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In the literature on international ethics, there are several situations often presented as “forced choices,” that is, situations in which one cannot comply with one moral rule without violating another one. “Moral reasoning” is the process of deciding with which rule to comply, and which rule to violate. This article analyzes six such frequently posited forced choices.
Realism vs. Idealism: must a state choose either to protect its security or comply with moral rules of international relations?
Humanitarian Intervention: in cases of massive atrocities occurring within a state, must outside countries either violate the rule against interference in a state’s internal affairs, or refrain from saving the lives of innocent victims?
“Right Intention” in Just-War Theory: if a just cause for going to war is not the real reason for doing so, must the state either violate the “right intention” moral requirement or refrain from going to war?
Transitional Justice: to achieve a “pacted transition” from war to peace, or from repressive dictatorship to democracy, must the demands for immunity from prosecution of those guilty of atrocities be granted?
Terrorist Tactics: if people suffering under severe oppression have no means other than terrorist tactics to oppose the oppression, must they either break the moral rule against using terrorism or submit to continued oppression?
Order “versus” Justice: must a society sometimes choose between them?
The article concludes that it is not possible to construct a framework to determine which conflicting rules should always be given priority. Decision-makers must fall back on their own judgement, case by case.