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Rawls, pogge and the law of peoples

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3266 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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All people have an inviolability based on justice which cannot be infringed upon even under the pretext of well-being and prosperity of all society. Therefore justice refuses to justify taking away the freedom of few replaced with a greater benefit for the majority. In a righteous society, equal citizen freedom is regarded as already guaranteed and thus rights which are ensured by justice cannot be influenced by any kind of political transaction or calculation of social profit. Injustice can only be tolerated in order to evade an even bigger injustice.

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Rawls states in A Theory of Justice that his objective is to take the theory of social contracts of Kant in abstact and present a general view of justice (Shaw, 2005). The main focus is on the point that the principles of the basic structure of society are the subject of mutual agreement by a free and rational people in the original position. This original position cannot be thought of as existing in reality but understood as a genuine assumption which enables us to reach a common view of justice. The nature of the original position is that no one knows their social status and the level of their ability, intelligence, physical strength, etc. Furthermore, values or psychological inclination would be unknown. The principles of justice would be chosen under a veil of ignorance, as Rawls calls it. With this veil of ignorance, Rawls argues that no one will be at an advantage or disadvantage by coincidental social condition. Every one is in the same situation and cannot formulate principles which are advantageous and thus the principles of justice are the result of fair agreement (Rawls, 1999). The original position can be seen as a proper status quo and the basic agreement which is derived from this position is fair. Through this justice as fairness is suitable because the principle of justice was agreed upon in a fair original position.

It is under the assumption that people are under the veil of ignorance and are in the original position and thus are rational and mutually indifferent towards each other. But this does not mean that they are in any way selfish, avaricious people. It is just that they have no interest in having a mutually understanding relationship with others. People in the original position will choose the following two different principles. The first principle is the demanding of fairness in the allocation of basic rights and duties and the second being toleration of inequality in wealth and power but only tolerating this when benefit is maximized to those who have the most miniscule welfare. It might seem to be an easy decision when faced with the necessity with the pains of a small minority in order to achieve prosperity of many but this is not fair or righteous. But it is not considered injustice when the minority gains a greater benefit and thus results in the betterment of those who have the most minuscule welfare. The two principles mentioned above will agreed upon mutually. As a result, those who have more social power or are better off will be able to expect the voluntary cooperation of others when a system is a necessary condition for the welfare of all people. When the decision to find a view of justice which ignores and nullifies social conditions in demand for political and economic profit is made, then it is possible to arrive at the said principles. (Rawls, 1999)

Rawls has laid out the basic domestic form of distributive justice in A Theory of Justice and continues on the form of international distributive justice in The Law of Peoples. “Realistic utopia…extends what are ordinarily thought to be the limits of practicable political possibility and, in so doing, reconciles us to our political and social condition” (Rawls, 1999). In other words, he intends to first define a realist utopia then work back to a realistic political possibility. His theory on the form of international distributive justice has several components. Rawls argues for the concept of “people” which is different from states. States are authorized to act in the best interest of the state and treat its citizens as it wishes (Rawls, 1999). Rawls argues that states are only interested in increasing its political and economic power. But as his definition of “people” as having political institutions, governments are very similar to the general definition of a state. Then, his position could be understood as a society of morally respectable peoples being the same as a society of morally respectable states.

The main problem of international political theory is that doctrines of behavior from various political cultures may cause discord. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a foundation of principles on which reasonable and decent peoples can cooperate even with various domestic political structures. Thus, Rawls gives a solution to this problem in eight principles which liberal and decent societies follow: the freedom of peoples, observing treaties, equality of peoples, observe non-intervention, right to self-defense, honor human rights, observe just warfare and have a duty of assistance (Rawls, 1999). They constitute the law of peoples and are the basic moral laws which are binding to all peoples in the international order. They also largely reflect international law after World War II (Reidy, 2004). They do not require of all peoples a liberal democratic domestic order. Indeed, they are fully consistent with nonliberal and nondemocratic but otherwise decent peoples joining a just international order. Liberal democratic forms of government are not required, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Liberal democratic societies allow for other societies to structure themselves as they see fit as long as they follow the said principles (Beitz, 2000).

Finally, Rawls assumes that cultural pluralism is a reality and that this will result in societies with different political preferences (Beitz, 2000). As the concepts of individual good may coexist in different ways within one society, the way in which domestic politics are structured in domestic society may coexist in different ways in an international society. Rawls outlines five different types of society as liberal peoples, decent peoples, outlaw states, burdened societies and benevolent absolutisms. Liberal peoples recognize the value of important freedoms and equally allocate basic rights and liberties throughout the society as well as providing protection of these rights and liberties. A liberal society fulfills the requirements of Rawls for a decent society but nonliberal societies can also fulfill these requirements; a decent society is not necessarily liberal. According to Rawls, decent societies must not have aggressive expansionary policy and respect the sovereignty of other societies. Also, basic humans rights must be upheld for all, all persons must be able to participate in decision-making and all persons are treated equally in applying legal rights and duties. Outlaw states are states which are inherently aggressive; burdened societies are societies which have unfavorable inherent circumstances and thus are unable to help themselves. These societies would be nonexistent in an ideal world but would pose problems in the real world and thus are excluded from the society of peoples (Beitz, 2000).

The question could arise as to why outlaw states and burdened societies are not represented in the original position and why the two types of societies are not justified in The Law of Peoples. The Law of Peoples is liberal political morality on an international level, supplying a doctrine on the law of peoples. If a decent hierarchical society defines the outer boundary of reasonable liberal toleration of nonliberal society, then excluding outlaw states is not a surprise. In the society of peoples, nonliberal, unjust societies would be outside the defined acceptable boundaries.

The Law of Peoples has to be considered from two points of view: from the perspective of liberal societies and from the perspective of decent societies. Liberal and decent peoples have different political cultures and this is reflected in their international policies. But both are interested in gaining respect from other peoples and recognition of their equality. Rawls argues that even if a society is nonliberal, being decent grants it toleration and acceptance by liberal societies into the society of peoples and thus delegates of the two societies can cooperate on a set of principles of international law (Beitz, 2000).

Pogge states that “Rawls’s law of peoples contains no egalitarian distributive principle of any sort” (Pogge, 1994). He argues that in Rawls’s example of decent hierarchical society, the list of human rights is shortened in order for decent peoples to be included in the society of peoples even though it may allow social and economic inequalities and restrictions on basic freedoms (Pogge, 2001). Pogge quotes Rawls as “the representatives of well‑ordered peoples simply reflect on the advantages of these principles of equality among peoples and see no reason to depart from them or to propose alternatives” Pogge claims delegates actually do have reason to propose other principles since it is difficult to sustain a stable government for poor societies, delegates of such societies will, in the original position, favor egalitarianism in order to be able to sustain a stable government (Pogge, 2001). Also, existence of inequality result in the increase of corruption as can be seen in the real world. Therefore delegates will favor an egalitarian system where the existence of inequality is relatively less. If the international veil of ignorance experiment is carried out, delegates from decent hierarchical societies will prefer a more egalitarian world system rather than what Rawls depicts (Pogge, 2001). He believes that Rawls had correctly argued in the domestic context that the international order structure has profound effects on the character and decision of actors. On the other hand, Pogge states that by allowing this global order to be shaped and adjusted through free bargaining among states in an international context as Rawls does, he puts it almost entirely beyond moral assessment (Pogge, 2004).

The hierarchical order of a decent society cannot be harmonious with a just constitutional democracy. Tolerating policies, such as the denial of right to freedom of expression or equal rights, results in decent hierarchical nations’ insistence on structuring the international order according to nonliberal policies. Thomas Pogge, states that “If the Algerians want their society to be organized as a religious state consistent with a just global order and we want ours to be a liberal democracy, we can both have our way. But if the Algerians want the world to be organized according to the Koran, and we want it to accord with liberal principles, then we can not both have our way.” (Pogge, 1994)

Rawls would say that arranging the world order according to only either liberal or hierarchical doctrine would exclude the other (Rawls, 1999). The Law of Peoples emphasizes minimal conditions of cooperation between liberal and nonliberal peoples rather than a detailed world order. A decent hierarchical society fulfills the minimal conditions of a liberal world order and thus is accepted into the society of peoples; if the society does not, then it would not be a decent society. World order is arranged according to political liberalism rather than liberal or hierarchical values. Delegates of decent societies would not change their views to liberal ones nor sincerely plot to disagree with liberal peoples. Delegates of decent societies would not depart from their doctrines and would not plot to disagree with liberal peoples. In other words, they would not subject their doctrines to criticism on purpose. There is no specific reason to be pessimistic about the sincerity of decent hierarchical societies. The possibility of agreement cannot be ruled out since these societies are not aggressive and thus should be willing to cooperate with liberal societies.

Pogge argues whether the existence of decent hierarchical societies is reason enough to include them in the society of peoples. If yes, then Rawls would have to contradict himself because he would be defending an immoral society which does not treat its own members reasonable or justly as free and equal citizens; then defending the inclusion of these societies because it would eventually make them more liberal (Pogge, 2004). If no, then another contradiction would occur as there is no reason to believe the existence of nonliberal societies that qualify as decent. Individuals may feel happy and secure in their authoritarian or moralizing social institutions and how strange they may find liberal institutions. Justifying the existence of such societies would require the interests of people as morally fundamental. Pogge says “If actual decent regimes were so justified, or if no such regimes existed, then a liberal commitment to accommodate actual decent peoples would not support an international original position that represents peoples rather than persons.”(Pogge, 2004).

Rawls states several reasons why liberal societies should accept decent hierarchical societies into the society of peoples. First, to require all societies be liberal is in itself a failure to follow the idea of toleration of other social orders of political liberalism. A liberal society allows for other social orders so long as these orders are compatible with the liberal conception of justice. Rawls argues that liberal societies will tolerate hierarchical order given that they protect “urgent” human rights which include freedom from slavery, liberty of conscience, and security from mass murder and genocide. Second, citizens of decent hierarchical societies do have opportunities to participate in politics. Even if a decent society is not egalitarian, its political structure is one of participation and thus does secure participation of citizens concerning themselves, albeit it may not be completely equal. Finally, empirical evidence show not all hierarchical societies are oppressive and that not only liberal governments can protect human rights (Dogan, 2004). The possibility of the existence of oppressive hierarchical governments does not mean all hierarchical governments are oppressive; decent hierarchical governments comply with the political values of liberal justice. A closer look at the principles of a decent hierarchical society is needed before deciding to brand all hierarchical societies as oppressive.

Pogge criticizes that Rawls takes the idea of liberal toleration too far. The Law of Peoples require decent hierarchical societies to only protect “urgent” human rights including slavery and genocide but does not include rights such as freedom of speech or liberty of equal conscience. He argues that Rawls favors non-egalitarian distributions because societies are more interested in achieving a stable world system (Cabrera, 2001). It seems to Pogge that Rawls’s justice as fairness has lost out to the idea of liberal toleration. The assumption that all decent peoples make decisions together and should take responsibility for their decisions is only temporary since the members of these societies do not have ways of expressing disapproval. Cabrera argues that The Law of Peoples fails to justify toleration for practices of exclusion and suppression of protests by hierarchical societies.

Rawls states that decent societies “have certain institutional features that deserve respect” (Rawls, 1999). Since liberal societies do not endorse every single institution in its society but still respects its reasonable and just institutions, they also give respect to nonliberal societies and their reasonable just institutions. Exclusion of a nonliberal society from the society of peoples because of its nonliberal institutions will result in an empty society with no members if liberal principles are strictly and rigidly applied. Liberal democracies may have a better political structure to realize justice internally more easily than nonliberal nondemocratic states, there is no reason to think that liberal democracies are the only institutional possibility through which “individual human beings might collectively constitute themselves as peoples bound by and entitled to justice in their relations to other peoples and thus capable of doing injustice for which they are morally responsible” (Reidy, 2004).

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Rawls writes “The great evils of human history-unjust war and oppression, religious persecution and the denial of liberty of conscience, starvation and poverty, not to mention genocide and mass murder-follow from political injustice…Once the gravest forms of political injustice are eliminated…these great evils will eventually disappear” (Rawls, 1999, 6-7) The Law of Peoples accords great significance to institutions as determinants of material and social conditions of human life. Many philosophers and political theorists, including Thomas Pogge, have criticized A Theory of Justice as well as The Law of Peoples. Some key arguments of Pogge is that The Law of Peoples contain no egalitarian principles, whether the existence of decent hierarchical societies is reason enough to include them in the society of peoples and that Rawls takes the concept of liberal toleration too far as to intrude on justice as fairness. I believe I have given adequate reasoning to question Pogge’s own reasoning, if not nullify his criticisms. Reidy states “the fundamental task of political philosophy is to chart the course we must collectively follow…politics that make us what we are are themselves to remain bounded…within the content of a common human reason…This is the path of political freedom” (Reidy, 2004, 292) Rawls is only showing the course he has charted to political freedom which is within the boundaries of common human reason in The Law of Peoples.


l Beitz, C. (2000) Rawls’s Law of Peoples. Ethics. 110(4), 669-696.

l Cabrera, L. (2001) Toleration and Tyranny in Rawls’s “Law of Peoples”. Polity, 23(2), 163-379.

l Caney, S. (2001) International Distributive Justice. Political Studies, 49, 974-997.

l Dogan, A. (2004) The Law of Peoples and the Cosmopolitan Critique. Reason Papers, 27, 131-148.

l Rawls, J. (1999) The Law of Peoples with ‘The Idea of Public Reason Revisited’. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

l Rawls, J. (1999) A Theory of Justice, revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

l Reidy, D. (2004) Rawls on International Justice: A Defense. Political Theory, 32(3), 291-319.

l Shaw, B. (2005) Rawls, Kant’s Doctrine of Right, and Global Distributive Justice, The Journal of Politics, 67(1), 220-249.

l Pogge, T. (1994) An Egalitarian Law of Peoples. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 23(3), 195-224.

l Pogge, T. (2001) Rawls on International Justice. The Philosophical Quarterly, 51(203), 246-253.

l Pogge, T. (2004) The Incoherence Between Rawls’s Theories of Justice. Fordam Law Review 72(5), 1739-1760.


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