This course investigates ethical problems that arise in the specific context of international relations. 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.


After presenting some basic conceptual tools, including utilitarianism, deontological theory, and the concepts of liberty, equality, and justice, the course will concentrate on five interrelated topics:


  1. The scope of justice. Is distributive justice a global concern, as cosmopolitans hold? Or can we speak about distributive justice only within the confines of the state? If justice says that we should all be treated as equals, does “we” mean “we fellow citizens”, or does it mean “we human beings”?
  2. Global justice and climate change. The costs of global warming, and of implementing measures against global warming, can be distributed fairly or unfairly. What would be a fair distribution between developed and developing countries? What would be a fair distribution between the current generation and future generations?
  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? Does freedom of association entail the right to exclude migrants? May states limit immigration in order to protect their national culture?
  4. 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?
  5. The ethics of war. When is a state morally justified in going to war? When is humanitarian intervention justified? What is terrorism? Do civilians, soldiers, and terrorists differ in their degrees of moral immunity to attack?

The course aims to provide students with:

- knowledge of the main dilemmas and arguments that have featured in contemporary ethical debates in the above-mentioned areas;

- understanding of the philosophical theories behind those dilemmas and arguments;

- an improved ability to make clear and informed ethical assessments of the political and legal scenarios and decisions studied in other, more empirically oriented courses in world politics and international relations;

- an improved ability to engage in debates with efficacy and argumentative rigor.


In 2017-18, this course will include a module taught by Prof. Darrel Moellendorf of the Goethe Universität, Frankfurt. Prof. Moellendorf is an expert on global justice, climate change, and the ethics of sustainable development. He will be teaching during weeks 3 and 4 of the course.


For further information about Prof. Moellendorf and his research on these subjects, see: