Globalisation and Global Justice

In the article “The Problems of Global Justice” Thomas Nagel looks at two theories of global justice and assess their feasibility. The two theories he looks at are cosmopolitanism and the second which he dubs political conception and which is exemplified by Rawls’ theory presented in the book “The Law of Peoples”. Nagel briefly brings up cosmopolitanism and goes into greater depth with political conception in defending it as a theory of global justice. He favours the political conception theory of justice because among several things he thinks that it is “probably correct.”[1] He recognizes however that there may be a problem with Rawls’ unwillingness to extend his difference principle beyond the borders of the nation-state. This difference principle states the following: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principles.[2] Nagel mentions “The accident of being born in a poor rather than a rich country is as arbitrary a determinant of one’s fate as the accident of being born into a poor rather than a rich family in the same country.”[3] The natural question that arises is, why not extend the difference principle to include all countries? Nagel’s defense of the position not to extend the difference principle globally seems to be based on the idea that we owe stricter obligations to our fellow citizens than we do to strangers. According to Nagel, we should be partial to those closer to us than to strangers or those living outside our borders. Citizens of a nation, he would suggest, are bound together in a way that they are not with people in other countries. Justice, in this sense, is therefore not a cosmopolitan virtue but rather it is a political one that is owed to everyone within a common sovereignty.[4] In many ways, Nagel’s article is an attempt to defend John Rawls’ restrictive scope of global justice. This paper is thus a collection of possible responses to Nagel’s article “The Problem of Global Justice”. Provided are responses from the possible perspectives of Peter Singer, Kok-Chor Tan, and John Rawls.


After reading “One World: The Ethics of Globalization” by Peter Singer, and knowing a little about his moral viewpoint on several issues, I think it is safe to say that his response to the Nagel article would be rooted in a utilitarian philosophy. Singer, in his book, extends the idea that everyone should count as one and only one a core tenant of utilitarian thought and that this idea should hold true for everyone in the world. One can infer from his writing that he not only strongly believes that distance is irrelevant when considering ethics but also, he seems to argue, that national borders are not necessary or relevant when discussing ethics. We find this idea in the title of his book, with the emphasis on “One”. I believe that Singer’s response would consist of favouring impartiality over partiality and in extending our concept of nationalism to consider the entire world as one nation. Both of these aspects of the response are closely related.

In presenting Singer’s response on the issue of whether we should be impartial or partial when determining the scope of justice, it is important to look at what he says on the matter. The main focus of the debate over whether we should be impartial or partial to strangers revolves around the ideas that such thinking has a self-evident and intuitive appeal which we should take to mean that they are correct. Singer rejects this jump from being self-evident and intuitive to being a correct belief.

In Singer’s response to the “self-evident” view that we have special obligations, based on partiality, to those nearer to us including our compatriots, he uses two quotes. One of the quotes is by Henry Sidgwick, the other by Heinrich Himmler, and they show that the self-evident nature of the claim that we have partial and special obligations to those nearest to us, is not the type of claim that would lead us to accept such a view as right.[5] Singer would reject the notion that someone’s being nearer holds any special obligation in that, as already briefly mentioned, distance is irrelevant when it comes to morality. Singer arrives at this through the analogy of a small child drowning in a shallow pond. He suggests that if a person sees a small child drowning in a pond and can save the child at little cost to himself/herself, there is a moral obligation to do so. He extends this it to children in developing nations, believing that if we can save them with little personal cost, we are morally obliged to do so. Distance is irrelevant and we should be impartial towards it. “Geographical proximity is not in itself of any moral significance…”[6]

What has been disputed over time is not that the distance is of moral significance but rather thatwhat is of moral significance is the fact that those children in other countries are strangers, and we should not have equally strong obligations to them as we do our own children. Instead it is argued that we should have stronger obligations to our own children.[7] A look into this idea of partiality towards one’s own family and friends is best summed up in the following passage:

“Modern critics of impartialism argue that an advocate of an impartial ethic would make a poor parent, lover, spouse, or friend because the very idea of such personal relationships involves being partial toward the other person with whom one is in the relationship. This means giving more consideration to the interests of your child, lover, spouse, or friend than you give a stranger, and from the standpoint of an impartial ethic this seems wrong.” [8]

The intuitive appeal to favouring family and friends over strangers is very strong. It is the same intuitive appeal that we found in the Sidgwick and Himmler quotes. The appeal of something is not in itself strong enough to adopt it as practice. Rather, Singer writes, “Taking an impartial perspective shows that partialism along racial lines is something that we can and should oppose because our opposition can be effective in preventing great harm to innocent people.”[9] Through all of this Singer sticks to impartialism over partialism as the one to favour when looking at global justice. Even though there may be some instances when we feel an intuitive appeal to the idea of favouring one’s own family and friends over strangers, Singer ultimately believes that at a critical level impartialism is sound.[10]

I think Singer’s response to the Nagel article with respect to whether we should be impartial or partial when dealing with global justice would be summed up in the following statement:

Although there are seemingly self-evident arguments and an intuitive appeal to believing that we have greater obligations to those we know than to those we do not, such arguments and appeal have in the past lead to great travesties. As we see with Sidgwick and Himmler, favouring one’s “own” over others can open up a dangerous pathway which may lead to racism or worse, genocide. Thus, we do not have stricter obligations to our family and friends than we do to strangers when we think critically on the matter. This goes against Nagel’s position, but with regard to the issue of global justice, we must take a stance of impartiality towards people.

This response of Singer’s, however, is not entirely complete. It would seem that this impartiality should extend to the relations between patriots and foreigners and would lead us to question, if not reject, the whole idea of nationality. We find evidence of impartiality between patriots and foreigners when Singer mentions, “When subjected to the test of impartial assessment, there are few strong grounds for giving preference to the interests of one’s fellow citizens…”[11]

Furthermore, Singer would like us to think of the world as one nation. He refers to Benedict Anderson and his idea that a nation is an “imagined political community”.[12] We are, in a sense, a part of the community in which we imagine ourselves to be a part of, not necessarily the one which we are really a part of. From this he asks the question, “Should we not consider ourselves perhaps as part of an “Imagined community of the world?”[13] There are two quotes which make it clear that in response to Nagel, Singer would not be interested in national boundaries and would rather take the position that in regards to global justice, ethics must transcend borders. The two quotes are following:

“Imagining ourselves to be part of a national community seems fine when we think of it as broadening our concerns beyond more limited tribal loyalties, but it is less appealing when we think of it as erecting fences against the rest of the world.”[14]

“That, as much as anything, tells us how far we still are from having an ethic that is based not on national boundaries, but on the idea of one world.”[15]

I think at this point I have made it clear what a response from Singer to Nagel’s article would look like and consist of. He would be in favour of impartiality rather than partiality and furthermore, would try to extend our conception of nationalism over the entire world.

In Thomas Nagel’s article favours the Rawlsian political conception over cosmopolitism.[16] I would like to take Kok-Chor Tan’s response to the article as a defense of the cosmopolitan conception over the political conception and focus on two aspects of it. Under the political conception, there is a value attached to borders, whereas under the cosmopolitan conception borders are seen as something which should be transcended if possible. The second aspect I would like to highlight for the purpose of discussion is the focus under the political conception of the state rather than the individual. As a part of Tan’s response, I shall give reasons which I believe Tan would give, as to why we should focus on the individual rather than the state.

Cosmopolitanism views the individual as the ultimate unit of moral concern and this concern is to be equal among individuals, irrespective of nationality or citizenship.[17] Tan’s book “Justice Without Borders” is aptly named, reflecting his view that cosmopolitan justice is a normative idea that “cosmopolitan justice is justice without borders.”[18]

Where Nagel, going along with the political conception, views national borders as something which may be barriers to global justice, Tan would argue that they are not obstruction and should rather be transcended.

“…principles of distributive justice ought to apply equally and impartially to all persons and ought not to be constrained by the borders of countries.”[19]

“The cosmopolitan idea of justice, as I am defending it, holds that distributive principles are not to be constrained or limited by state or national boundaries.”[20]

As we can see from Tan’s writings, his response to a position where national borders are taking into consideration as a restricting factor would be to dismiss such claims and to reiterate that with global justice, borders should not be restrictive.

The second part of Tan’s response would be centered on the idea that we should focus on individuals and not on the state as Nagel would have us do under the political conception. This idea that global justice should be centered on the individual rather than groups of individuals, or the state, is clearly as cosmopolitan a notion as we find in cosmopolitanism. Under Cosmopolitanism, there is the held idea that the individual is the “ultimate unit of moral concern”.[21] Tan would argue that of the two theories, cosmopolitanism and the political conception, it is cosmopolitanism that is “More plausible and consistant with our modern sensibilities about the moral relationship between individuals and collectivities.”[22] Furthermore, it is the pain and suffering of individuals which move us to correct global injustices.[23] Therefore, a morality of the individual is better than one of the states because a morality of the states has considerable metaphysical burdens of proof attached to it,[24] and because a “morality of states” approach does not go far enough if we are interested in improving individual lives.”[25]

In summary, Tan’s response would be that instead of taking the political conception as the one which is “probably correct”, he would take the cosmopolitan approach as the one which is “probably correct”. This is because if we are serious about alleviating the problems faced by individuals, we must remember that it is their pain and suffering which has led us to discuss global justice in the first place, then we must base our ethic on the individual and not on the state. Furthermore, each individual in the world should count and the justice we endorse should be one which transcends borders.

I have left the response from Rawls to the last as it is one of the three responses about which I have the least to say. I believe Rawls would, for the most part, agree with what Nagel has said regarding the issue of global justice.

Whereas both Singer and Tan would like to see a push for the difference principle being used globally, Nagel sides with Rawls in stating that it should not be extended. Nagel seems to think that the reason behind not extending the difference principle is because we form a special bond with our own members which we do not do with foreigners. “Justice is something we owe through our shared institutions only to those with whom we stand in a strong political relation.”[26] Rawls would state that there are three main reasons why the difference principle should not be extended. First is the idea that each society has the potential to realize justice. Secondly, the difference principle is based on individual a notion which is liberal to human nature. Thirdly, global inequality is based on people’s own decisions.[27]

Another aspect of Nagel’s political conception which I think Rawls would very much agree with is the fact that it is not centered around the individual as the unit of moral concern as it is with both Singer and Tan. Nagel notes that as members of liberal societies, our obligations to members of other societies is not direct but is rather “filtered” from our relation to them between the two societies.[28] This is very much in line with Rawls’ notion that our obligations stem from our separate societies and that these, not individual members, are the relevant units of moral concern for international morality.[29] Because Nagel’s political conception is so closely in line with Rawls’ own thinking, I am left to think that Rawls would not have a great deal to respond to except in agreement. As Singer notes on the issue, “Rawls believes that well off societies have significant obligations toward struggling societies, but there is a lack of focus on obligations toward individuals who are currently destitute in other countries.”[30]

To summarize Rawls’ likely response to Nagel, I think he would add a few reasons why the difference principle should not be extended to the one Nagel provided, and he would agree that it should be societies and not individuals which are the moral units with which to work.

To conclude I would like to briefly summarize the three responses. Singer’s response would favour impartiality over partiality and would seek to extend our concept of nationalism to include the entire world. Tan would state that it is the individual and not the state which is of concern to us and that each individual should considered with justice transcending borders. Rawls, I believe, would very much agree with Nagel but would add several reasons as to why the difference principle should not be extended beyond the state. He would also agree that it should be societies, not individuals, which are the moral units of concern.

[1] Nagel, Thomas, “The Problem of Global Justice”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 33:2 (2005) pg.126

[2] Tan, Kok-Chor, “Justice Without Borders, Cosmopolitanism, nationalism and Patriotism”, Cambridge University Press, (2004) pg.62

[3] Nagel (2005) pg.119

[4] Nagel (2005) pg.121

[5] Singer, Peter, “One World”, Yale NB, (2002) pg. 154

[6] Singer (2002) pg.166

[7] Singer (2002) pg.158

[8] Singer (2002) pg.158

[9] Singer (2002) pg.163

[10] Singer (2002) pg.192

[11] Singer (2002) pg.180

[12] Singer (2002) pg.170

[13] Singer (2002) pg.171

[14] Singer (2002) pg.171

[15] Singer (2002) pg.195

[16] Nagel (2005) pg.126

[17] Tan (2004) pg.1

[18] Tan (2004) pg.1

[19] Tan (2004) pg.4

[20] Tan (2004) pg.19

[21] Tan (2004) pg.1

[22] Tan (2004) pg.36

[23] Tan (2004) pg.36

[24] Tan (2004) pg.36

[25] Tan (2004) pg.37

[26] Nagel (2005) pg.121

[27] Collste, Goran, Lecture “A Theory of Global Justice”, (2007) Slide 3

[28] Nagel (2005) pg.134

[29] Nagel (2005) pg.134

[30] Singer (2002) pg.176

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