Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Question of Global Justice

Thomas Nagel thinks that global justice is not a moral issue. It is strictly political, he argues. Justice for him is anchored in associative relations that do not impose moral obligations on citizens with respect to how they are to relate to outsiders. This paper counters that argument. By citing historical injustices and by looking into the reality of unjust global structures today, it will be argued that the problem of global justice necessitates that people should take a moral stand.

"Peoples are not equals”
Equality does not exist in the world. There is that obvious hegemonic relationship between North and South. While it has been argued that the idea of a Western world dominating the global order might dissipate given the historical data rooted in Orientalism, the reality is that there remains a clear and an unjust imbalance in global trade, the exclusion of others in the movement of peoples, and the military positioning of powerful states in many parts of the world. Hence, the big question needs to be posed – what role does rich societies have to play in making the world more just and the life-situations of peoples more dignified?

Global justice is shared responsible among nations. We are no longer in the Dark Ages where the primary consideration is the annihilation of lands in favor of kings. But the problem of global justice, according to Thomas Nagel, is not a moral question. The duty of justice, Nagel asserts, is a strictly political one. Justice is that obligation restricted to one’s fellow citizens and it cannot be extended beyond. The power of sovereignty can only be used to promote the interests of citizens born in the state. Nagel, ergo, does not believe in the Stoic idea of equality between peoples.

“People are not equals” because political legitimacy in the state requires that people, as citizens of the state, must surrender themselves to a sovereign. For Nagel, the absence of a world regime means that justice between peoples is impossible. What sovereign states can extend to the global poor is limited to the duty of assistance out of respect for human rights. For Nagel, the right to equality is something that emanates from associative relations. By this, he means that local history, culture, and tradition are essentially the determinants of the soul of a nation.

In his book, The Law of Peoples, John Rawls writes that peoples are equal as “parties to the agreements that bind them.” (Rawls 1999, 37) At least conceptually, it is important to make the distinction between “peoples” and “states.” For Rawls, the power of sovereignty is one that is claimed by the state. Rawls believes that “states are primarily self-interested, are often seen as rational, anxiously concerned with their power, their military, economic, and diplomatic capacity to influence other states, and always guided by their basic interests.” (Ibid., 27-28)

Sovereignty, in this sense, is not guided by any moral motive. The concern of sovereignty is power. But unlike states, Rawls says that just peoples recognize others as their equals. For him, it can be assumed that respect between peoples is respect for the self-evident truth that all men and women are entitled to live in a just world. Rawls acknowledges the role of the dignity of a people as human beings in bringing about a decent society. However, he also takes a limited position with respect to the meaning of that dignity.

Rawls believes that reasonableness and our rational nature make individuals open to fair terms of political and social cooperation. But by this he only meant to say that such an arrangement is one that is exclusive to the basic structure in any state. It is not something that extends to others who are considered as outsiders. Rawls, however, recognizes that we also have moral duties to other peoples. But he limits such pursuits to humanitarian duties. He fails to see the fact that in pursuing a just world order, it is important to look into history and determine how a people may have been impoverished by colonialism and other forms of injustices.

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) The problem with this position is that it hides many structural injustices in the world. Nagel thinks that there is no global basic structure to govern the fair terms of socio-economic cooperation in the world. (Nagel 2005, 115) For instance, he says that any form of trade agreements between nations are institutional arrangements. These do not arise to the character of statehood. Since global trade is a result of pure bargaining, he says that it lacks the political legitimacy of being an act of the state. But Nagel position misunderstands the powerful role that states play in influencing and controlling the traffic of goods around the world.

For Nagel, global justice would 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 associative relation to their fellow citizens, he claims. Thus, there cannot be, according to Nagel, “any universal pressure for equal concern, equal status, or equal opportunity.” (Ibid., 125) The principles of justice, in view of the above contention, does not apply to one who is not a fellow citizen. Nagel opines:

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).

Self-determination, in view of the above, is the exclusive domain of nationhood. This type of liberal nationalism excludes outsiders who do not belong to the same struggle or to the identical history of a people. The ethical significance individuals confer to their community as one nation easily renders outsiders as morally insignificant. Nagel adds that what a people owes to their fellow citizens is not the same moral obligation one might owe to others who are outside the moral sphere of one’s fraternity or nationhood.

Nationalism will demand that people bestow upon each other the moral obligation of justice. Justice in this regard serves the purpose of the basic structure. This relation within the basic structure for Nagel has no moral meaning. It is a political relation that is established by way of the legitimacy citizens give to their duly elected government. The government regulates its citizens (i.e. taxation, resource distribution, etc.), in this sense, in the name of justice in order to set the fair terms of cooperation. Basic social institutions are then established to carry out and to secure justice for each citizen of the state.

But this political arrangement does not impose on citizens the responsibility to extend the duty of justice to outsiders because the latter are not a party to such an arrangement. As we have said at the outset, social justice for Nagel is a fully associative in nature. It must be under some form of centralized control. (Nagel 2005, 127) The power of a sovereign state towards its members defines the basis and limits of such associative relation. This associative relation can be defined as state membership. Nagel maintains that it is only through such that citizens can claim a legal right to democratic governance and to the equitable distribution of wealth.

For Nagel, the societal rules determining the basic structure are coercively enforced. The state uses its power and for this reason, it is not a voluntary association. Citizens render upon the state the authority to govern them. In short, the state is the primary and sole agent of justice that citizens themselves establish by means of the consent they freely give to their government. This agreement brings about the positive obligations of social justice. It is an obligation that does not go beyond the borders of the state. Hence, Nagel says, that justice is not a duty that we owe to everyone in the world. (Ibid.)

A cosmopolitan global order

When laws are made, they are established with the members of one’s political community in mind, and are not implemented against or for others outside this community. However, Kok-Chor Tan believes that some of our problems are structurally influenced by the global order. It demands, therefore, that we change the socio-economic structure in the world. Nagel, as we have also noted above, limits issues of justice to the domestic structures of any state. It is for this reason that a global difference principle, which Thomas Pogge strongly advocates, is meant to thwart the global economic order that now only favors the rich.

The above is anchored in a cosmopolitan moral position. Cosmopolitanism rejects the idea that the responsibilities of justice should be exclusive to citizens. Cosmopolitanism, which considers the human individual as the basic moral unit, can serve as basis for a just socio-economic global order. Tan argues that the distribution of natural resources among individuals should extend far beyond national or state boundaries within which individuals live. In this way, people might be able to remedy the obvious injustices in the distribution of global wealth.

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 prevails, poor countries will simply recede to their previous predicament. Economic aid will never be enough. For instance, affluent nations subsidize their farmers on farm input. This puts the produce of farmers from poor countries at a huge disadvantage. The present conditions of global trade simply favor rich nations. Protectionist policies of powerful states perpetuate global poverty. There are latent conditions that are attached to any type of aid given by Western societies to the global poor. Joseph Stiglitz have warned us in the past that globalization breeds so much discontent.

Global poverty is something that can be attributed to the weakness of internal structures in the third world. This weakness makes poor nations highly handicapped in international trade relations. Some rich nations bribe their way to continually exploit the economies of Third world countries. Such manifests the 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 overlook 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 these mistakes must be rectified. Pogge says that a re-redistribution of global wealth can compensate for the perpetual exploitation of the natural resources of many poor countries. Global inequality can be remedied by allowing the transfer of resources from rich countries to develop the economies of poor nations. Tan says that if liberalism calls for responsible choices on the part of poor countries, there must be at least the ideal of justice that requires that the background conditions against which such choices are made be fair.

Nagel’s understanding of global reality, where he reduces the states of affairs between nations into a piece of paper, is morally indifferent to the hard realities of the Third world. He speaks of power and neglects that this power is used to exploit the global poor. The transfer of wealth through a global difference principle from wealthy to impoverished nations will ensure the sustainability of the economic development of the latter. This will mitigate the undue advantage of rich nations in the area of trade liberalization. A minimal humanitarian assistance which Nagel proposes is no more than a hypocritical act that will not solve global poverty.

It can be argued that national self-determination need not be incompatible with cosmopolitan justice. Nagel’s rejection of cosmopolitanism “overlooks how the differences in power relations between nations, which economic inequality engenders and sustains, obstruct the right to self-determination of the least advantaged.” (Tan 2004, 117) Migrant workers, for instance, contribute to the economy of their host nations. Eight million Filipinos who work abroad send twenty billion dollars annually to the Philippines. That is not much compared to what they contribute to their host nations who also take advantage of them as cheap labor. For this reason, migrant workers deserve just treatment because the benefit is mutual.

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 as guest workers to do the dirty job in rich societies. They do deserve equal respect because they actually reciprocate whatever benefits they gain. Unjust policies of some states, for instance in Singapore, which limit migrant workers access to government institutions make them susceptible to the non-payment of salaries and maltreatment.

Indeed, the sovereignty cannot be the only basis for a just world. Global structures need to be adjusted to make the playing field fair. These adjustments do not require the diminution of state sovereignty. What is duly required is to open economic borders and end state-centric protectionist policies that are detrimental to the global poor. By showing that the problem of global justice is structural, there is that urgent call for a change in the status quo in global economic structures that favor already prosperous nations at the expense of the peoples of the Third world.

Taking a moral position

The points above imply that global inequality, the imbalance of wealth between rich and poor nations, and the economic suffering that it brings, is a problem that the basic structure of wealthy nations must address. The political relations among societies must direct ourselves to the history of nations in times past. Western societies have subjugated many people, most notably in Africa, given the history of slave trade. As such, Goran Collste has argued that former colonial powers have to pay for their past 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 to acquire captives for export…These conflicts were clearly obstacles to economic development. (Collste 2015, 100)

Collste’s position counters the whole argument of Nagel. The basic contention is that Western societies cannot just close their eyes to the fact that their economic growth in the past was by and largely due to the historical injustices that they have inflicted upon other societies. Wealthy nations extract from poor African states precious minerals that are used in turn to make technologies that are exported for profit. The economic stagnation in poor countries, thus, has a factual and a moral premise. (Ibid., 98)

The value of our humanity does not come from state or national membership. We are human beings by virtue of our dignity as persons. Collste notes that the slave trade had lasting cultural and social implications. It is the main cause of the categorization of other human beings as less than human. Colonialism defined white people as masters and non-while as lowly servants. (Ibid., 102) The legacy of slavery is clear in the faces of its present victims who continue to struggle to this day given the inability of rich societies to protect the welfare of migrant workers. Collste adds:

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)

      A society must derive negative moral obligations on the part of its citizens so that people will contribute to the cause of building a just world. This can be done by means of individual effort and by institutions. Global justice calls our attention to the reality that our actions will affect the lives of other men and women wherever they may be. By reaching out to the citizens of poor nations, through technology or by knowledge transfer, we can contribute in a huge and meaningful way to a new world order that pays respect to the equal dignity of persons.


Collste, Goran. Global Rectificatory Justice. (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015)
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., 2002).
Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
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).