Being reasonable in the face of pluralism and other alleged problems for <i>Global Justice</i>: a reply to van Hooft


Being reasonable in the face of pluralism and other alleged problems for Global Justice: a reply to van Hooft

Gillian Brock*

Department of Philosophy, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

Published: 26 May 2010

Citation: Ethics & Global Politics, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2010, pp. 155–170. DOI: 10.3402/egp.v3i2.5175

© 2010 G. Brock. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License (, permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

*Correspondence to: Gillian Brock, Department of Philosophy, The University of Auckland, Auckland, 1142, New Zealand, Email:


In his recent review essay, Stan van Hooft raises some interesting potential challenges for cosmopolitan global justice projects, of which my version is one example.1 I am grateful to van Hooft for doing so. I hope by responding to these challenges here, others concerned with developing frameworks for analyzing issues of global justice will also learn something of value. I start by giving a very brief synopsis of key themes of my book, Global Justice,2 so I can address van Hooft's concerns about the structure of the book. I then outline the normative thought experiment that yields the global justice framework I endorse, in order to address five main concerns van Hooft has with it. These center around problems he foresees about what it would be reasonable to agree to in the face of quite different worldviews. There are five specific concerns he identifies related to reasonableness and I address these in the third and fourth sections of this paper.


Van Hooft finds ‘the sequence of chapters a little unhelpful’ and suggests that the topics should be covered in a different order.3 Let me explain why the book has the structure it does by giving some background.

On one common account of cosmopolitanism, the key idea is that every person has global stature as the ultimate unit of moral concern and is therefore entitled to equal respect and consideration no matter what her citizenship status or other affiliations happen to be.4 But what should this mean in our contemporary world? What policies should a cosmopolitan support in the world we live in today?

In Global Justice, I develop a viable cosmopolitan model of global justice that takes seriously the equal moral worth of persons, yet leaves scope for a defensible form of nationalism along with other legitimate identifications and affiliations. This account can assist in solving a range of problems concerning global justice and I discuss some of these at length. The model I develop aims to address concerns about implementation in the world, showing exactly how we can move from theory to feasible public policy that makes progress toward global justice. The model I develop also makes clear how there might be ample space created for a legitimate form of nationalism.

I specifically aim to address two kinds of skeptics in the book. The one kind of skeptic's main point is that, whatever we might think of cosmopolitanism in theory, realizing a valid form of cosmopolitanism in the world is so wildly unrealistic that, at best, such models exist only as theorists’ wishes about how the world should be. Steps toward the cosmopolitan vision are not likely to succeed in practice. In Part II in particular, I examine how far we are from achieving global justice and what could realistically be done to move nearer to it. I also discuss some of the proposals for reform already being considered. Many are already underway. Examining these and the progress that has been and could be made in their implementation makes complete skepticism about feasibility increasingly implausible.

The second kind of skeptic believes that cosmopolitanism interferes illegitimately with the defensible scope of nationalism and undermines goods of national importance, for example, authentic democracy or national self-determination. I argue that the kind of cosmopolitanism I defend does no such thing. Rather, it clears space for a defensible form of nationalism, by clarifying the connections between a framework of global justice and the flourishing of meaningful forms of nationalism.

Among the central aims of this book are to answer these two kinds of skeptics. I take the feasibility skeptic as a particularly formidable opposing force that must be convincingly addressed. Skepticism about feasibility is best rebutted by showing (1) what has been already implemented that does make the right kind of progress and (2) what can fairly easily be achieved, given where we are now and important constraints. This attention to matters of policy is necessary, in my view, not only to rebut the feasibility skeptic but also to advance theoretical debates. I argue that our theorizing often reaches an impasse because of failure to consider alternative possibilities about how to implement our justice obligations. For instance, there is a debate between those nationalists who argue that one ought to give priority to compatriots over non-compatriots in matters of justice, and those cosmopolitans who believe certain interests should have importance for justice no matter whether the parties involved are compatriots or not. Drawing on the policy examples I am able to show how we do not necessarily have to choose between favoring compatriots or non-compatriots, by showing how we can support both appropriately. But to do this convincingly I need to be able to refer to different cases and examples. So the central reasons for discussing these policy matters in Part II is that they then provide important examples that can inform and help give force to theoretical debates, and we can draw on them in addressing feasibility skepticism.


In Chapter 3 I discuss an alternative Rawlsian-style normative thought experiment that offers a systematic way for thinking through issues concerning global justice. I take my inspiration for the thought experiment from Rawls, though crucial details of my view are quite different from Rawls's account. Rawlsian-style thought experiments are well suited to examining what an ideal world might require of us. When properly set up, such thought experiments are a good way to flesh out what we can reasonably expect of one another in a way that avoids inappropriate partiality: if people do not know what positions they might find themselves in during the lottery of life, they will pay more attention to what would constitute fair arrangements.5

I will not be able to cover the details of the normative thought experiment in the space allocated, but I can at least give a brief sketch of how it goes. An easy way to enter the thought experiment is to imagine that a global conference has been organized. You have been randomly selected to be a decision-making delegate to this conference.6 You are to participate in deciding what would be a fair framework for interactions and relations among the world's inhabitants. Though you have been invited to the decision-making forum, you do not know anything about what allegiances you have (or may have after the conference concludes), but you do know that decisions made at this conference will be binding. It may turn out that you find that you belong to a developing nation, occupy a territory with poor natural resources, and so forth. Given these sorts of possibilities, you are provided with reasons to care about what you would be prepared to tolerate in a range of different circumstances.

The main issue delegates must entertain concerns what basic framework governing the world's inhabitants we can reasonably expect to agree on as fair. Delegates would agree only to those policies or institutions that did not have unbearable effects on people, because they might end up being on the receiving end of such policies. More positively, whatever else they choose, delegates would find it prudent and reasonable for each person to be able to enjoy the prospects for a decent life, and much discussion would be about the content of such a life. After considerable argument about what that entails, I endorse the following position:

Global justice requires that all are adequately positioned to enjoy prospects for a decent life, which requires that we attend especially to (1) enabling need satisfaction, (2) protecting basic freedom, (3) ensuring fair terms of cooperation in collective endeavors, and (4) social and political arrangements that can underwrite these important goods are in place.

Notice that the position has these four fundamental components, which seems to be crucially omitted in van Hooft's account of my position and may help explain some of the puzzles he identifies.7 All four of these components constitute the basis for grounding claims of entitlement. The detail of which entitlement claims they ground is begun in Part II by considering five domains in which our entitlements can be specified in more particular terms, concerning global poverty, taxation, liberty protections, humanitarian intervention, immigration, and the global economic order.8

Van Hooft is critical of my attempt to apply a Rawlsian-style normative thought experiment to the global context. He remarks that even Rawls is not so bold as to attempt this, as Rawls is well aware that it would not be applicable, given that in the global context, not all societies are liberal.9 Of course, Rawls himself does apply his contractarian techniques to the international context, and modifies them to fit the circumstances, introducing some new concepts to fit the global situation. Importantly, this includes the introduction of the notion of ‘decent societies’ and arguments concerning what they would endorse in the global context. So Rawls does think we can apply the contractarian apparatus—especially the original position device to the global context—in a way that does not presuppose one must be liberal to be considered a member in good standing of the international community, and I try to do something similar (though with quite different results to those of Rawls's Law of Peoples).

Van Hooft identifies at least five central concerns with my normative thought experiment and I outline those next. He says:

The problem with this variation on Rawls's idea is that it cannot be assumed that participants are ideal liberal subjects who would endorse liberal outcomes. A randomly chosen delegate might be a cardinal of the Roman church, a Hindu renouncer, a Brahmin, an Imam, or an uneducated Afghan woman who had no conception of democracy. Would such delegates agree with arrangements that were fundamentally liberal in tenor? Insofar as he holds moral views with deep conviction, could the Brahmin seriously agree that an ‘untouchable’ should receive the same respect and social recognition as Brahmins, for example? Even if he imagined himself in the position of the untouchable, would he not suppose that, as an untouchable, it would be unthinkable for him to aspire to anything except the job of cleaning away human waste?10

I take this paragraph to express the following kind of worry. If the Brahmin imagines himself to be an untouchable, he would think it appropriate for governments to deny him certain opportunities and freedoms, such as freedom of occupation, and also that he would not be deserving of equal respect in the political sphere. I refer to this as ‘The Brahmin imagining he were an untouchable worry’ or ‘The Brahmin Worry’ for short. (Unless claims of this sort are involved, van Hooft's examples will not clearly provide a challenge to my view. Note that occupational freedom is not one that I discuss as a fundamental liberty in the book, but perhaps the example can easily be modified to challenge one of the liberties I do claim is fundamental, such as freedom of association or movement.)

Van Hooft continues:

Brock fails to see that her normative thought experiment will not inevitably promote fundamentally liberal or cosmopolitan values. … There is no allowance made for the possibility that delegates might see themselves as spokespersons for their groups and may endorse conditions which, while they would not welcome for themselves, they consider to be necessary to the living of the good life which their tradition teaches them to accept and to endorse for their constituents. So a male delegate may endorse a restriction on a woman's rights because he thinks that he would or should accept it if he were a woman.11 (Call this ‘The Spokesperson Concern’)

The accusations continue:

… by creating a hypothetical scenario in which we are asked to imagine what others would agree to without adequate empirical evidence as to what they actually do agree to, we can only fall back upon our own intuitions and hypotheses about what we would agree to.12 (Call this the ‘No Empirical Evidence Worry’)

And furthermore:

In a world of moral pluralism there are people whose ways of thinking and scales of value are simply incomprehensible to those of us who are of a modernist and liberal persuasion. The fact is that we cannot imagine how such people would decide on issues in Brock's normative thought experiment, and hence we cannot know what they would agree to.13 (Call this ‘The Impossibility of Imagining or Knowing What Would Result Worry’).

The project seems doomed, in van Hooft's judgment, because we cannot get an account of reasonableness that is not question-begging:

Perhaps it is to overcome this problem that delegates in the normative thought experiment or their decisions are described as having to be ‘reasonable.’ But this specification merely exacerbates the problem. Who is to count as reasonable from our point of view? Inevitably we would only count as reasonable people who think broadly in the way we do.14 (Call this ‘The Unreasonable Use of “Reasonable” Concern’)


In this section I outline some of the lines of argument I have pursued in the book which aim to address such anticipated objections. In the next Section, I go on to show how additional responses are available to rebut all these concerns, by elaborating on my account of reasonableness.

In Chapter 6, Section 6.1, I discuss the issue of what is special about a set of basic liberties. Three kinds of justification for the importance of basic liberties are available and are there outlined. I give a brief synopsis of two of those courses of justification here.

Recall the main issue delegates must discuss, which concerns what basic framework governing the world's inhabitants we can reasonably expect to agree on as fair. I take up first the question: what is the minimum set of protections and entitlements we should be prepared to tolerate? As individual contractors have no knowledge of how they will be positioned, who each will be once the conference adjourns, they would agree only to those policies that did not have unbearable effects on people, because they might end up being on the receiving end of such policies. In Chapters 3 and 6 I argue that reasonable people would care, at least minimally, about enjoying a certain level of freedom. Of course, freedom may not be the only thing they care about and often they may not care about it much at all when other things are at issue about which they care more deeply. Nevertheless, reasonable people will care at least a little about enjoying some freedoms. They will care about their security and protection from gross and arbitrary harm to their lives, so it can be expected that they would endorse freedoms around these issues, including freedom from assault or extreme coercion (such as slavery), freedom from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom from arbitrary interference and attack, and so forth.

More to the point, I argue that we all have interests in being able to live our lives in accordance with values, beliefs, and commitments we judge to be worthy of our allegiance. However, delegates should recognize that it is possible they could find themselves in a society with whose major organizing values, principles, and commitments they disagree. In such situations, it would be reasonable to want to have the scope to live their lives in accordance with their preferred values, at least in some important domains of their lives. Some might reasonably want not only to have the opportunity to live their lives in accordance with values they find more congenial, but also the opportunity to be able to talk with others about their disagreements. Furthermore, they might want to be able to question the values operative in their society, both privately and publicly. Delegates would, therefore, endorse freedom of conscience, speech, dissent, and exit. Following on from their interests in living their lives in accordance with beliefs, values, and commitments they judge worthy of their allegiance, it is reasonable that delegates would also want the freedom to participate with others in the governing arrangements; that is, minimally, they would want the ability to have input into political decision-making and the capacity to modify public policy and laws. In addition, following from our central interest in living our lives in accordance with commitments, values, and beliefs we judge to be worthy of our allegiance, two further basic liberties would be included, namely, freedom of association and movement.

Of course, all these liberties are constrained by other liberties and concerns, and certainly do not give one a license to do whatever one likes in a particular domain. For instance, our freedom of speech does not entail that we may say whatever we like, wherever we like. Clearly such freedoms must be constrained by others’ freedoms and also potential harms we could cause by exercising our freedoms. My concern in Chapter 6, in particular, is simply to argue that some space must be made on the list of features that define the dimensions of (minimal) global justice for basic freedoms. The main interlocutors who might need to be convinced of this are those who think there should be no space in an account of global justice for basic liberties (such as the ones van Hooft identifies). Typically, such interlocutors hold this view because they fear that promoting basic liberty would be insufficiently attuned to cultural difference. They observe that not all cultures put the same emphasis on liberty as Western Democracies. Why should we make space for liberty, something that happens to be what only one culture prefers? In Chapter 6 I discuss why I do not think the basic liberties I pick out are preferred by only one culture, and argue why all reasonable cultures should make space for the basic liberties I identify as important to protect.

Cultures vary in the acknowledgment they give basic liberty and its importance. Indeed, some cultures embrace ways of life that seem not to value liberty, for instance, those cultures that value obedience to tradition, respect for elders’ authority, subservience of personal freedoms for the good of the culture, and so forth. (Call this ‘a more traditional way of life’ as a shorthand.) I do not deny that such alternative ways of life exist. And those who find meaning and value in such lives should not be forced to give them up in search of a set of freedoms that have no meaning for them. There are at least two points that should be made in response to such observations, however. First, we should not be especially concerned with those who freely choose such traditional lives, but rather with those who have these thrust upon them against their will, or who come to see such lives as no longer worthy of their allegiance and want to make crucial adjustments that are prohibited in the illiberal societies in which they reside. Having the basic liberties will allow the latter group a domain in which to live lives more congenial to them. So ‘the happy untouchable’ is not my concern particularly, but rather the untouchable who believes such a way of life is not worthy of allegiance—the untouchable who no longer sees the caste system as worthy of her allegiance. Should she have some basic political freedoms to change her mind about what gives value to her life, or less radically, some political freedom to modify certain aspects of her tradition so she can (for instance) pursue jobs other than picking up human waste? When designing the basic structure that defines entitlements, the claim is that it is not unreasonable to build in some other options for such individuals, indeed it is quite prudent to do so. And, as I discuss further along, in a large group of delegates, there are bound to be persons who would not be satisfied with the lot of the untouchable, were they assigned such a role, and who will press their case and insist on such provisions.

Second, even clear-thinking more traditionally oriented delegates must be aware that they could find themselves in a culture other than one they would prefer. Guaranteeing those delegates the basic liberties allows them to organize and associate with like-minded others to ensure they also can enjoy the freedom to pursue the traditional ways of life they value, even when they find themselves among others who are not interested or inclined toward that way of life. The basic freedoms would allow them a minimum space in terms of freedom (a necessary condition of opportunity) to join together with like-minded others, either to make aspects of their life more traditionally oriented or to try to change their situation to something more congenial to them. The basic freedoms are useful to everyone, even those who might prefer lives that place little emphasis on the value of individual freedom and choice. Consider how, for instance, the basic freedoms secure for (say) observant Muslims the room to follow their chosen way of life within a predominantly liberal environment.

For those who reject the contractarian framework central to my preferred argument, other justifications are available for the centrality of basic liberties in an account of global justice, as I discuss in Chapter 6. One alternative is the position just presented; namely, that the basic liberties are useful in guaranteeing everyone certain fundamental opportunities, including for those who reject lives that make a centerpiece of liberty. Another argument is that basic liberties are essential to being able to engage in core human activities.15 I argue that there are many activities that humans in all cultures perform. These include productive activities (such as tending fields or building dwellings), nurturing activities (such as caring for and raising children), playing or recreational activities, running households and communal affairs, entering into and maintaining loving human relationships, living a life that has coherence or meaning at least to oneself, and so forth. I argue that to be able to engage in such activities one must typically enjoy a number of basic liberties.16 Some people may choose not to engage in some core human activities. Not everyone wants to care for or raise children, build dwellings, or take part in communal affairs. That is, of course, quite acceptable. The issue is whether people have the opportunity to participate in core human activities, not whether they actually do so, and a key part of having the opportunity to take part in these activities is having the freedom to do so, and not being afraid to exercise that freedom for fear of heavy sanctions, such as being tortured for exercising one's freedom of speech.

In short, what freedom ‘buys’ is opportunity. Protecting basic freedoms protects central opportunities. Whether someone wants to pursue those opportunities is up to them.

Are there core human opportunities that I have omitted? It might seem as if the opportunity to live a more traditional way of life has been left out, but this is not the case. This option can still be taken up, so long as enough others want to share such a life with one. In protecting basic liberties, we also protect space for those who want to explore a path different to the dominant one, which would include those who choose to live a life according to (say) caste principles.17


Being reasonable: A first set of considerations

What is it to be reasonable? In particular, is it a mystery why it might be reasonable to want to preserve opportunities? Not really, in my view. Even cursory inspection of the history of traditions and practices will show that they have all changed over time, whether over small or fairly large issues. Consider, as just one example, how slavery has been endorsed as morally permissible by members of all religions at the highest levels.18 However, there is also now a consensus among Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and every other major religion, that slavery is wrong.19 Once one understands that modifications have happened in the past, from within one's own tradition, it therefore would appear to be not impossible that adjustments might happen in the future. My claim is that it is not unreasonable to allow for this possibility by preserving one's options. So a reasonable person, that is a person responsive to relevant reasons, will allow for the possibility of change. (This is not obviously a complete account of what it is to be reasonable—I say more about this later.)

So to be clear, in allowing for the possibility of change I am not assuming anything so radical as rethinking the very elements of what gives value to one's life and what one considers worthy of allegiance (though that possibility is also preserved on the view that I claim it is reasonable to have). Rather, I am thinking of something far more modest, namely the possibility that one might want to develop some of one's traditions and practices, or modify them slightly.

The spokesperson concern

Armed with these preliminary thoughts on what being reasonable requires, we are now in a position to address The Spokesperson Concern. Even if one takes oneself to be a spokesperson for one's group; if one were being responsible and conscientious in the role, one would have to take account of the changes already enacted in one's tradition, and ensure this possibility is preserved for the group and the individuals in it.

Some may remain unconvinced that they would ever want to change their minds under any conditions. They may hold this view, but recall delegates are placed in a position of ignorance in the original position—they do not know whether they are those people or not. If there is even a remote possibility that one might want to modify even some tiny aspect of one's practice or one's tradition, it is going to be more prudent to preserve options than to foreclose them. And acting responsibly on behalf of others, one should not foreclose such basic opportunities for those for whom one claims to be speaking.

Being reasonable: A second set of considerations

Reflecting on the possibilities for making changes, modifying practices, and why it might be reasonable to preserve options, a reasonable person will come to another important realization—one's current judgments are not infallible and one should be prepared to listen to others’ arguments for their positions, if one conscientiously seeks good reasons for one's own beliefs and practices. A reasonable person will adopt a stance of appropriate humility (one that is not arrogantly dogmatic) about her claims to know ‘The Truth About Things.’ She will not be disposed toward imposing her beliefs on others without offering good reasons for their merits, and moreover good reasons that others can plausibly accept from within other (legitimate) worldviews. (I say more about what I mean here in language that might be more familiar to Rawlsians in the penultimate section.) However, given this partial account we can now proceed to explain further what it is to be reasonable in dialogue with others.

In the normative thought experiment, we are trying to justify our claims to one another—we all stand in relations of equality in this exercise. We are after all engaged in a process of mutual accountability, expecting reasons to be offered for proposals. We have an equal standing to demand and expect justification from one another. We are all to regard one another as at least potential sources of valid claims.

In the group discussion, participants are expected to be responsive to the (reasonable) interests of others. Indeed, they have to find a set of guidelines on which to agree that others could not reasonably reject. We have to consider others’ claims about what is necessary for their conception of well-being and others’ sincere claims about necessary ingredients for them to have a decent life. We are trying to reach agreement in a large group of people, and the most likely way in which this will come about is if we accommodate as many legitimate interests as we can in coming up with governance arrangements.

So consider two proposals that might be considered for governance of our global association:

    (a) Institutions should be arranged so as to realize maximally the interests of persons in sub-group S.

    (b) Institutions should be arranged so as to realize equally the interests of all living under the institutions.

A person who does not belong to sub-group S is not being unreasonable in rejecting (a) and preferring (b). My claim is that if faced with these two choices and with full knowledge of whether one is a member of sub-group S or not, (b) is to be preferred over (a) because (b) can reasonably be endorsed by everyone, whereas (a) cannot. (Of course, since people do not know whether they belong to sub-group S or not, this constitutes a further ground on which (b) is the more reasonable choice in this situation.)

I say more about being reasonable in the last subsection, but we are in a position now to press on to address further central worries.

The Brahmin worry

While a delegate might prefer a society in which the state favors her religion, such as Hinduism, since each contractor does not know her religious convictions or which religion forms a majority, the first priority might be to ensure that each person has the liberty to practice the religion she prefers. A Brahmin might have in view that if he were an untouchable he should hang his head in shame and be treated without the same respect, or be denied liberties (such as occupational freedom or freedom of association). But it is quite likely there will be others who do not share this view and will press their opposition. They might remind the Brahmin that what they are determining is not how he personally should treat untouchables, or how he should comport himself were he to be an untouchable, but rather what the basic structure or ground rules for public life ought to be. That such a distinction can be made is clear: consider for instance the fact that India, which has a large Dalit (formally regarded as ‘Untouchables’) population of approximately 166 million (which is roughly 10% of the total population), gives all people an opportunity to vote and participate in public life. Discrimination against Dalits in the public sphere, especially in urban areas, has largely disappeared, which is certainly not to say that it has been eliminated in the private sphere, especially in rural areas.

In addition, recall the whole exercise in the normative thought experiment is one of group decision-making in a large, randomly selected group, so deliberants will need to decide collectively what is reasonable within a group containing others who do not necessarily share their worldviews. In this exercise in deliberative, collective decision-making, just because someone has a preference for a certain view does not entail that it will necessarily survive group discussion, let alone be endorsed as the collective decision. Picking a random sample of at least a few hundred participants makes it quite unlikely that policies embracing attitudes of significant disrespect for others will survive—ones that express views that some people have considerably less dignity and moral worth than others. We are looking for agreement among a large group of people, so we have to give arguments about what others could agree to and find valuable that allows as much (reasonable) diversity to flourish as possible. The set of four key guidelines for which I argue allows them all much flexibility in how they would like to arrange their lives as is consistent will allowing others similar opportunities.20 I turn to address ‘The No Evidence Worry.’

The no evidence worry

It is encouraging to note that people can agree to the kinds of principles I endorse even in imperfect conditions (when they are not shielded from distorting effects of self-interest). First of all, there is plenty of empirical evidence of what people do agree to in these kinds of deliberative fora. Consider for instance the extensive talks engaged in by the Commission on Global Governance as documented in Our Global Neighbourhood.21 A large group of representatives from around the world, representing every major tradition, worldview, and religion, was able to agree on a core set of values to inform a new global civic ethic that could undergird global rights and responsibilities. The commission says, for instance: ‘We believe that all humanity could uphold the core values of respect for life, liberty, justice and equity, mutual respect, caring, and integrity.’22 Also, ‘all people have inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights as members of the human family.’23 Importantly, they not only believe liberty is firmly on the list, but also give examples: ‘We believe that all human beings are born equal in their right to human dignity and are entitled to certain basic liberties: to define and express their own identity, to choose their form of worship, to earn a livelihood, to be free from persecution and oppression, to receive information. Basic liberties also include free speech, free press, and the right to vote.’24

There is much other evidence in the global public culture that there is now widespread acceptance of the central importance of person's dignity and equality as well-established common ground in international relations, from which we can construct legitimate theories about what constitutes a fair global basic structure. For instance, the pervasiveness, general acceptance, and commitment to human rights in international relations suggest there is already a strong cosmopolitan strand in the global public culture that endorses persons’ entitlements to be treated as free and equal individuals. Every member state of the United Nations has signed one or more of the six major human rights treaties, with more than 80% having ratified four or more of these six core documents.25 If we take this seriously, it can no longer be maintained that there is significant controversy in the global public culture concerning the recognition the international community gives to individual basic entitlements, including recognition of people's equality and entitlements to basic freedoms.

Another source of evidence that we might profitably look at would be the sorts of deliberative polls that James Fishkin conducts.26 He takes a random sample of people and gives them the opportunity to become well informed about a particular issue, to deliberate with other participants and experts on the key issues, and then a poll is taken of their more considered views. Participants typically must offer reasons for their views in their deliberations with others, and these reasons must be able to withstand public scrutiny, especially from opponents. The deliberative poll can serve as a recommendation for public policy makers who are interested in what people would say if they were better informed on a particular issue. Such deliberative polls on global issues would also constitute relevant evidence.27

The unreasonable use of reason worry

We see that even the partial account of reasonableness developed in the first and third subsections is sufficient to rebut the concern that I deploy an unreasonable account of what it is to be reasonable. I have argued that being reasonable entails being sufficiently responsive to relevant reasons. I have argued that some of the relevant reasons are provided by consideration of relevant facts, such as the history of one's tradition and that it involved at least small changes (as is the case in all traditions). This entails that it is reasonable to want to preserve opportunities rather than foreclose them. Furthermore, participants are expected to be responsive to others’ sincere claims about their significant interests. In the case under discussion, this means we have to be willing to listen, deliberate, and discuss with others their sincere claims about what is necessary for them to live a life of dignity, in trying to reach some agreement about how we can accommodate pluralism in deciding on the basic framework that defines fair interactions. And recall that in choosing to govern our global interactions, we are aiming for a set of guidelines that can reasonably be endorsed by everyone rather than principles that can be endorsed only by a sub-set, especially after careful and conscientious deliberation has taken place.

I do not believe that the features identified make my use of ‘reasonable’ unreasonable. Indeed, the Brahmin (to take one example) would be being insufficiently responsive to others claims, and insufficiently attuned to the possibilities for change, were he dogmatically to assert that the world be structured according to his worldview and no other.

We can find others who have overlapping or similar views about what it is to be reasonable, notably John Rawls, and here I give a brief account of some salient features of his account to lend force to my position on reasonableness.

Reasonable citizens want to live in a society in which political power is legitimately used. They want to cooperate with their fellow citizens on fair terms, mindful of the fact that reasonable citizens may well have different views about core aspects of human life (or ‘comprehensive doctrines,’ as Rawls calls them). Because they are reasonable they will be unwilling simply to impose their own comprehensive doctrines on others, because, inter alia, they accept ‘the burdens of judgment’: fundamental questions concerning religion or morality are difficult even for conscientious people to figure out and people of good will can disagree about answers to such fundamental questions. Being reasonable persons of good will who are mindful of these burdens of judgment, they will be unwilling to impose their worldviews on others who might have reached different positions. On what basis can we then proceed to decide fair terms of co-operation? By examining what is held in common, by examining shared core ideas in our public political culture, and for Rawls, this means looking at historical texts and documents (such as constitutions), public traditions, legal decisions, and so forth. In this way we can appeal to shared ideas to derive a basis for deciding fair terms of co-operation for the basic structure of society, and can inform what constitutes legitimate use of political power.28

Within societies, reasonable citizens engaged in exercises such as deciding the basic structure of their society must justify their decisions using common public values and standards. When Rawls turns his attention to the international context, his method is the same. In justifying fair terms of co-operation for the basic structure in the global context, we must be mindful of the possibility of even more pluralism. We remain unwilling simply to impose our worldviews and ideals on other reasonable peoples. We are bound by duties of civility to explain policy positions in terms of values and principles found in the global public culture, and should avoid using reasons derived solely from comprehensive doctrines that others cannot reasonably be expected to hold.

I believe Rawls's views about the burdens of judgment overlap significantly with the ideas about being reasonable presented in subsections ‘Being reasonable: A first set of considerations’ and ‘Being reasonable: A second set of considerations.’. In addition, Rawls’ idea of the grounds on which we may argue for fair terms of co-operation, which are to be reflected in our choice of basic structure, also overlap importantly with the idea of what it is to be reasonable in dialogue that I presented in subsection ‘Being reasonable: A second set of considerations.’

The impossibility of imagining or knowing what would result worry

Finally, we can turn to the skeptical concerns about the impossibility of knowing what we might choose in a suitable global original position. All the responses offered so far build a case as to why the normative thought experiment is likely to yield the outcomes for which I argue. At any rate, I think consideration of the responses to the other objections shows why it is not impossible to imagine what would result and to take the results as reliable. Perhaps one day we will be able to assemble the necessary large, international, random sample and, through something akin to the normative thought experiment I outline, explore what would result. This might be quite a resource-intensive exercise,29 but it is, I believe, something we could in principle test. The results are sure to be of interest.


I would like to thank Stephen Davies for his valuable comments and discussion on these issues.


1. Stan van Hooft, ‘Review Essay: Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account’, Ethics and Global Politics, 2 (2009): 369–82.

2. Gillian Brock, Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

3. Van Hooft, ‘Review Essay’, 375. He also says that I extend the scope of the book beyond philosophy (p. 375). This section also briefly provides some indication of why extension into the policy domain is necessary.

4. Thomas Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, Ethics 103 (1992): 48–75, 89; Brian Barry, ‘Statism and Nationalism: A Cosmopolitan Critique’, Nomos 41 (1999): 12–66, 36; Charles Jones, Global Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

5. In arguing for what we are all owed as human beings, I argue for what our reasonable expectations of one another should be, especially in situations of ongoing cooperation. The set-up of a normative thought experiment simply aims to make this more vivid to us, but the basic idea can be argued for independently of that framework.

6. I prefer to have my delegates randomly selected rather than being representatives for a range of reasons having to do with the problematic nature of representation, especially in this context. The notion of representation does, and can do, no real work here.

7. The puzzles include these two. First, he gives an example on p. 378 about a woman losing her home to a tsunami in contrast with losing her home through a developer's bribery of a corrupt local official who removes her from her home, so he can acquire her property. Van Hooft claims I cannot account for the wrongness of the action (pp. 378–9). But given the four elements outlined, we could explain the wrongness in multiple ways on the four-part account of what global justice consists in. At least three of the four conditions are not satisfied: (1) A liberty is violated—her freedom to own property has been violated; (2) fair terms of co-operation have been violated—she has been exploited; and (3) the requirement that social and political arrangements are in place which support her liberties and fair terms of co-operation is not satisfied either. He suggests that the additional harm that is missing is that her right to her home has been violated. But on my account we have at least three reasons to complain about injustice. (Furthermore, the rights violation he posits equates straightforwardly to the liberty to own property being violated, on my account.)

Van Hooft also accuses me of offering no theory of entitlement or rights. He says: ‘She needs to go that one step further in order to show that what we need for a life of basic human dignity we also have a right to’ (379). While the relationship between needs and rights is more complex than the one van Hooft suggests here (see Global Justice, Chapter 3, 71–72 especially) my account certainly does cover a theory of entitlement. We are entitled to the four elements endorsed in the normative thought experiment just described. And much of the book discusses what entitlements follow from this four-part account of justice.

8. Hopefully this clarifies why I do have a theory of entitlement, contra van Hooft's concerns on p. 379.

9. Van Hooft, ‘Review Essay’, 376.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 377.

12. Ibid., 377.

13. Ibid., 378.

14. Ibid., 378.

15. David Miller also gives an excellent version of this argument. See, for instance, David Miller ‘National responsibility and international justice’ in The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and The Distant Needy, ed. Deen Chatterjee (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 123–43, especially 127–32.

16. Global Justice, Chapter 6, especially 154–6.

17. Van Hooft says: Brock does not allow for the liberty to form non-liberal associations’ (380), but as we see from a brief discussion of Chapter 6 and Section 6.1 in particular, this is not the case.

18. William Talbott, Which Rights Should be Universal? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 21.

19. Ibid.

20. Even if the Brahmin is totally unresponsive and unmoved by the reasonable claims of others, he might at least be moved by the thoughts discussed previously concerning preserving options to make changes.

21. Global Commission, Our Global Neighbourhood: The Report of the Commission on Global Governance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

22. Ibid., 49.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 50.

25. James Nickels, ‘Are Human Rights Mainly implemented by Intervention?’ in Rawls’ Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia? ed. Rex Martin and David Reidy (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 263–77, 264.

26. See, for instance, James Fishkin, The Voice of the People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); James Fishkin and Peter Laslett, ‘Introduction’, Journal of Political Philosophy 10 (2002): 125–8; Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin ‘Deliberation Day’, Journal of Political Philosophy 10 (2002): 129–52.

27. Van Hooft's raising these concerns here is a bit odd given his own views concerning the importance of human rights in grounding matters of justice in the global realm, as pressed in his recently published book, Cosmopolitanism: A Philosophy for Global Ethics (Stocksfield: Acumen, 2009). All the human rights doctrines we have actually embraced and endorsed suggest that there is some practical support for the theoretical arguments and the reasonableness of the underlying values, even when presented with diversity in the global context.

28. People may have their own reasons derived from their comprehensive doctrines for supporting common laws, but a stable society will also need some overlapping consensus, which relies on this common public culture for support.

29. For one thing we would need a team of interpreters and a good deal of time to allow for the appropriate deliberations.

About The Author

Gillian Brock
The University of Aukland
New Zealand

Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM

Related Content