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Lecture highlights morality of international law

Carolyn Huytra | Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Steven R. Ratner, the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, spoke at Notre Dame Law School Monday afternoon. His lecture focused on the phrase “thin justice” and its association with the morality of international law.

“Global justice remains one of the most compelling issues of our time,” Ratner said.

He followed by explaining that philosophy, political science, anthropology, history and international law are among a number of disciplines central to debates on global justice. One of the main contributors to the construction of theories on global justice stems from philosophy.

“Philosophers of global justice have more often than not stayed clear of legal institutions, and I think this neglect is unfortunate because international law transforms policy prescriptions and ethical ideas into blinding norms and implementation processes,” Ratner said.

Unfortunately modern-day lawyers, especially those involved in academia, Ratner said, cast global justice to the side. These lawyers exhibit a tendency to draw a parallel between global justice and those facing marginalization.

“Without ethics the law of global justice is ad hoc,” Ratner said.

Ratner described his project as having a twofold thesis. The first deals with core norms of the international legal system he said he believes are central to laying the foundation for a world order based on justice.

“Even if they came about as a result of political compromise, power of politics, and historical contingencies, [core norms] largely already conform to an ethical vision of justice, one that I term thin justice,” Ratner said.

The second aspect of Ratner’s thesis surrounds present-day laws and institutions. Their fatal flaw rests in their inability, in some cases, to even meet the thin standard of justice, he said. In other cases, they simply exist and function at too great a distance from the thicker standard. In order to better examine the level of morality at which these rules operate, ethical theory can be embraced.

“I see global justice as about assigning rights and duties to global actors so that it is clear what each actor is entitled to require to do or to have,” Ratner said. “Norms of international law are just if they assign those rights and duties in a way that meets a substantive standard of justice.”

Ratner said two pillars form the basis of global justice. The first states the qualifications international law must uphold in order to be considered just. He said this pillar calls for the necessity of rules to promote or at least not to decrease peace internationally. The second pillar ensures basic human dignity is not damaged.

“There has to be satisfaction of both the pillars for a norm to meet the standard of thin justice,” Ratner said.

The idea of “thin justice” is based on Michael Walzer’s book, “Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad.” Though Ratner said he does not endorse Walzer’s theories, he did gather his distinction between thick and thin morality from this author.

Ratner said Walzer argues that thin morality is a moral minimum as well as a universal idea that reflects values from cultures worldwide. It is from such cultures that people can form thicker moralities within a community, he said.

Ratner, however, said he believes that society can do better than this thin justice across communities.

“I do think that the justice reflected within international law is thin in the sense that it is less dense and certainly less demanding on individuals than the justice envisioned by philosophers as that needed for domestic societies,” Ratner said.

Though this thin justice is not that toward which the world should strive, it is nonetheless a very real form of justice present in the world today. An example of such thin justice, Ratner said, is the self-determination of core international law.

“Certainly we can and should strive for thicker justice at the international level, but we must first see the moral basis of what international law already has.”