Contributing and Benefiting: Two Grounds for Duties to the Victims of Injustice [Excerpt]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 19.1 (Spring 2005)

March 30, 2005

Contrasting his own position with that of those who conceive the moral challenge of global poverty in terms of a positive duty to help, Thomas Pogge suggests that "we may be failing to fulfill our stringent negative duty not to uphold injustice, not to contribute to or profit from the unjust impoverishment of others (p. 197, emphasis added)." We should conceive of our individual donations and of possible institutionalized initiatives to eradicate poverty not as helping the poor but "as protecting them from the effects of global rules whose injustice benefits us and is our responsibility" (p. 23, emphasis added). Pogge also claims that such activities should be understood in terms of compensation: "The word 'compensate' is meant to indicate that how much one should be willing to contribute toward reforming unjust institutions and toward mitigating the harms they cause depends on how much one is contributing to, and benefiting from, their maintenance" (p. 50, emphasis added). In characterizing wrongful involvement in an unjust social order and the compensatory duties that arise from it, Pogge refers to the terms contribution/responsibility as well as to benefit/profit (the latter are used interchangeably). The first of these factors is unobjectionable: we can take it for granted that there is a negative duty not to contribute to injustice and that those who are responsible for harmful institutions should compensate their victims. I want to raise doubts, however, about the role that Pogge assigns to benefiting from injustice in the determination of our duties toward the victims of injustice. I shall do so by challenging his claim that there is a negative duty not to benefit from injustice, and that the role that benefiting from injustice plays in determining our duties to work toward reforming unjust practices and mitigating their harmful effects is best understood in terms of compensation. . .


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