Global Justice: What Are the Priorities of Justice at the Global Level?

Subject: Globalization
Pages: 10
Words: 2781
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: PhD

For many years, the topic of social justice was considered and discussed primarily in the context of social relations and the impact of authorities’ decisions on these relations. However, the process of globalization and its resulting tendency towards overcoming barriers between nations has led to the development of a new idea within the social justice sphere: global justice.1 Currently, state leaders, politicians, and economists have obligations not only to the populations of their own countries but also to the global community as a whole.2 Political philosophers and sociologists perceive the global community as a network in which the people have an expanded and significant impact.3 From this point, the proponents of the principles of global justice believe that the whole global community is responsible for overcoming the many types of inequalities and injustice that can be observed in different parts of the world.4

Still, this approach to global justice is not universally accepted; critics of this vision note that the ideals of global justice are often betrayed by authorities and that most people are more interested in dealing with domestic problems rather than proposing adequate measures to overcome global issues that are not directly related to their own nations.5 It is important to note that various indicators of global injustice can have different effects on the world community, but the developers of the idea of global justice tend to focus on the most critical issues that require further solution. In this view of global justice, developed nations are regarded as having wide obligations to developing nations. Moreover, proponents believe that it is possible to determine priorities of justice as those that are associated with overcoming the unequal distribution of resources, eliminating poverty, providing effective aid, overcoming malnutrition and disease, and setting the global order.

Theory behind the Idea of Global Justice

Philosophers usually prefer to describe people from all over the world as belonging to a universal community that should develop according to certain moral laws.6 Broad ideas of justice, ethics, and respect for individuals were the primary grounds for the development of the current vision of global justice.7 In spite of the fact that for many centuries, politicians and rulers have tried to expand the borders of states and have represented the interests of separate nations, philosophers consider these nations as parts of the universal community.8 According to the ideas of Immanuel Kant, justice should be discussed in the context of particular actions performed by an individual in order to conclude whether these steps are right or not.9 From this point, it follows that a person’s virtues or intentions should be distinguished from the actual behavior that results in just or unjust actions.10 Therefore, in order to guarantee justice in society, it is reasonable to set certain moral rules for people to obey.11 This vision of justice in society can also be used to explain the principles of global justice from Kant’s perspective.

Kant’s discussions of moral rules and justice were dominant throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in the twentieth century, the idea of global justice began to be formulated with more detail. The most popular theory of global justice was proposed by John Rawls in his work Law of Peoples.12 Rawls argues that international relations should develop according to the idea that all people belong to one society and that they should follow specific rules associated with their moral responsibilities. It is important to note that these responsibilities are oriented toward the global community, especially to the most poor and vulnerable members of society.13

Rawls promotes eight principles to build a just international relations system, and he notes that global justice can be achieved when liberal values are followed: when individuals respect each other; when people help each other; when they regard each other as equals; when they defend themselves without developing wars; and when they are focused on protecting human rights.14 Indeed, Rawls was one of the philosophers who accentuated such global justice priorities as providing aid and support for poor people, as well as promoting equality in order to address needs of all people in the world. Nevertheless, opponents of this perspective note that such viewpoints tend to be rather idealistic and that such a form of global justice cannot be achieved in a world where international relations develop based on various political cultures rather than on the principles of morality.15 The ideas formulated by Kant and Rawls regarding global justice have greatly influenced philosophical debates in recent years, and they are key to understanding global justice and discussing its priorities from different perspectives.

Poverty and Inequality in Distribution of Resources

The majority of philosophers identify the main source of global injustice as the unequal distribution of resources among nations, a situation in which rich, developed countries have more available resources to contribute to their social and economic progress in contrast to developing nations that suffer from poverty.16 This problem of inequality is perhaps the main priority of global justice discussions and initiatives designed to fight global poverty. According to Satz, income inequality is another important aspect associated with the disparity in the distribution of resources.17

From this point, poverty and inequality are the main problems of the modern world that can be examined in the context of justice, and these issues are of an economic and political nature, rather than a purely ethical one. Political philosophers pay attention to the fact that a country’s prosperity depends on many factors, including not only economic ones but also geographical and institutional ones.18 As a result, states can use different resources that are available to them, and this situation creates the first barriers to the equal distribution of benefits. Countries are divided into rich or prosperous ones that can provide the aid to other nations and poor or developing ones that require this assistance.19 From this perspective, the main priorities of global justice are to resolve the problem of the inequality in the distribution of resources and to overcome poverty in developing nations by means that are provided by developed nations, as proposed by philosophers.

Therefore, the overarching concept that is discussed as a priority in the context of global justice is rich nations’ obligation to poor nations. The question of the developed nations’ responsibility in their relations with other lesser-developed countries and their roles in developing a just world are the critical issues in these social justice debates.20 From this point, it is possible to identify the major problems as the inequality of available resources and poverty that is observed all over the globe. It is also possible to pose specific questions to answer in this context: What should people do in order to address these problems and overcome poverty? What should developed countries propose to poor nations? Should they redistribute their resources, and if so, how? Thus, the priority that originates from this problem and its corresponding set of questions is the global responsibility of rich nations.

Debates on the problems of inequality and poverty have led some to the conclusion that authorities from dominant nations should unite and combine their efforts in order to address the needs of poor nations.21 In this case, proponents argue that developed nations can effectively promote justice in worldwide international relations. According to Risse, people should reallocate their resources in order to respond to the problem adequately.22 This idea is supported by the followers of Rawls’s theory. Although Pogge discusses this approach as rather idealistic, he also agrees that authorities have not significantly contributed to coping with global poverty and that their attempts so far have not been enough.23 People can do more in order to guarantee equality and justice in today’s society where differences in income play a key role.

The Problem of Providing Aid

The problem of the necessity of redistributing resources and overcoming poverty with the support of developed countries poses the question of aid at the global level. As Risse asks, “Would well-ordered societies in the global original position accept duties of assistance to burdened societies?”24 The majority of philosophers cannot answer this question, but they do have a positive answer to a similar question that starts with “should.” Furthermore, researchers and critics have also come to understand that the priority in such global justice efforts should not only be to provide effective assistance but also “not to impose harm.”25

In addition to governments combining their efforts in order to overcome global poverty, both authorities and individuals can contribute by preventing negative and irresponsible actions. In his work, Singer offers a brief story about moral choice; in this story, a boy is represented as drowning in a pond, and a man must decide whether to help the child or not.26 On the one hand, the right decision is obvious, but on the other hand, when situations are not so illustrative, people more often make choices that can be regarded as immoral. In the context of global poverty, individuals choose to impose harm simply by doing nothing—by failing to provide the necessary aid in time. Many philosophers use this perspective in order to discuss the global problem of malnutrition, as well as the question of millions of children’s deaths due to infectious and often preventable diseases.

Poverty in developing countries is a problem that can be discussed as a background for the analysis of all priorities related to global justice.27 Thus, in this context, one more key goal is to provide all people in need with the opportunity to receive adequate nutrition.28 Similarly, it is also important to note that one of the main threats to the development of the global community is disease outbreak and epidemics. Many diseases could be prevented if all nations were able to provide their people equal access to inexpensive and high-quality health care.29 While focusing on these concrete issues, philosophers state that the global society is divided into those who are in extreme need because resources are unavailable to them and those who can satisfy these needs and are able to provide the required aid to others in terms of health care and food.30 Nevertheless, the problem is in the fact that authorities and other powerful representatives of society often interpret the necessity of the assistance with a focus on their own interests. In other cases, developed countries simply do not accept the responsibility to address the needs of poor people in other countries. Indeed, the possibility of providing the required assistance to developing nations and poor populations remains a challenging issue on a worldwide institutional level.

The Problem of False Priorities and Global Order

The mentioned priorities associated with the idea of global justice are oriented to providing more people all over the globe with opportunities to live in socially and physically supportive environments. However, Pogge notes that there can also be false priorities related to the problem of promoting social justice. For example, the necessity of military intervention to protect human rights in developing countries is discussed by the researcher as one priority that can often take the place of the real needs of people.31 According to Pogge, “The affluent Western states are no longer practicing slavery, colonialism, or genocide. But they still enjoy crushing economic, political, and military dominance over the rest of the world.”32 Pogge continues this idea throughout other works as well, stating that such military interventions can provoke or worsen global inequality and reproduce “severe poverty on a massive scale”; therefore, he argues, “the prevention of such poverty is our foremost responsibility.”33 It is important to note that governmental attempts to protect human rights with the help of arms are associated with the idea of maintaining and promoting the global order based on the principles of ethics.

Some researchers have developed the idea that global justice can be achieved only by focusing on setting the global order. Risse discusses the problem of setting the global order from the perspective of its impact on vulnerable people. The researcher states that “we must explore whether there is a sense in which that order itself actually harms the least advantaged, the global poor, in a way that implies an injustice.”34 In this context, the term “order” is presented as a system based on the set rules of ethics or morality according to which the global community lives and that can be discussed as the foundation for the global justice.35

From this point, one of the priorities of global justice is to formulate rules of ethics that are associated with ideas of equality and human rights and that can make people interact positively in society. Still, the global order is a complex phenomenon, and politicians often try to achieve their own ideas of order while using means that cannot be regarded as moral or just.36 As a result, many attempts at building the global order have not demonstrated positive outcomes, and the real priorities of global justice are often substituted with numerous false priorities oriented to spreading the dominance of developed nations in the world. Though philosophers continue to claim that the responsibility for making order and supporting others should be based on non-aggression, this principle is often ignored in interventions.37

Priorities of Justice and the Problem of Borders

In spite of the fact that the promotion of global justice is a priority in and of itself that is actively supported by much of the modern world, people often hold double standards when they evaluate specific situations. According to Blake, “We care more about our fellow countrymen than we do about outsiders.”38 This vision is also discussed by Satz, who notes that both “nationalists and statists tend to be hostile towards international economic redistribution, believing either that the very idea of international justice does not make any sense or that our primary loyalties are to those at home.”39 Even if authorities and society were to accept the principles of justice and set the correct priorities, it is not guaranteed that they would accept the ideals of global justice and interpret these principles in the manner expected by liberals. It is important to accentuate the fact that liberal ideas and principles of tolerance are regarded as the foundation for developing the theory of global justice.40 Nevertheless, these standards usually work well when they are related to the territory of one state. In his work, Blake pays attention to the fact that liberalism can be viewed as working when it is related to nations, and borders matter in this context.41

In order to achieve the realization of priorities associated with global justice, the global community should act according to set moral rules, respect human rights, and avoid coercive actions, as promoted by theory.42 However, some philosophers also agree that even coercive actions can be acceptable in certain circumstances, such as when they are necessary to protect borders.43 As a result, while attempting to combine the principles of morality, human rights, tolerance, non-coercion, and responsibility in the context of the idea of global justice, authorities can—and often do—fail, leading people to believe that they are ineffective or even unethical. This situation highlights the idea that people are inclined to act according to their own interests; in the context of social relations, domestic interests will take priority over the needs of poor people.


The analysis of current debates surrounding global justice demonstrates that researchers largely agree regarding the priorities that require the public’s attention in order to make society more tolerant and just. However, the real question is whether the priorities set by political philosophers for global justice can be achieved in the context of contemporary international relations. Although it is relatively easy to identify the priorities of justice at the global level, the task of discussing the possibilities for achieving these priorities is much more complex. Political philosophers are inclined to concentrate on the discussion of priorities such as the process of overcoming social inequality, the redistribution of resources, the plan to eliminate poverty, the provision of assistance to poor people, the process of overcoming malnutrition and disease, and the support of a global order that is based on the principles of ethics.

Still, the acceptance and the detailed discussion of these priorities do not guarantee that global justice can be achieved. It is important to analyze the current debates so that the global community can understand the problems that require immediate solutions and so that authorities can identify priorities for the further development of the necessary actions to achieve global justice. However, authorities are inclined to propose resources to overcome problems only in situations in which such actions will be beneficial to them. In this context, the needs of developing nations are nearly always a second priority.


Beitz, Charles. “Rawls’s Law of Peoples.” Ethics 110, no. 4 (2000): 669-696.

Blake, Michael. “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 3 (2001): 257-296.

Kant, Immanuel. Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History. New York: Yale University Press, 2006.

Pogge, Thomas. “Priorities of Global Justice.” Metaphilosophy 32, no. 1 (2001): 6-24.

World Poverty and Human Rights. New York: Polity, 2008.

Risse, Mathias. “How does the Global Order Harm the Poor?” Philosophy & Public Affairs 33, no. 4 (2005): 349-376.

“What We Owe to the Global Poor.” The Journal of Ethics 9, no. 1 (2005): 81-117.

Satz, Debra. “International Economic Justice.” In The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics, edited by Hugh LaFollette, 620-642. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

“What Do We Owe the Global Poor?” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 1 (2005): 47-54.

Singer, Peter. The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. New York: Random House, 2009.

Tan, Kok‐Chor. “The Problem of Decent Peoples.” In Rawls’s Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia?, edited by Rex Martin and David Reidy, 76-94. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.

Varden, Helga. “A Kantian Conception of Global Justice.” Review of International Studies 37, no. 5 (2011): 2043-2057.


  1. Mathias Risse, “What We Owe to the Global Poor,” The Journal of Ethics 9, no. 1 (2005): 82.
  2. Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (New York: Polity, 2008), 14.
  3. Debra Satz, “International Economic Justice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 622.
  4. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 15.
  5. Michael Blake, “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 30, no. 3 (2001): 258.
  6. Charles Beitz, “Rawls’s Law of Peoples,” Ethics 110, no. 4 (2000): 669.
  7. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 16.
  8. Beitz, “Rawls’s Law of Peoples,” 670.
  9. Immanuel Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History (New York: Yale University Press, 2006), 12.
  10. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 16.
  11. Kant, Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, 14.
  12. Beitz, “Rawls’s Law of Peoples,” 670.
  13. Helga Varden, “A Kantian Conception of Global Justice,” Review of International Studies 37, no. 5 (2011): 2043.
  14. Beitz, “Rawls’s Law of Peoples,” 672.
  15. Kok‐Chor Tan, “The Problem of Decent Peoples,” in Rawls’s Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia?, ed. Rex Martin and David Reidy (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008), 77.
  16. Mathias Risse, “How does the Global Order Harm the Poor?,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 33, no. 4 (2005): 349.
  17. Debra Satz, “What Do We Owe the Global Poor?,” Ethics & International Affairs 19, no. 1 (2005): 48.
  18. Risse, “What We Owe to the Global Poor,” 83.
  19. Satz, “What Do We Owe the Global Poor?,” 49.
  20. Risse, “How does the Global Order Harm the Poor?,” 352.
  21. Thomas Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” Metaphilosophy 32, no. 1 (2001): 6.
  22. Risse, “How does the Global Order Harm the Poor?,” 353.
  23. Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” 7.
  24. Risse, “What We Owe to the Global Poor,” 109.
  25. Satz, “What Do We Owe the Global Poor?,” 51.
  26. Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (New York: Random House, 2009), 12.
  27. Satz, “What Do We Owe the Global Poor?,” 51.
  28. Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, 12.
  29. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 16.
  30. Satz, “What Do We Owe the Global Poor?,” 51.
  31. Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” 6.
  32. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 6.
  33. Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” 6.
  34. Risse, “How does the Global Order Harm the Poor?,” 350.
  35. Risse, “What We Owe to the Global Poor,” 110.
  36. Tan, “The Problem of Decent Peoples,” 78.
  37. Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” 7.
  38. Blake, “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy,” 258.
  39. Satz, “International Economic Justice,” 625.
  40. Blake, “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy,” 259.
  41. Ibid., 260.
  42. Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, 8.
  43. Blake, “Distributive Justice, State Coercion, and Autonomy,” 260.