Freedom, Markets, and Well-being Fall 2021

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 details of Singer’s argument, you can consult some truly exceptional notes (wink) that I found for an ethics class.

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 will just tell you what they are here. (If you are reading the notes before you do the reading, look at the syllabus: we’re skipping big parts of this article. And if you are reading these notes after you did the reading, you should have looked at the syllabus first.)

  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 would not fail to do its part. There is 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 benefits 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 are on the brink of serious consequences, it is the poor countries that are going to push us over the edge of harmful climate change. But they did not 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 is the difference? Barry says the difference is that you do not 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.

Aside from the substance of the thing, I think that this kind of moral theorizing can be very useful for thesis projects. If you are doing a project with an ethical component, one way to make the ethics part work is to compare and contrast different ethical arguments for a particular conclusion. If you can show that the arguments have different implications, as Barry claims to do here, that is an interesting result.

Drowning child examples

I said that the obligation to save the drowning child is probably the closest thing we have to a universally recognized proposition in ethics. Here are a couple examples.

First, here is a fatwa issued by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan.

Azzam’s fatwa draws a distinction between a fard ayn and a fard kifaya. The first is an individual religious obligation that falls upon all Muslims, like praying and fasting. One cannot avoid such duties and be considered a good Muslim. If nonbelievers invade a Muslim land, it is fard ayn — a compulsory duty — for the local Muslims to expel them. If they fail, then the obligation expands to their Muslim neighbors. “If they too slacken, or there is a shortage of manpower, then it is upon the people behind them, and on the people behind them, to march forward. This process continues until it becomes fard ayn upon the whole world.” … Fard kifaya, on the other hand, is a duty of the community. Azzam gives the example of a group of people walking along a beach. “They see a child about to drown.” The child, he suggests, is Afghanistan. Saving the drowning child is an obligation for all the swimmers who witness him. “If someone moves to save him, the sin falls from the rest. But if no one moves, all the swimmers are in sin.” Thus Azzam argues that the jihad against the Soviets is the duty of each Muslim individually, as well as of the entire Muslim people, and that all are in sin until the invader is repelled. (Wright 2006, 102–3)

On the other side of the planet, saving a drowning child also helped to make former Nixon advisor William Safire popular at the liberal New York Times.

He had a rough time with his transition from the Nixon White House to The Times. He told me that many of the liberal reporters stiffed him for the first couple of years until he dove into a pool to save a drowning child at an office party. (Dowd 2009)

And in our own class we had not one but four examples of saving drowning children. Well, people. But still. Plus Prof. Brown had a business idea for retirement.


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.
Dowd, Maureen. 2009. “On Safire.” New York Times.
Singer, Peter. 1972. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (3): 229–43.
Wright, Lawrence. 2006. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. 1st ed. New York: Knopf.

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