Sunday, June 8, 2008

On the Problem of Global Justice

The problem of global justice, for Thomas Nagel, is not a moral question . The duty of justice, Nagel asserts, is strictly political . Justice is an obligation restricted to one’s fellowmen under a sovereign state. The power of a sovereign state can only be used to promote its own interests. Nagel does not believe in the equality between peoples. Nagel writes, “respect for the autonomy of other societies can be thought of as a respect for the human rights of their members, rather than respect for the equality of peoples” (Nagel 2005, 135).

Justice for Nagel is only possible under one sovereign ruler to whom citizens surrender their self-interests (Ibid., 115). Globally, in the absence of a world regime, justice between peoples is impossible. What sovereign states can extend to the global poor, in this regard, is respect for human rights. For Nagel, the right to equality is something that emanates from the power of sovereignty (See Nagel 2005, 115). This implies that what Nagel really means is that peoples, rich and poor, are not equals. He argues, and indeed, paradigmatically, that “we do not live in a just world” (Ibid., 115)..

I would like to argue against the above using John Rawls’s idea of equality between peoples. In one of the principles of The Law of Peoples, Rawls writes that “peoples are equal” and “are parties to the agreements that bind them” (Rawls 1999, 37). Here, it is important to make the distinction Rawls makes regarding “peoples” and “states”, to set him apart from Nagel. The power of sovereignty is something claimed by states. Rawls thinks 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. In contrast to this, unlike states, Rawls says that “just peoples are fully prepared to grant the very same proper respect and recognition to other peoples as equals” (Ibid., 35). Henceforth, respect between peoples is respect for the self-evident truth that all men and women are entitled to live in a just and free society. The power of strong sovereign states renders the freedom of poor nations useless. Poor nations can only pursue the good life if they get fair treatment in international affairs (i.e., trade, migration, etc.).

Nagel’s idea regarding equality simply maintains the status quo. I believe that real respect for human rights is only possible if we believe in the equality of all men and women. Rawls says, “it is a part of a people’s being reasonable and rational that they are ready to offer to other peoples fair terms of political and social cooperation” (Ibid., 35). Nagel says that both the protection of human rights and the provision of basic human aid would be easier if regimes found to be responsible for the oppression or destitution of their own subjects in these respects were regarded as having forfeited their sovereign rights against outside interference (Nagel 2005, 144). In pursuing this line of argument, Nagel is highlighting the power of some liberal states in interfering with the affairs of free nations. But I think Rawls would argue that states must let go of the pretensions of power before seeking to transform non-liberal states. This is because Rawls believes in the autonomy of every society to pursue its own destiny. Social cooperation between societies should exist without having to injure the beliefs and cultures of others.

As Rawls says in the conclusion of The Law of Peoples, “for so long as we believe for good reasons that a self-sustaining and reasonably just political and social order both at home and abroad is possible, we can reasonably hope that we or others will someday, somewhere achieve it; and we can then do something toward this achievement” (Rawls 1999, 128).


Is global justice possible? Nagel strongly asserts that there is no global basic structure to govern the fair terms of socio-economic cooperation in the world (see Nagel 2005, 115). For instance, he says that trade agreements between nations are institutional arrangements that do not rise to the level of statehood (Ibid., 137). These arrangements do not have individuals as constituents or parties, but are pure products of bargaining between states (Ibid., 138). Since international trade is a result of pure bargaining, it lacks the political legitimacy to rise to the level of statehood. Such don’t fall “within the domain of justice which requires a collectively imposed social framework” (Ibid., 140). Nagel here is suggesting that in the absence of a global sovereignty, justice is an impossibility in the global economic order. The sphere of distributive justice, in this sense, is limited to the citizens of a nation. Citizens don’t owe to others what they owe their fellowmen (Nagel 2005, 124). Thus, the standard of justice 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. There cannot be, according to Nagel, “any universal pressure for equal concern, equal status, or equal opportunity” (Ibid., 125).

The above implies that the distributive principle of justice 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). Such a claim has a strong implication for the meaning of national self-determination. This type of liberal nationalism would exclude outsiders. The ethical significance individuals confer to their community as one nation renders outsiders as morally insignificant. Nagel adds succintly, “internationally, what we owe to other inhabitants of the globe through our society’s respect for the societies of which they are citizens is different both from what we as individuals owe to all our fellow human beings”(Ibid., 124).

But I would like to argue that Nagel’s arguments above are problematic. Our response here, based on Kok-Chor Tan, will be from the point of view of global justice. Tan believes that the problem of global poverty is structural. It demands, therefore, changing the global socio-economic structure. Nagel, we have noted above, limits justice to the domestic structure of the sovereign state. But Tan advocates for a global difference principle. This is because the global economic order favors the rich. Plantation workers in the Philippines, those who labor in the mines of Africa, and domestic helpers in Singapore need not suffer. They also deserve to live in a just world. Cosmopolitan justice, which considers the individual as the basic moral unit, can serve as basis for a just socio-economic global structure. Cosmopolitanism rejects the idea that the responsibilities of justice must be limited by state sovereignty. Tan suggests that the baseline distribution of natural resources among individuals should be decided independently of the national and state boundaries within which individuals happen to be (Ibid., 97). Why? It is because there is an obvious injustice in the distribution of global wealth. I will use two arguments to counter Nagel’s claim, one based on global rectificatory justice, and two, on national self-determination.

First, we can say that development aid or assistance can put poor countries at a certain threshold to be globally competitive. But if the present global economic order prevails, poor countries will simply recede to their previous status. Economic aid will never be enough. For instance, rich nations subsidize their farmers on farm input. This puts the produce of farmers from poor countries at a disadvantage. The present conditions of global trade simply favor rich nations. Protectionist policies of powerful states perpetuate global poverty. In order to advance real economic development in poor nations, there must be structural changes in the global economic order.

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. Thus, Thomas Pogge says it very well when he 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 be rectified. Pogge advocates for a re-redistribution of global wealth to compensate for the perpetual exploitation of the natural resource of poor countries by multi-national companies. Global inequality can be remedied by allowing the transfer of resource 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 (Tan 2004., 101). 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 of some sovereign states is used to malign the global poor. The transfer of wealth through a global difference principle from rich to poor nations will ensure the sustainability of economic development. 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 token gesture and surely will not solve global poverty.

Secondly, it can be argued against Nagel that national self-determination need not be incompatible with cosmopolitan justice. Nagel’s rejection of cosmopolitan moral consistency “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) Do we owe to others what we owe to our fellowmen? Let me cite the phenomenon of migrant workers. Migrant workers contribute to the economy of their host nations. Eight million Filipinos who work abroad, many of them professionals, send $12 Billion annually to the Philippines. On a closer look, this means that on average, one Filipino abroad earns $100 monthly for the Philippine economy. That is not much compared to what they contribute to their host nations who take advantage of them as cheap labor exports. Thus, they deserve just treatment, for the benefit is mutual. Tan says, “the principle of self-determination tells us that we should be concerned about bringing a more 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 deserve equal respect because they actually reciprocate the benefits they gain. Unjust policies of certain states, for instance in Singapore, which limit migrant workers access to government institutions make them poor victims of rape, non-payment of salaries and maltreatment (AFP Report, Feb. 8, 2006). State governments, I believe, owe these workers the justice they deserve.

Thus, the requirements of 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 required is to open economic borders and end state-centric protectionist policies which are detrimental to the global poor. We have shown that the problem of global justice is somehow structural, and this calls for a change in the status quo of global economic structures which favor the economic growth of rich nations at the expense of the peoples of the third world. Joseph Stiglitz (2005) echoes this idea when he says that the policies of the International Monetary Fund have actually stymied development rather than uplift the lives of the global poor.


What is the idea behind state sovereignty? In a sovereign state, individuals bind themselves together under one sovereign power. Through this, compatriots demand upon each other the obligations of justice. Justice in this regard serves the purpose of the basic structure set up under the rule of one sovereign government. This relation within the basic structure is political, not moral. This political relation is established by way of the legitimacy citizens confer upon their government. The government regulates its citizens (i.e. taxation, resource distribution, etc.) in the name of justice to set the fair terms of cooperation. Social institutions are established to carry out and secure justice for each citizen of the state. But this political arrangement does not give citizens the responsibility to extend the duty of justice to outsiders because outsiders are not a party to this political arrangement. Nagel says, “sovereignty puts the fellow citizens of a sovereign state into a relation that they do not have with the rest of humanity, an institutional relation which must then be evaluated by the special standards of fairness and equality that fill out the content of justice” (Ibid., 120).

Socio-economic justice, according to Nagel, is fully associative in nature and is 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. It is only through such that citizens can claim “a right to democracy, equal citizenship, non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, and the amelioration through public policy fairness in the distribution of social and economic goods” (Ibid.) For Nagel, justice is something that we owe to our fellow citizens within the borders of the state; it is not owed to everyone. This state-centricism means that “a sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage.

The societal rules determining its basic structure are coercively imposed, it is not a voluntary association” (Ibid., 128-29). Citizens confer upon the state the power to govern them. In short, the state is the primary agent of justice which citizens themselves establish by agreement. This agreement brings about the positive obligations of justice (Ibid., 130). It is an obligation that does not go beyond the borders of the state. Hence, Nagel says, “this duty is not owed to everyone in the world”(Ibid., 121) When laws are made, they are established with the members of one’s political community in mind, and not imposed against or for others outside this community. The points above imply that global inequality, the imbalance of wealth between rich and poor nations, and the economic suffering that it brings is not a problem that the basic structure of rich nations must address. The political relation of citizens does not give rise to the obligations of justice to outsiders. Peter Singer makes a valid point when he says that “neither race nor nation determines the value of a human being’s life” (Singer 2004).

Consider, for instance, the assistance rich nations give to citizens of poor countries. On a practical note, extending the obligations of justice would mean empowering poor people or immigrants for them to be able to reciprocate. How? The development of talents in poor nations, through technology or knowledge transfer, can be advantageous to the First World later on. By opening state borders to talented workers from foreign countries, host nations gain from their abilities. Intelligent students from developing countries who get the opportunity to study abroad, many of them in US universities, have done important researches for big companies, thereby contributing to the US economy. But more can be done. Let us consider the reality of globalization. We are linked not only to our fellow citizens, but to a global community as well. Nagel is wrong in discriminating against the Brazilian who harvests coffee for him. Global ethics calls our attention to the fact that our individual actions affect the lives of other men and women however far they are.

If the CEO of Starbucks chooses to buy coffee from the Philippines instead of Brazil because American customers would so demand, the company has to be concerned about its impact on Brazilian coffee growers.Providing funds to developing countries to improve their economies is better than wasting billions in building warships and stealth fighter jets. There are one billion hungry and dying people in the world. The idea of sovereignty which fuel state-centric policies should not be a hindrance for citizens of rich nations to help the global poor.


1. Thomas Nagel. The Problem of Global Justice in Philosophy and Public Affairs 33,
No. 2, Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 2005.
2. John Rawls. The Law of Peoples. (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1999).
3. Kok-Chor Tan. Justice Without Borders. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
4. Peter Singer. One World, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
5. Thomas Pogge. World Poverty and Human Rights. (Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2002).