Is International Law Impartial?

60 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2005

See all articles by Steven Ratner

Steven Ratner

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: September 15, 2004


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.

Keywords: International law, moral philosophy, jurisprudence, legal theory

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Ratner, Steven, Is International Law Impartial? (September 15, 2004). Available at SSRN: or

Steven Ratner (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

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