Responsibility in Unjust Institutions

  • By Dr. Stephen Winter, Chair, Auckland Branch of the New Zealand Society for Legal and Social Philosophy

Suppose you go to a supermarket today and buy a banana.

You confront a choice between a fair trade banana and one that is not. Should you choose the fair trade banana because to do otherwise would harm someone?

Recent discussions in global justice theory have asked how we should think about our responsibility with regard to the unjust economic and political institutions that structure global trade and international relations.

On one hand are those who argue that while the world might be unjust, this injustice is systemic and we should not make moral judgments about the day-to-day decisions of individuals who, of necessity, must live within it. On the other hand are those who argue that the rights-violating character of global institutions impose strict demands upon our every decision, even those as apparently innocuous as our choice of fruit.

These questions were addressed by Rees Skiff of the Political Studies Department at the University of Auckland in his talk on 21 August. Mr Skiff is the winner of the 2013 Essay Prize offered by the Society. His talk concerned his prize-winning essay, “Pogge’s Theory of Responsibility,” in which he interrogated responsibility attributions developed in Thomas Pogge’s 2002 book World Poverty and Human Rights.

Pogge’s book is a benchmark in global justice debates and states the strong view that our participation in unjust institutions means that we are inflicting human rights violations. The decision on whether or not to purchase a fair trade banana is not merely a decision as to whether we will act virtuously, but a decision about whether we will be complicit in the human rights violations that constitute unfair terms of trade. If we choose the non-fair trade banana, we, as individuals, are responsible for global injustice.

Skiff’s paper criticised Pogge’s claim that individuals are responsible for human rights violations. He began by arguing that Pogge confronts the epistemic objection that it is very difficult to discover what harm the banana-buyer would inflict.

Furthermore, even if Pogge could answer that question, Skiff argued that our agency is always constrained and we can have reasons to engage with unjust institutions if the consequences of not engaging would be significant. In other words, we can have reasons to do that which is wrongful when the costs of acting rightly are sufficiently high.

Rather than adopt Pogge’s strict language of rights, Skiff argued that we should see the injustice embodied in global institutions as providing defeasible reasons to both avoid engagement and to promote reform.

The lively Q&A period focussed upon whether or not Pogge was committed to the claims that Skiff attributed to him and whether or not ‘rights violation’ is the best description of the banana-buying situation. The person who chooses an un-fair trade banana is not obviously harming anyone. Instead, it appears to better describe this purchase as ‘exploitative’. We may have reasons not to exploit people and to avoid participating in exploitative systems, but rights violations are discrete acts and it is not obvious that purchasing of a banana is a discrete rights violation.

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