A major theme of ALSP08 turned out to be the state of global justice research. I suppose this is not surprising given the concentration of people working in the area at the conference. In the second plenary session and the round table both Margaret Moore and Kok-Chor Tan gave helpful insights into the development and aims of global justice research.
Prof. Tan began his plenary lecture with a brief history of global justice research as he saw it. I think his description was very accurate and so I will quickly reproduce it here.
Tan argued that global justice research has progressed in a number of stages. The first stage was essentially Rawlsian, and consisted of the attempts by Thomas Pogge and Charles Beitz, amongst others, to extend Rawls' theory of social justice from the domestic to the global sphere. This stage consisted of positive arguments for global egalitarianism of some sort.
The second stage was a response to these positive arguments, and so was necessarily more negative. It consisted of arguments against global egalitarianism from people like David Miller - arguments which stressed the limits on global egalitarianism posed by our associative obligations and personal projects. There followed a set of responses to the these negative arguments from global egalitarians like Tan.
The third stage, which Tan argues is the one we are currently in, rejects the premises of the first stage. People like Nagel and Blake are claiming that it is not actually possible to extend justice from the domestic sphere to the global one, because of the significant differences between the two spheres. David Miller also makes these types of argument, as does Rawls arguably in his later work. The appropriate response to these third-stage arguments from global egalitarians, argues Tan, is to go back to the beginning and show why we should care about global equality, independently of the Rawlsian arguments of the first stage. This is the type of argument that Tan is now attempting to make.
I found that Tan's description struck a chord with my own perception of how the debate in global justice has developed. It seems very important to me to make the distinction between the first-stage arguments for global egalitarianism which rely on, as I put it, a relational conception of justice, and the third-stage arguments which do not. The difference between a relational and a non-relational conception of justice is that a relational conception views justice (or more specifically egalitarian justice) as being grounded in associations, interactions and relationships between people. On this type of view considerations of egalitarian justice only arise once people stand in certain relationships with each other. A common form of this type of position is the statist argument that considerations of egalitarian justice arise through political associations. A non-relational view does not see justice as dependent on associations and relationships in this way.
One can, I think, identify a stage prior to the first Rawlsian stage that Tan identifies. This is perhaps the preliminary stage which lays the groundwork which is necessary if discussions on global justice are even going to get off the ground. I'm thinking here of Peter Singer's seminal article 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' and the literature on duties to the distant poor that followed. Singer's approach is, of course, non-relational, and so now it seems perhaps we have gone full circle!
Prof. Moore stressed the need for a theory of global justice that can account for both the equal moral worth of all individuals (whether distant or not) and our intuitively valuable associative obligations. I was glad to hear her put it in this way, seeing as this is the criteria that I have set for the theories that I evaluate in my thesis. She also argued that the influence of Rawls and Rawlsians on global justice research identified by Tan is detrimental if it means that we only think about interactions between people in terms of the state. I think this is a very important point - at the moment we are restricted by the statist paradigm so that we think the only way to have global justice is through some kind of global state or quasi-state. We need to pay more attention to the more complex and individual interactions that people have with each other all over the globe, interactions that cross borders.