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12.1: The Basics of Global Justice

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  • Justice, at its core, concerns itself with who deserves what and why. True to their cosmopolitan roots, contemporary global justice scholars concern themselves with the moral worth of the individual, regardless of place of birth, and focus on problems of global cohabitation in which individuals are not yet treated as morally equal or where the moral focus has traditionally been on states. To engage with such problems, global justice scholars usually focus on what individuals across the world deserve and how distribution of these entitlements can be achieved. The answers to these types of questions vary significantly depending on which problem is being addressed.

    John Rawls’ (1971) Theory of Justice set out a theory that political structures (typically states) can determine who deserves what and why due to the power to make laws, raise taxes and dispense public spending. Therefore, such structures should be built carefully to ensure a just distribution of rights and duties between all citizens. Hence, Rawls’ idea was one of distributive justice. Rawls was not advocating for communism, where all wealth is shared equally, but for a society where inequality was moderated so that those who were disadvantaged (for whatever reason) were at least able to live a decent life. Rawls theorised that such a structure could only exist within a democratic society, or in other words, a specific type of state. Therefore, Rawls’ account of justice describes the potential for a just human existence for those fortunate enough to live within such a state – but his theory was not designed to apply internationally as no such formal structure of global distributive justice exists.

    Cosmopolitan scholars take issue with Rawls’ state-centric approach to justice and argue that questions of justice must include all humans, regardless of state association. For example, Charles Beitz (1975) argues that limiting questions of justice to the national level in the modern global era is morally inappropriate, because we now have global institutions that may be able to perform some of the basic functions of the state, such as collect forms of taxation or make laws. Thomas Pogge (1989) stresses that global inequalities between individuals call for a global approach to justice that can effectively respond to these inequalities. Although these scholars ground their arguments in different ways, they both advocate for a widening of the scope of justice to the global level. These types of arguments are where the term ‘global justice’ originates and provide the bedrock for its emergence as a theory of IR.

    When discussing global poverty, Thomas Pogge (2001) and Gillian Brock (2010) argue that poverty alleviation should focus on redistributing wealth and resources between rich and poor individuals. When analysing humanitarian intervention, scholars such as Mary Kaldor (2010) and Daniele Archibugi (2004) make the case that individuals must be prioritised over state-centric non-intervention laws. Furthermore, scholars such as Garrett Brown (2012) analyse the issue of global health and argue that the health of individuals is determined by global structures to make the case for reform. Contemporary global justice scholars focus on problems as diverse as gender inequality, immigration and refugees, warfare and climate change. This implies that the question of who deserves what, and why, covers a wide range of topics, most of which are contemporary international relations problems. This is why the discipline of global justice is so relevant to IR, because global justice scholars concern themselves with analysing and assessing fundamental problems caused by global cohabitation. In this sense, it is a modern theory that will continue to be relevant as long as global problems exist.

    Although global justice scholars usually assert that individuals must be the central unit of moral concern when exploring global problems, it is important to note that these scholars often prioritise different goals in order to ensure that individuals are the subject of equal moral concern. For example, some scholars emphasise human rights, some discuss the importance of institutions operating fairly (referred to as procedural justice), some emphasise the importance of human capability, while others are concerned with fair global social processes. It is important to keep this diversity in mind when studying global justice. No two scholars have the exact same aims, which implies a healthy diversity of ideas within the field. This is true even within more narrow subjects, such as climate justice, where authors have many different ideas on how to achieve a just response to the problem of climate change.

    While you might assume that an approach that seeks to treat all humans on Earth better is popular, or logical, global justice also attracts some notable criticisms. David Miller (2007) argues that national borders are more important than cosmopolitan global justice. Miller believes that coming to an agreement on principles of justice requires a common history and culture and that defining global principles is not possible because of national differences on conceptions of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’. Thomas Nagel (2005) and Michael Blake (2001) both argue that global justice cannot be achieved without the backing of powerful global institutions. However, global institutions that have power over individuals and states simply do not exist (yet), rendering discussions about global principles of justice futile. Finally, Iris Marion Young (2011) regards cosmopolitanism as a Western-centric theory that does not have the global appeal it purports to have. After all, global justice is based on the importance of the individual and often makes appeal to human rights and other liberal norms, which some perceive as Western ideals, not universal ones. These criticisms do not take away from the importance of global justice: like all theories of IR, its theoretical development is spurred on by answering its critics.