Global justice

There is a clear and reasonably uncontroversial basis for a simple theory of justice that all nations/cultures can accept. This is grounded a few core values about human development and is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millenium Development Goals, and other founding documents of the United Nations. This conception emphasizes several key values:

  • equal worth of all persons
  • value of freedom
  • value of democracy and self-determination
  • the injustice of hunger, lack of education, lack of healthcare
  • the injustice of capricious arrest and state violence (illegality)

These values provide a basis for steering our core institutions and practices in the direction of greater justice: whenever it is possible to reform institutions and practices in ways that enhance one or more of these factors, we should do so.  Policy makers and legislators can ask the question, how will this or that change to a set of institutions affect the well-being of individuals and populations affected; how will the change affect the freedoms and opportunities for self-determination of the people affected; how will it work to increase the effective scope of law within various societies?

John Rawls drew a strong distinction between ideal justice and imperfect justice, and noted that his contributions were directed to the formulation of a theory of ideal justice (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 13).  He did not believe that the ideal theory of justice would suffice to provide a road map for creating a more just society.  When we consider the complexity and difficulty of improving the justice of fundamental international institutions and relations, the program of arriving at an ideal theory seems unappealing.  Instead, we need to have some plausible and action-supporting principles that allow for practical improvement in the overall justice of the global system. We need to have some concrete ideas about how to get from here to there.

This approach — the idea that we can improve justice in a piecemeal way — spares us the heroic pretense of offering a general, universal theory of justice that we hope or expect all people can be persuaded to accept. It works from the point of view that injustice is more specific and more widely agreed upon. We don’t need to engage in irresolvable debates about whether there are universal human rights in order to agree that the world will be more just if fewer people are forced into famine conditions.

This is the approach taken by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden in their study of the ethics of global public health in Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy (link), and it has the clear advantage of pragmatism.  It is pragmatic on the side of moral agreement, in the sense that it makes no strong claims about abstract moral theories that may be controversial across perspectives.  And it is pragmatic on the side of policy, in the sense that it provides an incremental strategy for improving the conditions of justice in the world.  And in fact, the premises mentioned above conform fairly closely to the six dimensions of personal well-being that Powers and Faden highlight: health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination.

One of the greatest advocates for justice in global development is Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom).  Sen’s major contribution is the idea of the importance of creating conditions in which people can fulfill and actualize their human capabilities.  Sen’s most recent work on global justice topics is his The Idea of Justice, in which he offers an alternative to Rawls’s approach to the problem.  Here he gives primacy to the value of full human development as a benchmark for global justice.

I turn now to the second part of the departure, to wit the need for a theory that is not confined to the choice of institutions, nor to the identification of ideal social arrangements. The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with the argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live. The importance of human lives, experiences and realizations cannot be supplanted by information about institutions that exist and the rules that operate. (17)

Tom Pogge’s work on global justice provides a good bridge between abstract moral theory and practical, real-world issues of justice in a developing world.  Pogge has sought to engage these issues in ways that have real, substantive engagement with the issues of poverty, hunger, and maltreatment that continue to set the stage for the majority of the earth’s population today.  In an important recent volume, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, Andreas Follesdal and Thomas Pogge have pulled together an extended working group of scholars and activists concerned with global justice.  The volume took its origin at a conference in Oslo in 2003.  (Here is an article by Pogge on global justice and poverty (link), and here is a video interview with Pogge on the consequences of the global economic crisis on poverty; link.)  Pogge and his colleagues focus closely on the actual workings of international institutions to attempt to measure the degree to which they disadvantage the people of the less-developed world.

Consider for example a long-term contract concerning the exportation of natural resources which the government of some African country concludes with a rich Western state or one of its corporations.  Within the traditional philosophical framework, it is self-evident that such an agreement must be honored: “People are to observe treaties and undertakings” says Rawls’s second principle of state conduct, and the third one adds: “Peoples are equal and are parties to the agreements that bind them” (Rawls 1999). But here is the reality. The African government is corrupt and oppressive, and its continuation in power depends largely on the military.  The sales it conducts impose environmental harms and hazards on the indigenous population. Yet, most of these people do not benefit, because the revenues are partly siphoned off by the small political elite and partly spent on arms needed for military repression. (These arms are suppled by other rich Western states in accordance with other contracts executed, without coercion, between them and the African government.) (5)

Why should gimlet-eyed policy makers take these arguments about global justice seriously?  What does justice have to do with the nuts and bolts of international economic policy reform?  Why should self-interested nations and their leaders adjust their policies to the demands of justice? The humanitarian and moral reasons are self-evident.  But it is also true that there is a powerful reason to care about justice that is based in self-interest.  This is because systemic injustice is itself a threat to national security.  Governments are destabilized, insurgencies are supported, cities experience riots, and anti-liberal violent movements flourish in conditions where masses of people are enmeshed in circumstances of injustice.  Barrington Moore, Jr. made these arguments in Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (1978), and his conclusions seem even more compelling in the world today.


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