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Human Flourishing and Universal Justice*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Thomas W. Pogge
Philosophy, Columbia University


The question of what constitutes human flourishing elicits an extraordinary variety of responses, which suggests that there are not merely differences of opinion at work, but also different understandings of the question itself. So it may help to introduce some clarity into the question before starting work on one answer to it.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1999

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1 One can get a sense of this variety by recalling the more influential discussions of human flourishing just within analytic philosophy of the past twenty years. Among these are the discussions in the following books: Annas, Julia, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Elster, Jon, Sour Grapes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Frankfurt, Harry, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Galston, William, Justice and the Human Good (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)Google Scholar; Gibbard, Allan, Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Griffin, James, Well-Being (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)Google ScholarPubMed; Maclntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981)Google Scholar; Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Nozick, Robert, The Examined Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989)Google Scholar; Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Nussbaum, , The Therapy of Desire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Raz, Joseph, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Raz, , Ethics in the Public Domain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scanlon, Thomas, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming 1999)Google Scholar; Slote, Michael, Goods and Virtues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Slote, , From Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Tugendhat, Ernst, Vorlesungen über Ethik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993)Google Scholar; Williams, Bernard, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, , Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Williams, , Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Williams, , Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Wollheim, Richard, The Thread of Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

2 See Plato, , The Republic, trans. Grube, G. M. A. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974), 357a358d.Google Scholar

3 In fact, Plato's argument seeks to show that being just is good in both ways (Republic, 357c–358a)—that it is a component in its own right (Republic, Books 2–7, esp. 444d–e) and a means to other components, such as well-being, pleasure, and esteem (Republic, Books 8–10, esp. 587e–588a, 612d–614b).

4 Kant offers this example in his Critique of Practical Reason; see Kant, Immanuel, Kants gesammelte Schriften, vol. 5, ed. Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1913), p. 60.Google Scholar

5 Achievement, in turn, might be understood in different time frames, i.e., more narrowly, in terms of the ethical quality of a person's deeds, and/or, more broadly, in terms of the ethical significance of her life's historical impact on the world.

6 We see an extreme instance of this phenomenon in act-utilitarian doctrine according to which the personal value of a human life is measured by the quantity of happiness it contains while its ethical value is measured by its impact on the general happiness. When a utilitarian reflects on the value of a human life from within, its ethical value will predominate: what matters is that one's life should have the greatest possible positive impact on the general happiness. To what extent one should seek one's own happiness is an empiricalinstrumental question: one should seek one's own happiness whenever this is the best way of promoting the general happiness—and otherwise one ought to promote the general happiness, even at the expense of one's own. When a utilitarian reflects on the value of a human life from without, its personal value will predominate: what matters is that others be as happy as possible. To what extent one should also want them to be promoters of happiness is an empirical-instrumental question: one should promote the ethical value of human lives whenever this is the best way of promoting the personal value of human lives—and otherwise one ought to promote personal value, even at the expense of ethical value.

7 “Social order” and “regime” are also used.

8 The moral assessment of social institutions may thus involve more than a criterion of justice, as one may also want to consider, for example, how institutions affect other species of animals or how well they accord with God's will. My definition places such issues outside the discourse about justice, which can therefore contribute only one essential component of the moral assessment of social institutions.

9 See Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Irwin, Terence (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985), Book 1, ch. 10, 1100a10–31.Google Scholar

10 For further discussion of this topic, see Meyer, Lukas, “More Than They Have a Right To: Future People and Our Future-Oriented Projects,” in Contingent Future Persons: On the Ethics of Deciding Who Will Live, or Not, in the Future, ed. Fotion, Nick and Heller, Jan C. (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1997), pp. 137–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 This point is analogous to one that arises when we seek to optimize some process of production. Even if it is true that each part of the process is designed in the best possible way given the way the other parts are designed, it may still be possible greatly to improve the entire process: by redesigning all the parts together or, more importantly, by altering the process's very structure (including its division into parts).

12 The goal of free intercultural agreement on a universal criterion of justice does, however, involve the hope that most cultures can sustain reflection and discussion about matters of justice that transcend the confines of their own traditions and are sensitive to the outlooks prevalent in other cultures. Sections IV and VI below indicate how cultures might fulfill this hope even without fulfilling the demand I reject in the text.

13 Here a person's most favored outcome is assigned the value 1, and her least favored outcome is assigned the value 0. The value of any other outcome Q is then that n ( 0 ≤ n ≤ 1) which makes the following true: The person is indifferent between Q with certainty, on the one hand, and a lottery pursuant to which her most-favored outcome occurs with probability n and her least-favored outcome with probability (1 – n), on the other hand.

14 This issue of fulfillment versus satisfaction confronts any account of human flourishing and thus is quite independent of my focus on such accounts within the context of developing a globally shareable criterion of justice for the moral assessment of institutional schemes.

15 Thus, your aspiration to be loved is fulfilled insofar as you truly are loved, and satisfied insofar as you live in the happy consciousness of being loved. Obviously, an aspiration may be fulfilled without being satisfied and also may be satisfied without being fulfilled: you may be loved while believing that you are not; or you may believe falsely that you are loved. The fulfillment of an aspiration may be a matter of degree insofar as its realization in the world may be more or less complete. The satisfaction of such an aspiration may then be a matter of degree twice over, for it also depends on the degrees of confidence with which a person ascribes particular degrees of fulfillment to the aspiration in question.

16 A person's first-order desires are those desires that are not about her own desires. Many of our desires fall into this category. But many do not, as when I desire to shed, to strengthen or to weaken, to indulge or to frustrate, to attend to or to neglect one of my present desires, for example, or when I desire to acquire a new one.

17 The latter demand is that social institutions should engender fitting pairs of values and options—should work so that persons have the options they value and value the options they have.

18 There must be tight limits, however, on h ow one society may sanction another when it judges the institutions of the latter to accord with the universal criterion but not with the former's own more ambitious criterion of justice. Agreement on a universal criterion would lose much of its point, if fulfillment of this criterion did not shield national regimes against coercive reform efforts from the outside.

19 I do not here mean to rule out the possibility that some societies or other groups may think of the universal criterion as exhausting what justice requires. This criterion—though it should not be understood as exhaustive—should not be understood as nonexhaustive either. Both of these understandings would needlessly undermine its widespread acceptance and hence the plausibility of its claim to universality.

20 See Section III above, second paragraph.

21 Paradigmatic for this answer is Rawls's broad list, which includes various basic liberties as well as income and wealth, powers and prerogatives of office, and social bases of self-respect. See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971)Google Scholar, esp. section 15; and Rawls, , “Social Unity and Primary Goods,” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, Amartya K. and Williams, Bernard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 159–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Cf. Dworkin, Ronald, “What Is Equality? Part II: Equality of Resources,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 10, no. 4 (Fall 1981), pp. 283345Google Scholar; and Scanlon, Thomas M., “Preference and Urgency,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 72, no. 19 (11 1975), pp. 655–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Capabilities are defined in terms of what a person can do or be. In contrast to the Rawlsian answer, this way of conceiving basic goods makes their measurement sensitive to differences in persons' specific needs and endowments. Thus, Sen has us focus, for example, not on a person's income as such, but on her income relative to her specific nutritional (and other) needs. See Sen, Amartya K., Commodities and Capabilities (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1985)Google Scholar, and also the anthology The Quality of Life, ed. Nussbaum, Martha and Sen, Amartya K. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, esp. the helpful essay on Sen by Cohen, Gerald A., pp. 929.Google Scholar

23 One might need to rethink this formulation if it can plausibly be maintained that even persons falling below the threshold in regard to one or more basic goods should be assigned standard of living 1 so long as they sufficiently exceed the threshold with regard to other basic goods.

24 The arithmetic mean is the sum of the measurements for the various affected persons divided by the number of persons, N. The geometric mean is the Nth root of the product of those measurements. Sum-ranking simply uses the sum of all measurements. Maximin takes the lowest measurements to be representative. Inequality is measured in many different ways—one straightforward indicator is the ratio of the arithmetic mean of the bottom 20 percent of affected persons to the arithmetic mean of the top 20 percent.

25 Their risk each year would be only about 0.0036 percent (10,000/275,000,000) on average, but they would face this risk over their full lifespan (approximately seventy-five years, on average).

26 The National Safety Council gives a figure of 43,360 deaths for 1995, and 43,300 for 1996, and offers a preliminary estimate of 43,090 for 1997.

27 The risk each year is only about 0.01574 percent (43,300/275,000,000), but, again, the risk increases over a lifetime to about 1.18 percent over seventy-five years.

28 According to the National Safety Council, the latest figures for alcohol-related road raffic fatalities are 16,589 out of 42,524 (39.01 percent) in 1994; 17,274 out of 43,360 (39.84 percent) in 1995; and 17,126 out of 43,300 (39.55 percent) in 1996.

29 This argument is presented more fully in Pogge, Thomas, “Three Problems with Contractarian-Consequentialist Ways of Assessing Social InstitutionsSocial Philosophy and Policy, vol. 12, no. 2 (Summer 1995), Section VC, pp. 260–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar As I mention there, a full calculation would have to subtract, from the number of traffic deaths avoided (860 annually in the example in the text), not only those who will die prematurely by execution (100), but also people who may be killed by drunk drivers desperately trying to evade capture. And the reform could have further (positive or negative) effects on the number of premature deaths as well. Sections VA and VB of the same essay discuss how similar reasoning may support other morally dubious reforms in the criminal-law domain, such as increased use of strict-liability statutes, rougher methods in the apprehension and treatment of suspects, and lower standards of evidence.

30 This implicit attitude of social institutions is independent of t he attitudes or intentions of the persons shaping and upholding these institutions: only the former makes a difference to how just the institutions are—the latter only make a difference to how blameworthy persons are for their role in imposing them.

31 The case of smoking, for instance, may exemplify a fluid transition between classes 2 and 6 insofar as private agents (cigarette companies) are legally permitted to t ry to render persons addicted to nicotine.

32 A core injustice is one identified by the core criterion, and thus an injustice recognized as such by all the more demanding conceptions of justice overlapping in this core criterion. I have explored this notion from a somewhat different angle in my essay “A Global Resources Dividend,” in Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice, and Global Stewardship, ed. Crocker, David A. and Linden, Toby (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), pp. 501–36.Google Scholar

33 To illustrate: Whether it is unjust for social institutions not to entitle indigent persons to treatment for a certain lung disease—and, if so, how unjust this is—may well depend on whether this disease is contracted through legally authorized pollution by others or selfcaused through smoking in full awareness of its risks.

34 To be sure, the anonymity condition permits a criterion of justice to be sensitive to whether two different kinds of hardship are correlated (e.g., to count it as a greater injustice if the groups of those excluded from higher education and of those excluded from political participation overlap than if they are disjoint). But being black, female, or Jewish are not, as such, hardships. Sex, color, and religion are precisely the kinds of factors that the anonymity condition was meant to screen out.

35 The injustice would be even greater, if women were legally required to do most of the housework, or legally barred from many educational opportunities—but this is a matter of the first typically overlooked weighting dimension (class 1 versus class 3) extensively discussed at the beginning of this section.

36 Something similar can b e said of the much vaguer approach advocated by Jürgen Habermas through his Principle U. See, in particular, Habermas, , Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983), pp. 75f.Google Scholar; and Habermas, , Erläuterungen zur Diskursethik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), pp. 130–76.Google Scholar

37 For more detail, see my “Three Problems” (supra note 29), and Pogge, Thomas, “Gleiche Freiheit fur alle?” in John Rawls: Eine Theorie der Gerechtigkeit, ed. Höffe, Otfried (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1998), pp. 149–68.Google Scholar

38 I speak of institutional understandings of human rights in contrast to interactional ones, according to which human rights are constraints on the treatment of human beings by other human agents and are thus independent of the existence of social institutions.

39 This declaration was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, as resolution 217 A (III). For the full text, see Twenty-Four Human Rights Documents (New York: Columbia University Center for the Study of Human Rights, 1992), pp. 69.Google Scholar

40 Thus, for example, Habermas writes: “The concept of human rights is not of moral origin, but … by nature juridical.” Human rights “belong, through their structure, to a scheme of positive and coercive law which supports justiciable individual right claims. Hence it belongs to the meaning of human rights that they demand for themselves the status of constitutional rights.” Habermas, Jürgen, “Kants Idee des Ewigen Friedens—aus dem historischen Abstand von 200 Jahren,” Kritische Justiz, vol. 28, no. 3 (1995), pp. 293319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The quotes are from p. 310 and p. 312; italics are in the original; the translation is mine. Though Robert Alexy explicitly refers to human rights as moral rights, he holds an otherwise similar position which equates the institutionalization of human rights with their transformation into positive law; see Alexy, , “Die Institutionalisierung der Menschenrechte im demokratischen Verfassungsstaat,” in Die Philosophie der Menschenrechte, ed. Gosepath, S. and Lohmann, G. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1998), pp. 244–64.Google Scholar

41 This proposal is elaborated in more detail in my “How Should Human Rights Be Conceived?” Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik, vol. 3 (1995), pp. 103–20.Google Scholar

42 Such criticism to the effect that human rights lead persons to view themselves as Westerners—as atomized, autonomous, secular, and self-interested individuals ready to insist on their rights no matter what the cost may be to others or the society at large–has been voiced, for instance, by Singapore's semi-retired ruler Lee Kuan Yew.

43 Grundgesetz, Article 2.2, in Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (Wiesbaden: Wiesbadener Graphische Betriebe GmbH, 1979), p. 14.Google ScholarPubMed

44 Pogge, Thomas W., “The Bounds of Nationalism,” in Rethinking Nationalism (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 22), ed. Couture, Jocelyne et al. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1998), pp. 463504.Google Scholar

45 An analogous point plays a major role in debates about the significance of genetic vis-à-vis environmental factors: factors that are quite unimportant for explaining the observed variation of a trait (e.g., height, IQ) in some population may be very important for explaining this trait's overall level (frequency) in the same population. Suppose that, in some province, the observed variation in female adult height (54 to 60 inches) is almost entirely due to hereditary factors. It is still quite possible that the height differentials among these women are minor compared to how much taller they all would be (67 to 74 inches) if it had not been the case that, when they were growing up, food was scarce and boys were preferred over girls in its distribution. Or suppose that we can predict quite accurately, on the basis of genetic information, who will get cancer and who will not. This would not show that the overall incidence of cancer is determined by the human gene pool. For it is still quite possible that, in a healthy environment, cancer would hardly occur at all.

46 This point is frequently overlooked—by Rawls, for instance, when he attributes the human-rights problems in the typical developing country exclusively to local factors: “[T]he problem is commonly the nature of the public political culture and the religious and philosophical traditions that underlie its institutions. The great social evils in poorer societies are likely to be oppressive government and corrupt elites.” Rawls, John, “The Law of Peoples,” in On Human Rights, ed. Shute, Stephen and Hurley, Susan (New York: Basic Books, 1993), p. 77.Google Scholar This superficial explanation is not so much false as incomplete. As soon as one asks (as Rawls does not), why so many less developed countries (LDCs) have oppressive governments and corrupt elites, one will unavoidably hit upon global factors—such as the ones discussed in my two examples: Local elites can afford to be oppressive and corrupt, because, with foreign loans and military aid, they can stay in power even without popular support. And they are so often oppressive and corrupt, because it is, in light of the prevailing extreme international inequalities, far more lucrative for them to cater to the interests of foreign governments and firms rather than to those of their impoverished compatriots. Examples abound: There are plenty of LDC governments that came to power and/or stay in power only thanks to foreign support. And there are plenty of LDC politicians and bureaucrats who, induced or even bribed by foreigners, work against the interests of their people: for the development of a tourist-friendly sex industry (whose forced exploitation of children and women they tolerate and profit from), for the importation of unneeded, obsolete, or overpriced products at public expense, for the permission to import hazardous products, wastes, or productive facilities, against laws protecting employees or the environment, etc. It is perfectly unrealistic to believe that the corruption and oppression in the LDCs, which Rawls rightly deplores, can be abolished without a significant reduction in international inequality.

47 See Pogge, , “A Global Resources Dividend”Google Scholar (supra note 32), and Pogge, Thomas W., “Menschenrechte als moralische Anspruche an globale Institutionen,” in Current Issues in Political Philosophy: Justice in Society and World Order, ed. Koller, P. and Puhl, K. (Vienna: Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1997), pp. 147–64.Google Scholar

48 Acceptance of such a responsibility would not reduce the responsibility of corrupt Third World elites in any way. It is quite wrong to think that the sum of responsibility is fixed by the harm done, as is shown by reflection on the fact that those who commit murder together may each bear full responsibility for the crime, rather than a fraction inversely proportional to the number of perpetrators.

49 Rawls, , “The Law of Peoples,” p. 56.Google Scholar

50 Ibid., p. 77.

51 Such measures would still function in the context of assessing social institutions and would thus presumably be probabilistic (ex ante) and focused on publicly ascertainable access to a quantitatively and qualitatively adequate share of certain goods. In these regards they would differ from measures of human flourishing that we employ in small-scale contexts, where we may be concerned to enrich the life of a friend, for example, or our own.