Saturday, 25 June 2011

Motivation, Global Justice, & Empire

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at this enjoyable event, organised by Kerri Woods:
The aim of the workshop is to consider the persistent gap between the demands generated by our best theoretical accounts of global justice and the action in support of global justice that real world agents are motivated to take; and to advance normative research on global justice that is sensitive to, and informed by, empirical questions.
That is: we rich people ought to do far more for the global poor, and many of us know it, but we still mostly don't. Why not, and what can be done about it?

Several kinds of response were offered. Perhaps our solidarity, compassion, and sympathy are poorly developed, and need to be educated (Kerri Woods, Carol Gould). Perhaps our complicity with the economic and political system which creates poverty renders us liable to what would otherwise be illegitimate manipulation by charities, by analogy with the way an attacker renders herself liable to self-defensive violence (Graham Long). Perhaps, as Sue Mendus suggested, fulfilling our responsibilities to the poor would require such a radical loss of our way of life - not just wealth, but liberal politics and the right to children - that we can't imagine it. We're not just unmotivated, but immobilised, the way Bernard Williams suggested the ancient Greeks were about slavery.

I found myself wanting to raise another possibility: what actually motivates much human action is habit and institution. We act out the scripts we've internalised for our social roles. We take the opportunities presented to us by our local institutions (governments, work-places, cities...), pay attention to what they make salient, ignore what they don't, and rarely push back against the limits they impose.

So, what we need to motivate the huge and systematic action our best theories of global justice require is not (just) solidarity or compassion: it's new habits and institutions. And we have a good historical example of an available set of habits and institutions which could do the global job: empire. To deal with global poverty, we need to create a system of institutional roles which makes dealing with it habitual and easy: a global imperial bureaucracy. This has the further advantage that it could recruit some very powerful human sentiments to the cause: desire for status, recognition, security, and a place for me and my children. A letter from Oxfam, no matter how heartrending, is a much less effective motivation than a secure job managing the distribution of generic medicines, steady career progress, and a decent pension at 65.

Kerri and others took this as an attempted reductio: if that's where our theories of global justice take us, there must be something wrong with them. I admit that I did have my tongue partly in my cheek. But I'm not sure the reductio goes through: the Roman, Austro-Hungarian, or British empires had good features (the rule of law, peace-keeping, religious toleration, opportunities for locals to enter the middle classes by joining the bureaucracy) as well as bad ones, and it's at least not obvious that an empire of this sort would be worse than the current world system.

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