Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power by Richard W. Miller

| August 2011
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Globalizing Justice: The Ethics of Poverty and Power, Richard W. Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 288 pp., $99 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Millions of people in the developing world suffer extreme poverty, illness, and insecurity. It is widely believed that affluent people in developed countries ought to help them escape this terrible condition. But why, exactly? Some philosophers ground our responsibility in a quite general requirement to reduce suffering, others in a duty not to support an international order that harms the global poor by perpetuating their destitution. Still others argue for a duty of fairness not just to eliminate poverty but to create roughly equal life prospects for all. Refreshingly, in Globalizing Justice, Richard W. Miller locates our moral responsibility elsewhere, arguing that although we have a limited duty to respond to “neediness as such” (p. 13), the major source of our “vast, unmet global responsibility” (p. 1) to help the global poor is a duty not to take advantage of their deprivation when pursuing our own goals (p. 230). This proposal constitutes a distinctive and valuable contribution to the literature on global justice.

The first two chapters of Globalizing Justice criticize attempts to derive duties to the global poor exclusively from their simple suffering or the mere fact of economic globalization. Instead, Miller argues for a “relational” approach in which our responsibilities principally derive from interactions with the poor that go beyond economic exchange. Chapters 3 through 7 develop this approach within four spheres of cross-border interaction: transnational manufacturing, negotiations over international trade and financial regimes, the global framework for mitigating climate change, and the use of what Miller terms the “American empire” to shape development policy and political regimes abroad. Chapter 8 draws together the implications of these diverse sources of responsibility, arguing for an extensive overall duty to assist the world’s neediest that would impose significant costs on citizens of developed countries, including the disadvantaged among them (p. 221). The book’s final chapter argues that the best hope for fulfilling our duty to the global poor lies in social movements that operate outside the channels of elite-driven electoral politics.

One of the most distinctive features of Miller’s account is his resistance to formulating a single standard of global distributive justice that is then applied to particular cases (p. 226). Instead, we get roughly the opposite: an array of distinct moral requirements, generated by sequential reflection on specific forms of transnational interaction, which are ultimately translated into what Miller calls one “quasicosmopolitan” duty to improve the prospects of the global worst off (p. 228). This pluralistic picture is messier than the monistic alternative, but the messiness is a welcome alternative to common arguments that global justice simply involves a direct international analogue of, say, the Rawlsian domestic “difference principle.” For Miller, it matters to justice that domestic relations differ from international relations and that international relations are complex.

Miller’s approach is also distinctive in its emphasis on the “American empire.” A full third of the book is dedicated to explaining the nature of this empire, specifying the moral requirements that it generates and assessing the extent of their violation. (On the last, Miller pulls no punches. One can not read these pages without imagining conservatives asking Miller plaintively, “Why do you hate America?”) While other philosophers are similarly critical of the United States, they tend not to single it out to this extent. One cost of identifying the United States as an empire is that it invites disputes over the accuracy of the description. It also risks needlessly alienating American readers. I wonder how much of the moral substance of these chapters would have been lost if Miller had instead presented his arguments in terms of responsibilities falling on the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, or dispensers of aid, trade, and military support (or attack) more generally.

The chief relational duties that Miller proposes are these: Developed world consumers who derive benefits from the exploitation of developing country workers should use these advantages to help the global poor escape the cycle of exploitation (p. 68). They also ought to support outcomes in international trade and finance negotiations that mimic those that would arise from deliberations undistorted by poor countries’ desperation (p. 70). Climate change negotiations should be driven by each country’s equal willingness to make sacrifices, but should also be sensitive to the special needs of the poor (pp. 92 –93). As the world’s predominant power, the United States has a residual duty to meet the basic needs of those whose development policies it has molded (p. 151). It also has the demanding duty to “promote a simulacrum of life under a responsible . . . government” (p. 161) for those whose repressive regimes it has supported, and a duty to compensate foreign citizens for the violent destruction caused by its own military adventures overseas (p. 165).

While these transnational duties are attractive, Miller’s general approach raises two concerns. First, his focus on exploitation arising from desperate neediness (p. 230) marginalizes other potential forms of global injustice. Take the European Union’s use of agricultural protectionism against New Zealand. To begin with, this is better characterized as a failure of reciprocity or fair play, rather than exploitation. Moreover, even if it were a case of unfair advantage-taking, it would fall outside Miller’s reach, since New Zealand is far from desperately needy. Because Miller presents his account as a theory of global justice, period, and not simply as a theory of justice in relation to global poverty, such omissions are problematic. But perhaps this can be excused, given the overwhelming importance of improving the situation of the poor.

A second concern, however, is that Miller’s account does not adequately respond to even that more urgent issue. The demanding duty to alleviate global poverty that Miller advocates is cobbled together via a patchwork of relational duties. This is necessary, he says, because the poor’s “neediness as such” is insufficient reason to trigger such an extensive requirement (p. 217). But should our grave obligation to assist the world’s deprived depend so precariously on the nature of existing transnational interactions? An alternative argument is that, important as relational duties of justice are, simple beneficence alone requires much more poverty relief than Miller allows. Miller worries that adopting this route will ultimately quash all space for personal concern and special duties to compatriots in developed countries. I do not think this is so, but even if it were, I doubt it would provide as good a moral reason for limiting the scope of beneficence as Miller claims.

These disagreements aside, Globalizing Justice is insightful, original, and highly engaging, and readers will derive much benefit from careful consideration of its arguments.


Helena de Bres is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College. She writes on political philosophy, especially global distributive justice.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 25.3

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