Winter 2014 (28.4) Essay

Response to Arneson, de Bres, and Stilz

I must begin by expressing how gratifying it is that On Global Justice would receive such careful attention by three thoughtful colleagues. I will do my best to respond to their questions and objections.

Let me start with Arneson. Since differences between us are large, I shall first say a few things about my basic outlook. Common humanity is one ground of justice. The distinctively human life generates claims, and their form is that of natural rights. However, explorations of how the distinctively human life generates obligations lead only to a rather limited set of rights—basic security and subsistence rights. Inquiries into another nonrelational ground also produce rather limited results. That ground is humanity’s collective ownership of the earth. The principle of justice associated with it merely requires an equal opportunity to use natural spaces and resources for the satisfaction of basic needs. In particular, this result is incompatible with any kind of welfarist commitment. The sheer fact that anybody’s welfare as such would be lowered or raised is not a matter of justice. If people share associations with each other (membership in a state, or being connected by trade, say) we can derive obligations from their shared involvement with these associations. But unless people do indeed share such associations, the obligations that hold among them will be rather limited.

Think of relations as shared practices. These can be rather thick, as in tribal communities, or very thin, as in imperial structures with nonintrusive central control. Where they are thick, they shape who we are, what we can do, and what we possess. Where they are thin, they may still be significant for life prospects and even survival, as is the case with trade structures. Shared practices can in principle be changed, and institutions that direct them can assume different forms. While the range of viable human living arrangements is constrained by evolutionary factors, there is a far-reaching conventional component to our practices. If we share certain relations with some people, we also share a common humanity with them, and we jointly own the earth. But we share much more with them, and that is why additional requirements of justice arise. That is the basic relationist intuition.

The defining feature of how we have lived on earth for the last several centuries is that there are states. By now they cover the whole habitable earth. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, I do not think states are the uniquely rational living arrangement. Unlike Kant, I do not think joining states is the uniquely defined moral obligation. We might have been duped by state ideology. I am impressed with arguments by right-libertarians who use historical studies and public choice models to argue that alternative modes of organization were available that would have avoided many detrimental effects of living in a system of states, especially warfare. These arguments do not conclusively defeat arguments in support of states, but they create enough doubts to undermine the great project of modern philosophy: to substantiate the unique rational or moral foundation of states.

But that does not mean states should be abandoned, or that states should be abandoned were it not for the havoc this would wreak, as many cosmopolitans believe. As I argue in a part of my book that is not under discussion here, we do not sufficiently understand models of world order that abandon states—do not understand them well enough, that is, for them to be action-guiding. This point, plus the basic ability of states to provide public goods, generates a modest but real justification of states.

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