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Ethics and international law: integrating the global justice project(s)

  • Steven Ratner (a1)

Academic discourse on global justice is at an all-time high. Within ethics and international law, scholars are undertaking new inquiries into age-old questions of building a just world order. Ethics – within political and moral philosophy – poses fundamental questions about responsibilities at the global level and produces a tightly reasoned set of frameworks regarding world order. International law, with its focus on legal norms and institutional arrangements, provides a path, as well as illuminates the obstacles, to implementing theories of the right or of the good. Yet despite the complementarity of these two projects, neither is drawing what it should from the other. The result is ethical scholarship that often avoids, or even misinterprets, the law; and law that marginalizes ethics even as it recognizes the importance of justice. The cost of this avoidance is a set of missed opportunities for both fields. This article seeks to help transform the limited dialogue between philosophers and international lawyers into a meaningful collaboration. Through a critical stocktaking of the contributions of the two disciplines, examining where they do and do not engage with the other, it offers an appraisal of the causes and costs of separation and an argument for an interdisciplinary approach.

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1 Ratner & Slaughter, ‘Appraising the Methods of International Law: A Prospectus for Readers’, in S. Ratner and A. Slaughter (eds), The Methods of International Law (2004) 1

2 Cf. Daniel Bodansky, The Art and Craft of International Environmental Law (2010), at 202–203.

3 See Koskenniemi, ‘Methodology of International Law’, in Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law, available at

4 Shapiro, S., ‘The “Hart-Dworkin” Debate: A Short Guide for the Perplexed’, in A. Ripstein (ed), Ronald Dworkin (2007) 22

5 See, e.g., Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ICJ Reports (2007) 43, at paras. 161–62.

6 Cf. H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law (1961), at 199–200

7 Goodin and Ratner, ‘Democratizing International Law’, 2 Global Policy (2011) 241

8 Tams, ‘Individual States as Guardians of Community Interests’, in U. Fasternath et al. (eds), From Bilateralism to Community Interest: Essays in Honor of Judge Bruno Simma (2011) 379

9 Miller, ‘Distributing Responsibilities’, 9 J. Pol. Phil. (2001) 453

10 Simma, ‘From Bilateralism to Community Interest in International Law’, 250 Recueil des Cours de l'Academie de Droit International (1994) 217, at 229

11 MacCormick, ‘Natural Law and the Separation of Law and Morals’, in R.P. George (ed), Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays (1992) 105, at 113

12 Simma, supra note 10, at 233–234

13 Ibid.

14 Peters, ‘Humanity as the A and Ω of Sovereignty’, 20 EJIL (2009) 513

15 McDougal and Reisman, ‘The Prescribing Function in the World Constitutive Process: How International Law is Made’, in M.S. McDougal and W.M. Reisman (eds), International Law Essays (1981) 355, at 368369

16 Wiessner and Willard, ‘Policy-Oriented Jurisprudence and Human Rights Abuses in Internal Conflict: Toward a World Public Order of Human Dignity’, in S. Ratner and A. Slaughter, Methods, supra note 1, at 47, 61.

17 See Arts. 2(4), 42, and 51 of the United Nations Charter.

18 These are respect, power, wealth, skill, enlightenment, rectitude, affection, and well-being.

19 M. McDougal, H. Lasswell and L. Chen, Human Rights and World Public Order (1980) at 454 n.9, 459–460

20 Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, 56 Proc. Aristotelian Soc'y (1955) 167

21 Reisman, Compare, ‘Humanitarian Intervention to Protect the Ibos’, in R.B. Lillich (ed), Humanitarian Intervention and the United Nations (1973) 167

W. Michael Reisman, 87 ASIL Proc. (1993), at 258–259

22 See generally M. Koskenniemi, From Apology to Utopia (1989).

23 Kennedy, ‘When Renewal Repeats: Thinking Against the Box’, 32 N.Y.U. J. Int'l L. & Pol. (2000) 355

24 H. Charlesworth and C. Chinkin, The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis (2000)

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26 Kingsbury, ‘Sovereignty and Inequality’, 9 EJIL (1998) 599

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36 F.R. Tesón, Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality (2005), at 144167

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38 J. Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (2d ed, 2003)

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40 On the latter, see, e.g., the works cited in Anghie and Chimni, ‘Third World Approaches to International Law and Individual Responsibility in Internal Conflict’, in S. Ratner and A. Slaughter, Methods, supra note 1, at 185, 187.

41 Continental Shelf, ICJ Reports (1985) 13, at para. 46.

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J. McMahan, Killing in War (2009)

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47 C. Beitz, Political Theory and International Relations (1979), at 92105

48 M. Frost, Ethics in International Relations: A Constitutive Theory (1996), at chs. 4–5

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50 J. Habermas, The Divided West (2006), at 115193

51 Held, Democracy, supra note 49, at 279; Archibugi, ‘Principles of Cosmopolitan Democracy’, in Re-imagining Political Community, supra note 49, at 198, 221.

52 Ratner, ‘Do International Organizations Play Favorites?: An Impartialist Account’, in L.H. Meyer (ed), Legitimacy, Justice, and Public International Law (2009), at 123

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53 Beetham, ‘Human Rights and Cosmopolitan Democracy’, in Re-imagining Political Community, supra note 49, at 58

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54 A. Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law (2004), at 331400

55 T.W. Pogge, Realizing Rawls (1989)

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56 Nardin, ‘Legal Positivism as a Theory of International Society,’ in D.R. Mapel and T. Nardin (eds), International Society: Diverse Ethical Perspectives (1998), at 17

57 Held, Democracy, supra note 49, at 101–11.

58 D. Miller, National Responsibility and Global Justice (2007), at 224230

59 Mertens, ‘Defending the Rawlsian League of Peoples: A Critical Comment on Tan’, 18 Leiden J. Int'l L. (2005) 711, at 713714

60 P. Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (2002), at 127135

61 Goodin, ‘What is So Special About our Fellow Countrymen?’, 98 Ethics (1988) 663

62 K. Tan, Justice Without Borders: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Patriotism (2004), at 175177

63 Nagel, ‘The Problem of Global Justice’, 33 Phil. & Pub. Aff. (2005) 113

Cohen and Sabel, ‘Extra Rempublicam Nulla Justitia?’, 34 Phil. & Pub. Aff. (2006) 147

64 Cohen, ‘Minimalism About Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For?’, 12 J. Pol. Phil. (2004) 190, at 194–199

C. Beitz, The Idea of Human Rights (2009)

Raz, ‘Human Rights Without Foundations’, in The Philosophy of International Law, supra note 43, at 321

65 J.L. Brierly, The Law of Nations (6th ed, 1963)

66 J. Rawls, The Law of Peoples (1999), at 37

67 Buchanan, ‘Rawls's Law of Peoples: Rules for a Vanished Westphalian World’, 110 Ethics (2000) 697

68 Meckled-Garcia, ‘On the Very Idea of Cosmopolitan Justice: Constructivism and International Agency’, 16 J. Pol. Phil. (2008) 245, at 261

Blake, ‘Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy’, 30 Phil. & Pub. Aff. (2001) 257, at 280

69 Cohen and Sabel, supra note 63

70 S. Caney, Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory (2005), at 162

Copp, ‘International Law and Morality in the Theory of Secession’, 2 J. Ethics (1998) 219, at 238

71 Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, 103 Ethics (1992) 48, at 5052

72 Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, 1 Phil. & Pub. Aff. (1972) 229

R. McKim and J. McMahan (eds), The Morality of Nationalism (1997)

Mason, ‘Special Obligations to Compatriots’, 107 Ethics (1997) 427

S. Scheffler, Boundaries and Allegiances: Problems of Justice and Responsibility in Liberal Thought (2001)

73 G.A. Cohen, Rescuing Justice and Equality (2008), at 229–273

74 Copp, supra note 70, at 222

75 Buchanan, supra note 54, at 22–23

76 Buchanan and Golove, ‘Philosophy of International Law’, in J. Coleman and S. Shapiro (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law (2002), at 868, 870

Hurrell, ‘Norms and Ethics in International Relations’, in W. Carlsnaes, T. Risse and B.A. Simmons (eds), Handbook of International Relations (2002), at 137, 139–141

77 Buchanan and Golove, supra note 76, at 872–881

78 Ratner, ‘Persuading to Comply: On the Deployment and Avoidance of Legal Argumentation’, in J. Dunoff and M. Pollack (eds), Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art (2012)

79 Beitz, ‘Cosmopolitan Ideals and National Sentiment’, 80 J. Phil. (1983) 591

Cohen and Sabel, supra note 63

Sangiovanni, ‘Global Justice, Reciprocity, and the State’, 35 Phil. & Pub. Aff. (2007) 3

80 Barry, ‘Do Countries Have Moral Obligations? The Case of World Poverty’, in 2 The Tanner Lectures on Human Values (1981) 25, at 36

81 G. Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons (1968)

82 Ratner, supra note 52, at 144–149

83 Ratner, ‘Is International Law Impartial?’, 11 Legal Theory (2005) 39

84 Hurrell, ‘International Law and the Making and Unmaking of Boundaries’, in A. Buchanan and M. Moore (eds), States, Nations, and Borders: The Ethics of Making Boundaries (2003), at 275, 277–278

R. Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (2000), at 416417

85 J. Crawford, The Creation of States in International Law (2d ed, 2006) at 417–418

T. Franck, Recourse to Force: State Action Against Threats and Armed Attacks (2002), at 135173

86 Luban, ‘Just War and Human Rights’, 9 Phil. & Pub. Aff. (1980) 161

Beitz, C., ‘The Moral Standing of States Revisited’, 23 Ethics and Int'l Aff. (2010) 325, at 333–345

A. Altman and C.H. Wellman, A Liberal Theory of International Justice (2009), at 96117

T. Nardin and M.S. Williams (eds), Humanitarian Intervention: Nomos XLVII (2006)

Altman and Wellman, supra, at 43–68

Barry, Brian, ‘Statism and Nationalism: A Cosmopolitan Critique’, in I. Shapiro and L. Brilmayer (eds), Nomos XLI: Global Justice (1999) 12

Copp, supra note 70

87 Tan, ‘International Toleration: Rawlsian versus Cosmopolitan’, 18 Leiden J. Int'l L. (2005) 685, at 703–704

88 This seems to be the basis for Beitz's focus on this in Beitz, supra note 86.

89 O. O'Neill, Bounds of Justice (2000), at 186202

90 Ratner, ‘Drawing a Better Line: Uti Possidetis and the Borders of New States’, 90 AJIL (1996) 590

91 Erskine, ‘ “Citizen of nowhere” or “the point where circles intersect”? Impartialist and Embedded Cosmopolitanisms’, 28 Rev. Int'l Stud. (2002) 457

T. Erskine, Embedded Cosmopolitanism: Duties to Strangers and Enemies in a World of ‘Dislocated Communities’ (2008)

92 Spiro, ‘A New International Law of Citizenship’, 105 AJIL (2011) 694

93 See, e.g., Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council, 19 September 1996, available at (participation by indigenous peoples).

94 Wellman, ‘Immigration and Freedom of Association’, 119 Ethics (2008) 109

95 Stilz, ‘Nations, States, and Territory’, 121 Ethics (2011) 572

96 Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res. 2625 (XXV), 25 October 1970; Frontier Dispute, ICJ Reports (1986) 554.

97 Philpott, ‘In Defense of Self-Determination’, 105 Ethics (1995) 352, at 382

Philpott, ‘Should Self-Determination be Legalized?’, 12 Terrorism & Pol. Violence, no. 3–4 (2000), 106, at 118–119

98 See sources, supra note 96.

99 H.J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (K.W. Thompson and W.D. Clinton eds., 7th ed 2006), at 240–269

E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (rev. ed 2001), at 135–155

100 For a fuller account of the ethical approaches within international relations, see The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, supra note 42.

101 For a review of the state of play, see Interdisciplinary Perspectives, supra note 78.

102 Buchanan and Keohane, ‘The Legitimacy of Global Governance Institutions,’ in 10 Ethics & Int'l Aff. no. 4 (2006) 405

Buchanan and Keohane, ‘Precommitment Regimes for Intervention: Supplementing the Security Council’, 25 Ethics and Int'l Aff. no. 1 (2011) 41

103 Lutz and Sikkink, ‘International Human Rights Law in Practice: The Justice Cascade: The Evolution and Impact of Foreign Human Rights Trials in Latin America’, 2 Chicago J. International Law (2001) 1

104 See Price, ‘The Ethics of Constructivism’, in The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, supra note 42, at 317.

105 Bull, ‘The Anarchical Society: The Grotian Conception of International Society’, in K. Alderson and A. Hurrell (eds), Hedley Bull on International Society (2000)

106 Compare R. Jackson, The Global Covenant (2000)

R.J. Vincent, Human Rights and International Relations (1986)

107 From a very different direction, Terry Nardin makes the same contribution. See supra note 56.

108 Hurrell, supra note 84

109 Hurrell, supra note 106, at 84–86

Jackson, supra note 106, at 16–22

110 Cochrane, ‘The Ethics of the English School’, in The Oxford Handbook of International Relations, supra note 42, at 286

111 Reus-Smit, ‘Imagining society: constructivism and the English School’, 4 British J. Pol. & Int'l Rel. (2002) 487

112 H. Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2d ed., 1996), at 52

113 Habermas, supra note 50, at 144

114 Koskenniemi, ‘Legitimacy, Rights, and Ideology: Notes Towards a Critique of the New Moral Internationalism’, 7 Associations: Journal for Legal and Social Theory (2003) 349, at 371

115 Lauterpacht, ‘Professor Carr on International Morality’, in E. Lauterpacht (ed), International Law: Being the Collected Papers of Hersch Lauterpacht, vol. 2, (1975), at 67, 84–92

Brierly, J.L., ‘The Rule of Law in International Society’, in H. Lauterpacht and C.H.M. Waldock (eds), The Basis of Obligation in International Law and Other Papers by the Late James Leslie Brierly (1958), at 250

C. de Visscher, Théories et Réalités en Droit International Public (3d ed., 1960), at 116–130

116 Simma, supra note 10, at 234

117 McDougal, Lasswell and Chen, supra note 19, at 88

118 Franck, supra note 30, at 11

119 Ibid. at 13.

120 Kritsiotis, ‘Imagining the International Community’, 13 EJIL (2002) 961

121 Beitz, supra note 79

Vincent, supra note 106, at 118–119

122 Habermas, supra note 50, at 135

123 Cassese, ‘Soliloquy’, in P. Gaeta and S. Zappalà (eds), The Human Dimension of International Law: Selected Papers (2008)

124 Lachs, ‘Quelques Réflexions sur la Communauté Internationale’, in M. Virally (ed), Le Droit International au Service de la Paix, de la Justice et du Développement (1991), at 349

125 Paulus, ‘The influence of the United States on the concept of the ‘international community’, in United States Hegemony and the Foundations of International Law, supra note 26, at 57

126 J. Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (E. Kelly ed., 2001), at 192–195

127 P. Cane, Responsibility in Law and Morality (2002), at 2943

Miller, supra note 58, at 81–109

R.E. Goodin, Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of our Social Responsibilities (1985), at 113114

128 GA Res. 60/1, 24 October 2005, paras. 138–39.

129 Singer, supra note 72

130 Barry, supra note 80

O'Neill, ‘Who Can Endeavour Peace?’, in D. Copp (ed), Nuclear Weapons, Deterrence, and Disarmament (1986), at 41

Erskine, ‘Assigning Responsibilities to Institutional Moral Agents: The Case of States and Quasi-States’, 15 Ethics & Int'l Aff. (2001) 67

131 Goodin, supra note 127, at 134–167

Shue, ‘Mediating Duties’, 98 Ethics (1998) 687

132 See, e.g., the essays in S.M. Gardiner et al. (eds), Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (2010).

133 Miller, supra note 9

Miller, supra note 58

134 Rawls, supra note 66, at 70

135 Buchanan and Keohane, ‘Legitimacy’, supra note 102

136 See sources, supra note 53.

137 Anderson, ‘What is the Point of Equality?’, 109 Ethics (1999) 287

138 Compare Beitz, ‘International Liberalism and Distributive Justice’, 51 World Politics (1999) 269 (distinguishing between international political justice and distributive justice), and Blake, ‘International Justice’, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, para. 1, (focusing on distributive justice).

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