Global Distributive Justice is Utopian

“The idea of global distributive justice is utopian, incompatible with our natural partiality towards compatriots and irreconcilable with state sovereignty”. Discuss

We are now living in a global village. When the distance between countries is reduced the fast development of transportation, interdependence brought by the growing international political and economical collaborations, the notion of “global justice” is becoming major in the study of international relations and political philosophy. Yet, such globalization does not bring global prosperity and integrity. According to the Human Development Report 2006, the poorest 20% of the world’s people, roughly corresponding to the population living on less than $1 a day, account for 1.5% of world income (UNDP, 2006: 44).

Many scholars are advocating for the idea of global distributive justice. A principle that goes beyond the nations, in pursuit of developing a peaceful world. Yet, in practice, there are still many concerns that have to considered. This essay examines the main arguments given by cosmopolitanism and utilitarianism. Then we address some crucial disputes. In the end this essay will test this idea from two principal dimensions of global justice: political and economical that implicate that amplifying the idea of global distributive justice is utopian in this global village in this century.

Global Justice in the International Community

Nowadays, the literature and researches about global justice are flourishing. The issue of economic inequality among countries is especially been widely discussed since the last century. In 1965, Brian Barry was aware of the importance of international distributive justice, he wrote ‘No doubt it is possible for substantive general principles to be put forward and widely accepted, e.g., that rich nations have some kind of obligation to help poor nations develop their economies’ (Barry, 1990: lxxxiv). The growth of economic and political interdependence after World War II also had lead international community to worry about international distributive justice (Beitz, 1979). Indeed, it is obvious that in the first place, both academic and nations are more likely to concern with the importance of eradicating global poverty. From a cosmopolitan and relatively simple utilitarian view, Singer argues that a principle of redistributive justice should be based on the claim that ‘suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad’ (Singer, 1972: 231). He then puts that ‘it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it’ (ibid). In following this principle, it is morally sound that we should sacrifice the non-necessary expense to rescue a child from famine. Although Singer admits there is a possibility for people to have a better assessment to judge what needs to be done to help a person near to us than one far away, he still firmly believes that proximity and distance have no impact on what one ought to do (Singer, 1972: 232).

That is to say, if we take Singer’s view to an universalized level, we owe no special duties to our fellow citizens over those belong to other countries of the world (Singer, 2004: 14). However, Singer’s moral principle is overly demanding and in conflict with our natural partiality toward our compatriots and individual preferences. Regarding to efficiency, it is by nature that people would feel more obligated to those in the same community or country. As Goodin (1988: 663) criticizes, people have special duties to those who have special relations with them, such as family or fellow countrymen. In contract to the universality of the general moral principle, some people do have certain special duties that other people do not. Such special duties not only implicate personally emotional preference in fellow citizens, but also indicate mutual extra burdens people have with their compatriots. As Goodin argues, on the mutual-benefit logic, ‘we have special duties toward those whose cooperation benefits us, and to them alone. That they share the same color passport – or, indeed, the same parentage – is related only contingently, at best, to that crucial consideration’ (Goodin, 1995: 279). Goodin also gives an example to address people’s limited psychological capabilities for living up to the universalized moral principle. Suppose there is a house on fire and there are two people trapped in the fire, one is a popular celebrity. The other one is your mother. When the time you have can only rescue one of them, which one would you save (Goodin, 1995: 267)? Although Goodin did not directly answer it in his essay, David Miller, in the other way, gives another similar example, to confirm that people are believed to have a much greater responsibility to their own child, or to others they are connected to (Miller, 2005: 66). To Miller, this point is still perfectly consistent with the view that ‘that it is equally bad, equally a matter of moral concern, when any child goes missing’ (ibid). Morally we should pursue a global village with no inequality, in the other words, we are morally obligated to show no bias to those people we have no special relationship. However, as Miller argues, in practice, such cosmopolitanism could only be a thesis of morality and value. It does suggest a global principle of equality yet it does not require a form of global egalitarianism (Miller, 2005: 66-67).

Another straightforward cosmopolitan view given by Brian Barry, who puts that in the cosmopolitanism: every human being has equal (ultimate) value (Barry, 1999: 36). To put it to a global level, I would borrow Thomas Pogge’s view, ‘that every human being has a global stature as the ultimate unit of moral concern’ (Pogge, 1994: 124). This claim is clear in support of advocating universal human rights, and it demands, as Miller comments, a form of universal utilitarianism that tells people to ‘enter the happiness of every human being with an equal weighting into the utilitarian calculus and to design policies and institutions accordingly (Miller, 2005: 65). Nevertheless, it needs to be more specified about the scope of the morality. According to Scheffler, this moral cosmopolitanism against any view that limits the scope of justification to the members of any type of group, no matter what political values, communal histories, or ethnics identify it. This claim as well stands opposed to any view that allows the justification to terminate in considerations about any non-derivative interests of collective entities such as state or social groups (Scheffler, 2001: 977). Here, this moral cosmopolitanism’s view is incompatible to people’s actual relations with their compatriots. If one takes the morality of states to posit that state boundaries are limits to the cope of justification, then cosmopolitanism is plainly incompatible with it. As Miller puts, the principles of global justice are non-comparative whereas principles of social justice are comparative (Miller, 1995: 171). Perhaps, as Miller comments, in an effort to amplify global justice, a ‘weak cosmopolitan’ distributive obligation might be interpreted as beneficence. Therefore, under some cases where peoples basic human rights are not protected, and ‘it is not feasible for their own national state to protect them’, there could be obligations of international justice (Miller, 1995: 108).

Global Economical and Political Justice

It is problematic to fit the idea of global distributive justice into the reality of international community. Firstly, let’s go back to the issue mentioned in the previous part of this essay; the issue concerns the causal responsibility for global poverty. As Pogge argues, the current global order perpetuates and exacerbates the problem of global poverty (Pogge, 2008). Because of the fact that the government of advanced and rich countries imposes such global order, they and their people have this duty to reform the global order and perhaps to compensate for the consequence of their deeds. However, the problem of global poverty is deeply intertwined with the international interdependence in economic development, and the responsibility of global-level and domestic-level causes of poverty needs to be clarified. Regarding to international distributive justice, Rawls notes the aim to design a social system to all:

‘Well-ordered people have a duty to assist burdened societies. It does not follow, however, that the only way, or the best way, to carry out this duty of assistance is by following a principle of distributive justice to regulate economic and social inequalities among societies. Most such principles do not have a defined goal, aim, or cut-off point, beyond which aid may cease. The levels of wealth and welfare among societies may vary, and presumably do no; but adjusting those levels is not the object of the duty of assistance, only burdened societies need help’. (Rawls, 1999: 106)

Here Rawls affirms two positions. First, he affirms that the well-off societies have duties to assist those less ‘well-ordered’ and under some conditions these duties may require international transfers of capitals. Second, for a country that fails in providing its people adequate help to sustain the basic living standards, it makes itself vulnerable to justified external interference. It echoes Peter Singer’s claim for principle of redistributive justice. Thus Rawls appeals for principles to regulate organized international collaborations, ‘and taken into account by the duty of assistance’ (Rawls, 2002: 43).

However, Rawls is also skeptical about those internal funds could actually help a society to develop a capacity to honor its people’s basic rights. Rawls puts, ‘that merely dispensing funds will not suffice to rectify basic political and social injustices (though money is often essential)’ and ‘throwing funds at [a burdened society] is usually undesirable’ (Rawls, 2002: 108-110). It might be safe to say that, a theory of global justice must take the basic structure of international society into account. These elements of international society include economic, political, and legal institutions, and practices. Beitz also acknowledges the significant role of political justice in the discussion in the study of political philosophy and history. Yet he comments, ‘the problem is that here is no analogous structure at the global level’ (Beitz, 2005: 24). It is difficult to find an executive power with adequate legitimacy to affect the policy-decision-making of all nations to avoid the global poverty been exacerbated.

One may criticizes that, this argument disregards the contributions of those international organizations and networks, such as UN or Red Cross. Also some transnational networks of state officials are developing a global governance functions (Slaughter, 2004). For instance, the United Nations use Human Development Index (HDI) to examine each country by getting a broader understanding of their people’s well-being. HDI provides a broader outlook of human progress and the complicated relationship between income and well-being. According to the HDI report 2006, in its eight reason for the world to act on water and sanitation, it points out that ‘there is no effective global partnership for water and sanitation, and successive high-level conferences have failed to create the momentum needed to push water and sanitation in the international agenda’ (UNDP, 2006: 37). These words are adequate enough to penetrate the problem of accountability in most international administrative and regulatory organizations. When any decision made by the transnational institutions arrives at a domestic level policy-making level, there is no mechanism to make the domestic policy-makers accountable to them. To carry out those policies, there are still many technical problems in a domestic level need to be overcome – economical and political structures, culture, and recourse. Therefore, the idea of global distributive justice may get moral support from such transnational networks and institutions, yet it is not easy for them to be put into action in a domestic level.

Though human rights nowadays seems like a universal value, however, when global justice is in conflict of a state’s interest, such universal value still cannot reconcile its ideal with reality. In 2003, most East Asian countries were threatened by the SARS outbreak, in the end about a total of 774 people in the world died of SARS (CDC, 2005). In fact, China’s refusal to cooperate with the World Health Organization in the early months of the SARS outbreak exacerbated the epidemic, furthermore, China’s rejection in cooperating between the WHO and Taiwan even complicated the global efforts to control the outbreak (Edwards & Tkacil, 2004). When Taiwan was in an urgent need of global support in distributive enough medical equipment, the WHO refused. According to an open letter by Eugene Chien, Foreign Affair Minister of Taiwan, published in the International Herald Tribune:

‘The WHO refused to provide any assistance, such as providing Taiwan’s scientists with the sample viruses needed in their research toward treatment and vaccines, or sending any experts to advise us on containment efforts. Repeated letters from our Ministry of Health and medical experts to Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the WHO, went unanswered’. (Chien, 2003)

This example well manifests that doing something to amplify global justice could possibly stands opposite to a state’s interest. Thus, when there is no clear structure of the responsibility of international community, it seems utopian to reconcile the idea of global distributive justice and state’s sovereignty. Such question as well has been constantly asked in the study of international relations. As Rosemary Foot puts in her introduction of Order and Justice in International Relations (2003), when social scientists examine both the formal procedural and the distributive notions of justice, we could not help but wonder: ‘How can we define the legitimate scope of societal difference in the presence of universalizing process? And who is the we who is doing the recognizing, the promoting, and the defining’ (Foot, 2003: 3)? The questions of reconcile the ideal of global distributive justice and state sovereignty is equivalent to the one between order and justice. Hurrells points out that countries like India, Russia, China, and the Islamic world, claim for justice and for just treatment are still mainly made in terms of respect of non-intervention and state sovereignty (Hurrell, 2003: 33). Perhaps now it is proper to borrow Beitz’s comment to conclude: ‘The scope of justification is global but the standards of justification respond to variations in the characteristics of the institutions to be justified (Beitz, 2005: 22). Although the notion of social justice is well applied in the basic structure within self-governing political communities, yet it is not valid enough to expand its application to a global level.


The idea of global distributive justice remains a difficult topic for the study of political philosophy and international relations. Cosmopolitans ask for a general moral principle whilst others see it oppose our natural partiality for our fellow countrymen. Utilitarian wants to amplify basic human rights in the entire global village, yet others address the undeniable significance of the order within a state and sovereignty. Problems like those this essay have discussed above are inherently problematic. The difficulty lies in the vagueness left by the imperfectly established theory of global justice. What is the universality of general moral principle? Should there be a supreme authority to identify the needy people and command members of international community to take action for the sake of global justice? Those are essential questions we need to answer first. Thus the notion of global justice is not simply the expansion of social justice. Thus the idea of global distributive justice seems incompatible to our nature partiality for our compatriots, and irreconcilable to state’s sovereignty.

However, the inherent difficulty within the nature of the theory of global justice should be regarded as an opportunity. Given the facts of global poverty and so much unjustness covered by the name of state’s sovereignty, it is worthy for social scientists to refine and propose a more concrete theory of global justice. In order to positively pursue a much just world for our future generations, thus we can expect with hope that a better work still remains to be written.