Justice, international

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S033-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Cosmopolitan justice

The American Declaration of Independence, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all proclaim the equal value of all human beings. The two main strands of modern moral philosophy, Kantianism and utilitarianism, are likewise based on an axiom of equal value: for Kant everyone is a participant in the ‘kingdom of ends’ and entitled to equal respect, while for Bentham ‘everybody counts for one’ in the sense that all units of utility are given the same weight regardless of the identity of their owners.

In practice, however, many philosophers operate as if the axiom’s validity extended only to fellow citizens, and much popular discourse follows the same lines. Yet a universal principle cannot simply have its application arbitrarily truncated at a state boundary (see Cosmopolitanism). In revulsion against this, it is tempting to adopt an equally absolutist cosmopolitan line, according to which each of us should regard ourselves as citizens of the world, with no special obligations to the fellow citizens of our own state. But if (see §2) justice entails keeping covenants, may we not be said to be bound to our fellow citizens by innumerable implicit covenants? If you have contributed throughout your adult life to the national system of social insurance, for example, you have a claim on your fellow citizens for support in old age or in the event of becoming disabled and incapable of working. Your co-nationals owe this to you in virtue of a formal system of mutual aid: they do not have the same obligation to somebody (perhaps equally deserving or needy) who has not participated in the scheme.

There is nothing in this which is inconsistent with cosmopolitanism, understood as the extension to all human beings of the axiom of fundamental equality. Utilitarians normally recognize that the universal good is likely to be most effectively pursued indirectly. Similarly, a Kantian can agree that an element of particularism may consistently be willed as a universal law. The limits of this particularism are, however, quite tightly drawn. The value of a family to its members depends on a certain material base: formal autonomy without adequate resources is a cruel cheat. In a similar way, the picture of a world in which people have special obligations to compatriots loses its moral attractiveness unless each country has enough material resources to provide at least the basic essentials in the way of food, shelter, sanitation and medical care to its inhabitants (see International relations, philosophy of §§3, 4).

A utilitarian will have little difficulty in recognizing that, however inefficient the transfer process might be, a situation in which the richest fifth of the world’s population is sixty times better off than the poorest fifth must be one in which utility would be increased by a shift in resources. The Kantian legacy leaves more room for interpretation. All that can be said here is that contemporary neo-contractarianism seems naturally to lead to an equally pressing obligation to shift resources from the richest to the poorest countries. Thus, if we imagine people from everywhere in the world, ignorant of their personal identities, meeting in a Rawlsian ‘original position’ to choose principles of global justice, we must regard it as inconceivable that they would not seek to guard against suffering the fate of the majority of inhabitants of the poorest countries (see Rawls, J. §1). And if we follow Thomas Scanlon’s (1982) proposal that we ask what principles could not reasonably be rejected by people seeking agreement with others under conditions that ruled out the exercise of bargaining power, we would have to say that those from the poorest countries could reasonably reject principles giving rise to a world order that left so many living in degrading deprivation (see Contractarianism; Justice).

Citing this article:
Barry, Brian and Matt Matravers. Cosmopolitan justice. Justice, international, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S033-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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