Negative and Positive Freedom by Gerald C MacCallum, Jr. — A Summary

MacCallum, Gerald C. 1967. “Negative and Positive Freedom.” The Philosophical Review 76 (3). Duke University Press: 312–34.


Disputes about freedom have been about what it constitutes, how its attainment relates to the attainment of other “social benefits” like “economic and military security, technological efficiency”, where it may be ranked among such benefits, and what consequences policies may have on the attainment of freedom.

Once one admits that freedom is not the only benefit a society may secure its members, disputes about reconciling it with other benefits or values may arise. We may legitimately ask whether reconciliation is possible; and if possible, whether it is desirable. However, in practice, these questions are often obscured by disputes about the implications of policy  on these values.

It has also been common for “partisans” of all kinds to claim for themselves special affinity to freedom in light of the policies or forms of organisation that they advocate, while reserving the opposite treatment to their rivals. This is why freedom has come to be associated with so wide an array of social and individual benefits as to utterly obscure its meaning. This has suited the “purposes of the polemicist”.

The distinction between negative and positive liberty must be seen against this backdrop of confusion, and being influenced by it, the distinction itself is confused because it fails to fully understand  the conditions under which the use of the concept of freedom is intelligible.


Freedom is always freedom of something (an agent or agents), from something, to do, not do, become, or not become something; it is a triadic relation which can be expressed as: “x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z,” where x ranges over agents, y ranges over such “preventing conditions” as constraints, restrictions, interferences, and barriers, and z ranges over actions or conditions of character or circumstance. Not all of the three terms need be explicitly stated because the missing term can often be inferred from the context.

It must not be construed that the claim that freedom is a triadic relation is about what we say. Rather, it is about conditions under which what we say may be intelligible. In other words, simply saying something is free or not free does warrant the application of this claim. To put it even more concretely, the claim does not apply to the statements such as “The sky is now free of clouds” or “His record is free of blemish”. The two statements are not intelligible as claims about freedom. The first does not deal with agents at all and in the second, it is not clear whether the statement is about the freedom of the agent or of something/someone else.

Let us look at some troublesome cases where not all the terms of the triadic relationship are clear.

(a) Cases where agents are not mentioned: Consider expressions of the form “free x” where x does not clearly refer to an agent — “free will” — or where x clearly does not refer to an agent — “free beer”. These cases, even if the agents not explicitly mentioned, nevertheless are concerned about agents and are intelligible only if they are understood as such. “Free will” for example is obviously concerned with the freedom of persons or selves. While not as obvious, “free beer” still refers to beer that “people are free from the ordinary restrictions of the market place to drink without paying for it.”

(b) Cases where it is not clear what corresponds to the second term: Consider the expression “freedom of choice”. The preventing conditions are usually clear from the context. In political matters, they are usually legal. In Mill, they were social pressures.

(c) Cases where it is not clear what corresponds to the third term: Consider the expression “freedom from hunger”. It could simply mean being rid of hunger. This doesn’t conform to the triadic schema. However, it could also mean that to be free from hunger is to be free to do the things one can’t do when hungry. Even more satisfactorily, it could mean “a world in which people would be free from barriers constituted by various specifiable agricultural, economic, and political conditions to get enough food to prevent hunger”. This last view of “freedom from hunger” both makes perfect historical sense and conforms to the triadic schema of freedom.

The conventional characterisation of the difference between negative and positive freedom as “freedom from” and “freedom to” does not distinguish between two genuinely different kinds of freedom. Rather, it serves to emphasise one or the other of two features or variables that are present in every kind of freedom.


The next problem is how, or if, the differing answers to the question “When are persons free?” survive the agreement that freedom is a triadic relation. For example, differing views on what is the “true” identity or desire of an agent or on what counts as a constraint or on the range of things agents might be free (or not free) to do (or become) might offer dramatically different accounts of when persons are free. Given the variables involved, accounts of freedom can diverge in many ways. It is therefore crucial to get the range of the variables quite clear.

The distinction between negative and positive freedom has made this difficult by encouraging the wrong questions. It is often asked which one of the two is correct, or desirable. Instead, what should be asked is what the range of the variables are. In other words, “[i]t would be far better to insist that the same concept of freedom is operating throughout, and that the differences, rather than being about what freedom is, are for example about what persons are, and about what can count as an obstacle to or interference with the freedom of persons so conceived”.

This insistence is necessary. Consider the differences between negative and positive freedom. Once the distinction between them as “freedom from” and “freedom to” is debunked (see above), the differences appear to be the following.

  1. Writers adhering to the concept of “negative” freedom hold that only the presence of something can render a person unfree; writers adhering to the concept of “positive” freedom hold that the absence of something may also render a person unfree.
  2. The former hold that a person is free to do x just in case nothing due to arrangements made by other persons stops him from doing x; the latter adopt no such restriction.
  3. The former hold that the agents whose freedom is in question (for example, “persons,” “men”) are, in effect, identifiable as Anglo-American law would identify “natural” (as opposed to “artificial”) persons; the latter sometimes hold quite different views as to how these agents are to be identified (see below).

These differences break down or, at least, become less dramatic when probed. With respect to the first, would proponents of “negative” liberty be disallowed from saying that a chained man is unfree because he lacks a key (absence of something), and not only because he is chained (presence of something)? Or would proponents of “positive” liberty be disallowed from saying that an untrained person failed to get a job because of existing economic or educational systems (presence of something) which led to the person being deprived of training (absence of something)? The answer to both is: no. They can, and do, give those answers. The point of difference, then, is not as dramatic as it is made out to be.

Also, the organisation of thinkers into two camps is ill-considered.[1] Locke’s views on liberty as those actions that man “himself wills it” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. 11, ch. xxi, sec. 15) or his view that law should not just “abolish or restrain, but … preserve and enlarge freedom” (Second Treatise of Government, sec. 57) should make him a serious candidate for inclusion in the “positive” camp but instead, he is made the poster boy of the “negative” camp.

Who is the proper agent whose freedom is in question? What is the proper range of obstacles or constraints? And what is the proper range of what that agent may be free (or not free) to be (or become)? For the adherents of negative freedom, the proper agent is a “person” understood in the most ordinary sense of the word. The proper range of obstacles is populated by just what we would ordinarily call “obstacles” which are arrangements made by human beings. The proper range of what an agent may be free (or not free) to be (or become) are what he “wants” to do or be, and what he wants to do or be can be “determined by what he says he wants to do, or by what he manifestly tries to do, or even does do.”

For adherents of “positive” liberty, the answers to the three questions are anything but ordinary. The proper agent is not the ordinary person but the “real”, or “moral”, or “rational” person who is often hidden within the ordinary person. The agent could also incorporate “the institutions and members, the histories and futures of the communities” of which he is an extricable part. This contraction of the meaning of the proper agent is the result of a worry that what we ordinarily want may not be what we “really want” in so far as they may be detrimental to our own interests. It’s expansion, on the other hand, stems from the idea that what we “really are” may be determined in part by our association with our families, communities, and so forth.

Given the radical departure in understanding who the proper agent is, what counts as an obstacle to that agent, unsurprisingly, is very different from that of “negative” freedom. While adherents of “negative” freedom see as obstacles only those arrangements which are the “made by human beings”, their “opponents” might not consider this qualification as relevant. In other words, the presence of obstacles, whether placed by humans or otherwise, is quite inessential. What is important for them is whether human arrangements can remove them.

As regards the third variable, proponents of “positive” liberty “emphasise conditions of character rather than actions”. The range of character conditions and actions are necessarily bound up with the idea of who an agent is and what obstacles are, of which there are, as already seen, many.

All of these divergences can be managed only if they are seen as disagreements on the range of variables that are part of the same idea of freedom as a triadic relationship.


This approach has been neglected because philosophers have made the mistake of asking unadorned questions like “When are men free?” or, alternatively, “When are men really free?”. These questions take it for granted that persons can be simply free or not free.

“One might suppose that, strictly speaking, a person could be free simpliciter only if there were no interference from which he was not free, and nothing that he was not free to do or become.” Given that societies invariably exercise some form of coercion and given the disputes regarding the proper range of the variables of the triadic relation, it should be obvious that persons in cannot be free or unfree simpliciter.

Perhaps, “in certain (conceivable) societies there is no activity in which men in that society are not free to engage, and no possible restriction or barrier from which they are not free.”

The burden of such an argument is to demonstrate that what is ordinarily considered as an interference or a barrier is actually not so, and that everything a person is ordinarily considered not free to do or become is actually irrelevant to freedom. However, other pitfalls remain. Often, questions regarding the legitimacy of interference are reduced to questions concerning genuineness as interference. Also, questions concerning the desirability are reduced to questions about possibility.

 ‘Perhaps, however, the claim that certain men are free simpliciter is merely elliptical for the claim that they are free in every important respect, or in most important respects, or “on the whole.”’ This, however, does not remove the need of asking, in “the most important aspects”, for example, what they are free from and what they are free to become. And straightforward answers to these questions will enable evaluation of whether men are free as claimed.


“Freedom is always and necessarily from restraint; thus, in so far as the adherents of positive freedom speak of persons being made free by means of restraint, they cannot be talking about freedom.” Let us examine the implications of this argument made by friends of “negative” freedom by investigating how we can we can make sense of the alleged claim of adherents of “positive” liberty that, for example, Smith is (or can be) made free by restraining (constraining, coercing) him.

The first interpretation is that “restraining Smith by means a [say, a regulation] from doing b [that prevents his crossing the streets wherever he likes] produces a situation in which he is now able to do c [but allows him to have a right of way over automobile traffic at pedestrian crossings] because restraint d [while abolishing the automobiles having general right of way over pedestrians] is lifted. He is thereby, by means of restraint a, made free from d to do c, although he can no longer do b.”

This interpretation is straightforward. It presents problems only if it is assumed that persons are free or not free simpliciter and also that the claim in question is that Smith can be  made free simpliciter. If these assumptions are made, the following interpretation might be appropriate. Smith is not being “restrained” but being helped to do what he really wants to do or what he would do if he were reasonable (moral, prudent). The “constraint” put on him actually lifts a genuine constraint (ignorance, passion) that was upon him.

This is not at all straightforward. However, it can be disentangled by insisting on the specifications of the triadic relationship being advanced. What, for instance, is Smith being made free from? Perhaps he is made free from the constraint produced by the arbitrary uncontrolled actions of other residents, or perhaps it is the “constraint” arising from his own ignorance or passion, or perhaps it’s both. If it’s the former, the specification is straightforward. If it’s the latter, further argument will be needed for it is difficult to find the range of passion or ignorance that might limit freedom.

Who, for another, is the “true” Smith? The answer will be met if the third specification of the triadic relationship, what Smith is made free to do, is examined. Apparently, he is made free to do as he wishes, really wishes, or would wish if he were reasonable. But there is obviously something he is not free to do. That is the whole point of restraining Smith. But what is he not free to do? The problem with this question is realised when we realise that what usually appears as a “restraint” is not a restraint at all.

These comments do not seek to analyse in depth the claim made by “friends” of negative liberty. Rather, they are being made to examine and draw attention to the variety of interpretations that the analysis of freedom as a triadic relationship throws up. And these are interpretations that the “friends” of negative liberty do not consider or anticipate.


“In the end, then, discussions of the freedom of agents can be fully intelligible and rationally assessed only after the specification of each term of this triadic relation has been made or at least understood. The principal claim made here has been that insistence upon this single “concept” of freedom puts us in a position to see the interesting and important ranges of issues separating the philosophers who write about freedom in such different ways, and the ideologies that treat freedom so differently.”


[1] “Identified [by Isaiah Berlin in Two Concepts of Liberty]… as adherents of “negative” freedom, one finds Occam, Erasmus, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Constant, J. S. Mill, Tocqueville, Jefferson, Burke, Paine. Among adherents of “positive” freedom one finds Plato, Epictetus, St. Ambrose, Montesquieu, Spinoza, Kant, Herder, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Marx, Bukharin, Comte, Carlyle, T. H. Green, Bradley, Bosanquet.”



On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts By Christine Swanton — A Summary

Swanton, Christine. 1985. “On the ‘Essential Contestedness’ of Political Concepts.” Ethics 95 (4). University of Chicago Press: 811–27.

Are the central concepts of political theory like justice, democracy, rights, freedom, and power “essentially contested”?


The “essential contestedness” of political concepts rests on the distinction between a concept x of which there may be many rival and incompatible conceptions or “interpretations” or “uses”.

There appears to be three current views on how that distinction can be made.

The first is to provide a “canonical form” for a concept x. Consider Gerald MacCallum’s schematic characterisation of the concept of liberty as a “triadic” relation: ‘x is (is not) free from y to do (not do, become, not become) z.’[1] The rival conceptions of liberty that arise concern the proper range of the variables x, y and z.

The second is to specify the “common content” of a concept x. John Rawls contends that all conceptions of justice concern with “determining rules for assigning basic rights and duties, and the proper nonarbitrary balancing of competing claims to the advantages of social life”. Rival conceptions of justice will arise, according to this view, based on disagreements about the principles to be accepted in determining those rules.

The third is to say that ‘[t]he concept of x is “derived” from an “exemplar” of x to which the concept of x paradigmatically applies.’ Consider W. B. Gallie’s champion bowling team which serves as an exemplar to all other teams playing the game.[2]

Whichever view one accepts, it is clear that essentially contested concepts do share a common core whose interpretations and specifications are essentially contested. The core is the concept proper and its interpretations are the conceptions.

In what way then is a concept x essentially contested?

“There are concepts which are essentially contested, concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users.”[3]

There are two theses here. The first, that of “contestedness”, says that there are concepts which are recognised by their users as contestable and actually contested. The second, that of “essential contestedness”, says that the contests are “inevitable” and “endless” — that is why they are “essentially” contested.

The first thesis, C, can be expressed in the following manner: “There is at least one concept, central to political theory, which is such that (a) that concept admits of a variety of “interpretations” or “uses,” and (b) is such that its proper use is disputable, and conceptions are deployable both “aggressively and defensively” against rival conceptions.”

The second thesis has two variants: the relativist and the sceptical. The relativist version, PR, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of “interpretations” (namely, conceptions of x), and which is such that no interpretation of C is the best conception of x.”

The sceptical version, PE, can be stated thus: “There is at least one concept C of x, central to political theory, which admits of a variety of interpretations (namely, conceptions of x) and which is such that for any interpretation, C’i, of C, there is no warrant for the belief that C’i is the best conception of x.”

The relativist version denies the existence of one best conception of x whereas the sceptical version dismisses the possibility of knowing the best conception of x even if there is one.


Essential contestedness views thus described — i.e., the conjunction of C and PR, and the conjunction of C and PE — have been accused of incoherence and lack of justification.

A version of the first charge points out that if there is no best interpretation or no way of knowing the best interpretation, there is no point in contestation. Brian Barry[4] for example accuses Steven Lukes[5] of arguing that debates about the proper use of power involve irresolvable value conflict and then suggesting the existence of criteria for settling them.

A defence against this charge would be to argue that the impossibility of knowing or non-existence of the best interpretation does not preclude knowledge about better interpretations. There is then a point and the point lies not in determining the best wheat, but in separating the wheat from the chaff.

A more serious charge attacks the distinction between concept and conception, or more precisely the belief in an uncontested “common core”. The question is: is the concept itself essentially contested? To reply no to this question is to admit that both PR and PE do not hold for the concept. In other words, the absolute truth value of the concept exists and can be determined. If this is the case, why is it not the same with the conceptions? To reply yes, on the other hand, would be to deny the very validity of the existence of a concept and this would force theorists to either abandon the idea of an uncontested concept or the idea of essential contestedness itself.

If the first of the replies is correct, it might be argued that the problem is no so serious. However, in the cases of freedom, justice, and rights, there is “no uncontested conceptual core”. Let us use the example of distributive justice.

Consider the following sample concepts of distributive justice.

C1: Whatever distribution of a social advantage arises from a just situation by just means is itself just.

C2: A proper nonarbitrary balance between competing claims for a social advantage is determined.

C3: There is a rendering unto each his/her due share or amount of social advantage.

There are multiple interpretations of “just situation” of historical entitlement theory expressed in C1, or the “proper nonarbitrary balance” of Rawlsian justice expressed in C2, or the “due share” of patterned theory expressed in C3. This then makes C1, C2, and C3 concepts of justice rather than full-blown conceptions. However, there is no agreement on which of the three should be adopted as the concept of distributive justice.

The first stresses procedure over outcome, the second presupposes competing interests as necessary for justice, while the last tries to match benefits and burdens with due consideration to relevant natural properties of individuals. The concept of distributive justice turns out then to be highly theory laden.

The implication is that the assumption of a concept which is common to all conceptions must be dropped if the charges of incoherence are to be adequately addressed. But how can theorists contest without knowing what they are contesting? In other words, if there is no concept of justice, how can theorists argue justice? The short answer is that the lack of a common meaning does not mean the lack of a common referent. In the case of freedom, one could refer to sufficiently many sample instances containing the word “free” and its cognates as constituting a common conception.

This resolution of the second charge of incoherence presupposes that it is sensible to talk about contested conceptions without there being a core concept as such and further that no such conception is the best. These presuppositions however have the effect of dissolving the difference between concepts and conceptions.


So modified, essential contestedness can now be understood as the conjunction of C’ and P’R, and the conjunction of C’ and P’E.

C’:  There is at least one political ideal x, of which there are several conceptions, and these conceptions of x are deployable both aggressively and defensively against rival conceptions of x.

P’R:  There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and no conception of x is the best conception of x.

P’E:  There is at least one political ideal x of which there are several conceptions, and there is no warrant for a belief that any of those conceptions of x is the best conception of x.

Justifications of this modified view of essential contestedness come in three distinct flavours:

Q:  The criteria of many political concepts are multiple and evaluative, and stand in no settled relation of priority with one another.

R:  Conceptions of political ideals “arise within,” “operate within,” and “express” particular moral or political theories or “perspectives.”

S:  There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any moral and political perspective, from the standpoint of which we can judge any conception of a political ideal to be the best.

Consider Q. This thesis is visible in Gallie who explicates the essential contestedness of the concept of a champion team at bowling in terms of the “many valued features in the exemplar’s play, which stand in no settled relation of priority”. These “features” would be weighed differently by different appraisers.

To illustrate this thesis using justice, consider two kids A and B who agree to each clean half of person’s windows for ten dollars each. A does a barely satisfactory job in an hour and B does an excellent job in two. A’s family is poor while B’s is wealthy. On a criterion of entitlement by right, each should receive ten dollars each; on a criterion of desert, B should receive more; on a criterion of need, A should receive more.

If Q applies to this situation, given the conflict, any one criteria could override the others. This means that Q is compatible with an intuitionist conception of justice which allows multiple first principles for determining what is just but disallows methods for prioritising those principles, yet asserts the intuitive knowability of what the just thing to do is. The implication is that Q cannot then be compatible with P’R and P’E.


To turn to R, the argument appears to be, according to Lukes, that the rival uses of a concept express differing and incommensurable — in the Kuhnian sense — moral and political perspectives. This leads to their essential contestedness. Conceptions of justice embedded in different concepts of justice and given the incommensurability of the concepts, there can be no best conception of justice. Hence, R supports P’R via a thesis of incommensurability.

This incommensurability may be due to differing meanings of the terms used in the theories. If the referents too are assumed to be different — afterall, sense determines reference — then the theories cannot even be about the same thing. Incommensurability may also be merely because of the absence of any method of showing that the terms mean the same.

However, Lukes cannot use the thesis of incommensurability to consistently to derive P’R from R. If conceptions are embedded in concepts which are incommensurable, rival conceptions cannot have a common core — a necessity for Lukes’ thesis of essential contestedness. Even if the assumption of a common core is dropped, it remains to be seen if incommensurable concepts can be contested concepts. The consensus is that they cannot be.[6] Perhaps, then, sense doesn’t determine reference and incommensurable theories are in fact talking about the same referent. But this assumes that statements of different theories are intertranslatable. Something that the incommensurability thesis denies.

In short, the thesis of incommensurability undermines C’. If incommensurability can be used to derive P’R from R, then idea that the concepts are essentially contested has to be dropped.


What about S? Lukes, quoting FH Bradley, criticises John Rawls for attempting to “theoretical[ly] … isolate what cannot be isolated” when he speculates about the Original Position as an Archimedean point or judging the basic structure of society. The individuals of the Original Position are, for Lukes, “literally inconceivable”.

S, the thesis that rejects the existence of any Archimedean point, seems to lead to P’E through the following line of argument.

i. Conceptions of political ideals are embedded in moral or political theories or perspectives (thesis R).
ii. Such perspectives always involve commitment to value systems.
iii. There is no “Archimedean point,” itself external to any particular value system, from the standpoint of which we can judge any moral or political perspective to be true. Therefore:
iv. There is no warrant for believing that any conception of an ideal embedded in such a perspective, is the best conception of that ideal.

But the conclusion iv does not follow from i, ii, and iii alone. It requires the following to be true.

v. There is no theory which both provides a warrant for a claim that a conception C is the best conception of x, and fails to constitute an “Archimedean point” for justification of such a claim.

In other words, to say that lack of an Archimedean point from which to judge differing moral perspectives to which people are committed does not warrant the abandonment of the belief in any one perspective as the best conception. For this to hold, it must further be (shown to be) true that any theory that provides warrant for a claim that a conception is the best also constitutes an Archimedean point for justifying that claim.

It will be argued that this critical final requirement is in certain cases not fulfilled. Consider a coherence epistemology that requires a coherence among “background theory, judgments, and conceptions;[7] and in a way that does justice to the endoxa — the beliefs of the many or the wise.” However, it cannot, without losing its coherence, provide for an Archimedean point upon which to “lever” one theory above the rest as the best.

A coherentist may, in claiming a theory as the best conception, only point to (a) a theory grounded in an “ideally rational perspective” or (b) a theory that comes closest to the former. A coherence epistemology can seek to justify claims that a certain conception is the best based on either of the two senses without appealing to the need of an Archimedean point. The principles for justification could be the “degree of coherence achieved, the number and significance of the endoxa considered as initial “data points,” and the degree to which the theoretical apparatus enables the point of the various endoxa considered to be preserved.”

To sum up, there are certain types of theory, like coherence theories for example, which do not constitute Archimedean points for justification and evaluation. This being true, S cannot lead to P’E.

“I conclude that neither Q, R, nor S establish the (modified) essential contestedness views. These three theses are, to my knowledge, the only grounds which have been advocated in defense of the essential contestedness of concepts. Attractive though the essential contestedness hypothesis is as a solution to the problem of intractable dispute in political and moral theory, the hypothesis has not yet been adequately defended.


[1]MacCallum, Gerald C. 1967. “Negative and Positive Freedom.” The Philosophical Review 76(3): 312–34.

[2] Gallie, W B. 1955. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56: 167–98.

[3] Ibid., p. 169.

[4] Barry, Brian. 1975. “The Obscurities of Power.” Government and Opposition 10(2): 250–54.

[5] Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View (London: Macmillan, 1974)

[6] “Now it is generally thought that it is a confusion to believe that incommensurable theories are competing theories.”

[7] “(a) relevant judgments acceptable to the “many or the wise” and which at least presumptively reveal something of the nature of the ideal under investigation; (b) rival conceptions of the ideal under investigation; and (c) “background” theories whose purpose is to uncover the needs and interests served by the classification of items in terms of the ideal under investigation and to thereby discover the point of and strengths of the various judgments and conceptions.”


What is Political Theory? by Andrew Hacker — A Summary

Title: What is Political Theory?
Author: Andrew Hacker
Publication: Andrew Hacker (1961) Political Theory — Philosophy, Ideology, Science

Science, Philosophy, Ideology

In order to say anything on a subject, one has to be either an “expositor” or a “censor”. The former explains what is and the latter tells us what ought to be. This Benthamite observation, though his remarks were confined to the study of law, brings out the distinction between the two branches of political theory: political science and political philosophy. The theorist engaging in political science describes and explains political reality. Meanwhile, the theorist engaged in political philosophy prescribes the goals that should be pursued in the political reality.

However, every respectable political theorist fills both roles and divides his efforts between both pursuits, although which role gets more attention will vary. The important point is that without both ingredients, a lasting contribution to knowledge cannot be made because there is no “pure” or “objective” political science. The grounds for selecting the aspects of reality to be studied must eventually be philosophical. Equally, political philosophy is always informed by an understanding of political reality. As such, there is no “pure” or “objective” political philosophy. It is up to the student of political theory to determine where the scientific part stops and where the philosophical part begins.

There is a third variety of theory in which the theorist may prescribe a course of action, or means, if a certain result is to be achieved. This sort of prescription that specifies the means and leaves the ends to the reader may be called “policy science”. Such if-then statements are prescriptions only in a technical sense.

A theory, in ideal terms, is dispassionate and disinterested. As science describe political reality without trying to pass judgment on what is being depicted wither implicitly or explicitly. As philosophy, it will prescribe rules of conduct which will secure the good life for all of society and not simply for certain individuals or classes.

Theorists tend to be Utopians or ideologues. While the former build castles in the air, the latter are stuck in the soil. As beings of emotion and interest, all theorists are inevitably ideologues. As such, we have distortions and rationalisations instead of disinterested description and prescription.


But despite the inevitability of rationalisations and distortions, there emerges theorists who are able to transcend the ideological limitations and achieve a broader perspective and provide generalisations that stand the test of time. Those who achieve this may legitimately be called theorists.

The Search for Significance

The theorists of yesterday, as opposed to the theorists of today, are not much concerned with methodological rigor. When Rousseau declares that we must put the facts aside because they do not affect the issue and Machiavelli pushes only the unpalatable qualities of men, it is not because Rousseau fails to realise the value of facts or because Machiavelli is unaware of the complexity of human nature. It is because they are willing to stress dominant tendencies and speculate on major trends. The problem with too much rigor and too much information is that they make any significant contribution to political theory impossible.

A theory which says that men have equal proportions of good and evil in them is, in the final analysis, no theory at all. Generalisations are always risky, but to be meaningful they must come down on one side or another.

If theorists claim that their theories are scientific, their words should be viewed with suspicion and not taken seriously.

The problem with facts concerns their role in theory. Should they be used as evidence, as contemporary theorists do, or should they be used simply as illustrations, as many historical writers[1] did? The argument for the former is that facts lead to convincing and conclusive substantiations that supports the generalisations. The argument for the latter is reality is so subtle and complex to be factually verified.

But if the pursuit of significance requires the loosening of methodological standards, what is to stop the theorist from abandoning caution altogether? What is to stop him from creating fantastical edifices where all problems are solved or where everything is explained? There are a few of those in political theory. “Nevertheless, it must be remembered that if important issues are to receive discussion, then standards of logic and even veracity must be relaxed.”

Also, even if the full system propounded by a theorist may be untenable, it should not devalue the importance of “middle range” theories — theories that are a part of the general framework of a theorist. Examples are Aristotle’s theory of class, St. Thomas’ theory of law, Locke’s theory of property, Mill’s theory of representation. It is impossible to find a satisfactory all-embracing theory by a single theorist in this day. So, in the meantime, students of political theory must be willing to collect whatever they can from any source they find. Only, they must be sufficiently sceptical in temperament.

The History of Politics and
the History of Ideas

A knowledge of history understood in its broad conception as a growth and evolution of social classes, productive forces, and political institutions is essential for the political theorist. Without such historical knowledge, there can be no perspective for analysis or standard for judgement no matter how complete his knowledge of the present might be.

An illustration of this is the idea and fact of political liberty. Liberty as freedom from state and social restraint took birth in the context of a particular social structure and at a certain stage of economic development. The theorists who propounded this idea were situated in a certain point in time. The student of political theory cannot ignore these facts any more than he can deny that the social structure and the level of economic development has drastically changed today.

History in political theory is also pervaded by ideology. The ‘historical’ constructions of Rousseau, or Marx and Engels, or even Burke and Tocqueville, are filled with ideological overtones and are often distorted to make their arguments clear. These misdirections notwithstanding, the theories so created need not become valueless.

There is another form of history crucial to political theory, that of the history of ideas which concerns the political ideas set down in writing by men of ideas. The active relation between the history of ideas and the history of political action is stressed by most students. This gives rise to the common refrain that men of ideas must always be put in their proper historical context. But that amounts to wrongly denying that what they had to say has value and application that transcend their peculiar contexts.

The works of historical writers (see footnote), regardless of when and where they were written, can increase our understanding of the world. And their theories can and should be studied independent of the role they might have played in the ‘histories of ideas’. To defend this claim, seven points may be raised in the form of a rebuke against the ‘histories of ideas’:

1. “Capital” and Carbuncles

Biographical approaches tend to concentrate on how a particular work came to be written. Marx’s carbuncles are said to have made his attack on the bourgeoisie more vehement. Rousseau’s constricted bladder is said to have affected his writing in the Social Contract. It is not advisable to completely divorce the man from his work but to concentrate solely on the man and not what he wrote, as these biographical approaches do, is to do a great disservice to political theory.

2. Lost Laundry Lists

There is a tendency to look at everything that an author wrote — even laundry lists! — as important to the work of the author. An obscure Hegelian essay on the English constitution is thus criticised for not bringing anything original to the discussion. These are the lengths historians of ideas will go to. Obviously, if one wants to learn about the English constitution, Hegel is not whom he should be reading. In any case, those who look at laundry lists or incidental essays have ceased their study of politics.

3. The Pursuit of Pedigrees

Similarities in phrasing and emphasis in the writing of two or more writers are taken to imply the direct influence of the ones who came before on the ones who came after other. Hobbes is thus positioned as the precursor to the Utilitarians when there is no evidence to prove that this is actually so. Such positioning is highly speculative. It is not to say that ideas emerge in a vacuum but it is at the same time naïve to think that an intelligent theorist cannot come up with conclusions on his own.

4. Nothing New Under the Sun

A commentator pointed out that there is nothing new in the Communist Manifesto. It might be true. But the point is that Marx took the thought of the others and put them together in ways that had never been done before, much as Shakespeare used existing English words in ways that had never been used before. That Plato or Aristotle has already said a few generalised remarks about most, if not all, aspects of political theory need not discourage the theorist from exploring further and digging deeper.

5. Meaningful Misinterpretations

One historian of ideas bemoans the fact that Bodin’s legacy has been built upon a false reading of his theory of sovereignty. So what? What a work gains in truth by a thorough scholarly reading, it loses in significance. The significance of theory lies in the eyes of the reader. Historical texts are more useful if they are read as texts alone. The obsession with hidden intentions and hidden meanings contributes very little to the study of politics.

6. Representative Reflections

Historians of ideas try to understand through the works of historical writers what was going on in people’s minds. But political texts are rarely representative of the thinking of their times. Often, they are unorthodox, even radical, positions adopted by only a small minority. The great books of political theory do not tell us what happened. They show us how some people chose to view what they imagined had happened.

7. Influential Intellectuals

Historians of ideas are quick to suggest that works of theory have a direct influence upon political action. This contention is a serious one and it is true that men of action read in political texts — Jefferson had read Locke’s Second Treatise, and Lenin was highly influenced by Marx. But we must also realise that many significant events in the world were not inspired by any theory — Genghis Khan overran Asia without a theory to guide him.

The point is that instead of the theorist directing the practitioner, it is usually the practitioner who (ab)uses the words of the theorist to suit his purposes. Theory, in other words, gets diluted into ideology in order for the practitioner to use it to stir people into action. A serious student ought to recognise this fact and learn to negotiate the difficult terrain of ideology without becoming an ideologue.

The historical texts have their greatest allure in that the theories they offer transcend the times and the personalities which produced them. In this sense they are timeless and, in an important respect, anonymous.

Politics and Conscience

Political theory requires a political conscience — deep concern for the world in which we live. A student must be ready to be driven by emotion and to work conscientiously. The important matters are not historical erudition nor methodological precision. Too great a concern with the history of ideas will only limit him. Politics has timeless problems. Only a sustained and intense discussion of theory will help resolve those problems.


[1] By ‘historical writers’, Hacker means the writers of classic works on political theory who were not too concerned about methodological questions. He specifically mentions Burke and Tocqueville. He is not referring to historians.

For a differing view on the history of ideas, look at Quentin Skinner’s “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas


The Law of Peoples by John Rawls — A Summary

Title: The Law of Peoples
Author: John Rawls
Publication: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Autumn 1993)

  • Before proceeding, make sure you are familiar with Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness.  For an interesting and broader discussion on the concept, check out Michael Sandel’s lectures from his course: “Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?” The topic is  introduced here and continued here.)
  • Sections under square brackets can be skipped on first reading.


The essay seeks to develop a “law of peoples” out of “liberal ideas of justice”.[1],By a “law of peoples”, Rawls means a “political conception of right and justice that applies to the norms and principles of international norms and practice”.[2]

The essay seeks also to determine the attitude of political liberalism to non-liberal societies once a law of peoples has been developed from liberal principles. Briefly stated, liberal societies will respect non-liberal societies provided they adhere to the law of peoples. More specifically stated, liberal societies will tolerate a specific type of non-liberal societies: “well-ordered hierarchical societies” (see Section IV.1–3).

I. How a Social Contract Doctrine in Universal in its Reach?


The conceptualisation of a liberal conception of justice begins with a hypothetically closed and self-sufficient liberal democratic society and covers only political values and not all of life. How can a “historicist” liberal conception determined in this manner be extended to non-liberal societies? How can it be extended to future generations? How can it be extended to non-cooperative individuals? How can it be extended to animals and the rest of nature? In short, how can such a conception be universalised?

Reasonable answers may be forthcoming to only the first three questions. In any case, a political conception of justice cannot be expected to handle all these questions.


In most philosophical positions, the universalising factor is often a source of authority: God (Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke) or human reason (utilitarianism, rational intuitionism, perfectionism).


However, liberal conception of justice is “constructed” through a “reasonable procedure” by working with “relevant subjects” at different levels. The principles of this conception are first arrived at for closed democratic societies, then to future societies, and then to a law of peoples until all the requisite principles are discovered. This constructivist doctrine becomes universal when it produces the law of peoples that applies to the most comprehensive subject, “the political society of peoples”.[3]

II. Three Preliminary Questions


There are two parts to the liberal conception of justice. One applies to the domestic realm of liberal societies and the other, to the general realm of the political society of peoples. The principles of justice for both are derived from the “original position”. In the first, the relevant subjects are the citizens. In the second, they are representatives of the domestic (liberal as well as hierarchical) societies.

Doesn’t this accept the state (the domestic society) as traditionally conceived, with all its familiar powers of sovereignty?

No. Because, in the first use of the original position, domestic society is seen as closed, since we abstract from relations with other societies. There is no need for armed forces, and the question of the government's right to be prepared militarily does not arise and would be denied if it did. Also, the war powers of governments, whatever they should be, are only those acceptable within a reasonable law of peoples. We must reformulate the powers of sovereignty in light of a reasonable law of peoples and get rid of the right to war and the right to internal autonomy.


Why start with liberal societies and not, say, the global society? For one, the attempt to chart the concept of “justice as fairness” began with domestic society and it has proved to be a reasonable starting point. For another, domestic societies organised by governments exist all over the world.


The law of peoples provides the conceptual tools with reference to which the law of nations (or international law) can be judged. This is the distinction between the law of peoples and the law of nations.

III. The Extension to Liberal Societies


The liberal conception of justice contains: (a) a list of basic rights, liberties and opportunities; (b) a high priority for these fundamental freedoms; and (c) guarantees to ensure effective use of these freedoms.

Justice as fairness is typical of these conceptions except that its egalitarian features are stronger. To some degree the more general liberal ideas lack the three egalitarian features: the fair value of political liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle.

The extension of the liberal conception to the law of peoples proceeds in two stages: ideal theory and then, non-ideal theory.

In the first stage, it is assumed that all relevant societies comply strictly with the principles arrived at. These societies may be liberal or hierarchical but they are similar in that they are all well-ordered.[4] The examination of liberal societies is followed by the consideration of hierarchical societies. The feature of consequence is that both kinds of societies will comply with the principles of the law of peoples.

In the second stage, the case of societies that refuse to comply and societies that are unable to comply due to unfavourable conditions are very briefly considered.


The first original position behind the veil of ignorance is a device of representation that specifies fair conditions for the participating parties, the representatives of free and equal citizens in liberal societies, in that they fairly represented (all are equal in the original position), understood as rational (they do the best they can for their interests) and assumed to choose to choose the principles for the appropriate reasons (the veil of ignorance prevents the use of “unsuitable” reasons).


In the next level, the participating parties as representatives of liberal societies are to determine the law of peoples. As with the first original position, the representatives are reasonably situated (the representation is symmetrical), they are rational (principles of law are determined with reference to the interest of liberal societies), and they decide in accordance with appropriate reasons (the veil of ignorance hides information regarding the size of territory or population, the relative strength of the people, the extent of natural resources, the level of economic development and so on).


The principles arrived at by liberal societies will be familiar ones. They will allow cooperative association but not lead to a world state.

I … (think) that a world government — by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central governments — would be either a global despotism or else a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples try to gain their political autonomy.

The principles of justice between free and democratic peoples will include “certain familiar principles… , among them the following:

  1. Peoples (as organized by their governments) are free and independent, and their freedom and independence is to be respected by other peoples.
  2. Peoples are equal and parties to their own agreements.
  3. Peoples have the right of self-defence but no right to war.
  4. Peoples are to observe a duty of nonintervention.
  5. Peoples are to observe treaties and undertakings.
  6. Peoples are to observe certain specified restrictions on the conduct of war (assumed to be in self-defence).
  7. Peoples are to honour human rights.”

The list is incomplete and some of its contents may appear, to differing eyes, either too superfluous (#6) or too contested (#4). The point however is that such principles will constitute the charter of association of liberal societies.


The government of a society is the representative[5] and effective agent of its assets, i.e., the people’s territory and its (the territory’s) capacity to sustain them. Without such an agent, the asset would “deteriorate”. Irresponsible management of the asset does not give them the right to conquest by war or migrate without consent.]


In addition to the three requirements of the original position (See Section III.3), there are two further requirements. First, the society of liberal societies should be stable in the right way. This means that it should remain stable by generating respect through the merit of its principles and judgements with regards to its ideas of justice and not because of some “fortunate balance of power — it being in no people’s interest to upset it (the society of liberal societies)”.


The historical record suggests that, at least so far as the principle against war is concerned, this condition of stability would be satisfied in a society of just, democratic peoples. …since 1800 firmly established liberal societies have not gone to war with one another. …This being so, I shall suppose that a society of democratic peoples, all of whose basic institutions are well ordered by liberal conceptions of justice (though not necessarily by the same conception), will be stable in the right way as above specified.

The last condition is that the citizens of liberal societies accept the principles and judgments of the law of the society of liberal societies after due reflection.

IV. Extension to Hierarchical Societies


This section (the second step of ideal theory; see Section III.1) considers hierarchical societies. Such societies are usually, but not always, religious.

A well-ordered hierarchical society fulfils three conditions. First, it is peaceful and gains its legitimate aims through “ways of peace”. Its comprehensive religious doctrine is not expansionist. It respects the civic order and integrity of other societies. If it seeks greater influence, it does so in a way that respects the liberties of other societies.


Second, it imposes moral duties and obligations upon its members. It not only insists on a common good conception of justice, i.e., it takes into account what it thinks are the fundamental interests of its members, but it is also willing to administer its legal order, and defend and justify its decisions publicly. A well-ordered hierarchical society constitutes a “reasonable consultation hierarchy”.[6]


In view of this account of the institutional basis of a hierarchical society, we can say that its conception of the common good of justice secures for all persons at least certain minimum rights to means of subsistence and security (the right to life), to liberty (freedom from slavery, serfdom, and forced occupations), and (personal) property, as well as to formal equality as expressed by the rules of natural justice (for example, that similar cases be treated similarly).

Third, it recognises basic human rights. If it insists on a common good conception of justice (as the second requirement specifies), it must recognise and protect those rights. Otherwise, such an insistence would be unreasonable.

A hierarchical society may have an established religion with certain privileges. Still, it is essential to its being well ordered that no religions are persecuted or denied civic and social conditions that permit their practice in peace and, of course, without fear.


Fulfilling these conditions, even hierarchical societies can agree to a law of peoples that recognises human rights.  Their representatives will also, when positioned in the original position, adopt the same principles that liberal societies would. (see Section III.4) Why? Because they care about the good of their societies (meaning they are rational) and also because they respect the civic order and integrity of other societies (meaning they are reasonably situated).


(This subsection only clarifies some methodological questions and does not introduce any substantive material.)

There is no inconsistency in assuming that hierarchical societies are equally (or reasonably) situated along with liberal societies, even though the former might allow basic inequalities among its members because it is “not unreasonable”[7] for an inegalitarian society to insist on equality in making claims against other societies.

Although, the first original position incorporates a political conception of the person rooted in a liberal society, the second original position that determines the law of people does not (do not confuse this with the “political conception of justice” introduced in the Introduction). This enables the more specific liberal conception to be extended to a more general law of peoples the encompasses even non-liberal societies.

Why not start from global original position (see also Section II.2)? For one, it is not certain that proceeding in this manner would yield a different set of principles. Also, starting from such a position is troublesome for the use of liberal principles since it means narrowly assuming all persons as rational based on liberal conceptions.]


But how can a liberal conception of justice be applicable to hierarchical societies? Because they fulfil the same conditions as those specified for liberal societies in Section III.6­–7. They will honour a just law of peoples for the same reasons that liberal societies do.[8] In short, they fulfil the conditions of well-orderedness (see Subsections 1–3).

V. Human Rights


Human rights are not derived from comprehensive moral or philosophical doctrines. They only express a minimum standard[9] of well-ordered societies available to all members.


The imposition of moral duties and obligations (see Section IV.2–3) makes the existence and acceptance of human rights possible. The requirement of human rights is that members of societies be responsible, cooperating, and obedient to the moral duties and obligations, all of which are fulfilled in hierarchical societies. Human rights are therefore not exclusive to the liberal tradition. They are “politically neutral”. The basic human rights can be protected in a well-ordered hierarchical state.


One role of human rights is to circumscribe state sovereignty.[10] They are universal and non-controversial. They are integral to a law of peoples and specify the limits on the domestic institutions of societies.

Human rights (a) legitimise regimes, (b) prevent forceful (even if justified) intervention by other peoples, and (c) “set a moral limit to pluralism” among peoples.

VI. Nonideal Theory: Noncompliance[11]


All discussion up to this point has assumed strict compliance to the principles of the law of peoples, i.e., ideal theory (see Section III.1).  But to complete the sketch of the law of peoples, the case of noncompliant societies will have to be considered, i.e., nonideal theory.

Nonideal theory presupposes ideal theory[12] and seeks to work towards it (ideal theory) in gradual steps. There are two kinds of nonideal theory: outlaw regimes which refuse to comply with the law of peoples, and societies with unfavourable conditions that make their achieving well-orderedness difficult if not impossible.


Outlaw regimes are often built on a system of terror and coercion (Nazi Germany, for example) and they may recognise no conception of right and justice at all. There are also expansionist regimes (Spain, France, the Hapsburgs) that recognise no geographic limits to their authority (see Section IV.1).

With expansionist regimes, the well-ordered societies can at best establish a modus vivendi. With outlaw regimes, for the short term, the well-ordered societies are in a state of nature and they have a duty to protect and defend their own peoples as well as those innocent peoples subjected to outlaw regimes but not the rulers and elites of those outlaw regimes.


But in the long term, the aim is to bring all societies to honour the law of peoples. How to do this is a matter of foreign policy and calls upon political wisdom and success depends on luck too.It is not for political philosophy[13] to intervene.

For well-ordered peoples to achieve this long-term aim they should establish among themselves new institutions and practices to serve as a kind of federative center and public forum of their common opinion and policy towards the other regimes. … This federative center may be used both to formulate and to express the opinion of the well-ordered societies. There they may expose to public view the unjust and cruel institutions of oppressive and expansionist regimes and their violations of human rights.

VII. Nonideal Theory: Unfavourable Conditions


This type of nonideal theory applies to societies that “that lack the political and cultural traditions, the human capital and know-how, and the resources, material and technological, that make well-ordered societies possible.” The goal here is to raise the societies with unfavourable conditions towards conditions that make well-ordered societies possible.


Can the difference principle[14] be used? No. Because, it applies only to liberal societies. It also deals with ideal theory. And with the diversity of societies that are in existence, not all of them can be reasonably expected to accept a liberal principle of distributive justice.]


But how may the project of helping societies burdened by unfavourable conditions become well-ordered societies proceed? This question shall remain unanswered at the moment for the problem of giving aid is extremely tricky and also because the problem is often not of lack of resources but the political culture and social structure (oppressive government, corrupt elites, subjection of women, unreasonable religion etc.)

VIII. Concluding Reflections

(The following will be extracts and must be read along with the essay or not at all. In any case, they are non-substantive “reflections”, important from a critical perspective but not crucial to a preliminary understanding of the ideas being put forth.)


“… (the) respect for human rights is one of the conditions imposed on any political regime to be admissible as a member in good standing into a just political society of peoples. Once we understand this … it is perfectly clear why those rights hold across cultural and economic boundaries, as well as the boundaries between nation-states or other political units. With our two other conditions (see Section IV.1­–2), these rights determine the limits of toleration in a reasonable society of peoples. …These conditions indicate the region of bedrock beyond which we cannot go.”


“(I)n working out the law of peoples we assumed liberal societies to look at how they are to conduct themselves towards other societies from the point of view of their own liberal political conception. … to proceed thus is not then necessarily ethnocentric or merely Western. … The liberal conception asks of other societies only what they can reasonably grant without submitting to a position of inferiority, much less to domination. … (it) does not ask well-ordered hierarchical societies to abandon their religious institutions, and adopt liberal ones. … (it) does not justify economic sanctions or military pressure on well-ordered hierarchical societies to change their ways, provided that they respect the rules of peace and their political institutions satisfy the essential conditions we have reviewed.”


“A liberal society is to respect other societies organized by comprehensive doctrines, provided their political and social institutions meet certain conditions that lead the society to adhere to a reasonable law of peoples.”


“…to affirm the superiority of a particular comprehensive view is fully compatible with affirming a political conception of justice that does not impose it, and so with political liberalism itself.”


[1] When Rawls says “liberal ideas of justice”, he is drawing upon the ideas expressed in his conception of “justice as fairness” which he wants to make more “general” in this essay.

[2] By a “political conception of justice”, he means a conception that: (a) applies to basic political, economic, and social institutions; (b) is independent of religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines; and (c) is expressed through fundamental liberal ideas.

[3] It means a society comprising well-ordered liberal and well-ordered hierarchical societies.

[4] “Here I understand a well-ordered society as being peaceful and not expansionist; its legal system satisfies certain requisite conditions of legitimacy in the eyes of its own people; and, as a consequence of this, it honours basic human rights.”

[5] The arbitrariness of the territorial boundaries of politically organised societies might be brought up to object to the validity of the agreements made by them but such a fixation would be “wrong” because their role in the law of peoples is not subject to whether they were properly defined territorially but only to what political values they serve in the system of the law of peoples.

[6] “It includes a family of representative bodies, or other assemblies, whose task is to look after the important interests of all elements of society. … (Its citizens) are seen as responsible members of society who can recognize their moral duties and obligations and play their part in social life. …there is an opportunity for different voices to be heard … and (the citizens) have the right at some point in the process of consultation to express political dissent.”

[7] That’s not to say that it is reasonable. Rawls thinks that space should be allowed between what is (fully) reasonable and what is (fully) unreasonable.

[8] Rawls thinks this “seems plausible” enough to not warrant argument and clarification.

[9] “Since they are to express a minimum standard, the requirements that yield these rights should be quite weak.”

[10] Based on considerations of human rights, the war making and population exterminating rights of the state has severely been limited. War is no longer an admissible state policy.

[11] “In actual affairs, nonideal theory is of first practical importance and deals with problems we face every day. Yet for reasons of space, I shall say very little about them.”

[12] Because without it, nonideal theory has no objective to achieve and no standard to adhere to.

[13] Rawls ventures to give some suggestions though.

[14] The most crucial principle amongst those that constitute the concept of justice as fairness.

Priorities of Global Justice by Thomas Pogge — A Summary

Pogge, Thomas. 2001. “Priorities of Global Justice.” Metaphilosophy 32 (1–2): 6–24.


  • As in the essay, all first person plurals (“we”, “us”, “our”, “ourselves”) refer to the developed countries while third person plurals refer, unless explicitly stated or obvious from the context, to developing countries;
  • The divisions are my own insertions and are not present in the original essay; and
  • Although I should not mention this, all facts and figures are dated to the time the essay was written (i.e., the dawn of the millennium).


Why have the affluent states done so little to alleviate global poverty? The demise of the Soviet Union not only enabled the availability of funds for such a purpose by reducing military spending but also facilitated the incorporation of moral values into foreign policy. But official development assistance (ODA) from developed countries has actually decreased.

To add to the puzzle, developed countries have been very willing to spend obscene amounts in military interventions to save, say, a million Serbs in Yugoslavia. Why not spend similar amounts without endangering anyone in order to save many millions of lives?

To put the importance of this question in perspective, consider the following facts: a quarter of all people live below the international poverty line[1]; 790 million people are malnourished; one billion are without safe water; 2.4 billion are without basic sanitation; 880 million lack basic services; one billion are without shelter and two billion are without electricity.

Deprivation not only leads to the underfulfillment of social and economic human rights but also civil and political human rights. Severe poverty is the greatest source of human misery today causing more suffering and deaths than all violent conflicts around the world combined.

Reducing severe poverty is not easy but it is easier than violent ‘humanitarian’ interventions which, unlike poverty reduction, have significant moral and economic costs that are hard to determine and often end up worsening the situation.


The position of the developed countries on global poverty can be summed up as under:

  1.  We are able to reduce poverty and hunger and diseases associated therewith at a modest cost, [2]
  2. We are willing to spend a tiny fraction of our national income toward such a reduction,
  3. But we are not legally or morally obligated to give any weight at all to this goal.

The denial of the obligation to reduce would be acceptable if the invisible hand of the market were doing the job on its own. But along with the ascendency of the “new economic architecture” consisting of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO as well as the healthy aggregate economic growth, there has been an increase in poverty in absolute terms.[3]

This new architecture has to be rethought if poverty is to be eradicated within an acceptable time span. It is completely dominated by a few countries and the openness of the global market has little positive consequence for poor countries whose lack of infrastructure excludes them from the ‘open’ market. A special effort is needed to jump-start development.

This is not an argument against globalisation. But it does show that the developed states must remove their protectionist barriers and make a considerable non-market-driven effort to get the poorest quartile to the point where they too can benefit from globalisation. Failing that, the new economic architecture will further increase global economic inequality or even aggravate the horrendous conditions among the poorest quartile.

Global economic inequality has persistently increased.[4] What has changed though is the capacity of the affluent states to effect massive and rapid reductions in severe poverty. It is economically feasible to wipe out poverty, hunger and disease without real inconvenience to anyone.


The conclusion from the foregoing paragraphs could be: “If we can make so huge a difference to hundreds of millions at so little cost to ourselves, we must not refuse to make this effort.”

The call for action, in this instance, is predicated on the fact that it can be done at “so little cost to ourselves”. This ground for action is misleading. It is a moral duty that requires serious effort toward reducing poverty. But not only that, the incidence of poverty among the billions in impoverished countries is deeply connected to us.

“First, their social starting positions and ours have emerged from a single historical process that was pervaded by massive grievous wrongs. … Second, they and we depend on a single natural resource base, from the benefits of which they are largely, and without compensation, excluded. … Third, they and we coexist within a single global economic order that has a strong tendency to perpetuate and even to aggravate global economic inequality.”

Given these connections, the failure to act on poverty is not merely a lack of beneficence (a line of thought popular among leaders) but an active impoverishing, starving and killing of millions of innocent people by economic means (an idea that is, unfortunately, rarely taken seriously). The harms were not intended nor foreseen, but now that the results are in, we have to realise that it was our mistake and act to rectify it.

(The next section explores the third connection between the affluent and the poor countries)


(Note: Familiarity with John Rawl’s conception of “justice as fairness” especially the “difference principle” and, to a lesser extent, his conception of the Society of Peoples is recommended.)

Free and competitive markets are quite compatible with huge and ever increasing inequality. A principle, like Rawls’ difference principle for national economies, is needed that would help assess the distributive effects of alternative global orders. Rawls, for his Society of Peoples, insists on a universal minimum as a constraint on unbridled inequality. This principle is unobjectionable and hugely important. But it does not suffice. The inegalitarian tendencies built into the global market oriented order is not made right by keeping the losers of the system from falling below a certain minimum. Rawls downplays and obscures the causal role of the global economic order in perpetrating, aggravating and perpetuating poverty and inequality.

Against this criticism, it is often argued that it is not the economic order but the governments in poor countries that are to blame for they do not implement optimal policies. The success of the “Asian Tigers” and the state of Kerala in India are cited in defence.

However, what is true of the Asian Tigers or of Kerala cannot be true for all. If all poor countries took up manufacturing just as the Asian Tigers did, there would have been much less profit to go around. The Asian Tigers exploited a niche and once that niche was filled, it made no economic sense for many more to join in.

Also, there may be systemic reasons why poor countries are unable to implement ‘optimal’ policies. The incidence of endemic corruption in developing countries and the unwillingness of the elite in these countries may be consequences of the global economic order itself.

(The next section develops this second point.)


Bribery is an unavoidable menace in developing countries. The distribution of contracts is greatly influenced by bribes. Bribes not only generate non-competitive work but also weaken regulation and quality control. Enormous losses are incurred as a result.

While this might lead to the conclusion that it is the greed of officials in developing countries that is to blame, the conclusion is punctured by the fact the developed states have not merely permitted bribes but morally justified them (by deducting bribes from taxes). Fortunately, this practice is being phased out.[5]

One could also conclude that even if they were not bribed by foreigners, the ruling elites in developing countries would have enriched themselves anyway. Many of these countries are undemocratic and many are outright violent.

This conclusion is problematic for the crucial reason that any group or indeed person, regardless of its character, controlling a preponderance of the means of coercion within the country is recognised as the legitimate government of the country’s territory and its people. That group becomes the representative of the country with which international dealings takes place.

One pertinent example of such dealings is the international borrowing privilege which imposes valid legal obligations on the country at large. Given this feature, a democratic successor to an autocratic government has to uphold the borrowing burden incurred by the previous government.

This has important negative consequences for human rights fulfilment in developing countries: “First, this privilege facilitates borrowing by destructive governments … which helps them stay in power even against near-universal popular discontent and opposition. Second, the international borrowing privilege imposes upon democratic successor regimes the often huge debts of their corrupt predecessors which saps the capacity of such democratic governments to implement structural reforms and other political programs … Third, the international borrowing privilege provides incentives toward coup attempts.”

There is also the international resource privilege that grants the power to effect legally valid transfers of ownership rights of natural resources. Corporations that have purchased resources from ruling families in developing countries become legitimate owners and acquires all rights and liberties of ownership.

This has disastrous consequences for poor countries whose economies are dominated by the resource sector. It creates strong incentives for violent coup attempts and undemocratic exercise of political power and also motivates foreigners to corrupt local officials. The chain of poverty caused by corruption caused by natural-resource wealth brings us to the international resource privilege.

These brief remarks on bribery and on the international borrowing and resource privileges show at least in outline how the current global order we uphold shapes the national culture and policies of the poorer and weaker countries. It does so in four main ways: It crucially affects what sorts of persons exercise political power in these countries, what incentives these persons face, what options they have, and what impact the implementation of any of their options would have on their most-disadvantaged compatriots.



In this global order, the developing countries are too weak to exert any real influence on the way the global economy is organised. The governments in these countries comprised as they are of elites have little incentive to alleviate the suffering of their poor counterparts. Their (corrupt elitist governments in developing contries) and our survival and flourishing are dependent on the continuation of the global order which therefore appears proper.

“The conclusion is once again that the underfulfillment of human rights in the developing countries is not a homegrown problem, but one we greatly contribute to through the policies we pursue and the international order we impose. We have then not merely a positive responsibility with regard to global poverty … but a negative responsibility to stop imposing the existing global order and to prevent and mitigate the harms it continually causes for the world’s poorest populations. … The reduction of severe global poverty should be our foremost moral priority.”


[1] “is one 1985 US dollar per person per day at purchasing power parity (PPP).”

[2] “Even if the FAO’s proposed annual increase of $6 billion (from the World Food Summit 1996) were to reduce hunger faster than expected, this should be no cause of regret… an extra %6 billion is not much to ask from the high-income countries, whose combined GNP in 2998 was $22,599 bilion.”

[3] “From 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.5 bilion today (1999) and if trends persist, will reach 1.9 billion by 2015.”

[4] “The income gap between the fifth of the world’s people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 74 to 1 in 1997, up from 60 to 1 in 1990 and 30 to 1 in 1960.” Earlier estimates are 11 to 1 for 1913, 7 to 1 for 1870, and 3 to 1 for 1820.”

[5] “The first major step was the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, enacted after the Lockheed Corporation was found to have paid a $2 million bribe not to a Third World potentate, but to Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. It took another twenty years until thirty-two affluent states, under OECD auspices and under public pressure generated by a new nongovernmental organization (Transparency International), signed a Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials in International Business Transactions, which requires them to criminalize the bribery of foreign