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date: 05 December 2023

Global Distributive Justicefree

Global Distributive Justicefree

  • Kevin K W IpKevin K W IpDepartment of Government and International Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University


Distributive justice, in its broadest sense, is about how benefits and burdens ought to be distributed among a set of individuals as a matter of right and entitlement. Political philosophers have traditionally assumed that principles of distributive justice apply only within the bounds of a given political community. However, this assumption has been rigorously challenged in recent years, as evidenced by the recent work on global distributive justice. Students of global distributive justice have paid considerable attention to how certain facts about the global domain might affect the grounds of their normative judgments. Therefore, it is important to focus on the application of distributive justice to certain global issues, including reparations for historic injustice, climate change, transnational trade, and natural resources ownership. These issues are inevitably global in scope, and they tend to have profound impacts on the well-being of individuals around the world.


  • Human Rights

Updated in this version

Expanded and amended with new scholarship.


Humans live in a world of unprecedented affluence, and yet each day, more than a billion people are struggling to meet their most basic needs, such as nutrition, health care, shelter, and clean water. Is this a problem of justice? Distributive justice, in its broadest sense, is about how benefits and burdens ought to be distributed among a set of individuals as a matter of right and entitlement. Political philosophers have traditionally assumed that principles of distributive justice apply only within the bounds of a given political community. A prominent example of this is perhaps John Rawls’s (1971/1999a) A Theory of Justice. A much-cited quotation from Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice (1983) reads as follows: “The idea of distributive justice presupposes a bounded world within which distributions take place: a group of people committed to dividing, exchanging and sharing goods, first of all among themselves” (p. 31). However, this assumption—that the scope of distributive justice should be confined to the state—has been rigorously challenged by many other political philosophers in recent years. This article surveys the recent work on global distributive justice. It focuses on a number of debates among contemporary political philosophers in response to current distribution of wealth and resources in the world.

It is not surprising that many have doubted the relevance of global distributive justice or considered it a subject too idealistic to be taken seriously in international politics. A realist, for example, is likely to dismiss any attempt to further global distributive justice as a futile pursuit or view it as a pretext for advancing certain political agenda. Realism is an influential approach in the study of international relations, and it is skeptical about global distributive justice for three reasons. First, realism typically holds a pessimistic account of human nature. Hans J. Morgenthau (1978, pp. 4–5) famously grounds his theory of international politics on human nature and maintains that political actions are dominated not by any ethical ideal but the pursuit of “interest defined as power.” An influential British realist and diplomat, E. H. Carr (1939, pp. 63–88), also warns that moral ideals and universal goods have been routinely abused as a mere thin veil for the advancement of national interests. Second, skepticism about global distributive justice can be grounded in its view on the international system. For realism, the international system is “anarchy,” and there is no central agent that can enforce rules of distributive justice (Waltz, 1959, 1978). Finally, realists are very much aware of the tension between successful political actions and moral ideals. For realists, the task of political leaders in formulating their foreign policies is not to further any abstract moral ideal, such as global distributive justice, but the advancement of the national interest of their state (Kennan, 1954; Morgenthau, 1978, pp. 10–11). Nonetheless, one must be cautious about the actual implications of these realist theories on global distributive justice. First, these realist theories focus on explaining international affairs. Although some realists like Morgenthau did comment on how a state should conduct their foreign policies, the primary focus of these theories is empirical and explanatory rather than normative or moral. Thus, the realist perspective can at most show the infeasibility or improbability of achieving distributive justice in the global realm, but it does not undermine the moral desirability of such an ideal. Moreover, the realist misgiving about the hypocrisy in international politics, while justified, does not imply that moral ideals are irrelevant in the global context. Instead, it only suggests that people should be more cautious in interpreting the words and deeds of states and other organizations. In short, global distributive justice is a pressing issue in the contemporary world, and no one who takes international affairs seriously can ignore it.

Poverty at Home and Abroad: Are They “My” Poor?

The current situation of global poverty is morally shocking: 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. In developing countries (where 92% of the world’s children live), 7 in 100 will not survive beyond the age of 5 years, and 25 in 100 will live in poverty. Nearly 156 million children are stunted as a result of malnutrition and infection (United Nations Development Programme, 2014). The gravity of the problem of global poverty has prompted many moral or political philosophers to think that the current distribution of resources, which has left so many lives in peril, is seriously unjust. However, they disagree strongly about the moral relevance of political boundaries to people’s duties and entitlements. One of the key debates in global distributive justice is the debate between cosmopolitans, who reject the moral relevance of political boundaries, and particularistic theorists, who take seriously the moral implications of group memberships and special ties.


In his landmark essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer (1972, p. 231; 2009, p. 3) invites readers to consider a hypothetical situation in which one is walking past a shallow pond and sees a child drowning in it when no one else is around. Most people would conclude that in this situation, one has an obligation to wade in the pond and pull the child out, even if it means getting one’s clothes muddy or being late for work. Singer then seeks to apply this intuition to the case of global poverty and argues that physical proximity and distance make no moral difference. He further argues that there is no impartial justification for giving preference to the interests of one’s fellow countrymen when one can prevent great sufferings of the poor abroad with little cost to oneself (Singer, 2002, pp. 167–180). This position on global distributive justice is known as cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism can be traced back to the stoics of ancient Greece, who refused to define themselves in terms of their native city-state. Its central idea is that each individual is a “citizen of the world” whose allegiance is to the worldwide community of human beings (Appiah, 2006; Nussbaum, 1996, pp. 4–7). When determining the scope of distributive justice, cosmopolitanism maintains that principles of distributive justice must be global, not merely domestic.

Thomas Pogge suggests that there are three elements of cosmopolitanism. The first is individualism: The ultimate units of concern are human beings or persons—collectives may be units of indirect concern in virtue of the well-being of their individual members. The second is universality: The status of ultimate unit of concern attaches to every living human being equally without discrimination on the basis of their group membership. In the third, generality, persons are ultimate units of concern for everyone else (Pogge, 1994; 2002, p. 169; 2007b).

There are some points to note about cosmopolitanism. First, this form of cosmopolitanism is primarily about obligations and the scope of distributive justice, and it is different from cultural cosmopolitanism, which maintains that one could live a meaningful and flourishing life without identifying oneself with a particular cultural group whose boundaries are reasonably clear (Scheffler, 1999). Second, not all cosmopolitans reject the idea of giving special attention to one’s compatriots over foreigners, but the reason for so doing must be derivative. Martha Nussbaum (1996, p. 135), in replying to her critics, suggests that sometimes “it is right to give the local an additional measure of concern” not because the local is more important per se but doing so is “the only sensible way to do good.” Robert Goodin (1988) also argues that assigning special duties for particular people, such as one’s fellow countrymen, is justified because it is, in many cases, a more effective way to fulfill general duties that everyone has toward everyone else worldwide.

Ethical Particularism

A number of political philosophers have defended a form of ethical particularism that holds that members of a political society owe to one another some special obligations of justice that they do not owe to nonmembers.

The most prominent form of this ethical particularism is perhaps nationalism. Although contemporary nationalists do not necessarily reject global principles of distributive justice altogether, they contend that one has special obligations of distributive justice to one’s fellow nationals. But what is a nation? David Miller (1995, p. 27; 2007, pp. 124–127), a leading contemporary nationalist, provides the following definition: A nation is a group of people (a) with a common identity, (b) marked off from other communities by its distinct public culture, (c) whose members recognize special obligations to one another, (d) regard the continued existence of the nation as a valuable good, and (e) aspire to be politically self-determining.

There are three distinct arguments supporting the nationalist thesis that one has special obligations of justice to one’s fellow nationals. First, it could be argued that one has special obligations to those with whom one identifies, and this sense of identity clearly applies to nations. Miller (1995, p. 70), for example, points out that one reason why nationality has ethical significance is that it is a powerful source of personal identity. Yael Tamir (1993, p. 137), in her book Liberal Nationalism, argues that one’s special obligations to one’s fellow nations are “not grounded on consent, reciprocity, or gratitude, but rather on a feeling of belonging and connectedness.” Jeff McMahan (1997), on the other hand, argues that one has special obligations of justice toward one’s fellow nationals because members of a system of social cooperation have special obligations of justice to one another (which they do not have to outsiders), and a nation is such a system.

One does not have to be a nationalist in order to defend special obligations of justice within a particular society, however. For Samuel Scheffler (2002a, pp. 79–80; 2002b, pp. 106–107), one cannot value one’s relationship to another person without also seeing it as a source of special obligations unless the relationship in question is degrading or demeaning, or it serves to undermine human flourishing. Thus, to the extent that one has reason to value one’s relationship to one’s fellow citizens, one must accept that there are special obligations among compatriots.

In response to these arguments for ethical particularism, cosmopolitans could have two replies. First, as Simon Caney (1999) points out, these arguments, if properly understood, do not vindicate the particularistic thesis that one has special obligations of justice to one’s compatriots. It is because the fact that (P1) X has a right to A, and (P2) Y has a special obligation to X, does not show that (C) Y has a special obligation to provide X with A. Moreover, it could be argued that special duties that arise from shared group membership are valuable only when they are within the constraints provided by the cosmopolitan theory of global justice (Abizadeh & Gilabert, 2008).

Global Sufficientarianism

Although many people regard alleviating global poverty as a matter of charity or philanthropy, a number of political or moral philosophers have argued that it is unjust that some people suffer from extreme poverty. There are at least four different approaches through which one could defend the claim that individuals living in affluent societies are under an obligation to help eradicate severe poverty abroad.

The Utilitarian Approach

The first is the utilitarian approach. Redistribution of resources from affluent to poor societies, according to the utilitarian view, is mandatory (not merely a matter of charity) because it is the best way to promote utility globally. Singer’s (1972, p. 231; 2009, p. 3) drowning child hypothetical is a prime example of this approach. His argument is utilitarian in nature and contains the following premises and conclusion: (P1) Suffering and death from severe impoverishment are bad; (P2) if it is in one’s power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something nearly as important, there is an obligation to do so; (P3) it is in the power of individuals living in affluent societies to prevent suffering and death from severe impoverishment without sacrificing something nearly as important; and therefore, it is wrong for them not to do so (Singer, 1972; 2009, pp. 15–16). Drawing on a different set of hypothetical examples, Peter Unger (1996) defends a similar claim that individuals in the affluent world should make significant contributions to the effort of reducing global poverty to a point that they just remain “modestly well-off” and this, in effect, requires them to contribute funds to foreign aid up to the point where giving more would be unproductive.

Nonetheless, this utilitarian approach to global justice has been widely criticized for being overly demanding on individuals, and there should be some limits on the demand to produce best outcomes. It may be argued, for instance, that individuals could permissibly give proportionally greater weight to their own interests, projects, or pursuits rather than promoting well-being in a completely impartial way (Scheffler, 1982, 2010). An alternative view suggests that it is unreasonable to require individuals to contribute more than their fair share to the effort of ending global poverty when others are not complying with their respective obligations (Murphy, 1993, 2000; Ridge, 2010).

The Right-Based Approach

The second is the right-based approach. Many political philosophers argue that there is a human right to freedom from poverty. In fact, Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”

There are indeed different ways to account for the normative significance of the human right to subsistence that make this right universally applicable:

Human interests: Charles Jones (1999) defends a human right to subsistence because it protects important human interests, such as having a normal life span and health.

Autonomy: A right to subsistence is important because it is necessary for individuals to exercise their autonomy. David Copp (1992; 1998; 2005, pp. 41–47), for example, argues that people everywhere should be enabled to meet their basic needs, and it is the global society’s duty to secure such needs because they are requirements for autonomous agency and all autonomous agents are equally deserving of respect. James Griffin (2008, pp. 176–190) also affirms that there is a human right to at least a minimum level of welfare because it protects a person’s normative agency—the capacity to autonomously choose and pursue one’s conception of a worthwhile life.

Subsistence rights as basic rights: A right to subsistence is important because it is necessary for the enjoyment of other important rights. Henry Shue (1996, p. 23) argues that there is a basic right to subsistence, which includes “unpolluted air, unpolluted water, adequate food, adequate clothing, adequate shelter, and minimal preventive public health.” By “basic rights,” he means the special class of rights, the enjoyment of which is essential for the enjoyment of all other rights. Thus, if one accepts that everyone has a right to something, then one must also accept that everyone has subsistence rights, the absence of which makes the enjoyment of other rights impossible or severely disrupted (Shue, 1996, pp. 30–31).

Capabilities: A right to subsistence is important because it preserves important human capabilities—a person’s real capacity to do what the person has reason to value. Amartya Sen (1981, 2009) and Nussbaum (2000, 2006, 2011) maintain that all people have core entitlements in virtue of their humanity, and these entitlements include being free from severe capabilities deprivation.

Institutional harm: It is important to talk about people free from severe capabilities deprivation.ilities—a person’snd systematically violated. Pogge (2002, 2007a, 2010), in a series of articles and books, argues not only that there is a human right to subsistence but also that it is being systematically violated. Article 28 of the UDHR states that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration can be fully realized.” But Pogge (2002, pp. 113–116) mentions two features of the global order that harm the poor: the international resources privilege, in which any group holding governmental power in a country is considered the rightful owner of the country’s natural resources—this creates great incentives for civil wars and consolidates oppressive regimes; and (b) the international borrowing privilege, in which any group holding governmental power in a country can borrow funds in the name of the country and any successor government is duty-bound to honor the debt. This worsens the problem of corruption in many poor countries and imposes huge financial burdens on the poor. Thus, failure to eradicate global justice is a failure to perform the negative duty not to harm the global poor. To address global poverty, Pogge (2002, pp. 204–207) proposes a global resources dividend, which requires countries to share a small value of their natural resource when they decide to use or sell it. Pogge’s arguments are novel because most people have seen their duties to the foreign poor, if any, as some form of duties of assistance, but Pogge clearly argues that they should be viewed as negative duties, which are more stringent in the eyes of most people. However, the success of Pogge most people have seen their duties to the foreign poor, if any, as some form of dut order is in fact harming the poor. Against this, Mathias Risse (2005) argues that because the industrialized nations have in fact improved the living standings of the people in the developing countries, the global institutional order is not actively harming the poor.

Note that there have been some misgivings about the right-based approach to condemn global poverty. One serious objection to this approach comes from Onora O’Neill (1996, pp. 128–153; 2001, pp. 124–127), who argues that this approach is misguided because it cannot provide an adequate account of which agents should bear the obligations to fulfill those rights and it tends to overlook obligations without counterpart rights. Raymond Geuss (2001, p. 143) also questions the enforceability of subsistence rights and maintains that a set of rights cannot exist without “some specifiable and more or less effective mechanism for enforcing them.”

The Contractarian Approach

The third approach is the contractarian approach. This approach is built around the concept of consent: Any social arrangement or practice cannot be just unless individuals subject to it would have reason to consent to it, in a suitably defined choosing situation.

John Rawls’s (1999b) The Law of Peoples is a prominent example of this contractarian view. Rawls is one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century. His Theory of Justice (1971/1999a) provides a robust defense of liberal democracy and redistributive taxation. But Rawls is reluctant to extrapolate his domestic theory to the global domain. The first thing to note about Rawls’s theory of global justice, which is remarkably different from his domestic theory, is his focus on people rather than individuals as the agents of justice in the global arena. The aim of The Law of Peoples is to defend “a particular political conception of right and justice that applies to the principles and norms of international law and practice” (Rawls, 1999b, p. 3). The term people (as distinct from states) is meant to highlight the moral characters of societies as collective agents that are not solely motivated by prudence or rationality (Rawls, 1999b, pp. 23–27). One principle in The Law of Peoples is the principle that “people have a duty to assist other peoples living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime” (Rawls, 1999b, pp. 37, 105–113). Those who are familiar with Rawls’s work will also be familiar with the idea of the original position in which the contracting parties who are subject to a veil of ignorance determine principles of justice for a liberal democratic society. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls invokes a second original position to determine the principles of global justice. In the second original position, parties are representatives of liberal peoples (whereas in the domestic case, parties are representing individual citizens) subject to a veil of ignorance—not knowing the size of the territories, the population, the relative strength, the extent of natural resources, or the level of economic development of the peoples they represent. What seems to have motivated Rawls’s shift to a more minimalist theory of global justice is his own concern about the legitimacy of the international order, so he wants to ensure that even nonliberal (but reasonable) peoples would have reason to accept the law of peoples. For Rawls (1999b, pp. 119–120), the reason for providing aid to poor societies is to enable them to develop a reasonably just or decent political system, and he is indifferent to any remaining inequality once this aim has been achieved. That is, in his global theory, Rawls (1999b, pp. 32–33) aims at the equality of peoples instead of persons.

Gillian Brock (2009, pp. 63–72) follows the Rawlsian contractarian approach and defends a need-based minimal floor principle of global justice that guarantees every individual is adequately positioned to enjoy the prospects of a decent life. Drawing on the empirical research by Norman Frohlich and Joe Oppenheimer, Brock argues that the contracting parties would actually favor some minimal floor principle. Frohlich and Oppenheimer have designed experiments to find out people’s actual judgments about fairness under the condition of impartiality in which the majority of participants would choose the principle that guarantees an income floor to the worst-off individual (Brock, 2009, pp. 54–57; Frohlich & Oppenheimer, 1992). Therefore, Brock (2009, p. 52) argues that a “minimal package” that includes what is necessary for people to meet the basic needs of themselves and their dependents would be reasonable to agree to in the ideal choosing situation.

Finally, Nicole Hassoun (2012) advances a legitimacy argument (or autonomy argument) for global distributive justice. Her argument proceeds as follows: (P1) Coercive institutions must be legitimate; (P2) for a coercive institution to be legitimate, it must provide its subjects with sufficient autonomy to consent to, or dissent from, its rules; (P3) to have sufficient autonomy, one must have enough food, water, shelter, education, health care, social support, and emotional goods; and (P4) there are many coercive international institutions. Therefore, (C1) to the extent that the global poor cannot autonomously consent to the existing international institutions, they are illegitimate; and (C2) these institutions should ensure that their subjects have enough food, water, and other goods necessary for sufficient autonomy. This argument has resonance with the contractarian approach because it identifies the conditions under which individuals could consent to coercive institutions and by so doing lends support to an account of global distributive justice.

Subordination of the Poor

The fourth approach focuses on the morally problematic power relations associated with severe poverty. On the one hand, severe poverty causes subordination of the poor to the relatively wealthy. On the other hand, poverty is in fact the result of relations of subordination that are exploitative. For example, Richard Miller (2010, p. 210), who believes the goal of global justice is “provision of basic needs with respect for autonomy,” maintains that American citizens should share a greater responsibility for helping the global poor because of the imperialist behavior of the United States (pp. 147–180). Another example of this approach is Cecile Laborde (2010). Applying the republican ideal of nondomination to the global context, Laborde argues that the global poor should be protected from the systemic domination that jeopardizes their ability to secure basic needs for themselves.

Global Prioritarianism

As mentioned in the section on “The Contractarian Approach,” Rawls is reluctant to extend his domestic theory of justice to the global context. His own account of global justice, however, has been criticized for underplaying the significance of the existing interactions and institutional practices in the global domain. In addition, there is a question whether Rawls’s two theories—one for domestic justice and the other for global justice—actually fit together (Buchanan, 2000). As part of his domestic theory of justice, Rawls argues for the difference principle as one of the principles regulating social and economic inequalities in a given society. It states that social and economic inequalities are acceptation only if they are “to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society” (1971, pp. 75–83; 1999b, pp. 65–73; 2001, pp. 42–43). Although Rawls himself considers the difference principle to be an egalitarian principle of justice, other theorists such as Derek Parfit (2002) argue that it should be classified as a “prioritarian” principle since the difference principle “gives absolute priority to benefiting those who are worse off” and requires the worse-off group to be as well-off as possible (pp. 116–121). Therefore, the advocates of a global difference principle can be seen as advocating a prioritarian view on global distributive justice, which separates their views from other egalitarian arguments.

In the field of global distributive justice, there have been debates about the proper scope of this principle. Charles Beitz (1979) and Pogge (1989) argue that transnational social and economic interdependence is sufficiently complex to constitute a scheme of social cooperation, and therefore one should apply the Rawlsian original position to the global context to determine the suitable principles regulating that scheme. They conclude that the difference principle, which maximizes the life prospect of the least well-off individuals, should be applied globally. Note, however, that Beitz (1983) adopts a more nonrelational account of global distributive justice and maintains that individuals should be included in the global original position simply in virtue of their moral personality.

Global Egalitarianism

The previous sections mainly deal with sufficientarian accounts of global distributive justice—that is, no one should suffer from absolute deprivation. But there is also an issue of whether people’s relative shares should also be a concern in global distributive justice. Although egalitarianism does not deny the moral significance of avoiding sufficiency shortfalls, it firmly rejects the view that, above a certain basic minimum, inequalities in individuals’ life prospects simply become morally irrelevant (Casal, 2007). Egalitarianism, therefore, is committed to reducing relative deprivation of some even when no one suffers from absolute deprivation (Blake, 2001). The debate about whether justice requires equality or mere sufficiency has long been an important topic in the contemporary studies of distributive justice. (For some discussions, see Casal, 2007; Cavanagh, 2002; Frankfurt, 1987; Kekes, 2003; Raz, 1986, pp. 217–244; Weston, 1982). A notable exception is Nagel (2005, p. 118), who holds that justice must, by definition, be concerned with relative shares of resources enjoyed by individuals, and he regards sufficiency as a demand of humanity, not justice.

It may be objected that equality as such is irrelevant to justice because whatever good reasons we might have to be moved by egalitarianism actually appeal to some fundamental values distinct from equality itself (Miller, 1982; 2007, pp. 51–52). But this objection rests on the mistake that egalitarians must somehow think that equality is intrinsically valuable. It seems rather dogmatic to insist that any genuinely egalitarian doctrine must appeal to nothing but equality itself. particularly if “equality” is understood as an abstract distributive pattern that commands our allegiance apart from all other values. For instance, many egalitarians argue that inequality is objectionable because it is unfair if someone is worse off than others through no fault or choice of one’s own, or it is unfair that equally deserving people are unequally well-off. Although these arguments involve an understanding of fairness, it is rather unclear why they cannot be regarded as egalitarian doctrines. Moreover, it is perfectly legitimate for an egalitarian to argue that social and economic inequalities should be reduced because such inequalities may give rise to objectionable forms of domination by some over others. The underlying idea is that preventing domination is itself an egalitarian reason for favoring social and economic equality as it forms part of the background conditions under which people can live with one another as equals, and it goes beyond attending to basic needs (O’Neill, 2008).

Arguments for Global Equality

A number of arguments have been made in favor of global equality. One strand of these arguments can be called nonrelational arguments because they try to defend an egalitarian account of global justice by appealing to what individuals are owed in virtue of their moral status as human beings independent of their respective institutional membership. First, the moral conviction underlying luck egalitarianism could be invoked to justify some form of “equality of fortune” or “responsibility-sensitive” egalitarianism: That inequalities of advantage deriving from unchosen circumstances are unjust seems to apply across political boundaries. After all, just like one’s family background or native endowments, citizenship acquired by birth is simply another aspect of people’s circumstances, which, according to this view, should not be allowed to influence people’s relative positions. For example, Cecile Fabre (2003, 2005) argues that residence in a particular country could be considered an involuntary disadvantage for which people should be compensated. One way to implement this luck egalitarian principle is to regard birthright citizenship of affluent, stable countries as a special kind of inherited property, the transfer of which can be taxed for global distributive purposes (Shachar, 2009). Simon Caney (2001; 2005, pp. 122–123) also defends this position by arguing that the internal logic of the justification of fair equality of opportunity in the “domestic” case—that it is unfair for a person to have worse opportunities because of his cultural identity—entails that the scope of this principle of justice should be global. Second, one may insist that equality is a morally privileged benchmark in thinking about global justice. Brian Barry (1998), for example, applies the Scanlonian test to the global case and contends that all transnational inequalities of rights, opportunities, and resources have to be justifiable in ways that cannot be reasonably rejected by those who get the least. Pablo Gilabert (2012), for another example, maintains that a commitment to the moral equality of persons and cosmopolitan justifiability could give rise to some egalitarian principles of global justice without appealing to any associative grounds.

These nonrelational arguments clearly seem plausible to some, but others would argue that they ignore the nature and the extent of transnational interactions that might have some bearings on distributive justice. In contrast to these nonrelational arguments is the relational perspective on global justice, according to which the demands of equality apply only to individuals who stand in some morally relevant relationship with one another. The current level of global economic interdependence has often been invoked to justify applying certain egalitarian principles of justice to the global context. Darrel Moellendorf (2009), for example, argues that an egalitarian account of global distributive justice can be grounded in the inherent dignity of individuals in conjunction with their membership in global institutions because the respect for human dignity requires a justification of institutional principles that can be reasonably accepted by those who are unavoidably subject to their rules. In particular, he contends that the principle of equality of opportunity should be applied globally because justificatory respect rules out any principle of distribution that permits persons to be privileged merely because of their citizenship or nationality at birth. Kok-Chor Tan also defends a global version of luck egalitarianism, but he appeals not only to the moral arbitrariness of citizenship but also to the fact that the global institutional order turns some natural facts about the world into advantages and disadvantages for people. As such, for Tan (2011), the scope of luck-egalitarian justice would not be global without people’s sharing a global institutional order with one another. Pogge (2007c) and Lea Ypi (2012, pp. 112–127) independently argue for a form of global instrumental egalitarianism that draws on the causal link between absolute deprivation and relative deprivation. Ypi focuses in particular on the unequal distribution of state power in the international arena and argues that such inequality causes absolute deprivation on the part of the global poor. As such, if one is concerned about global poverty, one cannot leave such inequality of state power unchallenged. Finally, some political theorists defend different versions of global relational egalitarianism. They hold that relational equality—standing in relations of equality to one another (rather than relations characterized by domination or exploitation)—is a requirement of global justice. According to this view, global inequality is unjust to the extent that it gives rise to or reflects morally problematic forms of relations in which people stand to one another (Altman & Wellman, 2009; Ip, 2016; Nath, 2011).

Critiques of Global Equality

The ideal of global equality has been subjected to powerful critiques from different theoretical perspectives. Each of these challenges points out some disanalogy between the domestic and the global contexts that their claim justifies restricting the scope of egalitarian justice to the former. They all share the following structure: (a) Concerns for equality are appropriate within a particular context only when certain property is present; (b) the property is present in the context of a domestic society (e.g., a state or a nation) but not in the global realm; and therefore, (c) egalitarian principles of distributive justice should be adopted within the state but not at the global level (Caney, 2008). There are at least three distinct challenges to global egalitarianism:

The argument from coercion maintains that equality is a demand of justice only among those who are subject to the same sovereign authority that coerces them to abide by its rules. Thus, what grounds the relevance of egalitarian principles of justice is the fact of political coercion. Michael Blake (2001) maintains that political coercion is a sine qua non of egalitarian justice because the autonomy-restricting character of the state requires a special justification that gives rise to egalitarian claims. Nagel (2005) states that putative joint authorship of a coercively imposed legal system of the state generates concerns for equality. In response, opponents have pointed out that coercion does exist in the global context. Obvious examples include border control and the international property rights treaties (Abizadeh, 2007; Cavallero, 2006, 2010). Therefore, the coercion theorists have to offer some account of how political coercion exercised by the state against its members differs from other forms of coercion that could be found in the global context. Risse (2006), for example, holds that what matters to egalitarianism is not coercion as such but coercion that meets the requirements of “political and legal immediacy” which distinguishes coercion exercised by the state from other forms of coercion, say, exercised by supra-state institutions. In his more recent works, Blake (2011; cf. 2013, pp. 97–107) distinguishes between two forms of coercion: vertical coercion, in which all agents are subject equally to a central authority, and horizontal coercion, in which some powerful agents coerce weaker agents. Blake argues that international coercion is horizontal in nature and egalitarian rights are not appropriate justification for this coercion.

The argument from cooperation contends that egalitarian principles of distributive justice should be applied within certain schemes of social cooperation. From this view, global egalitarianism is indefensible because the relevant kind of social cooperation (still) does not exist at the global level. This view has been defended by Samuel Freeman and Andrea Sangiovanni. Defending a Rawlsian view on distributive justice, Freeman (2007, pp. 304–308) argues that the problem of distributive justice is a question of political design of basic social institutions; and because, in the absence of a world state, there can be no global basic institutions on a par to the basic institutions of a society, principles of distributive justice do not apply at the global level. Sangiovanni (2007) argues that equality is a requirement of reciprocity in the mutual provision of a central class of collective goods necessary for preserving individual autonomy, and because only states provide these collective goods, we owe a special duty of egalitarian reciprocity only to our fellow citizens and residents who do their part in sustaining the state’s capacity to provide these collective goods.

Alternatively, one may argue that substantive principles of equality can apply only within the context of a national community. This kind of objection to global equality, unlike the previous two which focus on the state, holds that nations are the privileged context within which egalitarian principles of justice apply. According to this view, global egalitarianism is misguided because it overlooks the moral relevance of nationality in determining people’s responsibilities and entitlements. David Miller’s (1995, 1998, 2000, 2007) contributions to the debate of global distributive justice are perhaps the best examples of this form of argument. In his book National Responsibility and Global Justice, Miller (2007) argues that a shared national culture is essential for identifying the appropriate metric for egalitarian principles of justice to work. Besides, the fact that people belong to different self-determining nations poses a serious threat to global egalitarianism because individuals can be held responsible for the collective decisions and preferences of their nations.

Applications of Global Distributive Justice

Even in more abstract theoretical discussions, researchers in the field of global distributive justice have paid considerable attention to how certain facts about the global domain might affect the grounds of their normative judgments. So it should come as no surprise that they have tried to apply normative theories to concrete issues. The next discussion focuses on five of these issues: immigration, reparations for historic injustice, climate change, transnational trade, and natural resources ownership. These issues share two things in common: (a) They are inevitably global in scope and cannot be confined to any single society, and (b) these issues potentially give rise to different distributions of burdens and benefits among individuals from around the world.


Under the existing international order, a person’s access to social and economic advantages is largely determined by their place of residence, and transnational movement of persons is heavily regulated by states. Branko Milanovic (2016, pp. 118–139) estimates that 80% of global inequality depends on a person’s place of residence and only 20% on a person’s social class. In the literature, many theorists have discussed the morality of immigration restrictions from the perspective of global distributive justice. Joseph Carens, for example, famously compared citizenship in a wealthy democratic state with feudal birthright privilege which was an inherited status that greatly enhanced one’s life chances (Carens, 1987, p. 252; 2013). Advocates for a more liberal migration regime often justify international mobility rights by appealing to some ideal standards of global distributive justice explored in this article, such as global equality of opportunity (Carens, 1987, 2013; Cole, 2011; Kukathas, 2005), priority to the global disadvantaged (Higgins, 2013), or the principle of sufficiency (Blunt, 2020, pp. 107–112). The defendants of the state’s right to exclude foreigners, on the other hand, appeal to other values, such as preservation of national culture (Miller, 2005, 2016), freedom of association (Wellman, 2008), or the existing members’ ownership rights over their domestic institutions (Pevnick, 2011), but they are not necessarily against the idea of global distributive justice.

Many debates over the ethics of immigration have focused on whether borders should ideally be open to potential migrants. In reality, however, global migration today is highly selective and stratified. States often grant privileged admissions to potential migrants who can bring productive labor, marketable talent, knowledge, and innovation to their host society. Nonetheless, there are reasons for thinking that the practice of economic selection can be unjust. First, economic selection in immigration can result in harmful brain drain as the affluent states tend to select those who are young and highly skilled workers from developing countries. David Miller (2016, pp. 108–111) argues that affluent states act wrongly if they actively seek to recruit skilled migrants from poor countries and that sometimes states ought to refuse admission to certain migrants whose skills are in short supply in the sending countries, if they are struggling to meet the basic needs of their members (for an opposing view, see Oberman, 2013). Second, selecting immigrants according to their economic potentials will, according to Shachar (2016, pp. 196–197), pose serious hazards to democratic and egalitarian notions of citizenship. Finally, given the degree of background global injustices and how such injustices explain the current flow of migration, there is a serious question of whether affluent states should be allowed to select immigrants in ways that are likely to reinforce or even exasperate existing global injustice (Ip, 2020).

Historic Injustice

There is no denying that the world is full of historic injustice—slavery, aggression, resources exploitation, and colonialism, to name but a few. Political philosophers are interested in whether a group of people who have suffered from past injustice is entitled to compensation.

Some scholars are skeptical about rectifying historic injustice. Sometimes they appeal to the difficulties in identifying the relevant counterfactual to determine the amount of harm suffered by the victims. George Sher (1980), for example, argues that with the passage of time, the difference between the victim’s well-being in the actual world and their well-being in the alternative world (where the initial wrong did not take place) may actually be the effect of the actions of many other intervening agents and not the effect of the initial wrong itself. Thus, there will be little or nothing left to be compensated for. Alternatively, as Jeremy Waldron (1992) argues, historic entitlements are weakened by the fact of historic persistence of dispossession because the relation between the original owner and the resource taken is weakened by the passage of time. Also, the change of social and economic circumstances from the time of original acquisition might mean that historic injustice should be superseded in order to prevent present and prospective deprivation (Waldron, 1992, pp. 7–14, 20–26).

Against such skepticism, some theorists argue there are indeed duties of rectification for historic injustice. In Rectifying International Injustice, Daniel Butt (2009) contends that the present generations can be linked to past wrongdoing, in a morally relevant way, through benefit, entitlement, or responsibility, and he concludes that “those living in the developed world possess significant rectificatory duties to many of those in less developed countries” (p. 17). Examining the moral implications of colonialism, Ypi et al., (2009) argue that individuals linked by ex-colonial relations of their societies owe one another duties of “robust distributive justice” because colonial rule constitutes a political association that involves special duties of distributive justice. Jenna Thompson (2018), for example, argues that people can acquire intergenerational responsibilities and entitlements with regard to historic injustice on the grounds of restitution, unjust enrichment, and continuing harm.

Climate Change

Climate change is arguably one of the most dangerous challenges facing humanity. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that the earth’s climate is changing and such changes are human-induced (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014, pp. 125–129). It is not difficult to see why climate change is an issue of global distributive justice. To begin with, the problem of climate change is global in scope and its solution clearly requires transnational cooperation. Also, climate change involves a distribution of burdens—extreme weather conditions, rising sea level, spread of diseases, and mitigation costs—and benefits, such as consumption and carbon emissions rights.

A number of issues in climate justice deserve particular attention. The first issue is whether and how climate change is a human rights problem. It has been widely argued that climate change undermines a broad range of human rights. Among these are the rights to subsistence and a safe environment, and the global poor are most vulnerable (see, e.g., Caney, 2009; Humphreys, 2010; Nickel, 1993; Shue, 1993, 2011). In addition, climate change potentially endangers the rights of the future generations (Gardiner, 2011, pp. 143–184). Another issue concerns the distribution of emissions rights. Taking the atmosphere to be a “global sink” that absorbs greenhouse gases, Singer (2002, pp. 35–36) argues that everyone is entitled to an equal share of this sink and thus each person should have equal emissions rights. Steve Vanderheiden (2008) also qualified an egalitarian view and argues that after basic needs have been met, the remaining emissions rights should be distributed equally. However, some have disputed this egalitarian view and argued that the distribution of emission rights should be more sensitive to the fulfillment of people’s basic needs and developmental rights (Caney, 2011, 2012; Moellendorf, 2011; 2014, pp. 123–151, 236–239). Finally, there is an issue regarding how to distribute the burdens associated with climate change mitigation (Cripps, 2013, 2017). Few would dispute that affluent countries and individuals should bear more of a burden in mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. It is either because these countries and individuals are better able to do so, bearing extra burdens will be less costly to them, or because of their past emissions, which led to the current problem (Brown, 2013; Harris, 2010, pp. 121–155; Miller, 2010, pp. 84–117; Risse, 2012, pp. 199–200; Shue, 1999).

Transnational Trade

Trade occupies a vital role in the world’s economy, and the demand for “fair trade” has become a global civic movement. However, trade prompts important moral questions, including questions of justice: What terms of trade can be considered fair to the parties involved? How should benefits from trade be distributed? Some economists defend the claim that trade liberalization policies or free trade has in general helped raise living standards of the global poor (see, e.g., Bhagwati, 2007; Irwin, 2009; Wolf, 2005). Other researchers feel more ambivalent about the impacts of trade and contend that with appropriate institutions, trade generally benefits the poor and international trade rules should be designed to reduce poverty and promote development (Stiglitz, 2006; Stiglitz & Charlton, 2006; Tesón & Klick, 2012).

Some political philosophers, however, would argue that transnational trade gives rise to distinct fairness issues concerning how the burdens and benefits arising from trade should be distributed among participants. Most, if not all, political theorists researching the normative aspects of transnational trade would argue that the current arrangement of transnational trade, including the World Trade Organization regime and other bilateral trade agreements, is far from just. For example, Aaron James (2012a, 2012b) argues that for the terms of trade to be fair, trading nations must protect people from the harms of trade (collective due care), and the gains of trade ought to be distributed equally unless unequal gains flow to poor countries (international relative gains). James Christensen (2017) argues that trade must be restricted in order to protect people from serious harms, whereas the benefits deriving from trade should be distributed in a globally egalitarian fashion. Starting with an understanding of the nature of trade itself, Frank Garcia (2013, 2019) argues that trade cannot be fair unless it can be reasonably regarded as a consensual exchange of economic values. Mathias Risse and Gabriel Wollner (2019) argue that trade justice is about preventing various types of exploitation in trade, which is broadly understood to be power-induced failures of reciprocity. A related question is whether it is morally permissible for liberal democracies (or their corporations) to trade with autocratic regimes. One possible response to this moral problem is for liberal democracies to disengage entirely from trade with autocratic regimes in order to preserve their moral integrity (Nili, 2019). However, disengagement may either be infeasible or is likely to cause significant harm to the poor living in these regimes (Armstrong, 2020). Perhaps a more nuanced response is more promising, such as requiring liberal democracies to adopt a set of trade policies that could reasonably be expected to improve the human rights conditions of their trading partners (Ip, 2022).

Natural Resources Ownership

Many factors affect the economic development of a particular society; natural resources endowment is clearly one of them. One cannot have a complete theory of global distributive justice without addressing the question of who should own what resources, and this question has received more attention in the recent literature of global distributive justice.

Many theorists have sought to defend the right to own natural resources held by people living in a particular territory in which these resources are located. The nationalist account maintains that national communities can come to have a right to a territory (with the natural resources in it) because they have transformed the territory (Meisels, 2003) and thereby established an internal relation between the territory and its culture (Miller, 2007, pp. 217–218; 2012). The Lockean account maintains that people gain such ownership of territories and natural resources through adding material value to the territory or resource they occupy (Nine, 2008; 2012, pp. 72–93; Simmons, 2001). The Kantian account holds that a state can have rights to a territory if that state imposes a system of property law that meets the basic conditions of legitimacy, such as protection of minimal freedom, equality, and independence for each citizen (Stilz, 2009, 2011). The commitment to people’s ownership of natural resources has implications for international trade on natural resources. If the people, not the tyrannical governments that happen to rule them, are the rightful owners of natural resources, then importing oil from many countries will be just like buying stolen properties. It is clear that the governments of these countries, controlled by a small group of corrupt elites, will simply capture the revenue from this trade while the living standard of the common people will not be improved (Wenar, 2008, 2016).

Not all theorists, however, believe in ownership of natural resources by particular individuals or groups. Other theorists argue that individuals have essentially the same entitlement to the natural resources of the earth regardless of their respective citizenship or nationality. Some of these accounts, such as Beitz (1979), Hillel Steiner (1999, 2005), and Tim Haywood (2006), have explicit egalitarian implications and call attention to the moral arbitrariness of the distribution of natural resources. Other accounts, such as Risse (2012), are sufficientarian and hold that people are entitled to resources that would allow them to meet their basic needs.

Beyond the cosmopolitan/statist debate just stated here, some theorists try to develop alternative accounts of the natural resources right, which gives states some partial rights to own natural resources of their territory. Criticizing Haywood’s (2006) account of natural resources, Avery Kolers (2012) argues that what counts as a resource should be decided by whoever has a morally legitimate territorial right to that place and those goods, which are not treated as means for economic exchange and should not be subject for redistribution. Margaret Moore (2012, 2014, 2015), as another example, allows states to have control over the natural resources that they need to maintain collective self-determination. Chris Armstrong (2013, 2014, 2017) also develops a broadly egalitarian account of natural resources ownership by arguing that individuals are entitled to a share of natural resources benefits that would satisfy their basic needs, whereas the surplus of such benefits should be distributed to further egalitarian ends.


Global distributive justice is without doubt an area of increasing academic interest. There have been a series of debates about how to organize shared transnational institutions in accordance with the demands of distributive justice and also about what these demands are. Some theorists insist on a statist or nationalistic approach to these issues, whereas others embrace a more cosmopolitan outlook. Also, as the section on “Applications of Global Distributive Justice” indicates, these debates are not merely of theoretical interest but also have practical implications.


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