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date: 27 January 2021

Deontological International Ethicsfree

  • Thomas E. Doyle IIThomas E. Doyle IIDepartment of Political Science, Texas State University


Deontological international ethics describes, analyzes, and assesses the principles governing the interactions of actors at and across various levels of society; focuses on the relations between states and other international actors; and is concerned with identifying and specifying the moral duties that each kind of international actor bears toward all others. The core theoretical elements of deontological international ethics include accounts of individual and collective agency, moral reason, the moral nature of action, and respect for the moral law as a necessary feature of ethical action. There are three historical phases of deontological international ethics: divine command and natural law ethics prior to Kant, late-modern thinker Immanuel Kant’s international ethics, and contemporary neo-Kantian approaches to nuclear ethics and transnational economic relations. The divine command ethical theories posit divine authority as the absolute and incontrovertible source of moral obligation. Meanwhile, natural law focuses on the intrinsically moral nature of military action and the centrality of moral agency and intention in the rightful use of force. On the other hand, Kant’s systemic deontological ethical theory posits individuals and states as autonomous and rational moral agents, identifies the categorical imperative as the supreme rational principle or morality and the concept of public right as its political corollary, describes a formal method for actors to determine their moral duty in ideal and non-ideal contexts, and applies this theory to the problems of interstate conflict and commerce.


Deontological international ethics is a distinctive type of modern philosophical and political ethics. As a system of ethics, it describes, analyzes, and assesses the principles governing the interactions of actors at and across various levels of society. As an international ethics, it focuses on the relations between states and other salient international actors. As a deontological ethics, it is concerned with identifying and specifying the moral duties that each kind of international actor bears toward all others so interrelated.

While some conception of duty is part of every (international) ethical tradition, deontology uniquely grounds morality on a conception of duty. Consequentialist international ethics – e.g., utilitarianism – grounds morality on the effects of action. Accordingly, consequentialism does not posit a set of duties to which actors are inescapably bound – although it seems to posit an absolute meta-level duty to always increase benefit and/or decrease burden (Bentham 1948; Singer 2004). Virtue ethics grounds morality on an array of character virtues that comport with human happiness and well-being. The focus of virtue ethics is on specifying how this or that action instantiates courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice as opposed to specifying merely the consequences of action (Aristotle 1996). In deontology, by contrast, actors bear inescapable duties to meet others' fundamental needs or uphold their basic moral rights by virtue of their humanity and which are independent of personal character traits or the outcomes of any particular (series of) actions (Amstuts 2008: ch. 2; Harbour 1999: chs. 5–7).

Deontological international ethics is thus similar in many respects to international law (Nardin 1983). Both normative traditions conceive of rules as specifications of authoritative constraints on actors; indeed, the preambles of many international treaties express the moral vision for which their formal practice rules are enacted (Rawls 1955). Accordingly, the literary or rhetorical style of deontological international ethical scholarship is more legalistic and philosophical than consequentialist writing, which bears closer resemblance to political and policy analysis. In the current academic division of labor, deontological international ethics therefore sits at the intersection between international relations theory, international relations, and analytic political philosophy. This is to say, deontological international ethics straddles each of these three subfields without being situated squarely in any of them.

The core theoretical elements of deontological international ethics include accounts of individual and collective agency, moral reason, the moral nature of action, and respect for the moral law as a necessary feature of ethical action. The account of agency emphasizes the centrality of intention for analyses and assessments of actors' deliberation regarding policy choices. Intention is also central for the assessment of the deliberative reason used in decision-making as well as the moral (or immoral) nature of action in itself, which is distinct from the consequentialist exclusive concern for an action's outcomes. Along this line, the respect for the moral law as a necessary feature of ethical action figures into the account of agency – for if an actor's intention is consistent with a respect for the moral law, assessments of a rightly intended but failed course of action will be more generous than those based on the success or failure of the action alone.

Two other points should be made regarding the core elements of international deontology. First, the account of moral reason emphasizes the need to determine the rationality of an actor's interests and ends as opposed merely to the rationality of the means of their realization. Second, the account of the moral nature of action emphasizes a relevant act's intrinsic rightness or wrongness independent of its consequences. Thus, deontological international ethics will hold that some actions are forbidden even if they bring some good results, and that some actions are obligatory even if they bring about some negative outcomes.

Largely for these reasons, ethicists in the deontological tradition tend to draw relatively sharp distinctions between prudence, convention, and morality (Nardin 1992). They also tend to adopt a universalism that regards the individual human being's moral status and entitlements as the basic unit of ethical analysis. This universalism leads to cosmopolitanism or globalism that contrasts with international ethical traditions that privilege the national or communitarian interest over the “human” rights of individual citizens.

In Western political thought, the foremost historical figure representing deontological international ethics remains the late-modern thinker Immanuel Kant. It is difficult to exaggerate Kant's influence in contemporary international ethics, as well as in philosophy, political theory, and political science. Amongst others, Kant's influence is prominent in the works of Charles Beitz, Thomas Donaldson, Otfried Höffe, Terry Nardin, Onora O'Neill, and John Rawls (see references at the end of the essay). And while each variously addresses what he or she perceives as weaknesses in Kant's normative theory, all converge to defend a Kantian conception of right action in the realm of international politics as constituted by right motivation and utmost respect for moral duty as apprehended and determined by human reason.

This essay begins with the etymology of “deontological.” From there, it sketches three historical phases of deontological international ethics: divine command and natural law ethics prior to Kant, Kant's international ethics, and contemporary neo-Kantian approaches to nuclear ethics and transnational economic relations.

Deontology, Divine Command Ethics, and Christian Natural Law Traditions

The Greek terms δεoʋ‎ or δεoʋτ‎ (deon, deont) refer to duties that individuals or collective actors in their interactions cannot avoid without violating moral principle. Combined with λoγɩα‎ (logia or discourse), the English term “deontology,” or “the science of duty,” is derived (Oxford English Dictionary, accessed July 10, 2009). Two senses of this term can be distinguished. In its strongest usage, deontology is a “moral science” – i.e., the deduction of rules for conduct from a priori ethical principles whose authority comes from reason itself and which prescribes that the “is” conform (as much as possible) to the “ought.” In its weaker usage, “deontology” is a reflective practice of moral legislation where “duty” is derived from principles whose construction comes in part from experience. In this sense, deontology exhibits what John Rawls has called “reflective equilibrium” (Rawls 1999). It appreciates the practical necessity of incorporating the “is” of lived experience into the construction and revision of the “ought” of moral principles, which in turn specify the given agent's duties (O'Neill 1992).

Notwithstanding these differences, both senses of δεoʋτλoγɩα‎ emphasize the moral “side constraints” that each actor should observe in their interactions with particular others. These constraints, or duties, might be fixed by nature, divine command, or by another social mechanism. In some contemporary accounts, the fundamental entitlements of individual human beings (i.e., human rights) generate a set of corresponding and inescapable duties on particular others. Deontology thus addresses three mutually interrelated levels: the interpersonal level (e.g., the family, the community), the intrastatal level (i.e., within the state itself), and the interstatal or international level (i.e., amongst states or citizens of different states whose interpersonal interactions have international implications). For its part, international deontology addresses various kinds of actors (e.g., citizens of states, states, international institutions, nongovernmental organizations) and in particular prescribes that considerations of duty override national interest or right as defined by the “morality of states” or the pursuit of the greater (global) good as defined by utilitarianism if these conflict (Beitz 1999; O'Neill 2000).

Although deontology is identified mostly with secular ethics, the Judeo-Christian and natural law traditions developed nascent deontological elements that Kant later took up and revised (Harbour 1999: ch. 7). According to Philip Quinn, divine command ethical theories “are typically offered as accounts of the deontological part of morality, which consists of moral requirements, permissions, and prohibitions” (Quinn 1999). Quinn suggests that divine command theories are not exclusively deontological, for the widely held “golden rule” has a significant consequentialist motif. Thus, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” invites the agent deliberating on a course of action to consider the merit of the action as if s/he were the recipient of the action instead of its initiator. The consequentialist motif emphasizes the outcomes of the action – if the agent is willing to bear the benefit or burden of the act, then it might be permissible to undertake the act with others. The deontological motif emphasizes the nature of the act and the intention itself. Inasmuch as divine command views develop a theory of duty, however, they posit divine authority as the absolute and incontrovertible source of moral obligation. What God commands to be done is right and must be done even if undesirable outcomes obtain, and what God identifies as wrongdoing ought never to be done, even if some good comes from it. Accordingly, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures absolutely proscribe murder, coveting the property of any neighbor, and rebellion against established political authorities on pain of divine punishment (see Exodus 20, Gospel of Matthew 5, and St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 12, in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha 1973).

We should note that, prior to the Christian era, the duties enumerated in the Torah applied to Israelites and not to “aliens,” although the prohibitions on idolatry and the commands to assist foreigners in need entail a limited set of duties that transcended political and cultural boundaries. In Christianity's infancy, the Jewish moral code was modified to fit a new and evolving theology. Still, it was not clear at the beginning that Jesus and St. Paul's commands had authority outside the Christian communities. A few factors made it eventually possible to develop an international Christian ethics with significant deontological elements. One is the universalism of St. Paul's teachings, which declared that all human beings are created equally in God's image, are trapped in the bondage of sin, and are capable of being saved from their sins by Christ's atoning sacrifice (St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 1–8 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha 1973). The premise of Christian evangelism is that every Christian believer has determinate duties to every other person, regardless of nationality, to bring the message of salvation. Beyond evangelism, Jesus prescribes acts of good will that transcend national and religious boundaries, as the parable of the Good Samaritan relates. Later, St. Paul claims that in Christ there is no distinction between “Jew and Greek,” again suggesting that nationality is not relevant for moral duty (St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians 3 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha 1973).

Another resource for an international deontology is the Christian doctrine of original sin. For St. Paul, sin is a moral condition into which all are trapped and which justifies the existence of coercive ecclesiastical and domestic political institutions to which citizens owe obedience (St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 12 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha 1973). Significantly, this doctrinal claim raises a meta-ethical question: how could anyone lacking knowledge of the gospel understand, first of all, that they had duties to God, king, and humanity and, secondly, understand the particular content of those duties? The response is in the Pauline commitment to moral intuitionism and in the subsequent Christian natural law tradition. Moral intuitionism is the doctrine that the knowledge of basic moral duties is innate in all persons (St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 1 in the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha 1973). Just as God the Creator made all people equal, His moral laws can be grasped by all through unaided reason and experience. While special revelation is necessary to understand certain mysteries, like the nature of the Trinity, ordinary human reason is sufficient for anyone at any time and place to apprehend their fundamental duties to honor God, preserve life, procreate, protect their family from harm, to strive for peace, and generally to “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Moral intuitionism became an important foundation for the Christian natural law tradition.

The topic of natural law is too large and complex to discuss in this short essay. I shall therefore limit the discussion to its application in just war theory. The evolution of Christian natural law during the medieval and modern periods was accompanied by increasing attention to trans-imperial and international issues, such as the ends and means of warfare. Starting with Augustine of Hippo, “just war theory” addressed two major questions – the just cause (jus ad bellum) and the just prosecution of war (jus in bello). Deontological elements featured significantly in both (Grotius 1957; Augustine [1467] 1972; St. Thomas Aquinas [1920] 1981a, [1920] 1981b; Walzer [1977] 2000). On the first question, aggression is absolutely proscribed as an intrinsic evil, and therefore jus ad bellum principles authorize the use of force for (national) self-defense. Importantly, though, ad bellum principles locate this right of self-defense with the legitimate monarch or the duly elected representatives of a citizenry, although if these officials are absent or have lost legitimacy this right can devolve to other competent leaders. These provisions are deontological inasmuch as they emphasize the intrinsically moral nature of military action (i.e., aggression is evil) and the centrality of moral agency and intention in the rightful use of force (i.e., war in self-defense only, the necessity of right authority).

Regarding in bello criteria, the noncombatant immunity principle (also known as the discrimination principle) forbids the intentional killing of innocent civilians. Again, deontological side constraints are significant features of the account. Noncombatants are not parties to conflict, and their intentional killing is contrary to the natural law of peace and is therefore intrinsically evil. However, since the messiness of war sometimes makes it impossible to achieve just war objectives without killing innocents, another in bello provision – the doctrine of double effect – permits the use of military power whose unintended result might involve the killing of a limited number of innocents. These considerations reveal that intention and agency are at the heart of just war proscriptions on the license to kill noncombatants.

This is not to say that just war theory is a comprehensive deontological international ethics, since it does not address questions of international trade, migration, the environment, and so forth. More importantly, just war theory has significant consequentialist elements. The ad bellum and in bello proportionality principles urge national leaders to only fight winnable wars and to employ only the means necessary to attain just war objectives. If, for instance, victory can be attained with troop levels at 100,000, then sending 50,000 soldiers is imprudent and 200,000 is excessive.

Although much more should be said on these and related matters, I refer readers to the other compendium essays on just war theory and religious ethics. I shall now turn to summarize the deontological international ethics of Immanuel Kant.

Deontological International Ethics: Immanuel Kant

In his philosophical and political works, Kant explicates a systematic deontological ethical theory that (1) posits individuals and states as autonomous and rational moral agents, (2) identifies the categorical imperative as the supreme rational principle of morality and the concept of public right as its political corollary, (3) describes a formal method for actors to use the categorical imperative to determine their moral duty in ideal and non-ideal contexts, and (4) applies this theory to the problems of interstate conflict and commerce.

Autonomy as Rational Moral Agency

Kantian theory claims that individual human beings have “freedom” or “agency” – the capacity to choose and implement courses of action free from natural or social determination. For Kant, no causal variable is capable of negating the kind of agency necessary for moral responsibility. This includes a range of empirical factors that political scientists regard as determining human behavior: social structure, wealth, human psychology, and so on. In addition, Kant argues that individuals are fundamentally “rational” – i.e., they can validly infer their general and particular duties from a set of universal moral principles. An actor's agency and rationality comprise her “autonomy,” or her capacity for self-legislation. Kant's concept of autonomy pertains to all aspects of (moral) life, since one's actions and relations can often play on more than one stage simultaneously: local, national, and international. Kantian international ethics thus applies to interpersonal (i.e., domestic) and to transpersonal (i.e., international, global) affairs equally.

On Kant's view, states are moral agents inasmuch as they are practical unions of autonomous individuals that must relate to other states as if they were unitary actors (Kant 1996). Thus, states have a limited set of determinate rights which other individuals and states are obliged to uphold. States also have moral duties to their own citizens and to those of other countries. Fundamentally, states are obliged to adopt republican constitutions (Kant 1996). They are obliged to seek peace by engaging in open diplomacy, by abandoning designs and policies of annexation of other states, by preparing to abolish standing armies, by non-interference in the constitutions of other states, and by refusing to conduct any operation during wartime that makes a future peace practically impossible – such as the employment of assassins or poisoners or treasonous rebels within an enemy country (Kant 1996, 8:344–7). As far as is practically possible, they are obliged to organize the international system into a pacific federation of states (Kant 1996, 8:354ff.). Finally, they are obliged to extend the right of hospitality to foreigners that have sought international commerce (Kant 1996, 8:358). No exogenous feature of the international system excuses states from adhering to these duties in the most rigorous ways.

The Categorical Imperative and the Concept of Public Right

For Kant, the source of moral obligation is the dignity of the human person and the self-disciplining feature of autonomous moral agency. For this reason, Kantian ethics is not a divine command ethics. Moral obligation for Kant must be undertaken freely – i.e., without the threat of divine sanction or external coercion – otherwise it is not moral obligation at all (Kant 1996, 6:222). Yet, Kant believes that actors must not be free to avoid or abandon the very duties that they freely undertake (Kant 1996, 6:223). Kant resolves this paradox of a freedom that is simultaneously bound to inescapable duty in the concept of autonomy, where the individual or collective agent obeys the rational moral law that they themselves prescribe. By ruling out divine fiat as the source of the determination of moral duty, Kant must provide an alternative explanation. He does this with the categorical imperative.

Put simply, the categorical imperative is a method of testing the moral rules or maxims that actors propose to govern their conduct. Rules that “pass” the categorical imperative are morally permissible or obligatory, and rules that “fail” are proscribed. The categorical imperative directly applies to interpersonal conduct in domestic nonpolitical settings. The concept of public right is an application of the categorical imperative to public and political contexts, which includes international political relations. Thus, Kantian international ethics remains tethered to the categorical imperative, even if only implicitly.

In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant advanced two distinct formulations of the categorical imperative:


Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law (of nature).


So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.

The first principle prescribes a universality test, or Formula of Universal Law, to see if a candidate moral rule qualifies as a genuine moral duty (Korsgaard 1996; Höffe 2006). It specifically tests to see if that rule can be applied consistently to all similar situations. If it cannot, the proposed act is morally contradictory (independent of the consequences of the act). Thus, just as two contradictory assertions cannot be true at the same time and place, a maxim that is applicable in one instance and not in another comparable instance is not universally valid. Consequently, maxims that fail the universality test do not express a binding moral obligation for any actor.

To illustrate, suppose I propose the following maxim: “it is permissible for me to lie to my neighbor in order to gain advantage.” The maxim on lying, if valid, would accordingly mean that my neighbor ought to be permitted to lie to me in order to gain advantage, and that I would bear a corresponding duty of noninterference with his behavior. Kant's rejection of this maxim is not just that I would (presumably) not endorse this rule were it to be used against my personal advantage, but more importantly that this rule cannot be consistently applied without undermining communicative action and the integrity of social institutions designed to solve collective action problems. In this vein, the universality test implicitly suggests that international morality can become a test for domestic morality. If the maxim on lying were universally valid, the leader of my country's enemy ought to be permitted to lie to my government, and for any citizens or official anywhere in the world that is similarly situated to lie to their national rivals, to gain advantage. But, as we saw for my proposed maxim in a strictly interpersonal case, for Kant such a claim would be absurd.

The second principle might be called the Formula of Humanity (Korsgaard 1996: ch. 4). It prescribes the securing of human dignity as a standard for moral legislation, especially when people must be “used” to achieve a desired result. Only rules for action that preserve human freedom in the course of “using” their talent, labor, or resources qualify as morally upright. And, like the Formula of Universal Law, the Formula of Humanity seems to suggest an internationalism or cosmopolitanism over a narrow nationalism. One may not treat the person “of any other,” regardless of their country of residence, in ways that are merely instrumental.

The foregoing suggests an application of the categorical imperative to domestic and international politics. The concept of public right is such an application:

Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom in accordance with a universal law.

(Kant 1996, 6:231)

The language cited here invokes directly the Formula of Universal Law. Laws and public policies are “right” only if they do not violate the autonomy of affected citizens.

If then my action or my condition generally can coexist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law, whoever hinders me in it does me wrong, for this hindrance (resistance) cannot coexist with freedom in accordance with a universal law.

(Kant 1996, 6:231)

Kant anticipates the objection that the coercive power necessary for politics will necessarily be prohibited by the concept of right. Kant argues, however, that public right does not proscribe coercion per se. Indeed, one main duty of government is to hinder the hindrance to freedom – or, to put the claim less technically, the government is obliged to prevent or punish violations of freedom (Kant 1996, 6:232).

The Foedus Pacificum as Kant's Central Philosophical and Moral Principle

The concept of public right is a central anchor of Kant's international moral and political theory, which culminates in his exposition of a pacific federation of republican states (Höffe 2006). Kant's vision has influenced subsequent deontological international ethics and the larger field of political science as much or more than any of his other theoretical reflections.

As applied to states, public right is exemplified by a constitution that formally unites all individuals whose common interest is framed by their political association. The constitution authorizes the state to establish a “rightful condition,” which is a juridical condition of domestic peace made possible by the prevention or punishment of violations of individual freedom. Kant then argues that:

… under the general concept of public right we are led to think not only of the right of a state but also of a right of nations. Since the earth's surface is not unlimited but closed, the concepts of the right of a state and of a right of nations lead inevitably to the idea of a right of a state of nations or cosmopolitan right. So if the principle of outer freedom limited by law is lacking in any one of these three possible forms of rightful condition, the framework of all others is unavoidably undermined and must finally collapse.

(Kant 1996, 6:311)

In this passage, Kant invokes history insofar as “nations” preceded “states” as units of social formation. Although Kant overlooks individual persons in these remarks, in his larger corpus the idea seems to be that the physical necessity of social formation for personal and collective survival is a precondition for the condition of public right that applies within and across political formations. Thus, Kant argues from the fact that the earth does not permit peoples (i.e., nations) to escape each other permanently to the conclusion that national and international political ethics are mutually interdependent and, indeed, universal. Since individuals or nations anywhere might find themselves interacting with any other person or nation, it is a mistake to assert that morality is relevant and salient just for the interpersonal and national realms but not for the international realm (Sagan 2004). As suggested previously, the validity of interpersonal and national rules of conduct depends upon their validity at the international level, and vice versa. And this is because the nature or object of moral duty is invariant across different sizes and structures of human groupings.

Kant's international theory begins from a social contractarian assumption of international anarchy that, contra Hobbesian or Lockean accounts, attributes moral agency to states:

Here a state, as a moral person, is considered as living in relation to another state in the condition of natural freedom and therefore in a condition of constant war. The rights of states consist, therefore, partly of their right to go to war, partly of their right in war, and partly of their right to constrain each other to leave this condition of war and so form a constitution that will establish lasting peace, that is, its right after war.

(Kant 1996, 6:344; emphasis added)

This passage starts with the premise of the moral agency of states under conditions of anarchy and ends with each state's fundamental moral duty to escape that anarchy by juridical (i.e., international legal) means. Yet, it is the premise of collective agency that grounds the intermediate and ultimate duties on states to achieve peace. I pause here to unpack this argument more fully.

States are unitary agents in moral (i.e., not necessarily in empirical or historical) terms, and they possess a corresponding moral freedom (i.e., rights and duties). However, since international society lacks a central coercive authority, each state is compelled to defend its own freedom by force of arms. For IR realist thinkers, national self-defense is an exercise of military necessity – i.e., an exercise of amoral power. In contrast, Kant describes war as a defensive and self-regarding duty for states. If a state does not defend itself against aggression, it wrongs itself even if the effort of self-defense is hopeless or if it can benefit greatly by permitting itself to be conquered. Thus, the self-regarding duty to preserve one's freedom and rights is absolute and inescapable.

Once war has been undertaken, states have the right to amass the required human and material resources to be victorious. However, Kant adumbrates a list of duties that go beyond in bello proportionality and discrimination principles. The Sixth Preliminary Article for Perpetual Peace states:

No state at war with another shall allow itself such acts of hostility as would have to make mutual trust impossible during a future peace; acts of this kind are employing assassins or poisoners, breach of surrender, incitement to treason within the enemy state, and so forth.

(Kant 1996, 8:346)

This principle is forward looking – it regards military victory as a means of establishing a lasting and just peace. Tactics that might lead to immediate victory but undermine a future peace are absolutely proscribed, e.g., the use of assassins or poisoners or the incitement of treason against the enemy's government. Moreover, tactics that undermine promises or juridical agreements during or after a war are proscribed, such as ambushing enemy soldiers by faking one's own surrender.

For Kant, the foregoing ad bellum and in bello duties are merely preliminary. Ultimately, every state has a duty to eventually eliminate war as a method of adjudicating international disputes. This jus post bellum duty originates directly from the moral duty on all moral agents to establish and maintain a rightful or pacific condition at the domestic level. At the international level, this entails the duty to establish and maintain a pacific federation of states:

… from the throne of the highest morally legislative power, [reason] delivers an absolute condemnation of war as a procedure for determining rights and, on the contrary, makes a condition of peace, which cannot be instituted or assured without a pact of nations among themselves, a direct duty; so there must be a league of a special kind, which can be called a pacific league (foedus pacificum) …

(Kant 1996, 8:356)

This passage invokes the categorical imperative in the guise of the “highest morally legislative power.” The direct duty to construct a pacific federation is a moral requirement on international political society and all its members. The pacific league is not a world state but a juridical association of autonomous sovereign states that abandon warfare as a means of securing their interests. At its inauguration, the pacific league might not encompass all states, and indeed it might never do so. All that is necessary for Kant is that a sufficient number of sufficiently powerful states construct this league such that their institutions and norms restructure the manner in which all international conflicts are resolved.

Until the pacific federation is instituted, Kant obliges states (i.e., officials and citizens) to adopt a republican constitution (Kant 1996, 8:350). This requirement hearkens back to the claim that freedom at any particular level of publicity depends on the freedom at all levels. Thus, states that suppress autonomy rights domestically cannot consistently insist on their own autonomous rights at the international level. Another requirement is that peace treaties ought never to be concluded with one or both parties making secret reservations for a future war; otherwise a peace treaty is nothing more than a ceasefire, and the duty to establish lasting peace is avoided. Another requirement is that the exercise of foreign policy ought not to involve accruing national debt (Kant 1996, 8:343–5). If the costs of military action exceed the state's financial capacity, it might finance its operations by borrowing from its allies. However, should a state bankrupt itself by these means, it will “entangle other states in the loss without their having deserved it, and this would be doing them a public wrong” (Kant 1996, 8:346). Thus, the proscription against borrowing to finance foreign policy is based not on the possibility of financial losses per se but on the notion that suffering an undeserved loss is an unqualified public wrong, the prevention of which is a moral duty.

Contemporary Deontological International Ethics

In the last several decades, neo-Kantian applications to international ethics have been developed by several leading “liberal” scholars. More often than not, their applications do not attempt to invoke “philosophical foundations,” i.e., a set of unchanging or necessarily true metaphysical or epistemological commitments upon which these applications can be grounded. It is a matter of debate whether Kant himself invoked philosophical foundations or whether such platforms are necessary for ethical analysis (Habermas 1990, 1998; Barber 1996; Korsgaard et al. 1996; Seery 1999; Donnelly 2003: ch. 1).

The liberal school divides between, and in some instances combines, rights-based and deontological approaches. The former foregrounds universal human rights as the basis for ethical duty while the latter foregrounds the duties that international actors bear independent of the assertability of rights claims (Frederick 1991; O'Neill 2000). This section summarizes two strands of recent deontological international ethical scholarship: a critique of Cold War nuclear war and deterrence policy and an analysis of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century transnational economic relations. These subjects have been selected because of the centrality of nuclearization and globalization to defining the shape of the current international system.

Deontological Nuclear Ethics

From the late 1940s through the 1950s, the superpower nuclear arms race caused many to believe that large-scale nuclear warfare was inevitable (Kahn 1960). Presidents Truman and Eisenhower pledged to use nuclear weapons if the Soviets or their satellites attacked the United States or its allies. These threats involved prospective nuclear strikes against military targets and war-related industrial sites (counterforce) as well as cities (countervalue). Long-range strategic missiles would be used to deliver high-yield devices to counterforce or urban targets, while shorter-range tactical missiles would be used to deliver lower-yield warheads to battlefield and industrial targets. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis tested President Kennedy's commitment to those pledges, ultimately revealing the precariousness of nuclear brinkmanship (Allison and Zelikow 1999). During the Nixon administration, the ratification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the transition to détente reduced fears of nuclear war and increased faith in the effectiveness of strategic nuclear deterrence to prevent nuclear war. In the 1980s, however, these fears returned as the Reagan administration rolled back détente and proposed a new ballistic missile defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Cold War's end assuaged nuclear anxieties once more, but they were reactivated after September 11, 2001 in relation to the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review and a revised National Security Strategy in 2002 that invoked the possibility of preventive nuclear war in response to WMD threats (Smoke 1993; The White House 2002/2006).

The scholarship in deontological nuclear ethics is limited almost entirely to the Cold War period and its main focus was on nuclear warfare and deterrence (Doyle 2010a: ch. 2; 2010b). Liberals uniformly criticized nuclear warfighting doctrines and policies as inconsistent with human rights. Three lines of argument are highlighted here: the use of nuclear weapons disregards the enemy as a moral subject, it egregiously violates the duties to protect innocent life in times of war, and each limited use risks nuclear escalations that threaten the very purposes for which just wars were undertaken.

First of all, liberals argue that the use of nuclear weapons turns warfare into mere slaughter without regard for the enemy as a moral subject to whom duties are owed. This argument presumes that hostility is a personal and moral relation that requires enemies to directly address one another as subjects of hostility. While this view of hostility does not necessitate that all warfare should be conducted “hand-to-hand,” it obliges combatants to not use impersonal or anonymous means of violence, i.e., those that make it impossible to relevantly address the enemy's moral subjectivity and adjust battlefield conduct to changing and morally salient conditions (Nagel 1972). In this regard, the use of strategic nuclear weapons is impersonal and anonymous to the greatest degree possible, as was high-altitude strategic bombing during and after World War II (Palter 1964). In most cases, the military personnel responsible for launching such weapons are located hundreds or thousands of miles from their targets. They have no opportunity to engage their enemies as persons, to witness their suffering, to adjust the level of violence proportionally in response to changing battlefield conditions, to respond to innocent victims in a timely manner, or to do anything to uphold their wartime legal or human rights. Likewise, targeted personnel cannot send effective signals once the operation has ensued, or otherwise make relevant adjustments in ways their enemies recognize. The capacity to communicate, to recognize changing intentions and means of action, is a morally salient feature of the hostility relation. The detonation effects of nuclear weapons obliterate the possibility of sustaining moral relations as violence is used. It makes moral duty absurd, and thereby violates deontological principles by its very commission.

Secondly, the countervalue use of any nuclear weapon violates in the most egregious terms the duties to protect innocent life during war (Bennett 1962b; Walzer [1977] 2000). Nuclear reprisals against cities and even military-industrial sites located inside or close to them cannot avoid the mass killing of innocents. The noncombatant immunity principle is a strong deontological requirement in just war theory and it is consistent with the liberal commitment to human rights. Nonetheless, the just war doctrine of double effect permits the unavoidable and unintentional killing of innocents to achieve just war objectives. However, double effect presupposes that the limit on the numbers of innocents killed is linked to the immediate vicinity of the target and that losses are kept to a fundamentally minimal level. Otherwise the doctrine expresses a moral contradiction, namely, the rule that it is permissible to destroy the city in order to save it. The double effect doctrine thus requires that combatant forces are in principle capable of offering innocent victims a reasonable justification for the violence directed at them: e.g., “I'm sorry, but you were in my way as I tried to kill that genocidal ruler.” This second line of liberal argument is accordingly related to the first: countervalue (and many counterforce) nuclear attacks always improperly disregard persons as subjects since the corresponding justifications can only objectify the innocents that are targeted: “I'm sorry, but I had to incinerate you to get your government to surrender.” In this case, the liberal conception of hostility as a personal relation serves to clarify and strengthen the just war principles of discrimination and double effect applied to nuclear ethics (Nagel 1972).

The first two arguments dealt with in bello issues: the means of nuclear war in relation to the moral aspects of hostility and the duty to protect the human rights of noncombatants in enemy territory. The third argument addresses the ad bellum concern about nuclear war's effects on realizing just war objectives. For instance, supreme emergencies might be thought to provide just cause to engage in nuclear self-defense (Walzer [1977] 2000). If this defense is a first and limited use of nuclear weapons, the relevant question is whether nuclear defense will likely lead to an escalation of nuclear exchanges that could lead to mass destruction (Quester 2006). From the neo-Kantian standpoint, it is not strictly that such a war becomes unwinnable, but rather that the justice of the cause is obliterated in its very pursuit.

Liberal criticism of nuclear deterrence is anchored as well on the premise of individual human rights. The fact that nuclear deterrence does not result in immediate physical harm makes it less clear, however, how it might violate human rights. The main lines of argument therefore invoke what became known as the Wrongful Intentions Principle, the Principle of the Morality of Social Institutions, and the Principle of Democratic Requirements.

The Wrongful Intentions Principle states that it is wrong to intend to do something that it is wrong to do. It frames intentions as constitutive of action, and in some senses, intentions themselves are taken as types of action (Churchill 1983; Donaldson 1985; Tucker 1985). This view is generally accepted in cases of interpersonal relations. Suppose a person enjoys but never acts on his murderous daydreams. Liberal society would take grave offense and press for punishment if those daydreams became public knowledge, because the expression of hostile intentions is a speech act that causes undeserved fear. However, what if the same person never expresses his daydreams? Liberals will grant that the prospective murderer remains morally blameworthy, for it is intrinsically wrong to entertain thoughts of harming others. The obligation to prevent evil requires that we abandon any intention we might have to do evil. Applied to our question, it is therefore never permissible to threaten or intend to engage in nuclear retaliation, except perhaps for strictly counterforce nuclear reprisals that do not involve civilian deaths (Tucker 1985).

A second argument is based on the Principle of the Morality of Social Institutions, which maintains that institutional practices are justified only if they do not violate absolute rules of justice, equity, and the respect for individual rights in the pursuit of particular goods (Lee 1985, 1993). An effective nuclear deterrent requires a systematic arrangement of land, labor, and capital that is capable of resolving participants' conflicts justly. But, to function effectively, the deterrence system must also treat its citizens as mere means of state policy instead of moral ends in themselves while persons in targeted states are made into coercive instruments against their own governments. The latter condition's necessity undermines the capacity to resolve participants' conflicts justly – i.e., according to the Formula of Humanity. Nuclear deterrence thus has deleterious moral effects on two populations: the citizens of targeted rival states become hostage to nuclear deterrent threats, and those within the nuclear-armed state become hostage to the policies over which their uncritical compliance is required. On this analysis, then, there is no moral difference between nuclear deterrence and kidnapping.

Some liberals object that arguments based on these two principles are inconsistent on deontological grounds. The objection contends that the force of the two previous arguments rests on consequentialist and not deontological grounds. To address this perceived theoretic flaw, the Principle of Democratic Requirement is introduced: it is wrong for the citizens of a democracy to support any policy that contains the risk of doing something fundamentally wrong. Assuming that citizens are informed and morally competent, this principle holds that any deterrence policy wrongfully imposes risks that nuclear weapons might be used without the citizens' authorization. Democratic governments cannot legitimately or coherently apply a policy that is not publicly authorized (McMahan 1985). This argument has the advantage of linking the moral identity of democracies to their policies. It has the disadvantage of assuming that democratic polities' orientations are deontological rather than consequentialist.

For some just war theorists, the noncombatant immunity principle is sufficient to condemn nuclear deterrence. Paul Ramsey famously compared nuclear deterrence with policies of (1) preventing traffic accidents by tying babies to the front bumpers of cars or (2) preventing chronic violence between warring clans by each pointing their rifles at the other clan's children (Ramsey 1962). These analogies were provocative and have drawn much attention in the literature (Bennett 1962a; Walzer [1977] 2000). The just war condemnations of nuclear deterrence thus share with neo-Kantians a set of deontological concerns for agent-corruption and hostage-holding, but they differ on the need to recognize a certain special set of rights for noncombatants. For just war theory, it is sufficient that innocents are noncombatants and that they suffer harm by being the targets of nuclear threat.

Deontology and Transnational Economic Relations

After the end of the Cold War, international ethics largely turned to the emerging phenomenon of economic globalization. Liberal economic and political theory had strongly suggested that expanding free trade would bring absolute gains to everyone, especially global South countries. But by the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was not entirely clear that globalization had delivered on its liberal promises: the income and wealth gap between North and South remained, half the world's population remained impoverished, and over one billion people lived on less than $2 per day. The ethical debates over globalization and its effects were often classed under the rubric of “global distributive justice.” Amongst all the issues examined by scholars, one relates to the validity of applications of principles or schemes of distributive justice within states to the community of states at large. Another concerns the matter of economic sanctions. A third relates to the duties of multinational corporations to the governments and citizens of host states. I examine each of these topics in turn.

Global Distributive Justice

John Rawls's social liberalism set the agenda for debates over principles and schemes of distributive justice within states, and his view has been a starting point in debates about transnational economic justice (Rawls 1971, 1996, 1999). Rawls's account conceived of states as schemes of social cooperation whose legitimacy was based on the hypothetical consent of their members. It called for a basic structure of fair, but not necessarily equal, distribution of political liberties and economic opportunities amongst citizens of liberal states. This basic structure was to be anchored on two principles of justice that emphasized the greatest possible liberty for individuals to pursue their life projects and a corresponding tolerance of economic inequality provided that the least advantaged members were better off than under a comparable scheme of equal distribution. This last provision was called the “difference principle.”

For Rawls, the co-participation of fellow citizens in domestic social institutions defined the boundaries of morally legitimate rights-claims seeking to redress the results of unjust inequalities. The gap between the most and least well-off citizens in a Rawlsian scheme is presumed to be much narrower than in a libertarian scheme (Nozick 1974). As a rights-based approach, the deontological element of the Rawlsian account of distributive justice is secondary, entering only when correlative duties are identified and assigned to relevant political institutions. It is important to note that political institutions bear the fundamental duties to preserve citizens' entitlements and to adjudicate conflicting rights claims according to the two principles of justice. Individuals, of course, bear duties insofar as their shared cultural norms prescribe, but as a political morality individuals bear duties to cooperate with their shared political institutions in a fair scheme of distribution.

On the subject of transnational economic justice, Rawls's view is less “liberal” and more “realist.” For Rawls, the anarchy condition, such as it is, sufficiently renders the international system into something other than a scheme of social cooperation. In turn, the right of peoples to self-determination prevents states from pressing economic rights claims against each other to redress inequalities as fellow citizens can. Rawls acknowledges that “well-ordered” and presumably wealthy societies have a duty of assistance to enable “burdened societies” to overcome their deficiencies and develop just domestic institutions. However, he believes that even this duty is limited by the right of national self-determination. Thus, to the extent that economic globalization threatens to replace a unique and valued mode of economic culture in a relatively poor society, Rawls wants to defend the right of that society to preserve its valued practices even at the expense of maintaining greater inequalities in the global distribution of wealth. It follows on his view that a relatively wealthy society is duty-bound to respect national self-determination over the egalitarian imperative to narrow the wealth gap (Rawls 1999:104–20).

Rawls's “thin” or “weak” international deontology might be contrasted with the “thicker” or more “robust” deontological accounts crafted in response. Charles Beitz provides one such account, which retains Rawls's contractarianism but elevates it to the level of cosmopolitanism (Beitz 1999:125–76). To counter the view that state borders set the limits of international obligation, Beitz argues that states in today's world participate in a new and increasingly complex set of economic, political, and cultural relationships which reasonably constitutes a global scheme of social cooperation:

As Kant notes, international economic cooperation creates a new basis for international morality. If social cooperation is the foundation of distributive justice, then one might think that international economic interdependence lends support to a principle of global distributive justice similar to that which applies within domestic society.

(Beitz 1999:144)

Beitz imagines that state participants in a global original position under the veil of ignorance would not know from which countries they came nor the natural resource endowments they possess. In this position, Beitz argues that they would agree to a global principle in which the benefits and burdens of transnational economic inequalities would be distributed so as not to deprive any group of individuals their basic human rights. For Beitz, such commitments are “weak” inasmuch as they are agnostic about the specific character and arrangements of the relevant international institutions. On the other hand, a commitment to apply Rawls's difference principle to international economic relations would constitute a “stronger” view. The Rawlsian principle would obligate the relevant institutions to hit particular targets above and beyond just protecting groups of individuals in the world from basic resource and wealth deprivation.

In contrast to Beitz, Onora O'Neill advances an even more robust international deontology (O'Neill 1992; 2000: ch. 7). O'Neill criticizes the broad rights-based approaches which, in her view, fall short in specifying the corresponding duty assignments necessary to ensure actual transnational economic justice. She concedes that universal liberty rights (e.g., right to freedom from torture) entail determinate obligations on all persons and agencies that cross all borders (e.g., the duty to not torture). However, not all rights listed in the central political manifestos of the international community (e.g., the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) express human needs (as opposed to desires or wants) that can always generate such duties. Thus, the right to food (a need) or companionship (a need?) does not entail any determinate duty borne by anyone else or even resources in the service of their provision. Yet, transnational justice of this kind requires the specification of just duties. On O'Neill's view, then, transnational economic justice requires not the enforcement of rights but the specification and enforcement of obligations fixed to human needs that are borne by particular persons or agencies.

Following Kant, therefore, O'Neill argues for the implementation of transnational economic principles which all possible parties to transactions in this domain would accept. For O'Neill, the Kantian universality requirement makes it impermissible for any powerful party to disguise practices of deception, coercion, or domination in their economic interactions that can perpetuate unjust inequalities. She illustrates with the examples of the daily transactions undertaken by poor women in poor countries who function as caregivers (O'Neill 2000: ch. 8). Such transactions often involve acceptance of offers, signing agreements, or promises to not withdraw from long-standing economic associations – all of which are regarded by many as “voluntary.” Yet, idealized “pictures of justice have tended to overlook the import of economic power: by idealizing the capacities and the mutual independence of those involved in market transactions, they obscure the fact that the weak may be unable to dissent from arrangements proposed by the strong” (O'Neill 2000:164). The impoverished caregiver's need for honest, noncoercive, and nondiscriminatory economic relations thus requires that transnational governing authorities regulate such activity and sanction infractions.

Much more can be said concerning the deontological approach to the general topic of global distributive justice. Space requirements, however, prevent elaborating the point further, and it is now necessary to turn to two other topics: the deontology of economic sanctions and the duties of multinational corporations.

Economic Sanctions

A second transnational economic issue relates to the use of economic sanctions in place of military force. Since Woodrow Wilson and the catastrophe that was World War I, liberal internationalism has regarded the use of economic sanctions against aggressors – or those threatening aggression – as the preferred and peaceful alternative to military force (Gordon 1999). Yet, significant flaws attend this view, some of which are matters of grave deontological concern.

For one, most policy makers' implicit hope in choosing sanctions over military force is that sanctions are a temporary means to achieving a just political end. However, this presumption fails where sanctions acquire an unplanned permanence (or, at least, longevity), as in the five-decade US sanctions regime against Cuba. In this kind of case, the means overtake the ends and cause levels of economic burden on targeted peoples that violate the global difference principles considered above. Even on the Rawlsian account that de-emphasizes global egalitarianism, long-term economic sanctions create conditions that the sanctioning state at some point becomes duty-bound to relieve. In short, the first flaw in the liberal theory of sanctions seems to be that of a contradiction buried in the heart of the view.

Secondly, economic sanctions more often than not end up affecting the wrong people. If the object of economic sanctions is to cause a change in an enemy's political policy, they should directly affect the well-being of the relevant policy makers. The implementation of the sanctions should be done in such a way as to make it practically impossible, or very difficult, for the targeted policy-making elite to displace them onto others. Yet, the liberal strategy of sanctions depends on a tactic not unlike nuclear deterrence – by targeting civilians, it hopes to gain leverage and coerce officials in the illiberal state to change their policies. It is the economic variety of the violation of the discrimination principle. The kind of hostage-holding that sanctions constitutes actually creates concrete conditions of suffering that even nuclear deterrence does not do.

One objection to this analysis is that deontological international ethics must have some decision procedure for assessing the relative weights of competing duties that liberal society owes to those suffering underneath illiberal oppression. In other words, it must not revert to a default position of recommending no action at all if, in a morally dilemmatic situation, an ideal response is not practically possible. If moral consistency has to be preserved at all costs, then deontology would perversely privilege “purity” over the “humanity” that is its proper object. The concern over the perversity of privileging purity over humanity does not constitute a consequentialist turn in our ethical approach, since it concerns the “meta-ethical” duty that officials or analysts have with regard to decision situations that are morally dilemmatic. This discussion raises the question of the role of non-ideal moral theory in deontological ethics, a fairly significant topic which cannot be adequately discussed here (Hurrell 1999; Easley 2004:163–7; Niesen 2007). However, suffice it to say that the Formula of Universality can be understood as providing decision-makers with greater latitude in action than the Formula of Humanity. Accordingly, if it is practically impossible to avoid treating people as a means to a political end given the character of the oppressive circumstances that obtain, it could be universally willed that using people as means that preserves their physical existence is morally preferable over willing other means that practically ensures their death. In short, deontological international ethics must have the theoretical resources to explicate, in non-ideal settings, a duty to do the least-wrong act as opposed to the most-wrong act.

Duties of Multinational Corporations

The final topic relates to the ethical duties of multinational corporations (MNCs) to the host countries in which they operate. The history of economic globalization has been characterized in large part by the expansion of MNCs from the United States and Europe into countries of the global South. Companies that concentrate in resource extraction, manufacturing, assembly, tourism, and more recently customer service own or rent significant tracts of land, employ large segments of their host countries' labor force, and affect their standard of living in many other ways. Since many MNCs have greater capabilities than many of their host states to affect international outcomes, oftentimes negatively, it is reasonable to believe that they carry particular duties toward the countries in which they operate (Kapstein 2001).

In particular, Thomas Donaldson argues that MNCs are obliged to uphold certain “moral minimums” toward host countries (Donaldson 1999; Elfstrom 2000). The term “moral minimums” refers to a set of fundamental entitlements that the governments and citizens of host countries bear which generate corresponding duties on MNCs. For Donaldson, these include duties to avoid depriving people in host countries of entitlements to life and health, freedom of physical movement, ownership of property, and freedom from discriminatory treatment. Moreover, MNCs are obliged to avoid practices that interfere with the pursuit of fundamental life pursuits, such as an education. Beyond these, Donaldson argues that the moral minimums also include duties to protect citizens and officials in host countries from deprivations in these areas. What the moral minimums do not require, on Donaldson's view, is the duty to provide direct aid to those that are deprived. For Donaldson, direct aid of that kind would be classified as a “moral maximum” or a supererogatory deed. When undertaken, supererogatory deeds are morally praiseworthy; however, since they are not requirements but “permissibles,” the failure to perform them does not provide justification for moral condemnation. Thus, while it might be convincingly argued that citizens of global South countries have a right to food beyond mere subsistence, this right does not generate a determinate and binding obligation on MNCs in particular to provide that food.

One criticism of Donaldson's conception is that the vast majority of economic activities undertaken by MNCs and their clients, employees, and host governments are located between the moral minimum and maximum (Elfstrom 2000). If this criticism is right, the scope of MNCs' binding obligations might be broader than Donaldson's account permits. For instance, Donaldson does not obligate MNCs to help protect citizens from the host government's restrictions of citizens' movement, use of torture, or use of show trials to punish political dissidents. A broader deontological account might extend the scope of MNCs' obligations to these kinds of activities, especially if MNCs are situated such that their resources provide the only practical or meaningful check and balance to the authoritarian practices of the host government. Following O'Neill, then, it would not follow that MNCs are obliged to perform any particular protective act on behalf of victimized individuals, but that they are obliged to undertake effective protective action of some kind within the scope of their other moral obligations.


This essay has undertaken a historical survey of the field of deontological international ethics. It has contrasted international deontology with the main alternatives in ethical theory: consequentialism and rights-based approaches. It discussed the etymology of the term “deontology” and then it identified the precursors of Kantian international deontology in the divine command and natural law ethics developed in classical and medieval Judeo-Christian civilization. It sketched the main elements of Kantian international deontology, and then discussed contemporary applications on the subjects of nuclear ethics and transnational economic relations. The main point has been to show that deontological international ethics is distinguished from alternatives by its emphasis on the binding duties that individuals, companies, states, and international institutions bear in relation to the determinate needs and rights of other individuals regardless of national residence. As an ethical approach, international deontology will remain compelling insofar as it provides a means of addressing justice claims that are not, or cannot be, met by consequentialist or rights-based approaches.


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Many thanks to Robert Denemark and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this essay. I take full responsibility for any remaining errors.