Risse on Justice in Trade

| December 12, 2014
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Many people believe that international trade, as it is currently conducted, involves serious injustice. But it is hard to know whether this belief is justified and, if it is, how exactly to characterize the injustice at issue. Until recently, someone who turned to the philosophical literature in the hope of finding answers to these questions would likely have been disappointed. Despite the recent surge in writing on global justice, work specifically on justice in international trade has been scarce. This gap is unfortunate, given the moral importance of the issue and the degree of public interest in it.

Mathias Risse is one of a few philosophers who have stepped into the breach. The account of justice in international trade that is included in Risse’s recent book,  is an updated version of the account that appeared in a pair of articles published in 2007–2008 and it remains one of fewer than five substantial positive treatments of the topic in the philosophical literature. This alone would make it a highly valuable addition to contemporary debates on global justice, and the philosophical subtlety and empirical sophistication of Risse’s account render that judgment all the more secure.

Like the broader theory of global justice of which it is a part, Risse’s position on justice in trade is an attempt to stake out a middle ground between those who (in Risse’s view) fail to recognize the full normative significance of contemporary international relationships and those who overreach in that department, grounding highly demanding moral requirements in social structures that cannot bear the weight. I sympathize with Risse’s aim, and he and I agree on our assessments of the extremes along this spectrum. However, the spectrum is a large one. In this commentary I will argue that Risse’s argument concerning justice in international trade does not succeed in ruling out positions that likewise skirt the extremes, but are better able to capture the full scope of legitimate concerns about trade justice than Risse’s more minimalist account.

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Category: Book Symposium: On Global Justice, Issue 28.4

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