Many Worlds, Many Theories, Many Rules: Formulating an Ethical System for the World to Come – an interview with Nicholas Onuf


Though it analyzes a multitude of themes under a multidisciplinary approach, International Relations is a field of study whose theoretical frameworks are somehow monotone. This happens due to the prevalence of two main strains of thinking – realism and liberalism –, which pretend to be sufficient tolls to understand international affairs. To counteract these strains, however, some scholars have recently emphasized alternative ways to frame the manner we understand the global realm. These attempts constitute the crux of the so-called cognitive turn in International Relations, which is an umbrella concept that embraces most of the constructivists and post-modern studies developed within International Relations Theory and grounded on multiple epistemologies and ontologies.

Amid the scholars that best exemplify these new attempts is Nicholas Onuf, who is professor emeritus of International Relations at Florida International University. In his article Many Worlds, Many Theories, Many Rules: Formulating an Ethical System for the World to Come, which was recently published by the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional– RBPI, professor Onuf outlines the existence of four worlds of thought within International Relations: our world; the rest of the world; the world as the largest possible whole; and a foreseeable straitened world.

These four worlds constitute a theoretical structure, which was developed after an in-depth philosophical analysis of classical thinkers, such as Aristotle, Saint Thomas, Niccolò Machiavelli, Max Weber, and which question the basic assumptions of the mainstream theories of IR, especially concerning their overwhelming focus on systemic issues, rather than on the values and ideas that have historically shaped human culture and interactions. Moreover, Onuf draws attention to the prospective future of Global affairs and to the imminent collapse of capitalism. About his unique manner of understanding International Relations and about his newly published article professor Onuf has kindly conceded and interview to Leonardo C. Bandarra, who is a member of the editorial board of the RBPI.

In your article, you assume the existence of many worlds, which is a conclusion that your draw from an essentially philosophical standpoint. How would you describe this idea to a non-specialist reader?

Nicholas Onuf:  If we think of the term world as a metaphor (as I do), then there is a wide range of worlds populating our collective imagination.  I identify just four metaphorical worlds in developing a framework within which to situate the large themes of the article. The first of these worlds serves to give the reader some sense of my philosophical concerns because those concerns are rather at odd with the philosophical ‘realism’ that most people take for granted.  The second and third worlds introduce something of a paradox:  we who think of ourselves as modern take there to be a world consisting of humanity as a whole and a so-called modern world set part from the rest of the world.  We moderns may not have been the only people to think this way—it might be a distinctive feature of any ‘civilization’ (itself a metaphor introduced by us moderns).

Finally, I stipulate a fourth world that we would all agree is an imaginative construction—a world to come.  I suggest it will be a straitened world because global capitalism has run its several-centuries course.  In the article, I call it a slow-motion crisis.  I do not define this claim at any length—it would take another article even to begin to do so.  I am by no means convinced that things will get worse gradually enough for us to respond in a way that makes any discussion of ethics plausible.  After modernity, in the best of possible future worlds (as I see it), virtue ethics may do for that world what modern ethical systems cannot.

Another concept that pervade your study, and which I particularly found very interesting, is the resurgence of status in modern societies. What exactly is this concept and why is it relevant to understand the current state of International Relations?

Nicholas Onuf: We who are modern like to believe that our world differs from other ‘traditional’ worlds because we no longer let status define our social relations.  By status, I mean the various standards of worth that a society has adopted to assign everyone a relatively stable position in that society (another metaphor as wide-ranging as world).  The key here is the relational character of worth—if I am worth more, you are worth less in relation to me, and our relative social positions are (metaphorically) higher and lower.  The powerful modern idea that people are naturally equal disallows status as a regulative ideal, underwrites liberalism and fosters rationalist administration.

Whether that idea resulted in an actual decline in status in regulating in modern social relations is an open question.  As a beneficiary of many important status measures myself (white, English-speaking, highly educated male), I am skeptical.  The academic ‘world,’ of which I have a part for more than fifty years, is brimming with status concerns.  I think they have increased over the years, but this may simply be a commentary on my own status-awareness.  I see the same trend in all of the professions.  So yes:  resurgence.

Also concerning the current state of International Relations, you developed in your text a categorization of four pathologies that we are nowadays facing in the global realm: stasis, machismo, paternalism, and infantilization. These pathologies are closely related to the values and ideas that shape our understanding of reality. In a nutshell, how would you explain these pathologies?

Nicholas Onuf: I am not a sociologist, so I am hardly qualified to ‘explain’ these pathologies—again a term that I use in a metaphorically elastic way.  It suggests very broadly that societies, like people, get sick in characteristic ways, and that they exhibit familiar symptoms of their condition.  In the ‘case’ at hand, modern society is suffering from what was until recently an overly rich diet and has now become a diet increasingly lacking in nutritious content.  People are becoming afraid of change, quarrelsome, unpredictably aggressive or combative, anxious and controlling in their intimate relations.  These symptoms mark modern world as a whole.

Any observer will see pretty much the same trends but may well adopt a different constellation of metaphors to describe them.  What I did try to do in my assessment is relate the four pathologies to the historical experience of republican institutions and practices.  In my view, republican political theory and virtue ethics construed as an ethical system go hand-in-hand as a plausible response to ‘the slow-motion crisis.’

You also highlight in your article the imminent collapse of the capitalist society, due to changes in values and ideas within modern societies. What constitutes this process? Is it unstoppable?

Nicholas Onuf: Actually, I do believe that capitalist modernity has peaked and is on the way down, but not because of any recent changes in values and ideas.  The whole package we call the modern world has been subject to a long-term trajectory of exponential growth in material terms, with consequences that we are now, belatedly beginning to appreciate.  Indeed, beginning to appreciate now that it may indeed be too late.  Whether it is too late to avoid outright collapse and chaos, or there is still time to manage down-growth tolerably well, remains to do seen.  While I am deeply pessimistic about our prospects, I wrote this article in the vague hope that what I called the best of possible future worlds might just be possible.       

Read the article:

Onuf, Nicholas. (2016). Many Worlds, Many Theories, Many Rules: Formulating an Ethical System for the World to Come.Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 59(2), e002. Epub September 05, 2016.


Leonardo Carvalho L. A. Bandarra, member of the editorial team of the Brazilian Journal of International Politics – RBPI. He holds a Master degree in International Relations from the University of Brasília, Brasília, DF, Brazil.

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