In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theories of International Justice

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

International Relations Theories of International Justice
Laura Valentini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0133


International justice is one of the fastest-growing fields in contemporary political theory. Questions of justice, namely, questions about people’s rights and entitlements (specifically to socioeconomic goods) have for a long time been confined to the domestic realm. Things have changed in recent years. The increasing integration characterizing our world—fueled by the process of so-called “globalization”—has prompted scholars to wonder whether the relationships that exist between fellow citizens and make justice relevant domestically now extend to the world at large. Central to theories of international justice are thus the following questions: Do principles of justice apply to the global realm? And if they do, is their content identical to that of principles of domestic justice, or is it different? Most contemporary political theorists, in contrast to realist IR scholars, agree that the first of these questions should be answered in the affirmative: the international arena is not outside the scope of justice. However, there is considerable disagreement concerning the appropriate content of principles of international justice: some—so-called cosmopolitans—suggest that these should broadly replicate principles of domestic justice, and be egalitarian in kind; others—namely, statists, communitarians, and nationalists—argue that the special relationships existing between fellow citizens/nationals warrant the application of much more demanding principles at the domestic level than at the international one. The first part of this article covers the full spectrum of these theoretical positions. The second part moves from the theoretical debate on global justice to the analysis of more immediate moral dilemmas generated by the current features of the international arena. First, there are steep wealth inequalities between the global rich and the global poor, and very little doubt that the former ought to address the plight of the latter, but are the wealthy’s duties to do so a matter of justice or one of beneficence? Second, is the practice of border control, which contributes to perpetuating wealth inequalities across the globe, justified? Third, given the significant pluralism existing at the international level, how far should liberal democracies tolerate diversity? Fourth, and relatedly, should human rights act as constraints on the moral acceptability of political communities, and specifically of states? Fifth, does global environmental change generate concerns of justice at the international level? Sixth, and finally, what feasible reforms of the global arena could be undertaken in order to make the world more just?

General Overviews

Much of the debate on global justice has revolved around Rawls 1999b, the fullest statement of the author’s seminal contributions to social justice, and asked whether egalitarian principles of justice along the lines of those Rawls defended at the domestic level should apply to the world at large. First to answer this question in the affirmative, and to defend a cosmopolitan stance on global justice, was Beitz 1999. Rawls 1999a, by contrast, answered it in the negative. Since the 1980s, a large number of texts have appeared offering critical discussions of the debate on international (or global) justice. Except for Blake 2008, which is a rich encyclopedia entry on international justice, all other items mentioned in this section are primarily research monographs, which also contain comprehensive analyses of the different positions in the literature. Some of them, including Jones 1999 and Caney 2005, offer broad defenses of a cosmopolitan moral outlook. Miller 2007 instead surveys the debate on global justice while defending an overall statist/nationalist approach. Finally, Valentini 2011 and Altman and Wellman 2009 arbitrate the debate between statism and cosmopolitanism, defending views that cannot easily be reduced to either one or the other.

  • Altman, Andrew, and Christopher Heath Wellman. A Liberal Theory of International Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199564415.001.0001

    Accessible and systematic treatment of the main debates in international normative theory (including topics such as immigration, global distributive justice, and international criminal law) from a broadly liberal perspective. Good as an introduction to the field, but also as a research monograph.

  • Beitz, Charles. Political Theory and International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

    First published 1979. Landmark discussion of normative political theory in connection with international relations. It contains subtle and interesting treatments of the morality of state sovereignty and self-determination, as well as a continuing influential proposal for extending Rawls’s principles of justice to the global realm. A must-read for anyone working in the field of international justice.

  • Blake, Michael. “International Justice.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    Accessible overview of the debate on global justice, focusing specifically on nationalism/patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and Rawls’s statist alternative. A good starting point for those who are new to the field.

  • Caney, Simon. Justice beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/019829350X.001.0001

    Admirably comprehensive, systematic, and extremely well-researched monograph on global justice. Ranges from abstract philosophical topics (e.g., universalism versus particularism) to more concrete and applied ones (e.g., global political structures). Dense, but excellent for both undergraduates and more experienced scholars.

  • Jones, Charles. Global Justice: Defending Cosmopolitanism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Comprehensive overview of the main lines of the debate on international justice up to the end of the 20th century. Offers critical discussions of utilitarian and Kantian cosmopolitanism, as well as different versions of communitarianism/nationalism (including Michael Walzer’s and David Miller’s).

  • Miller, David. National Responsibility and Global Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199235056.001.0001

    Engaging research monograph defending an overall liberal nationalist outlook. The book critically reviews and takes a stand on some of the main issues in contemporary global justice theory (including immigration, human rights, and responsibility for world poverty) and contains subtle conceptual contributions to the literature on responsibility. Good for undergraduates, but especially rewarding for more advanced scholars.

  • Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999a.

    Defense of an overall statist account of international justice. The book does not offer a general overview of the debate, but is one of the key contributions to the literature, and therefore another must-read for students and more advanced scholars.

  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999b.

    First published 1971. Arguably the most influential work in political theory/philosophy of the 20th century. Defends a liberal-egalitarian account of domestic social justice according to which citizens should have equal basic civil and political liberties and fair equality of opportunity; economic inequalities are justified only on condition that they benefit the worse-off. Very dense, but a must-read for anyone interested in questions of justice from a broadly liberal point of view.

  • Valentini, Laura. Justice in a Globalized World: A Normative Framework. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199593859.001.0001

    Philosophically oriented discussion of the debate on global distributive justice. Offers a critical overview of cosmopolitanism and statism, and develops a third outlook which steers a middle course between the two. Suitable for undergraduates and advanced scholars.

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