Definition & Introduction

Ethics constitutes a reflection on morality that seeks to analyze, criticize, and interpret rules, roles, and relations within society.

In the lead up to Global Ethics Day 2022, Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal called for the use of ethics as a force for good writing: "Ethics is about making the effort to evaluate competing points of view and then truly caring about the impact of the choices you have made. Ethics is not some cure-all for the world's problems, but it is an actual process for finding solutions."

Traditionally, ethics is concerned with the meaning of moral terms, the conditions in which decision-making takes place, and the justification of the principles brought to bear in resolving conflicts. Ethics is integral to the discipline of international relations insofar as behaviors and actions in the international sphere have ethical motivations and consequences.

The morality of an action can be judged based on its consequences (teleological ethics) or according to its inherent/intended value (deontological ethics). The two principal ethical theories are moral absolutism, which upholds the existence of a definite standard of ethical behavior, and relativism, which argues that multiple standards of ethical behavior exist (see Cultural Relativism).

Explore the collection below ranging from articles and podcasts to newsletters and Carnegie Council's Ethics & International Affairs journal. These resources investigate the meaning of ethics and its shifting role in foreign policy, emerging technology, and more.

Globe and money

Five Moments That Will Shape Ethics in International Affairs for 2023

How can ethics help us better understand the world in 2023 and the choices we face within it?

Acknowledging that ethics washing and corruption "are real and persistent forces in public life," President Joel Rosenthal highlights the importance of a real commitment to ethical decision-making and the virtues currently being put to the test in international affairs.

Read the article

Resources on Ethics & Decision-Making

MAY 13, 2022 Article

Ethics As We Know it is Gone. It's Time for Ethics Re-envisioned.

MAY 10, 2022 Podcast

Making Decisions When Values Conflict or Are Prioritized Differently, with Paul Root Wolpe

In this Artificial Intelligence & Equality podcast, Carnegie-Uehiro Fellow Wendell Wallach sits down with Emory University's Professor Paul Root Wolpe for a thought-provoking conversation about the ...

OCT 4, 2022 Podcast

Ethics in the Classroom: Empowering the Next Generation

This panel brings together contributors from the Carnegie Council’s journal "Ethics & International Affairs" to explore how ethics can be used in the classroom to ...

Michael Schur: Is There a Universal Ethic?

In response to an audience member question, Michael Schur, creator of "The Good Place," discusses whether there is a universal set of rules we can all follow and highlights the ideas of philosopher Derek Parfit.

"What matters is that if the people you are talking to and you all have a basic understanding of the concept of ethics, you are going to be okay," says Schur.

Watch the full event

Featured Reading

Ethics & International Affairs Journal

This is the quarterly journal of the Carnegie Council which seeks to close the gap between theory and practice of ethics in international affairs.

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What Constitutes an Ethical Approach to International Affairs?

This is the first of six lectures by Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Tufts University, over the 2000–2001 academic year.

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Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior."

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What is Ethics?

Read the short article, originally published in 1987 but revised in 2010, by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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Discussion Questions

The study of ethics is often divided into four categories, each of which addresses particular ethical issues within international relations:

Metaethics pertains to the study of concepts in ethics and the philosophy behind our ethical values and judgments.

Metaethics Questions:

  • Are there universal values that supersede the particularities of cultures?
  • What are the challenges associated with determining international standards for morality
Descriptive ethics describes the particular rules of behavior of a group but does not require that the ethical justifications of these rules be judged.

Descriptive Ethics Questions:
Read Robert Kagan's discussion of the ideological drift between Europe and the United States in recent years.
  • What explains this rift?
  • What values and norms separate Europeans and Americans according to Kagan?
  • Which ones unite them?

Normative ethics involves judging the ethical justifications of certain behaviors or actions and determining the moral standards for social behavior.

Normative Ethics Questions:
Military operations in Kosovo raised a key question regarding the role of the international community to defend against human rights abuses occurring within sovereign countries. Humanitarian concerns were also evoked in justifying the war in Iraq.

  • Is it time, to rethink, in a systematic way, the notion that sovereignty is sacrosanct?
  • Are the invasions of Kosovo and Iraq morally defensible?
  • Have Iraq and Kosovo weakened or strengthened the international norm of sovereignty?

Applied ethics pertains to the practical aspect of a certain ethical choice or problem.

Applied Ethics Questions:

  • Should there be international standards of justice for war criminals, or are these issues better handled on the national level?
  • Who should make decisions on justice (punishment) versus amnesty (reconciliation), and on what basis should those judgments be made?