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Prof. Michael J. Green
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JUSTICE AND LAW                        Torna all'indice delle interviste



Interview to the Professor of Philosophy

at the University of Chicago,

Dr. Michael J. Green





Interviewer : Dear Prof. Green, you are Assistant Professor of Philosophy: can you describe the structure of the course and its aims ? Moreover, you are member of the Human Rights Program. Can you help us to know what it is exactly and what its activity is ?


Answer : I am a member of both the Department of Philosophy and the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago. I will give a brief overview of each.


The Department of Philosophy has both undergraduate and graduate programs. Any student in the undergraduate college may take courses in philosophy. Some undergraduate students elect to study philosophy as a concentration. They are required to take between ten and thirteen courses in several areas of philosophy and, in some cases, to write a senior thesis. Students in the graduate program are required to attend courses in the major areas of philosophy and to write a doctoral thesis. This program is geared exclusively towards students seeking doctoral degrees. Those who are interested in the Philosophy Department’s programs can find more at this url:


It would be misleading to suggest that the Department has a unified view of the discipline: its members have diverse interests and backgrounds and there is no way of enforcing a party line. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that most of its members take a broad view about the kinds of subjects that are included in philosophy and that they believe that philosophy is a self-standing discipline with distinctive problems, methods, and historical texts. Thus while I think that my colleagues generally believe that philosophical research can benefit from connections with research in other areas, such as the sciences, history, or literature, they also probably, on the whole, believe that philosophical study could profitably carry on, albeit at some cost, without them.


The Human Rights Program is dedicated to the teaching and promotion of human rights. The core of its curriculum is a series of courses concerning the philosophical foundations, history, and contemporary problems in the promotion and protection of human rights. It sponsors research on human rights issues through conferences and talks, fellowships, a program for visiting activists, and an internship program that places students with human rights organizations. The Human Rights Program is also affiliated with the Scholars At Risk Network, a network of universities dedicated to offering temporary positions to scholars who are persecuted in their own countries. The url for the Human Rights Program is:



I : About the human rights, what is your opinion on the present developments of biotechnology ? Do you glimpse any risk for men in it and in the politic plans concerning it ?


A : I do not have much expertise regarding biotechnology or the state of the law surrounding it. I would be quite surprised if it were the only technology that did not poses risks to human beings, along with the prospect of providing them with considerable benefits. I think that the question correctly focuses on the political response to these technologies and not the technologies themselves: what is important is how we use the knowledge and techniques provided by science.


I : A field of research of yours is social and global justice. It is common belief that the approval of future policies of genetic control by governments can give origin to new genetic “cleanness”. There could be strict genetic selections to the job access, to the stipulation of insurance policies, to the equal access to health services. Is such an hypothetic applied eugenetics science fiction ? What do you think about the consequences of the human genome project for the social justice ?


A : Again, I do not really understand the science in this area well enough to comment on the plausibility of these scenarios. I can certainly imagine that information about a person’s genetic make-up could be used to make the cost of providing insurance to that person more accurately reflect the risk of his falling ill. If this practice were widespread in private insurance markets, some people might be unable to afford insurance against, and hence treatment for, catastrophic medical conditions. That strikes me as an argument for a social insurance scheme, though, and not necessarily an argument against advances in genetic science.



I : Still talking of justice, can you mention the key-points of your forthcoming publication “Justice and Law in Hobbes” ?


A : Hobbes makes three claims that are difficult to reconcile: (1) There is no such thing as justice or injustice in the state of nature, (2) injustice is, by definition, breaking a valid covenant, (3) there are valid, obligatory covenants in the state of nature. Hobbes is committed to the second and third points as they stand, so the first point cannot be taken at face value. How, then, should it be understood?

Hobbes seems to accept three different definitions of justice: the Contractual definition (injustice is the not performance of covenant), the Scholastic definition (justice consists in giving each man his own), and the Sine Jure definition (injustice is action Sine Jure or without right). The distinction between the Contractual and Scholastic definitions solves the puzzle. Hobbes’s claim that injustice is impossible in the absence of law and coercive power applies to injustice as defined by the Scholastic definition, but not to injustice as defined by the Contractual definition. On this interpretation, points 1-3 are consistent.



I : On Hobbes again, you are working on explaining why his central moral and politic ideas seem to have both secular and religious foundations. Can you explain us the basic principles of this work ?


A : The centerpiece of Hobbes’s moral philosophy is what he calls the Laws of Nature but it is not clear how he regarded the status of these laws. Sometimes, he explicitly claims that they are to be understood as divine commands but, on other occasions he suggests that they are based on considerations of self-preservation in this world and he has no satisfactory account of how the laws of nature could be understood as laws on the grounds that they are God’s commands. Some scholars seek to show that one or the other of these is his true view. I think that he has no satisfactory account of the status of the laws of nature but this is not necessarily a serious flaw because his theory was dedicated to addressing a different issue.


What is important for Hobbes’s theory is showing that the various laws of nature all fall under the definition of a law of nature: “a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or takes away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinks it may be best preserved.” Whether this definition is important to people because they are naturally inclined to preserve their lives or because this inclination was written in their hearts by God as a way of promulgating the laws of nature is not a matter of great importance for Hobbes. This explains why he devoted little theoretical attention to it, such that what he did write is sometimes confusing.


Hobbes clearly doubted the usefulness of giving a theological foundation for the laws of nature. His interest in political philosophy was largely motivated by a desire to reform political thought in order to reduce the chance of civil war and religious disagreements were, in his eyes, one of the causes of the English civil war. Nonetheless, the theory is open to the possibility that the laws of nature have divine foundations and Hobbes certainly encouraged his readers to think that they are divine commands. For example, he claims that while citizens have no right to hold their sovereigns accountable for anything, God will hold them accountable for violating the laws of nature. This means that a good interpretation of his view must not make too much rest on the divine foundations of the laws of nature but, at the same time, must allow room for there to be such foundations.



I : Going back to genetic issues, Toulmin affirms that ethics has reborn thanks to medicine which had the merit to call it out from the vain meta-theoretical reflections and invite it not to evade bioethical issues. How do you judge that affirmation ?


A : There is something to that. I have certainly found that teaching medical ethics is a quite fruitful way of discussing abstract moral theories. In particular, cases involving the allocation of scarce medical resources provide a marvelous way of thinking about questions of justice and fairness. It should be said that John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971) also deserves some credit for helping to pull philosophical ethics away from an exclusive concern with meta-ethical issues.


I : The logic connection between human acting and ethics allows Jonas to assert that, just because of that connection «it should be clear that the changed nature of human acting requires a change in ethics too». So, is it logic that we wonder “which ethics for bioethics” ? Do we have to re-think ethics ?


A : I’m afraid that I am not familiar with the work you are quoting here though I have some views that are, perhaps, related. I believe that we face a variety of large scale problems, such as global warming or the problems brought about by economic globalization, and that the familiar commonsense moral codes for individual agents cannot adequately regulate these problems. Very roughly, the social circumstances in which the familiar moral code makes sense, have changed, but some basic facts about our nature as agents have not. We now have the technical ability to cause vast harms far away but we still conceive of our agency as sharply limited. Consequently, while the commonsense conception of responsibility is inadequate to regulate harms in our social circumstances, we have difficulty conceptualizing an alternative conception of individual responsibility that would serve to regulate these problems. In response, I believe that we should attribute greater responsibilities to institutions insofar as they do not have the same limitations as individual agents do. But my reasons for saying this assume that the nature of individual action has not changed in important respects even if the effects brought about by our actions have changed significantly.


In sense, then, I do believe that we need to rethink ethics. But I would imagine that every society has had plenty of reasons to think about its ethical code and the presuppositions on which it relies. So while our reasons for thinking about our ethical beliefs are, perhaps, unique, our need to engage in critical thought about them is not.



I : The Italian philosopher Piovani said that «if the other lives with values which are different from mines, it does not mean that there are no values, it means that there are more values». So, the moral chaos would not stay in the plurality of values, but in the axiological lack, in the anomy ? How do you consider a normative ethics in a pluralistic and relativistic context ?


A : I am primarily concerned with problems in understanding the values that I hold. I seem to be able to find more contradictions and unclear thoughts than I have time to resolve. So I would have plenty to do even if normative ethics were to be carried out solely in a relativistic context.


The fact that different beliefs about what is valuable seem to persist despite confrontations with one another in ways that different beliefs about the external world do not raises interesting questions about the possible differences between these two kinds of beliefs. But I am reluctant to conclude from this observation that the truth of our beliefs about values is relative to a culture, a society, or a system of value. It seems to me that we have far more to learn from the values of different cultures than this response to pluralism allows. At the same time, I am not inclined to abandon my own values simply because they are not universally shared. Being confronted with a competent observer who has very different beliefs about what is so might gives me reason to doubt or reaffirm my own beliefs. But being confronted with someone who cares about very different things than I do does not give me a similar reason to doubt what I care about.



I : One of the questions that we use to ask concerns the outlook of the future of philosophy. Prof. Mordacci (interviewed by us) affirms that its future is in risk if no innovation is operated to the academic courses and no valid connections are established between philosophy and biomedical and psychological sciences. What is your opinion ?


A : While I do not really work in the relevant sub-fields, it does seem to me that there are quite fruitful connections already. So I do not think that the future of philosophy is at risk for this reason. I do think that philosophy would survive even if those connections were to wither away, however. The history of philosophy, for example, would continue to be a vibrant field of study. More generally, philosophy involves reflection on many facets of human life that do not obviously depend on the results of these sciences. Those who study the nature of justice or art, for example, do not obviously depend on the biological or psychological sciences.



I : As last point, I refer to you for a politic question. Robert Kagan asserts that Americans and Europeans will never think in common again; there is a different philosophic view, come out after the end of soviet menace: Europeans would live in a sort of post-historical paradise, the permanent Kantian peace, while Americans would be plunged in history, in a Hobbesian world, where still “homo homini lupus est”. We would love to know your opinion, the opinion of an American professor.


A : I found it very interesting, though I don’t have any special qualifications to assess it. Among other things, the paper contains a diagnosis of the foreign policies of European states but I know very little about what, substantively, these are. For what it is worth, I found Stephen Holmes’s review of Kagan’s book very interesting as well; it is published in the April 2003 issue of a magazine called The American Prospect. The url for the article is:


Kagan’s observation that European states seem to be more inclined to govern international relations by a system of laws while Americans seem to be more inclined to rely on power than law strikes me as accurate, as far as it goes. I am not clear about which point of view is correct, or even if that is a sensible question, given the broad strokes in which the two views have been characterized.


The distinction between reliance on law as opposed to power strikes me as too simple. Law is an important tool of government that the powerful frequently employ and, true to form, the United States played a role in developing many international institutions after World War II. So it cannot be that American power drives it towards hostility to legal rules.


Laws and legal systems must be backed by power; a legal system cannot work it if its rules are not enforced. But it is hard to say whether the Americans or the Europeans, again, speaking very broadly, are correct about the appropriate balance between power and institutional accommodation. For example, while one would expect the US to see at least that others are constrained by legal rules, general compliance with such rules will fall away if the US routinely flouts them. Nor is it obvious that power is as relevant to as many problems as the Americans sometimes seem to think it is.


It would be interesting to turn around Kagan’s thesis that a country’s capabilities drive its perceptions of the world. Perhaps European states are mistaken in thinking that the rule of law can be established without power and perhaps they make this mistake because of their relative military weakness. But what about the converse case? How does American military power lead it mistakenly to see problems as having a military solution? For example, it might be that the United States is wrong to think it is at war with Islamic terrorism. It is not clear that one can fight a standard war against terrorist groups, much less a loosely formulated religious ideology, nor is it clear that attacking states such as Iraq is an effective way of controlling such groups. It may well be that the attacks on 9/11 were not be the beginning of a war against the United States but a last acts of desperation by a movement whose members have been unable to mount serious opposition to their own states. Destabilizing or overthrowing these states, however, may create opportunities for such groups.


There is little evidence that this possibility has been seriously considered by the American public or its leaders. Instead, both immediately drew the conclusion that they were at war and neither paid attention to what the other party to the war might be or how one might fight a war against an opponent that is not a state. (I should say that these were my initial reactions as well). The fact that many Americans regard the war against Iraq as part of the war against Al Qaeda is evidence of the confusion involved, given that there is no public evidence of any connection between them and many reasons for thinking that they would be hostile to one another. These are natural thoughts for one who sees the world in military, rather than legal, terms to have, but they may lead to catastrophic errors.


I should hasten to add that I do not know whether any of this is so. I propose it only as a possible illustration of what one might find if one turned one of Kagan’s theses back on to the US.



I : Dear Professor Green, we thank you very much for your cordiality. We are glad to have interviewed you and we hope to have you as welcome guest of our journal again. Also we invite you for a possible and interesting meeting in Italy and we wish you to enjoy our hospitality a day.


A : Thank you very much.




Prof. Michael J. Green

is Assistant Professor of Philosophy

at the University of Chicago


Interviewer : Massimo Vittorio




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Last modified: 03/30/04