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Between cosmopolitanism and statism: Sketch of a realistic utopia

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Por: Alejandro Cortés-Arbeláez[1]

Columnista del Blog RDE

The problem of global economic distributive justice (onwards, global justice)is one of the most pressing issues in contemporary political philosophy. Broadly speaking, two opposing views on this matter can be distinguished: (i) cosmopolitanism, and (ii) statism. While the former claims that justice demands that something be done to tackle global economic inequalities, the latter contends that however egregious global disparities may be, justice only applies within the boundaries of the state and that, therefore, obligations of global justice do not properly exist.

In this essay, I want to propose an intermediate approach to the problem of global justice on which both cosmopolitans and statists can find a common ground. This approach can be validated by statists since it endorses the states’ normative peculiarity as the privileged site of egalitarian distributive justice. But it can also be supported by cosmopolitans, for it recognizes other grounds of justice beyond the state. In this sense, I claim that cosmopolitanism and statism can reach an overlapping consensus on this approach to the problem of global justice and that, therefore, it represents an achievable path, the sketch of a realistic utopia, towards global institutional reform.

I divide the essay into four sections. In Section I, I reconstruct the statists’ rejection of the idea of global justice. In Section II, I claim that endorsing the statists’ core arguments is not necessarily incompatible with accepting the existence of obligations of global justice. In Section III, I put forth a cosmopolitan account of human rights that allows me to outline the main tenets of a path toward reforms to the current global order that minimizes the possibility of the occurrence of inequality-based human rights violations, and that can also be endorsed by statism. In Section IV, I present some conclusions.

Section I. Statism: No state, no coercion, no justice

Statists claim that the state is the sole ground of justice since duties of justice can only be triggered by state membership. Thomas Nagel argues that justice ought to be understood as a “specifically political value” –not as a value derived from a comprehensive moral system–, an “associative obligation” that can only be triggered by the existence of strong political relations between its recipients. For Nagel, coercion is the variable that activates duties of justice. Within state borders, by obeying the law citizens ought to be seen as the “putative joint authors” of a coercive system that imposes burdens and distributes benefits among the citizenry. If the state, as a scheme of institutionalized coercion, tolerates or reproduces arbitrary inequalities among the citizenry, each citizen can be held responsible for their existence and is thus entitled to demand their justification. Since this only occurs at the domestic level, obligations of global justice do not properly exist[2].

Michael Blake presents a similar vision, although he differs from Nagel by affirming that there are sufficientarian –not egalitarian–  global obligations of socio-economic justice[3]. He claims that state coercion, in principle, prevents individuals from being truly autonomous beings, for it places a limit on the individual will of each citizen. This is crucial in Blake’s view since one of the main tasks of political philosophy is to identify “the circumstances under which a coercive legal system could be justified to all those who live within it”[4], in a way that reconciles state coercion with individual autonomy. For Blake, egalitarian justice plays that role within the domestic sphere, for it helps secure one and each citizen’s material conditions for the exercise of autonomy. As in Nagel, Blake contends that since the sort of coercion he is referring to exists only within state borders, material inequality is only morally wrong “in the context of shared citizenship”, but it is not itself a matter of moral concern when it exists “between individuals not so situated”[5].

Section II. Coercion beyond state borders

Laura Valentini puts forth an account of justice that is, in principle, perfectly compatible with Nagel’s and Blake’s perspectives. Indeed, Valentini affirms that duties of justice are activated by the existence of coercive relations since the role of justice is to place limits on permissible coercion to render it legitimate. One could, consequently, easily conclude that Valentini endorses Nagel’s and Blake’s state-based rejection of the idea of global justice. This is, however, not the case.

Valentini introduces a crucial distinction between two types of coercion: interactional and systemic. Interactional coercion occurs when an agent, individual or collective, bends the will of another agent. Systemic coercion takes place when a system of rules enforced by a large number of agents imposes “nontrivial restrictions of freedom” on individual or collective agents. The definition of duties of justice, therefore, depends on the existence of coercive relations, wherever they are present, for they are “necessary and sufficient triggers of concerns of justice”[6].

From this perspective, it is conceivable to defend the existence of duties of justice that apply beyond state borders while at the same time accepting the main tenets of the statists’ relational and coercion-based understanding of the value of justice[7]. As long as one can reasonably argue that systemic and interactional coercion are present in the current global basic structure, it is possible to put forth a theory of global justice that contains “both interactional principles evaluating the justness of interstate coercion, and systemic principles placing constraints on the way states and their citizens coerce one another indirectly, through supporting world-large practices and systems of rules”[8].

Section III. A cosmopolitan-based multilevel system of global governance to protect human rights

So far I have argued assuming a perspective that seeks to gain the support of those who endorse a statist view on the issue of global justice. But since my purpose is to put forth the basic sketch of a realistic utopia on which statists and cosmopolitans can find a common ground, I must now turn to cosmopolitanism. That is the task of this section.

Jürgen Habermas has proposed a reform model for the international order that is based on the project of conceiving a global domestic politics without world government. His model has two defining characteristics that ought to be referred to, the first being normatively inspired and the second being realistically oriented. On the one hand, it openly endorses the cosmopolitan goals of definitely overcoming the Westphalian world order based on classical international law whose normative content “extends only to according equal status to sovereign states”, intending to advance toward the universal protection of human rights[9]. On the other hand, it proposes an heterarchical global institutional structure that has the task of achieving these goals. On Habermas’s institutional scheme, a reformed world organization would have different levels, and each level would be entitled to the fulfillment of different functions.

“Taking one’s orientation from currently existing structures, one can construe the political constitution of a decentered world society as a multilevel system […] In this conception, a suitably reformed world organization could perform the vital but clearly circumscribed function of securing peace and promoting human rights at the supranational level in an effective and non-selective fashion […] At the intermediate, transnational level, the major powers would address the difficult problems of a global domestic politics which are no longer restricted to mere coordination but extend to promoting actively a rebalanced world order. They would have to cope with global economic and ecological problems within the framework of permanent conferences and negotiating forums”[10].

Habermas’s proposal is quite attractive, but it falls short of being functional to promote global economic justice, for it acquits the institutions that are in charge of protecting human rights at the supranational level by attributing global economic problems to the sphere of global domestic politics, under which economic equality is conceived as an aspirational political goal, but not as an obligation of justice[11]. This fact, however, should not lead us to reject the Habermasian approach, for it can be made compatible with a stronger compromise with global egalitarian justice. For that, I propose a reframing of the concept of human rights.

In Between Facts and Norms, Habermas proposes to understand national constitutions as ongoing historical projects that require specification and revision in light of changing historical circumstances[12]. Resorting to this understanding of national constitutions, Cristina Lafont argues that human rights have a dynamic character and that, consequently, international human rights norms ought to be interpreted similarly. In Lafont’s view, human rights are those: (i) whose protection can be achieved through an institutional scheme, and (ii) “whose actual or anticipated violation provides a (defeasible) reason for some type of action against the violator by the international community”[13].

From this perspective, we can stick with Habermas’s cosmopolitan multilevel system of global governance, but introduce a qualification to it according to which the institutions that are in charge of protecting human rights at the supranational level are also imbued with the task of acting against economic inequality, as long as issues of global distributive justice can coherently be framed as human rights threats whose protection can be achieved through institutional means and whose violation provides reasons for action against the violators by the international community.

An example of the practical implications of this perspective is due. Governments of poor countries were long hindered from acquiring medications for the treatment of HIV/AIDS for their citizens by the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights promoted by the World Trade Organization and adopted by the international community in 1995, which granted pharmaceutical companies the monopoly on the production of HIV/AIDS for twenty years, and which allowed them to charge the value they wished to for their acquisition[14].

According to the reframed Habermasian cosmopolitan model, this situation should not be seen as a global economic problem that needs to be dealt with at the transnational level in the sphere of global domestic politics, but rather as a human rights violation that should be faced at the supranational level in an effective and non-selective fashion. Furthermore, since this human rights violation is directly linked to a concrete international institutional arrangement supported by a large number of agents, it can be argued that we are in the face of a case of systemic coercion that, from a statist perspective, suffices to trigger duties of global egalitarian justice that demand that something be done to tackle such an appalling injustice. Cosmopolitanism and statism, therefore, could reasonably coincide in supporting reforms to the current global basic structure that minimize the possibility of the occurrence of inequality-based human rights violations such as the one in the aforementioned example.

Section IV. Conclusions

In this essay, I put forth an approach to global economic justice that sought to find a common ground between cosmopolitanism and statism. For that, I began by discussing the statists’ objection to the idea of global justice. Afterward, I proceeded by arguing that accepting the statist coercion-based approach to egalitarian justice does not necessarily have to lead to the endorsement of statists’ conclusions. In the final and most extensive section, I discussed a cosmopolitan account of global justice inspired by the work of Habermas according to which at least some cases of global economic inequalities can be interpreted as human rights violations that trigger obligations of justice by the international community, and that can also be supported by statism.

The intermediate approach to global justice presented here can serve as a common ground between cosmopolitanism and statism on which reforms to the current global basic structure can be discussed and, perhaps, advanced. A further reflection on the specific content of such reforms is, no doubt, necessary, but that is the task for future research.

[1] Politólogo de la Universidad EAFIT. Magíster en Políticas Públicas de la Escuela de Gobierno Alberto Lleras Camargo de la Universidad de los Andes y Máster en Filosofía Política de la Universidad Pompeu Fabra. Correo electrónico: alejandrocortes90@gmail.com. Cuenta de Twitter: @alecortesarbe

[2] Thomas Nagel, “The Problem of Global Justice,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33, no. 2 (2005): 113–47.

[3] To be sure, Nagel also recognizes the existence of sufficientarian obligations that have a global scope. They are, however, the product of a “minimal humanitarian morality” that ought to be endorsed “quite apart from any demand of justice, if we are not simply ethical egoists”. Nagel, 118.

[4] Michael Blake, “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 30, no. 3 (2002): 279.

[5] Blake, 295.

[6] Laura Valentini, Justice in a Globalized World. A Normative Framework (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 15.

[7] “What seems to follow, for the coercion view, is neither statism nor cosmopolitanism, but a more complex stance”. Miriam Ronzoni and Laura Valentini, “Global Justice and the Role of the State. A Critical Survey,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Justice, ed. Thom Brooks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 23.

[8] Valentini, Justice in a Globalized World. A Normative Framework, 15.

[9] Habermas, of course, recognizes that the Westphalian model has been progressively ending since the end of World War II. However, he believes that the dismantling of this model and its substitution for a global order based on the universal protection of human rights is an unfinished task, to which he intends to contribute.

[10] Jürgen Habermas, “Does The Constitutionalization of International Law Still Have a Chance?,” in The Divided West, by Jürgen Habermas (Polity Press, 2006), 135–36.

[11] Cristina Lafont, “Alternative Visions for a New Global Order: What Should Cosmopolitans Hope For?,” in Legal Republicanism: National and International Perspectives, ed. Samantha Besson and José Luis Martí (Oxford University Press, 2009), 263.

[12] Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms. Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, Massachusets: The MIT Press, 1996).

[13] Cristina Lafont, Global Governance and Human Rights, Spinoza Lectures (Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 2012), 30.

[14] Lafont, “Alternative Visions for a New Global Order: What Should Cosmopolitans Hope For?,” 268.

Para citar: Alejandro Cortés-Arbeláez, “Between cosmopolitanism and statism: Sketch of a realistic utopia” en Blog Revista Derecho del Estado, 29 de julio de 2022. Disponible en: https://blogrevistaderechoestado.uexternado.edu.co/2022/07/29/between-cosmopolitanism-and-statism-sketch-of-a-realistic-utopia/