Justice, international

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

2. Scepticism about international justice

International justice has in common with some other topics (for example, theology) the peculiarity that there is some controversy about the existence of its object. One reason for scepticism is that international agreements, including those setting up international organizations, are (in Hobbes’ words) ‘covenants without the sword’. However, granting the premise that the international arena is a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ (see Hobbes, T. §6), it still does not follow that considerations of justice are irrelevant to it. We should bear in mind the conclusion that Hobbes himself drew from the insecurity of a ‘state of nature’: that a sovereign was needed to supply the security that would render it safe to keep covenants and thus ensure their validity. This, as Hobbes recognized, leaves the sovereigns in a ‘state of nature’ with one another. But a more thoroughgoing Hobbesian might plausibly derive the conclusion that the lack of an international sovereign threatens precisely the calamities that states were supposed to protect against: violent death in war and lack of the conditions of ‘commodious living’. Even if the threat of war is receding, military expenditure diverts resources away from life-saving alternative uses. Moreover, the faltering international response to such issues as global warming and biodiversity may suggest that only international-level coercion is capable of maintaining the long-term conditions of life on the planet.

It is also worth recalling that, according to Hobbes, there can be obligations of justice even in a ‘state of nature’, since one of the ‘laws of nature’ is ‘that men perform their covenants made’ and justice consists in keeping covenants. Admittedly, the obligation is said to hold only when the other party has performed its part and there is no ‘new cause of fear’ arising subsequent to the making of the covenant. But this is enough to establish that, in general, states behave unjustly in reneging on an international agreement that the other signatories have adhered to.

A second line of argument derives from the romantic nationalist movement of the nineteenth century. This assumes that each state is the home of a community whose members share a certain view of the world which gives meaning to their lives (see Nation and nationalism). In its strongest (and most logically coherent) form, this doctrine concludes that, since there is no moral community beyond the state, there is no basis for saying that anything a state does can be unjust. A weaker version (especially associated with Michael Walzer (1977)) maintains that the notion of distributive justice makes sense only within each community, since this consists in the distribution of each kind of good in accordance with the meaning that the community attributes to that good (see Justice §2). Clearly, there is no global community with shared understandings of the meanings of goods, so it follows that the notion of distributive justice has no application outside a state.

An obvious objection to both versions is that scarcely any states are moral communities of the postulated sort. Moreover, many people do in fact have views (albeit often somewhat inchoate) about what international justice requires. It is not necessary to have very sophisticated ideas about the shared meanings of goods to arrive at the view that there is something fundamentally wrong with a world in which millions of people are starving to death and dying of easily preventable diseases while others are reduced to buying jewelled necklaces for their pets to find a way of disposing of their incomes.

Citing this article:
Barry, Brian and Matt Matravers. Scepticism about international justice. Justice, international, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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