- On Global Justice by Mathias Risse
Princeton, 465 pp, £27.95, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 14269 2
Global inequality has become one of the forms of the statistical sublime. There is a strange pleasure to be had from discovering that the top 0.5 per cent of the world population owns 35.6 per cent of global wealth, while the bottom 68.4 per cent controls a mere 4.2 per cent; or that the richest thousand or so billionaires are worth more than one and a half billion of the world’s poorest people; or that the wealth of the world’s three richest people is equal to the combined GDP of the 48 poorest countries. It’s like being able to look up at the world’s highest mountain and then straight down into the deepest trench of the ocean. Nature deprived us of this experience by covering half the world with water, and for a long time the true extent of global inequality was difficult to visualise too. But globalisation has brought the highest and lowest points of the world economy into closer proximity, and with more reliable statistics and electronic communication the chasm is there for all who dare to look. Yet once the vertiginous sensation has worn off, what is there to say?
[*] Risse explains that it is ‘a demand of reasonable conduct on person P to perform action A if and only if it would be unreasonable for P not to do A, and if and only if P can reasonably be expected to do A’. However, this is not a demand in the normal sense of the word, for the conjunction of its being unreasonable not to do something, and its being a reasonable expectation that you do it, does not in itself constitute a demand that it be done.
Vol. 35 No. 7 · 11 April 2013
From Mathias Risse
In his review of my book On Global Justice, Malcolm Bull mischaracterises my argument in several significant ways (LRB, 21 February). First, he claims I have no problem with the fact that ‘a high proportion of the assets of the super-rich are now held in micro-plutocracies where the difference principle is ignored.’ This is plainly false: Bull acknowledges elsewhere that I endorse Rawls’s principles of justice at the domestic level.
Second, Bull writes that I promise ‘to leave the world very much as it already is’. Both Bull and I would be fortunate indeed to live in a world that my theory would leave very much as it already is. In a just world as I envisage it, governments are not only of, by and for their people; they are also trustees of the earth on behalf of future generations. If their people’s basic needs can be satisfied, governments must ensure that future generations’ needs will be too. Governments are partly responsible for the realisation of a duty of assistance to the poor. They must assume responsibility for the maintenance of a just trade system, which considers the interests of those who live elsewhere. They must do their share to foster the flourishing of humanity. They must also account for what they do to fulfil these duties.
Distinguishing among different grounds of justice, my approach dilutes the contrast between domestic and foreign policy. Governments must not neglect their duties with regard to immigration, climate change or future generations even if (given current policies) discharging such duties threatens disproportionately to affect disadvantaged segments of society. Social policy must be reformed to this end, and domestic tax codes adjusted.
Third, Bull claims that I couldn’t possibly agree with Martin Luther King’s dictum that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ In fact I say that King overstates the matter. Since I distinguish among different grounds of justice, not every injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. However, most grounds are global in scope (common humanity, collective ownership, membership in the global order). King’s claim is true for all of those. Bull is in error when he insists that there is no global injustice in my account. But in a just world as I envisage it human potential is unleashed in all its strength and variety. Massive global inequalities would be unlikely to persist. Such a world is like ours only in the sense that it would still be a world of states.
What is true is that I reject the approach to global justice that has become dominant among political philosophers. According to this ‘cosmopolitan’ approach, justice requires that we create a world in which the same principles of justice apply to all human beings: there should be global equality of opportunity, for instance, and economic policies that promote the interests of the globally least advantaged. Such a world would differ enormously from ours. It may therefore sound like the sort of proposal philosophers (as opposed to politicians) ought to make. I disagree. A view like this involves the abandonment of states as we know them. It asks us to theorise a world we understand far too little for such a vision to be action-guiding. If we want utopian thinking to be both intelligible and action-guiding, we must realise that a world without states is outside these limits.