Thursday, May 31, 2012

Singer and Rawls on International Justice

Compare the conception of international justice held by Peter Singer and John Rawls. Indicate which thinker’s conception is superior and why.

John Rawls and Peter Singer both hold to the view that society should be constructed in an egalitarian manner. In this essay I will explore the differing methodologies which Rawls and Singer use to develop their respective theories of international justice. I will argue that Rawl’s approach has stronger potential if the ‘difference principle’ were to be applied to the international justice sphere. I will also explore Singer’s theory and suggest that as they both stand, Singer provides a more responsible and egalitarian conception of international justice. Throughout this essay, I will work from the assumption that a philosophically consistent, egalitarian and responsible theory is superior to the alternative options.

First, I will briefly describe the core components of Justice as Fairness which is Rawls’ domestic conception of justice. A basic understanding of Rawls’ domestic conception of justice will help us better understand the potential of a Rawls-based conception of international justice. Rawls’ domestic understanding of justice applies primarily to how the ‘basic structure’ of society should be set out and regulated. The term constructivism can be appropriately applied to his theory as he considers justice ‘only as a virtue of social institutions.’[1] The two primary principles that Rawls seeks to fulfill are as follows: (i) an ‘equal right to extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all’, and (ii) that ‘inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.’[2] It is important to note that the second principle is not utilitarian (average or total) in the sense that disadvantaging the least well-off can be counterbalanced by advantaging the most well-off equal amounts. According to Rawls, if there is an inequality it must benefit all people including the least well-off. This will be referred to as the difference principle.

These principles are what Rawls believes a rational, risk-averse, and self-interested person would choose in the original position. According to Rawls, in the original position ‘no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.’[3] He goes on to state that ‘the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.’ Behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ people are unknowing of particular factors which should when applied nullify ‘the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in quest for political and economic advantage.’[4]

The aforementioned elements of Rawls’ thinking are to be applied in full to the domestic realm, yet, they are only granted limited applicability by Rawls in the international realm. The difference principle is especially relevant to my later discussion of the potential of a Rawlsian understanding of international justice. Law of Peoples is Rawls’ attempt to extend Justice as Fairness to the international sphere. He endeavors to develop a framework of international justice which is ecumenical, and one which is not partisan to ‘societies whose political institutions and culture are liberal.’ Rawls states that a ‘liberal society must respect other societies organized by comprehensive doctrines, provided that their political and social institutions meet certain conditions that lead the society to adhere to a reasonable law of peoples.’[5] He provides seven principles in regards to international relations which include respect for freedom and independence, equality among persons, rights to self-defense (but not aggression), duty of nonintervention, duty to observe treaties and undertakings, restrictions within war, and a duty to honor human rights.[6] While Rawls does suggest that there ‘should be certain provisions for mutual assistance between peoples in times of famine and drought’, his theory of international justice emphasizes restrictions rather than prescriptions; negative duties of justice rather than positive duties of distributive justice, like his domestic theory.[7]

Peter Singer, unlike Rawls, uses a moralist approach to support his arguments surrounding international justice. These arguments are not tied in with a social contract.[8] His views are broadly utilitarian, although, one could easily accept the argument he gives in Famine, Affluence, and Morality without having a commitment to utilitarianism. Singer begins with the assumption that ‘suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care’ are bad things. His argument then follows that ‘if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.’ [9] The qualifier he uses in the strong version of the principle, ‘without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance’ (my emphasis) is particularly important. [10] Singer is essentially suggesting that we must give foreign aid to the point of marginal utility whereby to give any more resources would sacrifice something which of equal moral worth, either for us or our dependents. Following this principle to its logical conclusions would have radical implications for how many people, especially those of us who reside in richer nations, would have to live in order to be moral.

The principle is most simply articulated by the drowning child example which Singer provides in Famine, Affluence, and Morality. He puts forward the deceptively uncontroversial assertion that ‘if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out.’ Singer goes on to suggest that the distance between me and the child ‘makes no moral difference.’ Since Singer, like most practical philosophers, subscribes to principles of ‘impartiality, universalisability,’ and ‘equality,’ it seems reasonable to state that distance either makes very little difference or no difference at all in situations where people who have access to vast resources can easily support famine relief in places like Bangladesh. [11] He also refutes the argument that says ‘there are other people either equally or better placed to give money and this therefore exempts me from owing anything to the worlds’ poor.’ While it may be the case that there are people better placed than I to help, it is clear that many of those people have chosen not to address the problem and therefore the conclusion is based upon a hypothetical premise which presumes that the very rich will do all that they can to address poverty. As Singer points out, such an argument is ‘an ideal excuse for inactivity’ which does nothing to address the situation which we currently find ourselves in.[12]

The question regarding which author provides a better framework for dealing with poverty is a difficult one. I will argue that as their respective theories stand, Peter Singer provides a better theory in regards to international justice. However, if John Rawls took his theory of domestic justice as it is outlined in A Theory Of Justice and applied it consistently to the realm of international justice, his theory would be able to address poverty equally, if not better than Singer’s theory. There are two main reasons why Rawls’ theory of international justice is incomplete: (i) he attempts to synthesize liberal tolerance with prescriptive egalitarianism, and (ii) he effectively creates a morality based upon the social contract.

In order to gain ecumenical support, Rawls compromises and waters down many of the logical conclusions that one would reach if they were to apply the ‘veil of ignorance’ hypothetical scenario to shape international governance.  Rawls attempts to be tolerant with societies whose members may have different conceptions of justice than ours, and who may be guided by different kinds of comprehensive doctrines.[13] However, this apparent respect of ‘other societies organized by comprehensive doctrines’ effectively forfeits our social contract with them, meaning that there is no clear burden under the ‘veil of ignorance’ for a rational person to suggest that economic assistance must be given to poor people in illiberal nations. The rational person knows that she will not become a member of an illiberal society under the ‘veil of ignorance’ because the veil does not apply to illiberal societies. This then means that she has no good reason to make allowances for these people unless they will somehow improve her lot, which in many cases, is highly improbable.

The second objection to Rawl’s theory ties in strongly with the first objection. Rawls’ theory of international justice is based on the social contract. While any theory based upon the social contract should be first seen as contractarian rather than moral, it is unavoidable for a theory like Rawls’ to have many moral implications, imperatives, and restrictions. Strictly speaking, it is not immoral to decide under the ‘veil of ignorance’ that there will be a small portion of people who control a great deal of society’s wealth, this should be seen as irrational. However, making a decision under the ‘veil of ignorance’, then changing the decision when the veil is lifted, in favor of one’s self interest, could be seen as immoral. In short, Rawls’ theory has moral implications even though it is based on rationality. The morality drawn from Rawls’ theory could be summed up as ‘do unto others as they do unto me.’ This is unfortunate as any morality that gives an exemptions if other people choose not to follow it is flawed. Effectively, such a morality is dependent on the actions of another person rather than any deeply held conviction.

In Practical Ethics (Second Ed.) Singer argues that wealthy nations should be significantly more generous in their intake of asylum seekers, perhaps up until the point of marginal utility. He creates a scenario similar to the ‘drowning child’ thought experiment which was previously mentioned. Singer asks whether the investors in the hypothetical underground community called Fairhaven should allow non-investing people into their community, allowing them to escape the extreme radiation outside. Members of Fairhaven will have to give up their tennis courts, swimming pools, and their large gymnasium in order to give those outside some form of basic accommodation. Singer presents three options: (i) admit all 10,000 outsiders and lose all the sports and entertainment facilities, (ii) admit only 500 outsiders and lose a quarter of the tennis courts (which only had little use), or (iii) admit no outsiders and therefore accept no costs.[14] I find this to be a compelling argument for a more responsible and egalitarian approach to those fleeing persecution across borders. However, as a utilitarian, Singer is obliged to consider the consequences for all affected parties, which leads to a great deal of moral complexity when this issue could have been a simple matter. In the third edition of Practical Ethics, Singer removed the chapter Insiders and Outsiders, explaining why in the preface. He cites reasons such as the possibility of a ‘racist backlash’ if a country accepts large numbers of refugees as ‘highly relevant’ to the discussion, and no doubt, highly relevant to why he chose to omit this chapter in the third edition of Practical Ethics.[15] I find this argument to be both inconsistent with the Fairhaven hypothetical mentioned above and revealing of the limits of utilitarianism. If ‘racist backlashes’ are of genuine concern for Singer’s theory of international justice, his theory is little more than a Lifeboat Ethic.

As mentioned previously, and as noted by thinkers such as Pogge and Singer, Rawls’ main area of concern is the domestic sphere.[16] It is unfortunate that throughout The Law of Peoples, Rawls continually refers to the benefits of the ‘veil of ignorance’ only being conferred on to the citizen.[17] In a practical application of the ‘veil of ignorance’, as Rawls intends the device to be used, it seems inevitable that one would know that one will become a citizen of a liberal and democratic state, which would in turn justify self-interested and potentially deeply harmful policies towards outsiders. However, this goes against the very intention of the ‘veil of ignorance’ which aims to ‘nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage.’[18] In Carens’ critique of Rawls, he points out that ‘whether one is a citizen of a rich nation or a poor one, whether one is already a citizen of a particular state or an alien who wishes to become a citizen – this is the sort of specific contingency that could set people at odds … We should therefore take a global, not a national view of the original position.’[19] Carens’ approach is ironically more compatible with the ‘veil of ignorance’ than the approach that Rawls himself utilised.

In conclusion, I find Singer’s theory of international justice to be superior to Rawls’, as Rawls intended his theory to be understood. However, if Rawls’ conception of domestic justice were to be applied to the international sphere, it would have the potential to be far more robust that Singer’s. The ‘veil of ignorance’, as it has been critiqued by authors such as Pogge and Carens, could be incredibly useful in the international realm, but only if it is applied with consistency.


Carens, Joseph H. “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” The Review of Politics 49, no. 2 (April 1, 1987): 251–273.
Pogge, Thomas W. Realizing Rawls. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Rawls, John. A theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
———. Collected papers. Edited by Samuel Richard Freeman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
———. “Justice as Fairness.” The Philosophical Review 67, no. 2 (April 1, 1958): 164–194.
———. “The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice.” In Ethics, edited by Peter Singer, 362–367. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” In World hunger and moral obligation, edited by William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.
———. Practical Ethics. Second ed. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
———. Practical Ethics. Third ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
[1] John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness,” The Philosophical Review 67, no. 2 (April 1, 1958): 164.
[2] Ibid., 165.
[3] John Rawls, “The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice,” in Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 363.
[4] Ibid., 365.
[5] Rawls and Freeman, Collected Papers, 540–541.
John Rawls, Collected papers, ed. Samuel Richard Freeman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), 532–531.
[6] Ibid., 540.
[7] Ibid., 540–541.
[8] In using the term ‘moralist’, I do not seek to suggest that Singer has political affiliations with groups who call themselves moralists. Rather, I am pointing out that his theory is directly speaking about what is right and wrong rather than what is rational and irrational.
[9] Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in World hunger and moral obligation, ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFollette (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 24.
[10] Ibid.
[11] All quoted material in the beginning of this paragraph can be found in: Ibid., 24–25.
[12] Ibid., 25–26.
[13] Rawls, Collected papers, 530.
[14] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Second ed. (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
[15] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[16] Thomas W Pogge, Realizing Rawls (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1989), 1–14; Singer, Practical Ethics, 253.
[17] Rawls, Collected papers, 537–541.
[18] John Rawls, A theory of Justice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 136.
[19] Joseph H. Carens, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” The Review of Politics 49, no. 2 (April 1, 1987): 256.

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