Working Toward a Just World

Faculty Insight

Mathias Risse

Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration, Harvard Kennedy School

As a scholar, Risse explores social and political philosophy and ethics in a global context. He also delves into these topics with his Extension School students.

For Mathias Risse, the question of global justice is one of the great challenges of our time.

“I had been thinking about many questions in a global ethics context,” he says. “Questions of fairness in trade, the justifiability of states in an interconnected age, what human rights were and what they might require. You can work on these questions in isolation, but at some point you wonder if there is a unified framework that brings all this together. I actually realized that there was a unified framework that I could propose—one umbrella to cover a number of different research lines.”

The discovery of that unified framework led to the publication of Risse’s 2012 book, On Global Justice, a text that dives deep into those different lines. In the process, he says, one comes to “a relatively radical reassessment” of what politics should be about.

“We don’t show enough concern for people outside our country,” Risse says. “As citizens, we also are not trying hard enough to hold our government accountable to responsibilities that are global in nature, and governments certainly are not trying to assume such responsibilities. From a global perspective, country by country, the way we live is clearly wrong even by the more modest version of entry assumptions.”

A world of states

Part of what divides us is our various countries and states, boundaries that separate humanity and sort us into different forms of rule and governments. States exists in part because of the life experiences of our ancient ancestors, which demanded a very strong sense of “us vs. them”—or as Risse calls it, “in group vs. outgroup.” Countries are contemporary expressions of that dynamic, he says.

While he agrees that states have practical advantages such as keeping strangers in peaceful relationships with one another, there is no “action-guiding alternative” to them that might allow a boundary-free, global society to flourish.

“No one really has a good theory for what life would be like if we dismantled them,” he says. “So rather than getting rid of them, let’s think about how a world of states could be as just as possible. For example, trade structures would have fair and nonexploitative conditions, humanity in the present would keep the planet in reasonably decent shape for the future, and so on. It’s about making the world of states as just as possible, rather than fantasizing about what a stateless world would be.”

Diversity of experience

Now conducting more intensive research on the questions explored in his book, Risse teaches classes across Harvard College, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Extension School.

“I generally like teaching, and the Extension School was a way to reach students who are very interesting people, who have interesting life trajectories, and come to education in nonstandard ways,” he says. “It’s refreshing to deal with people who are not currently full-time students. For them, the teaching is integrated into real life. In a way, they make a special choice when they choose your class: in addition to having a full-time job and a full-time life, they want to learn about your subject.”

That diversity of experience, bringing together people of all ages and from all walks of life, provides Risse with insight into the human condition—and further cements his dedication to the idea of fairness, opportunity, and justice.

“Justice is the key term of all of my research,” he says. “It plays such an important role in our moral lives. If you say something is a matter of justice, then it receives the highest priority. And something has to play this most stringent role, to guide us, especially at a global level and in transnational relations.”

— Article by Jennifer Doody



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