Review of “A cosmopolitan perspective on the global economic order” by Thoman Pogge

Pogge’s general assertion is that the West’s influence in shaping the existing global social conditions is continuing to promote a monumental level of suffering that has, and continues to, kill more people than either Hitler or Stalin. While these claims may seem bold, Pogge’s paper attempts to justify his claims by defending himself against the following:

  1. That he is making a conceptual mistake by re-labelling actions harmful that are really failures to aid and protect.
  2. That he is factually wrong about the causal explanations of severe poverty.
  3. That he is morally wrong by presenting minimal requirements that are excessively demanding.

In addressing these issues, Pogge adopts a ecumenical approach – his approach is intended to convince adherents of all the major moral theories that his position is defensible from all of their objections. Moreover, by adopting a multiplicity of divergent lines of argumentative defence, Pogge aims to avoid creating a strategy that can be ignored by theorists on the basis that they hold hold contrary philosophical positions. Specifically, he will be addressing Lockeans, Libertarians, Rawlsians, and communitarians.

Before addressing any of these topics, we must first clarify and distinguish between positive and negative duties. Positive duties assert that we must do something – we might have a positive duty to help old ladies across the street – whereas negative duties assert that we must not do something – we must not injure or steal from another person. In addition to these kinds of duties, Pogge identifies intermediate duties, which are what he is really referring to when talking about negative duties. These duties are positive, insofar as we are required to adopt them, but must be adopted because of the negative consequence that would follow from not adopting them. While Pogge is dominantly discussing intermediate and negative duties, he isn’t doing this because he sees them as more important than positive duties – he simply assumes that “negative and intermediate duties are more stringent than positive duties when what is at stake for all concerned is held constant (Pogge 94).

Engaging Historical Conceptions of Social Justice

There is a very prominent group of theorists who argue that even though inequality is obviously prevalent in the world, there is no obvious duty to alleviate the inequality. Their argument goes as such: It is possible that even if colonialism did not occur, and Europeans had not stripped resources from Africa, that Europe could have flourished and Africa degenerated to its current state. Based on this possibility there is not a necessary negative or intermediate duty to alleviate the inequality as it exists today.

Pogge responds by turning to an equally fictional account of history, and uses it to demonstrate that theorists who refute their duty on the basis of a fictional history are not adequately or convincingly engaging with their pre-political theoretical roots. In Locke’s state of nature individuals can collect property so long as their collection does not cause other people’s deaths – even in the state of nature there is an obligation to assist others when they fall below the level of sustenance, especially if their fall is directly related to the collection of properties. In turning to Locke, Pogge argues that we can see him advocating a kind of claims-rights; individuals have a claim to subsistence.

“[W]e affluent have no right to property, however acquired, in the face of the excluded. Rather, they have a right to what we hold. When we prevent them from exercising this right – when we deprive them of what is justly theirs – then we violate this original right of the poor and we harm them. In this way it is a good violation of a negative duty to deprive others of “enough and as good” – either through unilateral appropriations or through institutional arrangements such as radically inegalitarian property regime (Pogge, 99)

I would note that I strongly object to Pogge’s notion that Locke is dominantly referring to claims-rights; instead I see Locke as asserting there is a negative duty to avoid illegitimately hindering other citizens’ (or, more generally in the state of nature, humans’) liberty on the basis that such limitations contradict the state of nature’s laws. If interested, I can discuss this at length and draw from papers I have presented on the subject and a short essay I have written on the topic.

Engaging Broadly Consequentialist Conceptions of Social Justice

Pogge notes that not many moral theorists hold the aforementioned views concerning fictional histories. . Instead, they “hold that an economic order and the economic distribution it shapes should be assessed by its foreseeable efforts against the background of its feasible alternative” (Pogge, 100). There are many consequentialist models that approach this issue, though their conceptions generally differ along three dimensions:

  1. They differently characterize the relevant affected parties;
  2. They differ about metric for assessing relevant efforts;
  3. They differ about how to aggregate relevant effects across the affected parties.

Most consequentialist theorists broadly agree that national economic orders are unjust if they leave social and economic human rights unfulfilled on a massive scale. Extending this to a broader sphere, the affluent are harming the global poor by imposing unjust social institutions upon them – the consequential connection between harm and justice at the national level demands a similar attitude be taken up in addressing harm and injustice internationally.

This ultimately means that Pogge must try to implement a human right to basic necessities, and this involves three separate steps. Step one is briefly outlined below, Pogge cannot adequately address two in his small paper, and so we will continue this thread by turning to the third element of his argument after listing them.

  1. We must show that it is a minimal and widely acceptable demand of justice on all national institutional schemes that they are designed to avoid life-threatening poverty as far as is possible;
    • No real consequentialist position holds this – the closest defendant would be Nozzick, though his appeal to a fictional situation to justify inequality was deal with earlier in this post where not even Locke consents to the fictions egalitarians purport
  2. We must show that this demand for justice applies beyond the national to the global level;
  3. We must show that there are feasible options to alleviating global poverty.

There is a pattern that many economists and other consequentialists hold. They assert that the problems that are identified at the national level must be resolved to alleviate global poverty, and until national parties can reduce their internal corruption that there is no duty to try and assist them in (a believed to be) hopeless endeavour. What such attitudes mask or ignore is that causal global factors significantly influence national patterns – the actions taken nationally by leaders in the first world have a significant affect on how impoverished nations in the third can meet and deal with their impoverishment. Pogge’s proposed “feasible alternative” is for first world nations to institute the global resources dividend (GRD). This would tax all capital transactions by one percent and then allocate that one percent to the impoverished nations. This shouldn’t be regarded as aid but as a just allocation of wealth in line with Lockean claim-rights; the impoverished would receive the share of the world’s property that they require (must claim) to meet their basic survival needs.

Pogge recognizes that such a distribution system will never be perfect – some of the money will be rerouted illegally, but he doesn’t see this as a justifiable reason to not implement the GRD. What I see as perhaps more concerning is that: (a) Pogge’s argument significantly leans on claim-rights, which may not be as easily demonstrated in Locke as he suggests; (b) while he establishes the moral need to assist the impoverished, he doesn’t recognize that his conception of moral need may be similar to the duty to assist others that was seen during colonialism. To explain, while he argues that one percent of all capital transactions should be returned to impoverished nations, he assumes that percentage return is just. Admittedly, he foresees this potential issue when discussing the problems consequentialists may have with his proposals, but I don’t think that he adequately addresses the matter. (c) Finally, and again turning to Locke, Locke doesn’t ‘end’ his theory in the state of nature but brings it into civil society and develops a comprehensive account of justice. Where is Pogge’s explication of that development, and how does it correlate into his account of just distribution? While he claims to only be appropriating elements of Locke’s state of nature, he is injecting those elements into a semi-structured international political sphere that (arguably) diverges from a state of nature. Without this kind of explication I am left questioning whether or not Pogge really offers an ecumenical approach that successfully addresses his critics.