Seeing through the forest of principles

29 Jul 2021

What does global justice mean? What norms should we follow? The questions Laura Valentini studies fall within the overlap between political and moral philosophy.

Newly appointed LMU professor: Laura Valentini

Laura Valentini doesn’t shy away from the big questions. A political philosopher, she has been grappling with the issue of global justice since the start of her academic career. “I’m interested in what obligations the privileged of this world have towards the less privileged, and what those obligations are based on—principles of justice or beneficence,” says Laura Valentini.

The answer to this theoretical question has far-reaching implications: “It makes a difference to how we, ‘the globally privileged’, see ourselves in the world: as generous benefactors or as individuals with obligations to give people in poorer countries something they’ve actually long been entitled to.” After all, if the global distribution of resources were a matter of justice, and the world’s wealthy failed to meet their justice-based obligations, they would effectively be holding on to stolen goods.

Obligations on a global level

Laura Valentini published a book about this issue with Oxford University Press in 2011: Justice in a Globalized World: A Normative Framework. In it, her aim is to offer guidance for those thinking about issues of global justice. “It’s clear that something needs to be done,” says the philosopher. But how much needs to be done, on what grounds, and how much the privileged must sacrifice, is much less clear.

Laura Valentini concludes in her book that there are obligations on a global level based on the principles of justice. Although these obligations are not as demanding as those between members of the same political community, it nevertheless becomes clear in conversation with the philosopher that, even on a global level, simply being generous towards the poor is not enough.

In January 2021, Laura Valentini was appointed to the Chair in Philosophy and Political Theory at LMU, a post previously held by Julian Nida-Rümelin until 2020. In recent years, Valentini has researched and taught in the UK, latterly as Professor of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at King’s College London. Italian by birth, Valentini had been drawn to the UK after studying politics at the University of Pavia, heading first to University College London, where she earned her PhD in Political Philosophy. Then she was Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University and Junior Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Oxford (from 2008 to 2011). She returned to University College London as a Lecturer, where she remained until 2016 as an Honorary Senior Research Associate. From 2013 to 2020, she was Associate Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science before being appointed Professor at King’s College. In 2015, she was awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize in Politics and International Relations for her work, an award that honors outstanding, internationally esteemed scholars.

Political theory and the real world

Besides questions of global justice, Laura Valentini deals with methods of political philosophy and the question of how idealized a political theory should be, in other words, how much it may be abstracted away from the real world. If it is too idealistic, it could become too detached. Yet if it is too realistic, it runs the risk of sticking hard and fast to the status quo and thus legitimizing it. “As a philosopher, I think that the costs of justifying the status quo are higher than those of a theory that is too idealized. After all, the latter costs only come into play when one is unaware of the complexity of the world and fails to take into account real-world conditions before translating a theory into practice.”

Laura Valentini is currently building her team at the LMU chair. “I really appreciate the opportunities LMU offers,” says the newly appointed LMU professor. “LMU is one of the best universities in Germany, if not the best. It seems very vibrant and has many international collaborations. There are great colleagues in the Faculty of Philosophy with whom I am already exchanging ideas.” She is pleased to have the freedom to advance her research vision.

Thematically, she will focus on (formal and informal) social norms and their moral status: When are such norms morally binding? And under what circumstances is it justified to question them? “Answering these questions is not only interesting from a theoretical perspective. Social norms form the backbone of our social lives. Just about all of our relationships are governed by norms. And we’re all constantly checking each other to see if we’re abiding by them,” says Laura Valentini. Everybody is well aware of the outrage that comes when norms are violated, such as when people who skip the queue are called out for it or when someone isn’t wearing a mask in the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking of the pandemic, Laura Valentini has so far been experiencing her new life in Munich predominantly remotely, via Zoom. From faculty meetings to conversations with students—“who seem very motivated”—everything takes place online. “My start was as good as it can be in the middle of a pandemic.” Now Laura Valentini is looking forward to experiencing LMU “when it’s in full swing”.

What are you looking for?