Nagel’s Atlas

by Harry on December 15, 2005

A.J. Julius posted an earlier version of this paper on his website a few months ago, and I’ve only just got around to blogging it. It is a crisp and powerful critique of Nagel’s recent defence of the claim that the scope of justice is limited by national boundaries (free content). Julius makes the same foundational assumptions as Nagel and shows, elegantly, that the boundaries of justice are nevertheless….well, global. I’m a big fan of Julius’s work, so I might be a bit baised, but I think its terrific. Forthcoming in Philosophy and Public Affairs, presumably in the issue after the one that’s just been announced, so get it while its hot, as Larry Solum likes to say.



Rob Breymaier 12.15.05 at 5:24 pm

UBC’s Derek Gregory (a geographer) has approached this subject as well. His Hettner-Lecture in Geography on Ideology, Space, and Power is on the web.


Redwolf 12.15.05 at 5:44 pm

Haven’t read the paper claiming the that justice is über ales, but it must assume that the justice system everywhere is sound, objective, serious, independent and apolitical.

And you assume that than victory in Iraq is just around the corner.


Daniel 12.15.05 at 6:00 pm

Is AJ Julius the same person as lady Di’s divorce lawyer?


John Emerson 12.15.05 at 11:28 pm

Sounds like Nagel’s a relativist.


josh 12.16.05 at 2:55 am

Thanks for news of this, Harry. I read the Nagel piece several weeks ago, and remember being rather impressed by it, at least up to the end when Nagel began to get strangely Hegelian.
And, no, Nagel’s point isn’t relativism, so far as I can tell (nor does he hold that justice is apolitical; rather, the realisation of justice depends on the presence of a political authority) The point as I understood it isn’t that principles of justice are culture-specific or nation-specific, but rather that principles of justice don’t demand a global redistribution of wealth across borders. This is based, mainly, on the argument that _political_ justice can only be achieved where there is some form of law and some sovereign of authority with a monopoly over enforcement, and where people stand in a particular relation to one another as co-citizens. There can thus only be true global justice if there is a common global authority to act justly; but there isn’t, and it seems unlikely, at present, that there will be one. Our relations to those living in the same political society as we do are different from those with people outside that society; and the duty of political justice depends on the properties that characterise our relations with others in our political society. This means that duties of just action only extend to other member’s of the same state; not that the principles of justice are derived from the consensus reigning in a particular culture. (Nagel is also quite clear that there are other moral obbligations that we have to members of other states; Rawlsian political justice is a principle that regulates the behaviour of members of particular societies to other members of the same society, but other moral principles apply to relations between members of different/all socieites [he writes:’The most basic rights and duties are universal, and not contingent on specific institutional relations between people.’])
It’s true that Nagel holds that ‘different principles apply to different types of entities’; but this is a pluralist view (which would be accepted, I think, by Aristotle or Rawls, to take two examples), not a relativist one.
But, of course, you can read the article for yourselves — I recommend it.


James Wimberley 12.16.05 at 7:08 am

From an undeservedly superficial skim (sorry) of both pieces it looks to me as if they don’t take the problem of federalism seriously.

Nagel thinks of the European Union, as Americans often do, as just another (though bigger and stronger) inter-state organisation: “They [norms adopted by such international structures] are not collectively enacted and coercively imposed in the name of all the individuals whose lives they affect; and they do not ask for the kind of authorization by individuals that carries with ita responsibility to treat all those individuals in some sense equally.”
But consider the EU legislation that gives me therright – not the privilege – to reside in Spain, which I do. It’s clearly coercive law, binding on the Spanish courts and Parliament, just as US federal law coerces state courts. But the EU is not a state; it’s some sort of confederation. Let’s use the generic term empire for a coercive political suthority composed of (no longer fully sovereign) states. What concept of justice binds the citizens of an empire?


John Emerson 12.16.05 at 7:25 am

“Relativism”, like “irrationality” or “heresy” or “perversion” is a negative buzz-word. Declaring yourself to be a relativist is much like declaring yourself to be a pervert or a heretic. Partly for this reason, “relativism” is ill-defined, though in the course of arguments people are all too happy to pull precise definitions out of their butts as needed.

But what Nagel is saying is one of the things that some relativists try to say. You can talk all you want to about some overarching universal value of justice, but unless it is globally institutionalized, what you are saying is pretty much vain — at best, a long-term proposal. Furthermore, any particular global institutionalization that is attempted or attained (the Roman, British, Chinese, or Napoleonic Empires, the Caliphate, etc.) will be a particular form of universality, not a universal form.

I’ve just skimmed the Nagel, especially the ending. It does sound like he’s trying to preserve the idea of universal justice as a kind of distant ideal or fifth wheel while recognizing the realities of the world that exists, and to defend the legitimacy of the local, national, particularistic actual forms of justice in the prosperous parts of the world against the claims of those left outside the walls. The place for philosophical ruminations about universal justice seems pretty restricted in his scheme.

John Gunnell expressed a similiar idea, I think, when he said that instead of looking to the political philosophers, we should look to Cromwell.


Chris Bertram 12.16.05 at 10:06 am

I’ve just finished reading the two papers back to back. Harry wasn’t really trying to summarize above, but I think there’s something a tiny bit misleading about saying that Julius shows that the scope of justice is global and that Nagel denies this.

That’s true, but actually both — and especially Julius — defend something a bit more nuanced.

Nagel argues that socio-economic justice ought to hold among the co-subordinates of sovereign state power. This could be global, but, in the actual world with a plurality of states, it isn’t. So in the actual world justice applies to relations among actual co-subordinates.

There’s something silly about Nagel’s view, namely that justice is switched on or off as a function of whether co-subordination applies. Global cosmopolitan justice, for him, will kick in on the first morning we have a global sovereign state but will be wholly inapplicable until that moment.

Julius shows, contra Nagel, that we need not choose between justice-among-compatriots-only and global-difference-principle but, rather, that the demands of global (re)distributive justice can grow progressively as a function of the development of projects of mutual co-operation that stretch beyond state boundaries.

Well worth the effort!


djw 12.16.05 at 7:29 pm

There’s something silly about Nagel’s view, namely that justice is switched on or off as a function of whether co-subordination applies. Global cosmopolitan justice, for him, will kick in on the first morning we have a global sovereign state but will be wholly inapplicable until that moment.

I was writing up an incoherent comment about Nagel’s view, but Chris said it more clearly with far fewer words. The relationship between institutions and the values they imperfectly embody is a fair bit more complicated than that.


John Emerson 12.17.05 at 12:18 pm

Justice can be an instituted system (“Department of Justice”) or an abstract idea. Actual instituted justice is almost entirely dominated by nation-states; international law, even where it is actually operative, is not very just, and international organizations are feeble and tend to avoid “internal questions”.

People who write about justice should be more aware of the risks of writing beautiful descriptions of justice which have only tenuous applications to the actual way the important decisions in the world are customarily made. When universalistic ideas of justice actually lead to actions opposing injustice, e.g. the anti-slavery movement, to me that’s a good thing. But a lot of high-minded writing about justice seems to coexist far too peacefully with institutional injustice, just as universalistic ideas seem to have blinded themselves to the actual diversity that there is in the world.


harry b 12.17.05 at 6:34 pm

Is that a criticism of the actual papers I linked to?

Here, very briefly, is why philosophical nuances matter. First, because even if we are not capable right now of having any impact on the world, or any impact which would be influenced by the nuances, it is a worthwhile task understanding the moral truth. Worthwhile in itself, that is.

Second, because if there come to be times at which we can have an impact on the world it is worth knowing what the moral truth is, as opposed to being guided by falsehoods. Sometimes these nuances matter practically, sometimes they don’t: we don’t get to choose which times we live in.

Third, even though there may be very little we can do right now to have an impact on what states do, some of these differences matter to what we are obliged to do as individuals. On my understanding of Nagel’s view it is simply not a question whether, in the absence of state action to redistribute from rich to poor countries, I should divest myself of some of my resources to the advantage of less wealthy people in other countries. On Julius’s view it is a question (one that he doesn’t answer, or at least hasn’t answered yet).

Contemporary political philosophizing (the kind that I do — analytical philosophizing) about justice is far from blind to diversity, either in the realm of value or in the real world. In fact, I’d say that most of it takes both kinds of diversity as among the central phenomena to be addressed. So, “a lot” may be blind to it, but most isn’t.

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