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Reimagining Global Justice: An Interview with Thomas Pogge

Facial profile of caucasian man in dress shirt and jacket with glasses.

Thomas Pogge is the Director of the Global Justice Program and the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University. Pogge received his Ph.D. from Harvard University under the supervision of John Rawls. His widely published work has advanced the cause for global justice in the political theory community.

Alex & Ryan: You had John Rawls as your doctoral advisor. How has Rawls influenced you?

Thomas Pogge:  I would say profoundly. On the personal side, Rawls was a very kind, generous person—very much a model for how to act with students and how to navigate within an academic environment. He was for my taste too humble, which was very unusual at that time at Harvard. People were mostly alpha males; at the extreme end was Robert Nozick, who would constantly interrupt you, thinking that he knew everything much better than you could know it. But Rawls was not like that at all; he was quite the opposite. When I would criticize his work, he typically responded by saying “oh this sounds interesting” or “let me think about it.” He was, compared to Nozick, a very slow thinker. He was not quick-witted like Nozick was—who could within half a second come up with something really bright and brilliant; but if he could not think of an argument in 10 seconds, he could not do it at all. Whereas Rawls was the kind of person who would think very slowly but he would then come back with something very well deliberated. Problems yield to careful deliberation. You can see this everywhere in Rawls’s work.

With regards to theorizing, I have always been very eager to theorize on global justice. I came to America because I could not understand why a nation as interesting as America could engage in the Vietnam War. I thought if Americans could understand their own values better, they would not be doing this. Rawls wanted to avoid that conclusion in the The Law of Peoples, where he tried to sketch an alternative way of thinking about international relations. For me, it seems obvious that Rawls’s theory of justice has international implications—that international institutions should be designed for the benefit of the least advantaged. 

A&R: How would you expand Rawls’s theory of justice to international relations?

TP: I should maybe say in brackets first that I am no longer a Rawlsian. At that time I thought that Rawls’s theory was right domestically but not internationally. Now I think his theory is not right for the domestic, but leaving that to one side, if I were a convinced Rawlsian I would say that the world at large has a basic structure or institutional order that applies to the world at large, for example the World Trade Organisation and various conventions of international diplomacy; and these institutions should be shaped in the interests of all human beings and the most vulnerable human beings in particular. Essentially, just apply the Rawlsian theory to the world at large. I understand that you may say that we have to make allowances perhaps for the fact that other cultures have different values, so it would be potentially imperialistic to use our considered judgments about justice to impose that on the world at large. But if the world at large says yes we want Rawls’s theory, we want the difference principle, then how can we possibly say no. We as Americans cannot say satisfying the Rawlsian theory would be an unjust world. Maybe others can reject it, but we cannot. And Rawls somehow wanted to say that this would not be right for us. That is where we disagree.

A&R: Can a theory of global justice account for the diversity of cultural practices and historical beliefs found around the world?

TP: First of all, one very important thought here is that we have to live together in the same world, so the idea that everybody can have their own rules is a nonstarter. We have to find common solutions to common problems, whether it’s COVID-19 or ecological issues. There has to be one global order—which some people will not like. 

Also, we have as one starting point the conception of human rights, which is enshrined to some extent in Rawls’s first principle of justice. That is, all cultures agree and have within their horizon of moral theorizing the idea that institutions should take into account the fundamental needs of human beings. We want to shape institutions in such a way that human beings can lead reasonably worthwhile lives under those institutions. That should be a minimum requirement for institutions. But we are living in a world which, for a very large proportion of the human population, these basic rights and needs are not fulfilled. It is imperative that we have a world where there is no longer any hunger, torture, or unjust imprisonment.

To clarify, I do not want to say that human rights are part of the furniture of the universe. But I want to say human rights are a plausible proposition that is widely accepted across all different cultures. 

A&R: Under the notion of sovereignty, states should not interfere with the affairs of other states—which presumably poses a problem for global justice. How do you argue against or redefine sovereignty?

TP: Sovereignty is not a rock-bottom commitment. We are committed first and foremost to the wellbeing of individuals, and sovereignty is one instrument for that. We want communities to have a certain amount of cultural economy—we do not want that to be interfered with. But because sovereignty is an instrumental commitment, it is subject to various constraints, and we fine-tune it in such a way that it serves the purpose of protecting communal autonomy. Indeed, I want a world in which there is protection of communal life but if and insofar as that protects important interests of individuals. What I would advocate is protection not just at the level of the state but also on the level of smaller communities. We want, for example, communities within the state—say ethnic minorities in the U.S. or religious communities like the Mormons—to have a certain autonomy and to be protected against the state. 

A&R: Whereas most of the American public views North Korea, China, or Russia as barriers to an ideal global order, you’ve written that you see “…the United States as the main obstacle to such a reorganization” (142). Why is that?

TP: The U.S. is a country where you find a large discrepancy between its practices and moral potential. If you try to maximize power in your own country, you act very differently than if you tried to create the kind of moral world that I have described. 

We are now living in a world in which states are thinking of actions within a competition for power. Our goal as players in this power game is to maximize our own power, and of course we make agreements with others. We have institutions, shared conventions and practices, rules and so on, but all of those are temporary conveniences where it is mutually advantageous for participants to ban together either the whole globe or a subset of states to form an alliance or some sort of an interest group.

This sort of game where we have an organized but constantly shifting competition for power is in the long run not sustainable; we will not survive as a species if we continue playing this game. One example of this danger is when there are shifts in power as we now have with China on the cusp of overtaking the United States. Is the U.S. going to say we have to wage war against China before they get stronger than we are or will the U.S. peacefully allow itself to be overtaken, much like the Soviet Union allowed itself to be dismantled 30 years ago. 

Another great danger is that in this competition for power, more and more states will acquire weapons of mass destruction so that they become untouchable in the way in which the nuclear powers are untouchable. The more agents we have capable of triggering nuclear war, the more dangerous the world becomes because the probability of error, misunderstanding or some aggressive crackpot getting into power in such a country becomes greater and greater. 

So we need to overcome this competition for power and form a morally based world order. 

A&R: Do you think that whichever country is the hegemon within the global order—U.S. or otherwise—will always be the greatest threat to democracy?

TP: There are certainly forces that push in that direction, but to say that this is an iron law of history would be too defeatist and deny human freedom. There are two scenarios. First, it is possible that a leader emerges who understands the basic thinking that I just outlined. Gorbachev was such a leader. He understood that if we go on with the present system, it must lead to disaster—if not in this century, then in the next century. Second, the people could understand this predicament and demand a different foreign policy. Whether this is possible in the United States, I do not know, but there could be mass movements of people that will make certain aggressive, power-seeking policies impossible. We got a taste of that with the anti-war movement in the United States; the government would have continued the Vietnam War had it not been protested. And that shows that change is at least possible. 

So it is possible to escape power politics. If I had to bet on it as an outside investor so to speak, I would say the chances of it happening are low. We will probably have a big nuclear war before we move to a more morally-based world order.

A&R: Can there be a global state, and would such a state be desirable?

TP: Yes, there can be something like that and I think it would be very desirable. One very important element of a world government would be that it has dedicated officials whose loyalty and dedication is to the world at large. Even though we have “international organizations,” its delegates come from many different countries who, inevitably, still see themselves as loyal to their home country, pushing for solutions that are good for their state rather than for global solutions. That contrasts with what we have within countries like the United States, where a president is supposed to forget their home state and be loyal to the whole country.

A&R: You describe a great divide between Western democracy—as a system of norms, ethics, institutions—and Western democracies. What exactly causes this divide?

TP: What causes it to happen is the corrosion of our values through our self interest. Western democracies are capitalist democracies, and corporations exert a very large influence on policy-making, especially with regard to foreign policy. They want other countries to have a favorable investment climate where they can operate with little restrictions and, in turn, reap huge profits. And of course they have very strong lobbying factions to make that happen. So the lobbying of big corporations on the one hand tries to affect domestic rules, but also on the other tries to affect foreign rules, such as the rules of the WTO and so on. All of that is affected by these lobbyists who use the US government as their instrument to shape the rules in their own favor. And that means that there is always a headwind against the implementation of genuine democratic values. We talk a good line about human rights and democracy and so on—that’s our “big thing,” that’s what we stand for, officially, at least—but then we do very different things, simply driven by these interests.

A&R: How do we prevent this from happening in the future?

TP: The problem is in order to make the government come down hard on lobbying, you have to overcome the lobbying first. You have to go through the existing institutions which is the real difficulty. So how do you do that? Well, for one thing, you have to counter the very strong force of lobbying. For example, we need campaign finance reform in the United States; it’s a screaming idiocy and injustice the way elections work and are funded in the status quo. But you will not be able to overcome that unless you go through the same institutions that are now fed by these campaign contributions. So you have to find allies in Congress who see it your way. I know a few people in Congress who I talk with pretty regularly, and they’re fully aware of the problem, but it’s very very difficult to make any real headway because of the way the system now operates. So you really have to engage in arm-wrestling with the big lobbies. But focus on one issue at a time, rather than fight 55 battles simultaneously and lose pretty much all of them. Small victories.

A&R: Has globalization made it easier or harder for states to achieve justice domestically?

TP: If you take the globalization that we now have, then I would say that it has, on the whole, been a force that makes it harder for countries to be just internally. This is because weaker countries are now exposed to much stronger influences from abroad—influences that are typically corrupting. Foreign companies can now come into developing countries much easier thanks to globalization, and they are overwhelmingly powerful relative to local forces. Many major US companies have an annual turnover that is vastly greater than the whole GDP of the typical African country or Asian or Latin American country. And they are in the position to arm-twist the local decision-makers—the presidents or prime ministers of these countries—to obtain favorable rulings on, for example, taxation or resource extraction. So many of the poorer countries are being robbed blind by corporations who do not pay their taxes or who launder their profits through tax havens. They undermine democracy in these countries because they achieve their favorable status by bending the institutions of poorer countries in their own favor. They are thereby also undermining the prospects for domestic industry to thrive because domestic companies cannot compete with these multinational companies. As a result, in many of the poorer, weaker countries, democracy cannot even get off the ground simply because these foreign-funded interests are so very powerful.

A&R: You recently proposed the Health Impact Fund (HIF) as a solution to the current research vacuum on diseases that predominantly affect the poor. How would the Fund work?

TP: It would work on a voluntary basis to make it more politically palatable. We would not destroy or disturb the patent system; rather, we would simply offer pharmaceutical innovators an alternative path. They would have to be willing to sell their product at the cost of production or let other people produce said product without a licensing fee; in exchange, member companies would receive annual premiums that are conditioned on the health impact that their product achieves in the world. Such an incentive structure would make diseases that affect the poor very lucrative and would allow for medicine to be immediately available to affected populations.

If the Health Impact Fund had been in existence pre-COVID, member pharmaceutical companies would have deployed the vaccines strategically, bought up any vaccine production capacity worldwide, manufactured as many vaccines as possible, vaccinated billions of people, and reduced the incidence as quickly as possible. These companies would then get paid on the basis of how much less damage COVID-19 does in the world in reality, compared to how much it would have done if the vaccines hadn’t gone on the market.

A&R: Does the rebuilding of society in the wake of COVID-19 present an opportunity to redesign our institutions to better achieve justice? What might these improvements be?

TP: I think we can learn from the idea of an HIF, broaden it, and apply that idea, for example, to green technology. We could give inventors of green technologies the option to be paid by impact. So instead of having a patent, which allows you to charge an arm and a leg to anyone who wants to use your green technology, you would be allowed to be paid according to how much pollution your innovation keeps out of the atmosphere. We would have a meta-innovation about how we reward innovations, and thereby make the whole business of innovation much more pro-poor.

Beyond innovation, however, we should focus on democracy—on making our societies more democratic. Creating a genuine democracy that is not captured by special interests, lobbying, and big money is equally important to innovation. And the two are of course related because what keeps the patent system in existence is precisely this pseudo-democratic system that allows very small, but well-organized and well-funded, interests to dominate the rule-making in our country.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.