About the Author

Mathias Risse is Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His work primarily addresses questions of global justice ranging from human rights, inequality, taxation, trade and immigration to climate change, obligations to future generations and the future of technology. He has also worked on questions in ethics, decision theory and 19th-century German philosophy, especially Nietzsche.

In addition to the Harvard Kennedy School, he teaches in Harvard College and the Harvard Extension School, and he is affiliated with the Harvard philosophy department. He has also been involved with executive education both at Harvard and in collaboration with international organizations.

Risse is the author of On Global Justice and Global Political Philosophy. On Global Justice is known for introducing the grounds-of-justice approach to global political thought. Global Political Philosophy is an introduction to political thought from a global standpoint rather than the more typical state-focused perspective. Risse is currently completing two additional books. The first is the co-authored On Trade Justice: A Philosophical Plea for a New Global Deal, forthcoming from Oxford University Press (with Gabriel Wollner). The other is On Justice: Philosophy, History, Foundations, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Risse serves as Co-Director of Graduate Studies at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, as well as Director of the McCloy program, a prestigious fellowship program for German students. He is also affiliated with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Risse has been the organizer of a number of major international conferences at Harvard and a co-organizer of several more such events in East and South East Asia (Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai), as a way of fostering collaboration among political philosophers and representatives of other fields across cultural divides. He has been a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore. New York University Abu Dhabi and Leuphana University in Germany.

Risse grew up in a village in Westphalia, Germany. He studied in Bielefeld, Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, and then received his PhD from Princeton in 2000 and taught in the Department of Philosophy at Yale before coming to Harvard in 2002. He lived in Harvard's Eliot House for six years, and now resides in Somerville with his wife.

Book Description

Debates about global justice have traditionally fallen into two camps. Statists believe that principles of justice can only be held among those who share a state. Those who fall outside this realm are merely owed charity. Cosmopolitans, on the other hand, believe that justice applies equally among all human beings. On Global Justice shifts the terms of this debate and shows how both views are unsatisfactory. Stressing humanitys collective ownership of the earth, Mathias Risse offers a new theory of global distributive justice--what he calls pluralist internationalism--where in different contexts, different principles of justice apply.

Arguing that statists and cosmopolitans seek overarching answers to problems that vary too widely for one single justice relationship, Risse explores who should have how much of what we all need and care about, ranging from income and rights to spaces and resources of the earth. He acknowledges that especially demanding redistributive principles apply among those who share a country, but those who share a country also have obligations of justice to those who do not because of a universal humanity, common political and economic orders, and a linked global trading system. Risses inquiries about ownership of the earth give insights into immigration, obligations to future generations, and obligations arising from climate change. He considers issues such as fairness in trade, responsibilities of the WTO, intellectual property rights, labor rights, whether there ought to be states at all, and global inequality, and he develops a new foundational theory of human rights.


“Risses new book is ambitious in scope and diverse in intellectual resources. In his explorations of the leading questions of international justice, he is admirably sensitive to the wide range of grounds--including common humanity and natural, social, and political relationships--that ought to shape the answers. His account of common ownership of the earth diversifies our historical resources as well, by putting Grotius's work to use in addressing deep, current controversies.” — Richard Miller, Cornell University

“This book takes the global justice debate to the next level and sets a new standard for philosophical depth, practical relevance, and sweep of vision. Unrivaled in its scope, sophistication, and scholarship, this tremendous achievement marks a turning point in political theory.” — Leif Wenar, King's College London

“This broad, comprehensive, and challenging book on global justice combines a critical survey of the recent literature with a new and provocative view that the author calls pluralist internationalism. There is no other recent work on global justice of comparable philosophical ambition or scholarly breadth.” — Charles Beitz, Princeton University

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Mathias Risse:

Many of the most significant questions that arise in our politically and economically increasingly inter-connected world are, actually, ethical questions.

Take, for example, climate change: One of the really important things that we need to sort out in the context of climate change is who is supposed to be shouldering what kind of burden in this area? So we need to ask what countries are supposed to be changing their business as usual trajectories, in what way and to what extent? Now, some people think about this question that it should really be those countries that have been polluting for many generations that should be making the highest amount of sacrifice. Others think that it really should be those countries that, at this moment, are contributing most pollution or that, in fact, are accelerating the amount of pollution that they are contributing. So this is a question of fairness in the division of burdens that arise in connection with climate change.

Or take international trade: International trade is a highly structured exchange of goods as a body of international law. There has been for 20 years now an international organization, the World Trade Organization, that regulates much of world trade. Now, this an organization that is arranged, the World Trade Organization is arranged in a certain way, abides by certain rules, it enforces certain rules also, even though there could be a very different set of rules that might also be regulating world trade, and that might also be supervised by the World Trade Organization as an organization.

If you are a country that seeks membership in the World Trade Organization your choice is between, well, either staying away, which many countries do not consider very attractive these days, or joining the organization as is. There is, of course, potentially, a third option, namely, what about creating an organization that actually would be more desirable from a fairness standpoint? So, put more generally, there's different ways of organizing trade at the international level. There's different ways of doing that. These different ways of doing that create, respectively, different winners and losers, and it's a substantial question of fairness which of these set of rules is chosen. And it is, really, by no means clear and, in fact, it's probably clear that it isn't, that the current setup that we have serves the fairness purposes best.

Or to mention a third example, let's think about immigration for a moment. There is a lot of social scientific inquiry about what causes immigration? Why people want to leave their countries of origin? Where they want to go? Why they want to go there, and what happens when they get there? What happens to the labor markets? What happens to crime? What happens on a lot of fronts in the country of destination once immigrants arrive there?

But, in addition to these social scientific questions, we also have further reaching ethical questions about immigration. In particular, we need to ask whether it is acceptable to begin with that the countries of destination tend to view immigration as a privilege that they may, or may not, bestow upon the applicants?

So there's a question here of whether it is, actually, acceptable from a standpoint of justice, from a fairness standpoint, that we are drawing an imaginary line in the sand over here, and then we say, "Well, everything that's over there is yours, and everything that's over here is ours, and you people please do stay home or only come once we invite you." So is this an acceptable thing to do in the first place? And is it acceptable, for example, for us to say, "Well, here in the United States," or whatever other country you are considering, "we have enough people here. We are satiated. We are full." Is this an acceptable move to make here, and then to say, "Well, from here on out we would rather not have any more people." Or, in any event we, of course, consider it a privilege, again, that we may, or may not, bestow on would-be immigrants. Is this an acceptable line to take in the first place?

So questions like those, like these questions that I just mentioned about climate change, about trade, about immigration, are in the news every day, so they are questions that are very much on people's minds, but they're also questions that require systematic theorizing. They are ethical questions. They are, ultimately, questions about justice.

Now, from some point on, it is not enough to say, "I have a set of views over here about immigration and a set of views over there about climate change, and some other views about trade and other issues that arise about globalization." At some point you, actually, have to say, "Okay. What we need here is some amount of systematic theorizing. Some amount of systematic theorizing about questions of justice. We have to explore in a systematic manner what justice, actually, requires at the global level, and that is what I'm trying to do in my book On Global Justice. So this book makes a proposal of how we should think about justice at the global level.

Now, of course, philosophers have been thinking about justice for a very long time. Justice is one of the dominant concepts in the domain of philosophy, so it's been millennia that we have been thinking about these matters. One standard view, almost a cliché view, about how principles of justice apply, is that they really only hold within States. So for any two people to be in a justice relationship, on this view, we would have to be sharing the very thick structures of a State.

A different view, a view that has been very prominent in my line of work in recent decades, says that, "No. This is really not true. The principles of justice apply to all human beings, simply by virtue of the fact that we are all human beings." So this a view called cosmopolitanism that's been, again, a very prominent position taken in the field in recent decades.

Now, neither one of these views is particularly satisfactory once one starts thinking about them more carefully, but both of them also have very important grains of truth that are very much worth preserving. So what I am doing in my book On Global Justice is I offer a more complex understanding of what justice requires at the globalesque level that does preserve these grains of truth that I think are contained, both in this State-focused view and in the cosmopolitan view, but that also goes substantially beyond both of these views.

So my book combines rather foundational philosophical inquiry about what justice requires at the global level, how we should be thinking about justice at the global level, with rather applied questions of the sort that I started with. So one pay off of this, one pay off of engaging with this, sort of, philosophical inquiry indeed is that I think we can make progress with questions of that rather applied sort that I mentioned earlier.

Now, let me also mention one very distinctive feature of my approach to global justice, and that's a topic that covers a number of chapters also in my book here, is the idea of humanity's collective ownership of the Earth. This is an idea that was very prominent in the 17th Century. At the time this was the idea of a divine gift of the Earth to humanity. That is a thought that, in this theological form, I do not need to revitalize, but there is a secular revitalization of this idea that I am developing in this book.

Let me hasten to add that when I talk about humanity's collective ownership of the Earth I do not mean that humanity, that we, as human beings, can do with resources and spaces of this planet as we please. But, of course, nothing like that is implied by provisions of ownership in the civil law. So this is not what's meant here. What is meant here instead is that all human beings in the present generation, and really also across generations, have symmetrical claims to the resources and spaces of the Earth that we all need for survival, that we need for all our human activities, but that we really have done nothing to put there in the first place. So we all have symmetrical claims to that. And that is an idea that, I think, needs to be taken very seriously in our reflection about justice at this stage, given that we face ever more problems that are really concerned with our relationship at the level of humanity with the planet Earth as such.

So this relationship between human beings and the planet on which we live is something that needs to be theorized, I think, much more carefully, much more thoroughly within a theory of justice than is normally done. And a very obvious example of where this matters, of course, is climate change, it's obligations to future generations. But, actually, this idea of humanity as collective ownership of the Earth also bears some questions of immigration and also, as I argue in the book, bears some questions of human rights, and a bunch of other questions, really.

So this topic, this theme of humanity as collective ownership of the Earth, of our relationship with this planet, does occupy a fairly prominent place in my book, and it's, again, one of the most distinctive aspects of my own theory of global justice.

Let me also mention in concluding that, in addition to this book On Global Justice, which develops my own proposal for how to think about justice at the global level, I've also written and just published this other book here, Global Political Philosophy, which is an introductory book on political philosophy, an introduction to the field. It is different from the usual sort of introduction to political philosophy that you may find because it does not, as the usual sort does, it does not start with a State and stay with a State, and then, maybe, add a chapter or two on global issues. Instead my book starts at the global level. So the idea is to introduce readers two questions of political philosophy right by starting at the global level and then going back to States where appropriate. That's the distinctive feature of this book as an introduction to the field.

Now, this book also covers many of the same themes. So global political philosophy covers many of the main themes that On Global Justice also covers, but On Global Justice is the systematic development of my own theory of what justice requires at the global level, and Global Political Philosophy covers much of the same territory in a more introductory spirit.

Thank you very much.