Global Ethics Fall Term 2015

September 1, 2015

Professor David Ritchie

Course Description

Actions in the international sphere (e.g., war, trade policies, treaties, and international agreements) have a more profound impact on the lives of individuals than we generally understand or are led to believe. One major role for the state is to protect the interests of its citizens against the competing interests of other states (or those in other states). Complaints of governments against competitors who might harm their interests means that competing states must morally justify their behavior in the international arena.

Yet, while many people find it obvious that actions in the international arena are subject to ethical evaluation and that that the actions of states must be just, skeptics about the possibility of international ethics have argued that morality is not a realm that can or should have a place in the international community. Even less skeptical theorists than these allow that many of the reasons that are given to justify a conception of justice within a self-contained society cannot apply in the international sphere. On the other end of the spectrum some theorists (and activists) claim that the need for a conception of global justice has never been greater, arguing that globalization has a profound effect on democracy within states and the capacity of citizens to determine what happens within their borders.

In this course, we will explore some of the tensions between these various positions and the attempts to argue for conceptions of justice that will be compelling to—and perhaps binding upon—international actors. We will focus on arguments about the background moral conceptions that ground the possibility of global justice—cosmopolitanism, liberalism, and universal human rights. We will then turn to some central problems that reveal the implications of the cosmopolitan and liberal turn in thinking about international relations: the use of force, global inequality, and structures that promote free trade and the international movement of capital.


We will work through the topics of discussion I have chosen progressively throughout the semester. I prefer to allow adequate time to discuss topics based on class interest and the development of our collective conversation. Nonetheless, I will keep us on track so we can cover as much material as possible throughout the semester without sacrificing time for discussion. 

A more detailed list of readings will be distributed in class.

1. Global Ethics or A Global Ethic

Parliament of World Religions, The Principles of A Global Ethic

Michael Ignatieff, Reimagining a Global Ethic (Ethics and International Affairs) (EIA)

Christian Barry, Local Priorities, Universal Priorities, and Enabling Harm (EIA)

Nicholas Rengger, A Global Ethic and the Hybrid Character of the Moral World (EIA)

David Rodin, Toward a Global Ethic (EIA)

Cheyney Ryan, The Dialogue of Global Ethics (EIA)

Michael Joseph Smith, A Brief Response to Michael Ignatieff (EIA)

2. Realist Skepticism About Global Ethics

Michael Walzer, Against Realism (Just and Unjust Wars)

Jack Donnelly, Morality and Foreign Policy (Realism and International Relations)

Marshall Cohen, Moral Skepticism and International Relations (PPA)

3. The Justification of War and Moral Responsibility for the Use of State Violence

Robert L. Holmes, "Can War be Morally Justified? The Just War Theory" in Robert L. Holmes, On War and Morality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) (OWM)

Nicholas Rengger, "The Jus in Bello in Historical and Philosophical Perspective" in Larry May, War: Essays in Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) (War)

Robert L. Holmes, "The Killing of Innocent Persons in Wartime" in OWM

Nancy Sherman, "Revenge and Demonization" in War 

4. International Development and Globalism

Amartya Sen, "The Concept of Development" in Thomas Pogge & Keith Horton, eds., Global Ethics: Seminal Essays (New York: Paragon Books, 2008) (GE)

United Nations, “Taking Stock of the Global Partnership for Development," available at:

United Nations, Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Hunger), materials available at:

Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" in GE.