Global justice

Global justice

Global justice is an issue in political philosophy arising from the concern that "we do not live in a just world." [Thomas Nagel, 'The Problem of Global Justice', "Philosophy and Public Affairs" 33(2005): 113-47. p. 113. An online version of this article is listed under External links.] Many people are extremely poor, while others are extremely rich. Many live under tyrannical regimes. Many are vulnerable to violence, disease, and starvation. Many die prematurely. How should we understand and respond to these facts? What do the inhabitants of the world owe, if anything, to one another? What institutions and what ethical standards should we recognise and apply throughout the world?

Three central concerns — the scope of justice, distributive justice, and institutions — structure the debate about global justice. The main positions in that debate — realism, particularism, nationalism, the society of states tradition, and cosmopolitanism — can be distinguished by their various approaches to these questions.


The broader philosophical context of the global justice debate, in both its contemporary and historical forms, is the issue of impartiality. Many people believe they have more important duties to family members, friends and compatriots than to strangers and foreigners. But are they right to endorse such partiality? Cosmopolitans, reportedly including the ancient Greek Diogenes of Sinope, have described themselves as "citizens of the world". [Diogenes Laertius, 'Life of Diogenes' in "The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers" trans. C.D. Yonge. [] , accessed 8 August 2006.] Thinkers including the utilitarian anarchist William Godwin have argued that everyone has an impartial duty to do the most good he or she can, without preference for any one human being over another. [William Godwin, "Enquiry Concerning Political Justice" ed. Isaac Kramnick. London: Penguin, 1976 [1793] .]

The broader political context of the debate is the longstanding conflict between more and less local institutions: tribes against states, villages against cities, local communities against empires, nation-states against the UN. The relative strength of the local versus the global has waxed and waned over recorded history. From the early modern period until the twentieth century, the preeminent political institution was the state, which is sovereign, territorial, claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of power in its territory, and exists in an international system of other sovereign states. [Martin Van Creveld, "The Rise and Decline of the State". Cambridge: CUP, 1999.] Over the same period, and relatedly, political philosophers' interest in justice focused almost exclusively on domestic issues: how should states treat their subjects, and what do fellow-citizens owe one another? Justice in relations between states, and between individuals across state borders, was put aside as a secondary issue or left to international relations theorists. [Simon Caney, "Justice Beyond Borders". Oxford: OUP, 2006. p. 1.]

Since the First World War, however, the state system has been transformed by globalization and by the creation of supranational political and economic institutions such as the League of nations, the UN, and the World Bank. [David Held, 'The Transformation of Political Community' in Ian Shapiro ed., "Democracy's Edges". Cambridge: CUP, 1999: 84-111.] Over the same period, and especially since the 1970s, global justice became an important issue in political philosophy. [Onora O'Neill, 'Transnational Economic Justice' in "Bounds of Justice". Cambridge: CUP, 2000: 115-42.] In the contemporary global justice debate, the general issue of impartiality centers on the moral significance of borders and of shared citizenship. Realists, particularists, nationalists, members of the society of states tradition, and cosmopolitans take contesting positions in response to these problems.

Central questions

Three related questions, concerning the scope of justice, justice in the distribution of wealth and other goods, and the institutions responsible for justice, are central to the problem of global justice.


Are there, as the moral universalist argues, objective ethical standards that apply to all humans regardless of culture, race, gender, religion, nationality or other distinguishing features? Or do ethical standards only apply within such limited contexts as cultures, nations, communities, or voluntary associations?

Distributive justice

1.1 billion people — 18% of humanity — live below the World Bank's $2/day poverty line while the Canadian government provides farmers with $3/per cattle for food. So the food we consume, is eating better than the people in the 3rd world countries. [Xavier Sala-i-martin,] Is this "distribution" of wealth and other goods just? What is the root cause of poverty, and are there systemic injustices in the world economy? Do the rich have an obligation to help the poor, or is aid a matter of charity, and therefore admirable but not morally required? If the poor should be helped, how much help is required — just enough that they can meet their basic needs, enough that they can flourish as humans, or until they are no longer worse off than the rich?


What "institutions" – states, communes, federal entities, global financial institutions like the World Bank, international NGOs, multinational corporations, international courts, a world state – would best achieve the ideal of global justice? How might they gain our support, and whose responsibility is it to create and sustain such institutions? How free should movement between the jurisdictions of different territorial entities be?

Main positions

Five main positions — realism, particularism, nationalism, the society of states tradition, and cosmopolitanism (in two forms) — have been taken by contributors to the global justice debate.


Realists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, argue that there are no global ethical standards, and that to imagine that there are is a dangerous fantasy. States are the main actors in an international anarchy, and they either will or should always attempt to act rationally in their own interests. So, in response to the three central questions above: moral universalism is either false, or merely says that nothing is forbidden to any state in pursuit of its interests. There is no obligation to help the poor, unless doing so helps to further a state’s strategic aims. And the state system is taken as the fundamental and unchallengeable global institutional arrangement.


Particularists, such as Michael Walzer and James Tully, argue that ethical standards arise out of shared meanings and practices, which are created and sustained by discrete cultures or societies. Moral and social criticism is possible within the boundaries of such groups, but not across them. If a society is egalitarian, for instance, its citizens can be morally wrong, and can meaningfully criticise each other, if they do not live up to their own egalitarian ideals; but they cannot meaningfully criticise another, caste-based society in the name of those ideals. "A given society is just if its substantive life is lived in a certain way — that is, in a way faithful to the shared understandings of [its] members." [Michael Walzer, "Spheres of Justice". New York: Basic Books, 1983. p. 313.] It is unjust if not. Each society has its own, different standards, and only those inside it are bound by those standards and can properly criticise themselves. So, moral universalism is false, because objective ethical standards vary between cultures or societies. We should not apply the same criteria of distributive justice to strangers as we would to compatriots. And nation-states which express their peoples' shared and distinctive ethical understandings are the proper institutions to enable local and different justices.


Nationalists, such as David Miller and Yael Tamir, argue that demanding mutual obligations are created by a particular kind of valuable association, the nation. [David Miller, "On Nationality". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.] We may have humanitarian duties to aid the particularly badly off worldwide, but these are much less stringent and pressing than our duties to our fellow-citizens. Nationalism has traditionally included this assumption of differing moral obligations to those within and those outside the nation, reflected for example in the fact that the benefits of the welfare state are not available to citizens of other countries. So, moral universalism is too simple, because the ethical standards which apply between compatriots differ from those which apply between strangers (although some nationalists argue for the universal ethical standard that nations should have their own states). Distributive justice is an issue within nations but not necessarily between them. And a world-system of nation-states is the appropriate organiser of justice for all, in their distinct associational groups.

Society of states

In the society of states tradition, states are seen as individual entities which can mutually agree on common interests and rules of interaction, including moral rules, in much the same way as human individuals can. Often, this idea of agreement between peers is formalised by a social contract argument.

One prominent exemplar of the tradition is John Rawls. In "The Law of Peoples", Rawls extends the method of his "A Theory of Justice" to the question of global justice. His argument is that we can justify a global regime by showing that it would be chosen by representatives of Peoples in an imagined original position, which prevents them knowing which particular People they represent. This decision-in-ignorance models fairness because it excludes selfish bias. When Rawls applied this method in the case of domestic justice, with parties in the original position representing individual members of a single society, he argued that it supported a redistributive, egalitarian liberal politics. In contrast, Rawls argues that when his method is applied to global justice, it supports a quite traditional, Kantian international ethics: duties of states to obey treaties and strict limits on warmaking, but no global repossession of private property. So, different justices apply to the domestic and international cases. Even if justice requires egalitarianism within states, it does not do so between them. And a system of cooperating but independent states is the just global institutional arrangement. Rawls describes this ideal as a 'realistic utopia'. [John Rawls, "The Law of Peoples". Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 4.] Apart from Rawls, other notable exponents of this position include Hedley Bull.


Cosmopolitans argue that some form of moral universalism is true, and therefore that all humans, and not merely compatriots or fellow-citizens, fall within the scope of justice. Their arguments typically appeal to consistency, as follows:
# The moral standing of individuals is based on some morally significant characteristics.
# These characteristics are shared by "all" humans (and not only by the members of some nation, culture, society, or state).
# Therefore, "all" humans have moral standing (and the boundaries between nations, cultures, societies and states are morally irrelevant). [Caney, "Justice Beyond Borders", Chapter 2.] Cosmopolitans differ, however, over "which" shared human characteristics are morally significant.

Consequentialist cosmopolitans, amongst whom Peter Singer is prominent, argue that the proper standard of moral judgement for actions, practices or institutions is their consequences, and that the measure of consequences is the welfare of humans (or even of all sentient creatures). The capacity to experience welfare and suffering is therefore the shared basis for moral standing. This means that the fact that some people are suffering terrible deprivations of welfare, caused by poverty, creates a moral demand that anyone who is able to help them do so. Neither the physical distance between the rich and the poor, nor the fact that they are typically citizens of different countries, has any moral relevance. [Peter Singer ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, "Philosophy and Public Affairs" 1(1972): 229-243. Online version listed under External links.]

Defenders of Human rights cosmopolitanism, such as Thomas Pogge and Simon Caney, argue that all humans have rights, perhaps those set out in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It may be argued that these rights create a positive duty of the rich to provide what they guarantee (security, a livelihood, etc.); or, alternatively, it may be argued that the rich are currently violating their negative duty not to impose a global order which systematically violates the rights of the poor. [Pogge, "World Poverty and Human Rights".]

Others defend neoconservative interventionist foreign policy from a view of cosmopolitanism for the added benefits to human rights that such intervention could bring. Some defended the liberation of Iraq from this motive due to the human rights abuses Saddam had inflicted on countless members of the Kurdish and Shiite communities.

Individual cosmopolitans also differ considerably in how they understand the requirements of distributive justice and the legitimacy of global institutions. Some, for instance Kai Nielsen, endorse world government; others, such as Simon Caney, do not. The extent to which cosmopolitans advocate global redistribution of resources also varies. All cosmopolitans, however, believe that individuals, and not states, nations, or other groups, are the ultimate focus of universal moral standards.

Demands of global justice

None of the five main positions described above imply complete satisfaction with the current world order. Realists complain that states which pursue utopian moral visions through intervention and humanitarian aid, instead of minding their own strategic interests, do their subjects harm and destabilise the international system. [for instance E.H. Carr, "The Twenty Years Crisis 1919-1939". London: Macmillan, 1961.] Particularists object to the destruction of traditional cultures by cultural colonialism, whether under the guise of economic liberalism or defence of human rights. [for instance James Tully, "Strange Multiplicity". Cambridge: CUP, 1995.] Nationalists deplore the fact that so many people are stateless or live under inefficient and tyrannical regimes. [for instance Miller, "On Nationality".] Advocates of the society of states are concerned about rogue states and about the imperial ambitions of the powerful. [for instance Rawls, "The Law of Peoples".] Cosmopolitans believe that the contemporary world badly fails to live up to their standards, and that doing so would require considerable changes in the actions of wealthy individuals and states. [for instance Caney, "Justice Beyond Borders".] It might, for instance, require them to transfer most of their wealth to the poor. It might require the building of international institutions able to limit, or even replace, the self-interested action of powerful states and corporations. It might require each of us to do much more than most now do.

ee also

*Democratic globalization
*Democratic World Federalists
*Global Justice Movement
*Global Justice (organization)
*Globalization and Health
*Just War
*Movement of Movements
*World Social Forum | European Social Forum


Bibliography and further reading

*Brian Barry, "Culture and Equality". Cambridge: Polity, 2001. ISBN 0-7456-2227-5.
*Gad Barzilai, "Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities". Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-11315-1
*Charles Beitz, "Political Theory and International Relations". Revised edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-691-00915-5.
*Hedley Bull, "The Anarchical Society". London: Macmillan, 1977. ISBN 0-333-19914-6.
*Simon Caney, "Justice Beyond Borders". Oxford: OUP, 2005. ISBN 0-19-829350-X.
*David Miller, "On Nationality". Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. ISBN 0-19-828047-5.
*Gelder, Melinda, "Meeting the Enemy, Becoming a Friend". Boulder: Bauu Press, 2006. ISBN 0-9721349-5-6.
*Terry Nardin, "Law, Morality and the Relations of States". Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
*Terry Nardin & David Mapel, "Traditions of International Ethics". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
*Martha Nussbaum, "Frontiers of Justice". Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-674-01917-2.
*Onora O'Neill, "Bounds of Justice". Cambridge: CUP, 2000. ISBN 0-521-44232-X.
*Thomas Pogge, "World Poverty and Human Rights". Cambridge: Polity, 2002. ISBN 0-7456-2994-6.
*John Rawls, "The Law of Peoples". Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-674-00079-X.
*Amartya Sen, "Development as Freedom". Oxford: OUP, 1999. ISBN 0-19-829758-0.
*Peter Singer, "One World". New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-300-09686-0.
*Yael Tamir, "Liberal Nationalism". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-691-07893-9.
*James Tully, "Strange Multiplicity". Cambridge: CUP, 1995. ISBN 0-521-47117-6.
*Kenneth Waltz, "Theory of International Politics". Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979. ISBN 0-201-08349-3.
*Michael Walzer, "Spheres of Justice". New York: Basic Books, 1983. ISBN 0-465-08190-8.

External links

* [ The Problem of Global Justice] by Thomas Nagel (pdf)
* [ Global Justice: Beyond International Equity] by Amartya Sen
* [ Famine, Affluence, and Morality] by Peter Singer
* [ Global Justice and Ideals] by Janna Thompson (pdf)
* MIT global justice [ reading list and lecture notes]
* Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on [ international justice] by Michael Blake

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Global Justice (organization) — Global Justice is a US based NGO, founded in 2001 at Harvard University by undergraduate and graduate students. With several different issue campaigns, the organization has chapters on over 15 high school and college campuses across the… …   Wikipedia

  • Global Justice or Global Revenge — Global Justice or Global Revenge? International Criminal Justice at the Crossroads (2003) is a book by Austrian philosopher Hans Köchler, who was appointed by the United Nations as observer of the Lockerbie bombing trial in the Netherlands (2000… …   Wikipedia

  • Global Justice Movement — The global justice movement is the broad globalized social movement opposing what is often known as “corporate globalization” and promoting equal distribution of economic resources.A number of organisations and groups using this term have emerged …   Wikipedia

  • Local to Global Justice — is a nonprofit volunteer organization based in Tempe, Arizona, USA. It sponsors events dealing with social justice issues, mostly held on and around the Arizona State University (ASU) Tempe campus. The group is a registered ASU student… …   Wikipedia

  • Mobilization for Global Justice — The Mobilization for Global Justice (or MGJ) is a [Washington, DC Area [Washington, D.C.] , USA, based activist group working on issues of social and economic justice. The group is perhaps best known for its demonstrations held during the… …   Wikipedia

  • Global health — is a field at the intersection of several social science disciplines demography, economics, epidemiology, political economy and sociology. It focuses on determinants and distribution of health in international contexts. The term global health… …   Wikipedia

  • Justice — is the concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, fairness and equity. A conception of justice is one of the key features of society. Theories of justice vary greatly, but there is evidence that everyday views of… …   Wikipedia

  • Justice (disambiguation) — Justice is the philosophical concept of the morally correct assignment of goods and evils.Justice may also refer to: *Justice (virtue) the virtue and practice of justice *Criminal justice *Distributive justice *Global justice *Justice (economics) …   Wikipedia

  • Global citizens movement — In most discussions, the global citizens movement is a socio political process rather than a political organization or party structure. The term is often used synonymously with the anti globalization movement or the global justice movement.[1]… …   Wikipedia

  • Global luck egalitarianism — articleissues orphan = June 2008Global luck egalitarianism is a view about distributive justice at the international level associated with cosmopolitan moral theory. It starts from the basic intuition that it is a bad thing for some people to be… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.