Coercion, reciprocity and equality beyond the state
Journal of Social Philosophy, 40, (3), Autumn Issue, . (doi:10.1111/j.1467-9833.2009.01454.x).
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A number of prominent philosophers of equality have argued that egalitarian principles of distributive justice are appropriate between members of a given “people,” nation, or state, but not at the transnational or global level.1 In that sense they put forward a “relational” as opposed to “non-relational” view of equality:
They suggest that egalitarian distribution is appropriate between individuals who stand in a certain relationship with one another.2 More to the point, this is a
specific form of relational view: Although we might attempt to locate a relational brand of equality at the level of a neighborhood, city, region, or even continent,
these theorists all argue that this relation is one that adheres between members of a people, nation, or state.
A variety of reasons can be given for a membership-specific relational position on equality. I will concentrate here on the connection between egalitarianism and the state, and examine two noteworthy arguments for restricting egalitarian
distributive justice to the level of individual states. The first, advanced by Thomas Nagel, suggests that the coercive character of relations between co-citizens of a state makes duties of distributive justice (of both egalitarian and nonegalitarian varieties) exclusively appropriate.
A number of other philosophers—including Michael Blake and Mathias Risse—have agreed with Nagel that the presence of
coercive relations makes equality between citizens appropriate, but left open the possibility that egalitarian or nonegalitarian principles of distributive justice might
nevertheless be owed to noncitizens. Blake’s coercion-based view holds that “relative deprivation” is normatively significant only when it occurs between co-citizens, but, in contrast to Nagel, does not express such skepticism about
global distributive justice per se (i.e., “absolute” principles of global distributive justice are not ruled out).
Risse has mounted a partially overlapping defense of the
normative peculiarity of the state based on its coercive nature but regards that coercion as a sufficient, but not necessary, condition of egalitarianism. Moreover,
the specific kind of coercion exercised at the level of states is also present, on a plausible interpretation, at the global level and hence Risse regards Nagel’s
argument that only humanitarian duties are owed beyond the state as untenable.3
Thus Nagel’s argument that no duties of distributive justice are owed beyond the borders of the state presents the most forceful argument for the normative peculiarity
of that institution, and demands particularly close attention.
The second, more recently advanced by Andrea Sangiovanni, suggests that the existence of relations of reciprocity of a specific character makes a distinctively egalitarian
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