Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2019

Barry on Justice and Humanity


Barry’s article falls into three parts:

  1. Rich countries have obligations to transfer wealth to poor ones based on humanity.
  2. Rich countries have obligations to transfer wealth to poor ones based on justice.
  3. The two bases of obligation have different, though compatible, implications.

Barry’s argument based on humanity is drawn from Peter Singer’s famous example of the drowning child (Singer 1972). Roughly, if you think that you would be obliged to save a drowning child in front of you, you should also think that you are obliged to give money to famine relief to save starving children far away from you.

For justice, he distinguishes four different meanings of the term “justice” and argues that only the fourth would support redistribution of wealth from rich countries to poor ones.

He groups the first three senses of “justice” under the heading “justice as reciprocity.” Since we skipped these in the reading, I’ll just tell you what they are here.

  1. Justice as Fidelity. This involves keeping faith and doing what you say you will. Barry doesn’t think this has any obvious implications for the relations between rich and poor (Barry 1982, 227). Presumably rich countries have not signed any treaties that oblige them to make significant transfers, for instance.

  2. Justice as Requital. This means paying a fair price. There are some possible international implications here: transnational corporations cheat poor countries by lying about the price of the goods they import and export to evade taxes (Barry 1982, 228).

  3. Justice as Fair Play. This involves doing your part in the production of collective goods and following the same rules that almost everyone else does. Barry thinks this has limited relevance to the world. We don’t have global practices of working to alleviate poverty so a rich country that abstained from doing so wouldn’t fail to do its part. There’s no part to do!

The fourth meaning of “justice” is the one with significant implications for the global distribution of wealth. Barry calls this “Justice as Equal Rights.” This goes back to Locke’s idea that the earth is owned in common. Specifically, Barry proposes that everyone has an “equal right to enjoy [the] … “benefit” of the Earth’s natural resources (Barry 1982, 235).

Barry is thinking of the fact that the rich countries have enjoyed far more than their share of the earth’s natural resources such as oil, minerals, and so on. Now, we would add the climate. The rich countries got the benefit of pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Now that we’re on the brink of serious consequences, it’s the poor countries that are going to push us over the edge of harmful climate change. But they didn’t get to use their share.1

In sum, we have two arguments for transferring wealth from rich countries to poor ones: humanity and justice (“justice as equal rights,” to be specific). Are these points redundant? If not, what’s the difference? Barry says the difference is that you don’t get to put strings on money owed as a matter of justice. Even if it would be wasted, without achieving humanitarian ends, it belongs to the poor countries to waste or use wisely as they see fit. The same isn’t true for transfers to achieve a humanitarian goal.

Our discussion

Our discussion mostly revolved around Singer’s argument, the one that Barry is calling “humanity.”

Professor Brown was interested in reasons not to save the famine victims. What if they will have terrible lives? What if the members of their societies would rather invest in economic growth than saving the lives of marginally healthy infants? What if they saw that as their best way forward? Isn’t it presumptuous to do the opposite, even if doing so is motivated by humanitarian considerations?

Alexa asked about trade-offs. My notes say “compare a drowning child with a child in a hospital.” Do I remember what that means? No, I do not. That is why you don’t write up the notes weeks after the event.

Ali and Rachel defended Singer’s argument.

Jonathan invoked Kant, saying that there are different kinds of suffering.

Katya bought Barry’s basic point about the difference between humanity and justice. That’s good, because my main goal was to say that I think he’s right about that. Great minds!

Rachel noted a problem with Singer’s argument. Children can’t help themselves, but societies usually can.


Barry, Brian M. 1982. “Humanity and Justice in Global Perspective.” Edited by J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman. Nomos: Ethics, Economics, and the Law 24: 219–52.
Singer, Peter. 1972. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (3): 229–43.

  1. See international Energy Agency Report “Southeast Asia Energy Outlook 2019”↩︎