Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Rights and justice in international relations
Rights and justice in international relations

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

6 International justice – communitarian and cosmopolitan perspectives

6.1 Introduction

The international level can be viewed as an arena of politics in its own right and not just as a context for states and other actors. If we think of the international world in this way, how should relations between states, and other actors on the international stage, be constructed? To what extent should those relations be regulated? We can ask whether relations between states, and states' policy making, should be dictated by allegedly universally shared human rights principles, or by other objectives such as national political or economic interest, regional interest, international peace or serving alliances with other like-minded states. A related consideration is whether relations between states should be driven by moral principles such as rights and justice, or by other legitimate interests?

A distinction can be made between two different ways of understanding the role of states in international society: first, as ‘local agents of the common good’ in an order of (increasingly universally) shared notions of human rights; and second, as the embodiments and protectors of different cultures or civilisations in an inherently plural modus vivendi. The question is of more than academic interest, since how we think about the international sphere affects how real world actors operate in it. The debate between the communitarian position and the cosmopolitan position has developed as the primary way of structuring this issue and we will consider it further now. The communitarian/cosmopolitan debate takes a theoretical and normative approach to the role of rights and justice in different conceptions of the international realm.

This section will outline and compare the communitarian and cosmopolitan positions, and then introduce the understanding of rights found in each case, leading onto a discussion of two contrasting forms of international justice and intervention in the light of the two perspectives. While there are differences between advocates of communitarianism and among proponents of cosmopolitanism, the two viewpoints can be characterised as broad umbrella positions championing a particularist and state-centric perspective, and a universalist and global perspective respectively.

Section 6.2 will discuss theoretical and normative issues, while Section 6.3, Section 6.4 and Section 6.5 will consider how the two positions inform highly charged political debates on international distributive and retributive justice and the question of intervention. It should be clear that, in line with the critical view of rights adopted in this chapter, we think the communitarian case is the stronger one. However, we hope this sympathy will not lead us to be unjust to the cosmopolitan viewpoint.