Ethics in Foreign Policy Essay


Ethics in Foreign Policy Essay

What is the best method for creating an ethical foreign policy: a deontological or a consequentialist approach? There exists a palpable tension between the two: generally philosophers rely on more of a deontological or rule-based approach whereas decision-makers use more of a consequentialist or ends-based approach. Forming a foreign policy based on a deontological approach might be theoretically preferable for a variety of reasons of which the most critical is that adhering to procedural rules will ensure greater moral accountability. With a deontological approach, there is more of an emphasis on duty, good intentions and moral behaviour. Yet, in political practice, an ends-based foreign policy seems more realistic because most decision-makers should seek to evaluate the consequences of their decisions in relation to context and relevant circumstances. Deontological approaches highlight the motives behind decision-making and teleological approaches deal with the results but there is still a vital third aspect of assessing decisions that is left out: the means by which a decision is made. For an ethical assessment of any foreign policy decision, the means are an important part in determining whether the decision is moral. Thus, I follow Mark Amstutz's line of reasoning and advocate a `tridimensional' approach to foreign policy. His tridimesional approach argues that: “a sound ethical strategy must assess action in terms of each of these dimensions” - motives, means and results. As such, balancing the trade-offs between means and results, while relying on some basic moral principles, will hopefully maximize morally desirable outcomes. Because both a consequentialist view and a deontological view include positive and negative aspects, neither is sufficient on its own in determining foreign policy. Thus, I argue in favour of the tridimensional approach to foreign policy decisions in which perhaps the divide between the two theories can be bridged by emphasizing political prudence.


Consequentialism is a teleological view in which an act is judged solely on its consequences. In other words, good consequences make the act morally right. For consequentialist accounts of ethics, the ends always justify the means - something that can be interpreted as morally ambiguous, in particular when applied to the political realm. While there are several consequentialist approaches, utilitarianism is perhaps the most common form. Utilitarianism combines the teleological principle of consequentialism with the utility principle of maximizing wellbeing - for instance happiness or pleasure.

There are several reasons why a consequentialist approach would be beneficial to foreign policy decision-making. To begin with, a consequentialist approach may have a better chance at maximizing positive results. Since the focus is on achieving good results, this approach allows greater flexibility when drafting policies. The more specific form of rule utilitarianism, which “holds that the utilitarian criterion is to be applied not to particular acts but to general rules or principles”, is a positive form of consequentialism because it accounts for the duties or principles that people have. Rule-utilitarianism is useful since it contains “conventional moral rules…to maximize utility”.

Nonetheless, consequentialism suffers from many criticisms. Since it is impossible to predict the results of every outcome, there is no certainty that good results will necessarily be achieved or that utility will indeed be maximized for the greatest number of people. However, utilitarian theory provides one possible answer to this criticism: it does not require knowing the total consequences of any situation before making a decision, but instead focuses on the probable consequences. Still a further criticism is that consequentialist theories like utilitarianism overlook issues of justice and individual rights - these are instead subjugated to the greater good in ways that some might consider immoral or unjust. Another critique of consequentialist ethics is that is necessarily leads to moral relativism. Moral relativists argue that different societies produce different systems of moral beliefs and as such we have no means of judging others' moral beliefs - there is no universal criteria for assessing moral beliefs. Relativist arguments are dangerous because they do not allow any basis on which a comprehensive theory of moral beliefs can be built. Thus, a deontological approach guards against the ethics of relativism because it allows for some ethical principles to be universalized.


As opposed to a consequentialist perspective, the deontology posits that the ends never justify the means. As such a foreign policy based on a deontological approach would take into account that “certain features in the act itself or in the rule of which the act is taken should be followed”. Deontological ethics is not just simply a theory of our duties; as for Kant deontology rationally uses principles of practical reason to arrive at moral judgments. There are two main types of deontological theories: act-deontology and rule-deontology. Act-deontology views each act as a unique ethical occasion and that people decide what is moral through consulting their conscience or by making a choice apart from any rules. However, act-deontology is criticized because it is difficult to argue over someone's intuition and, it would be inconsistent for people to prescribe different moral actions for similar situations. Due to these disadvantages of act-deontology, from here on, I will refer to the rule-based deontological theories instead.

Kant provides one of the key rule-based deontological theories. He accepts the notion that in devising moral judgments we use a set of principles or rules to determine what is right and wrong. Rule-deontology accepts the principle of universalizability, which Kant acknowledges in his search for absolute moral truth. Kant introduces the categorical imperative as the way to justify universality and to determine what becomes morally right. The categorical imperative is contained within the phrase: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it would become a universal law”. Kant argues here that individuals should act in accordance with principles or maxims that can be universalized. Pojman interprets the categorical imperative as a way to enable us to stand outside our personal values and determine impartially which maxims are good principles for everyone. Kant's version of deontology therefore rejects utilitarianism because he believes that “happiness should be distributed in proportion to people's moral worth”.

Despite the importance of Kant's deontological theory on morality, Pojman contends that the categorical imperative needs further supplementation as “it leaves out any understanding about the content or material aspect of morality”. So while Pojman sees Kant's categorical imperative as a necessary condition for being a valid moral principle, it is not a sufficient one. In addition, many people regard Kantian ethics as too optimistic in that Kant assumes humans have the ability to identify universal moral rules and that they will necessary follow those rules in all circumstances. Thus, while Pojman provides a viable critique of deontology on a theoretical level, there are further criticisms that exist on a more practical level of analysis. For example, how can a decision-maker or statesman know what his ethical duties are? Moreover, how can we be sure the decision-maker will follow his ethical duties regardless of the circumstances? In both questions, there is no certain answer. Furthermore, in practice deontology can be seen as denying that in some way the good should always take priority over the right; rather, deontologists see that what is good is dependent on what is right. Amstutz argues that in the realm of politics, deontological ethics are seen as “overly rigid in requiring universal or absolutist morality”. Deontology does not allow for principles to be adapted to specific circumstances or cultural needs and therefore it is not a viable theory on which to solely base foreign policy.


Both deontological and teleological approaches to ethics involve some advantages as well as some pertinent weaknesses when they are applied to foreign policy decisions. By analyzing each approach in relation to real examples, I want to demonstrate how each theory can be applied to foreign policy decisions.

The first example is the ethical issue of nuclear deterrence. Amstutz uses this example to show how an ends-based approach can act as an adequate moral foreign policy. The two major moral problems of using nuclear weapons are the high level of destructive power they inflict and the fact that because of this power of mass destruction, they cannot be regarded as war-fighting instruments. From a rule-based or deontological perspective, a foreign policy that allows nuclear deterrence is considered evil or morally wrong because it carries with it the threat of nuclear war - which if carried out, would ensure mutual destruction. From an ends-based or consequentialist perspective, the good that is achieved through nuclear deterrence outweighs the bad in the threat of nuclear war. Amstutz points out that because the aim of deterrence is not to inflict destruction but rather to prevent the harm of nuclear war the intention behind the policy really seeks to do something good. As the other beneficial qualities of deterrence - inhibiting aggression, promoting international stability and maintaining the status quo in international politics - outweigh the negatives (the threat to carry out nuclear retaliation), an ends-based foreign policy can be seen as advantageous in this example.

Yet, there are other examples in which the sinister side of an ends-based foreign policy is exposed. When the U.S. invaded or liberated Iraq in 2003, it could be argued that their foreign policy was ends-based in that they were more focussed on the end goal of exporting democracy to Iraq, than on any rule-based foreign policy. Here it can be seen as morally objectionable from a rule-based point of view for the U.S. to assume that the means they used to get rid of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, for example through waging an aggressive war on the country, justified the ends. Another case, where a consequentialist approach seems to fall ethically short is when the U.S. dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War Two. The sheer damage and number of lives lost as a result of the bomb could not be seen as the morally right response from a deontological point of view.


The realist perspective presents a challenge to both deontological and consequentialist theories, in that realists claim foreign policy is essentially an amoral activity. Realists assert that international society is fostered by power and self-interest not by morality and choice. However, Harries counters that realists often make two false assumptions in their views. Firstly, Harries argues though states may be pursuing self-interest in their foreign policies, “those interests often differ in morally relevant (and crucial) ways”. Secondly, he says that it is the leaders' moral views and not always the state of anarchy that affect their foreign policies. In essence, the realist challenge does not adequately show why vital interests are necessarily amoral and why foreign policy goals do not involve some type of moral judgment.


Amstutz advocates for a theory of tridimensional ethics when developing a foreign policy because it allows for analysis of policies on three separate but important levels: motives, means and results. For Amstutz, a foreign policy can achieve the goals of being simultaneously ethical responsible and practical if decision-makers critically analyze all three dimensions.

Yet, Amstutz warns that prudential decision-making can succumb to a form of consequentialism if it does not follow any set of norms. In order to increase moral accountability, he suggests five norms or rules that should be used in the case of prudential decision-making or in tridimensional ethics. These norms include having logical and consistent standards on which to judge decisions, impartiality, a presumption to favour rules over results, procedures to protect impartiality and the use of prudence in calculating the results. Norms such as these will help ensure that both the deontological and consequentialist accounts will be used in decision-making and that one will not necessarily take precedence over the other before the three dimensions - motives, means and results - are neutrally compared against one another. Undoubtedly, it will be hard to maintain impartiality at all times but these five guidelines when coupled with a theory of prudence provide a strong foundation for achieving an ethical foreign policy.

Hoffman argues for a similar approach to Amstutz's idea of a tridimensional approach to foreign policy in that he believes that there is a danger of losing all sense of moral principles if consequences become the only dominant concern of foreign policies. Because foreign-policy makers still need to take the consequences of their decisions into consideration, Hoffman also tries to reconcile the use of pure consequentialism in decision-making with part of a principle-based or deontological approach. He argues that foreign policy-makers “need to begin with a moral conception, that is, with certain principles to be applied while taking into account their consequences”.

POLITICAL PRUDENCE: how to bridge the worlds of ethics and politics

The political theory of prudence can be used to support such a tridimensional approach on ethics. The theory of political prudence has two distinct characteristics. Firstly, while acknowledging that humans possess the ability towards evil, prudence supporters maintain that ultimately morality should take precedence over circumstances. Secondly, they see human virtue as the major determinant of statecraft. As such, it is the leadership of a state that is vital in politics; moral leadership relies on personal virtue and integrity. Theorists of normative prudence argue that good outcomes will result if moral goals are pursued through morally legitimate means. Therefore, when decision-makers attempt to use the aforementioned tridimensional approach, by weighing different alternatives and then selecting the best one in light of morally relevant criteria, they are doing so with prudence.

Owen Harries also advocates prudence in his essay, “Morality and Foreign Policy”. Harries claims that prudence can be seen as a rational middle-ground approach for foreign policy that actively includes morality within the decision-making process. He outlines the importance of the prudential process: “the prudential ethic…[is about] making important distinctions and qualifications, taking careful account of circumstances, weighting costs and benefits, principles and interests”.

Despite the advantages of prudence, there are a few weaknesses in the theory that also need to be addressed. One major criticism disagrees that the notion that prudence itself is adequate as a guide to ethical decision-making because decision-makers could resort to prudence “as an imprecise, dangerously broad rationalization for selfish pragmatism”. Here critics, hold that at best prudence provides decision-makers merely a rational guide for choosing among moral principles but does not hold them to it. At worst, critics argue that prudence can quickly lapse into intuitionism, which allows immoral acts to be allowed. Likewise, there are fears that the so-called “lower” or Machiavellian form of prudence will most likely take precedence in foreign policy decisions. Instead of using prudence for good, it will more likely be used for the sake of power and self-interest.

Although Coll acknowledges these weaknesses, he also provides some optimistic advice on how to foster a more viable tradition of ethical prudence in politics. He reminds us that moral principles are translated into actual policies through “mediation of a complex process in which human decision-makers play a critical role”. This is why the focus on character in the theory of prudence is so vital, because without a strong moral character of decision-makers, we cannot ensure that policies founded on moral principles will necessarily be morally sound.


The relationship between moral justification and action is one that is critical in constructing a foreign policy. I have attempted to show that deontological and consequentialist approaches can be necessary theories for creating ethical foreign policies but are not sufficient ones, unless the means by which an ethical decision is made are addressed. Moreover, I argue that prudence can help foster more ethical decision-making, optimistically through the use of a tridimensional approach in foreign policy. Adopting somewhat of a cosmopolitan stance, encouraging a global dialogue around the idea of a universal morality would be beneficial to achieving this goal. If we can demonstrate the validity of ethical imperative in foreign policy, perhaps we can move towards more ethical foreign policies throughout the world.