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Does Global Egalitarianism Provide an Impractical and Unattractive Ideal of Justice?


By Christian Barry | October 15, 2008

Christian Barry and Pablo Gilabert, International Affairs 84: 5, 2008.

© 2008 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Miller, David. National Responsibility and Global Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

In this article we examine some arguments David Miller advances against global egalitarianism in his new book on global justice. This is an extremely rich book, required reading for anybody working on issues related to collective responsibility, global justice, and normative political philosophy more generally. It is also arguably one of the most fully worked out theories of global justice currently on offer. It is written in Miller's characteristically brisk and readable style, full of clear, lively examples and complex and imaginative argumentation.

For the purposes of this review article we shall understand global egalitarianism as the doctrine that, at a fundamental level, justice places significant limitations on permissible global inequalities. This may amount to demanding equality of some kind—such as that people's life-chances be equalized insofar as possible; or it may consist in treating equality as a morally privileged benchmark. Rawls's theory of domestic justice, for example, asserts that institutional arrangements that engender departures from equal shares of social primary goods can be justified only insofar as they improve the shares of such goods for the least advantaged representative group. A non-egalitarian doctrine can demand efforts to mitigate inequalities without being egalitarian, since it may hold that certain inequalities in wealth may threaten to undermine justice. This is true of Miller's own view, which may demand that we reduce global inequalities to some extent. However, such inequality reduction is justified not on the ground that it promotes equality, but on the ground that it may be necessary to prevent exploitation throughout the international system, or to improve the prospects for ensuring that the basic needs of all people are met. An egalitarian doctrine may, on the other hand, not demand equality of condition. For example, it may maintain that inequalities are justified (or perhaps even required) when they reflect differences in choices rather than in circumstances (as in so-called 'luck-egalitarian' views).

Although Miller does discuss particular egalitarian conceptions of global justice, his critique is intended to be general—targeting all such doctrines. We argue that Miller's general criticisms are unconvincing, and point towards various respects in which global egalitarian doctrines can provide more plausible moral guidance than Miller's own conception of global justice.

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