On the Question of Global Justice: from Polis to Cosmo-polis

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Plato, more than 2,000 years ago, opened the most influential work of western philosophy with this question: What is Justice?  He asked it in the context of the Athenian city-state, the polis.  The question still held centre-stage for the twentieth century’s leading western political philosopher, John Rawls, in the context of the modern nation-state. In our own new millennium, a new context opens for political thought. Beyond the ancient city-state; beyond the modern nation-state too: the question we now face is what is justice for the world?

The world can be thought of in various ways.  The great Edinburgh philosopher David Hume was an astute commentator on the world of men: he distilled an underlying sense of how the question of justice has fundamentally to do with how human beings should live together when they are impelled by circumstances to cooperate and by instinct to pursue their separate advantage.  And as this University’s late and much missed professor, Sir Neil MacCormick, reminded us, understanding what justice means more specifically depends on taking account of how those circumstances are changing.

The world in Hume’s day, from the perspective enshrined in the treaty of Westphalia – is depicted as a set of sovereign nation-states that deal with each other as separate autonomous entities.  This is a world of nations, with their sum being equal – morally as well as physically – to the sovereign parts.

But no nation is an island, not even Great Britain – in fact, especially not Great Britain – in a world with ships and other accoutrements of trade and war.  Simple facts of physical geography do not determine the ethical shape of the world, and as wealth and plunder, colonists and slaves, move around the globe, a new political economic map begins to evolve. Increasingly complex international legal frameworks gradually emerge to govern relations between nations.  And because in the development of law, a source of legitimate authority has always to be sought, an increasingly complex set of moral ideas began also to crystallize.  Some of these were to become critical of some of the practices condoned by nations.

The idea that a state could be legitimately sovereign in its internal affairs is supplemented by increasingly explicit ideas about criteria of legitimacy in a state’s inter-national relations.  In the modern period, moral thinking about the world tends to move from a perspective of nationalism to one of internationalism.  This way of thinking reaches a climax with the end of the Second World War and the resolution of nations uniting that we should all recognize human beings as ethically connected to each other in ways that political organisations like the state do not always recognize – and in the worst of cases, atrociously deny.

The connection between global justice and human rights appears in our own era an indissoluble one.  The world that now provides the ethical context for justice is no longer the Athenian polis but the global cosmo-polis.

So much, then, for the development of the context in which Global Justice becomes a question.  What of answers to that question?  One famous philosopher who was sceptical about the value of talking too much about justice pointed out that philosophers merely interpret the world whereas the point is to change it.  But some of those who then acted in Marx’s name have provided ample demonstration that the world can be changed for the worse.  And that cannot be the point.  So this is where we come in – our aim is, by combining careful empirical investigation and ethical reflection, to understand what, today, counts as a change that will make this a more just world.


Tim Hayward

Professor of Environmental Political Theory,

Head of Politics and International Relations,

Director of the Just World Institute,

University of Edinburgh


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