On Global Justice

November 29, 2012

A book like this makes me nervous. Here I am writing for Times Higher Education when I should be engaged in proper, serious scholarship. Look at this book: prodigious does not begin to do it justice. Three hundred and fifty-nine pages of text; a page of notes for every six of text; a bibliography with what look like more books than I have ever opened, much less read; a polymathic preface beginning with a countryman of mine who also intimidates me with his learning (James Joyce) and including an aphorism from a weighty name (Nietzsche) that I find as hard to spell as to understand.

And what ambition! There are “two traditional ways of thinking about justice at the global level” but they “either limit the applicability of justice to states or else extend it to all human beings”. These approaches are both wrong - this author thinks (and says) that there are multiple grounds of justice (his emphasis) and that he wants to defend “a specific view of the grounds that [he] calls internationalism or pluralist internationalism” (his emphasis). Now in coming up with his scheme for global justice, he has, he thinks, pulled off “a philosophically convincing alternative” to the failed efforts of others, a task that is nothing less than “the most demanding and important challenge contemporary political philosophy faces (one that in turn reflects the significance of the political issues that are at stake)”.

So what does his theory mean? Here is his answer, again from the very first page: “Internationalism grants particular normative relevance to the state but qualifies this relevance by embedding the state into other grounds that are associated with their own principles of justice and that thus impose additional obligations on those who share membership in a state. Other than shared membership in a state, it is humanity’s common ownership of the earth that receives the most sustained treatment. And it is probably in the conceptualisation of common ownership as a ground of justice that my view seems strangest.”

Strange, perhaps, but not quite in the way the author intends. I don’t really understand what I have just quoted, and nor did the chapters devoted to the abstract theory help. A bit later we learn of the principles that underpin the theory. First (the “pivotal result of part 2”), that “the distribution of original resources and spaces of the earth among the global population is just only if everyone has the opportunity to use them to satisfy her or his basic needs, or otherwise lives under a property arrangement that provides the opportunity to satisfy basic needs”. Then, second, in regards to the same distribution, the need to ensure that “everyone’s membership rights in the global order are satisfied”. Then some more stuff (an “additional principle of justice”) about looking after “different generations of human beings” and (an “obligation of justice” this time) making sure “the basic climate conditions of the earth are preserved”. To round things off, there are also “several demands of reasonable conduct” to be taken into account.

My disposition is to think that politics make justice and that the class seminar follows rather than leads power, and so there is an abstract cleverness to this whole book - and an obviousness to these conclusions - which leaves me feeling queasy. But if you think that there is something important out there called “justice” that brainy and well-read people can access by the erudite elaboration of their already well-honed instincts, then I can see that this volume might work for you.

But even for enthusiasts there is bound to be a question of style. My problem is that while I begin each chapter and each paragraph (and almost each sentence) with fresh enthusiasm, the challenge of the author’s prose style quickly grinds me down. Like Joyce and Nietzsche (or is that Nietzche?) you need to be really convinced that there is something there to make yourself persevere. I doubt I’d have done so, to be honest, without the stimulus of having to write this review. And at the end you ask, “Did I understand it?” and then think, “Even if I did, and he is right, what difference can (yet another) set of self-contained right answers about justice by a bright university guy make?”

On Global Justice

By Mathias Risse. Princeton University Press. 480pp, £.95. ISBN 9780691142692 and 9781400845507 (e-book). Published 18 October 2012

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