Political Philosophers Discover International Law

Political Philosophers Discover International Law

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.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell
Patrick S. O'Donnell

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… Read more »