Political Obligation in the World Society

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Jonathan Trejo-Mathys
Boston College

Date: October 2, 2013

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Political philosophers have traditionally attempted to show that, provided certain conditions are met, there can be legitimate political authorities whose laws each citizen or subject ought to obey (and whose institutions they ought to support) for moral reasons, and not simply out of fear of punishment or for personal advantage. Beginning with Kant, and moving forward to debates surrounding monistic interpretations of international law and the nature of human rights, Professor Trejo-Mathys will offer some reflections on two different, but probably compatible, Kantian ways to think of political obligation from a world society perspective: one “foundationalist,” and one evolutionary, communicative and political.

Speaker Bio

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boston College. His research interests lie in social and political philosophy (political authority, political obligation, global justice, transnational democracy), moral philosophy (Kant and the Kantian tradition in ethics and metaethics), and Habermas and the Frankfurt School tradition of "critical social theory." His recent scholarly publications have addressed Habermas and democratic law; Rorty and liberal democracy and religion; and Rawlsian critical theory and the World Trade Organization (forthcoming). He received his PhD in 2009 from Northwestern University.

Event Photos

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Boston College philosophy professor Jonathan Trejo-Mathys at the Boisi Center on October 2, 2013.

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Photos by Christopher Soldt, MTS Photography.

Event Recap

At a Boisi Center luncheon on October 2, Boston College philosophy professor Jonathan Trejo-Mathys discussed how philosophy can help us understand our moral obligations in an increasingly connected world.

In April 2013 an eight-story Bangladeshi textile factory collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers. Recalling the gruesome accident and the dismal working conditions that preceded it, Trejo-Mathys argued that Americans need to better understand how our close business connections to Bangladeshi workers tie us to their safety and welfare. (He himself was wearing a shirt made in that country, Trejo-Mathys noted.) When industrial disasters occur in the United States, such as the 1911 fire that killed nearly 150 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, Americans frequently strengthen laws that protect workplace safety. Shouldn’t we be obligated to demand the same for Bangladeshis when we buy the products they make in their factories? Or are the differences in our societies too great to expect American-style worker protections?

To make his case, Trejo-Mathys argued that a “world society” now exists that is rooted in our global interconnectedness and generates moral claims on individuals and groups within that large society. Immanuel Kant properly recognized in the eighteenth century that the “violation of rights in one place on the earth [is] felt everywhere.” In our time, states and corporations will be the primary actors that must bring change, since they are the locus of power in the world today.

Drawing upon Kantian and neo-Kantian arguments about the foundations of moral obligation, Trejo-Mathys refuted schools of thought that deny the existence of international moral norms (“IR realism”) or claim such norms to be too thin to be broadly applicable (the “English School”). Neither alternative, he argued, accurately capture the realities of contemporary life, nor provides a solid guide for members of a world society.

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Further Reading

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, “Authority, Legitimacy and Epistemic Accounts of Democratic Law: Estlund vs. Habermas,” 2013.

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, “Towards a Discourse-Theoretical Account of Authority and Obligation in the Postnational Constellation,” in Philosophy and Social Criticism, July 23, 2012.

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, “Towards a Critical Theory of the WTO: Thinking with Rawls beyond Rawls,” forthcoming in Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory.

Immanuel Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” and “Doctrine of Right,” from Metaphysics of Morals, both in Pauline Kleingeld, ed., Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2006).

Jürgen Habermas, “The Constitutionalization of International Law and the Legitimation Problems of a Constitution for World Society,” in Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, December, 2008.

Jürgen Habermas, “Does the Constitutionalization of International Law Still Have a Chance?” in The Divided West  (Malden, MA, Polity, 2006).

George Klosko, “Cosmopolitanism, Political Obligation, and the Welfare State,” in Political Theory, March 12, 2009.

Hans Kelsen, “Sovereignty,” in Normativity and Norms: Critical Perspectives on Kelsenian Themes (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998).

Joseph G. Starke, “Monism and Dualism in Theory of International Law,” in The British Year Book of International Law, (London, Oxford University Press, 1936).

Edward Rothstein, “A Philosopher’s Vision of Fundamentalism,” in The New York Times, January 9, 2006.

Tyler Cowen, “A Profession With an Egalitarian Core,” in The New York Times, March 16, 2013.

Joseph O’Neil, “The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism,” in The Atlantic, August 1, 2009.

In the News

October 8 factory fire in Bangladesh, in which at least 10 people died and dozens were injured, raises questions about the obligation of individuals, states, and corporations to improve working conditions in the developing world. On October 2, BC philosophy professor Jonathan Trejo-Mathys discussed political obligation in an increasingly interconnected, international world society.