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Norms of Global Distributive Justice: Kantian Philosophy and Institutional Structures

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Every hour more than 1,000 children under five years old are dying from easily preventable diseases. Over 800 million people world-wide are chronically malnourished; the income of the wealthiest 20 per cent of the world's population is 74 times higher than the income of the poorest 20 per cent; the richest one per cent earn as much as the cumulated income of the poorest 57 per cent. Almost every second person on this planet lives on less than 2 US$ per day, and the daily budget of 1.2 billion people is below 1 US$. The indicators of social welfare show similar differences in access to health care, education, water, sanitation and so on. These enormous differences in living standards are a relatively recent phenomenon; they have emerged only in the past 200 years. It is this global inequality, on a scale we can no longer ignore, that gives rise to the philosophical problem of global (or international) distributive justice.

What is distributive justice? The understanding of the term differs according to the various conceptions and theories of justice. As a first approximation, we may take Charles Jones's definition: “Distributive justice has to do with the proper distribution of benefits and burdens among persons. A just distribution is one where each person receives what is his or her due.”

In liberal-democratic societies, the moral common sense that extreme socioeconomic inequalities are unjust, and that the better-off bear the responsibility to compensate those worse off, is widely accepted for the domestic sphere. Only a few extreme libertarians (or neoliberals) deny such duties. It is quite different in the international realm, where inequalities between rich and poor are not generally acknowledged as a problem of justice. The theory of distributive justice must examine whether there are good philosophical reasons beyond common sense morality for distinguishing between the norms of distributive justice on the domestic and on the international level. Different philosophical approaches to global distributive justice have been elaborated; in this chapter I shall confine myself to the main strands in the Kantian tradition. With the term Kantian I refer to those ethical conceptions that are principle-based, agentcentred and morally individualistic. My starting point is the moral individualism characteristic of the Kantian tradition, which implies a cosmopolitan perspective in ethics.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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  • Global Norms for the Twenty-First Century
    Norms in the contemporary world system are no longer established exclusively through inter-state agreement but increasingly, are becoming truly global. This collection brings together critical studies on this complex process. Written by authors from eleven different countries, the book challenges the often convenient rationalisations of regime theory, the governance approach, and 'post-national' or 'cosmopolitan' democracy, in order to explore the practical, theoretical and ethical implications of the new world of global norms.
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