Justice Across Boundaries

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

What Is It

Philosophical conceptions of justice have most often been directed at the nature of a just state. But many contemporary issues of justice reach across boundaries. Are our immigration policies fair and just? Can a just state invade another state in order to outfit it with a more just government? Can we defend economic policies that improve the lives of our citizens but an adverse impact on economies abroad? John and Ken look beyond with Martha Nussbaum from the University of Chicago, author of Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership.

Listening Notes

Political philosophers usually develop their theories of justice within the context of a particular state, so John and Ken turn their attention to theories of justice that extend across state lines.

Guest Martha Nussbaum frames the issue as follows: everyone on earth lives in an interconnected economic order, and it is unjust that from birth some people will live far poorer lives than others, just because of the countries in which they happened to be born. Ken objects to Nussebaum’s use of the term injustice in this context. He argues that injustice implies that someone did something wrong to someone else. Nature determines what country each of us born into, so it isn’t really unjust that some of use will be born in wealthy nations are fare better than that those of us born in poor nations. Nussbaum replies that we all live in one economic system, and the G8 sets the economic agenda for the whole world.  John agrees, even given Ken’s hard criteria for injustice (someone doing something to another) there is a real sense of injustice in a world where everyone is a part of one economic system that very few people are able to affect.

Nussbaum has developed a list of qualifications for justice such as health and a decent life span, opportunities for social affiliations, and the ability to play and enjoy leisure time. According to Nussbaum, these capabilities are necessary for a life commensurate with human dignity and they ought to be applied to all nations. Ken questions whether we can really settle once and for all what the value of human life is just by looking at what human beings like to do. Nussbaum stands by her capabilities approach, arguing in the same spirit as the International Declaration of Human Rights that by reflecting on human dignity we can reach some consensus on what makes a human life just. Nussbaum endorses John Rawls’ belief that we don’t need a deep, metaphysical theory of human nature to maintain that human dignity is important. After all, we all posses a conception of human dignity and it behooves us to examine the capabilities necessary for living a dignified life. John agrees with Nussbaum. He notes that a priori conceptions of the world from which people derive human rights are more controversial than the rights themselves. For example, the Declaration of Independence appeals to all men being equal before God and the idea that God endorses equality. Although these metaphysical ideas are contentious, the rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence are intuitively appealing.

Ken reads a listener’s e-mail asking about what mechanisms we can use to bring about justice. Nussbaum responds that international justice organizations like the World Court and the International Labor Organization to a great deal to promote justice worldwide. Corporations are certainly influential in the day to day lives of people around the globe, and while some leaders of corporations want to rectify injustices, corporations are always in competition and limited in their ability to create positive change. Therefore, we need international rights organizations guided by principles like the capabilities approach to human rights to create a more just world.

John concludes that Nussbaum’s capabilities approach of developing principles and then applying them to societies around the world, adapting them to each culture makes good sense. Ken is still concerned that the capabilities approach creates a hegemony of Western liberal elites---but he agrees with John that a hegemony of liberal Westerners is better than a hegemony of Western corporations.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:48) Polly Stryker speaks with Eric Stover, director of UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 47:01) Joel from Portland, Oregon calls in with a conundrum from the year 1778.