Public Reason: Vol. 4, No. 1-2, June-December 2012
Global Justice: A Structural Approach
Elizabeth Kahn


This paper aims to make a contribution to the debate concerning the moral obligations which follow from the facts of the pervasiveness of acute poverty and the extent of global wealth and income inequality. I suggest that in order to make progress in this debate we need to move beyond two dominant ways of thinking about when the demands of distributive justice apply. The first approach focuses solely on the global distribution of resources, regardless of background social relations and institutions. This approach, exemplified by Simon Caney, identifies positive ‘humanity based’ obligations to promote or support institutions that fulfil the socio-economic rights of other humans. The second approach concentrates on the justice of the coercively enforced institutional arrangements governing access to resources. This approach, shared by theorists like Thomas Pogge, focuses on negative obligations not to harm other humans by imposing upon them resource regimes which avoidably fail to secure socio-economic human rights. I use Iris Young’s concept of structural injustice to suggest that vulnerability to deprivation can be understood as a social structural position which results from the cumulative effect of a variety of global and national actions, norms and institutions. I draw on the concepts of social responsibility and civic duty to outline an account of social obligation. This obligation requires that individuals critically assess their social structures for any systematic injustice, and make efforts to work with others to establish and maintain legitimate means for avoiding or mitigating any structural injustice. I use this analysis to suggest that individuals who contribute to global social structures must make efforts to work with others who are similarly connected to global poverty towards preventing the continuation of extreme poverty and growing inequality.

Key words: global justice, social responsibility, civic duties, cosmopolitanism, structural injustice, Iris Young, Thomas Pogge, Simon Caney.



Kahn, Elizabeth. 2012. Global Justice: A Structural Approach. Public Reason 4 (1-2): 48-67.