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Social Studies

Toward Global Justice

by Martha Nussbaum

child born this year in the United States has a life expectancy of 76.4 years. A child born in Sierra Leone can expect to live 34.7 years. Most adults in the United States and Europe are literate, although illiteracy remains a disturbing problem correlated with poverty. Some developing countries attain nearly our overall rate of literacy: Sri Lanka, for example, has 90 percent adult literacy, the Philippines 94.6 percent and Jordan 86.6 percent. In many nations, however, your chances of learning to read (and hence, to qualify for most well-paying jobs) are far lower.

In India, only 37 percent of women and 65 percent of men are literate; in Bangladesh, 26 percent of women and 49 percent of men; in Niger, 6 percent of women and 20 percent of men. Access to safe water, health services and sanitation, as well as the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, travel and political participation--all these basic human goods are distributed very unevenly around the world.

The accident of being born in one country rather than in another pervasively shapes the life chances of every child who is born. Being female, being lower-class, living in a rural area, having membership in an ethnic or racial or religious minority--these also affect life chances within every nation. But differences of wealth and opportunity among nations eclipse these differences. Thus, although females do worse than males in every nation on the United Nations Development Program's complex measure of human life quality, a woman born in Japan can expect to live 82 years and enjoy many of the basic goods of a human life, including most of the significant liberties. A man born in Myanmar can expect to live only 57 years, in an extremely repressive political environment.

During the past century, we have made progress in understanding what political justice requires of states and individuals. Philosophical theories of justice have played a large role in advancing our understanding. John Rawls's A Theory of Justice, perhaps the most important such contribution, argues that justice is best understood by thinking about what rational adults would choose if they were ignorant of their own place in the resulting society: their class, their race, their sex, their religion.

Rawls argues that they would choose a structure that protects for all citizens a very extensive menu of basic liberties and opportunities, giving them priority over other concerns; they would also distribute income and wealth in such a way that any inequalities are to the advantage of the worst off. Rawls's approach has hardly gone unchallenged, but it greatly clarifies our debates. He made vivid in political form the deep moral idea that each person should be treated as an end, and none as a means. This, he saw, meant that nobody's life chances, in basic matters of liberty, opportunity and well-being, should be pervasively determined by accidents of wealth or race or class, or even of sex.

But Rawls stopped short at the boundaries of the nation. Even though it seems natural to think that the difference between being born in the United States and being born in Sierra Leone is just as arbitrary, just as unworthy to be the basis for a human being's lot in life as race or sex or religion, his project of forming a just society took the nation-state as its basic unit. Insofar as Rawls and other theorists did approach the question of international justice, it was typically in a way that presupposed the salience of the nation-state and guaranteed that unit considerable autonomy.

The result is that in philosophy, as in international law, we now have a well-articulated set of universal norms protecting some aspects of human life across national boundary lines. Torture, genocide and even racial apartheid have become occasions for intervention into the internal affairs of a nation; Rawls would extend the demands of international law to aspects of sex equality and other basic issues of personal liberty. But few recent philosophers have had anything at all to say about the egregious material inequalities among nations. International law has been similarly silent on obligations of material aid across national boundaries.

Justice requires more. We give lip service to the idea that respect for human dignity is a fundamental moral requirement, and yet we daily allow human dignity to be violated by poverty, illiteracy, unequal liberty and other nation-based inequalities. Most of us, if pressed, would acknowledge that we belong not only to the community of our birth but also to the human community as a whole, and that we have obligations of some sort to that community. But because we are at a loss to say what those obligations are, we find it easier to lapse into inattention. Good theory helps people get a handle on their choices, making it more difficult for them to ignore their obligations.

Philosophical theories of global justice are, then, badly needed to give guidance to personal reflection and public policy. These theories will need to do a lot of hard philosophical work that has not been done before: to articulate accounts of the relationship between personal and institutional responsibility; to think about what is owed a nation that has been despoiled of resources by others in the past; to think how far and in what ways other nations ought to help nations that manage their internal affairs badly. They will have to face the thorny question of intervention. Since at least some governments of poor nations are accountable to the people of those nations, and since there is no transnational government in prospect that is likely to be adequately accountable, how far may we influence the internal affairs of another society, whether by governmental pressure or by material aid? And they will have to face the toughest question of all: How far are we required to do justice to the urgent claims of others who lie at a distance, when it means hurting the life quality of our own children?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Martha Nussbaum

NussbaumMartha Nussbaum is the Ernest Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, with appointments in the Law School, Philosophy Department and Divinity School. Nussbaum received her B.A. from NYU and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. She has taught at Harvard, Brown and Oxford. From 1986 to 1993, Nussbaum was a research adviser at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki, part of the United Nations University. She has chaired the Committee on International Cooperation and the Committee on the Status of Women of the American Philosophical Association, and has been a member of the association's National Board. In 1999-2000 she was one of the three presidents of the association. Nussbaum has been a member of the Council of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the Board of the American Council of Learned Societies.

Nussbaum received the Brandeis Creative Arts Award in Non-Fiction for 1990, and the PEN Spielvogel-Diamondstein Award for the best collection of essays in 1991; Cultivating Humanity won the Ness Book Award of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 1998, and Sex and Social Justice won the book award of the North American Society for Social Philosophy in 2000. She has received honorary degrees from a number of institutions, including Grinnell College, Williams College, St. Andrews University, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, the University of Toronto and Queen's University, Ontario. She received the NYU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000. She is an Academician in the Academy of Finland.

COPYRIGHT | Copyright 2000 The University of Chicago.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to furlong@lib.uchicago.edu

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