Climate Change: Why Theories of Justice Matter

By Nussbaum, Martha C. | Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Climate Change: Why Theories of Justice Matter

Nussbaum, Martha C., Chicago Journal of International Law


Climate Change Justice is impressive, and one of its merits is its serious treatment of philosophical issues. Developing its philosophical aspects further will strengthen the argument, in three areas: (1) the relationship between entitlements and duties; (2) the moral status of the nation; and (3) the question of plural ends.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction.................... 469

II. Duty Versus Entitlement ....................470

III. The Moral Importance of National Sovereignty ....................479

IV. Plural Ends.................... 482

V. Conclusion: Strategy and Norm ....................485

Appendix.................... 487

I. Introduction

Climate Change Justice1 is an impressive and sensible book. Often books are sensible but boring, or exciting but implausible. This one, however, is both plausible and exciting, and it has the additional dividend that it shows real care about philosophical theories of justice and takes their claims seriously. It argues well that richer nations owe a lot to poorer nations, but that a certain sort of climate change treaty, designed to redistribute wealth, is not the way to address those obligations. Instead, our situation calls for a different sort of climate treaty, together with independent redistributive measures to address problems of global poverty.

The outcome Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach recommend is actually very close to what I think a correct theory of global justice would also recommend. The philosophical side of the book, however, as regards justice, is respectful and serious but underdeveloped. It is my hope that developing it further can strengmen and refine the argument. So it is in the spirit of alliance and cooperation that I offer these reflections, which in the main will further support the arguments of the book, though in some important respects I shall suggest significant modifications.

The theory of justice I defend has other arguments in its favor, and I do not present them here.2 Since, however, I hold that political justification is an ongoing and holistic matter, in which we keep testing our evolving theory against other theories and other concrete judgments, hoping eventually to arrive at "reflective equilibrium,"3 it is a point in favor of the evolving theory if we find that the theory does dovetail with the sensible conclusions that the authors of this book reach by other means, in an area on which my own work has not yet focused.

II. Duty Versus Entitlement

One section of the book mat is clearly in need of more philosophical development is its discussion of deontological and ideological theories.4 In fact, the authors do not use the word "ideological," calling the section, instead, "Foundations: Welfarism and Deontology." However, the standard contrast that introductory philosophy classes offer students is between teleology and deontology; welfarism, which the authors define as the view that one ought to maximize average welfare, is but one variety of teleological theory. So it will prove clarifying if we begin with the large generic contrast.

The typical contrast is as follows: teleological theories begin by defining a good to be promoted, and then, derivatively, define the right (or right conduct) as that which promotes the good. Deontological theories, by contrast, start with the right, or right conduct, typically captured in notions of duty or moral obligation, and then state that the good is permissibly pursued only within the constraints of the right. The authors do not define deontology, and they offer only a glancing definition of welfarism,5 so it is worth pausing to get clearer about the landscape of possibilities.

The standard definition of teleology is very general, and includes, potentially, a number of different types of theories. One distinction focuses on the "comprehensive/non-comprehensive" axis.6 One may have a "political teleology" - that is, an account of ends or goals adopted for political purposes, without linking it directly to a "comprehensive teleology" - if one holds the view that political principles ought to be expressed in a way that is metaphysically and epistemically abstemious, and only partial in extension, in order to leave lots of room for the holders of different "comprehensive doctrines," both religious and non-religious, to define and pursue the good in their own way. …

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