Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Presentation at Maastricht University in the Course Global justice and Human Rights

Are Pogge’s and Singer’s approaches to Global Justice and Human Rights mutually exclusive?

1. Introduction

1.1 Problem statement

In this presentation I am looking at whether Pogge’s and Singer’s approaches to Global Justice and Human Rights should be understood as mutually exclusive or whether some form of integrated approach is possible drawing on the work of both scholars.

1.2 Limitations

At the onset I must state that this presentation reflects a very limited study of the literature by Pogge and Singer and therefore my evaluation and conclusion are preliminary and incomplete and only provide an indication of what could be possible.
In discussing Singer and Pogge I mainly refer to the issue of world poverty and hunger but this is simply to illustrate the differences between the two approaches and not because I consider other issues in Global Justice and Human Rights as less important.

1.3 Disclosure of personal bias

Let me also indicate what my biases are in as far as I am aware of them. First of all I am committed to a Christian worldview which for me is not so much a matter of organised religion but a matter of adopting a lifestyle and approaching all issues in life from the perspective of love for oneself and one’s fellowman.
Love in this sense does not refer to a feeling but to a way of life whereby you try treat others in the way you would like to be treated. Practically this means to pursue personal happiness and what is good for myself while at the same time seeking to contribute to what is good for other people and to their happiness. I realise that in praxis this brings me close to the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill although my underlying faith in the existence of God as the source for my moral beliefs brings me closer to Emmanuel Kant.

2. A brief overview of Pogge’s and Singer’s approaches to Global Justice and Human rights

I now would like to describe briefly the two approaches of Singer and Pogge to the issue of Global Justice and Human Rights.

2.1 A brief overview of Singer’s approach to Global Justice and Human Rights

2.1.1 Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethic

Peter Singer is an Australian Jewish philosopher and a utilitarian ethicist who is currently professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Utilitarianism in this sense being the proper course of action is the one that maximizes overall "happiness". It is a form of consequentialism whereby something is morally right if it will produce a good outcome, or consequence, if it does not then it is morally wrong . The preferred outcome or consequence in theory being happiness for all, but in praxis it means for as many human beings as possible.
In his essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", Singer applies his utilitarian ethic to the question of world hunger and poverty and concludes that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.” They are bad because they cause unhappiness on a gigantic scale. It follows therefore, that if some people living in abundance while many others starve this is morally indefensible from a utilitarian point of view.

It then follows logically that anyone who had the resources to help the poor has the moral responsibility, the duty, to donate at least part of their income to aid poverty relief and similar efforts.
It is from this perspective that Singer states that it is morally imperative for citizens of developed countries to give more to charitable causes that help the poor. The fact that we live near or far from people does not change our moral obligation nor does the fact that our own individual impact on world poverty in any way diminish our obligation to do about it what is in our power to do.
In discussing starvation Peter Singer builds his conclusion on the following premises:

P1. If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought to do so.

P. 2 Death by starvation is bad.

P. 3 We can prevent many people from dying of starvation by sacrificing our luxuries, which are not as important.

His conclusion:

C1: We ought to prevent people from dying of starvation by sacrificing our luxuries.

2.1.2 Other considerations concerning Singer’s approach

Some people have pointed out that Singer’s reasoning while very logical at the same time comes across as too demanding. But we must not misunderstand or misrepresent him: He actually does not ask us to sacrifice so much of our comforts that we become unhappy ourselves. He does not mean that the poor should become happy at the expense of our happiness. Singer simply wants to us to give more so that more people enjoy happiness in the world. He also points at various studies which have demonstrated that when people give to others they experience more happiness. In order words we do not just give to make others happy, it also makes us more happy.
It can be easily understood how this must appeal to the utilitarian: Happiness galore!!!

Singer does admit that this principle entails radical conclusions—for example, that affluent people are very immoral if they do not give up some luxury goods to donate the money for famine relief. In line with his ethic Singer says that we ought to give where our money does the most good, in other words where our donation contributes to the most happiness. Finally, Singer himself does not only theorise about this but puts his belief into practice by donating 25 percent of his salary to international relief agencies such as Oxfam.

2.2 A brief overview of Pogge’s approach to Global Justice and Human Rights
Thomas Pogge is a German philosopher and is currently Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs as well as Adjunct Professor of Law at Yale University. Thomas Pogge stands in the tradition of Emmanuel Kant, John Rawls and others who believe that there are guiding universal principles, pre-existing moral principles many of which are reflected in the universal declaration of Human Rights. Where Singer starts with morality and ethics from the perspective that whether something is moral depends on its consequences whether it contributes to the greater good of maximizing happiness for as many people as possible, Pogge takes the position that moral principles already pre-exist.

2.2.1 Thomas Pogge and Global Justice

When it comes to the issue of Global Justice and Human Rights, Pogge takes a human rights approach and focuses in particular on Articles 25 and 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which state:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”


“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order which protects the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration.”

However, his concern is not so much international law but rather the assumed universal morality which inspired the UDHR. Pogge’s approach is therefore not so a legal approach as that it is a moral approach. He stresses the widespread recognition of moral human rights is important as it forms the basis from which an independent critical assessment is possible of existing international law.

Interpreting article 28 in the light of article 25 of the UDHR Pogge concludes that any institutional design is to be assessed and reformed principally by reference to its relative impact on the realization of the human rights of those on whom it is imposed as compared to conceivable alternative designs.

From this in the follows that an institutional order and its imposition are human-rights-violating if and insofar as this order foresee-ably gives rise to a substantial and avoidable human rights deficit.

2.2.2 Evaluating current global institutional world order

Pogge has evaluated the current global institutional world order represented by agencies such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO and has come to the conclusion that the current order is actually violating the human rights of the poor as in they are becoming poorer and more marginalised.

He argues that it is probably the largest human rights violation ever committed in human history. He admits that those who commit it do not intend the death and suffering they inflict either as an end or as a means but their wilful indifference to the enormous harms they cause in the course of advancing their own ends while going to great lengths to deceive the world (and sometimes themselves) about the impact of their conduct.

2.2.3 Examples of how the current global institutional world order is flawed Misrepresentation of figures and interpretation by the World Bank

Pogge in a book which is about to be published this year demonstrates how the world bank has been shifting goalposts, and has been playing around with numbers in creative accounting, so that it looks like global poverty is decreasing when in fact it is not. In the media they portray as if the millennium goals are being met while in fact inequality and the plight of the worlds poorest is worsening. Two additional illustrations

Besides the dissemination of misinformation and falsehood at a global level Pogge gives various other examples how the current institutional world order harms the poor of which I just want to highlight two: Local corruption is facilitated and exacerbated by global institutions

The world’s global institutions facilitate and exacerbate corruption perpetuated by national institutions. Pogge is especially critical of the “resource” and “borrowing” privileges which allow illegitimate political leaders to sell natural resources and to borrow money in the name of the country and its people. In the long term the ordinary citizens suffer as their governments sooner or later have to pay back these debts with interest on top which means less funds are available for education, health and development. Global institutions allow the unrestricted flow of illegal money

According to Pogge Global institutions are turning a blind eye, if not facilitating the unrestricted flow of illegal money from the developing world to the developed nations of the world.

The figures are staggering:

Every year, $1 trillion is spirited out of developing countries through corruption, smuggling, money laundering, and corporate tax evasion. These illicit financial flows out of developing countries dwarf the flow of development assistance going in. Illicit financial flows removed $10 for every dollar spent on overall development aid, and $80 for every dollar spent on basic social services.

Multi-national corporations

This flow of money does not just refer to funds transferred by corrupt dictators into bank accounts in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands but also refers to profits illegally transferred by multi-national companies so that they avoid paying revenues and taxes in the developing countries where they operate.

The current global economic and financial system allows these injustices to happen and actually maintains an unequal and unjust global environment where such things can happen. The world’s poor are not merely suffering because we are doing too little to help. They are being actively and wrongly harmed by a system of global political and economic arrangements that is disproportionately shaped by and for the benefit of wealthy Western societies.

2.3 Pogge and other forms of interventions on behalf of the poor
Pogge is not opposed to individual or collective action to alleviate the burden of the poor by means of charity and relief work. His point is that this may have little effect in the long-term if the global institutional side of things is not addressed:

It makes little sense to pour in development dollars and lots of energy into charity and relief work if the global system is so flawed that for every dollar given in development, 10 dollars disappear.

The long-term solution according to Pogge is to call for institutional reform of the global institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO and the like so that they will no longer foster inequality and the trampling of the rights of the poor but can be harnassed to promote pro-poor policies, genuine equality and address global human rights violations instead of facilitating them.


How this can be achieved practically is best expressed in Pogge’s words:

This will require international collaboration among experts, practitioners and the media. Academics can foster such collaboration by working together across academic disciplines toward building a common understanding of the world poverty problem and a common methodology for tracking its dimensions and for assessing the prospects and actual results of new policies and reforms.

Pogge himself takes a leading role in promoting institutional reform as heads of the Global Justice Program at Yale University; an interdisciplinary group that works on the assessment and reform of global institutional arrangements.

3. Evaluation

3.1 Discussion of agreements and disagreements between Pogge and Singer’s approach

From my brief descriptions of the approaches to global justice by both Singer and Pogge I think it may have become clear that both are very concerned about world hunger and poverty in the world but have very different starting points. For Singer morality is closely related to happiness and avoiding harm while for Pogge morality is a matter of conformity with pre-existing universal moral values such as the concept of human dignity. Also Singer emphasizes the duty of the individual to give more and do more to alleviate human poverty and suffering while Pogge emphasizes the need for global institutional reform to address these issues.

3.1.1 Criticism levelled at Singer

Critics of Singer have pointed out that his approach appears too demanding to the individual and as such may have little impact in encouraging them to give. Other’s suggest that Singer's “solution” to world poverty is simply a means whereby an individual can pay for the privilege of having a clear conscience, rather than a meaningful strategem for relieving poverty, and that those who follow Singer's arguments are simply adopting the ethic of anyone who believes that they can buy, with a mixture of guilt and cash, an exemption from the responsibility to focus their intellect and effort to more effective and lasting solutions.” In other words it provides an easy and lazy way out put does not provide lasting solutions.
However, Singer nowhere says that individual action is the only way to address the issue of world poverty and hunger, he would probably agree that collective action is also very important as well as global institutional reform are equally morally important if this will bring the greatest amount of happiness.

3.1.2 Criticism levelled at Pogge

When it comes to Thomas Pogge, several critics point out that institutional reform is a good long-term strategy but should not be the only strategy. Even if the WB, IMF, WTO are reformed, even if the ICC and similar institutions are democratized and harnassed in the fight against world poverty and hunger, we still have the problem of the elite’s in developing countries whose interests are so entrenched locally, even within their legal systems, that they will continue to get the lion share of available resources.

Other objections raised include that Thomas Pogge’s long-term strategy could actually take a very long time as it needs extensive international support and political willingness which is not easy to achieve.

Others argue that Pogge’s approach needs to be complemented with other approaches. Instead of just looking at the negative duty of global institutions to refrain from global injustice and human rights violations these must be complemented with positive duties such as fostering global solidarity as in the world social forum as well as individual and collective action for immediate relief and mitigation.

However, in none of his writings does Pogge object to complementary approaches, he simply points at the global economic and social world order and the major role of global institutions and says that change at that level is essential for a long term solution. It does not necessarily follow that Pogge is at the same time opposed to short-term interventions.

3.2 Pogge meets Singer

It is in short-term intervention that Pogge and Singer stand side by side. Both are both prominent members of the “Giving what you can” society who have pledged to contribute at least 10% of their income to charitable organizations such as Oxfam to where they think it will do the most to eliminate poverty in the developing world.
However, even when it comes to global institutional reform Singer would probably agree that global institutional reform is necessary if this has the potential to bring long term happiness for many more people in the world than is the case in the present world order.

4. Conclusion

Now at the end of this presentation I want to come back to my opening question:
Are Pogge’s and Singer’s approaches to Global Justice and Human Rights mutually exclusive?

My answer is no, they are not mutually exclusive. It is not a matter of ‘either-or’, but a matter of ‘both-and’, they complement each other.

Let end with illustrating this from a more personal angle:

Imagine a woman with a starving baby on her back knocks at my door in Malawi asking for some food so she can feed her child. I cannot send her away empty-handed and tell her: “don’t worry my dear, we are busy campaigning for global institutional reform so that in the future you will no longer have to face this problem.” Such an answer would not only be ridiculous and totally incomprehensible for the woman, it would actually be immoral. I therefore would stress that we have an individual duty to alleviate human suffering as well as a collective and global responsibility.
Thank you.

Sources used (not all):

Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972: 229-243.
Thomas Pogge. “Poverty, Human Rights and the Global Order: Framing the Post-2015 Agenda,” forthcoming in Malcolm Langford, Andy Sumner and Alice Yamin, eds.: MDGs and Human Rights: Past, Present and Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2012).
Thomas Pogge. Recognized and Violated by International Law:
The Human Rights of the Global Poor is revised version of article originally published in Leiden Journal of International Law 18/4 (2005), 717–745
Thomas Pogge, Poverty and Human Rights “Poverty and Human Rights” (2007), Expert Comment for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; reprinted in Manoj Kumar Pattanaik, ed.: Human Rights and Intellectual Property (Hyderabad: ICFAI University Press 2008), 95–102.
Thomas Pogge: World Poverty and Human Rights. Cambridge: Polity
Press, 2002.
Thomas Pogge 2012. Global Justice Program. Yale University:

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