Yale University Professor Thomas Pogge spoke at Carnegie Council on January 19, and I summarize here his talk on why Ethics Matters in international relations:

Today's international and economic system is founded on the principle of "profit maximization at any cost," argues Pogge, and our challenge is to change this attitude. Pogge reflected on his education under the guidance of political philosopher and universal justice advocate John Rawls, and on how seemingly abstract theories of justice can, and should be, applied to international and social politics.

Pogge is renowned for his bold comparisons of today's population in the developed world with the German population of 1930s Nazi Germany. Like the latter, we are, according to Pogge, part of a huge organism that allows for terrible atrocities to happen to our fellow humans. Statistics show that one-third of all deaths today are premature due to poverty, and yet we do not actively seek any solution to this problem in our system.

Drawing on this comparison, Pogge explained that he was compelled to develop Rawls's theory of justice and apply it practically to society. Rawls argues that there are two principles of justice that must be met within society and that all rational human beings would agree to the principles if put under a "veil of ignorance"—that is, without awareness of their position in society. The first principle is that "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others," and this is where Pogge builds on Rawls's work.

While Rawls argued that it was up to economists and politicians to satisfy this principle, Pogge argues that there must be clear instructions and guidance in order to change the system. His work with the Health Impact Fund is an example. Talking to Carnegie Council, Pogge explained that during research into the pharmaceutical industry he saw that the industry was driven by profit margins and competitive pricing rather than by aiding those in need of drugs. Pogge's proposal is to replace the incentive system of patents with a government-sponsored scheme of rewarding those companies that provide beneficial drugs to the most people, at the lowest prices and with the greatest health impact. This would be a way of providing social guidance that satisfies Rawls's first principle of justice.

While Pogge has chosen to focus on the pharmaceutical industry, he told the Council that his work could be applied to all areas of the international system, and that the system itself needs to address the question of incentives. When asked whether he was optimistic about the future, he responded by saying we need to design an economic system that meets the basic requirements of everyone, and that the way to do it is through education, which will take a long time to filter through the culture. The crisis we face today, however, offers a real opportunity to reevaluate and restructure our governance.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Gavin Tapp (CC).]

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Tags: business, economy, education, ethics, health, justice, law, liberty, poverty


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