Is International Law Impartial?

Document Type


Publication Date



Recent theorizing about transnational duties by moral and political philosophers fails to take proper account of the structure of the international legal order. As a result, philosophers have erred in describing international law and in appraising or incorporating it in their theories. This paper offers a construction of international law that advances current debates over international duties and corrects key misconceptions about international law. It views international law as a system of general and special duties among global actors, e.g., states, individuals, and peoples. It then demonstrates that the key duties recognized in treaties and customary law can be justified from an impartialist perspective, i.e., where special ties between dutyholder and rightholder do not alone determine the scope of the duty. The paper then demonstrates shortcomings in some current approaches to international ethics, notably works elaborating justice from a liberal/illiberal divide and calls by cosmopolitans for a major restructuring of international law.