Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2018

Nagel on Global Justice


Nagel contrasts two different ways of thinking about justice that he calls “cosmopolitan” and “political.” Cosmopolitan theories of justice treat justice as concerned with the relations among human beings no matter where they are in the world. Political theories of justice draw a distinction between human rights and economic and social rights: the former apply to everyone while the latter apply only within states. The point of the article is to speak in favor of the political theories.

In philosophy, the cosmopolitan side is the one to beat. It is the natural extension of just about every major theory you discuss in a class like Philosophy 33. Speaking for myself, I am uncomfortable with that fact. Given how exotic this position is, it shouldn’t be easy to get to it from our standard theories. I feel as though we might be missing something.

Nagel thinks he can do better than this sort of poorly articulated unease. He thinks he can describe and defend and alternative to cosmopolitanism. Today’s class was about whether he succeeded.

Williams on Ideology

Williams had said that one way to get from trivial points about equality to a more substantial egalitarian political project was to start with the fact that we all desire integrity. He said that this desire is frustrated when a society inculcates false beliefs in its members that distort their choices and ways of understanding their lives. The corresponding egalitarian political project is to eradicate false beliefs. The idea is that it is impossible (or very difficult) to sustain a class hierarchy in a society whose members are disabused of the belief that those on the bottom are inferior to those on top. True beliefs are incompatible with social hierarchy; that’s the theory.

I mused about whether this was really so when we first discussed it. I brought it up again this time. I said that the world is hierarchical but that the hierarchy doesn’t depend on false beliefs. It’s just something we accept.

I didn’t make a very good case for my point, however. Crystal, Peter, and Zeke all noted that people sure do believe in the superiority of their own nation over others. That looks very much like the ideological beliefs about the superiority of one class over the other that Williams described. I think it’s fair to say that they won that exchange pretty handily. (And I resent you all! Just kidding … mostly.)

But while I lost the argument, I’m not convinced I’m wrong. So I’m going to take another crack at it here. (There are advantages to being the one who writes up the notes.) What I should have said, I think, is that I think the global hierarchy is taken for granted even by people who don’t really believe nationalist myths. Look at us. I don’t think that anyone in our class would have especially strong beliefs about the superiority of their country over others. If you do, I really doubt you think that you think this explains the distribution of wealth in the world.

Look at immigration. If people from poor countries could work in a rich country, their children would have a higher standard of living. How well off their children will be is a function of the border, not the personal superiority of one group of people over the others. This is obvious stuff.

But are we outraged about borders? No. They’re just there. If you don’t know how to get rid of things, you tend to just accept them. That’s the phenomenon I had in mind.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be outraged about borders. I’m just trying to show that we can accept hierarchies even if we know the truth about them.

I don’t think that refutes Williams. I just think it shows that there are limits to his optimism about the social consequences of getting rid of false ideological beliefs.

Nagel’s Argument

Nagel starts with the argument from Rawls that we talked about earlier in the term. According to Rawls, it is unjust to allow inequality in wealth and opportunity to be determined by factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. Rawls only meant to apply this argument within a society. But it’s fair to ask why it doesn’t lead straight to cosmopolitanism.

Nagel says it has to do with the “dual role each member plays both as one of the society’s subjects and as one of those in whose name its authority is exercised” (2005, 128). Societies have rules that are coercively imposed on their members. At the same time, those rules exist because the members of the society voluntarily comply with them. Nagel believes that this fact “creates the special presumption against arbitrary inequalities in our treatment by the system” (2005, 129). Here’s the idea.

Insofar as those institutions admit arbitrary inequalities, we are, even though the responsibility has been simply handed to us, responsible for them, and we therefore have standing to ask why we should accept them. (Nagel 2005, 129)

You might ask why a non-citizen lacks the standing to ask a similar question. Suppose someone wants to cross the border or to sell their products to willing buyers. The government stops them. Can’t they say “why should we accept these inequalities? Citizens can move around on that side of the border and sell their products without special taxes and subsidies; why can’t I do the same?” Nagel says the answer is no.

Since no acceptance [of the laws and other social rules] is demanded of them, no justification is required that explains why they should accept such discriminatory policies, or why their interests have been given equal consideration. It is sufficient justification to claim that the policies do not violate their prepolitical human rights. (Nagel 2005, 130)

Peter T. said that he didn’t see what the two things have to do with one another: being responsible for a society’s rules and the importance of reducing the effect of morally arbitrary inequalities on people’s lives. I’m with him. I don’t see the connection.

I also think that his argument slides between two points:

  1. The people who voluntarily comply with social rules are responsible for reducing inequalities within their societies.

  2. The people who have to comply with social rules have unique grounds to complain about inequalities within their society.

I should say that I can’t put my finger on exactly how this sliding happens or why it would be important if it does. So I might be off base. But it’s bugging me. If I were to study this article more carefully, I would start with that.

Jeremy and Professor Brown wondered if the argument means that the case for equality is weaker in a monarchy or authoritarian state than it is in a democracy. After all, the members of the society are less responsible for the social rules than they would be in a democracy. If that’s correct, it would be a perverse result.

Jeremy and Professor Brown were also both puzzled by the “dual” nature of the citizen’s relationship to the rules. Are we coerced to comply with the rules or are we responsible for what the rules do to other members of the society? Nagel seems to say “both,” but Jeremy and Prof. B. thought that sounded wrong.


Nagel, Thomas. 2005. “The Problem of Global Justice.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 33 (2): 113–47. doi:10.1111/j.1088-4963.2005.00027.x.