Global justice

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Global justice is an issue in political philosophy arising from the concern that "we do not live in a just world."[1] Many people are extremely poor, while others are extremely rich. Many live under tyrannical regimes. Many are vulnerable to violence, disease, and starvation. Many die prematurely. How should we understand and respond to these facts? What do the inhabitants of the world owe one another? What institutions and what ethical standards should we recognise and apply throughout the world?

Three central concerns — the scope of justice, distributive justice, and institutions — structure the debate about global justice. The main positions in that debate — realism, particularism, nationalism, the society of states tradition, and cosmopolitanism — can be distinguished by their various approaches to these questions.


The broader philosophical context of the global justice debate, in both its contemporary and historical forms, is the issue of impartiality. Many people believe they have more important duties to family members, friends and compatriots than to strangers and foreigners. But are they right to endorse such partiality? Cosmopolitans, reportedly including the ancient Greek Diogenes of Sinope, have described themselves as citizens of the world.[2] Thinkers including the utilitarian anarchist William Godwin have argued that everyone has an impartial duty to do the most good he or she can, without preference for any one human being over another.[3]

The broader political context of the debate is the longstanding conflict between more and less local institutions: tribes against states, villages against cities, local communities against empires, nation-states against the UN. The relative strength of the local versus the global has waxed and waned over recorded history. From the early modern period until the twentieth century, the preeminent political institution was the state, which is sovereign, territorial, claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of power in its territory, and exists in an international system of other sovereign states.[4] Over the same period, and relatedly, political philosophers' interest in justice focused almost exclusively on domestic issues: how should states treat their subjects, and what do fellow-citizens owe one another? Justice in relations between states, and between individuals across state borders, was put aside as a secondary issue or left to international relations theorists.[5]

Since the First World War, however, the state system has been transformed by globalization and by the creation of supranational political and economic institutions such as the League of nations, the UN, and the World Bank.[6] Over the same period, and especially since the 1970s, global justice became an important issue in political philosophy.[7] In the contemporary global justice debate, the general issue of impartiality centers on the moral significance of borders and of shared citizenship. Realists, particularists, nationalists, members of the society of states tradition, and cosmopolitans take contesting positions in response to these problems.

Central questions

Three related questions, concerning the scope of justice, justice in the distribution of wealth and other goods, and the institutions responsible for justice, are central to the problem of global justice.


Are there, as the moral universalist argues, objective ethical standards that apply to all humans regardless of culture, race, gender, religion, nationality or other distinguishing features? Or do ethical standards only apply within such limited contexts as cultures, nations, communities, or voluntary associations?

Further information: Moral universalism, Moral relativism

Distributive justice

2.8 billion people — 46% of humanity — live below the World Bank's $2/day poverty line.[8] Is this distribution of wealth and other goods just? What is the root cause of poverty, and are there systemic injustices in the world economy? Do the rich have an obligation to help the poor, or is aid a matter of charity, and therefore admirable but not morally required? If the poor should be helped, how much help is required — just enough that they can meet their basic needs, enough that they can flourish as humans, or until they are no longer worse off than the rich?

Further information: Distributive justice, Poverty, Social Justice, International inequality


What institutionsstates, communes, federal entities, global financial institutions like the World Bank, international NGOs, multinational corporations, international courts, a world state – would best achieve the ideal of global justice? How might they gain our support, and whose responsibility is it to create and sustain such institutions? How free should movement between the jurisdictions of differerent territorial entities be?

Further information: Immigration, Freedom of movement

Main positions

Five main positions — realism, particularism, nationalism, the society of states tradition, and cosmopolitanism (in two forms) — have been taken by contributors to the global justice debate.


For more information, see: Realism (foreign policy).

Realists, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz, argue that there are no global ethical standards, and that to imagine that there are is a dangerous fantasy. States are the main actors in an international anarchy, and they either will or should always attempt to act rationally in their own interests. So, in response to the three central questions above: moral universalism is either false, or merely says that nothing is forbidden to any state in pursuit of its interests. There is no obligation to help the poor, unless doing so helps to further a state’s strategic aims. And the state system is taken as the fundamental and unchallengeable global institutional arrangement.


Particularists, such as Michael Walzer and James Tully, argue that ethical standards arise out of shared meanings and practices, which are created and sustained by discrete cultures or societies. Moral and social criticism is possible within the boundaries of such groups, but not across them. If a society is egalitarian, for instance, its citizens can be morally wrong, and can meaningfully criticise each other, if they do not live up to their own egalitarian ideals; but they cannot meaningfully criticise another, caste-based society in the name of those ideals. "A given society is just if its substantive life is lived in a certain way — that is, in a way faithful to the shared understandings of [its] members."[9] It is unjust if not. Each society has its own, different standards, and only those inside it are bound by those standards and can properly criticise themselves. So, moral universalism is false, because objective ethical standards vary between cultures or societies. We should not apply the same criteria of distributive justice to strangers as we would to compatriots. And nation-states which express their peoples' shared and distinctive ethical understandings are the proper institutions to enable local and different justices.


For more information, see: Nationalism.

Nationalists, such as David Miller and Yael Tamir, argue that demanding mutual obligations are created by a particular kind of valuable association, the nation.[10] We may have humanitarian duties to aid the particularly badly off worldwide, but these are much less stringent and pressing than our duties to our fellow-citizens. Nationalism has traditionally included this assumption of differing moral obligations to those within and those outside the nation, reflected for example in the fact that the benefits of the welfare state are not available to citizens of other countries. So, moral universalism is too simple, because the ethical standards which apply between compatriots differ from those which apply between strangers (although some nationalists argue for the universal ethical standard that nations should have their own states). Distributive justice is an issue within nations but not necessarily between them. And a world-system of nation-states is the appropriate organiser of justice for all, in their distinct associational groups.

Society of states

In the society of states tradition, states are seen as individual entities which can mutally agree on common interests and rules of interaction, including moral rules, in much the same way as human individuals can. Often, this idea of agreement between peers is formalised by a social contract argument.

One prominent exemplar of the tradition is John Rawls. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls extends the method of his A Theory of Justice to the question of global justice. His argument is that we can justify a global regime by showing that it would be chosen by representatives of Peoples in an imagined original position, which prevents them knowing which particular People they represent. This decision-in-ignorance models fairness because it excludes selfish bias. When Rawls applied this method in the case of domestic justice, with parties in the original position representing individual members of a single society, he argued that it supported a redistributive, egalitarian liberal politics. In contrast, Rawls argues that when his method is applied to global justice, it supports a quite traditional, Kantian international ethics: duties of states to obey treaties and strict limits on warmaking, but no global redistribution of wealth. So, different justices apply to the domestic and international cases. Even if justice requires egalitarianism within states, it does not do so between them. And a system of cooperating but independent states is the just global institutional arrangement. Rawls describes this ideal as a 'realistic utopia'.[11] Apart from Rawls, other notable exponents of this position include Hedley Bull.


Cosmopolitans argue that some form of moral universalism is true, and therefore that all humans, and not merely compatriots or fellow-citizens, fall within the scope of justice. Their arguments typically appeal to consistency, as follows:

  1. The moral standing of individuals is based on some morally significant characteristics.
  2. These characteristics are shared by all humans (and not only by the members of some nation, culture, society, or state).
  3. Therefore, all humans have moral standing (and the boundaries between nations, cultures, societies and states are morally irrelevant).[12]

Cosmopolitans differ, however, over which shared human characteristics are morally significant.

Consequentialist cosmopolitans, amongst whom Peter Singer is prominent, argue that the proper standard of moral judgment for actions, practices or institutions is their consequences, and that the measure of consequences is the welfare of humans (or even of all sentient creatures). The capacity to experience welfare and suffering is therefore the shared basis for moral standing. This means that the fact that some people are suffering terrible deprivations of welfare, caused by poverty, creates a moral demand that anyone who is able to help them do so. Neither the physical distance between the rich and the poor, nor the fact that they are typically citizens of different countries, has any moral relevance.[13]

Defenders of Human rights cosmopolitanism, such as Thomas Pogge and Simon Caney, argue that all humans have rights, perhaps those set out in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It may be argued that these rights create a positive duty of the rich to provide what they guarantee (security, a livelihood, etc.); or, alternatively, it may be argued that the rich are currently violating their negative duty not to impose a global order which systematically violates the rights of the poor.[14]

Individual cosmopolitans also differ considerably in how they understand the requirements of distributive justice and the legitimacy of global institutions. Some, for instance Kai Nielsen, endorse world government; others, such as Simon Caney, do not. The extent to which cosmopolitans advocate global redistribution of resources also varies. All cosmopolitans, however, believe that individuals, and not states, nations, or other groups, are the ultimate focus of universal moral standards.

Demands of global justice

None of the five main positions described above imply complete satisfaction with the current world order. Realists complain that states which pursue utopian moral visions through intervention and humanitarian aid, instead of minding their own strategic interests, do their subjects harm and destabilise the international system.[15] Particularists object to the destruction of traditional cultures by cultural colonialism, whether under the guise of economic liberalism and defences of human rights, or more openly aggressive.[16] Nationalists deplore the fact that so many people are stateless or live under inefficient and tyrannical regimes.[17] Advocates of the society of states are concerned about rogue states and about the imperial ambitions of the powerful.[18] Cosmopolitans believe that the contemporary world badly fails to live up to their standards, and that doing so would require considerable changes in the actions of wealthy individuals and states.[19] It might, for instance, require them to transfer most of their wealth to the poor. It might require the building of international institutions able to limit, or even replace, the self-interested action of powerful states and corporations. It might require each of us to do much more than most now do.


  1. Thomas Nagel, 'The Problem of Global Justice', Philosophy and Public Affairs 33(2005): 113-47. p. 113. An online version of this article is listed under External links.
  2. Diogenes Laertius, 'Life of Diogenes' in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers trans. C.D. Yonge. [1], accessed 8 August 2006.
  3. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice ed. Isaac Kramnick. London: Penguin, 1976 [1793].
  4. Martin Van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State. Cambridge: CUP, 1999.
  5. Simon Caney, Justice Beyond Borders. Oxford: OUP, 2006. p. 1.
  6. David Held, 'The Transformation of Political Community' in Ian Shapiro ed., Democracy's Edges. Cambridge: CUP, 1999: 84-111.
  7. Onora O'Neill, 'Transnational Economic Justice' in Bounds of Justice. Cambridge: CUP, 2000: 115-42.
  8. Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Polity, 2002. p. 2.
  9. Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Books, 1983. p. 313.
  10. David Miller, On Nationality. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.
  11. John Rawls, The Law of Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 4.
  12. Caney, Justice Beyond Borders, Chapter 2.
  13. Peter Singer ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1(1972): 229-243. Online version listed under External links.
  14. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights.
  15. for instance E.H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis 1919-1939. London: Macmillan, 1961.
  16. for instance James Tully, Strange Multiplicity. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.
  17. for instance Miller, On Nationality.
  18. for instance Rawls, The Law of Peoples.
  19. for instance Caney, Justice Beyond Borders.