Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Question of Global Justice

The hegemonic relation between North and South needs no further restatement. While Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued quite well that the West is actually not what you think it is, the traditional powers in the world nonetheless continue to dominate the global order. The brutal reality is that there remains an unjust imbalance in global trade, the exclusion of others in the movement of people, and the military positioning of dominant states in some parts of the world.

Moral Equality and Citizenship

We are no longer in the Dark Ages. But armies continue to march in search of land to annex. While the burden to help the powerless is obvious, Thomas Nagel thinks that global justice is not a moral question. The duty of justice, he asserts, is strictly a political one. Justice is that obligation restricted to one’s fellow citizens. The idea of sovereignty is only meant to promote the interests of those individuals who are born in the state.

Equality for Nagel is a matter of citizenship, not moral status. It is only conferred to people who legally belong to a sovereign state. Equality, Nagel argues, is something that can only emanate from associative relations of homogeneous people. For him, what any sovereign state can extend to the global poor is limited to the duty of assistance. It is an aid given out of respect for the human rights of the global poor.

In his book, The Law of Peoples, John Rawls writes that people are only equal as “parties to the agreements that bind them.” (Rawls 1999b, 37) For Rawls, the authority of sovereignty is one that rightly belongs to the state. Sovereignty is not guided by any moral motive that is outside the sphere of one’s community. The role of sovereignty is limited to the protection of the interests of citizens. With this, Rawls only meant to say that such an arrangement is one that is exclusive to the basic structure.

"Government,” Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice, “is assumed to aim at the common good, that is, at maintaining conditions and achieving objectives that are similarly to everyone’s advantage.” (See Rawls 1999a, 205) The government has the moral obligation to redistribute the resources in society in order to benefit the least advantaged. But this redistribution, however, is not something that extends to other people who are considered as “outsiders”.

Nagel says that both the protection of human rights and the provision of any basic human aid would be easier if regimes found to be responsible for the oppression or destitution of their own subjects are regarded as having forfeited their sovereign rights. (Nagel 2005, 144) But the problem with this position is that it hides the structural injustices in the world. Nagel laments that there is no global basic structure to govern the fair terms of socio-economic cooperation globally. (Nagel 2005, 115)

For Nagel, global justice will necessitate a sovereign world ruler.  He claims that citizens don’t owe to others what they owe their fellowmen. (Nagel 2005, 124) For him, the standard of justice in a society does not apply to the world as a whole. This is because justice is not voluntary, but an obligation imposed upon citizens by their communal relation to their fellow citizens. Nagel thinks that there is no concern for equal status. He explains:

Everyone may have a right to live in a just society, but we do not have an obligation to live in a just society with everyone. The right to justice is the right that the society one lives in be justly governed. (Ibid., 132).

The ethical significance that individuals render to their community easily makes some people morally insignificant. Nagel believes that what a people owe to their fellow citizens is not owed to others who are not part of their fraternity. This fraternal order is homogenous and is characterized by exclusivity in terms of its standards, which prioritizes and only protects the interests of citizens, even to the extent of taking advantage of the prevailing global economic order in order to benefit one’s society.

This brand of nationalism demands that people bestow upon each other the obligations of justice. Justice, in this regard, duly serves the purpose of the basic structure. This relation within the basic structure for Nagel bears no moral burden in terms of dealing with refugees or migrant workers. It is not the obligation of any sovereign state to protect the interests of outsiders, whose welfare should be the concern of their own governments.

Nagel says that the associative relations of citizens is under some form of centralized control. (Nagel 2005, 127) The authority of a sovereign state towards its members will define the basis and limits of such associative relation. This is the meaning and true value state membership. Nagel maintains that it is through such that persons may claim a legal right to the equitable distribution of primary goods and the opportunities in the state.

For Nagel, the societal rules determining the basic structure must be coercively enforced. It is not a voluntary arrangement. Citizens must render upon the state the authority to govern them. In short, the authority of the state is the primary agent in terms of enforcing the obligations of justice. This responsibility does not go beyond the borders of the state. Nagel argues that justice is “not a duty that we owe to everyone in the world.” (Ibid.)

Cosmopolitan Justice

Nagel’s position misconstrues the powerful role that states play in controlling the legal traffic of economic goods in the world. When laws are made, they are written with the members of one’s community in mind and are not to be implemented against or for others outside this community. Kok-Chor Tan counters this point. He argues that some of our problems are structurally influenced by the global order. Global inequality is a result of unjust socio-economic structures in the world.

Tan’s argument is anchored in his cosmopolitan moral position. Cosmopolitanism rejects the idea that the burdens and responsibilities of justice should be exclusive to citizens. Cosmopolitan justice considers the human being as the basic moral unit. Tan says that the distribution of natural resources should extend far beyond national or state boundaries. In this way, the global order would be more just and equal in terms of the availability of opportunities to improve human welfare.

It can be argued that development aid or assistance can put poor countries at a certain threshold to be globally competitive. But if the present unjust global economic order persists, poor countries will remain poor. This is due to the fact that any humanitarian aid is never be enough. For instance, affluent nations subsidize their farmers on agricultural inputs. This has put the produce of farmers in poor countries at a huge disadvantage. The present conditions of global trade simply favor Western societies and economies. Protectionist policies of powerful states perpetuate global poverty.

Global poverty can be attributed to the weakness of the internal structures in the Third world. This weakness makes most African nations handicapped in international trade relations. Power players in developed nations bribe their way to continually exploit the economies in the Third World. Such manifests the very selfish interests and motives of powerful sovereign states. This condition needs to be changed. Pogge suggests that “by seeing the problem of poverty merely in terms of assistance, we have overlooked that our economic advantage is deeply tainted by how it accumulated over the course of one historical process that has devastated other societies.” (Pogge 2004, 262)

It is a moral imperative that past mistakes be rectified. Pogge strongly believes that a redistribution of global wealth can compensate for the past exploitation of the natural resources in poor countries. Global inequality can be solved by allowing the transfer of resources from rich countries to develop the economies of poor nations. Tan says that if liberalism wants responsible choices for everyone in the world, then the background conditions should be made be fair.

Nagel’s understanding of global reality, where he reduces the states of affairs between nations into some piece of paper, is morally indifferent to the hard realities in the Third World. He speaks of power but takes for granted the fact that such is used to exploit the global poor. The transfer of global wealth through Pogge’s global difference will help ensure the sustainability of the economic development in poor nations. It will mitigate the undue advantage of some Western nations in the area of trade liberalization.

But it can be argued that the role of the basic structure need not be incompatible with the idea of cosmopolitan justice. Nagel’s rejection of cosmopolitanism “overlooks how the differences in the [hegemonic] power relations between nations, which economic inequality engenders and sustains.” (Tan 2004, 117) For example, migrant workers actually contribute to the growth of the economy of their host nations. For this reason, they deserve fair treatment.

Tan thinks that we should work for an “egalitarian global structure in which the pre-conditions do in fact obtain universally for all.” (Ibid., 102) Nation building must not be at the expense of the least advantaged citizens of poor nations who labor to do the dirty job in Western societies. Everyone deserves that equal respect. Unjust policies in some states that limit a migrant worker’s access to the state can only make them susceptible to the abuse and maltreatment.

Development loans, for instance, have not really helped the global poor. Loans usually finance many high end projects like airports and other big-ticket infrastructures that cater to the elite sector of the economy. For this reason, these projects have not brought development to rural areas where the impoverished are usually concentrated. In addition, loans have conditions like increase in taxation which affects the poor in general.

What is actually needed is that global structures need to be adjusted to make the playing field equal. What is required is to open economic borders or end state-centric protectionist policies that are detrimental to the global poor. By showing that the problem of global justice is structural, there is a moral call for a change in the global economic systems that favor already prosperous nations at the expense of the people in the Third World.

Changing the Global Order

The political relations among societies must direct ourselves to the history of nations in times past. While the world attempts to be more interconnected, the various scars of the past remain in the consciousness of many. Western societies have subjugated millions of people, most notably in Africa, given the very dark history of slave trade. Goran Collste has argued that the past colonial powers have to pay for their historical mistakes. He writes:

The slave trade also had political and cultural implications to African kingdoms which affected their development. One political effect, as we have seen, was conflicts and wars between kingdoms. There were raids into neighboring countries meant to acquire captives for export…These conflicts were clearly obstacles to economic development. (Collste 2015, 100)

The basic position is that Western societies cannot just close their eyes to the fact that a huge part of their economic growth in the past has been largely due to the historical injustices that they have inflicted on weak societies. Colonial conquests have extracted from poor African states the minerals that are used to create things exported for profit. The economic stagnation in African countries, thus, has a historical premise. (Ibid., 98)

Collste notes that the slave trade has had lasting cultural and social implications. It is the cause of the categorization of other human beings as less than human. Colonialism defines white people as masters and non-while as servants. (Collste 2015, 102) The legacy of slavery is clear in the faces of its present victims in trafficked migrant workers who still continue to struggle to this day due to unfair policies. Justice, indeed, is not some kind of an exclusive personal property. While certain rights cannot be transferred from one people to another, just treatment is at least deserved. Collste says:

The foremost justification for rectification is that it is a way to realize justice…A state that has treated a group of its citizens in an unfair way is obliged to recompense them. Similarly, a nation that has not recompensed another nation for earlier injustices owes a debt to it. (Ibid., 173)

But let us consider the present situation. The operation of illegal sweat shops in Third World nations have not abated. Hellish factories contracted by global brands like Gap and Old Navy are said to violate local laws and ordinances on just wages and their worker’s safety standards. Most suppliers employ thousands of local residents who earn a mere pittance compared to the millions of dollars that product endorsers get from prominent global brands like Nike or Adidas. Apple, for instance, outsources the manufacture of its products in countries around the world, improving its margins in the process.

It is in view of the above that one might find Collste’s position morally inadequate or wanting. Any payment made may not be enough considering the enormity of the problem. Another reason is the difficulty of implementing monetary compensation schemes in many Third World countries where corruption is almost a normal practice. It appears that Collste’s rectificatory approach is just a way to purify the conscience of the people in Western societies, who may or may not be conscious of the historical injustices that the generations before them may have inflicted on the global poor.

Collste has failed to mention the cruel fact that Third World countries are continually exploited by the developed world. In Nigeria, some village people have been used by multinational pharmaceutical companies in their clinical trials. For instance, a report has documented that Pfizer caused the death to six children in Kano, Nigeria during the testing of a meningitis drug. (Wise 2001, 194) That clinical trial has been accused of violating some ethical standards. Of course, such violations cannot really occur in the European Union or the US.

In conclusion, a much broader position on global justice is now warranted. A rich society must derive definite moral obligations of justice on the part of its citizens. This can be done by means of giving guarantees that internal policies and rules will not undermine the already difficult life-situation of people in poor countries. For instance, Peter Singer has called the attention of the developed world with respect to ending those wasteful Western lifestyles that have ill consequences to the lives of others. Beyond this, however, only a change in the global order can have a truly significant impact in the improvement of the lives of the global poor.


Collste, Goran. Global Rectificatory Justice. (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015).

Hobbes, Thomas. “The Leviathan.” In The Great Political Theories. (London: Harper, 1961).

Nagel, Thomas. “The Problem of Global Justice.” In Philosophy and Public Affairs 33, No. 2,
         Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 2005.

Pogge, Thomas. World Poverty and Human Rights. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.,

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999a).

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999b).

Singer, Peter. One World, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Stiglitz, Joseph. Globalization and its discontents. (London: Penguin Books, 2002).

Tan, Kok-Chor. Justice without Borders. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Wise, Jacqui. “Pfizer accused of testing new drug without ethical approval.” British Medical
         Journal 322 (2001).