Winter 2014 (28.4) Essay

Against Relationalism in Global Justice Theory

After a period of somewhat chaotic construction efforts, the dust is starting to settle on global justice theory. The alternative theoretical options are gaining clear shape. Mathias Risse’s excellent On Global Justice is a work of judicious consolidation. He develops a nuanced and complex position that he calls “pluralist internationalism.” Its starting point is the claim that there are several different grounds of justice, that is, reasons for identifying a certain population of people and holding that they have claims of justice against each other, the proper adjudication of which is settled by a certain type of principle. Different principles may apply to different groups of people identified in different ways.

Some grounds of justice are relational; their basis is the relations in which we stand to one another and the social practices in which we are engaged. Some are nonrelational. A profoundly important relational ground of justice is shared membership in a political society. A significant nonrelational ground is shared humanity, simply being one human person in a world along with others. There are other relational and nonrelational grounds. For example, world trade would fall on the relational side, and common ownership of the earth would fall on the nonrelational.

Regarding shared membership and shared humanity, Risse tells an already familiar story, but adds key details that increase its plausibility. Merely being one human person among others engenders thin moral duties. What we owe to one another is the provision of institutional arrangements such that, so far as is possible, every human person is able to meet her basic human needs and flourish at least to some decent extent. In particular, attempts by global egalitarians to derive thick requirements of substantive equality of outcome or of opportunity (supposed to apply across all countries) from thin premises of merely shared humanity are unconvincing. Egalitarianism has a role in the theory of justice, but the scope of egalitarian requirements is confined to each separate country taken one by one. Those who share membership in a state are ensnared in a complementary mixture of coercion and community. The state coerces its members, and state coercion is made effective by reciprocal cooperation among those same members. Where there is shared membership in a political society, how one person fares compared with how others fare raises questions of justice, and the answers ultimately should lead us to embrace broadly Rawlsian egalitarian distributive justice principles.

Embracing these commitments, Risse’s pluralist internationalism rejects globalism (the claim that one exhaustive set of distributive justice principles holds at all times and places and does not vary in its fundamental requirements from country to country or from community to community), monism (the claim that there is only one ground of justice requirements), and anti-relationalism (the denial that social relations and the practices in which people are now engaged can be a ground of justice).

Risse’s pluralist internationalism accommodates the common-sense conviction that national partiality is morally acceptable and even admirable and mandatory. His theory has no truck with the claim that being part of a like-minded national community united by language and culture and the political aspirations standardly linked to nationalism is participating in a per se valuable social relationship that justifies partiality. According to Risse, community identity is not the basis of acceptable national partiality. At the same time, by affirming plural bases for justice obligations, Risse avoids the blunt implausibility of claiming that, for example, simply being subject to coercion in concert with others somehow triggers the application of the difference principle. Along the same line, Risse’s theory is not embarrassed by the evident fact that social relations and density of social connections vary by degree, and that between the comprehensive community of the national state and the sheer fact of being one person among others there are likely to be intermediate sources of justice bonds. Although I criticize Risse’s synthesis in what follows, we should pause to acknowledge its multiple, novel, and insightful merits.

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