The Law of Peoples

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The Law of Peoples is American philosopher John Rawls's work on international relations.



  • By the "Law of Peoples" I mean a particular political conception of right and justice that applies to the principles and norms of international law and practice.
  • This monograph on the Law of Peoples is neither a treatise nor a textbook on international law. Rather, it is a work that focuses strictly on certain questions connected with whether a realistic Utopia is possible, and the conditions under which it might obtain. I begin and end with the idea of a realistic Utopia.
  • Political philosophy is realistically Utopian when it extends what are ordinarily thought of as the limits of practical political possibility. Our hope for the future of our society rests on the belief that the nature of the social world allows reasonably just constitutional democratic societies existing as members of the Society of Peoples.
  • The basic idea is to follow Kant's lead as sketched by him in Perpetual Peace (1795) and his idea of foedus pacificum. I interpret this idea to mean that we are to begin with the social contract idea of the liberal political conception of a constitutionally democratic regime and then extend it by introducing a second original position at the second level, so to speak, in which the representatives of liberal peoples make an agreement with other liberal peoples

Quotes about The Law of Peoples[edit]

  • The Law of Peoples extends the modelling devices of A Theory of Justice from a national to a global plane. […] Rawls argues that we should imagine an ‘original position’ for the various peoples of the earth parallel to that for individuals within a nation-state. In it, these collective actors choose the ideal conditions of justice from behind a veil of ignorance concealing their own size, resources or strength within the society of nations. The result, he argues, would be a ‘law of peoples’ comparable to the contract between citizens in a modern constitutional state. But whereas the latter is specifically a design for liberal democracies, the scope of the former extends beyond them to societies that cannot be called liberal, yet are orderly and decent, if more hierarchical. The principles of global justice that should govern democratic and decent peoples alike correspond by and large to existing rules of international law, and the Charter of the United Nations, but with two critical corollaries. On the one hand, the Law of Peoples – so deduced from an original position – authorizes military intervention to protect human rights in states that are neither decent nor liberal, but whose conduct brands them as outlaws within the society of nations. These may be attacked on the grounds of their domestic policies, even if they present no threat to the comity of democratic nations, regardless of clauses to the contrary in the UN Charter.
  • That the United States owes its own existence to the violent dispossession of native peoples on just the grounds alleged by Rawls for refusal of any redistribution of opportunity or wealth beyond its borders today […] never seems to have occurred to him. The Founders who presided over these clearances, and those who followed, are accorded a customary reverence in his late writings. Lincoln, however, held a special position in his pantheon, as The Law of Peoples– where he is hailed as an exemplar of the ‘wisdom, strength and courage’ of statesmen who, unlike Bismarck, ‘guide their people in turbulent and dangerous times’ – makes clear, and colleagues have since testified. The abolition of slavery clearly loomed large in Rawls’s admiration for him. Maryland was one of the slave states that rallied to the North at the outbreak of the Civil War, and it would still have been highly segregated in Rawls’s youth. But Lincoln, of course, did not fight the Civil War to free slaves, whose emancipation was an instrumental by-blow of the struggle. He waged it to preserve the Union, a standard nationalist objective. The cost in lives of securing the territorial integrity of the nation – 600,000 dead – was far higher than all Bismarck’s wars combined; a generation later, emancipation was achieved in Brazil with scarcely any bloodshed. Official histories, rather than philosophers, exist to furnish mystiques of those who forged the nation. Rawls’s style of patriotism sets him apart from Kant, and below him. The Law of Peoples, as he explained, is not a cosmopolitan view.

External links[edit]

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