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Human Rights Quarterly 23.1 (2001) 171-187

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Global Consumption and Distributive Justice: A Rawlsian Perspective

Ronald Paul Hill & Robert M. Peterson & Kanwalroop Kathy Dhanda


I. Introduction

The purpose of this investigation is to examine consumption inequities on a global basis from the ethical perspective advanced by the philosopher John Rawls. The first three Sections of the article describe the Rawlsian approach to distributive justice in detail, with a special emphasis on its application to primary goods and services. Then an examination of the extent to which Rawlsian justice exists globally is presented in Section IV using data collected and/or verified by the United Nations. The paper closes with implications and future research directions for creating a just world.

[S]ociety is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage [that] is typically marked by a conflict as well as an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to try to live solely by his own efforts. There is a [End Page 171] conflict of interests since [people] are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. 1

According to Rawls, a theory of distributive justice should provide a set of standards by which the distribution system of goods within a society can be judged. 2 The premise behind such a system is that a satisfactory existence for any particular individual is dependent upon the cooperation of all members of society. Thus, the division of economic advantages should be acceptable to everyone, regardless of status or position. Specifically, no one should feel that "they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard as legitimate." 3

Rawls refers to his own conception of distributive justice as "Justice as Fairness." 4 In order for this perspective to embrace society in toto, its guiding principles are derived from the original position, a situation in which a person is unaware of his or her relative status among peers. In such an environment, principles of justice "would be chosen by people who are free, equal, rational, knowledgeable about human nature and society, concerned about promoting their own well being, mutually disinterested, and ignorant of their own identity and place in society." 5

As a result of the original position and its "veil of ignorance," no individual has a relative advantage in the establishment of principles of justice. Since everyone lacks knowledge of their true position, they are unable to develop principles that favor their particular circumstances. Rawls views these restrictions as consistent with a situation in which an enemy has the ability to assign one's place in society. 6 Therefore, an individual would ensure that conditions are reasonable even in the worst possible circumstances. John Edgren states that principles of justice established in the original position would be:

    1. general (e.g., containing no reference overtly or covertly to particular persons),

    2. universal (apply to all persons),

    3. publicly acknowledged, [End Page 172]

    4. such as to impose a complete ordering on conflicting claims, and

    5. the final court of appeal in reasoning about ethical behavior. 7

This position results in principles of justice that delineate the ethical distribution of the primary goods of society. 8 In his early writings on this topic, Rawls described two fundamental principles: "first, each person . . . has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage." 9 While subtle in its tone, the second principle is a direct attack on the ethical paradigm of utilitarianism, which allows greater advantages for one group in society to outweigh disadvantages for another group. 10 Under the veil of ignorance, no one is aware of his...


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