Can Might Make Right? Grotian Rules of Regulation in International Relations

Image courtesy Flickr, Hugo Grotius/Babak Fakhamzadeh

Event details

IR Seminar Series

Date & time

Tuesday 09 May 2017


SDSC Reading Room, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU
ANU Canberra


Simon Cotton, Princeton University


Bell School

In this seminar, I investigate one of the most puzzling claims of international-relations realism: namely that, given anarchy, ‘might makes right’. I first distinguish it from descriptive and meta-normative propositions with which it is commonly conflated, before explaining why it is worth probing. Most significantly, ‘might makes right’ promises to help elucidate criticism of fact-independent ‘ideal theory’ in the tradition of Rawls. I then explore two arguments in its favour through a stylised reading of Grotius. Under anarchy, agents can often reduce their vulnerability to justified retribution by redoubling their aggression. On the first argument, then, a state ought to be considered as permitted to harm an adversary when it cannot be dissuaded from doing so in order not to incentivise it to behave worse still in seeking to secure itself from punishment. Another feature of anarchy is lesser assurance that promises will be kept. On the second argument, then, a state ought to be considered as having a claim to anything that, under threat of harm, its adversary promises it so as to increase its confidence that executing that threat, which would be worse for its adversary still, is unnecessary.

Simon Cotton is a Visitor in the School of Philosophy. He was previously a Postdoctoral Research Associate and Lecturer in Values and Public Policy at Princeton, and holds both a PhD in Government from Cornell and an MA (Hons) in International Relations from the ANU. His research lies at the intersection of ethics, political economy, and international relations. An article he authored on the moral boundary of the market sphere is forthcoming in the July edition of Polity, and he has also contributed towards Ethics & International Affairs, Contemporary Political Theory and Australian Journal of Political Science.

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