Online Exclusive 01/23/2023 Blog

Making Global Ethics More Global

Editor’s Note: The authors of this essay for Ethics & International Affairs online, Joy Gordon and Tony Lang, are the editors of the recently relaunched Global Ethics line at Palgrave Macmillan. This essay lays out their vision for the line and a broad call to action for the discipline of international ethics to provide new and expanded venues for issues and authors from the Global South, either on their own or in dialogue with perspectives from the Global North. They invite the submission of proposals and manuscripts to the line, both edited volumes and monographs.

What does it mean to speak of and write about “global ethics”? Scholars and institutions (including the Carnegie Council) have worked hard over the years to make the case for including ethics in the discourses of international affairs. But often those efforts were focused primarily on perspectives of Global North countries.1 The very first issue of Ethics & International Affairs begins with four articles on “Superpower Ethics,” introduced by the then junior scholar, Joseph Nye.2 Admittedly, the first of those essays, written by the Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui, focused on how the ethics of both superpowers at the time—the United States and Soviet Union—failed miserably in the Global South.3 But even with that perspective provided, the focus was on the superpowers and their ethical responsibilities.

Over time, the journal and other scholars have sought to broaden the perspectives from which we can understand international ethics. This broadening has been conceptual, cultural, ideological, and geographical. One response from philosophers is a more analytic philosophical approach, such as work that seeks to provide clarity about ethical meanings and propose concrete policy relevant solutions to global dilemmas.4 Others have made arguments for various forms of liberal cosmopolitanism, inspired by philosophers such as John Rawls 5 and Immanuel Kant.6 Another approach has been the poststructural one, which claims that ethical judgments are complicated by contending discourses and traditions that constitute the postmodern world.7

While these divergent traditions have opened up more space for new approaches to international ethics, the field of international ethics still needs to include more voices from the Global South. This is a matter of equity, respect, and inclusion. Not only that, but richness and diversity within the discourse of our field also contributes to work that is of broader global significance. To the extent that our field seeks to advance universal claims, these carry greater validity and relevance when originating in divergent political and cultural starting points.8 One example illustrating this is found in the formation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The impulse to create such a document arose from the horrors of World War II, but the document itself emerged from deliberations among scholars and policy makers from a range of different ideologies and cultural traditions.9 Indeed, the UDHR might have been very different had it not been for the participation of P. C. Chang, a Chinese philosopher whose interventions in the debates around the document resulted in leaving out reference to a Judeo-Christian heritage for which some participants had advocated. By ensuring that this document did not rely solely on that Western heritage, Chang helped to create a document that was more inclusive and representative of the world community.10 At the same time, a more inclusive and diverse approach may also reveal interests and perspectives that are fundamentally incommensurable. But it is in this diversity and contestation around perspectives that a truly global discourse in ethics can arise.

To the extent that our field seeks to advance universal claims, these carry greater validity and relevance when originating in divergent political and cultural starting points.

Our view is that the field of international ethics, like academia more broadly, disproportionately reflects the work of scholars and practitioners from the Global North, particularly Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. This comes about for many reasons, ranging from the cost of translations to the disparate access to proprietary journal data bases. This disparity can be seen in almost all areas of knowledge production: whose work is published in journals; who is invited to serve as an external reviewer; who serves on editorial boards; who holds and files for patents; which persons and institutions receive research support, either from national and regional funders, or from international ones; who has the resources to buy the equipment needed for research, or to pay staff to collect data; and so on. In international ethics, we sometimes see this disparity in what might be called the contrast between the perspectives of the “doers” and the “done to.” If we consider the various debates on humanitarian intervention, or the responsibility to protect, those publishing on these topics are predominantly from the countries that are doing the intervening, while we see far fewer contributions from scholars or practitioners in the countries where the intervention takes place. This is not to say that all scholars in the Global North share the same point of view. But it may be said that the range of issues, the depth of the argumentation, and the frequency with which certain positions are asserted to some degree correspond with who is making these claims, and the circumstances that inform their views.

On the topic of migration, for example, in the Global North literature it is common to see arguments, made strongly and frequently, around the theme that a state has the right to limit who may enter, and that exceptions to that will, quite properly, be narrowly circumscribed. There are of course works in this area that seek to include voices from the Global South in developing an ethic of migration.11 But in those regions where forced population displacement regularly occurs on a large scale, we may see much more work by scholars from those regions writing on, say, the Cartagena Declaration, which offers a conception of refugees that accords recognition to those fleeing natural disasters, generalized violence, or poverty.

To the extent that the academic publishing operations—the journals, editorial boards, reviewers, and authors—disproportionately represent the Global North, the scholars and practitioners in the Global South do not have comparable opportunities to share their work and their thoughts. This is certainly an issue of equity. But in addition, our field is much the poorer for it.

In the area of economic sanctions, for example, much of the field involves the work of Americans and Europeans. The United States and the EU impose sanctions more extensively than any other country or region in the world; and the UN Security Council, acting on behalf of the international community as a whole, is heavily influenced by these actors. While there has recently been increased attention to the humanitarian impact of sanctions, for some decades now, much of the literature has revolved around the issues of compliance, efficacy, and enforcement: when sanctions are imposed, what is the likelihood that the targeted actors will comply with the demands made of them? And what can be done to increase the chances of that happening? As targeted actors circumvent sanctions to engage in trade, what measures can be taken to make the sanctions less porous?

Whereas most of the sanctioners are in the Global North, most of the sanctioned countries and entities are in the Global South, with sanctions imposed on nearly a dozen countries in Africa in recent years. The concerns with sanctions from the perspectives of those in targeted countries are quite different. Under what circumstances is it even legal, under international law, for a country to impose sanctions unilaterally? What remedies are available to address sanctions that are illegitimate, either legally or ethically? What kinds of structures for accountability need to be brought into play where sanctions are indiscriminate or disproportionate, harming vulnerable populations? What can be done to address the paucity of due process that we see in asset freezes and financial blacklisting, in the context of both Security Council measures, as well as unilateral sanctions regimes of the United States and others? The “other side of the story” involves not only a different set of writers—from Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, and so forth—but also a different set of questions and concerns.

It may be said that the range of issues, the depth of the argumentation, and the frequency with which certain positions are asserted to some degree correspond with who is making these claims, and the circumstances that inform their views.

A similar dynamic can be found in scholarship on the use of military force. There is a well-developed body of thought on the moral justifications for the use of force, usually known as the just war tradition. This includes works by analytic philosophers,12 political theorists,13 ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2015). and historians of political thought.14 These works set out the contours of the morality of going to war (jus ad bellum) and the conduct of war (jus in bello), with more recent developments focusing on the morality of ending wars (jus post bellum) and the use of force short of war (jus ad vim). The Latin terminology used to identify these different approaches immediately signals their origins in Judeo-Christian traditions of thought. The just war tradition emerges from the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds, develops through medieval Christendom, and then feeds its way into international law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.15 Much of this scholarship reflected efforts to justify the use of force by powerful states and empires against their enemies.16 While it intersects with parallel traditions, such as the Islamic,17 it remains largely a product of scholars from the Global North.

As a result, too much of the reflection within the just war tradition reflects the views of the powerful. While it is no longer a justifiable reason to use force in the contemporary era, punishment was one of the traditional just causes. This implied that force was to be used to keep order by powerful agents in the international system. Intimations of this continue to appear in the work of some scholars, such as the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, whose response to the attacks of September 11 was to argue that the United States had a moral responsibility, derived from the just war tradition, to keep order and punish terrorists if necessary.18

The just war tradition, then, is designed to aid in moral reflection by powerful states using force. What can those who are targeted by these uses of force tell us about the ethics of using force? For instance, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other states today use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in a range of contexts. They have become the weapon of choice for democracies, as they do not require “boots on the ground,” hence avoiding the thorny problem of soldiers returning home in body bags. Drones have also been touted as “surgical” and “precise,” able to avoid harming civilians. Certainly, it is the case that these weapons can and have helped to more precisely locate and destroy military targets. At the same time, they have wider consequences. The sounds and sights of drones clearly have consequences for communities over which they pass and toward which they are directed. Distinguishing civilians and military targets might seem like a simple task, but even the precision of these weapons does not necessarily prevent innocents from being killed.19 We need more voices from those who are victims of these attacks, and particularly moral and political reflection on what this means for their communities. Creating truly global ethical discourse around the use of force, both with drones and otherwise, requires new voices.

We think the field of international ethics can be similarly enriched by the work of Global South scholars in many other areas as well—tax justice, intellectual property, climate change and ecology restoration, approaches to economic development, the manufacture and sale of weapons, debt and conditions of lending, and so on. It is for this reason that we hope that the newly relaunched Palgrave Macmillan’s Global Ethics line will come to serve as a venue for Global South scholars and practitioners to publish their work, and to engage in dialogue with their counterparts in the Global North on the many urgent questions that characterize our field. As the editors of this line, we invite proposals for monographs and edited volumes that are written or edited by Global South scholars, or reflect a dialogue between South and North perspectives.

For more information, and to discuss possible submissions, contact:

Anthony F. Lang, Jr., University of St. Andrews, [email protected]


Joy Gordon, Loyola University-Chicago, [email protected]

Anthony F. Lang, Jr is a Professor of International Political Theory in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His work sits at the intersection of law, politics and ethics at the global level, with a focus on universal values, global constitutionalism, and the use of military force.

Joy Gordon is the Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J. Professor of Social Ethics at Loyola University-Chicago, where she holds a joint appointment in the Philosophy Department and the School of Law. She works in the fields of human rights, international law, and ethical issues in international relations, with a focus on legal and ethical aspects of economic sanctions.

  • 1 Admittedly, terms such as “Western,” “Global North/South,” and “developing/developed” all have historical and even ideological origins. We acknowledge these complexities, but chose to utilize the terms “Global North/South” to orient our reflections.
  • 2 Joseph Nye, “Superpower Ethics: An Introduction” Ethics & International Affairs 1 (1987), pp. 1-7.
  • 3 Ali Mazrui, “Superpower Ethics: A Third World Perspective” Ethics & International Affairs 1 (1987), pp. 9-22.
  • 4 Simon Caney, Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • 5 Thomas Pogge, Realizing Rawls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).
  • 6 Garrett Wallace Brown, Grounding Cosmopolitanism: From Kant to the Idea of a Cosmopolitan Constitution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
  • 7 David Campbell and Michael Shapiro, eds. Moral Spaces: Rethinking Ethics and World Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
  • 8 Anthony F. Lang, Jr., “Constructing Universal Values? A Practical Approach” Ethics & International Affairs 34, no. 3 (2020), pp. 267-277.
  • 9 See Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999).
  • 10 Hans Ingvar Roth, P. C. Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Philadelphia: University Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
  • 11 See, for example, Luis Cabrera, The Practice of Global Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Natasha Saunders, International Political Theory and the Refugee Problem (New York: Routledge, 2018).
  • 12 Jeff McMahan, Killing in War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009).
  • 13 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 5th
  • 14 James Turner Johnson, Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
  • 15 Though Rory Cox argues that intimations of just war thinking can be found as far back as Ancient Egypt; see Rory Cox, “Expanding the History of the Just War: The Ethics of War in Ancient Egypt” International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2017), pp. 371-384.
  • 16 A recent edited collection has highlighted how both the just war tradition and international law have often been used as "justifications" for war rather than ethical reflections on war, Lothar Brock and Hendrick Simon, eds., The Justification of War and International Order: From Past to Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  • 17 John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  • 18 Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
  • 19 See Neta Crawford, Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post 9//11 Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).