Humane and Just Wealth Redistribution

By Jason MacLeod on January 19, 2011 — 3 mins read

Brian Barry, in his article, “Humanity and Justice in Global Perspective”1, states that both justice and humanity compel wealth transfers to distressed states and people.  Humanity, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is a “disposition to treat human beings and animals with consideration and compassion and to relieve their distresses; kindness, benevolence.”  Most of us believe we are humane individuals and proceed through our life accordingly, but does a state have a moral obligation to act humanely?  If so, how dos this implicate the rich states obligations to poor states?  How does a humane criterion delineate how much a rich country should sacrifice to the poor nation?

Barry explains Peter Singer’s hypothetical of the drowning child.  If we see a child, a poor state, drowning in a shallow pond ought we to save the child?  First, what is our relationship and proximity to the child?  In most legal systems, there is no requirement to save the child if it would put oneself in danger.  In other legal systems, one could watch the child slowly drown and not be criminalized (but would the action itself would be morally reprehensible).  If a rich nation could prevent the suffering and death of a poorer nation, without any significant sacrifice, what is the rich nation’s duty?  If we hold proximity as a morally relevant factor then the duty to transfer wealth keeps the duty within narrow bounds.  Humanity would only require that aid be given to a neighbor.  In the global north, our neighbors our considerably wealthy nations; it goes to stand, that these narrow grounds are indeed to narrow, and proximity should not be a relevant factor in giving aid.  The relationship, if it were a morally relevant factor, would manifest as a mother’s duty to save the drowning child, or as the bystander who has no duty.  In aid, this relationship must not exist.  If there are seven people watching the child drown, none have the individual duty to save it.  However, if the child drowns because none of the seven acted, then all, as Barry suggests, would be morally responsible for the death.  Therefore, there is a moral obligation for states to act humanely and to act upon this obligation to save.  Barry concludes quickly that there is no set criterion for how much a nation should sacrifice, but the aid should be at least 3% of the GNP (the level of Marshall aid) or up to 10% or 25%.  Humanity requires giving aid, but doesn’t set a criterion.

Barry’s article gives most weight to the concept of wealth transfer as an obligation of justice.  He puts these under two main headers: justice as reciprocity and justice as equal rights.  Justice as reciprocity manifests in fair play, giving a fair share, return, exchange, and benefits of some common endeavor.  As we know, multinational corporations and supranational governmental bodies (as well as nation states) give less in exchange for goods or services to the global south than the global north.  There is also the dark history of colonization, imperialism, and their current manifestations.  This dark history also reflects the idea of justice as equal rights, mainly to natural resources extracted under these regimes.  To put it simply, the states should get their just inheritance.  This could take form, as Barry suggests, through international institutions and taxes.  These monies would then be transferred to the country directly, and not through the World Bank, IMF, or other developmental institution.

Barry suggests that these two forms of wealth redistribution co-exist with each other and are obligations requiring rich nations to help to poor.  The power of justice and humanity compel rich nations to help those in dire need and to redistribute wealth that was taken under colonial or imperial rule.  Would the inequality, poor health, conflict, and hate, continue if wealth was redistributed to its rightful beneficiaries and those who needed it?

1:Nomos XXIV: Ethics, Economics, and the Law (1982)