Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical by John Rawls — A Summary

John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 14, no. 3 (1985): 223–51.

Section I explains “justice as fairness” as a political conception of justice applicable to the basic structure of society in a democratic society.

Section II asserts the intractability of disagreements over fundamental questions in any society and describes what a political conception of justice can do to adjudicate between these disagreements. It then indicates how justice as fairness could achieve that. It also indicates why justice as fairness is a political and not a metaphysical conception.

Section III states the overarching idea of justice as fairness as referring to a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. It then expands on the idea of fair terms (or system) of cooperation and the notion of persons.

Section IV explains through what process the fair terms of cooperation are determined and considers (possible) objections to that process.

Section V discusses the notion of a political conception of the person, i.e., as a free citizen.

Section VI clarifies why justice as fairness is a truly liberal view.

Section VII concludes with remarks on how social unity might be forthcoming through justice as fairness.


Justice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice. It is of course a moral conception but one that is worked out for a specific subject — the “basic structure” of a modern constitutional democracy. This basic structure consists of the society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and the way in which they fit together into a unified system of social cooperation.

Justice as fairness, it follows from the previous paragraph, is not intended as comprehensive moral conception that applies to all general subjects. To reiterate, justice as fairness applies only to the basic structure and not to other subjects the personal actions or philosophies of persons. This is unlike a comprehensive moral doctrine like utilitarianism which is understood to hold for all kinds of subjects.

Justice as fairness is intended for — see the second sentence of the first paragraph — democratic society. It draws upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation.


Any society is bound to face situations where there is controversy regarding fundamental questions which might appear, and prove, to be intractable. In such situations, a firm foundation of justice supplied by a political conception of justice, such as justice as fairness, might help sufficiently narrow down the divergence of opinion so that political cooperation is, despite differences of opinion, made possible.

There is no agreement in democratic thought about how the values of liberty and equality can best be secured or distributed through the basic structure of the society. The disagreement may be understood, broadly and crudely, as a conflict between two traditions, one stressing individual freedoms and the other, public values.[1] Justice as fairness tries to adjudicate between these two traditions by proposing two principles of justice which regulate how the basic structure should realise the values of liberty and equality. These principles are:

  1. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

Justice as fairness also specifies a point of view from which these principles are advanced as more appropriate to free and equal democratic citizens than other principles of justice.

How might the disagreement alluded to in the last paragraph be settled? It might not be possible to do so, and indeed, as pointed out earlier, the most that could be done could be to narrow the differences.

A political conception of justice should be in accordance with our “settled convictions”[2] as well as the “shared fund of implicitly recognised basic ideas and principles expressed by the public culture”. The public culture however is the source and arena of the disagreement. A political conception of justice then has to organise the basic ideas and principles such that they are seen to fit together properly. It could even go further and supply an overarching (more fundamental) idea with which to tie together these basic/familiar/intuitive ideas and principles. This can be done if the conception provides a reasonable way of shaping the underlying bases of agreement in the public culture into a coherent view.

If justice as fairness achieves these goals, it will provide a reasonable public standpoint from which citizens might judge the justness of the social institutions using principles supplied by the conception. Also, in this conception, the manner of judging and justifying institutions are not based on the logical validity or even soundness of arguments but instead on arguments which are derived from premises which are recognised as acceptable through a prior consensus. It is for this reason that the aim as well as the content of justice as fairness is not metaphysical but political. It is not a conception that pretends to be true metaphysically but one that serves as a basis for political agreement for resolving fundamental questions by free and equal persons.

Justice as fairness avoids disputed philosophical, moral, and religious questions simply because there is no way of resolving them politically. It also avoids metaphysical notions about the true nature of the self in conceptualising the idea of free and equal persons. By avoiding these irresolvable issues whose inclusion would make any political conception useless, justice as fairness hopes to moderate between differing political views.


The overarching intuitive idea behind justice as fairness is the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.

Cooperation as understood in justice as fairness is marked by three features:

  1. It refers to activity based on publicly recognised and accepted rules and procedures, and not to merely socially coordinated activity brought about by a higher authority but.
  2. It involves fair terms of cooperation meaning not only that the terms of cooperation should be ones that each person may reasonably accept provides others do but also that they specify reciprocity or mutuality.[3]
  3. It involves the idea that the participants are seeking to achieve their rational advantage or good.

The person as understood in justice as fairness is a person who can cooperatively participate in social life. That person is a citizen.[4] These participants are free and equal. That they are free is connected with their capacity for moral thought and for reason which enable independent judgment. That they are equal is connected to them having the aforesaid capacity to the requisite degree so as to ensure their full cooperation in society.

And in being fully cooperative participants, they have the capacities (“moral powers”) for a sense of justice and for a conception of the good. Having a sense of justice simply means they find it proper to adhere to the political/public conception of justice, here justice as fairness. Having a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and to rationally pursue one’s conception of rational advantage. In addition to these two moral powers, participants have at a given time a particular conception of the good which they try to achieve which they can pursue. This conception of the participants as having the two moral powers and therefore free and equal is a basic intuitive idea assumed to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society.

“...[T]he fundamental question of political justice [is this]: ... what is the most appropriate conception of justice for specifying the terms of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal persons, and as normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life. It is this question that has been the focus of the liberal critique of aristocracy, of the socialist critique of liberal constitutional democracy, and of the conflict between liberals and conservatives at the present time over the claims of private property and the legitimacy (in contrast to the effectiveness) of social policies associated with the so-called welfare state.”


How are the fair terms of social cooperation to be determined? Through a contract by free and equal participants. However, this contract must be entered into in the appropriate condition, i.e., they must be situated fairly or symmetrically such that their decisions are not distorted by particular features of social institutions or indeed their own particular circumstances. This condition as achieved via the “veil of ignorance” which prescribes an “original position” where the participants are sheltered from the influence of contingent advantages.

But this original position is only a device of representation and does not occur in actual societies. This renders the contract nonhistorical and hypothetical. What significance can such a contract have? The significance lies in the features of the original position itself. Without those very features — the idea that the participants are symmetrically situated and that their contingent social circumstances are unknown to them — no contract can be truly fair.

As a device of representation the idea of the original position serves as a means of public reflection and self-clarification. We can use it to help us work out what we now think, once we are able to take a clear and uncluttered view of what justice requires when society is conceived as a scheme of cooperation between free and equal persons over time from one generation to the next. The original position serves as a unifying idea by which our considered convictions at all levels of generality are brought to bear on one another so as to achieve greater mutual agreement and self-understanding.

However, the original position behind the veil of ignorance, even if it appears abstract, must not be misunderstood to presuppose, for example, some metaphysical notion of the person.[5]


What is entailed in conceptualising a political notion of the person, i.e., as a free citizen?

First, citizens are free in that they conceive themselves and others as having the capacity to have a conception of the good. This also means that they are capable of revising the conception on rational grounds and that their identity as free persons in the political/public sense is not tied to any particular conception of the good.[6] However, their nonpublic identity — their personal devotions and loyalties, their religious or philosophical convictions —could be very different from that expressed by their political identity.

Second, citizens regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims. Claims founded on duties and obligations which are based on the moral doctrines and conceptions of the good that they uphold are also considered as self-originating. To say that citizens are free in this way is to say that in democratic societies they actually think of themselves in this way. The importance of this aspect of their being free is to state that in so far as the claims do not derive from duties and obligations, that is in so far as the claims are not self-originating, they have no weight.[7]

Third, citizens are capable of taking responsibility for their ends and this affects how their claims are assessed. Briefly stated, this means that citizens are capable of adjusting or restricting their claims so that they can be pursued through mean which can reasonably be available to all. The weight of the claims in other words is not determined by the pyschological intensity of the desires but why considerations of cooperation and reciprocity.


Justice as fairness is a liberal view. In a democratic society, there will surely be incommensurable conceptions of the good. This fact, which is a given, is why the person is conceptualised as and restricted to a political notion, i.e., as citizens. Persons are free to be committed to comprehensive doctrines or ideals, whether liberal or otherwise, in non-political parts of their lives as long as these doctrines are not introduced into political discussion. This point is crucial because an insistence on liberal ideals would make the conception incompatible with other conceptions of the good turning liberalism itself into a dogmatic doctrine.

In any just democratic society, conceptions of the good apart from liberalism are likely to persist and it is this variety that justice as fairness tries to account for by identifying areas of “overlapping consensus”, i.e., intuitive ideas shared by diverse conceptions of the good. This consensus is the most that can be achieved.

But isn’t justice as fairness merely a modus vivendi that allows groups to pursue their own good subject to certain restraints? First, justice as fairness is a moral conception even if not a comprehensive one that stresses the virtues of cooperation. It is not merely a modus vivendi. Second, the principles of justice are accepted by the diverse conceptions of the good or as integral to them and not merely as convenient means apart from their moral doctrines.


Most political conceptions of justice do not allow a plurality of conceptions of the good. Examples of such conceptions include those of Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian tradition and classical utilitarianism. By contrast, liberalism does allow for a plurality of competing or even incommensurable conceptions of the good. It assumes that a public agreement on one conception of the good is not possible.

How can social unity be secured if this is the case? Justice as fairness understands social unity as founded not on a singular conception of the good but on the public acceptance of a conception of justice as regulating the basic structure of society. The concept of justice is independent from and prior to the concept of goodness in that the principles of justice specify the acceptable conceptions of the good.

End Notes

[1] The first can be identified with John Locke (what Benjamin Constant called the “freedom of the moderns”) and the latter with Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or the “freedom of the ancients”).

[2] These might include “the belief in religious toleration and the rejection of slavery”.

[3] For more on this point, see John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness”, The Philosophical Review 67 (2). [Duke University Press, Philosophical Review]: 164–94.

[4] ‘Thus, we say that a person is someone who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life. We add the phrase “over a complete life” because a society is viewed as a more or less complete and self-sufficient scheme of cooperation, making room within itself for all the necessities and activities of life, from birth until death.’

[5] When, we simulate being in this position,  [behind the veil of ignorance,] our reasoning no more commits us to a metaphysical doctrine about the nature of the self than our playing a game like Monopoly commits us to thinking that we are landlords engaged in a desperate rivalry, winner take all.

[6] For example, when citizens convert from one religion to another, or no longer affirm an established religious faith, they do not cease to be, for questions of political justice, the same persons they were before. There is no loss of what we may call their public identity, their identity as a matter of basic law.

[7] “Laws that prohibit the abuse and maltreatment of slaves are not founded on claims made by slaves on their own behalf, but on claims originating either from slaveholders, or from the general interests of society (which does not include the interests of slaves).”

Another importance of this aspect is that it clearly identifies that it as peculiar to a particular conception of justice. The example about slaves just given flows from a political conception of justice where certain groups slaves are not viewed as self-originating sources of claims.

Justice as Fairness by John Rawls — A Summary

John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” The Philosophical Review 67, no. 2 (1958): 164–94.

Section I claims that the fundamental idea for the concept of justice is fairness.

Section II introduces the two principles of this conception.

Section III explains how these two principles are arrived at.

Section IV pre-empts possible criticisms against justice as fairness as developed in Sections II and III.

Section V sketches why fairness should be central to any concept of justice.

Section VI characterises the utilitarian conception of justice as one concerned with efficacy.

Section VII discusses why such utilitarianism fails as a conception of justice.


The fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness. The paper will try to justify this claim. It is this aspect of justice, i.e. fairness, that classical utilitarianism fails to account for.

Three things should be kept in mind. First, justice is considered as a virtue of social institutions (henceforth “practices”) and its function is essentially distributive. Some clarifications. Justice considered only in its application to social institutions because its application to social institutions is “basic” and may be easily applied to other “subjects of justice” such as persons or particular actions once its principles are established. The word “practice” is used as a technical term meaning any form of activity specified by a system of rules which defines offices, roles, moves. penalties, defenses, and so on, and which gives the activity its structure

Second, justice is considered as only one of the many virtues of practices. Justice is just one aspect of any conception of a good society. Third, the principles of justice discussed below need not be seen as the principles of justice.


There are two principles of justice as fairness:

(a) first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all;

(b) and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The term “person” could mean human individuals, nations, provinces, business firms, churches, teams, and so on.  In any case, the principles apply to all. The use of the term is self-confessedly ambiguous.

The first principle expresses a presumption against “distinctions and classifications” created by practices. Put another way, the first principle presumes an original and equal liberty of all persons without ruling out deviations from this state of equality.

The second principle defines what sort of deviations from this original situation of equality — or inequalities — are permissible. These inequalities are not the differences in offices and positions and the differences in benefits and burden that ensue from them. First, only those inequalities are permitted which benefit everyone. This modification which requires that everyone must benefit from the inequality disallows utilitarian justifications that appeal to the greater magnitude of the benefits accruing to some compared to the burdens borne by others. Second, those offices and positions of practices that have benefits attached to them must be open for all to acquire through fair competition.


How are these two principles arrived at?

Imagine a society of persons where a system of practices is well in place. Now suppose that they are, by and large, mutually self-interested. This means that they are self-interested but not always so. They have loyalties to their families, nations, churches and the like whose interests they also pursue. This does not imply however that they are mutually self-interested under all circumstances. They are so only when they participate in “common practices”.

Also, suppose also that they are rational meaning that (a) they know their own interests, (b) they can foresee the consequences of their actions, (c) they can adhere to their chosen course of action, (d) they can resist enticements for immediate gain, and (e) they are comfortable with certain limited differences in their condition and that of others. The last point is the only addition to usual definitions of rationality and it implies that the rational man in not greatly worried by seeing others in a better position unless that were the result of injustice. The rational man, in a word, is free from envy.

Finally, suppose that they have similar needs and interests which enables their fruitful cooperation and also that they are sufficiently equal in power and ability to guarantee that in normal circumstances none is able to dominate the others.

This society of mutually self-interested, rational, and similarly situated persons, since they already have a system of practices in place, can be imagined to regularly discuss complaints about the practices they have set up. They first establish the principles based on which their complaints will be judged by letting everyone propose the principles based on which he thinks complaints should be tried. This is done on the understanding that once the principles are adopted, they will be binding on everyone in all future cases. This provision disallows principles that may be peculiarly advantageous for a particular complaint as they will be, if adopted, imposed on everyone for every complaint that might arise.

The two parts of this conjectural story have definite significance. The first part reflects the typical circumstances in which questions of justice arise. Such circumstances are those where conflicting demands are brought to bear on the design of a practice by persons insisting on what they consider to be their rights. The second part represents the constraints under which persons are brought to act reasonably. The constraints are those of morality which, at the very least, imply acknowledgement (a) of principles that must be pursued even if they conflict with self-interest and (b) that principles must be applied impartially to all.

It is sufficient to remark here that having a morality is analogous to having made a firm commitment in advance; for one must acknowledge the principles of morality even when to one's disadvantage. A man whose moral judgments always coincided with his interests could be suspected of having no morality at all.

Given the circumstances and the constraints specified by the two parts, it can be seen how the two principles of justice put forth at the beginning of Section II might come about. This is not offered as proof that those two principles will necessarily be chosen but merely to show that those principles could be chosen.


Justice on this account appears to be a sort of pact between rational and egoistic persons similar to the sort advanced by Glaucon at the beginning of Book II of Plato’s Republic. However, this is not entirely so.

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not as a good but because they are too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him, that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, Socrates, and these are its natural origins.

The Republic, 358e–359b. from  Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997) (See this if you don’t know what the numbers mean.)

First, the conjectural account does not advance any theory of human motivation (or human nature) underlying the actions and decisions of persons. The account refers simply to the fact, in the circumstances of justice, the different parties do press their conflicting and competing claims on one another and do regard themselves as representing interests which need to be considered. Second, the account does not seek to explain the establishment of any particular society or practice as most social contract theories set out to do. The different parties “jointly acknowledge certain principles of appraisal relating to their practices [which are] either already established or merely proposed” (emphases added). Third, the account does not imply that the parties are coming together for the first time. It applies even when highly developed social institutions already exist. This means that the account is not fictitious. In any society where people reflect on their practices, there will be times when principles of justice would actually be discussed in the way sketched by the account.


Thinking about justice in the manner so described brings out the idea that fairness must be central to justice. Rules of a practice are fair if they are accepted as applicable by all concerned on the basis that they are legitimate. Similarly for principles of justice. It is this idea of mutual acceptance (or mutual acknowledgement) which makes fairness central to justice because when understood through the conjectural account, the principles of justice arrived at are what can be undoubtedly called as fair since they are premised on the notion of mutual acknowledgement brought about by the condition that these principles are binding on everyone. It is this notion of mutual acknowledgement that ensures a community between persons and their practices based not on force.

If the rules of a practice are correctly acknowledged as fair, duties on the part of the parties to act in accordance with those rules when it fall upon them to comply are born. This is the duty of “fair play”. This obligation to abide by the rule does not depend on any explicit contract acknowledging the practice but merely requires knowing participation in and acceptance of the benefits of the practice.

The duty of fair play might enjoin upon the participants to sacrifice their self-interests in particular situations. This is the expected consequence of the strong commitment to the rules made in the general position (the situation described in the conjectural account, see Section III). The acceptance of the duty of fair play along with this constraint is recognition of the others as persons with similar interests and capacities, as specified in the general position.

These comments are made in order to anticipate and forestall the misinterpretation that the account presented of justice and fair play requires that there be de facto equality in the general position. Such equality is important but is not the basis. The recognition of one another as persons with similar interests and capacities involved in a common practice is enough basis for the acceptance of the principles of justice and the duty of fair play.

One consequence of the conception as explicated thus far is that there is no moral value in satisfying a claim that is incompatible with it. Put concretely, there is no moral value in the satisfaction derived out of something which one imposes on others but would not accept for himself, regardless of the pleasure it generates.


For the classical utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and Henry Sidgwick, justice is a kind of efficiency. Justice is tied to benevolence and benevolence is brought about through the most efficient design of institutions to promote the general welfare.

... justice, in the only sense in which it has a meaning, is an imaginary personage, feigned for the convenience of discourse, whose dictates are the dictates of utility, applied to certain particular cases. Justice, then, is nothing more than an imaginary instrument, employed to forward on certain occasions, and by certain means, the purposes of benevolence. The dictates of justice are nothing more than a part of the dictates of benevolence, which, on certain occasions, are applied to certain subjects ....

Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789, Ch. X, footnote 2 to section XL.

A common objection is that this would “justify institutions highly offensive to our ordinary sense of justice”. This, of course, is the objection that the general welfare could be bought at great particular cost. The greatest happiness of the many, to use other words, could come at the expense of the greatest suffering of the few. However, classical utilitarianism can answer this objection. For one, individuals are considered as having roughly the same utility function and differences due to accidents of birth and upbringing are ignored. Hence the maxim that each counts for one and no more than one. For another, they accept the idea of marginal diminishing utility according to which satisfaction derived from additional units of a good diminishes. The implication here is that due to the operation of diminishing utility, fantastic differences in levels of satisfaction (or utility) are unlikely to occur. These two assumptions build a strong case for equality.

However, even if these assumptions actually operated and led to similar principles of justice as the ones presented here, they would still be fundamentally different from justice as fairness. Firstly, in the utilitarian conception, the principles of justice are the contingent result of a higher administrative decision similar, for instance, to that of an entrepreneur deciding how much to produce of this or that commodity in view of its marginal revenue. Second, the individuals receiving the benefits due to the utilitarian calculus represent so many different directions in which limited resources may be allocated. Their enjoyment of the benefits value irrespective of the moral relations between persons, say as members of a joint undertaking.

It is assumed that justice will prevail so long as the administrator makes the correct executive decisions based on utilitarian principles.

In this fact the principles of justice are said to have their derivation and explanation; they simply express the most important general features of social institutions in which the administrative problem is solved in the best way. These principles have, indeed, a special urgency because, given the facts of human nature, so much depends on them; and this explains the peculiar quality of the moral feelings associated with justice.


Many social decisions are of course administrative decisions. And classical utilitarianism can properly account for many of these decisions about social utility. However, as an interpretation of the principles of justice, classical utilitarianism fails.

For one, it allows one to argue — this is not to say that any of the classical utilitarians ever did — that slavery is unjust because the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder. Slavery is unjust, no doubt, but not for this reason. The point is not whether the disadvantages to one party can outweigh the advantage of the other, which is what utilitarianism considers, but simply that slavery is not in accordance with principles that can be mutually acknowledged, which is what justice as fairness says, and it is for this latter reason that slavery will always be unjust. For justice as fairness, slavery is unjust by definition.

The question whether these gains [accruing to the slaveholders] outweigh the disadvantages to the slave and to society cannot arise, since in considering the justice of slavery these gains have no weight at all which requires that they be overridden. Where the conception of justice as fairness applies, slavery is always unjust.

The classical utilitarian might retort that it is not always true that the disadvantage to the slaves outweighs the advantages to the slaveholder. He might insist that there could be, in principle, cases where the advantages to the slaveholders outweigh the disadvantages to the slaves and that in such case, slavery would not be wrong. Indeed, in such cases, slavery would be right. He would contend that utilitarianism is correct/justified in giving no special weight to justice above and beyond the basic concern with effectiveness. That’s to say, if slavery is unjust, it should be for reasons of effectiveness only. That justice as fairness, in accordance with common moral opinion, finds slavery unjust is just a useful accident or error.

But reasons of justice do have a special weight which utilitarianism cannot account for but justice as fairness can. The defence of slavery is never that it is sufficiently advantageous to the slaveholder to outweigh the disadvantages to the slave. If someone does make this claim, he would be guilty of a moral fallacy. This is because slavery does not ensue from principles that could be accepted by the slaveholder anymore than it would be by the slave. As such, the advantages or disadvantages that result from slavery have no moral significance. That’s to say, the slaveholder has no moral title to the advantages which he receives as a slaveholder. Such (morally arbitrary) advantages then cannot be grounds for defending any practice, slavery included, as just.

Amongst persons in a general position who are debating the form of their common practices, it cannot, therefore, be offered as a reason for a practice that, in conceding these very claims that ought to be denied, it nevertheless meets existing interests more effectively. By their very nature the satisfaction of these claims is without weight and cannot enter into any tabulation of advantages and disadvantages.

This criticism of utilitarianism does not depend upon whether or not the assumptions of similar utility functions for individuals and diminishing marginal utility (see Section V) are understood to be psychological/scientific or moral/political. However we consider them, the mistaken belief in the intrinsic value of satisfaction of (moral and psychological) desires which disregards the relations between persons still remains.

To see the error of this idea one must give up the conception of justice as an executive decision altogether and refer to the notion of justice as fairness: that participants in a common practice be regarded as having an original and equal liberty and that their common practices be considered unjust unless they accord with principles which persons so circumstanced and related could freely acknowledge before one another, and so could accept as fair.


“By way of conclusion I should like to make two remarks: first, the original modification of the utilitarian principle actually has a different conception of justice standing behind it. I have tried to show how this is so by developing the concept of justice … [which] involves the mutual acceptance, from a general position, of the principles on which a practice is founded, and how this in turn requires the exclusion from consideration of claims violating the principles of justice.

Second, … I have been dealing with the concept of justice. …Societies will differ from one another … in the range of cases to which they apply [the concept of justice as fairness] and in the emphasis which they give to it as compared with other moral concepts. A firm grasp of the concept of justice itself is necessary if these variations, and the reasons for them, are to be understood.”

A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change by Marco Grasso — A Summary

Marco Grasso, “A Normative Ethical Framework in Climate Change,” Climate Change 81, no. 3–4 (2007): 223–246.

Before beginning, make yourself comfortable with the following concepts. Conceptual terminology will be used in the belief that the reader is already familiar with them.

1. Introduction

Climate change has serious adverse consequences for the planet. Being economically backward, technologically deficient and nature dependent, poor countries will especially bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change for which the rich countries are largely responsible. This makes the crisis of climate change an ethical issue and a matter of justice.

While all countries profess their commitment to a collective action against climate change, the absence of an enforcer above them means that agreements can only be voluntary and will have to be self-enforcing. To achieve reliable self-enforcement, a climate change agreement will have to be “informed by principles of justice, shaped by criteria of equity, and perceived to be fair in both its process and outcomes”.

The achievement of such an agreement is difficult because at the policy level, justice and equity take a backseat to the priorities and interests of countries. Herein lies the need of a “normative ethical framework” to address the “common but differentiated responsibilities” associated with climate change.

“In the light of these considerations, the aim of this article is to ethically justify and describe a normative pluralistic framework for international distributive justice, and to define the consequent equity criteria possibly determining global initiatives against climate change.”

2. Notions and domains of justice in climate change

Justice is a staple concept in political philosophy.

“[The intention of the paper] is to describe the dominant dimensions of international distributive justice, and the consequent criteria of equity with respect to the specificity of global climate change, in order to identify a comprehensive normative framework for international climate-related actions.”

In the developed North, climate change is simply an environmental issue. But in the underdeveloped South, climate change is a matter of human survival. As such, the North’s stress on mitigation is incomplete and should be supplemented by the South’s insistence on and need for adaptation.

Environmental distributive justice pertains to the distribution of “environmental benefits, costs, risks and harms among human beings”. For climate change, the units to be distributed are the costs and benefits of mitigating carbon emissions as well as compensation for residual damages and the costs and benefits of adapting to prevent the harmful effects of climate change.[1]

Climate is a global public good that impacts all countries in ways and to degrees that are not determined by their specific emissions. Thus, there is a need to link mitigation and adaptation strategies into a pluralistic ethical framework that takes into account issues of justice and equity.

The former strategy, for example, ought to consider the moral unavoidability of certain basic energy needs and therefore be flexible in allocating endowments, whereas there should be a certain stringency in identifying the rules for subsequent allocations. The latter requires a solid basis for the allocation of adaptation resources, which again calls for flexibility as far as the financing of adaptation activities is concerned.

The issue of procedural justice also needs to be considered even though it shall remain outside the scope of the framework being constructed in this paper.

“International climate justice can be framed in the following domains …:
– just initial allocation of endowments,
– just exchange of endowments,
– just allocation of the costs of adapting to climate impacts,
– just allocation of the benefits (i.e., resources) for adapting to climate impacts,
– distribution of wealth and power allowing a just international negotiating process.”

3. Justice and equity in mitigation


“The issue of justice in mitigation can be seen as a problem of defining a just initial allocation of endowments and equitable consequent exchange patterns.”

3.1 Initial allocation of endowments: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

The allocation of endowments concerns the initial allocation of rights to emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. A just initial allocation of endowments (hereafter JIAE) can be usefully set within an ethical framework based on Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness (hereafter RTJF).

The availability of “energy services” is a primary good. This availability is influenced by “undeserved inequalities” like different climatic conditions, or a greater capacity to absorb GHG emissions. The uneven distribution of such characteristics forestalls the attainment of genuine equality of opportunity as far as energy services are concerned.

If a JIAE is to be established based on RTJF, a criterion of equity based on equal per capita distribution of endowments which also reduces undeserved inequalities is necessary. This is the criterion of “differentiated equality” which “[i]n a GHG emission rights scheme, [requires that] endowments should … be allocated among the parties according to a formula whose reference is equal per capita distribution and which includes the standard of living corrected for the most evident circumstances that influence the demand for energy services,[2] and therefore the consequent GHG emissions, of each country.”

Such an allocation would entail a scarcity of endowments in developed countries and a surplus in developing ones. This skewed allocation will result in financial flows from the former to the latter as the former inevitably use up the quota of the latter. Such transfers are to recognized as compensation to the South for the overuse of the atmosphere’s absorptive capacity by the North.

3.2 Exchange of endowments: Utilitarian theory of justices

The unequal distribution of endowments will lead to their exchange i.e., the trading of GHG emission rights. This is important because as the marginal costs of emissions abatement differ among countries, redistribution will need to equalise the unequal marginal costs.

In economic terms, redistribution should aim at achieving a Pareto-efficient social state in the sense that there are no other social states that would make someone better off without simultaneously making someone else worse-off. However, Pareto-efficiency ignores issues of justice.

As such, the Pareto-efficiency principle should be supported by some criterion of distributive justice. The envy-freeness criterion is a way to choose between different Pareto-efficient states and to identify allocations that are at once efficient and equitable.

The Pareto principle entails greater cutbacks of emissions in countries where marginal costs of abatement are lower i.e., in Southern countries. But to make such an arrangement just, the envy-free criterion obligates the Northern countries with lower initial cutbacks to compensate the Southern countries. Only this solution can in principle be both Pareto-efficient and envy-free.

4. Justice and equity in adaptation


“From an operational point of view, also the adaptation sphere of distributive justice can be split into two domains: the funding of adaptation activities and the allocation of resources.”

4.1 Financing of adaptation activities: Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness

Financing of adaptation activities concerns the division among countries of the costs of adaptation programs and projects, and of residual damages compensation.

Historical principles of justice hold that those who caused the problem should be held responsible. The atmosphere is a common resource that whose “atmospheric absorptive services” should be accessible to “all actual and potential human beings”. For this to happen justly, past emissions should be taken into account in order to ensure equality of opportunity. All of these would imply that the North should finance adaptation programmes.

However, there are conditions that affect the consumption of the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere which are beyond the control of emitters.[3] This fact necessitates a robust theory of justice that simultaneously allows for substantial differences in equality. Such a principle is provided by RTJF.

“Grounding the funding of adaptation activities on … RTJF requires an equity criterion which encompasses all the elements and determines the use of atmospheric absorptive capacity. …[This] criterion of ‘differentiated historical responsibility’ … suggests that … the yardstick must be responsibility based on historical accountability. … [T]he difference principle requires consideration of undeserved inequalities that have actually influenced cumulative GHG emissions and contributed to their cumulative amount.”

In policy, such a principle would entail the creation of a global fund for financing adaptation to climate change which would be financed by countries according to the criterion of differentiated historical responsibility.

4.2 Allocating adaptation resources: Sen’s capability approach

Allocating adaptation resources concerns the allocation of the resources available for adaptation strategies. The most appealing benchmark in this regard is the idea of social vulnerability. However, the notion of vulnerability sheds no light on the ability to adapt. Here arises then the need for principles of justice to frame allocation schemes that include considerations on the ability of countries to use adaptation resources effectively.

Amartya Sen’s capability approach (hereafter SCA) is a promising frame within which to situate the issue of “effective adaptive response”. What matters is not simply the availability of resources and services but more importantly the possibility of gaining effective protection against climate impacts using these resources and services. In other words, what matters is that the well-being of individuals, defined as the enlargement of capabilities, be achieved.

SCA is based on the concept of human security.[4] Human security is defined by a set of basic capabilities — “achievable functionings”, in practice. The idea is to ground the participation of all countries in a possible adaptation fund on a ranking based on human security which encompasses the ability to convert resources into valuable “doings” and “beings”.

Human security defined as “the number of years of future life spent outside a state of ‘generalized poverty’” where “[g]eneralised poverty occurs when an individual falls below the threshold of any key domain of well-being” is extremely useful in talking about adaptation to climate impacts as it acknowledges that human security depends closely on poverty, defined as deprivation of basic capabilities (income, health, education, political freedom and democracy).

“[The] point is that the weaker a country is in these domains of well-being, the less are its institutional and social possibilities and capacities to turn adaptation resources into effective adaptation actions. Hence, weaker countries should be given privileged access to the funds.” This access should be directly proportional to the population harmed and inversely proportional to the human security index.


[1] “I include among adaptation strategies also the compensation for damages deriving from residual impacts that cannot be adapted because of cost or impossibility (e.g., extreme and abrupt climatic events). From the theoretical perspective put forward here, they can be seen as ex-post forms of adaptation.” [Footnote from the paper]

[2] “…the climatic conditions (measurable, for instance, by heating and cooling degree days, that is, by the average temperature departure from a human comfort level of 18 °C), the availability of carbon absorbing areas (proxied, for example, by the country’s forested area), and the availability of renewables allowing greater use.”

[3] “…such as climatic conditions, or the availability of sinks and renewables.”

[4] “I abide with the notion of human security put forward by Alkire, who views it as the protection and promotion of a limited number of aspects of human well-being which constitute its ‘vital core’.” [quoted from the paper]

The Law of Peoples by John Rawls — A Summary

John Rawls, “The Law of Peoples,” Critical Enquiry 20, no. 1 (1993): 36–68.

  • 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” (emphasis added).[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 such a conception 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, the liberal conception of “justice as fairness” 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 which is extended 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

Thomas Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” Metaphilosophy 32, no. 1–2 (January 2001): 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