In a world suffused with conflict and human misery, global justice remains one of the most compelling missions of our time. Philosophers, political scientists, anthropologists, historians, international legal scholars, and others have all sought to make their mark on global justice debates, whether through abstract theorizing, qualitative and quantitative empirical examination, and the development of norms and institutions for effecting justice. Each discipline must eventually put its faith in real-world decisionmakers – states, international organizations, NGOs, corporations, and others – to carry out its particular views.
To date, much of the intellectual effort on theorizing global justice has been among political and moral philosophers. Ethical theory from these disciplines has asked the fundamental questions about what individuals or states owe one another and, in some cases, how such relationships can be imagined through various domestic and international structures. Scholarship over the last generation or two is quite advanced, moving beyond issues of global distributive justice that dominated in the wake of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice to address manifold questions of war and peace, self-determination, environmental degradation, global poverty, and others.
Yet philosophers of global justice have more often than not stayed clear of legal institutions and the scholarship about them. This neglect is most unfortunate, for international law is equally relevant to global justice. International law transforms policy prescriptions into binding norms and implementation mechanisms and processes. Without legal form, the ethics of global justice remains academic. Most critically, the rules and structures of international law have their own morality and represent a real-world incarnation of a vision of global justice. Many philosophers seem to assume the law irrelevant for the derivation of theory or have mischaracterized it in a way that suggests fundamental incompatibilities between ethical and legal approaches to global justice.
The disconnect is not one-way. Lawyers, for their part, especially academic ones, either ignore global justice as something belonging to morality and thus outside the law, construe it narrowly in terms of the decisions of international courts, or equate it, in an undertheorized way, with a greater concern to populations that have been marginalized in the international legal system. Many refuse to see the obvious – that so many choices confronting international actors involved in prescribing, interpreting, and enforcing international law are ethical choices. Without ethics, the law of global justice is ad hoc.