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Dilemmas of Sovereignty: Law, Politics and Moral Reasoning in Hugo Grotius

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Hugo Grotius’s account of sovereign power in De iure belli ac pacis (first edition 1625) occupies a contested place in recent histories of sovereignty. This paper argues that Grotius’s legal arguments do not do their work alone. They function within a broader horizon of what he calls “morals,” a field of reasoning that has debts to scholastic moral theology and Aristotelian moral science. Grotius’s conception of sovereignty represents a modulation between law and “morals,” which allowed him both to separate his scientific jurisprudence from the science of politics and to make a parallel distinction between sovereignty and administration. The context of “morals,” however, is not narrowly political but inter-political, generating a potential tension between domestic aspirations to sovereignty and the international order. Grotius’s “moral” handling of the issues is resonant for modern dilemmas of sovereignty between popular democracy and functional conceptions of international executive rule.

There will be a presentation of 45 minutes based primarily on Section II of the paper. Those who want more background on the “moral” dimension of the argument may perhaps wish to read Section I of the paper in advance (ca. 5000 words). However, the presentation will be self-contained and intelligible to those who have not read any of the paper.

This talk is part of the Political Thought and Intellectual History series.

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