Friday, May 19, 2006

Summers on Global Fairness

Over at Crooked Timber there is an interesting debate in the comments thread of the post on the "Equality and the New Global Order” Conference at the Kennedy School of Government. Most of the comments are in response to the second-hand account of Larry Summers' (President of Harvard) talk on “Conceptions of Global Fairness”. If I had more time I would like to weigh in on that debate there (but I don’t, so I will post this brief comment here on my blog!). The reported outline of Summers' concern is:

Assuming that we’re clear about the consequences of a policy, how should we weigh the effects on foreigners and fellow citizens? On the one hand, a pure utilitarianism would count the effects on all lives impartially – but “no policy maker in any democratic country would follow this.” On the other hand, he [Summers] found it unacceptable to discount foreign lives altogether, or value them on instrumental grounds alone. So, there must be some principle that identifies the proper balancing…

This is a fascinating question, and I wish I could have attended the conference. I don’t think we will find a viable principle that will help us address complex issues of global justice. I think the best we can say is that the effort to combat global inequality should be a *proportionate* one. How do we determine what would constitute a proportionate response? Well, we have to consider the level of wellbeing of our compatriots, those of non-nationals, and the challenges we face in promoting both domestic and global justice. Other things being equal, the better off our own compatriots are, and the worse off those in other countries are, and the greater the chances that we can make a meaningful difference to combating global poverty, the greater the demands on us to help. Of course this requires us to have a good sense of the life prospects of our compatriots and non-nationals, as well as the obstacles facing the efforts to combat global poverty. I don’t have any concrete prescriptions concerning what ought to be done. But I sympathise with the sentiment conveyed by Summers- that hypothetical thought experiments (which are the pet projects of too many philosophers) that do not take seriously feasibility constraints (like scarcity) are not going to be very helpful.