Dreams of a Just World

On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1993

edited by Stephen Shute, edited by Susan Hurley
Basic Books, 272 pp., $13.00 (paper)


John Rawls is the only prominent contemporary philosopher I know of who is trying to construct a theory of international affairs. Moral and political philosophy, on the whole, has had little to say about the subject. Rousseau and Kant wrote that we would never be truly free beings as long as wars pitted societies against one another and made it easier for authoritarian leaders to rule arbitrarily. But political and moral philosophers have been mainly concerned with the quest for the good life within a domestic society and for a definition of the just political state. Insofar as international affairs preoccupied them at all, some of them, the Realists, from Thucydides and Machiavelli to George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, claimed that the “state of nature,” in which states compete for power, ruled out moral behavior. Others, beginning with Kant and continuing through Woodrow Wilson, said that the triumph of representative government at home and of the principle of national self-determination would produce a harmonious liberal world of cooperating nation-states. Still others, the Marxists, claimed that the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat would result in the “withering away” of the state and, therefore, of the division of the world into competing states as well.

The failure of both the liberal and the Marxist prophecies seemed to abandon the field to the cheerless tenets of Realism, which holds that the need for order is always threatened by conflicts between states, and that establishing a balance of power takes precedence over the quest for justice.1 Far from stifling the hunger for a philosophy that might offer some picture of a better international society, Realism, rejuvenated since World War II by E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Henry Kissinger, exacerbated it. Realism seemed inadequate in a world with nuclear weapons: the struggle for power now risked destroying all the players on the field, and not just some of them. Even Hans Morgenthau concluded that a nuclear world of states without any central power above them had become intolerable, although he had no alternative to it. As the advocates of human rights pointed out in the years following World War II, the very notions of state sovereignty and national self-determination that nineteenth-century liberalism had endorsed were being used by governments and militant nationalists as a shield to protect appalling violations of individual and group rights from being punished or prevented.

In other words, the time had come to apply the traditional concerns and queries of political and moral philosophy to international society as a whole. Debates about which principles to apply to the issues I have mentioned were mainly over what John Rawls in his Theory of Justice calls “nonideal theory.” As with most moral commentary on world affairs, such theory tries to deal with actual situations, those, for example, that prevent, as Rawls puts it, “the poorer and less technologically advanced societies of the world” from attaining “historical and social conditions that allow them to establish just and workable institutions,” and…

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