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"The Problem of Global Justice," by Thomas Nagel

The Mises Review

Tags Political Theory

04/01/2005David Gordon

Indifference to the World

Mises Review 11, No. 1 (Spring 2005)

Thomas Nagel
Philosophy & Public Affairs 33, No. 2 (April 2005):113–47

Thomas Nagel’s valiant attempt to defend John Rawls’s restricted scope for global justice has a valuable, and I am sure unintentional, consequence. It makes clear that the entire basis of Rawls’s political philosophy rests on an unfounded premise.

Rawls defends the most controversial part of his theory of justice, the notorious "difference principle" in this way. People do not deserve to benefit from their superior talents or social opportunities to a greater extent than those less favored. Why should Tiger Woods’s natural talent for golf enable him to command enormously more money than those golfers who practice as assiduously as he does but are less athletically gifted? Surely, Rawls contends, mere luck should not determine the distribution of goods in society.[1] Instead, inequalities of income and wealth should be allowed only to the extent that they benefit the least well- off class in a given society.

Rawls has in mind here modern nation states, considered as isolated social systems. If so, does not a problem at once arise for his theory? Why has Rawls restricted the difference principle to the least well-off class in a given society? Why not extend the scope of the principle to cover the least well-off class in the entire world? Even the worst-off in a prosperous society like the United States are far better off than those in most other countries. Is not birth in the United States and not in a poor country also a matter of luck? If so, do not anti-luck arguments mandate global redistribution? Drastic consequences for the living standards of everyone in the prosperous countries seem to follow. Nagel states the point with characteristic incisiveness. "The accident of being born in a poor rather than a rich country is as arbitrary a determinant of one’s fate as the accident of being born in a poor rather than a rich family in the same country" (p. 119).

Rawls rejects this extension. In The Law of Peoples, he makes clear that in his opinion the scope of justice is confined to individual societies.[2] He thinks that countries have only limited humanitarian obligations to less well- off nations; those lucky enough to be born in prosperous national circumstances need not share their gains with others. Why not? Is his restriction arbitrary?

Nagel contends that it is not. He asks a fundamental question: why should inequality mandate any redistribution at all, once people have risen above the level of absolute deprivation? Even if you do not deserve to benefit from your superior talents, that fact in itself conveys no claim on these talents to others. So far, so libertarian; but Nagel now makes his Rawlsian move. Members of certain groups can sometimes have stricter obligations to each other than they owe to strangers. You owe more to your parents than you do to a next-door neighbor to whom you are not related.

In like fashion, Nagel holds, citizens of a nation are bound together. They share the obligation to obey their country’s laws; and, if they live in a democracy, they share responsibility for enacting these laws. In Rousseau’s term, they form the "general will." Undue inequality interferes with these common bonds; hence we have egalitarian obligations to our fellow citizens. These we do not owe to citizens of other countries, since we are not bound to them in the same way. Justice, in this view, is not a "cosmopolitan" virtue, owed to anyone in the world; it is a "political" virtue that applies only to those subject to a common sovereignty. "The important point for our purposes is that Rawls believes that this moral principle against arbitrary inequalities is not a principle of universal application. . . . Rather, in his theory the objection to arbitrary inequalities gets a foothold only because of the societal context. What is objectionable is that we should be fellow participants in a collective enterprise of coercively imposed legal and political institutions that generate such arbitrary inequalities. . . . One might even say that we are all participants in the general will. A sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage" (pp. 127–28).

Nagel has achieved a feat I thought impossible; he has made sense of Rawls’s view. If people are bound to each other in the way that Rawls and Nagel suggest, then they might very well have stronger obligations toward their fellow members than to others. But a glaring gap remains in the argument. Nagel has not shown that people have reason to establish the type of coercive enterprise that he describes. Indeed, from a libertarian standpoint, we can go further. People who wish to establish themselves as a tightly knitted together social body have no right to compel the unwilling to enlist in their enterprise; nor are they at liberty to prevent people in their society from seceding.

If this restriction is kept in mind, Rawls’s difference principle becomes quite innocuous. All that it amounts to is that if people wish to establish a certain kind of egalitarian institution, they are free to do so. So what?

I do not mean to suggest that what remains of Rawls’s account, understood the way Nagel wants, is satisfactory: quite the contrary. The people in a sovereign nation, Nagel suggests, think that too much inequality interferes with the sense of social solidarity they wish to promote. They accordingly limit inequality; but what has this to do with justice? Are people who do not value the social solidarity that Rawls and Nagel favor unjust? It is not clear why. And, once more, we have not been given a reason to think that establishing a sovereign state of the type described is desirable at all.

Nagel fails to see this obvious point because he regards the sovereign state as the only way, under modern conditions, for people to escape from a Hobbesian condition of anarchic violence. Unless people cement themselves together as Rawls mandates, disaster threatens. But why believe this? Could not people establish a strictly limited state or—even better—rely on private protection agencies to ensure social peace? Nagel wrongly assumes that unless people establish egalitarian social bonds, they cannot benefit from social cooperation.

Nagel could not respond that if people refused to institute the difference principle, they would act unjustly. The entire point of his defense of the principle is that only if people wish to establish certain kinds of social bonds have they a reason to limit inequality. Absent this wish, Nagel offers no grounds at all for people to subject themselves to the difference principle.

[1] Susan Hurley, Justice, Luck, and Knowledge (Harvard, 2003) is an important challenge to egalitarian arguments based on luck. See my discussion in the Mises Review, Summer 2003.

[2]See my discussion in the Mises Review, Winter 2000.



Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David. "Indifference to the World." Review of "The Problem of Global Justice," by Thomas Nagel. The Mises Review 11, No. 1 (Spring 2005).