Justice, international

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

4. Problems with cosmopolitan justice

The absorptive capacities of poor countries set severe limits on the amount of global redistribution that would be possible. Nevertheless, let us suppose that cosmopolitan principles would require rich countries to transfer ten per cent of their incomes to poor ones. This would imply a tenfold increase in aid from the Scandinavian countries, and an increase of fifty times and more from the current laggards such as the UK and USA. It is widely assumed not only that this is ‘politically infeasible’ but that this infeasibility somehow casts doubt on either the premises or the reasoning process leading to the conclusion about what justice demands. Yet many countries must on the same criteria be judged grossly unjust domestically, and this is not normally felt to cast doubt on the conclusion. Is there any rationale for the difference in attitude?

Thomas Nagel, in Equality and Partiality, has argued that lying behind the ‘political infeasibility’ is a moral consideration: that people in rich countries ‘have sufficient reason to resist if they can’ a ‘radical drop in the standard of living of [themselves] and [their] famil[ies]’ (1991: 174). Nagel denies that this reason amounts only to ‘pure selfishness’, but all he claims is that ‘personal interests and commitments’ are relevant (1991: 172). It is, however, hard to see how any morally compelling commitments could not be met with a modestly reduced standard of living, so ‘personal interests’ (that is, the unwillingness to do what is just) seems to be all that is left. Even if some commitments such as private schooling or a car as a graduation present had to be abandoned, it seems grotesque to mention this in the same breath as the plight of parents in poor countries who have to watch helplessly while their children die of diseases caused by malnutrition and lack of sanitation.

For Nagel, international redistribution does not create problems that are distinctive in principle: ‘some poor countries such as India and Mexico have wealthy minorities’ who can, apparently, equally legitimately resist redistribution (1991: 170). Other people, however, seem to regard the problem of international justice as different. A possible rationale might run as follows. States have a coercive apparatus at their command which could be used to bring about justice even if it is not so used and (given the constellation of political forces) is in many cases not likely to be so used. There is no international agency with the coercive power to create international justice, even under ideal political conditions. This means that moves towards international justice will require voluntary action by governments. We cannot reasonably expect the electorates of rich countries to vote for politicians who promise if elected to take steps to reduce their standard of living significantly. But if we cannot reasonably expect somebody to do something, we can scarcely mount a serious criticism of that person for not doing it. This must suggest that failing to do it is not appropriately described as unjust.

This argument is manifestly a close cousin of the Hobbesian one dissected in §2 in the link it makes between motivation, institutions and justice. As before, we can respond that the correct conclusion to draw is that justice requires appropriate coercive institutions. If domestic taxation were purely voluntary, it would no doubt be regarded as unreasonable to expect people to pay a large proportion of their incomes to the government, yet nobody thinks much of governments taking in over forty per cent of the national income for the provision of public services and cash benefits. If rich countries could be coerced by an international organization, there would, similarly, be no reason for a tax rate of, say, ten per cent to be regarded as extraordinary.

The absence of such a coercive institution has meant that the populations of rich countries have had little self-interested motivation to correct the situation. However, as Annette Baier has argued, ‘people grow more reckless of the lives of others as their own lives become more wretched, insecure, and intolerable’ (1991: 34). And while it would be better in every respect if rich countries acted under their own momentum to transfer resources to poor countries, the development and proliferation of devastating nuclear and (relatively portable) chemical and biological weapons means that not to do so ‘may be not just inhumanity [but] folly if the excluded do feel resentment and have power to make it felt’ (1991: 54; original emphasis).

Citing this article:
Barry, Brian and Matt Matravers. Problems with 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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