International Paretianism: A Defense

By Posner, Eric A.; Weisbach, David | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

International Paretianism: A Defense


Posner, Eric A., Weisbach, David, Chicago Journal of International Law


Abstract

A treaty satisfies what we call International Paretianism (IP) if it advances the interests of all states that join it, so that no state is made worse off. The principle might seem obvious, but it rules out nearly all the major proposals for a climate treaty, including proposals advanced by academics and by government officials. We defend IP, and for that reason urge commentators in the debate over climate justice to abandon efforts to right past wrongs, redistribute wealth, and achieve other abstract ideals through a climate treaty. Instead, the goal should be to develop a feasible treaty that states will join because they expect to gain from it.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction ...................348

II. What Is IP and Why Adopt It? ...................349

III. IP and a Climate Treaty ...................355

IV. Conclusion ...................358

I. Introduction

In Climate Change Justice? we argued that a viable climate treaty must comply with International Paretianism (IP), the principle that at least one state must benefit from the treaty and no state party will be made worse off by the treaty. A number of critics of our arguments appear to assume that we intended IP as an ethical principle.2 In fact, IP is not an ethical principle but a feasibility constraint} Our claim is that it is idle to argue for a climate treaty on ethical grounds if the ethically required climate treaty will surely be rejected. The challenge for commentators and scholars ought to be to propose a climate treaty that is both ethically acceptable and politically feasible. However, there has been very little discussion of political feasibility. The focus on ethics alone has resulted in numerous proposals that have little chance of being accepted. Pursuit of these proposals has resulted in little progress in reducing emissions. The world would be better served, and a more ethical outcome achieved, if the focus were instead on feasible treaties that actually reduce emissions.

In Climate Change Justice we did not provide a full defense of IP. That lacuna may account for some of the criticisms we have received. Some commentators argue that IP is indefensible because it blocks ethically obligatory treaties and favors rich countries like the US. Accordingly, our use of IP confuses the "is" with the "ought." Another criticism is that IP, as we define it, is incoherent because it defines a state's interest to include a state's moral obligations, in which case IP cannot serve as an independent constraint. A third criticism, which we have not (yet) heard but which we believe should be addressed, is that IP, if taken to its logical conclusion, implies that states never act ethically, in which case debate about the ethics of climate change is idle.

In this Article, we respond to these criticisms. After explaining what IP means, we make three major points. First, participants in the climate debate should advocate treaties that are not only ethical but also feasible. Second, IP is a reasonable approximation of feasibility, although there may be other principles that better capture what is feasible. Third, IP does not necessarily imply that states never act ethically, but instead helps focus the ethical debate on realistic alternatives.

II. What Is IP and Why Adopt It?

The Pareto principle in economics is an ethical standard that provides that a project is socially desirable if it makes at least one person better off than in the status quo and makes no person worse off. Most economists and, as far as we know, philosophers, believe that the Pareto principle is a sufficient condition for social desirability, at least if one accepts the broadly welfarist assumptions of economics and modern public policy, and defines well-being properly. However, nearly everyone agrees that the Pareto principle is too strong: it bars projects that may be socially desirable, like a vaccine that will help thousands but cause minor injuries to a few people who cannot be adequately compensated (perhaps because they cannot be identified). …

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