New Program on Global Justice

Beginning this fall, I have initiated a Program on Global Justice at FSI. We are just getting started, so it strikes me as a good time to explain the fundamental ideas.

I am a philosopher by training and sensibility, and as a philosopher, I take my orientation from Immanuel Kant. Kant said that philosophy addresses three basic questions: What can we know? What should we do? And what may we hope for?

The question about hope is the most important. Philosophy is not about what will be, but about what could be: It is an exploration of possibilities guided by the hope that our world can be made more just by our common efforts.

In our world, 1 billion people are destitute. They live on less than a dollar a day. They are not imprisoned in destitution because of their crimes; they are imprisoned in destitution despite their innocence.

Another 1.5 billion people live only slightly better, on $1–2 a day. They are able to meet their basic needs, but they lack fundamental goods. They, too, are not in poverty because of their crimes. They are in poverty despite their innocence.

That is how 40 percent of our world lives now.

For some of the poor and destitute, things are improving. But the extraordinary global distance between wealthy and poor is growing. The richest 5 percent in the world make 114 times as much as the bottom 5 percent; 1 percent of the world’s people make as much as the poorest 57 percent. So the gap grows and many are left behind. That is morally unacceptable.

The problem of global injustice is not only economic. Billions of people are deprived of basic human rights.

And new forms of global governance, through organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), are making decisions with large consequences for human welfare. Whether their decisions are good or bad, they remain largely unaccountable. That, too, is unacceptable.

Some people say that we should not worry so much because there is no such thing as global justice. Some of these skeptics say that justice is an issue only inside a state. Until there is a global state, they say, there is no global justice.

Other skeptics are communitarians. They say that justice only makes sense among people who share a culture. They say that our diverse global society lacks the common culture needed to sustain a commitment to justice.

These statist and communitarian views are misguided in a world of globalization.

Economically, globalization has made the global economy a substantial presence in the economic lives of virtually everyone in the world.

Politically, there are new forms of governance that operate outside the state. These new forms are especially important in the arena of economic regulation, but also have a role in areas of security, labor and product standards, the environment, and human rights. So we have new forms of global politics, with important consequences for human well-being.

Moreover, these new settings of global governance are the focus of an emerging global civil society of movements and nongovernmental organizations. In areas ranging from human rights, to labor standards, to environmental protection these groups contest the activities of states and global rule-making bodies.

The skeptical views may have made sense in a world with more national economic independence, less governance beyond the state, and more self-contained national communities. But that is not our world.

What, then, does the project of global justice mean? In general, it has three elements.

First, we need to ensure the protection of human rights, and we need a generous understanding of the scope of human rights. Human rights are about torture and arbitrary imprisonment, but also about health, education, and political participation. The point of human rights is not simply to protect against threats, but to ensure social membership, to ensure that all people count for something.

Second, new global rule-making bodies operating beyond the state raise questions of justice. These bodies, like the WTO, make rules with important consequences for human welfare. Global justice is about ensuring that governance by such bodies is accountable, that people who are affected are represented, that rulemaking is transparent. When an organization makes policies with large consequences for human welfare, it needs to be held accountable through a fair process.

Third, global justice is about ensuring that everyone has access to the basic goods—food, health care, education, clean water, shelter—required for a decent human life and that when the global economy is moving forward, no one is left behind.

These three elements of global justice all start from the idea that each person matters. In short, global justice is about inclusion: about making sure that no one is left out.

Some people will say that global justice is a nice idea, but that it has no real practical importance. They say that globalization leaves no room for political choices, that it requires every country to follow the same path. We must reject this false assertion of necessity.

Some people say that the right choice for global justice is to increase levels of foreign assistance; some people say that the right choice is to provide credit for poor farmers; some people say that right choice is to empower poor women; some people say that right choice is to reduce disgusting levels of overconsumption and agricultural subsidies in rich countries; some people say that the right choice is to promote a more vibrant civil society so that people can become agents in creating their history rather than its victims and supplicants.

Many things are possible. And once we accept that global justice is a fundamental imperative, and that political choices are possible, then we come back to the political tasks in more developed countries. Many citizens in the advanced economies now experience globalization as a threat. Many fear that a better life for billions who are now destitute may mean a worse life for them.

So global justice is not simply an abstract moral imperative. Global justice is connected to greater justice at home. If we leave everything to the market at home, if we don’t fight for social insurance, education and health, employment and income, then we can be sure of an economic nationalist resurgence with all of its terrible consequences. So the political project of global justice requires a political project of a more just society at home.

This unity of justice—this unity of the national and the global: That is our answer to Kant’s question. That is what we may hope for. That is what we should strive to achieve.