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An Objection to Pogge

‘one can justify an economic order and the distribution it produces [...] by comparing them to feasible alternative institutional schemes and the distributional profiles they would produce.’

‘an economic order is unjust when it [...] foreseeably and avoidably gives rise to massive and severe human rights deficits’

‘There is a shared institutional order that is shaped by the better-off and imposed on the worse-off [...] This institutional order is implicated in the reproduction of radical inequality in that there is a feasible institutional alternative under which such severe and extensive poverty would not persist’

Pogge 2005, p. 4

I’ll explain, then ask you to explain.


Distributive outcomes under the actual international order.


Distributive outcomes likely under a fair international order.

The gap between the two sets of outcomes tells us the degree of responsibility of the actual order for the outcomes it is associated with

Patten, 2005 p. 23

‘We might hypothesize about the distributive outcomes that would be likely to arise under this fair international order and then compare these outcomes with the ones associated with the actual international order. The gap between the two sets of outcomes tells us the degree of responsibility of the actual order for the outcomes it is associated with’
CONTINUED: ‘Imagine, for instance, that only two million people a year would die of poverty- related causes under a fair international regime, compared with the eighteen million a year who die under the actual one. Then, on this procedural view of how to specify the baseline, we could say that the current international order is causing the death of sixteen million people a year.’

example : asymmetric restrictions on trade

Patten’s objection

‘even in a fair international environment there is no guarantee that the policies needed to fight poverty will be introduced domestically ...

‘even fairly democratic countries, operating under an international set of rules that have been shaped for their own advantage, can routinely fail to enact policies designed to help their poorest and most marginalized citizens.’


Patten, pp. 23--4

under an ideally fair set of international rules, [...] there would still be significant numbers of desperately poor people in the world.

If we think only in terms of harm through unfair international agreements, ‘these victims of poverty do not count as “harmed” by the affluent countries.’

After reforming the international system, would the affluent have absolved themselves of complicity in the fate of the poor?

‘they would not have eradicated the most morally salient fact from a needs-based perspective---the fact of poverty.’

Background clash between two perspectives. We have a positive duty to meet needs. We have a negative duty not to harm.

Patten’s dilemma for Pogge:

deny that there is an additional duty of assistance

Objection: ‘property and other rights of the privileged should not be regarded as so absolute as to override a duty to perform easy rescues’

This is among the ‘standard objections to libertarianism’

allow that there is an additional duty of assistance

Pogge’s view then just amounts to saying that citizens of affluent countries should not only stop harming but should also help.

It is a partly needs-based, not an exclusively harm-based, argument.

Pogge’s reply

1. I do not accept a merely formal standard of justice

2. ‘the standard of social justice I invoke is a human rights standard’: a just institional order cannot ‘foreseeably reproduce avoidable human rights deficits on a massive scale’

3. This is ‘a negative constraint on which institutional schemes it is permissible to impose’, not an argument that there is a duty to help.

It’s not about you.