Last updated: August 28, 2019
Topic: SocietyWork
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Beitz was a student of John Rawls who originally devised the difference principle in his arguably most famous book ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1972) which Gaynor (2014: 440) argues advances the fundamental propositions for the distribution of fairness and equality in society. To get a better understanding of Beitz’ extension of Rawls’ work I will first explain what the Difference Principle is and subsequently evaluate Beitz’s extended theory of a ‘global difference principle’. Rawls’ was a political and ethical philosopher who looked at inequality in society. His difference principle comprised of two strands; firstly, that each person should have the basic liberties which are compatible with the liberties of others (Gaynor, 2014: 440) and secondly, that inequality in society is only justified if it benefits the most disadvantaged in society (Mitch, 2014: 456). Beitz challenged the notion that the difference principle was exclusive to single societies, and instead put forth the idea that Rawls’ difference principle should be taken beyond a single society and should be implemented onto the global plane. I will use ‘global justice’ and ‘distributive justice’ interchangeably. The aim of this essay will be to critically evaluate Beitz’ argument for a global difference principle, assessing its justifications and objections.


In his book ‘Justice and International Relations’ (1979: 8), Beitz suggests that the international domain is evolving more and more to emulate domestic society and all the characteristics which justify the implementation of domestic political principles. For the Rawlsian theorist, there was a basic global structure mirroring a domestic structure, which strongly linked citizens of different nations through ties of cultural, economic and political institutions (Wenar 2006: 3). In his article, Wenar (2006: 4) suggests that both Beitz and Pogges were advocates of people being regarded as ‘citizens of the world’ rather than citizens of a liberal democracy. This cosmopolitan view would insinuate the advocacy of a global difference principle, where inequalities of wealth are only justified if it benefits the most disadvantaged in the world. However, Rawls did not intervene in the discussion of global justice until his ‘A Law of People’s’ (1999) where he explained that often, people’s standards of living reflect their own decisions (1999: 117). Rawls gives the example of some (nations) wanting to industrialise while others choose not to if they champion a pastoral, sedate life. The point argued by Collste (2016: 10) is that the notion of a global difference principle would be unjust for Rawls as people’s circumstances are a result of individual choices. Perhaps Rawls’ words could be interpreted to say that helping out those who are globally less fortunate undermines their autonomy. This is why Rawls favoured the ‘duty of assistance’.

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As globalisation becomes more prominent and interconnectedness of people strengthens, it has been said that economic globalisation has a direct impact on how wealth is distributed around the world; resulting in the disparity between the global rich and the global poor to be widening (Collste, 2016: 8). In his book ‘Political Theory and International Relations’ (1979), Beitz argues that the global difference principle explains that it is the most globally disadvantaged person’s position which should be maximised. The biggest critique of Beitz’ argument could be Rawls’. This is because he was completely against global distributive justice, believing rather, that wealthier societies have a ‘duty of assistance’ (Pogge, 2004: 260-88) towards societies facing inimical conditions. It is believed that this duty is only necessary to establish a decent and well ordered ‘social and political institutions’ whereby the basic human rights of citizens is met (Armstrong, 2009: 464). Armstrong argues that the way by which the duty is fulfilled is through advice and perhaps even technical support, but this does not mean as Beitz would argue, that there should be any compensation for the most disadvantaged people in the world. Rawls’ advocacy for the ‘duty of assistance’ could be said to undermine Beitz’ Global difference principle as it focuses on trying to develop stable social and political institutions rather than attempting to mitigate global inequality. One could suggest, however, that fulfilling a duty of assistance encourages global social cooperation, despite it being far from a global difference principle as Beitz puts it.


Alternatively, Pogge, a German philosopher has been argued to have the most influential stance on global justice (Collste, 2016: 10). Pogge and Beitz had similar ideas, both of which were influenced by Rawls. In ‘World Poverty and Human Rights’ (2002), Pogge explains that there is a likeness between global structural injustices and a moral responsibility of the global rich to the global poor. The Rawlsian theorist believes in a negative duty whereby one person does not impose suffering onto another for a lesser benefit (Pogge, 2002). Pogge further argues that there is a positive duty which demands that people have a moral duty to help those in distress. In addition, Collste (2016: 11) suggests that for Pogge, an alternative global economic order can be established which would be better for the worst off in society. This does not directly liken itself with Beitz’ global difference principle, yet it does suggest an enhanced level of global social cooperation which would benefit the less well off. Perhaps it could be argued that Pogge’s views on a revised global economic structure lends itself well to a global difference principle, suggesting that it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility.  


The aim of this essay was to critically evaluate Beitz’ argument for a global difference principle. Rawls seems to be the most notable opposition to the idea of allowing global inequality if it benefits the most globally disadvantaged people. This idea is stated by Rawls (1999: 117) who argues that intervening in the matters of others would undermine their power to make sovereign and autonomous choice; explaining that some people’s circumstances are a consequence of their own decisions. Rawls has further argued that only a ‘duty of assistance’ (Pogge, 2004: 260-88) is acceptable where nations burdened with unfavourable circumstances are aided by nations in the form of advice and technological support to establish social and political order (Armstrong, 2009: 464). However, Beitz’ global difference principle may not be completely out of the question. This can be seen through arguments made by Pogge, another Rawlsian philosopher who suggests that people not only have a negative duty to not encourage the suffering of another, but also have a positive duty to assist those in need (Pogge, 2002). This, would allow for a global economic order (Collste 2016: 11) which would better the lives of the worst off in the world. Both Rawls’ and Beitz’ arguments may be said to be compelling; on a humanitarian level, Beitz’ global difference principle would greatly better the lives millions around the world, but perhaps Rawls takes a more pragmatic outlook on civilisation, acknowledging the importance of autonomous decisions.