Political Philosophers Discover International Law

by Adil Haque

This year’s launch of the Journal of Philosophy of International Law and the International Political Theory Beacon reflects and will no doubt serve to prolong a rapid expansion of philosophical interest in international law during the last few years. Philosophy & Public Affairs, the leading English-language journal of moral and political philosophy has featured at least one article on international law and policy in each of its last eight consecutive issues, stretching back into 2004. The proliferation of articles discussing the regulation of armed conflict has a relatively clear source: Christopher Kutz’s article on irregular combatants, David Sussman’s essay on torture, and Gary Bass’s piece on post-war occupation all take their topics from U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The explosion of articles on international distributive justice (for compilations from the last year alone see here, here, here, here and here) seems to me to have a more complicated origin. Rising awareness of global poverty and economic inequality and of the increasing impact of global financial institutions on third world development certainly play important background roles. But more mundane factors, stemming from within the academy itself, may very well predominate. A generation of graduate students who cut their teeth on Sen and Nussbaum, Singer and Unger, Shue and Pogge, have come into their own as scholars. Of equal importance, the field has its first true foundational text: much as A Theory of Justice continues to provide a point of reference for work on domestic justice, John Rawls’ The Law of Peoples serves as a point of departure for a startling number of articles in the emerging field. At any rate, research programs are rightly judged by their results, and I for one am impressed with what I have seen and optimistic about the future. I’ll note in closing that this recent trend creates new opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration between international law scholars and political philosophers, to the great benefit of both groups and their respective fields.


One Response

  1. Well, I was an undergraduate (older than most, to be sure) when I started reading Rawls, Sen, Singer, et al. (outside my major), but I sought them out because I was concerned about global poverty, economic inequality, distributive justice and so forth, disappointed at the (apparent) comparative lack of academic work on topics dear to my heart. It was only within the Marxist tradition (and among a smattering of old-fashioned Keynesian Social Democrats, philosophical anarchists and social ecologists) that I saw a sustained interest in such matters until the likes of Unger, Goodin, Sen and Pogge began to garner interest in wider circles. I recall looking for someone at the university to talk about Sen’s remarkable book, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), and could not find a soul outside one economist (and he was a lone wolf in the dept….the only one, for example, conversant in that arcane subject, ‘market socialism’) who had even heard of Sen. And I think it was the work of the so-called ‘analytical Marxists’ (G.A. Cohen, Jon Elster, John Roemer, E.O. Wright, Michael Luntley, David Miller…), after Rawls, that helped bring philosophical respectability to these topics.

    As Jean-Paul Sartre memorably explained in ‘A Plea for Intellectuals’ [three essays delivered by Sartre in Kyoto, September-October 1965], the intellectual is ever at risk of having his ‘class particularity’ vitiating ‘over and over again his efforts as a theoretician,’ in other words, of being stucturally liable to debilitating ideological interference with his proper ethico-political obligations and tasks, he must, therefore, engage in ‘perpetual self-criticism’ and a ‘concrete and unconditioned alignment with the actions of the underprivileged classes.’ The former entails striving ‘to remain aware of the fact that he is a petty-bourgeois breaking out of his mould, constantly tempted to renourish the thoughts of his class,’ while the latter involves, among other things:

    1. the ‘struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes;’ [on this, Erich Fromm is worth consulting, as well as Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s essay, ‘Imagination and Power, Social Sciences Information 22 (1983), pp. 801-816]

    2. the use of ‘the capital knowledge acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture–that is to say, to lay the foundations of a universal culture;’

    3. the need to ‘form technicians of practical knowledge within the under-privileged classes…in the hope that they will become organic intellectuals of the working class…;’

    4. recovering the intellectual’s ‘own ends (universality of knowledge, freedom of thought, truth) by recovering them as the real ends sought by all those in struggle–that is, as the future of man;’

    5. endeavoring to ‘radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims–in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class;’ and

    6. serving as a ‘guardian for the historical ends pursued by the masses, against all political power [Sartre here relies on a rather untenable notion of ‘political power,’ although he rightly assumes a wider, different conception of power that to some degree has been elaborated upon in the Gandhian theory of nonviolence and in post-structuralist anarchist thought: see, for instance, Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1983 ed.) and Todd May’s The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994)]–including the power of mass parties and apparatuses of the working class itself.’

    Although I’m now on the periphery of the academic world, I’m no less delighted to learn of these developments, as they possess potential to assist us in more intelligently fulfilling the imperatives enshrined in Sartre’s ‘Plea’–better late than never!

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