Ethics & International Affairs Volume 19.1 (Spring 2005): Symposium: World Poverty and Human Rights: What Do We Owe the Global Poor? [Excerpt]

Mar 30, 2005

In his provocative book World Poverty and Human Rights, Thomas Pogge employs two distinct argumentative strategies. The first is ecumenical: Pogge makes powerful arguments for redressing world poverty that aim to appeal to persons with divergent views regarding its causes, and also for the nature and extent of our obligations to the global poor. This is an extremely important part of his book: World Poverty and Human Rights argues that on any reasonable moral theory and across a wide range of views of the ultimate causes of world poverty, we will be seen to have obligations to the world’s poor. Pogge's ecumenical argument shows that one does not have to accept a principle of global equality of resources in order to conclude that we have a general obligation to aid other human beings in severe need. I will discuss this strategy of argument at the end of my essay.

In his second and main argumentative strategy, Pogge defends a distinctive normative and empirical perspective. For, at the heart of the book is the thesis that we in the developed countries have special obligations to end world poverty because we have significantly contributed to its existence. Pogge argues for a causal contribution principle, which holds that we are morally responsible for world poverty because and to the extent that we have caused it. Pogge also argues that our obligations not to harm others apply universally and are stronger than the obligations we have to provide aid. In fact, on Pogge’s view global justice involves solely this negative duty—a duty not to inflict harm on others. The central innovation of the book is to defend a normative premise typically associated with libertarianism—that we have strong duties not to harm but only weak duties to benefit people we have not harmed—and conjoin it with an empirical claim to generate an argument for radical global redistribution. Although there is much else of interest in World Poverty and Human Rights, particularly Pogge's specific policy proposals to diminish global poverty, the causal contribution thesis and the identification of a duty not to harm as the fundamental principle of justice arguably form its intellectual core and central innovations. In this comment, I will critique both Pogge’s use of the causal contribution principle as well as his attempt to derive all of our obligations to the global poor from the need to refrain from harming others. . .

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