Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

6 - The ethics of special responsibilities


The previous chapters have worked through the history and theory of special responsibilities and provided an empirical analysis in three different domains of global governance. It now remains to explore the ethics of special responsibilities. We offer an initial, and tentative, account that we consider both ethically compelling, and also largely consistent with the preceding sociological history. Here our primary task is to elucidate and defend the ethical basis for the assignment of special responsibilities to particular states or other actors. What claims to special responsibilities are justified? Given that one of our core sociological arguments has been that special responsibilities are domain specific, then we might expect that the ethical justification for the allocation of special responsibilities would be similarly so. We certainly show this to be the case when we explore the specific content and application of ethical principles in the domains of nuclear weapons, climate change and global finance. It nonetheless remains an open, and interesting, question whether there are some core or common principles, a recognisable family of arguments, or at least a common moral grammar that would apply to all the cases.

There are two possible methodological routes to exploring this possibility. The first is to develop specific ethical arguments for each of our three case studies, and then see if there are sufficient commonalities to allow development of universal ethical claims. The second is to begin by developing general ethical arguments for the allocation of special responsibilities in world politics, and then applying them to each of the case studies. Both routes would enable an exploration of the extent to which our ethical arguments formed part of the actual allocation, or subsequent contestation, of special responsibilities in the three cases. We opt for the second route because it is more interesting and challenging, and likely to be of broader interest to normative International Relations (IR) theorists.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO