the morality of goals and intentions. Decisions that disregard moral obligations or utilise morally questionable means themselves immoral even if desirable outcomes are achieved.
  • for example , from a deontological perspective the fire bombing of Tokyo carried out by the allies to defeat Germany and Japan is regarded as a immoral because civillians were part of the intended targets of those raids.

However, how can a Statesman or political decision maker know what his or her ethical duties are? How are goals and methods to be determined to ensure ethical actions ?

In this regard Kant, the 18 century German philosopher and father of rule based analysis, argues that the rightness of a rule or action should be based on the categorical imperative. This principle has to key dimensions –

  1. person should be treated as having value themselves that is Principal of retreating humanity as an end- in-itself.
  2. individual should act in accordance with principles or maxims that can be universalised. In other words, ethical decision making should be judged on the basis of the extent to which a principal should be applied to others.
  3. how can person discover which moral principles should guide their behaviour? According to Kant reason is the faculty by which norms can be discovered and applied.


  • All the political actions based solely on moral obligations are rare, rule-based action is nonetheless undertaken periodically in global society by states and other international non state actors in fulfillment of perceived the moral duties.

for example –

  • from the cold war era, Western democratic countries provided significant economic assistance to developing nations, in great part because of the conviction that economically prosperous states had a moral obligation to assist poor people. They are inspired by the sense of justice and compassion .
  • This sense of global compassion for the poor was evident at the G8 economic Summit 2007 where leading economic promised to give Africa 60 million dollar in economic assistance.
  • the international responsibility of responding to human need was most vividly evident when the United States give food Aid to North Korea, a communist enemy state. When famine broke out in this oppressive and reclusive state ,the US government nevertheless responded to human need by giving substantial food stuffs to relieve starvation.

Famine Relief for Soviet Russia

By Mitra Sir

Director @Mitra's IAS | Philosophy (Optional) & Ethics (GS IV)

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