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date: 24 January 2021

Normative Theory in the English Schoollocked

  • Molly CochranMolly CochranInternational Relations, Oxford Brookes University


Normative thinking permeates the work of the English School and has done so since its start as the British Committee for International Politics. Ethics, or, more precisely, the tension between ethics and power or interests, was one of the original concerns of the founding members of the Committee. It was an aim of the Committee to combine ethical reflection with the historical analysis of states systems. The approach in first-generation, or classical, English School scholarship to ethical questions primarily involved the identification of traditions of political and moral speculation about international relations (IR). Another significant feature of classical English School thought was moral skepticism, which seriously challenged what could be said about ethical choices within the forms of international interaction it charted. However, keen interest in what normative agendas can be supported within international or world society—basic subsistence rights, international criminal justice, and humanitarian intervention—does not necessarily amount to a normative theory. As such, order versus justice is a more productive starting point for normative theorizing within the English School. Meanwhile, there are two modes of normative thought in postclassical English School: practical and moral–philosophical arguments. The English School is grounded in the practical, in the real-world tussle of power and interests, while at the same time it works through what it is possible to say about the nature of obligation and moral responsibility among international actors. This is where ethics and practical interest meet, and it represents the unique contribution of the English School to contemporary normative IR theory.

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