Ethics & International Affairs

Symposium: World Poverty and Human Rights

Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties

Thomas Pogge*

Mathias Risse discusses whether the global system of territorial sovereignty that emerged in the fifteenth century can be said to harm the poorer societies. This question is distinct from the question I raise in my book—namely, whether present citizens of the affluent countries, in collusion with the ruling elites of most poor countries, are harming the global poor. These questions are different, because present citizens of the affluent countries bear responsibility only for the recent design of the global institutional order. The effects of the states system as it was shaped before 1980, say, is thus of little relevance to the question I have raised. A further difference is that whereas Risse's discussion focuses on the well-being of societies, typically assessed by their GNP per capita, my discussion focuses on the well-being of individual human beings. This difference is significant because what enriches a poor country (in terms of GNP per capita) all too often impoverishes the vast majority of its inhabitants, as I discuss with the example of Nigeria's oil revenues (pp. 112–14).

My focus is then on the present situation, on the radical inequality between the bottom half of humankind, suffering severe poverty, and those in the top seventh, whose per capita share of the global product is 180 times greater than theirs (at market exchange rates). This radical inequality and the continuous misery and death toll it engenders are foreseeably reproduced under the present global institutional order as we have shaped it. And most of it could be avoided, I hold, if this global order had been, or were to be, designed differently. The feasibility of a more poverty-avoiding alternative design of the global institutional order shows, I argue, that the present design is unjust and that, by imposing it, we are harming the global poor by foreseeably subjecting them to avoidable severe poverty.

Thomas Pogge has been teaching moral and political philosophy at Columbia University since receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University. His recent publications include the edited volume, Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right (2005); Real World Justice (co-edited with Andreas Follesdal, 2005); World Poverty and Human Rights (2002); “Can the Capability Approach be Justified?” (Philosophical Topics, 2002); and, with Sanjay Reddy, “How Not to Count the Poor” (www.socialanalysis.org). He is editor for social and political philosophy for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science. His work was supported, most recently, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, All Souls College, Oxford, and the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda. He is currently Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Australian National University (an Australian Research Council-funded Special Research Centre).

Footnotes

* Many thanks to the editors of Ethics & International Affairs and my fellow symposiasts for making this exchange possible, and to David Álvarez García, Nicole Hassoun, Keith Horton, Rekha Nath, and Ling Tong for their critical comments.

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