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date: 03 December 2022

Global (Distributive) Justicefree

Global (Distributive) Justicefree

  • Siba HarbSiba HarbDepartment of Political Philosophy and Ethics, KU Leuven


Most philosophers agree that it is unjust for one’s life prospects to be determined by one’s race, gender, or social class. And most think that there are demanding duties on members of the same political community (co-citizens) to reduce inequalities that track these features of individuals. But philosophers strongly disagree about how to evaluate inequalities that track the country one is born in. Are global inequalities (inequalities among individuals living in different countries) as problematic and for the same reasons as domestic inequalities (inequalities among co-citizens)? The question of whether egalitarian principles of distributive justice extend globally, beyond the domestic sphere, has been the central question in the debate on global distributive justice. Statists argue that there is something normatively significant about the state, but not the global institutional order, which grounds one’s concerns with domestic inequalities, but not global inequalities. Global egalitarians argue that global inequalities are as unjust to the same extent and for the same reasons as domestic inequalities. The disagreement between both camps can be traced back to different normative, empirical, and methodological assumptions. Statists and global egalitarians can, however, converge on a number of important issues, and the debate can be advanced beyond the stalemate it has reached by investigating these issues of convergence. Significantly, statists can agree with global egalitarians that global justice requires equality of concern (the requirement that interests of all individuals have equal weight), and global egalitarians have reasons to take states seriously to the extent that having a world of states (or multiple political communities) can be shown to be compatible with the requirement of equal concern. Thus, it is important to work out whether individuals have a fundamental interest in being members of political communities, how that interest compares to their interests in opportunities, income, and wealth, and which institutional arraignments can advance these interests according to the right balance.


  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
  • Politics, Law, Judiciary

The wealth gap between White and Black households in the United States is estimated at 7% (a typical Black household has 7% the wealth of a typical White household). In the United Kingdom, social mobility is strikingly low (on one measure, close to 50% of the economic advantage rich fathers have over poor fathers is transmitted to their sons). The gender pay gap averaged around 16% in European Union countries (the percentage by which women’s gross hourly earnings are lower than men’s) (Gender Pay Gap Statistics, 2020). Most people would find these figures problematic. They would be particularly concerned to find out that these inequalities track gender, race, and social class (as opposed to individuals’ choices, for instance). For most, these inequalities make the societies that allow them unjust. One would think a range of measures ranging from institutional reforms to redistributive transfers would be justified and required.

Should people be equally worried about inequalities between individuals living in the richest and those living in the poorest countries? The Human Development Index of France is more than twice that of Mali (the HDI is a composite indicator of life expectancy, education, and per capita income). The median per capita income in Denmark is more than 30 times that of Burundi (in 2013). Denmark’s was estimated at US$18,262, while Burundi’s was at US$129. Should one worry about inequalities between relatively well-off populations living in different countries, for instance, in Denmark versus Portugal (Denmark’s is more than three times that of Portugal)?1

One might be inclined to think that worrisome inequalities are intra-state inequalities (henceforth, domestic inequalities). Inequalities among individuals living in different societies (henceforth, global inequalities) might not seem particularly troubling. Perhaps one thinks that what is troubling about some of the statistics on global inequalities in income is not inequality per se but that some individuals live in abject poverty; inequalities in income and opportunities between someone living in Portugal and someone living in Denmark may not seem troubling.

One might be driven to hold such a view because of a belief that there is something special about the state, which makes inequalities among citizens problematic. And one might think that attempts to reduce global inequalities beyond addressing the problem of poverty would be misguided, unfair, potentially dangerous, and at best a waste of time. Global efforts, one might think, ought to be directed toward reducing inequalities domestically and alleviating poverty abroad. Contemporary political philosophers who subscribe to this view are called statists.

Alternatively, one might be of the view that global inequalities are troubling. One might agree with statists that poverty is particularly grievous but think that even if poverty is eliminated, there should still be concern about some inequalities between individuals living in different societies, since, just as one would reject a view that says there is nothing wrong in a society where no one is poor but where the level of income of one’s parents (or one’s gender or race) substantially determines your prospects, one would reject a view that says there is nothing wrong in a world where no one is poor but where the level of wealth of the country one is born into practically determines your prospects (according to a study by The Economist, “the strongest predictor of how much one earns is where one is born.”)2 Global efforts, one might suggest, ought to be directed at closing the gap between the rich and the poor globally; limiting concerns to domestic inequalities is misguided, unfair, myopic, and dangerously supportive of the status quo. Contemporary political philosophers who subscribe to this view are called global egalitarians.

Which view is the right view? Is it a statist or a global egalitarian view or some other view in between? Thinking through this puzzle about which kind of inequalities matter and about how one should reason toward an answer is thinking about global justice, the subject of this article. The global justice debate is very nascent—the term global justice barely figured in the philosophical and nonphilosophical debate prior to the 1980s, but it has rapidly reached prominence within political philosophy (for a brief historical overview of the debate, see Scheffler, 2014), and with good reason; it is hard to deny that in the early 21st century, many of the most pressing moral problems pertain to global injustices.

The philosophical debate on global justice has rapidly grown into a very sophisticated debate; the disagreements between those engaged in it are increasingly technical. This article tries to carve a path for thinking about the justice of global inequalities. It starts with delineating the subject of global distributive justice, then focuses on a defining question of the global justice debate: whether egalitarian principles of distributive justice extend beyond domestic institutions to global institutions (in doing so, the article is limited to egalitarian theories of justice, defined simply as theories in which the value of equality plays a very important part). It presents the statist and global egalitarian answers to the extension question and considers the main challenges each position faces. Next, the article attempts to move beyond the disagreements over the extension question by noting possible convergences between the statist and egalitarian camps (notably over the extension of equality of concern and over theorizing justice for a world of states). Building on the convergences, the article then takes a closer look at how states can be compatible with global egalitarianism and what that means for how one judges inequalities. The article finishes with briefly introducing “new trends” in the global justice debate and highlighting questions that merit further research.

The Subject of Global Justice

The label “global justice” covers many different philosophical inquiries. In general, inquiries within global justice are concerned with what is owed to others with whom one shares a life on this planet. This is in contrast with theories of “domestic justice,” which offer an account of what those living in the same state (or political community) owe to each other by virtue of their comembership.

This article focuses on one particular subject: the global institutional order. This inquiry into the demands of justice with regard to the global institutional order asks two questions:


how should the global institutional order be designed, and


what principles should guide the division of benefits and burdens resulting from that order such that it can be said to be just, given that the reasons are grounded in the interests of individuals.

This section offers a definition of distributive justice, specifies and motivates the institutional focus, and emphasizes and clarifies the choice of taking of individuals as the relevant holders of entitlements.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice concerns itself with determining individuals’ social and economic entitlements such as opportunities, income, and wealth. Distributive justice is part of social justice, which is seen to be additionally concerned with interpersonal relations and social standing. There is a vibrant debate among egalitarians over whether individuals’ interest in social standing and relational justice can be part of distributive justice—so-called relational or social egalitarians contend that the distributive framework is inadequate to fully account for the concern with equality (Anderson, 2010; Axelsen & Bidadanure, 2018; Gheaus, 2016; Lippert-Rasmussen, 2015; Scheffler, 2015). This article is primarily interested in distributive justice and will bracket this intra-egalitarian debate between relational and distributive egalitarians. It focuses on accounts that explain how to distribute, among persons, opportunities and all-purpose goods such as income and wealth (noteworthy here is that with very few exceptions [Brock, 2009; Nath, 2015], relational egalitarians have focused on issues of domestic and not global justice).

It is helpful to further distinguish distributive justice from similar yet different justice-based concerns (similar because of their contemporary relevance and because they also stem from questions about what is owed to individuals with whom we do not share a state). First, there is reparative justice. The world has and continues to be shaped by a long history of international violence. Invasions, wars, and colonial projects have wreaked harm from which some communities have not recovered. It matters that these historical injustices are recognized, but also that thought is given about responsibility for repairing the resulting harms. This raises questions about reparative justice between communities (or states) and justice between generations (Amighetti & Nuti, 2015; Butt, 2009; Lu, 2011; Thompson, 2001; Waldron, 1992; Ypi, Goodin, & Barry, 2009). The world is also marred by the existence of brutal and murderous regimes and by a rising threat of international terrorism. The nature and scale of the violence presses upon everyone questions about the permissibility of international intervention and the duty to protect individuals from severe harm. This raises questions about the justice of war and humanitarian intervention (Cécile Fabre, 2012; Frowe & Lang, 2014). This article has little to say that directly addresses the subjects of reparative justice or the justice of and in war (although the section “The Appropriate Response to Injustice” touches upon questions of resistance to injustice).

Institutional Focus: The Global Institutional Order

This article focuses on what distributive justice demands with regard to the global institutional order. It has an institutional focus and is primarily concerned with the normative assessment of global institutions and their distributive impact. More precisely, it is concerned with the way major global institutional arrangements and rules that regulate interactions across state borders assign and distribute socioeconomic benefits and burdens among individuals.

The significance of institutions is substantiated further as the article proceeds, but it bears noting that the article’s institutional focus follows John Rawls’s in taking institutions to be central to concerns of justice. According to Rawls, for a society to be regarded as just, its major social and economic institutions, what he calls a society’s basic structure, must be just. This is because the institutions of the basic structure, such as the constitution, the laws, and the economy, form an essential part of the background conditions against which individuals interact. When it comes to the global sphere, organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are often first to come to mind as emblematic examples of global institutions. But, alongside these and other regional and international agreements and treaties regulating global trade and financial transactions, there is a global system of private property rights and intellectual property rights and an international legal system (Buchanan, 2000). As this article makes clear, however, the most significant institution of the global structure is the system of states.

It is worth noting some initial implications of limiting the question here to institutional distributive justice. First, in asking what justice requires of institutions, the concern is not, at least not directly, the actions and choices of individuals. Rather, the focus is on the way institutions define individual entitlements and regulate the background against which individuals pursue their interests. This does not mean that individuals are not constrained by demands of institutional justice. For one, the way institutions are designed shapes and constrains individual choices and expectations (what benefits and burdens are attached to different social positions is defined by principles of justice, and individuals make their choices in light of these divisions). Additionally, institutions are designed, run, and sustained by individuals. And individuals, both in their private and public functions, are expected to abide by the requirements of justice and to set up just institutions when they are absent. That said, this article leaves it open as to whether principles of justice should apply exclusively to institutions or if they also apply to individuals (or are derived from principles that apply to individuals) (Cohen, 1997; Murphy, 1998; Shiffrin, 2010).

It is, however, crucial not to mistake the institutional focus with views (sometimes also called institutional views) that take justice to be concerned with existing institutions and exclude from the subject of justice the question of whether institutions ought to be set up. To avoid confusion, this article refers to the latter type of view as institutionally conservative (a view that the section “Statist Accounts and Their Challenges” suggests there are no good reasons to support).

Global Justice Versus International Justice

This article takes individuals to be the relevant units whose entitlements principles of justice seek to define. It also takes reasons of justice to be grounded in the interests of individuals. These are commitments that distinguish accounts of global justice from accounts of international justice. Inquiries into international justice take states to be the relevant units among whom justice holds and ground reasons of justice in the interests of states. John Rawls’s account in his book, Law of peoples, is one of international justice (Rawls, 2001b). There, Rawls is interested in how states ought to interact with one another—or more precisely, what liberal states owe to each other and what they owe to nonliberal states.

To be sure, accounts of international justice may be ultimately grounded in interests of individuals to the extent that state interests are reducible to individuals’ interests. And accounts of global justice can include duties among states. There are two ways, however, in which the distinction plays out clearly (and which becomes clearer as the article proceeds). First, accounts of international justice take interaction between states to be the only relevant interaction at the global level. In contrast, accounts of global justice pierce through the black box of the state and start from the interaction among individuals; they also move beyond states and investigate the impact of all supranational institutions. Second, accounts of international justice take states to be a given whereas accounts of global justice ought to include an account of how all global institutions, including, if not especially states, can be justified to all individuals.

The Extension Question

A central and highly divisive question in the global justice debate has been whether the domestic and global spheres ought to be governed by the same set of distributive principles. This can be called the extension question: Does the scope of principles already identified by theories of justice for the domestic sphere extend to the global sphere? Accounts of global distributive justice can be divided into two camps according to how they answer the extension question: (a) statists who answer with a “no” and (b) global egalitarians who answer with a “yes.” This section presents the main positions within each camp and discusses the central challenges they face.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that the accounts examined here, whether statist or global egalitarian, are egalitarian about domestic justice. That is to say, their starting point is that justice at the domestic level requires a baseline of equal distribution of goods among individuals, deviations from which need special justification (see Hirose & Segall, 2016). The disagreement between both camps is whether demands of distributive equality extend to the global sphere. Formulated more precisely, the extension question is about whether equality in the distribution of goods among all humans matters to the same extent as that among compatriots.

To be sure, the choice to limit the inquiry to egalitarian accounts should not be taken to reflect a consensus in the debate about the demands of domestic justice. The question of the correct pattern of justice is anything but settled (see “Distributive Justice” by Hirose & Segall, 2016). Rather, the choice reflects the egalitarian bias in the global justice debate (but see Nussbaum, 2006). This bias is, in addition to the institutional focus discussed, another way in which Rawls’s theory of justice has shaped the philosophical debate on global justice. Indeed, the earliest treatments of principles of global justice were formulated as a response to Rawls’s brief mention of the question of justice beyond the state in his book, A theory of justice (Barry, 1991; Beitz, 1999; Pogge, 1989; Rawls, 1971, p. 378). Rawls, radically egalitarian when it comes to domestic justice, suggested that egalitarian principles of justice should not be extended to the global sphere—thus outlining the first statist account and his critics offering the first global egalitarian accounts. That said, it is important to note that the extension question is more broadly relevant to any patterned account of distributive justice—for instance, for sufficientarians (i.e., those who take justice to require sufficiency in goods [see Huseby, 2019]), the extension question is whether demands of sufficiency and the thresholds they endorse extend beyond the scope of the domestic sphere.

Statist Accounts and Their Challenges

According to statist accounts, different principles of distributive justice should govern the domestic and global spheres. Typically, statists endorse demanding egalitarian principles domestically and advocate weaker sufficiency-based principles globally. In what follows, a number of influential statist arguments are considered.

To start, it is useful to note that statist arguments share a similar structure that is composed of two claims:


Normative claim: G, a feature of states, is what grounds egalitarian principles of justice.


Empirical claim: G is not a feature of the global institutional order.

Conclusion: The scope of egalitarian principles of justice is domestic and not global.

At the same time, statist accounts can be distinguished on the basis of what they take the ground of egalitarian justice (feature G) to be. Three grounds of egalitarian justice can be distinguished in the literature: coercion, authorship, and cooperation. It would be fair to see the different versions as attempts at interpreting Rawls’s (underdeveloped) argument for why the global institutional order does not raise the egalitarian concerns that the domestic basic structure does. Next, each ground is discussed in turn before considering their challenges.


According to Michael Blake (2001), state coercion is what grounds egalitarian distributive principles. To back this normative claim about the ground of justice, Blake appeals to both the bads and goods of state coercion. Coercion, understood as the use of force (or the threat of it) to limit or shape individuals’ opportunities and options, is prima facie bad because it constitutes a serious violation of individuals’ autonomy. A state’s legal and political system (e.g., criminal law, property law) coerces its citizens and is, therefore, prima facie bad. But Blake points out that state coercion is also necessary because it makes it possible for individuals to pursue their own ends. This means that doing away with state coercion would be neither feasible nor desirable. Instead of doing away with the coercion, a state must render it justifiable. On Blake’s account, egalitarian principles of justice do precisely that: Among the various possible institutional arrangements, egalitarian institutions are the only ones that can be justifiable to members of the political community.

To the normative claim that egalitarian principles are grounded in state coercion, Blake adds the empirical claim that global institutions do not coerce individuals like states do. According to Blake, the coercion by global institutions is neither pervasive nor necessary. He thereby concludes that the scope of egalitarian principles of justice cannot be extended to the global sphere.


Thomas Nagel (2005), like Blake, thinks that egalitarian principles of justice are the appropriate response to the special demands of justification that being a citizen of a state gives rise to. But for Nagel the coercive nature of state institutions (as underlined by Blake) is only one side of the story of what grounds egalitarian principles of justice at the level of domestic institutions. Nagel explains that citizens are not only subjects of a state’s legal and political system, but also its authors (2005, p. 128). So, unlike Blake on whose account the violation of autonomy is what requires justification, for Nagel it’s being involuntarily assigned the responsibility of being subject and author that gives each citizen a standing to demand that the laws and norms of her society be justified to her: as subjects, citizens are held responsible for acting in accordance with the laws and norms of society; as authors they are held responsible for any inequalities that result from that system.

To this first normative claim, Nagel adds a second empirical claim submitting that the global institutional order does not engage the will of individuals as subjects and authors. Global institutions, he suggests, are the outcome of voluntary agreements between states and do not claim to speak in the name of individuals. He concludes that egalitarian principles of distributive justice do not apply globally.


According to Andrea Sangiovanni (2007), it is cooperation in the production of a central class of collective goods and not coercion or authorship that grounds egalitarian distributive principles of justice; not all coercion gives rise to demands of distributive justice and in the absence of coercion, demands of distributive justice still arise when collective goods are cooperatively produced. Sangiovanni submits that demands of distributive justice are demands of reciprocity in the distribution of benefits and burdens of a cooperative scheme where demands of reciprocity are to be understood as demands of fair return. States, Sangiovanni points out, are cooperative schemes that provide central collective goods (protection and security, property rights, rule of law, etc.) and in which the cooperative input of members is heavily dependent on the contribution of others. Given the centrality of what states provide and the degree to which individual contributions are interdependent, Sangiovanni concludes that reciprocity in the context of states requires egalitarian distributive principles: A fair return on members’ cooperation is an equal return on the benefits of cooperation.

When it comes to the global level, Sangiovanni finds that the goods provided through global and international cooperation are of a different nature and that the degree of involvement and interdependency of individual contribution is much less relevant (the argument’s empirical claim). He concludes that a fair return on contribution in the case of the global scheme would be less than egalitarian, sensitive to different considerations.

Challenges to Statist Accounts

Three types of challenges can be distinguished that the statist arguments just presented face. The first targets their empirical premise; the second targets their normative premise; and the third targets an implicit methodological premise. In what follows. each in turn is discussed.

To begin with the empirical critique, statist accounts have been consistently criticized for their erroneous depiction of the global order. In particular, Blake, Nagel, and Sangiovanni have all been criticized for mischaracterizing the kind of cooperation and coercion that take place at the global level and for exaggerating the relevant difference between the domestic and global spheres. For instance, it has been argued that Blake and Nagel are mistaken to think that the global order does not coerce or engage the will of individuals in a relevant manner (Abizadeh, 2007; Cohen & Sabel, 2006; Julius, 2006; Walton, 2009); that is, similarly to state institutions, the global order coerces individuals in ways that demand justification. For example, international trade regimes are no more voluntary than state-imposed laws; international trade rules impose requirements on countries which in turn impose them on their citizens. Given the high cost of opting out of international trade agreements, it is injudicious to believe that most states are voluntary participants (in a relevant sense); certainly, individuals are not. Or, and perhaps more importantly, consider the global borders regime. A central feature of the global order is that states have the right to unilaterally control their borders, and border control is a prime example of coercion (Abizadeh, 2007). Equally, Sangiovanni’s account has been criticized for wrongly assuming that a state’s central goods are produced solely through cooperation among compatriots (e.g., think of domestic production that relies on international trade and resources) and for neglecting the presence of central collective goods that are produced as a result of cooperation at the global level (e.g., think of environmental goods, or security, and intellectual property rights) (Armstrong, 2009).

But this line of criticism, while instructive, risks getting mired in empirical disputes over similarities and differences between the state and global institutions. A more powerful line of critique targets the normative claims in the statists’ argument’. Indeed, even if statists are correct about their empirical premises (i.e., about there being a disanalogy between the domestic and the global spheres when it comes to the grounds they discuss), it is not clear that they have correctly and adequately identified the relevant grounds of egalitarian justice.

Consider Blake’s and Nagel’s arguments: It is striking that they do not offer any reasons for taking state-like coercion or authority to be the only ground for egalitarian justice. What they offer are reasons for taking state-like coercion or authority to be a ground for egalitarian justice. But this is problematic since their arguments can be valid only if their normative premises show that state-like coercion or authority is a necessary condition for concerns of egalitarian justice rather than merely sufficient (Abizadeh, 2007; Caney, 2008). Without an argument for why only coercion or authority triggers concerns of egalitarian justice, Blake’s and Nagel’s arguments, assuming they make the right empirical assumptions about the features of the global order and assuming they are right that coercion or authority are sufficient conditions, at best show that some of the reasons that make egalitarian justice applicable to states do not extend to the case of global institutions. They do not show that there are no other reasons for thinking that egalitarian justice is required globally. Indeed, it is unclear why less than all-encompassing forms of coercion or authority are not sufficient to trigger concern with justification, and why, once triggered, anything less than an egalitarian global order would be acceptable as justification.

Turning to the argument from cooperation, Sangiovanni submits that distributive justice is exclusively triggered in contexts where central goods are cooperatively produced (cooperation is both necessary and sufficient). As such, he denies that coercion or authority is either necessary or sufficient. But here, there is a legitimate concern that restricting concerns of justice to the fruit of cooperation is narrow and arbitrary. It has been argued that restricting justice to concerns of cooperation or reciprocity can exclude members of society who are unable to cooperate (such as the severely disabled) and can fail to explain the existence of duties of justice to future generations (Barry, 1991; Goodin, 1988). There are good reasons to think that the evaluation of the justice of institutions should go beyond the evaluation of their impact on individuals’ interests as cooperative agents, or to institutions’ cooperative fairness. While cooperative fairness seems an important part of what justice requires, it seems arbitrary to narrow down reasons of justice to reasons of fairness in cooperation.

Instead, and as discussed in more detail when global egalitarianism and its challenges is examined, it has been argued that the feature of institutions that ought to trigger concern with egalitarian justice is neither cooperation nor coercion but pervasive impact. But if the ground of justice is pervasive impact, then it becomes very hard to conclude that the scope of egalitarian principles is restricted to the domestic sphere. On the one hand, it would be hard to defend an empirical claim that the pervasive impact of domestic institutions is limited to those living within the state (think here of borders). On the other hand, it would be hard to deny that global institutions (increasingly) have pervasive impact (Abizadeh, 2007). As Cohen and Sabel note, “[t]he rules made in those [global] settings are consequential for the conduct and welfare of individuals, firms, and states, in part because they provide standards for coordinated action and in part (though not only) because national rule making itself proceeds subject to rules, standards, and principles established beyond the national level” (Cohen & Sabel, 2006, p. 165). Thus, it suffices that there is a practice of global interaction which, through its institutions, makes some winners and some losers; such an institutional structure, like the domestic institutional structure, stands in need of being justified to each participating individual, seen as an equal (Beitz, 1999; Buchanan, 2000; Mollendorf, 2002; Pogge, 1989; Van Parijs, 2008).

Still, even if one were to accept that statists have correct normative and empirical premises, the conclusion that egalitarian principles do not extend to the global order would follow only if it were also true that there are no reasons of justice to bring about global institutions with feature G. In other words, for the statist arguments just presented to be valid, they must appeal to the further claim:

Methodological claim: There are no reasons of justice to bring about different institutions than the existing ones.

It is helpful to call this a methodological claim because it highlights that what is at stake here is the role or function that one takes a theory of justice to have.

The methodological claim implicit in the statist arguments suggests institutional conservatism: the view that when thinking about what justice requires, one ought to theorize for existing institutions (Blake, 2013, p. 47; James, 2005, 2014a; Sangiovanni, 2007, 2008). But this, too, is highly controversial, for isn’t justice to be (also) concerned with how institutions should be and which institutions ought to be brought about? Even if feature G (say, coercion or production of central goods) is only a property of states, might there not be reasons to bring about global institutions with feature G and states without feature G? It seems crucial to know whether there are reasons why the global order should (or should not) be coercive in the way states are, or provide the cooperative goods that states provide (perhaps, in lieu of states?). If there are such reasons (i.e., reasons to establish a more coercive global order or a global cooperative scheme that provides central collective goods), then it is no longer clear that the statist, even if correct about the normative and empirical facts about the grounds of justice, can conclude that principles of justice should not extend to the global order.

Institutional conservatism may seem attractive for a number of reasons. Starting from existing institutions seems sensible, for it allows one to identify which alternatives are accessible. Its defenders highlight that it allows principles to be offered that are action guiding and feasible (i.e., stable and accessible), constraints they take to be necessary on principles of justice. The section “Global Egalitarian Accounts and Their Challenges” takes a closer look at the question of feasibility. It suffices to mention here that one can recognize that there is some normative significance to existing arrangements without it entailing that they be taken as fixed or as given, which seems to be what institutional conservatives demand. A theory of justice which is silent on the justice of having some institutions in the first place and which refrains from offering reasons to set up new institutions would be status quo biased in favor of arrangements that may be founded on unjust treatment of both participants and nonparticipants (Axelsen, 2019; Caney, 2011; Reglitz, 2015; Valentini, 2011a).

Global Egalitarian Accounts and Their Challenges

Statists face empirical and normative challenges that seem to undermine their arguments against the extension of egalitarian principles to the global sphere. Are global egalitarians right then in arguing for global egalitarian principles of justice? Let us first consider and compare the positive case for extension made by two influential global egalitarians before turning to a discussion of the challenges global egalitarianism more broadly faces.

Charles Beitz is one of the first contemporary philosophers to offer a global egalitarian account of justice. In a book that has played a major role in defining the terms of the debate, Beitz (1979) argues that global justice demands a global difference principle for the same reasons that Rawls thought domestic justice demands a difference principle. To recall, according to the difference principle, inequalities are just only when they are to the benefit of the least advantaged. Beitz’s argument for a global difference principle proceeds in two steps. First, he establishes that the global order raises concerns of distributive justice. This he argues via the normative claim that cooperation is what (for Rawls) grounds one’s concern with equality and the empirical claim that there is at the global level a scheme of cooperation that distributes benefits and burdens sufficiently similar to that at the domestic level. Second, Beitz submits that one can derive principles of justice for the global order in the same way Rawls derives them for the domestic sphere. Just as, according to Rawls, the distribution of valuable goods in a society should not mirror or track features of persons such as their social background, gender, race, or natural talent (for these features are morally arbitrary from the perspective of social institutions), the distribution of valuable goods globally should additionally not track an individual’s country of citizenship (for where one is born is equally morally arbitrary from the perspective of global institutions). And just as, according to Rawls, the only justifiable inequalities in income and wealth in a society will be those that are to the benefit of the least advantaged, Beitz concludes that the only justifiable inequalities globally will be those to the benefit of the least advantaged globally, independent of their country of membership (Beitz, 1979, p. 144; see similar arguments by Mollendorf, 2002; Pogge, 1989).

Now, as the reader may have noticed, the first part of Beitz’s argument is open to the same challenges raised against Sangiovanni’s in the section “Statist Accounts and Their Challenges.” Indeed, it is important to note that in a revised edition of his book, Beitz (1999) revised his position in two ways that fully take the challenges on board. First, he revised his normative claim to emphasize that cooperation is not a necessary ground for concerns of justice to arise and that pervasive and nonvoluntary impact is sufficient. Second, he emphasized that the truth of the empirical claim about the similarity of the global order to the domestic one has no bearing on the argument for a global difference principle because what matters is not what institutions exist, but which ought to exist.

Another influential global egalitarian account is put forth by Simon Caney. Caney, like Beitz, is troubled by the inequalities determined by which country an individual is born in, which he too considers to be morally arbitrary. More particularly, Caney finds it problematic that one’s country of birth does, to a large extent, determine one’s range of opportunities in life. Caney (2001) defends a principle of global equality of opportunity. Here too, the case for a globalized equality of opportunity principle starts from accepted arguments for equality of opportunity at the domestic level. Caney points out that one does not think an individual’s opportunities should be worse (or less) than those others enjoy due to her gender, race, or even social class; one wants individuals to have equal opportunities, and one wants to structure social and economic institutions such as to limit the impact these factors have on one’s opportunities. By the same token, Caney thinks that one’s opportunities should not be worse than those others enjoy on account of their nationality. Caney, therefore, proposes a (substantive) principle of global equality of opportunity as one standard against which to assess the justice of the global order: global institutions ought to be structured in a way that limits the impact that arbitrary features such as gender, race, social class, and, crucially, nationality have on one’s range of opportunities (Caney, 2001, 2005; for other proposals of global equality of opportunity, see Butt, 2012; Loriaux, 2008; Moellendorf, 2006).

While similar in wanting to limit the impact that one’s place of birth has on one’s opportunities and life prospects, it is worth highlighting that Caney and Beitz start from different normative claims about the ground of justice. For Beitz, what grounds one’s concerns with inequality is that individuals live in a globalized world that has pervasive impact on their lives. The unequal distribution of benefits and burdens requires justification as it should not mirror or reward arbitrary features. For Caney, concern with inequality is not grounded in a particular of institutions or a type of interaction between individuals. What requires justification is not an institutional setup but any state of affairs in which some have less opportunities than others due to arbitrary factors such as their race, gender, social background, and country of birth. In his view, what individuals are entitled to is not by virtue of their membership in a particular state, but also not by virtue of their membership to a global institutional order. Rather, individual entitlements arise by virtue of their membership in the moral community of humans.

It is worth noting here that Caney’s account is what can be called a nonrelational or humanity-based account. And this sets it apart from both Beitz’s and from the statist accounts that have been considered, which can be called relational or association-based accounts. The question of what grounds justice continues to divide philosophers (see Caney [2011] and Gilabert [2012] for a defense of humanity-based accounts, and Nagel [2005], Sangiovanni [2007], and Valentini [2011b] for defenses of association-based accounts). But for the purposes of this article, we need not ponder the question further, for two reasons. First, as has been repeatedly mentioned, the world already displays a significant level of interaction and is composed of various international institutions, rendering it moot (albeit not theoretically irrelevant) to insist on the irrelevance of interaction.3 Second, to the extent that what matters is not what institutions exist but which ought to exist (as this article has suggested, and a view which fits naturally with humanity-based accounts, but which Beitz also endorses), then the relevance of whether the ground of justice is associative or humanity-based is further diminished.

Challenges to Global Egalitarian Accounts

Global egalitarian accounts have been subject to a range of criticisms. This article focuses here on two: the charge of infeasibility and the charge of undermining collective responsibility (for further challenges, see C. Barry & Valentini [2009] and Miller [2005]).


The challenge of infeasibility can be seen as the inverse of the challenge facing statists: While statists have been faulted for misconstruing empirical facts about the world and being too concessive to existing institutions, global egalitarian accounts have been criticized for not being sensitive enough to facts about social institutions and about human behavior, rendering their principles infeasible. For one, critics have argued that global egalitarianism ought to be rejected because it requires motivational resources that individuals lack. Institutional theories of justice, critics note, should not make unreasonable demands on individuals. The objection starts with the plausible claim that institutional arrangements can be stable only if they are able to garner the support of individuals subject to them (for a defense of this claim, see Rawls, 1971, Chapter 8, 1999). It then moves on to suggest that individuals can be motivated to support redistributive mechanisms only if they are moved by ties of solidarity to each other, and ties of solidarity can exist only among those sharing a common culture (Miller, 1995, 2007).

But there is reason to doubt the nationalist claim that solidarity requires a common national culture. Multinational states seem to provide a strong counterexample (see Bauböck & Scholten, 2016). Furthermore, note that at the heart of the motivational critique is a view about how facts about the world should figure in one’s normative theorizing about justice that echoes the disagreement discussed in the methodological critique of statism. The motivational critique suggests that one ought to take individuals’ motivations as fixed—the fact that individuals are not motivated to act in solidarity with nonmembers ought to be taken as reason for not making demands of solidarity between members and nonmembers. But it is unclear that one should take individuals’ motivations as they are. And it seems a mistake to see ties of solidarity as a prerequisite rather than something that can be fostered through the right kind of institutions. Indeed, as Rawls notes, justice requires institutions that develop individuals’ sense of justice and instil in them the right motivations (see Axelsen [2013] and Cohen [2001] for further arguments that human motivation is shaped by institutions; Rawls, 1971, Chapter 8). Granted, this is how Rawls thought about justice for the domestic sphere, but why shouldn’t the same apply to global institutions? Certainly, one has no reason to assert that state-like institutions are the only entities capable of generating the right kind of motivation.

One worry, however, is that shaping motivation requires institutions to be close to individuals. Indeed, Rawls appeals to this argument to reject a world state. However, global egalitarians are not committed to a world state. For global egalitarians, it remains an open question what shape the institutional order takes, how much of the features of states is left intact, and what alternative supranational institutional arrangements above and beyond states are needed (see the sections “Beyond the Disagreements” and “States and Global Justice”). Noteworthy here is Lea Ypi’s position. Ypi, like the motivational critics under consideration, thinks motivation and solidarity to be essential for stability and takes state institutions to be particularly well suited to shape motivations and maintain solidarity. However, rather than taking this to be reason to reject global egalitarianism, she argues that global egalitarians ought to think of states as potentially efficient instruments for achieving global solidarity; citizens are to be socialized under state institutions to be global citizens (Ypi, 2012)

Global egalitarians have been criticized for failing to offer feasible principles in yet another way. It has been argued that in the absence of a global institutional agent, equivalent to states to which principles of justice can apply, and that can coordinate action and act on principles (i.e., the global difference and the global equality of opportunity principles), global egalitarian principles of justice fail to be action-guiding (de Bres, 2013; Freeman, 2006; Meckled-Garcia, 2008). However, while having a world state would solve the problem of agency, it seems to be an infeasible goal (infeasibility here can be understood both as inaccessible and unstable).

Now, it is far from clear that global egalitarianism requires a world state. Indeed, none of the global egalitarians already mentioned advocate having a world state. Moreover, it is not clear that the absence of a global institutional agent to which principles apply and which has the moral authority to coordinate and enforce principles globally undermines the global egalitarian case. For one, it’s not clear that the critics have the right empirical assumptions regarding the need for a singular global agent, since it seems possible for states to achieve coordination and compliance through the setting up and reform of international organizations (Barry & Valentini, 2009). But even if the skeptics are right that alternative institutional arrangements will fail (and evidence must be provided), then it would still not follow that global egalitarianism is to be rejected. If the absence of an agent or agents that are capable or willing to act on principles of justice implied no demands of justice can be made, one would have to conclude that no injustice can take place in failed states, or that slavery in a context where there are no agents capable or willing to end it is not unjust. But this is implausible (Abizadeh, 2007; Barry & Valentini, 2009; Beitz, 1999, p. 156). To the contrary, the absence of an agent able and willing to realize justice, rather than undermine the case for justice, underscores the duty to create institutions that are capable and willing (Barry & Valentini, 2009; Beitz, 1999; Gheaus, 2013; Gilabert, 2012; Gilabert & Lawford-Smith, 2012; Lawford-Smith, 2013). (It bears noting here that an increasingly sophisticated and insightful debate is being waged on how to understand the concept of feasibility and its relation to justice, but this debate is not discussed in this article.)

National Responsibility

A second objection to global egalitarians emphasizes that the extension of egalitarian distributive principles to the global sphere undermines national responsibility. The objection is often made by appealing to the following hypothetical scenario (found in Miller, 2005; Rawls, 2001b, p. 117): Imagine that two societies with well-functioning institutions start out at similar levels of wealth. And suppose that one society, W, makes decisions with the aim of increasing its wealth (e.g., by investing in industrialization), while the other society, L, opts for policies that preserve that society’s leisurely way of life. After some time, W is wealthier than L. The critics argue that faced with the this scenario, global egalitarians would require a transfer from W to L. But such redistribution, critics submit, would be unjust. According to Rawls, for instance, the resulting inequalities between W and L are unproblematic, and any transfers to reduce this inequality would be unfair. After all, the inequalities are the result of the societies’ respective choices and any redistribution would impose an unfair burden on W.

There are two claims being made as part of the objection: (a) that global egalitarian principles would undermine collective responsibility; and (b) that an account that does not capture the value we assign to collective responsibility ought to be rejected.4 But neither claim withstands closer inspection.

To start, it has been pointed out that not all global egalitarian accounts would undermine collective responsibility, for it is not clear that all global egalitarian accounts would require a transfer from W to L. Whether they do depends on how responsibility-sensitive their principles are. And just as there is a variety of egalitarianisms domestically, there will be, by extension, a variety globally. For example, an egalitarian who thinks that inequalities resulting from an exercise of responsibility are not unjust, could—under certain assumptions about responsibility—consider that citizens of L are worse off through exercise of their (collective) responsibility and hence their being worse off is not unjust (see Amighetti & Harb [2019] for an account that extends luck egalitarianism to group choice).

That said, it is not obvious that justice requires that national responsibility be taken into account and that the outcomes of W’s and L’s choices be preserved. In other words, global egalitarian accounts that require the transfer may not be wrong to do so. As some have pointed out, just as there may be unfairness in burdening W with the choices of L, there may be unfairness in having current generations bear the consequences of the decisions of past generations (Armstrong, 2010; Fabre, 2005; for a defense of national responsibility, see Miller, 2007).

Additionally, and even if one were to concede that it is fair to let current generations of W retain the benefits of decisions made by past generations, the real world is importantly different from the scenario in question, for while the outcomes in the example are ex hypothesis a result of W’s and L’s decisions, it is far less clear that in a globalized world like this one, the inequalities between different societies can be traced back to the societies’ respective chosen decisions and policies. Indeed, as some have suggested, it is much more probable that what determines a society’s level of wealth is a combination of local and international factors, some of which are chosen, like the policies in the hypothetical example, but others, equally significant, are beyond a society’s (full) control (e.g., a country’s share of natural resources, its geographic location, its competitiveness in the international economy) (Barry & Valentini, 2009; for a discussion about the global institutional factors that play their part in determining a country’s wealth, see Casal & Selamé, 2015; Pogge, 2005; Wenar, 2008).

More importantly, even if it were established that there is a strong link between a society’s level of income and wealth and its historical policies, and that it is fair to demand of current generations that they assume the consequences of previous generations’ actions, this does not suffice to establish that it is justifiable to hold a society responsible for its level of wealth. This would be true (i.e., it would be sufficient) only if it is justified for the policies in question to be under the society’s control (Armstrong, 2010; Cécile Fabre, 2005; Follesdal, 2001). That is to say, for the objection from collective responsibility to work, it must be the case that societies can rightfully dispose of their resources in whichever way they wish. But it is precisely what range of decisions and policies should be within a society’s sphere of autonomy that is in question when one investigates demands of global justice. (See Williams [2006] for a parallel critique of individual entitlements in response to the libertarian’s challenge to egalitarianism. For an insightful parallel between statist and nationalist positions on global justice and the positions of libertarians on domestic justice, see Nili [2013].) To be sure, this is not to say that no argument can be made for granting states autonomy over major policy areas. Rather, the point here is that such an argument needs to be made, not assumed (see “States and Global Justice” for further discussion on inequalities under a just system of states).

Beyond the Disagreements

The debate between statists and global egalitarians is often characterized as having reached a stalemate. Indeed, the discussion so far has highlighted disagreements at the normative, methodological, and empirical levels. And while, as has been shown, there are a number of challenges to statism that considerably weaken its case, the global egalitarian case is incomplete to the extent that it is institutionally underspecified. But before taking a closer look at institutional features of a just global order (in the section “States and Global Justice”), it is important to note that statists and global egalitarians can (and do) converge on crucial questions. This section explores three areas of possible convergence over methodological, normative, and institutional design commitments; the latter is introduced here but is the subject of the section “States and Global Justice.”

Methodological Convergence

Although the statists discussed in section “Statist Accounts and Their Challenges” took justice to be concerned with the distributive impact of existing institutions, there is nothing in statist accounts (i.e., accounts that reject the extension of egalitarian principles of justice to the global sphere) that makes such methodological commitment necessary. Statists and global egalitarians can agree that justice is about what institutions ought to exist, not (only) about how existing institutions can be (more) just. Miriam Ronzoni’s (2009) account of international justice can be seen as an example of an institutionally nonconservative statism. Ronzoni argues that justice requires the creation of international institutions that can maintain a condition of background justice for states—a background against which states can secure egalitarian justice domestically. To be sure, such an account remains partially conservative as long as it does not offer reasons for why we should take states to be the entities tasked with egalitarian justice (see the section “States and Global Justice”).

Extension of Equal Concern and Noncomparative Concern

The extension question examined thus far is about whether the reasons for objecting to inequalities among individuals domestically extend to inequalities among individuals globally. And while statists and global egalitarians offer different answers to that debate-defining question, it is important to see that they can converge in their answer to a different but no less crucial extension question: the extension of equal concern.

The requirement of equal concern is at the heart of egalitarian theories of justice for the domestic sphere. It mandates that a society’s institutions be designed in a way that gives interests of citizens equal weight. A global extension of equal concern requires that global institutions be designed in a way that gives the interests of humans worldwide equal weight.

It is obvious how global equality of concern is at the core of global egalitarianism. Global egalitarians require an egalitarian distribution of goods and opportunities because they take an egalitarian distribution to be what a justification of the design and distributive impact of institutions, whether domestic or global, demands—a justification that takes the fundamental interests of each individual subject to them to count equally. For global egalitarians, a global institutional order under which some have more opportunities, income, or wealth because of natural, social, or citizenship lottery cannot be justified.

But statists, too, can endorse the requirement of global equality of concern, even while restricting the scope of egalitarian principles for the distribution of goods and opportunities to the domestic sphere. Indeed, Blake maintains that his statism is grounded in impartiality (2001, p. 261). Put in terms of equal concern, his conclusion can be formulated as follows: In thinking through the design and principles that should apply to state institutions, one shows equal concern by selecting institutions and principles that maximally secure individuals’ autonomy. In thinking through the design and principles that should apply to global institutions, one shows equal concern by selecting institutions and principles that minimally infringe on individuals’ autonomy. Sangiovanni’s (2007) view, while not explicitly formulated in such terms, can also be seen to be compatible with the imperative of equal concern applied globally: When it comes to its distributive impact, an institutional scheme meets the requirement of equal concern if individuals under it get a fair return on their contribution to the cooperative scheme. And, arguably, it is the commitment to global equality of concern which can explain why those who are statists with regard to the extension of distributive egalitarian principles argue that relations of trade ought to be conducted fairly—in a manner justifiable to all involved (James, 2012; Risse, 2012)

To be sure, institutionally conservative statists (such as Sangiovanni and Blake), by theorizing for existing institutions, that is, a world of states, fall short of thoroughly applying the requirement of global equality of concern, since, in taking a system of states for granted, they do not ask whether such an institution can be justified to all by giving equal weight to their interest. As becomes clear shortly, it may be possible to show that a system of states is compatible with equality of concern, making it also open to global egalitarians to endorse it.

Still, statists who are committed to equal concern for all stand in one way closer to global egalitarians than they stand to statist accounts that reject the extension of equal concern to the global sphere. Arguably, Nagel’s account is an example of the latter and is useful to briefly illustrate the moral cost of rejecting equality of concern, but also, in the spirit of moving beyond disagreements, highlights important convergences with supporters of global equality of concern.

As explained in the section “Statist Accounts and Their Challenges,” Nagel (2005) rejects global egalitarian principles on the grounds that individuals are not the subjects and authors of the global institutional order. But, more radically, Nagel thinks that the absence of this dual relationship between individuals and the global order means that the global order is not bound by equality of concern. In rejecting a global requirement of equal concern, Nagel’s view entails that it is permissible for current global institutions, like the system of states, trade treaties, and global property rights, to partially or arbitrarily assign benefits and burdens among those subject to them. But this seems hard to accept—the global egalitarian arguments previously stated for extending egalitarian distributive principles are even more powerful when applied to the extension of equal concern beyond the domestic sphere.

Nagel’s is an extreme statist position. And, while it is important that critics have focused on demonstrating its implausibility, it is helpful to see that it can, nonetheless, converge with less extreme statists and even global egalitarians on significant duties. In his account, Nagel suggests that instead of the requirement of equal concern, when it comes to the global level, individuals and collectives have basic “duties of humanity” (2005, p. 121). There are a number of ways that duties of humanity (also referred to as duties of beneficence or charity), which are not to be confused with humanity-based accounts of justice (e.g., Caney, 2005), can be distinguished from duties of justice (Barry, 1982; Buchanan, 1987; Valentini, 2013; but see Barry & Øverland [2016] and Singer [1972] for accounts that collapse justice and charity into general demands of morality). In most accounts, duties of humanity are taken to be less demanding (require less) and less stringent than (take less priority, and on some account are even non-enforceable) than duties of justice.

But it is open for Nagel, who says little about the nature of these duties of humanity, to think that duties of humanity are nonetheless highly demanding and stringent. This could be so for two reasons. First, one should note that for most plausible accounts, duties of justice have greater demandingness and stringency, all things being equal (typically, respecting property rights is a duty of justice, and bystander duties to save someone from harm are duties of humanity—but it would be implausible to think that the duty to give someone back their book is more demanding or more stringent than saving a child from drowning). Second, Nagel could be interpreted as distinguishing humanity from justice along the requirement of equal concern: While justice requires equal concern, duties of humanity require sufficient concern (or noncomparative concern). Interpreted along these lines, duties of humanity can require demanding, stringent, and enforceable duties to ensure that individuals worldwide live decent lives. If so, Nagel can converge with other statists and global egalitarians that there are demands of noncomparative concern with how all individuals fare. Indeed, all the theorists whose accounts have been considered here so far agree that one has duties to ensure that all humans have minimally decent lives. And while statists say little about the stringency of such duties compared to egalitarian duties to co-nationals, it is important to note that their statism does not commit them to assigning greater weight to duties to co-nationals (for an exploration of the spectrum of views on stringency of duties, see Harb & Axelsen [2018]).

Noting the convergence over global duties to secure minimally decent lives is important, as these duties may go a long way toward addressing much of what is taken to be unjust about the world. What’s more, it raises important and relatively unaddressed questions about the comparative stringency of egalitarian domestic duties to co-nationals versus basic needs global duties (Harb & Axelsen, 2018) and about principles for distributing the burden of fulfilling the basic needs duties among the well-off.

Institutional Design

A crucial but underemphasized possible convergence between global egalitarians and statists is over the institutional features of a just world; in particular, over the justice of having a world with a plurality of states. Statists tend to be institutionally conservative and, as such, take a system of states as a given. But the fact that the current global order is state-based does not mean that justice requires that it should be state-based. Global egalitarians submit that state membership is morally arbitrary and, as such, should not influence just entitlements, for to do so would not be giving equal weight to everyone’s interest. But it is important to see that a world order with a plurality of states may be compatible with global egalitarianism. This is because it may be that the imperative of equal concern requires (on a strong version of the claim) or is compatible with (on a weak version of the claim) a global institutional order that is formed by a plurality of states. The next section explores this position—a position that can be seen to take seriously global egalitarian commitments to treating all equally regardless of race, gender, or country of birth, and to viewing global inequalities as problematic, as well as to take seriously the statist intuition of the normative importance of states without assigning undue weight to the status quo.

States and Global Justice

It is safe to say that a system of states stands out as the one feature of the global institutional order having the most pervasive impact on the lives of individuals. Given that, and given the arbitrariness of where one is born, global egalitarians insist that a just distribution of benefits and burdens cannot be one that mirrors the distribution resulting from the current setup of a system of states. This seems to suggest that global egalitarians are anti-states—limiting global inequalities would seem to require abolishing states, or if that is not feasible, then it would require instrumentalizing states to achieve global egalitarian aims (Caney, 2008; Van Parijs, 2008). But a different position may be open to global egalitarians if there are moral reasons for having states, where those moral reasons give equal weight to the interests of all who are subject to a system of states—if, in other words, having a system of states is compatible with equal concern for all. In the section “States as Expression of Equal Concern” two types of reasons that global egalitarians may have for holding that equality of concern for all is compatible, or even requires a world of plurality of states, are considered. The section “Inequalities Under a State System” looks at what implications endorsing a system of states bears for the global egalitarian view on inequalities.

States as Expression of Equal Concern

An inquiry into whether and how a system of states can be compatible (or required) by the requirement of global equality of concern merits a dedicated discussion. Here, the discussion is limited to briefly presenting two types of arguments for why states can be compatible with the requirement of global equality of concern and, hence, if correct, why global egalitarians may have reasons to be state enthusiasts. The first is a comparative argument to the effect that states are better than alternative institutional arrangements at protecting fundamental interests of individuals. The second are arguments to the effect that states are necessary to secure fundamental interests of individuals. To be clear, these arguments are meant to speak in favor of having a system of states (i.e., a world composed of a plurality of states, not to speak in favor of the system of states as it exists now).

The Disvalue of a World State

It is common to make the case for states by comparing them to alternative scenarios. The main candidate, when contemplating alternatives to a state-based order, is a world government, which following Rawls can be define as “a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central governments” (Rawls, 2001b, p. 36). There is widespread consensus among philosophers (including the majority of global egalitarians) that there are strong reasons not to establish a world government (compared to a system of states). For one, many believe that establishing a world government would be undesirable and unstable. Rawls, following Kant, summarizes these concerns well: “[. . .] a world government [. . .]—would either be a global despotism or else would rule over a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples tried to gain their political freedom and autonomy” (Rawls, 2001b, p. 36; for a nuanced analysis of Kant’s reasons for rejecting a world government, see Ypi [2008]; for further discussion of arguments for and against world states, see Nili [2015]).

It is noteworthy, however, that not everyone finds the aforementioned arguments convincing (see Cabrera, 2004; Ulaş, 2016). It has been pointed out that concerns for stability and despotism have always applied to states (especially to large and diverse ones). And while these concerns could speak in favor of dismantling large states, there has been a variety of institutional arrangements (notably federal varieties) that aimed at addressing the risks of big government without replacing it. Thomas Pogge (2000), for instance, has suggested a model of dispersed sovereignty wherein, as he puts it: “persons should be citizens of, and govern themselves through, a number of political units of various sizes, without any one political unit being dominant and thus occupying the traditional role of state.” For some, however, the more imaginative one is in conceiving institutional alternatives to the state, the less reason one has to bring about those arrangements. Mathias Risse (2006), for instance, argues that given epistemic limitations, there is no way in which one can, with confidence, assess how alternatives to states would fare on stability and on meeting the aims one finds desirable, for “[i]t is difficult to acquire the relevant knowledge to decide whether the state system needs ‘reform’ or ‘revolution,’ since we can only observe this one world” (Risse, 2006, p. 695).

To be sure, more work is required on how to deal with epistemic constraints and uncertainty when it comes to this issue. But what the negative argument in favor of states does is to put the burden of proof on those who propose alternative arrangements to show that the alternatives are not worse than a system of states at protecting individuals’ interests in global stability and in not living under despotic regimes.

The Value of a System of States

But there may be a stronger argument for why a system of states meets the requirement of equal concern. This argument is that a system of states is justified not merely as a lesser bad but because it advances fundamental interests individuals have.5

According to Anna Stilz (2019), states are valuable because they advance individuals’ fundamental interest in political autonomy. Political autonomy can be understood as the collective analogue of individuals’ interest in personal autonomy. Individuals have an interest in leading personal lives according to their own beliefs (personal autonomy), and a corresponding interest in “being authors or makers of their institutions” and in living under a social order that “in some way reflect[s] their judgments and their priorities” (2019, p. 104) (see also Follesdal, 2001; for a well-being grounded interest in living in a world from which we are not alientate see Christiano, 2008, p. 464). Stilz (2019, pp. 104–118) suggests two reasons for why states advance one’s interest in political autonomy: first, states can be the loci of shared intentions, and by cooperating over time and under certain conditions, members shape and see their preferences reflected in their political institutions. Second, to the extent that some individuals will prefer to cooperate and establish separate institutions (that are just), then it would violate their interest in authoring their own institutions to annex them.

Additionally, or alternatively, one might ground a justification of states not in the interest of autonomy, but in individuals’ interest in having a sense of justice, understood as the “capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice[. . .]” (Rawls, 2005, p. 19). Arguably, this sense of justice may be better advanced by being a member of a small(ish) political community which allows one to live “closely” to political institutions and one’s co-citizens.

The two lines of argument can be phrased in terms of advancing what according to Rawls are a person’s “two moral powers” (Rawls, 2001a, sec. 10.2): The first account suggests that being a member of a political community advances (is necessary for) one’s interest in being rational; the second suggests that being a member of a political community advances (is necessary for) one’s interest in being reasonable.

It is important to make two qualifications here. First, the two arguments are not meant to be taken as providing decisive reasons in favor of a system of states—not everyone will find them convincing (e.g., one may question whether the interest in political autonomy is indeed fundamental or question whether the interests, even if fundamental, are advanced by states). Instead, the arguments suggest possible avenues for justifying a system of states that are compatible with equality of concern for all and do not appeal to the suspect reasons motivating institutional conservatism.

Second, even if correct, these arguments would establish that individuals have a fundamental interest in being members of a political community in a world of multiple such units. But this leaves open the question of whether our world of states is consistent with that requirement, whether states would have the powers and prerogatives they have today, whether borders and rules for membership would be as they are today. This is because neither argument establishes that each of the core features of states today (e.g., exclusive sovereignty, territoriality, international treaty-making powers) are necessary for a political community to meet the fundamental interests in question; in fact, one has reason to think that some of those features directly contribute to unequally distributing how well peoples’ lives go.

Inequalities Under a State System

Let us suppose that a system of states is compatible with equal concern for all. This, the discussion so far suggests, may give global egalitarians reasons of justice to preserve a world of states (granted that it may look very different than it currently does). But what implications does this have for global egalitarians’ view on global inequality? Does it weaken their reasons to think that egalitarian principles of distributive justice ought to be extended globally?

Global egalitarians can accept that having a world of states is not in itself a violation of equal concern. But this does not mean they should accept the distribution of the benefits and burdens it results in as just. In other words, even if it were established that having a world of states secures fundamental interests of individuals, it would still be crucial to ensure that not only the benefits but also the burdens of such a system are distributed in a just manner. As Follesdal (2001) points out, one ought to be especially concerned with the lives of the worst-off individuals in states where the decisions of the majority systematically diverge from their interests. But more generally, it would not suffice by way of justification for those who bear a higher burden (e.g., by being worse off than others in terms of opportunities or income) that a system of states secures their fundamental interest; it must also be the case that there is no alternative arrangement under which they would be better off; that is, global justice would require a global difference principle.

A global egalitarian skeptic may object that once global egalitarians acknowledge the legitimacy of a system of states, they become especially vulnerable to the challenge from collective responsibility. To recall, this is the objection that global egalitarianism would demand redistribution between societies, a redistribution which undermines the society’s collective responsibility and autonomy with regard to the choice and impact of policies (see “Global Egalitarian Accounts and Their Challenges”). It has been suggested here, in response, that for the objection to have any force, it must be the case that societies have legitimate autonomy over the choices and policies in question. Now, if there are reasons to think that a system of states secures fundamental individual interests, would that not also provide reasons to grant political communities autonomy over the social and economic policies affecting their individual members? In other words, if justice requires (or permits) multiple political communities because of their being uniquely placed to secure fundamental goods for individuals, and if part of these goods is the good of collective decision making, then it would seem that justice would require (or permit) principles that grant communities control over these goods. And if this is true, then it would seem to speak against any redistributive measures demanded by a global difference principle, for those would curtail a state’s autonomy.

But, and to start with, if individuals have an interest in political autonomy, then such interest ought to be protected equally for all individuals. And, to the extent that global inequalities weaken a community’s political autonomy (say, because of the differential international power), one would want to limit those inequalities (see Laborde & Ronzoni [2014] for an argument for great redistribution among states and stronger international institutions, with the aim of strengthening the ability of states to secure their citizens’ interest in nondomination).

Additionally, it is not clear that autonomy over the full range of social and economic resources and policies is always needed, let alone necessary, for societies to secure the interests of individuals in being part of political communities. Consider, in analogy, the case of the family. Most believe that persons have fundamental interests in being members of families. And yet, many would find inheritance taxation permissible, if not required, by justice. Many, however, would not think that parents’ choices over whether or not to read bedtime stories for their children, for instance, should be up to anyone else but the parents (despite the inequalities that might result for their differential choices) (Brighouse & Swift, 2008). The reason for treating inheritance differently from bedtime stories is that while one thinks interfering in parents’ choice on the latter can be heavily disruptive to the parent–child relationship in a way that undermines the interests families serve, one does not think that taxation inheritance undermines that relationship (at least for taxation that isn’t as high as 100%) (see Banai & Kollar [2019] for a similar argument applied to global equality of opportunity).

It seems, then, that the assumption that justice permits or requires the existence of multiple political communities cannot in itself undermine the case for global egalitarian redistributive institutions, since, to the extent that redistribution does not undermine those features of political communities that make them valuable, it will be required by justice. Complete internal and external self-determination are not only unnecessary but can themselves defeat the purposes for which political communities are considered valuable (Beitz, 1999, 2005). This suggests that the disadvantages and risks of a system of states ought to be limited to those necessary for the system to protect the interests it is intended to protect, since, insofar as the state system generates inequalities whereby some are winners and others are losers merely in virtue of belonging to one community or another, one would have reasons to abandon features of the system that lead to these inequalities but that are not necessary for securing autonomy and a sense of justice.

Beyond the Extension Question

Earlier it was suggested that the global justice debate can move beyond the stalemate between global egalitarians and statists by focusing on convergences between the two camps. More recently, theorists of global justice have tried to make progress by turning away from the debate between statists and global egalitarians over the extension question. Here, three noteworthy approaches are mentioned.

Concessive Theories

Some global egalitarians have put on hold their arguments with statists over methodological, normative, and empirical commitments and moved toward more concessive and ecumenical theories. In a concession to their opponents, they assume justice to be about existing institutions and allow that global justice may not require egalitarian distribution in goods or even equality of concern, but, nonetheless, they demonstrate deep injustices in the current world order and advocate far-reaching reforms.

According to Thomas Pogge (1989), who in his early work defended the global extension of egalitarian principles, one need not be a global egalitarian (or indeed an egalitarian) to see that global poverty is the result of injustice. Pogge has argued that demanding and stringent duties to reform (the global institutional order) and compensate (victims of poverty) can be derived from the widely endorsed negative duty not to harm, as opposed to the duty of concern (whether equal or noncomparative) which, as already seen, moves beyond the interests in not being harmed to interests in being benefitted. Pogge suggests that global poverty is (in large part) caused and perpetuated by existing global institutional setups. And, in upholding and maintaining these global institutions, affluent states and their citizens are violating a negative duty to not cause harm. Prime examples of harmful global institutions that Pogge highlights are the international legal norms that grant a country’s de facto government the rights to dispose of the country’s resources and to borrow on the country’s behalf. By importing from nations ruled by corrupt authoritarian regimes, affluent countries perpetuate and incentivize violence and corruption, and by lending to corrupt authoritarian regimes, they fuel authoritarian projects while also burdening poor populations and their future generation with enormous debts. (Pogge, 2002; see also Wenar, 2008). Changing these laws or abstaining from importing from and lending to authoritarian corrupt countries are feasible changes to the global institutional order that reduce the causes of poverty (for critical discussions of Pogge’s view, see Barry & Øverland [2016]; Risse [2005]; Satz [2005]).

Joseph Carens’s more recent work on immigration can be seen as another example of a shift from focusing on what global egalitarianism demands (namely, open borders [Carens, 1987]) to thinking about the ethics of immigration once one has granted the premise that states are morally entitled to control their borders and to discretion over who enters. Carens (2013) aims to show that even with closed borders granted, many of the existing immigration policies are unjustified. Examples of current widespread state practices that Carens criticizes include the deportation of undocumented migrants, the denial of citizenship rights to authorized and nonauthorized immigrants who have long resided in the society, and immigration admission procedures that select on the basis of identity, be it race, ethnicity, sexual, or ideological, disrupt family reunification, and that have a restrictive understanding of refugeehood.

Disaggregating the Domain

The debate over global justice has more recently moved to a debate about global justices. There is a growing literature on justice in international trade, in migration, in climate change, in natural resources, and in global health as distinct spheres, but also justice in the European Union. This move has been driven by theoretical and practical concerns about the state of the global justice debate.

For Helena de Bres (2013), in the absence of a global authority that can act on principles of justice, there can be no general theory of global justice. De Bres suggests that the “disaggregation” of global justice into subspheres with existing institutional agents is the sound way forward, seeing that these spheres have institutional agents that can be tasked with pursuing justice (e.g., WTO, EU, WHO). Another drive for disaggregation has come from theorists who have taken the various subspheres to be distinct domains that can be characterized by distinct practices, concerned with different goods, and having different aims and agents, and therefore require different principles (for trade justice, see James [2014b]; for justice in the EU, see Sangiovanni [2013]; for climate justice, see Meyer & Roser [2006]). Furthermore, it has been suggested that investigating demands of justice within subdomains not only allows to make progress on the theoretical conundrums but also to translate theories into institutional changes and policies. Agreement, for one, may seem more likely on narrower issues, and targeted institutional changes are more feasible. Finally, global egalitarians like Philippe Van Parijs have theorized for justice in the European Union as a distinct domain, treating it as a testing ground for global egalitarianism, the learnings from which can then be transported to the global level (Van Parijs & Vanderborght, 2015).

As suggested in the section “Challenges to Global Egalitarian Accounts,” it is not clear that the no-agent argument works to discredit the project of thinking about the global institutional order as a site of justice. However, is the drive for disaggregation for practical reasons going in the right direction? Can one treat issues of justice within these spheres in isolation from each other (what Caney has labeled the isolationist approach), or should the principles of justice for each domain draw and feed into a general theory of global justice (what Caney has labeled the integrationist approach) (Caney, 2012)? Caney (2012) has been skeptical about the practical gains from the isolationist approach. First, he suggests it is not clear that agreement is more likely when the domains are treated in isolation. As international negotiations on climate change show, developing countries’ willingness to make progress on reducing emissions has been dependent on rich countries’ meeting their obligations in other domains (e.g., assistance, trade). Second, many of these subdomains overlap and many of the serious harms are jointly produced by several domains such that one is unable to recognize the disadvantage from within a single domain. For example, environmental degradation and food shortages result from a combination of domestic and international policies on climate and trade (see Walton [2020] for another defense of integrationist approaches applied to trade justice, and Meijers [2016] for an argument that sustainable procreation rights should not be thought of only from within the domain of environmental justice, but also in light of individuals’ broader entitlements that can only be identified through a theory of global justice).

The Appropriate Response to Injustice

Finally, it is worth mentioning that while philosophers’ contributions to global justice have predominantly been about defining entitlements and about responsibilities of the affluent to bring about just institutions, there is a growing number of philosophers who have taken up the question of the appropriate response to injustice. Building on arguments developed in debates on just war (and self-defense), on civil disobedience, and on resistance to oppression, philosophers have begun to think about what victims of global injustice may do to secure their entitlements in this gravely unjust world and about the implications that the rights of resistance may have for theories of global justice (Barry & Øverland, 2016; Caney, 2015; Delmas, 2018; Deveaux, 2015; Jugov & Ypi, 2019; Lippert-Rasmussen, 2013; Mancilla, 2016).


This article presents and discusses central elements of the ongoing debate on global distributive justice. Its subject is the justice of the global institutional order. An institutional account of justice is concerned with the design and impact of institutions given that the reasons for bringing about or reforming institutions are grounded in the interests of individuals. Clearly, however, a complete account of institutional justice requires substantial input from the social sciences. This means that this article, being a philosophical inquiry, has not investigated the full merits of particular institutional arrangements but rather identified central issues that a full account needs to address

That said, note, in conclusion, that making progress on the debate between global egalitarians and statists on the scope of egalitarian justice requires filling the gaps with regard to the question of individuals’ interest in belonging to political communities: whether having political communities is necessary to meet individuals’ fundamental interests, how that interest weighs against other interests, and the degree of autonomy political communities require to secure that interest.

At the same time, it seems important to move beyond the statist and global egalitarian dichotomy and build on convergences between both camps—besides investigating the significance of states, the article suggests that the question of noncomparative concern with basic needs and how that compares to duties of equal concern merits further investigation. It also ends with pointing out ways in which contributors to the debate have already begun to move beyond the disagreements.


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