This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
Ethics and foreign policy have long been considered different arenas that can only be bridged with great analytical and practical difficulty. However, with the rise of post-positivist approaches to foreign policy, much greater attention has been paid to how ethical norms and moral values are embedded any given state’s understanding of its own actions and interests, both enabling and constraining behavior. Turning to these approaches raises a different question than whether ethics and foreign policy can mix: How best to understand, analyze, and critique the role that ethics inevitably play when it comes to crafting foreign policy? Required are perspectives that, instead of constructing an ethical theory in the abstract and applying it to a concrete situation, start from the ethics of the foreign policy arena itself.
Two ways of looking at ethics are especially useful in this regard: a virtue-ethics approach and a relational-ethics approach. These can be best explored by observing how they work in a particular foreign policy context, such as the highly controversial decision made by the United Kingdom to join the invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003. This was a policy where ethics came particularly to the fore in both the decision-making process and its justification. The case study can therefore help show the types of questions virtue and relational ethics ask, the way they work as analytical and critical frameworks, and the problems they raise for the role of ethics in foreign policy. They also point toward important future directions for research in the area.
We can distinguish between three moral approaches to war: pacifism, realism, and just war theory. There are various theoretical approaches to war within the just war tradition. One of the central disputes between these approaches concerns whether war is morally exceptional (as held by exceptionalists), or morally continuous with ordinary life (as held by reductive individualists). There are also significant debates concerning key substantive issues in the ethics of war, such as reductivist challenges to the thesis that combatants fighting an unjust war are the moral equals of those fighting a just war, and the challenge to reductivism that it undermines the principle of noncombatant immunity. There are also changing attitudes to wars of humanitarian intervention. One under-explored challenge to the permissibility of such wars lies in the better outcomes of alternative ways of alleviating suffering. The notion of unconventional warfare has also come to recent prominence, not least with respect to the moral status of human shields.