Rational Choice and International Law

13 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2003

See all articles by Robert Keohane

Robert Keohane

Duke University - Department of Political Science


Rational choice theory provides important insights for the study of international law and institutions, but it also encounters significant limitations. Rationality is an ideal type and strategic action is a matter of degree. Neither should be regarded as limited to activities involving the pursuit of material self-interest. Rational choice theory is valuable, for the analysis of international law and institutions, in five ways: 1) as a basis for skeptical interpretations of talk and action; 2) as a menu of causal mechanisms; 3) as an explanatory device for helping to resolve specific puzzles; 4) as part - but only part - of an explanation of legal and political phenomena; and 5) as the basis for generating further puzzles for research. Different methods are associated with these different tasks. Rational choice theory seeks to encompass an extraordinary range of human behavior within a single encompassing framework. This ambition drives an important intellectual agenda; but the practitioners of rational choice theory should beware of the sin of hubris, or pride.

Keywords: rational choice theory, international law, international institutions

JEL Classification: K33, K0

Suggested Citation

Keohane, Robert, Rational Choice and International Law. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=355020 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.355020

Robert Keohane (Contact Author)

Duke University - Department of Political Science ( email )

326 Perkins Library
Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States
919-660-4322 (Phone)

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