"National Responsibility and Global Justice" by David Miller [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 23.3 (Fall 2009)

September 11, 2009

Image of Book cover - National Responsibility and Global Justice

National Responsibility and Global Justice, David Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 264 pp., $50 cloth.

Sahar Akhtar (Reviewer)

When confronted with the image of a starving person we sometimes shift between two perspectives: one involves viewing that person as a victim, as someone who is suffering through no fault of their own; the other involves wondering what the person might have done to be placed in such circumstances or what they might have done to prevent it. We feel sorry for them, of course, but at the same time we want to understand the political and economic institutional causes of the situation. This is the sort of complexity of feeling and thought with which David Miller sets the stage for his rich and illuminating analysis in National Responsibility and Global Justice.

In this important new book, Miller builds on his seminal work on national identity and special duties to co-nationals in order to carve out a position on such issues as global poverty and immigration that is distinct from both the recent stream of cosmopolitan theories and a narrow "citizens-only" account of obligations. Miller argues that global justice should not be viewed simply as social justice—and in particular, egalitarian social justice—expanded beyond nation-state boundaries. The nation-state is a context that is defined, according to Miller, by a common community or identity, a shared past and sense of purpose, and shared laws and institutions. Social justice is something that applies to these sets of conditions. At the same time Miller does not deny that there is something called global justice, in contrast to Thomas Nagel who maintains that there are only duties of charity to people living in other states. To understand global justice, what we need is separately worked out responsibilities that apply to the context of human relationships on a global or transnational level. Since people everywhere, regardless of nationality, have certain basic needs, Miller argues that one responsibility we have to people in other nation states is to protect their basic human rights.

Given his normative emphasis on national identity, how does Miller justify that we have responsibilities to protect the human rights of non-nationals? He begins by arguing that there are two distinct kinds of responsibilities and that both are applicable in the context of global problems. The first, which he calls outcome responsibility, involves being responsible for the results of one's decisions and actions. The second, which he calls remedial responsibility, involves the responsibility one has in remedying or addressing some situation. In establishing remedial responsibility, Miller's particular interest is in "cases where the remedy is owed to a person or a group of people who are unjustifiably deprived in some way" (p. 98). Sometimes remedial responsibility will fall on the person responsible for causing the deprivation. In other circumstances, however, remedial responsibility can be assigned to someone who is appropriately connected or linked to the wronged or harmed party in one of several different ways, including through moral responsibility, causal responsibility, benefit, capacity, and community (pp. 99–104).

He then proceeds to distinguish two senses of collective responsibility: "the likeminded group model and the cooperative practice model" (p. 114). The first model applies to groups that self-consciously share a sense of purpose so that when "individual members act they do so in the light of the support they are receiving from other members of the group" (p. 117). The second model applies to individuals that participate in and benefit from a shared practice (p. 114). Both models of collective responsibility can apply to nations, since nations are, first, "groups of people who feel that they belong together because of what they have in common. Second, among the things they have in common is a public culture, a set of understandings about how their collective life should be led, including principles that set the terms of their political association" (p. 124). Furthermore, since nations share a past history and inherit many of the benefits of the actions taken by previous generations, they can be collectively responsible over time as well. This means that the current members of a nation can be responsible for the nation's past unjust actions.

Pulling all of these arguments together, Miller maintains that there are three ways in which citizens of rich nations can have remedial responsibilities to the global poor. The first involves remedying the past injustices of one's nation, the second involves addressing failures to establish fair terms of cooperation between nations, and the third may arise "from the bare fact of poverty itself, independently of any prior interaction between rich and poor countries" (p. 249).

Miller's argument about national responsibility is both rigorous and plausible. However, there are some steps in the argument about which a reader may reasonably demand to know more. One issue concerns his models of collective responsibility—for instance, are individuals in a nation-state sufficiently "like-minded" such that individual members can be responsible for the actions of other members? Additionally, we can question whether like-mindedness is enough of a connection between members of a group to hold the entire group responsible for the conduct of particular individuals within it. Another minor worry is with his characterization of cosmopolitanism. There are many contemporary cosmopolitans, including Kok-Chor Tan, who would not deny the moral importance of national community. Furthermore, some cosmopolitans, including this reviewer, do not necessarily view cosmopolitan justice as entailing equality as opposed to some sort of sufficiency.

Perhaps the most significant issue concerns Miller's grounding of a moral obligation to promote (only) basic human rights. He moves fairly swiftly from an account of basic human needs to the conclusion that we have obligations to secure basic human rights. If we accept Miller's conclusion about these obligations, it is unclear what would prevent one from adopting more of an egalitarian cosmopolitan stance—why stop at basic human rights? Is it unreasonable to ground an obligation to promote equality, measured however one chooses, in something like an account of (equal) human need? Miller does argue that nationality is one important human need (pp. 34–43), but the reader does not get an adequate sense of why this need trumps others. In other words, we do not learn why, when we see an image of a starving person who is not within our national borders, we need only concern ourselves with their basic human rights.

Despite these concerns, this new book is highly developed, probing, and adds a new dimension to the debates about global justice. It is a work that the reader will continue to ponder well after reading.

—SAHAR AKHTAR The reviewer is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Her research concerns the intersections of international political philosophy and economic development, and rational choice, game theory, and moral psychology.