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The Motivation Question: Arguments from Justice and from Humanity

  • Holly Lawford-Smith


Two dominant arguments within international political theory, arguments from humanity and arguments from justice, can be distinguished along the lines of the well-known distinction between omissions and actions, respectively. The discussion in this paper shows that people in general are psychologically biased towards thinking that omissions producing harm are less morally grave than actions producing equivalent harm. It also canvasses evidence suggesting that greater moral gravity correlates with heightened guilt, and that heightened guilt is more likely to lead to action that would alleviate it, i.e. remedial or compensatory action. For those reasons, it is suggested that we should expect arguments from justice, which track actions, to be a more feasible means to the desired outcome of (local commitment to) global justice than arguments from humanity, which track omissions.



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1 Singer, Peter, ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1972), 229243; Campbell, Tom, ‘Humanity before Justice’, British Journal of Political Science, 4 (1974), 116; Pogge, Thomas, World Poverty and Human Rights (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002).

2 A good overview of the cosmopolitan positions can be found in Sheffler, Samuel, ‘Conceptions of Cosmopolitanism’, Utilitas, 11 (1999), 255276.

3 Justice and humanity also play a major role in other discussions within international political theory. For example, they are significant in discussions about immigration and about climate change. Peter Singer‘s metaphor of the nuclear fallout shelter, which emphasizes the duties of assistance we have towards people who are suffering as a result of their citizenship in countries outside our own, while a focus on how countries accepting skilled immigrants as workers harm the workers’ countries of origin emphasizes duties not to (contribute to) harm. Immigration as assistance can be seen as a matter of humanity; immigration as contribution to harm can be seen as a matter of justice. On the former, see e.g. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), chap. 9; Schacknove, Andrew, ‘Who Is a Refugee?’ Ethics, 95 (1985), 274284; on the latter, see e.g. Brock, Gillian, Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), chap. 8; Barry, Christian and Øverland, Gerhard, ‘Why Remittances to Poor Countries Should Not Be Taxed’, Journal of International Law and Politics, 42 (2010), 11811207; Barry, Christian, ‘Immigration and Global Justice’, Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric, 4 (2011), 3038; Ypi, Lea, ‘Justice in Migration: A Closed Borders Utopia?’ Journal of Political Philosophy, 4 (2008), 391418. Or, in the climate change discussion, some theorists allege that industrialized countries have contributed to the harms that both are and will be experienced and, therefore, owe reparation as a matter of justice (such as lowering their own greenhouse gas emissions drastically, or providing adaptive technologies, or offering immigration to those who will be adversely affected), while others think that talking in terms of justice is a non-starter because no country intended to cause global warming, or that we should simply see which countries are most able to help (because they are rich, or large, or high emitters of greenhouse gases), and say they have a humanitarian duty of assistance to try to alleviate the suffering of those who will be adversely affected. For justice-based (‘polluter pays’) arguments, see e.g. Steve Vanderheiden, Atmospheric Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Neumayer, Eric, ‘In Defence of Historical Accountability for Greenhouse Gas Emissions’, Ecological Economics, 33 (2000), 185192; Shue, Henry, ‘Global Environment and International Inequality’, International Affairs, 75 (1999), 531545. For humanity-based (‘ability to pay’) arguments, see discussion in Shue, ‘Global Enivronment’; Caney, Simon, ‘Climate Change and the Duties of the Advantaged’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 13 (2010), 203228, at p. 218; and Darrel Moellendorf, Cosmopolitan Justice (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 2002). For a hybrid view, see Caney, ‘Climate Change’.

4 See Pogge, Thomas, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, Ethics, 103 (1992), 4875; Pogge, Thomas, ‘Cosmopolitanism’, in Robert Goodin and Philip Pettit, eds, A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), pp. 312331; Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights; Pogge, Thomas, ‘World Poverty and Human Rights’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19 (2005), 1–7; Campbell, ‘Humanity before Justice’; Campbell, Tom, Rights: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2006); Tom Campbell, ‘Poverty as a Violation of Human Rights: Inhumanity or Injustice?’ in Pogge, Thomased., Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right. (Oxford: Oxford University Press/UNESCO, 2007), pp. 5–74; Campbell, Tom, ‘Questioning Cosmopolitan Justice’, International Global Ethics Association keynote address (Melbourne, 2008). I take Pogge and Campbell to be representative of the broad justice and humanity positions respectively, but for alternative arguments from humanity, see also Singer, ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’; Brian Barry, ‘Humanity and Justice in Global Perspective’, in Pennock, J. R. and Chapman, J. W.eds, Nomos XXIV: Ethics, Economics and the Law (New York: New York University Press, 1982), 219–252; and Unger, Peter, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); and for alternative arguments from humanity, see Barry, Christian, ‘Applying the Contribution Principle’, Metaphilosophy, 36 (2005), 210227; Christian Barry, ‘Evaluating and Understanding the Contribution Principle’, in Follesdall, Andreas and Pogge, Thomaseds, Real World Justice (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005); Øverland, Gerhard, ‘Poverty and the Moral Significance of Contribution’, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 2 (2005), 299315; and Barry, Christian and Øverland, Gerhard, ‘The Feasible Alternatives Thesis: Kicking Away the Livelihoods of the Global Poor’, Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 11 (2012), 97–119. One can also include as a broadly justice-based argument (contribution through participation) Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2011).

5 Campbell, ‘Poverty as a Violation of Human Rights’, p. 11.

6 Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, p. 54.

7 Campbell, ‘Humanity before Justice’; Campbell, Rights, pp. 157–170.

8 For a similar response, see Goodin, Robert, Protecting the Vulnerable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

9 This is one reason to think the accounts are actually complementary.

10 Some have been dismissive of the humanity approach on the grounds that it cannot justify coercion. The idea is that responding to suffering is charitable, and that there is something importantly voluntary about charitable responses. Campbell simply denies this understanding, concluding in a keynote address that ‘we must reject the view that humanity does not provide grounds for coercion’ (Campbell, ‘Questioning Cosmopolitan Justice’). Where there is suffering, there is a straightforward duty (in others) to aid. Nothing about that story says that the aid may not be enforced.

11 Another way to frame this issue, rather than as a dichotomy between the backward-looking assigning of culpability and the forward-looking focus on capacities to aid, is in terms of perfect and imperfect duties. You might think that duties of justice perfect duties, e.g. to never cause harm, while duties of humanity are imperfect duties, e.g. to assist others sometimes. That way of framing the two might have interestingly different implications.

12 One of Pogge's formulations in particular makes this understanding more difficult. Pogge says that a global institutional scheme is unjust if it produces a pattern of human rights fulfilment that is worse than the pattern a feasible alternative scheme would produce (Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, p. 54). This is more complicated because it is not clear whether we should think that the injustice involved in the continued support of a suboptimal institutional scheme should be considered an action (continuing to do what we ought not), or an omission (failing to change to a more just institutional scheme). Both seem plausible. Despite the difficulties of this well-known formulation, there are many other places in which Pogge talks about our continued contribution to an unjust world order, and those at least are consistent with the action interpretation.

13 Georg Henrik von Wright, Norm and Action (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 45; Brand, M., ‘The Language of Not Doing’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 8 (1971), 45–53, at pp. 49, 52; Moore, R., ‘Refraining’, Philosophical Studies, 36 (1979), pp. 407424, at p. 420 See also discussion in Talja, Jari, ‘On The Logic of Omissions’, Synthese, 65 (1984), 235248.

14 Talja, ‘On The Logic of Omissions’, p. 237. Talja's definition draws on Georg Henrik von Wright, ‘Freedom and Determination’, Acta Philosophica Fennica, 31 (1980), 188, p. 1; Talja also cites the following paper without further details: S. Eldon, ‘Omission’ (1982).

15 Jonathan Bennett, ‘Killing and Letting Die’, in Sterling McMurrin, ed., The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Unger, Peter, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

16 Talja, ‘On The Logic of Omissions’, p. 237.

17 I formulate the omissions bias in terms of actions causing harms equivalent to those of omissions being considered morally worse. Some in the ‘contributions’ tradition think that actions causing harm are substantially worse than the omissions alleged by those in the ‘assistance’ tradition. For example, in a situation where I can choose to either rescue a person I have caused to be in mortal danger, or rescue five persons in mortal danger to whom I am not causally related, it might be permissible for me to rescue the person I caused to be in danger. In that case it is not only equivalent harms that are at issue, as it would be if I had to choose between one person I caused to be in mortal danger and one person I am causally unrelated to. The scales must balance at some point, but the novel thought is that if our duties to remedy harms in which we are causally implicated are much more stringent than our duties to remedy harms we are not causally implicated in, there will be a genuine conflict with the standard consequentialist intuition that we should always save the greater number of lives. I am grateful to Gerhard Øverland for discussion on this point.

18 Ritov, Ilana and Baron, Jonathan, ‘Reluctance to Vaccinate: Omission Bias and Ambiguity’, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3 (1990), 263277; Baron, Jonathan and Ritov, Ilana, ‘Omission Bias, Individual Differences, and Normality’, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 94 (2004), 7485.

19 Baron and Ritov, ‘Omission Bias’, pp. 76, 83; see also Baron, Jonathan, ‘Tradeoffs among Reasons for Action’, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 16 (1986), 173195.

20 Baron and Ritov, ‘Omission Bias’, p. 84.

21 Baron, Jonathan and Leshner, Sarah, ‘How Serious Are Expressions of Protected Values?’ Journal of Experimental Psychology, 6 (2000), 183194; Cohen, B. and Pauker, S., ‘How Do Physicians Weigh Iatrogenic Complications?’ Journal of General Internal Medicine, 9 (1994), 2023; Haidt, Jonathan and Baron, Jonathan, ‘Social Roles and the Moral Judgement of Acts and Omissions’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 26 (1996), 201218; Petronovich, L. and O‘Neill, P., ‘Influence of Wording and Framing Effects on Moral Intuitions’, Ethnology and Sociobiology, 17 (1996), 145171; Royzman, Edward and Baron, Jonathan, ‘The Preference for Indirect Harm’, Social Justice Research, 15 (2002), 165184; Schweitzer, M., ‘Disentangling Status Quo and Omission Effects: Experimental Evidence’, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 58 (1994), 457476; Spranca, MarkMinsk, Elisa and Baron, Jonathan, ‘Omission and Commission in Judgement and Choice’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 27 (1991), 76105; see also discussion in Baran and Ritov, ‘Omission Bias’, p. 74.

22 This is interesting because many theorists assume that the principles underlying decision making are not available to introspection. Respondents were on average 37 years old, 58 per cent were male (a slight male bias), mostly from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, and 25 per cent had some background in moral philosophy: 591 (minus 65, for control reasons) justifications were analysed by the research laboratory. Respondents were asked to rank scenarios from ‘forbidden’ through ‘permissible’ to ‘obligatory’, on a scale from 1 to 7 respectively.

23 Cushman, FieryYoung, Liane and Hauser, Marc, ‘The Role of Conscious Reasoning and Intuition in Moral Judgements: Testing Three Principles of Harm’, Psychological Science, 17 (2006), 10821089.

24 Cushman Young and Hauser, ‘The Role of Conscious Reasoning’, p. 1085.

25 A justification is ‘sufficient’ when satisfactory reasons are provided for it.

26 Waal, Johanna Cordes-de, ‘Intention and the Omission Bias: Omissions Perceived as Nondecisions’, Acta Psychologica, 93 (1996), 161172.

27 I use ‘intended’ rather than ‘intentional’, following Talja's usage, but I do not mean to stake a claim in the more general debate about whether all intentional acts must also be intended. See e.g. Bratman, Michael, ‘Two faces of Intention’, Philosophical Review, 93 (1984), 375–405.

28 Cordes-de Waal, Intention and the Omission Bias’.

29 We might also want to make room for the idea that one outcome can be less intended than another, perhaps where the former is the foreseen side effect of a fully intended act. Then we might be able to argue that the harms involved in global poverty are less intended on the humanity view than on the justice view, and so persons are less culpable for their failures to provide aid.

30 Sartorio, Carolina, ‘A New Asymmetry between Acts and Omissions’, Nous, 39 (2005), 460–482.

31 Some writers claim that omissions cannot be causes at all, e.g. Larry Alexander and Kimberly Kessler Ferzan, who say that ‘omissions do not and cannot cause anything’. Alexander, Larry and Ferzan, Kimberly Kessler, Crime and Culpability: A Theory of Criminal Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

32 It is a little difficult to treat this case as Sartorio does. One possibility is to diagnose the non-harm as something a third party would be ready to do in the event that I did not, which makes the cases parallel to the extent that the outcomes will be the same. Then we should say that if I fail to donate, some third party will step in and donate for me, and the question is just whether there is anything distinctively wrong about my failure to donate. It looks like there is, for exactly the causal reasons she gives. When I donate I am causally implicated in the aid (I ‘create a new benefit’ by providing aid; conversely I would ‘create a new threat’ by not donating).

33 Goodin, Robert, ‘Demandingness as a Virtue’, Journal of Ethics, 13 (2009), 113.

34 It might be possible to argue that they do meet the necessary conditions for omissions. I assume that there is a tacit knowledge condition in Talja's (iv), ‘S has a reason to perform a’, along the lines ‘S knows that she has a reason to perform a’. If there is no such knowledge condition, then S can have a reason she does not know she has, and omissions based on failures to consider an option will be possible.

35 One way to block this conclusion is to deny the causal efficacy of Pogge's argument. If people do not believe themselves to be culpable in the way he says they are, then they are unlikely to feel the guilt or shame that might motivate them to take remedial action (on which more in the next section). I shall return to this worry.

36 Boster, Franklin, Mitchell, Monique, Lapinski, Maria, Cooper, HeatherOrrego, Victoria and Reinke, Ronald, ‘The Impact of Guilt and Type of Compliance-Gaining Message on Compliance’, Communication Monographs, 66 (1999), 168177.

37 Carlsmith, J. and Gross, A., ‘Some Effects of Guilt on Compliance’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3 (1969), 232239; Cunningham, M.Steinberg, J. and Grev, R., ‘Wanting to Have and Having to Help: Motivations for Positive Mood and Guilt-induced Helping’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38 (1980), 181192; Freedman, J.Wallington, S. and Bless, E., ‘Compliance without Pressure: The Effect of Guilt’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7 (1967), 117125; Konecni, V., ‘Some Effects of Guilt on Compliance: A Field Replication’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23 (1972), 3032.

38 Baumeister, R.Stillwell, A. and Heatherton, T., ‘Guilt: An Interpersonal Approach’, Psychological Bulletin, 115 (1994), 243267; Lazarus, Richard, Emotion and Adaptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Nabi, R., ‘A Cognitive–Functional Model for the Effects of Discrete Negative Emotions on Information Processing, Attitude Change, and Recall’, Communication Theory, 9 (1999), 292320; R. Nabi, ‘Discrete Emotions and Persuasion’, in Dillard, J. P. and Pfau, M.eds, The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2002), pp. 289–308; D. O'Keefe, ‘Guilt and Social Influence’, in Roloff, M. E.ed., Communication Yearbook 23 (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000), pp. 67–101; D. J. O'Keefe, ‘Guilt as a Mechanism of Persuasion’, Dillard and Pfau, eds, The Persuasion Handbook, pp 329–344.

39 Lazarus, Richard, Emotion and Adaptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); discussed in Lindsey, Lisa, ‘Anticipated Guilt as Behavioural Motivation: An Examination of Appeals to Help Unknown Others through Bone-Marrow Donation’, Human Communication Research, 31 (2005), 453481.

40 Lindsey, ‘Anticipated Guilt as Behavioural Motivation’, p. 473; see also on negative reactions to perceived manipulations in general, J. W. Brehm, A Theory of Psychological Reactance (New York: Academic Press, 1966).

41 For anecdotal evidence on this point, see book, Malcolm Gladwell's popular, Blink (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 2005), which draws on Gigerenzer, Gerd, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious (USA: Viking Penguin, 2007).

42 Caprara, Gian Vittorio, Barbaranelli, Claudio, Pastorelli, ConcettaCermak, Ivo and Rosza, Sandor, ‘Facing Guilt: Role of Negative Affectivity, Need for Reparation, and Fear of Punishment in Leading to Prosocial Behaviour and Aggression’, European Journal of Personality, 15 (2001), 219–237, p. 233. Both of the experiments discussed in this section rely on self-reports, in one case by pre-adolescents, in the other case by university students. Unfortunately, the bone-marrow experiments by Lindsey were unable to corroborate the self-reports about action due to funding issues. We know from action theory that actions are produced necessarily by intentions, but the question here runs in the other direction, namely the extent to which intentions produce the actions that are their subject matter. It seems clear that we can have an intention that we fail to realize. Lindsey acknowledges that guilt should be exploited into action (e.g. by those who desire the action) while it is still fresh, suggesting that she agrees that the causal connection is not a reliable one. More remains to be said on this point.

43 Although neither of their suggested funds are currently functional, which suggests that an individual convinced by the arguments will be left with either a mere conditional commitment (“I’ll support the creation of the fund when someone in parliament actually puts it forward as policy”), or the discretion to choose an alternative (“in the meantime, I’ll donate some ad hoc proportion of my salary to this international charity”), neither of which fully satisfies the requirement for an accessible means to alleviate the alleged guilt.

44 In any case, remedial action is more likely in the presence of guilt than in its absence.

45 In so far as it involves simply supporting a proposal for policy reform, that is not to ask anything particularly demanding of them.

46 One worry about alleging both arguments, though, is that people might become suspicious that they are being manipulated – reasoning that surely both cannot be true – which may trigger the reactive attitudes mentioned in the previous section.

47 I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion. See discussion in Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), esp. §17.

48 Joshua Cohen, ‘Philosophy, Social Science, Global Poverty’, in Jaggar, Alisoned., Thomas Pogge and His Critics (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), pp. 18–45.

49 Patten, Alan, ‘Should We Stop Thinking about Poverty in Terms of Helping the Poor?’ Ethics and International Affairs, 19 (2005), 1927.

50 Patten, ‘Should We Stop Thinking about Poverty’.

51 Øverland, Gerhard, ‘Poverty and the Moral Significance of Contribution’, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 2 (2005), 299315; see also the papers collected in Jaggar, ed., Thomas Pogge and His Critics.

52 The relative weight of epistemic v. rhetorical strengths needs further investigation; this article has been a contribution to thinking more about the latter.

53 See fn. 3; and also Caney, Simon, ‘International Distributive Justice’, Political Studies, 49 (2010), 974997.

54 Although this might mean a failure in humanity-guilt, it also might mean a failure in people's actually believing in the principle that where there is suffering there is a moral duty to relieve it.

55 See discussion in Rosati, Connie, ‘Moral Motivation’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (October 2006), §3.1–3.2 online at, accessed 07/09/11.

56 One way of thinking about this is in terms of justice requiring an individual to stop doing the harm they are doing. If claims of justice primarily require this kind of stopping, while claims of humanity primarily require a kind of doing or giving, then it is plausible that using a justice-based argument could be less efficacious if the overall aim is to alleviate global poverty. Imagine, for example, that we stop doing harm by disabling the International Borrowing Privilege and the International Resource Privilege. It might nonetheless take years for the effects of the rule-change to start impacting on poverty, whereas in comparison we might be able to make greater progress using humanity-based arguments. In that case, the justice-based argument, although stronger and more motivating, would do negligible good compared to the weaker and less motivating humanity-based argument. Is that a reason to go with the latter? The real question is the extent to which the issue of compensation can be decoupled from the issue of harm. The justice and humanity arguments allege different kinds of harms, but they might both entail compensatory obligations. This is controversial; many think that positive duties are not enforceable and that failure does not entail that anything is owed. But it is plausible to think that my failing to assist you at very little cost to myself implicates me morally in a way that means I then owe you something. For an interesting discussion of failures to assist compounding compensatory duties, see Christian Barry, ‘On Failing in One's Duties To Assist’ (unpublished paper). I find it implausible that the ‘stopping’ of harm can be decoupled from the issue of compensation or reparation. Violating your right to be free from physical harm by harming you gives me a duty of justice to stop, but in virtue of the fact that I did harm you, I owe you something. For example, Caney thinks something is owed to all those individuals who will suffer the negative effects of climate change because the actions that have caused climate change are a violation of people's human rights not to suffer those effects ( Caney, Simon, ‘Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change’, Leiden Journal of International Law, 18 (2005), 747775, p. 135). The situation in which justice-based arguments will do negligible good compared with humanity-based arguments is conceivable, but unlikely. Normally a violation of justice and the owing of compensation go hand in hand.

57 But note the concerns about fair trade for those in the world's poorest countries in Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); see also discussion relating the book to Pogge's proposal in Segal, Paul, ‘Review of Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion, Renewal, 16 (2008).

* School of Philosophy, ANU (email: ). The author is grateful to the participants of the ‘Duties of Assistance’ workshop at the Australian National University (Kioloa) in November 2010 for invaluable comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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The Motivation Question: Arguments from Justice and from Humanity

  • Holly Lawford-Smith


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