Thomas Pogge

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Thomas Pogge. Pogge is professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale University, research director in the Center for the Study of Mind in Nature at the University of Oslo, and adjunct professor in the Centre for Professional Ethics at the University of Central Lancashire.

DEVIN STEWART: Professor Pogge, as we were talking about earlier, you have been thinking about the arc of history and your thoughts about the world we're living in today. If you could just start off by telling us, how do you see the world we live in today, especially from a moral perspective?

THOMAS POGGE: From a moral perspective, I think the picture is quite mixed. We have, on the one hand, people who are more on the rich side of humanity. Those people have done very well. People of the affluent proportion of humanity—maybe 15 percent—have experienced spectacular gains in their standard of living, in their longevity, and so on over the last 250 years or so. For poor people, there has been less of a gain, but still some gain. That means, of course, that the inequality between rich and poor has gone much greater. That inequality is, on the whole, a bad thing, because it tends to exclude and marginalize those at the bottom.

Also, in terms of how much of the remaining poverty and suffering is unavoidable, one would have to say that today pretty much all of it is avoidable, whereas about 250 years ago, most of poverty, most of the suffering that human beings experienced was unavoidable. There just weren't the technologies and resources available to overcome all of that.

DEVIN STEWART: Given the state of affairs today, are you optimistic or pessimistic?

THOMAS POGGE: I think, again, the picture is a mixed picture. First, I should say that I think the future is quite open. Many people have put forward ambitious theories of history, saying that they can somehow make predictions, or history is running in a relatively narrow groove and so on. I don't believe any of that. I think that history is wide open, and very surprising things can happen if we want them to happen.

One thing that we need to believe in order to make things happen is that they're open. But a lot of times we don't make the changes that we could make simply because we are too strongly convinced that these changes are just impossible. We shouldn't be defeated by that.

If I were looking at the world as a scientist purely and just extrapolating existing trends, I would be pretty pessimistic. I would say that the big problems of humanity are ones that we are not likely to solve with the speed with which we would need to solve them, we need to overcome them.

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that?

THOMAS POGGE: Because we are short-termers. The world has become a world in which the leaders are very short term-oriented, and the incentives that the existing structures give to leaders are very short-term incentives. So any problem that we need to do something about now in order to block, impede very major problems in the more distant future—any such problems are very, very difficult to solve.

We see that now with the relatively small problem of the U.S. budget crisis. But, of course, the bigger problems—the ecological problems, resource depletion, greenhouse gases, global warming—these kinds of problems are very, very difficult to solve, because nobody now has the incentives to spend a lot of political capital and resources on trying to overcome these problems.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me a little bit more about your understanding of how history works.

THOMAS POGGE: Basically, I don't have an understanding of how history works. I think that history is an open-ended process. It is very fragile. What we need to do is take it by its horns.

One intelligent writer who has written well on history is Machiavelli. Machiavelli says that you have to have a belief in your cause, a belief in yourself, and a belief in the openness that things can be changed, a certain kind of virtù, a certain kind of daring-do, and then you also have to have luck.

That is also very true. It's a crapshoot, to some extent. Those who succeed have often been extremely lucky as well. But they also ventured.

DEVIN STEWART: So you think luck and sort of a willfulness are primary factors in determining where history goes?

THOMAS POGGE: To a certain amount, yes. People who make history, who change history, tend to be people who are, on the one hand, lucky and, on the other hand, really ambitious, who are thinking outside the box, who can think beyond their roles.

Gorbachev is a person who clearly changed history. He changed history by not accepting the role that he was in as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but thinking more broadly about what he could do for humanity, what he could do for the wider world. He transcended his role. And that's very, very rare among people today in leadership positions. They are so totally absorbed in their role that they just do what they're expected to do within that narrow role. He was supposed to keep that empire together and maximize its power and influence in the world. But he stepped outside of that role and thought about what is important for humanity, not just for the next five years or so, but for the longer future. He effected a remarkable transformation that I think has a lasting impact on human history, and I think a positive one.

DEVIN STEWART: You said those traits are lacking in leadership today?

THOMAS POGGE: Yes, I think these traits are lacking. Most people—very, very bright people—take on a certain role and then they play that role in the way it was meant to be played. They are CEO of an important corporation, and then the pressures of the role become very strong. Of course, shareholders want to see results. They have to deal with customers. They have to deal with the workforce and so on.

With all these different pressures, the CEO then does the thing that allows him or her to stay in power and to be well rewarded, to get good bonuses, good stock options, and so on and so forth. You shine by simply filling your role really well, without thinking, let alone doing anything, about the larger system.

DEVIN STEWART: You could say the same thing about political leaders, too.

THOMAS POGGE: Absolutely, yes. I think that's absolutely true. Presidents of the United States are a good example. There are very few presidents who have grown above their role. It's, of course, a tremendously difficult role to grow above. That's another thing we have to be mindful of—how very, very difficult it is to be mindful of all the demands of the role and to meet those demands. That's already a very, very tall order. And then to think outside the envelope, to think strategically about the wider world and how one could maybe change the game of politics as it is now played, in order to avert harm from future generations and even from many people today, that is something that overtaxes most people with ordinary intellectual capacities.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this how you would define moral leadership?

THOMAS POGGE: Yes. I think moral leadership is precisely a reflection on the system as it now is, with an eye to potentially reforming it. You have to look at the system, how it works. You have to see what its advantages and disadvantages are and what are the harms that it produces. What are the benefits? What are the possible points at which it could be changed? What are possible alternatives in terms of elements that could be built in? Then see which of these can be politically reformed.

So you break out of the ordinary thinking, which is the very role-driven thinking, where you say, "I have a certain role. I'm standing for a certain group"—a company or a country—"and I'm just trying to play the role, trying to maximize the power, the influence of that particular entity. So the rule changes that I will work for are designed to benefit that particular entity and my role within that entity." That's the standard way of thinking.

But, of course, if everybody thinks like that, you might easily get into collective action problems and crises of various sorts that come from the fact that nobody is thinking about the whole, how the entire institutional architecture hangs together and how a system driven by these various individual interests, particular interests, how that will spool down in the long run.

DEVIN STEWART: Part of our project is looking at an idea of a global ethic. Does that resonate with you?  If so, what does it mean?

THOMAS POGGE: A global ethic would be an ethic that is, to a large extent, shared and that is focused specifically on those moral questions that we need to have agreement on. There are many questions that we don't need to have agreement on internationally. We can run our education systems differently, we can deal with religion differently, and so on, in different countries. But we have to agree on the basic parameters of the institutional order of the world, the supranational institutional order, that in this era of globalization, has become so very dense and very influential.

If we could bring the shaping, the design of that supranational institutional order within the purview of a morally based, value-based discourse that includes people from different countries, we would have made a very great step forward.

At the moment, the features of the supranational order are negotiated through international negotiations in which the various negotiating parties are acting on the basis of the distribution of bargaining power and the unique particular national or corporate interests that they bring to the negotiating table, and the outcome is a kind of parallelogram of forces, where those with the strongest bargaining position tend to get their way, and thereby often get to increase even the already superior power they already have. Nobody is looking out for the weak. Nobody is looking out for future generations, who obviously have no voice at the table.

What global ethics would do is transform this bargaining type of discourse into a moral argument type of discourse, in which the legitimate interests of even weak parties would be paid attention to.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you break apart the global ethic a little bit? Is there a content to it? Do you think about it as certain basic principles that are shared throughout humanity?

THOMAS POGGE: Yes, of course there's a content to it. But it's a content that shouldn't be dictated by philosophers. It's a content that emerges from the bottom up.

But something has emerged, right? In the period after the Second World War, maybe the most remarkable development in this regard is the development of a consensus around human rights. Human rights are ambitious principles about what each and every human being should have as the preconditions for a worthwhile human life.

One fundamental thing that I think we can pretty easily agree to internationally—at least "we" at the level of citizens—is that we should design institutions, those common institutions that will shape our common future, in such a way that the human rights of all human beings are fulfilled, insofar as that's reasonably possible.

DEVIN STEWART: We are celebrating our centennial in 2014. We would like to look back at the past 100 years and also think about the next 100 years. One of our questions we like to ask Thought Leaders is, what would you like to see happen in the next 100 years? We don't necessarily require a prediction, but what would be desirable to see happen?

THOMAS POGGE: Taking off from where I just left off, I would say that the most important thing is the transformation of how this world is governed, that we go from governance through negotiations based on bargaining power and parochial interests to a governing of the world that is driven by shared values that are transparently discussed in international discourse in which also ordinary citizens and intellectuals participate. That's the most important thing in terms of procedure.

Then, as we got substance, I want that discourse really to address the most important problems that are now being kicked down the road all too often. Those problems are the standard three: It's our ecology—climate change and resource depletion in particular—it's the poverty problem, which drives overpopulation, which is also a problem in its own right; and then it is various security problems that have to do with advanced technology. That's weapons of mass destruction, of course, but there are a lot of other technological problems that harbor considerable dangers for the long-term future.

So we have to bring these under control and again try to create governance institutions that will banish these problems and try to stop the existing trends that I think go altogether in the wrong direction.

DEVIN STEWART: Some of our interviewees have said that the nation-state has therefore become archaic or out of date, given some of the problems we have identified. What is your view on the viability of the nation-state to solve these problems?

THOMAS POGGE: I think the nation-state system as it now exists, where power is overwhelmingly concentrated at the level of nation-states, is not very well adapted to solving the problems that we face. But that does not mean that we have to abolish nation-states in some way. What we need to do, I think, is distribute power more widely in the vertical dimension; that is to say, delegate more power below the level of the nation-state, and in other cases, delegate power upward from the level of the nation-state and have larger units, such as, for example, the European Union, which is, despite recent crises admittedly, a very promising way forward.

If we had a little bit more democracy, a little bit more transparency at the supranational level, I think we could begin to solve these problems, with the help of a value discourse that would involve much more the people of the various countries rather than only the government representatives.

DEVIN STEWART: As you know, Andrew Carnegie was a big advocate of world peace. That means different things to different people. Do you think world peace is possible?

THOMAS POGGE: It's certainly possible. It is unlikely, made unlikely by the fact that there are always parties that are interested in not achieving world peace.

I think there's a very fundamental paradox about the achievement of world peace, and this goes as follows: You have in the world as it is the various nation-states. These various nation-states, with their political leaders, have a tendency to want to maximize their own power, and the power of a nation-state depends on more or less three factors. One is the military power it can bring to bear; second, the economic power that it has; and thirdly, the moral power, the reputation that it has, the convincingness of its arguments, and its reputation for fair dealings and justice.

Now, these three sources of political power are differentially important in different times. For example, in the middle of a world war, your moral reputation isn't worth very much. As Stalin famously asked, "How many divisions does the pope have?" So in a period of war, it's basically military power that counts, and economic power counts indirectly, because, of course, it's a major source of military power again.

In other periods it can be that moral power counts a great deal and military power is almost useless. That's in periods of peace.

Obviously, those states that have, relatively speaking, more military power than they have economic and moral power are interested, not exactly in war, but in periods of hostility and tension, where their enormous military capacities matter. So they will find occasion to create such periods, to create hostility and tension, that remind people of how important military power actually is.

This phenomenon—that there will always be some states and their leaders who have an interest, for purposes of maximizing the power of their own state, to create tension and hostility—this problem is aggravated by the fact that even for the internal distribution of power, war can shift the power balance. So war is good for the executive generally, because it gets more deference from the legislature and the judiciary in periods of hostility and tension.

Again, it's a very regrettable thing that in this country, for example, the very same person who decides about war and peace is also the person who benefits most from war breaking out or tensions increasing—namely, the president. So the tendencies are hostile to achieving perpetual peace. But again, these tendencies do not have to be accepted the way they are. Once we understand what they are, we may be able to overcome them nonetheless.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a very innovative way of explaining world peace. That's a new way of looking at it. Thank you, Professor.

We have this sort of open-ended concluding question: Given these problems you have outlined today, who is accountable, who is responsible? Is it people who have more power or is it people who have a legacy of problems or creating problems? How do you think about responsibility?

THOMAS POGGE: You can think about responsibility from the inside and from the outside. From the outside means you finger-point. You say, "This person is more responsible than that person," and so on. It's not an enterprise that I have a lot of interest in, to be honest. I am interested in the insider perspective. So I'm asking myself, what is my responsibility, first and foremost? Then, once I have settled on that, I invite other people to look at my perspective and my conclusions and see whether they feel the same sort of responsibility.

I am responsible. I think that I certainly have responsibility. I'm a privileged, well-educated person with good opportunities in life and a citizen of a wealthy country that matters in world affairs, and so I can really make a difference and I should make a difference. I should bear the responsibility, as we all should, I think, as citizens.

You will ask me, perhaps, what about underprivileged people? What about unemployed steelworkers? What about single mothers and so on? Again, I don't want to point a finger at anybody, but I also don't want to count anybody out. So if there's a single mother or an unemployed steelworker who takes the responsibilities of citizenship seriously and tries to think about what he or she can do to make sure that we think about these global problems more proactively, to influence our government, maybe to be more just, more fair in world affairs, I think that would be a very good thing. Nobody should feel excluded in any way or that their deliberations don't count or that they should leave politics to the experts.

DEVIN STEWART: Excellent answer.

Professor Pogge, you were a student of John Rawls. You've written a lot about him. What would you like to leave as a mark about John Rawls? What should students know, or others who are watching the video?

THOMAS POGGE: Two things have really stayed with me and been great beacons of my own work as well. One is that we have to focus on institutional arrangements, on the basic ground rules that organize the state and organize our larger world. The rules of the world economy, the rules that govern information and communication flows, the rules that govern how international treaties are negotiated and so on—these rules are of profound importance, and if we don't analyze them in moral terms, we are missing nine-tenths of the story of what matters, especially in this important period of globalization.

The second point that we can take from Rawls is the focus on the least advantaged. Rawls was acutely aware of how lucky he himself had been and was always amazed by how the starting positions into which people are born are so very, very different, that people from birth are given very, very different life chances.

Of course, these enormous inequalities cannot be justified through history, even if you say, "My grandparents worked very hard," and so on. What really happened—as we all know, history is pervaded by the most grievous wrongs and injustices. So none of us can say, if we at the end of this historical process are born into a position of privilege, that we somehow deserved to be born into that position, or that at least our parents deserved to give us this very privileged position.

These reflections led Rawls to think that in institutional design, we should always think about the least advantaged. We should try to design institutions in such a way that we can justify them, first and foremost, to those who have the worst starting positions under those institutions.

If you put those two things together and globalize them—as Rawls, of course, was reluctant to do—then you get the result that we all have a very profound responsibility to reshape the basic institutions of this world in such a way that they are acceptable to the worst-off.

In this regard, our present world shows a tremendous deficit. We have still billions of people living in extreme poverty, being chronically undernourished, not having safe drinking water, and so on—all very trivial problems that we could very, very easily solve with the means now at our disposal.

So here I see the greatest need for reform. We have to reshape our supranational institutional arrangements in such a way that we at least get everybody to the level where their basic human rights are fulfilled, including social and economic ones.

DEVIN STEWART: Finally, would you like to tell us a little bit about the Health Impact Fund?

THOMAS POGGE: Sure. The Health Impact Fund is one of the more concrete projects that I pursue at Yale in the context of my global justice program that I run there. The Health Impact Fund is an idea about how we can improve the provisioning of people with pharmaceuticals. As it is now, pharmaceuticals, when they come on the market, are protected by patents to allow innovators to recoup their investments in research and development, by marking up the price of a product. As you probably know, pharmaceuticals, once you know how to make them, are relatively cheap to manufacture, and cranking out another million pills isn't very expensive. But they still retail at very high prices, simply because pharmaceutical companies have these temporary monopolies on the product.

The Health Impact Fund leaves this problem and the way of rewarding pharmaceutical innovation in place, but it adds a second track on which pharmaceutical companies can be rewarded if they so choose. The second track says to the pharmaceutical companies, "You can register your new pharmaceutical with us, and if you do it, we will reward you on the measured health impact that your medicine achieves in the world, on condition that you give up the other reward— namely, that you don't mark up your product. So sell it at cost"—which would be a very, very low price—"and if you do so, we'll make it up to you through these health impact rewards."

That, of course, requires that we have funding. So the Health Impact Fund is something that would be funded by governments and maybe also by private donations from foundation, individuals, corporations, and so on, and would have at its disposal something like $6 billion a year that would be divided among registered medicines in proportion to how much health impact each of these medicines achieves.

That's the basic model. What it would do for us is it would, first of all, incentivize the development of medicines for the poor, because suddenly you can make big money by having a new medicine for a disease that only poor people have.

Secondly, it would make all medicines that are registered with the Health Impact Fund immediately accessible also to poor people, because poor people would only pay for the actual cost of producing the medicine. They would not pay anything for the research and development that went into the development of the medicine.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Professor Pogge.

THOMAS POGGE: Sure.

DEVIN STEWART: I really like your world peace answer. It seems so obvious, but I've never heard anyone explain it that way.

THOMAS POGGE: That's maybe because the people who do the thinking are on the side of the privileged for the most part. This is a very shrewd, realist kind of explanation that you would expect to find people on the right wing of the political spectrum propose. But very few people have that kind of honesty, because they are often consulting for the very same people who are the culprits in this game.

Mancur Olson is a great guy in that regard. He was a kind of hardheaded economist who developed this whole account of regulatory capture. He thought very shrewdly about what the vested interests are that are built into various roles and how people can be expected to act.

But most of the intellectual productions are rather defensive of the status quo and also try to go along with the official story about how everybody is in there to do good and, of course, our president loves nothing better than peace and so on and so forth.

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