Course Contents, Structure & Assessment

Nature and Aims of the Course

This course examines the basic moral claims, conflicts and dilemmas that arise in a global context. These claims, conflicts and dilemmas concern questions of human rights and global distributive justice, as well as questions of justice in the relations between states.

In discussing these questions, we shall take for granted certain facts about the international world: that states exist, lay claim to territories, and exercise coercive power; that states protect, but also violate, human rights; that conflicts, including armed conflicts, arise between states, and between groups within and across states. We shall be trying to explain, not these facts themselves, but our moral reactions to them, and the duties and claims of justice that we think states, groups, and individuals have with respect to one another in the various contexts that these facts create.

Many of the moral dilemmas to be discussed in this course can be understood as conflicts between different kinds of moral right. We shall therefore begin by discussing the concept of a right and, more generally, the contrast between deontological and consequentialist forms of moral reasoning. We shall then move on to apply these conceptual tools to several interrelated groups of ethical questions that arise in a global context:

  • What duties, if any, are owed by richer nations to poorer nations? Is justice within a state different from justice between states? Are duties of global distributive justice best understood as deriving from human rights?
  • How, if at all, can a state come to have a moral right to govern and control a particular territory? Are territorial rights like property rights? What are the ethical grounds of national self-determination? Are secession or annexation ever morally just?
  • How does the concept of justice bear on cases of violent conflict? Can an act of war ever count as just? Do civilians, combatants, and terrorists differ in their degrees of moral immunity to attack?

We shall discuss these issues with the help of a selection of readings which, as well as constituting influential contributions by prominent political philosophers, are representative of particular (often conflicting) ethical standpoints. You are encouraged to adopt a critical approach to these readings, and are expected to come to the seminar discussions prepared with critical points.

The course aims to provide students with:

– knowledge of the main dilemmas and arguments that have featured in contemporary ethical debates in the above-mentioned areas;

– understanding of the philosophical theories behind those dilemmas and arguments;

– an improved ability to make clear and informed ethical assessments of the political and legal scenarios and decisions studied in other, less normatively oriented courses;

– an improved ability to engage in ethical debates with efficacy and argumentative

Course Structure

The course will comprise a mixture of lectures and seminars.


The initial lectures will provide groundwork and basic conceptual tools. Later lectures will introduce specific topics addressed in the seminars.


Most of the seminars will begin with presentations given by students. Assignments of presentations will be made at the beginning of the course. Presentations will be followed by active discussion on the part of the class.

In order to encourage critical engagement with the course materials, the seminar will open with a debate between two small groups of students, centering around a contested issue from the assigned weekly reading, before opening up to a general discussion involving the class.  Reading materials have been assigned in view demonstrating alternate ways of approaching controversial issues; on some weeks two articles have been assigned, each raising a different theoretical perspective, while on other weeks students will read only one article which challenges or makes reference to a competing position or approach. In order to give everyone a chance to participate, the presentation groups in the weekly seminars will be made up of four to six students depending on class size. The presentation/debate part of the seminar may be structured differently according to the number of participants, but generally, the groups will be split in two and will be responsible for providing a summary of the article, framing it within a broader theoretical context by making reference to previous readings and lectures, and finally presenting a critical evaluation of the article by raising challenges and objections.

Whether or not you are giving a presentation, you are expected to participate actively in seminar discussions, and to this end you will be expected to read the text(s) in advance of each seminar (see “syllabus” and “texts”, in the menu). The seminars with required reading begin in week 2.

Some optional readings are listed in the syllabus. All of the readings listed, both required and optional, are available in electronic form and can be downloaded from the library website or from the course teacher’s webpage (with restricted access requiring a password to be communicated at the beginning of the course).


Assessment methods

Class partecipation and presentation, oral exam and term paper (“Global Justice Essay”). Further instruction regarding the GJ Essay will be provided during the course and in the section Essay material in this website.

Grading Criteria for attender students

  • Class Participation & Presentations       20 percent
  • GJ Essay                                                       50 percent
  • Final exam                                                    30 percent

Grading Criteria for non-attender students (non frequentanti)

  • GJ Essay                                                       50 percent
  • Final exam                                                    50 percent
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