Achieving Global and Local Justice

Achieving Global and Local Justice

Years ago, in 1983, I published a book called Spheres of Justice, which was an attempt to give an account of distributive justice in domestic society. I said virtually nothing in that book about distributive justice in international society. Since then, I have often been challenged to address issues of global justice, and I have responded with suggestions about how an argument might be constructed that would fit or sit alongside of the arguments of Spheres. What follows is an attempt to flesh out that argument, still in an incomplete way, but a little more fully than I have done in the past. I am not sure that what I will say here is consistent with my earlier suggestion, but I have never been accused of being a system-builder. The issues are very difficult, and perhaps it is useful to approach them in different ways, at different times. Here is one possible approach.

Global justice would seem to require a global theory—a single philosophically grounded account of what justice is that explains why it ought to be realized in exactly this way, everywhere. It requires a comprehensive story about the just society, about equality, liberty, human rights, moral luck, and much else, a story that need only be repeated again and again, for it applies in identical fashion to every country in the world and also to the world as a whole. But there are several practical difficulties with this project. First, there is no one to whom we can tell the story, who can act authoritatively in its name. There is no global agent of justice whose legitimacy is widely recognized, who might take up the story in its true version and pursue the project it describes.

Second, we can’t be sure that the story will be understood in the same way by all the people who hear it. The story won’t connect with a single common life whose interests and ideals might make it, first, comprehensible, and then appealing. There isn’t a common life of that sort or, better, there are many common lives of different sorts. The diversity of cultures and the plurality of states make it unlikely that a single account of justice (even if it were the single true account) could ever be persuasive across the globe or enforceable in everyday practice. A global despot or a philosophical vanguard might manage the enforcement, but it is hard to see how their rule, even if it served the cause of justice, could itself be just.

And yet, the vast inequalities of wealth and power in the world today, and the accompanying poverty, malnutrition, and illness, cry out for a globally applicable critique. So does the extreme vulnerability of so many people to natural disaster and political violence. And this necessary critique cannot endorse the idea that cultural difference makes a difference; it must insist on the simple wrongness of the human suffering that we currently live with and, mostly, accept. If we force ourselves to look, the picture is grim: extraordinary wealth ...