AustLII Home | Databases | WorldLII | Search | Feedback

Australian Journal of Human Rights

You are here:  AustLII >> Databases >> Australian Journal of Human Rights >> 2003 >> [2003] AUJlHRights 17

Database Search | Name Search | Recent Articles | Noteup | LawCite | Author Info | Download | Help

Cullity, Garrett --- "Beneficence, Rights and Citizenship N." [2003] AUJlHRights 17; (2003) 9(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 85

Beneficence, rights and citizenship

Garrett Cullity*

What are we morally required to do for strangers? To answer this question — a question about the scope of requirements to aid strangers — we must first answer a question about justification: why are we required to aid them (when we are)? The immediate aim of this papaer is to answer the question about justification: its overall aim is to answer the question about scope.

Three main issues are discussed. First, to what extent should requirements of beneficence — requirements to benefit other people — be seen as generated by people’s rights to receiving aid? Second, what is the relationship between requirements of beneficence that apply to us collectively and requirements of beneficence that apply to each of us individually? One view is that our obligations to help distant strangers are fundamentally collective obligations, and any individual obligations we bear are consequently obligations to discharge our ‘fair share’ of these collective obligations. I shall argue that, on the contrary, there are large scale collective obligations of beneficence that derive from more fundamental individual obligations. My third issue concerns the moral significance of citizenship. What morally relevant difference is there between strangers who are compatriots and those who are not?

• • •

If you or I came across a stranger urgently needing our direct help, and we could help him or her at little cost to ourselves, we would feel we morally ought to do so. If that help could easily be given — if it simply meant sacrificing our time to save someone’s life, for example — then it would be morally required: not doing it would be wrong.1

However, what about those needy strangers whom few of us will ever confront directly: the many desperately needy people in the world whose plight is distant from us, and who are not our compatriots?2 Many people think that we are morally required to help them too. But few of us treat these moral requirements as having the same urgency and force as those presented by the need of people directly in front of us. And some people think that professing concern for the plight of the world’s starving millions is actually a form of moral degeneracy. They insist that there is a crucial moral distinction between our relationship to the needs of people around us and the needs of distant non-compatriots. Failing to make that distinction yields the attitude Dickens caricatures in Bleak House, where the ‘telescopic philanthropy’ of Mrs Jellyby leads her to devote herself to the good of the natives of distant Borrioboola-Gha while ignoring the misery of her own family (Wallace 1978: 157).

There are two ways to take the question of what we are morally required to do for distant strangers, as follows.

1. What am I individually morally required to do to help the poor of other nations?

2. What are Australians, as a nation, collectively morally required to do to help the poor of other nations?

Elsewhere, I have argued for an answer to question 1 (Cullity 1994, 1996, 2003, forthcoming a). Here, I want to discuss question 2. The way to develop an answer is to ask another question first. Why are we required to aid other people, when we are? This paper begins by discussing the latter question — a question about the justification of requirements to give aid — and uses the answer in order to derive conclusions about the scope of those requirements.

The paper is divided into three main sections. In the first, I argue that the justification of requirements to give aid to needy non-compatriots does not come from their rights to receive it. There are such requirements, but they are generated by these people’s needs, not by their rights. The second section then asks about the scope of these requirements, and examines the relationship between the individual (question 1) and collective (question 2) requirements that apply to us. According to some philosophers, what I am individually required to do in helping distant strangers is to discharge my ‘fair share’ of what we all ought to be doing collectively. I shall argue that this view is wrong, and that it underestimates what is morally required of us. In the third and final section, I then explain the way in which citizenship remains morally significant, and briefly examine the conclusions that ought to be drawn concerning immigration, asylum and international distributive justice.

Beneficence and rights

It has become natural to think of the question of what we are morally required to do for distant strangers as a question about their rights. A striking feature of 20th century moral discourse is the way in which rights have become the accepted international currency with which moral claims and criticisms are asserted — most famously in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the Declaration). According to art 25:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to social security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

As is often pointed out, what the Declaration fails to specify is the duties correlative to these purported rights: it does not tell us who bears the responsibility for satisfying them. And that makes it plausible to interpret the ‘rights’ it asserts as simply moral aspirations (Griffin 2001a: 25).3 On this reading, to say that everyone has a right to these various goods is to say two things: everyone ought to have these goods and we all ought collectively to be working towards everyone having them. But that does not mean that anyone who lacks them is now being wronged.

Now I think these are excellent aspirations. Moreover, there are good pragmatic reasons for declaration writers to phrase these aspirations in the language of rights: it has greater rhetorical force than simply saying that it would be good for people to have these things. However, I shall now argue that it is better for us not to use talk of rights in the aspirational way.4 A better way to think of a moral right is to see it as a particular kind of claim that its possessor has to the respect of others. And when we think of rights in this way, it becomes a mistake to treat many of the moral requirements there are to benefit other people — requirements of beneficence, as I shall call them5 — as grounded in the rights of the beneficiaries.

Let me begin with an example to illustrate the view I defend. Imagine that we’re on board a ship, and have the misfortune to be sharing our voyage with Malcolm, who is rude, malicious, dishonest and a bore. When we run into mechanical trouble, we hold a meeting to decide what to do. Malcolm hasn’t been invited, but comes in and loudly insists on his right to be heard. After the meeting, he then gets drunk and falls overboard. Now he insists, even more loudly, on his right to be saved. How should we react? Well, we should hear him out in the first instance and pull him out in the second. We would be wronging him if we failed to do either of these things, and his unpleasantness as a travelling companion is irrelevant to this. But the reason we would be wronging him is different in each case. In the first case he does, as he says, have a right to speak, and that is why we should let him do so. The decision of whether to alter the voyage affects him just as much as anyone else, so he has just as much of a claim to contribute to that decision as anyone else. It is not a question of whether it would be good for him to be heard: maybe he will only succeed in alienating himself from everyone else even further. But he has an entitlement to be heard — as much of an entitlement as anyone else — and we would be committing an injustice against him in failing to recognise it. If we do allow him to speak, he owes us no gratitude for that: we have done no more than to give him his due.

By contrast, the reason we ought to save him is not that he has a right to be saved. We ought to save him, and not as an act of supererogation or charity: if we could easily save his life it would be monstrous not to do so, no matter how rude he has been to us. But this is not because of an entitlement of his which he can insist on as his due.6 Rather, the reason is simply this: he desperately needs it. And if we respond to his needs as we should, then (even though it would have been monstrous of us not to) he should be grateful to us, for we have done more than just acknowledge the rights he is entitled to assert against us. So, at least, I claim.

I do not think that there is any fully demonstrative argument that compels this conclusion. The only way of attempting that would be to start with a conceptual analysis of ‘rights’ from which the extension of the concept could be inferred, excluding cases of life-saving assistance. However, no such argument is possible here, any more than it is anywhere else in moral discussion. We cannot establish one view about rights as the correct one by convicting all other views of conceptual confusion. True, if some general usage becomes dominant, then that would settle the question of the meaning that the term ‘rights’ has in our language. This might happen to the aspirational way of talking about rights just mentioned, or the one according to which every moral requirement to treat another person a certain way implies a corresponding right to be treated that way. But that has not happened yet, and most moral philosophers would deplore it if it did. These general usages would make rights talk readily replaceable — replaceable by talk of how a person ought to be treated.7 By contrast, it seems to most moral philosophers that if we use talk of rights in a more tightly restricted way, then it gives us a morally important notion for which there is no ready replacement.

There is, then, a less demonstrative but more appropriate form for arguments about the extension of ‘rights’ to take. As James Griffin says, the way to argue about rights is to produce a persuasive picture of the distinctive role that rights play in our moral thinking — a role that we need to rights talk to articulate. If we can do this, then we have a case for thinking that something important would be lost if we were to adopt a more general, replaceable usage (Griffin 2001b: 318; 2000: 41-42). Let me now offer an argument of this kind for a view about rights that differs from Griffin’s own.8

Historically, the notion of a moral right developed out of that of a legal right (Tuck 1977). A legal right is a legally protected entitlement to do or have something — an entitlement that allows me to invoke the protection of the law to resist other people’s attempts to prevent me from doing or having that thing. Analogously, a moral right is a morally protected entitlement — an entitlement to do or have something which enjoys moral protection from the encroachment of others. This core understanding is common to various moral philosophers’ accounts of the formal nature of moral rights. Thus, on Alan Gewirth’s account, ‘[i]n their strongest sense, rights are justified claims to the protection of persons’ important interests’ (Gerwith 1995: 776); on Griffin’s, a right is ‘a power that a person possesses to control or claim something’ (Griffin 2001b: 309). The sense in which rights are entitlements enjoying moral protection is often explained by reference to a duty or requirement of non-encroachment which is borne by others (Waldron 1984: 8-11).9

When we turn from this formal level of description to the substantive question of just which of a person’s interests possess this morally protected status, there is again a measure of broad agreement amongst moral philosophers. The least controversial examples of moral rights are, first, those moral entitlements that I possess because of commitments you have made to me, or special roles you occupy in relation to me; and, secondly, those general entitlements not to be coercively or harmfully interfered with by anyone, possessed by me independently of any such commitments or roles (Hart in Waldron 1984; Benn 1967: 198). However, on the question of the extent of our moral rights to positive assistance — rights to welfare — philosophers’ agreement ends.

I suggest that we can make progress in thinking about the controversial cases by reflecting on the less controversial ones, as follows. When we talk about commitment based or role based entitlements, or general entitlements to non-interference, we find it helpful to describe the moral relationships I bear to other people in terms of my rights. Why? We are able to say that it is good for me to be unharmed by others, or to have promises that are made to me kept. We are able to say that I ought to be treated in these ways, and that others are morally required to treat me in these ways — that it would be morally wrong for them not to. What is added by talking about the existence of my rights?

There are two answers to this. The first is the more obvious; the second is the more important. The obvious point is that rights talk is not replaceable with talk of what is good for a person: we need talk of rights in order to allow for entitlements to do things that may not be good for you. Maybe if you give me the money you promised me, I will only spend it in self-destructive stupidity; maybe the only way I will avoid doing something imprudent is if you forcibly prevent me. I might still have a right to have or do what will be bad for me. We need to talk of rights, that is to say, to express the protection that we think ought to be given to autonomous agency: rights are entitlements to assert that autonomy — they are circumscribed entitlements to decide for ourselves what to do, whether or not exercising it is good for us.

This is not the whole of the story, though. Would anything be lost if we dropped talk of rights in favour of simply referring to the moral requirements that fall on others to respect my autonomy in specified ways? I think so — and not just because it would be more cumbersome. For together with the attribution of moral rights comes a conception of the moral agent as a right-holder, and a view that it is because of this status that we bear the requirements of respect that we do. This is the second and more important point. To think of other people as bearers of rights is to think of them as having a capacity for autonomous action that commands our respect — and as doing so independently of any benefit they derive from getting or doing what they have a right to have or do. When the notion of a right was co-opted from legal into moral use, it allowed us to produce a new conception of the moral status of ourselves and others: the status of possessing a protected sphere for the exercise of autonomous choice and action. As subjects of needs, we command each other’s concern. But as bearers of rights, we also command their respect.10

The idea that the central role of rights is to protect autonomous agency is one that other philosophers have emphasized (Hart in Waldron 1984; Mackie in Waldron 1984: 176; Griffin 2000a: 3-5; Griffin 2001a; 2001b: 311-13 318-20; Richards 1981; Gewith 1995).11 It is sometimes suggested that a case can be built out of this for the existence of universal welfare rights, by pointing out that a minimum material provision is one of the necessary conditions for the exercise of autonomous agency (Griffin 2000). However, the problem with this is that it is in danger of running together two things that are better kept distinct. We ought to help people to achieve the valuable status of being able to act autonomously, and we ought to respect this status once they have achieved it. These are two different reasons — a reason to be concerned about other people, and a reason to respect them, as I put it above — and it is more helpful to use the vocabulary of rights in a way that preserves the distinction. When Malcolm falls into the water, the reason to pull him out is not that if we don’t it would be a failure to respect his autonomy. True, if he drowns, that will make autonomous action impossible for him. But there is a much more direct reason to help him. It is that he needs it, desperately. Failing to help him would be wrong because it is a gross failure to respond to his needs, not because it violates the protected area marked out by his rights.

This gives us a distinctive picture of the role of rights — a picture on which its role within our moral thinking is to help us to articulate the view that our capacity for autonomous agency ought to be afforded special protection.12 I hope this picture has some persuasiveness: as I said above, this is as much as can be hoped for by an argument on this subject. On this picture, there is no universal human right to welfare. However, this is not to deny that there are welfare rights of any kind.13 And nor is it to deny that there are general requirements of beneficence, and that these are important moral requirements. I exhibit a terrible moral failure if your interests count for so little to me that I will not save your life at small personal cost. The point is just that my moral failure is different from the failure I exhibit if I fail to respect your rights. The conclusion that leads us to is this: we should help other people who need our direct assistance — people like Malcolm — not because of their right to our help but because of their need for it.14

If so, then the grounds for thinking that we are morally required to help the many desperately needy people who are far away from us are very simple. They need it, and we could easily help them. Establishing the existence of such a requirement is not a matter of debating the rights that strangers hold against us. It is simply settled by their need.

There are possible objections to this simple argument. You might, for example, dispute whether the reason for holding that we are morally required to help Malcolm has the general form: that he needs it. You might instead think that the reason is that he needs it and his need confronts us directly. That is one thing that would spoil the argument; another would be doubt about the effectiveness of international aid. However, I think these and other objections fail, and have explained why elsewhere (Cullity 1994, forthcoming a). So, rather than going over this ground again, let me instead turn to the next question this argument raises. There are many millions of desperately needy people in the world. If their need grounds moral requirements on us to help them, how far do such moral requirements extend?

Individual and collective requirements of beneficence

Australians, as a nation, are morally required to help the poor of other nations. I have argued that this is true for the same simple reason that we are required to help Malcolm when he falls overboard: he needs it, and we could easily help. Now let me address the question of the scope of this requirement: how far does it extend?

To answer this question, we need to consider the relationship between collective and individual requirements of beneficence. I am going to begin by examining and rejecting one prominent view advocated recently by several moral philosophers. Showing what is wrong with it will help us to see what we should say instead.

According to this prominent view, the way to work out what is morally required of me is to estimate the total cost of alleviating chronic poverty worldwide, and then to calculate what proportion of that cost it would be fair to allocate to me, alongside all the other people who are well off enough to be morally required to help. Let me call this the ‘fair share’ view of the moral requirements of beneficence (Murphy 1993 and 2000; Cohen 1981; Brock 1991: 912). This view will generate conclusions about what I am individually required to do to help the poor. And it will also generate conclusions about what Australians are collectively required to do: they ought to be doing their fair share of what all well off nations ought to be doing.

In order to generate those conclusions, a ‘fair share’ view will need to do three things: define chronic poverty in material terms, specify a threshold beyond which a person counts as well off enough to be required to help, and supply a principle for fairly distributing the cost of helping among those above that threshold. In advance of doing these things, we cannot say exactly how much such a view requires each of us to give up. However, it does seem plausible for advocates of this view to deny that it is severely demanding: anyone satisfying its requirements would still have plenty of opportunities to pursue his or her own personal fulfilment.15 After all, according to the World Bank’s international poverty line, there are four times as many people above its poverty lines as below them, and the amount required to take someone who has nothing to a level above that poverty line is only a matter of a few hundred dollars per year.16

One implication of this view is that I ought to do my fair share even if others are not doing theirs. However, that seems right. If we ought to be helping, then it is hard to see how others’ unwillingness to do so will excuse my own. If anything, the more significant challenge comes from the opposite direction.17 Can I not be required to do more than my share of what everyone ought to be doing when others are not doing theirs? If another bystander and I come across two people whose lives need to be saved, and the other bystander walks off without helping, I cannot justify saving only one life on the ground that this is my fair share. The other person may have acted wrongly, but this is irrelevant to whether I act wrongly in refusing to save the second life. After all, I would still be failing to save someone’s life at negligible cost to myself.

The best reply for proponents of the ‘fair share’ view to make to this is to distinguish cases of direct rescue from cases of indirect help, restricting their view to the latter kind of case. They can say that helping people indirectly, through aid agencies, is a collective project of beneficence, for which the fair share view gives us an appropriate account of what is morally demanded of each of us. After all, I could not on my own do anything significant to help distant people at small cost to myself. Any help I can easily give can only be given as a contribution to a collective action; so here the individual requirement on me to contribute should be seen as deriving from a collective requirement on us to perform the collective action to which it is a contribution. And where individual requirements derive from collective ones, they should be distributed as recommended by the ‘fair share’ view. But when there are people right in front of me whom I could rescue, my direct relationship with them creates a special obligation to help which is not derived from a collective moral requirement and hence which is not discharged by doing only my ‘fair share’ of what needs to be done overall.18

To see what is wrong with this reply, however, think about those situations in which there is a collective requirement to help needy people directly. Suppose, for example, that three people are drowning, and the only way to rescue them is to use a winch mechanism that cannot be operated by one person working alone. Two people can operate it with a lot of effort; three people can do so more easily. Suppose three of us are standing by the winch. Obviously, we ought to rescue the drowning people, and it would be morally wrong of us not to do so. And it is obvious why: they desperately need it, and we could do so at little cost to ourselves. But notice what this is saying. There is a collective moral requirement to help, and the grounds for imposing that collective requirement are the same as the grounds for imposing a requirement on individuals when they can rescue someone directly: help is desperately needed, and could be easily provided. The only difference is that in this case the subject of the requirement is a group rather than an individual.

Now suppose one of the people beside the winch goes off and leaves the other two of us to deal with the situation. Here again, it is obvious what to say. The two of us who are left cannot justifiably stop after saving two of the drowning people on the grounds that this is our fair share of what all the bystanders ought to have been doing. And again it is obvious why. There are now two of us who could save all three drowning people at little cost to ourselves, so the requirement that we do so is generated in exactly the same way as before. Of course, the defaulter has acted wrongly, and the ‘fair share’ view explains why: he has failed to do his share of what all three of us ought originally to have done. Moreover, there is a sense in which it is unfair that the two of us are left having to do all the work: the defaulter has treated us unfairly. But it is clearly wrong to conclude that we are now only required to give two-thirds of the needed assistance. What would justify ceasing to help would be if the cost of helping were excessive — but others’ refusal to do their fair share does not itself make the cost excessive.

True, this is still a case of helping directly. We are considering a version of the ‘fair share’ view that restricts itself to cases of helping indirectly. However, this example does show what is wrong with that version of the view. Collective requirements to help can arise in circumstances in which that help is needed directly. They have the same source as individual requirements to help: namely, the fact that help is desperately needed and could be easily provided. But when this is true of a group from which some people default, it can also remain true of the new group that is formed without the defaulters. The non-compliance of some people with the original collective requirement simply creates a new collective requirement that applies to the rest of us.

If this is the case, then unless the difference between direct and indirect help is itself morally significant, we should say the same about collective actions of indirect help. And, as I suggested in the first section, it is hard to see how this difference is itself morally significant. The ground for a moral requirement, either individual or collective, to help other people — the fact that help is desperately needed and could be easily provided — seems insensitive to the difference between helping directly and helping indirectly. So unless there is something wrong with that thought, the ‘fair share’ view must be rejected. Even in cases in which individual requirements to help needy people clearly do derive from collective ones, others’ non-compliance will simply result in the creation of a new collective requirement that applies to the rest of us.

Thus, in order to determine how much, as a nation, we are required to do to help needy people elsewhere, we should not look to the ‘fair share’ view for the answer. Rather, we need to know at what point the cost of helping can be thought of as excessive. The ground for requiring us to help other people is that they desperately need it and we could easily provide it. What counts as easy, and when is the cost of helping too much to require of us?

This is an important question, and elsewhere I defend a general answer to it (Cullity forthcoming a). However, that general answer is not necessary here: for our current purposes, we can just ask this. How much can I be required to give up in order to rescue one person? Most of us have some clear opinions about this. If the cost of rescuing someone will have no long term detrimental effect on me, then refusing to help would be wrong. If it would mean risking some long term injury or other harm, then helping would be heroic; but if not — if it would merely mean giving up some time or money with no long term detrimental effect — it would be merely decent.

Simply noticing this does not help us with the question whether more than this can be required when there are many people in desperate need of help, and if so, how much more. That is a more difficult question to answer, but we do not need to tackle it here. For it is surely clear that no nation is currently anywhere near the level of aid commitment for which there could be any question that it represents any long term harm to its citizens. Australia’s international aid budget in 2002-3 is $1.815 billion, representing 0.25 per cent of the nation’s GNP and 1 per cent of government expenditure ( Even if we accepted that this should be thought of in its entirety as a humanitarian contribution to alleviating other people’s severe need, there could not be any serious question that this is a large enough contribution to be anywhere near worsening the lives of those who are contributing towards it.19

The practical conclusion we are led to, then, is this. An Australian government ought to extend its aid commitments as far as is politically sustainable. There is no real prospect that what is politically sustainable extends further than what is morally required of us. It is likely to remain permanently true that what we are collectively morally required to do will far exceed what will be politically possible. And the consequence of that is that we are required to make additional efforts through non-governmental channels to do what we are not doing through our government. If my argument is correct, this requirement will continue to apply to us as long as there is dire need that we could easily address.

There is the danger that this view will appear politically naive. Let me make two points to anticipate that objection. First of all, I am not saying that government-to-government handouts, or any other kind of handout from rich to poor, are the answer to world poverty. Any serious discussion of the problems of deprivation worldwide must accept that the long term answers lie in structural reform, both internally to poor countries and on a global scale, that can provide an economic framework within which life-destroying poverty does not exist (Gomberg 2002). However, it is important to see that accepting this does nothing to silence the question I have been asking: how much help should we be prepared to give? For, once we have accepted it, we still need to ask ourselves, first, how much of our own resources we should commit to the process of internal and global structural reform that is needed; and secondly, what we should do about suffering people in the meantime.

The second point concerns the way in which I have been talking about Australia’s moral obligations in isolation. That may appear to be naive in another way. OECD nations have decided a joint target for international aid: it currently stands at 0.7 per cent of GNP. No doubt that target is too modest, and few countries are meeting it.20 The implication of my argument is that Australia should unilaterally exceed this target regardless.21 After all, on my view, our obligations are not generated by calculating our fair share of the help everyone is giving. And when others are not giving as much as they should, that simply leaves more for us to do. However, surely it would be impossibly naive to have that as a national policy. It would simply encourage other countries to take a free ride on us, exploiting our willingness to do what they are not prepared to do.

Again, though, accepting the force of this point does not undermine my argument. It is true that we should not simply passively agree to do whatever the others fail to do — any more than I should passively agree to do whatever you are unwilling to do in some joint rescue effort of ours. In any co-operative effort with a relatively small number of parties, it is bad policy to act in a way that encourages others to default on their contribution.22 However, where the point of the co-operation is to respond to the desperate need of other people, dealing with recalcitrant partners by withdrawing our own co-operation altogether is not going to be an acceptable option. We should shame others into making their contribution, rather than withdrawing our own. And if that does not work — if our potential partners are determined not to join in — then, as I have argued, that does not let us off the moral hook. If some agents are not willing to help, that simply leaves those of us who are with a new collective task.

The moral significance of citizenship

It might seem that I have been arguing that there is no morally relevant difference between strangers who are compatriots and those who are not. After all, I have argued that the reason there is for us to help other people is that they need it; and whether or not they are compatriots of ours is irrelevant to that.

However, that is not quite right. It is true enough that citizenship makes no difference to need, so requirements to help others do not stop at our borders. However, that does not mean that citizenship is morally unimportant. For moral norms govern our political relationships. The arrangements we make in regulating our social life together call for moral assessment; and this makes co-citizenship morally significant.

To see how this is so, consider two of the norms that are widely accepted as governing the way we regulate our society. One concerns the relationship between the members of the community — those being regulated — and the process of regulation. According to one of the least contentious forms of modern egalitarianism, each member of the community has an equal claim to having his or her interests represented within the decision-making process.23 And according to the line of thinking behind the modern welfare state, a moral question faced by any community concerns how we are to distribute the resources generated by our collective endeavour. So a second form of moral assessment of how our society regulates itself is an assessment of distributive justice.

These two lines of thought do need to be defended: the first against the kind of hierarchical outlook that advocates the domination of some members of a society by others; and the second against the kind of libertarianism that denies that the personal resources held by the members of a society are properly available for redistribution. However, it is enough for our current purposes that (at this broad level of description)24 they are the objects of widespread agreement: I do not propose to defend them here. Rather, I want to draw attention to a corollary of these two moral commitments. In a society to which these two commitments apply — a commitment to giving each of us a voice in our collective decision-making, and a commitment to making our distribution of resources one of the subjects of that decision-making — it will make sense to assert rights to having one’s welfare taken into account in our decision-making about distribution.

This is not at odds with the account of moral rights I proposed in the first section — on the contrary, it follows from that account. I possess an entitlement to political consideration which is being violated if my welfare is not properly taken into account in making distributive decisions. To assert this right is not to demand the concern of others to respond to my need for something I lack. Rather, it is to demand their respect in not violating something I already have: the status of an autonomous member of the community who is entitled to participate in our collective decision-making. It is like Malcolm’s right to be heard, and not his purported ‘right’ to be helped.25

In this way, citizenship is morally important. Community membership brings with it rights to representation and participation which demand recognition by other co-members. These are moral relationships that we bear towards other members of the communities to which we belong, and that we do not bear towards non-members. In saying this, I am not going back on what was said in the first section. Rights are one kind of moral reason that makes demands on us; needs are another. The extent to which another person’s needs provide me with a reason to act in his or her favour is unaffected by questions of community membership. But community membership does affect the rights that people have against each other.26

Some people will accept my claim that community membership generates rights, but will insist that it should be applied on a global scale. After all, has it not become true that the global reach of economic institutions and social structures means that there is now a real sense in which we inhabit a global community? Humanity does now collectively face the question of how we are to live together, and there are forums and agencies within which it now makes sense to discuss such global questions and act to implement the answers. If so, how can it be denied that there are now global questions of distributive justice that we must all answer together and, with them, rights to consideration in formulating the answers? (Pogge 1992; Beitz 1979; Richards 1982.)

This is not the place to attempt to settle the plausibility of cosmopolitanism — the view that we ought to regard ourselves as inhabiting a single global polity. But without doing that, let me offer a two part answer to this challenge. The first part briefly explores what seems to me the strongest case for a non-cosmopolitan view; the second then asks what would follow if that case failed.

An appeal to the value of the self-determination of peoples is not the only way to build up a case against cosmopolitanism but, in my view, it is the strongest.27 There are two main arguments for the importance of political self-determination: an argument from the value of liberties of association which seeks to ground rights of political autonomy in rights of personal autonomy; and an argument from the value of pluralism and cultural diversity. The most powerful recent attempt to articulate the resulting picture of international obligations is John Rawls’s The Law of Peoples (Rawls 1999). Rawls’s view is that ‘well-ordered peoples’ have a duty to help other societies to achieve a just internal structure, and that this brings with it a limited duty of material assistance, but that there is no further duty to eliminate inequalities of welfare between different societies (Rawls 1999, Sections 15 and 16). This account of international justice strikingly departs from the ‘difference principle’ Rawls famously advocates for the internal regulation of a single society, which requires a progressive material redistribution, accepting only those material inequalities that are to the advantage of the worse off.28 But Rawls’s view is that once a people has achieved the kind of internal order that makes it self-determining (with assistance from outside if necessary), its welfare will be determined by the level of material resources at its disposal and not by its political and moral culture (Rawls 1999: Section 16).29

Thus, according to this view, global political requirements are requirements of justice between peoples. These requirements may have some limited redistributive implications in requiring some peoples to assist others, but they are not themselves direct requirements of international distributive justice. On this view, the target of the international duties that characterise the relations between peoples is self-determination and not the adjusting of comparative standards of welfare.

Notice the implications that a view of this kind has for issues of immigration and asylum. To hold that we are morally entitled to form and sustain distinct self-determining polities carries with it the consequence that we are entitled to exclude others from political membership (Rawls 1999: 39).30 To those escaping persecution, we ought to offer asylum, however. According to the view I have defended, this is not because the victims of persecution have a right to our protection, but because we ought to respond to their need to be protected against others’ violation of their rights. To say this, however, is not to diminish the significance of the reason there is to help them — or the seriousness of our failure to do so. To think that is to succumb to the kind of one dimensional moral thinking that seeks to describe every important moral consideration as a right.

This, then, suggests one way in which my argument leaves room for allowing that citizenship does make a moral difference. Perhaps we are entitled to define the boundaries of our own community, and perhaps there are rights — in particular, the rights associated with distributive justice — that are confined within those boundaries.

However, finally, even if Rawls and other anti-cosmopolitans are wrong, citizenship will still make a moral difference. If cosmopolitanism is true, then that means (contra Rawls) that we ought to organise ourselves politically into a single world community. But given that we have not done so already, there are still actual obligations generated by the actual communities in our pre-cosmopolitan world. An analogy makes the point. Maybe I morally ought to have formed a different family, or none at all. Perhaps my motives in forming this one were morally dubious, I was violating binding obligations to another woman, or my forming this family prevents me from doing something else I ought to be doing instead. But if I have actually formed this family, it generates certain actual obligations (while still leaving me to untangle the moral mess I created originally). The same applies to the formation of communities on a larger scale. Those communities create their own relationships of dependency, reciprocation and entitlement. Their formation may itself create moral problems. But even so, it creates moral relationships within the community that are not duplicated outside it.


In this paper I have defended a view about what we ought collectively to be doing for non-compatriots. According to a common way of thinking about this question, we can only answer it by first settling what differences there are between the rights of compatriots and non-compatriots. I have argued that this involves an important mistake. The reason to help needy people is independent of their rights: it is that they are needy. And if this is the basis for thinking that we are morally required to assist non-compatriots, then we are morally required — both as a nation, but also, on top of that, as individuals — to be doing a lot more than we actually are.

However, I have also argued that citizenship does make a difference to our moral rights — those autonomy-protecting moral entitlements we are able to assert in our dealings with other autonomous agents. We have moral rights to be treated with appropriate equality within the communities we have formed; and even if there are moral questions about those communities themselves, the relationships they create produce rights that are * Department of Philosophy University of Adelaide.

1 I do not say that it would be as wrong. Maybe if you faced a choice between saving the close acquaintance and saving the stranger, you should save the acquaintance. But that is not a question I am going to try to answer here.

2 For the scale of the problem, see note 16.

3 The aspirational reading is strongly suggested by the Preamble to the Declaration, in which it describes itself as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’, respect for which is to be promoted ‘by teaching and education’.

4 For a more sympathetic treatment of the aspirational view associated with the Declaration, see Benn (1967: 198-9). For criticism, see Glendon (1991).

5 I follow current philosophical usage in doing so. This involves some licence, in departing from the broader usage in which ‘beneficence’ refers to doing good generally. Compare Murphy (2000: 3).

6 By contrast, if the crew fails to give him a life-vest when the ship goes down, it might make sense for him to assert his right to have one.

7 Talk of how a person ought to be treated can in turn be used either aspirationally (as in ‘Everyone ought to be educated to reach their full potential’) or as asserting the existence of a moral requirement (as in ‘You ought not to hurt him’).

8 On his view, there is a universal human right to a minimum level of welfare provision — a level that needs to be concretely determined depending on prevailing social conditions. (For Griffin’s fullest presentation of this claim, see Griffin (2000).) More on this below.

9 Waldron (1984:8-11) distinguishes between Choice and Benefit Theories of the relationship between rights and duties. According to Joseph Raz’s well known version of the Benefit Theory, ‘“X has right” if and only if X can have rights, and, other things being equal, an aspect of X’s well-being (his interest) is a sufficient reason for holding some other person(s) to be under a duty’ (1986: 166). For criticisms of standard attempts to relate rights to duties, see White (1984: Ch 5).

10 For an alternative picture of how we should think of rights-bearers — one that leads to a different conclusion — see Waldron (2000).

11 For another succinct summary of Gewirth’s view, see Gewirth (2001b). For the full statement of his theory, see Gewith (1978 and 1982).

12 I have not attempted to justify the claim that our autonomy ought to be protected by rights. It is not that I think this claim does not require justification; but it is accepted on all sides in the debate about how far rights extend.

13 For more on this, see the third section.

14 This is not to say that if you need something you cannot have a right to it too. But on the usage I support, the assertion of a right plays a different role in moral justification from the recognition of a need.

15 The central claim of Murphy (2000).

16 The World Bank’s international poverty line is set at $1.08 per day in 1993 ‘purchasing parity power’ US dollars. It uses this level to indicate the income required to sustain a minimum standard of nutrition and other basic necessities, as well as the estimated cost of ‘participating in the everyday life of society’ in countries with the lowest average incomes. According to World Development Report 2000/2001, 1.2 billion people — one-fifth of the world’s population — live below this level. For an indication of some of the problems with the use of this standard, see 2002 World Development Indicators p 71.

17 Those who have pressed this challenge include Feinberg (1970: 244); Bennett (1981: 84); Fishkin (1982: Ch 10); Barry (1982: 222); and Goodin (1985: 134-44).

18 This distinction is tentatively proposed by Murphy (1993).

19 As Ausaid (above) points out, it averages out at $1.70 per week each.

20 The weighted average for OECD countries is currently 0.22 per cent of GNP (

21 As Sweden (0.81 per cent), the Netherlands (0.82 per cent), Luxembourg (0.82 per cent), Norway (0.83 per cent) and Denmark (1.03 per cent) are already <>.

22 The situation is different where there are very many contributors, and my attitude is unlikely to make a difference to the level of compliance shown by others.

23 For a survey of other forms of egalitarianism, see Cullity (forthcoming b, Section 1).

24 The description I give leaves it open, for example, just which forms of political organisation adequately respect the requirement of equal political representation — whether they need involve a form of democratic participation in government itself, and if so, which form. Settling these questions is not important to my argument here.

25 According to my view, we have rights to have our autonomous agency respected but not to be given it in the first place. This seems absurd to some writers, who object that it carries the ridiculous consequence that if my ruler provides one ballot box in a place I do not have the resources to reach, he has respected my rights. (For this example, see Okin (1981). It is cited by Griffin (2000).) We can now see my reply. My right to be heard as an equal participant in the community does generate a right to be given a genuine opportunity to vote; but that does not mean I have a right to be saved.

26 Thus, I am not disputing the case made by Waldron (2000) for the political importance of recognising rights to basic goods, rather than merely needs for those goods.

27 I survey various arguments against cosmopolitanism, and defend the claim that this is the strongest one, in Cullity (forthcoming b, Sections II-III).

28 For criticism, see Pogge (1994).

29 In support of this view, he cites Landes (1998).

30 Notice, however, that it is a separate question whether we ought to be prepared to give non-community-members access to the goods produced in our community, by permitting them to reside in Australia. For more on this, see Cullity (forthcoming b, Section IV).

not borne by non-members. l


International legal material

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA Res 217A (III), UN Doc A/810 (1948).

General references

AusAid [online] available: <>.

Barry B (1982) ‘Humanity and justice in global perspective’ in Pennock JR and Chapman JW (eds) Ethics, Economics and the Law: Nomos XXIV New York University Press, New York pp 219-52.

Beitz CR (1979) Political Theory and International Relations Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Benn SI (1967) ‘Rights’ in Edwards P (ed) The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Macmillan, New York Vol 7 pp 195-9.

Bennett J (1981) ‘Morality and consequences’ in McMurrin SM (ed) The Tanner Lectures on Human Values Cambridge, Cambridge University Press pp 45-116.

Brock DW (1991) ‘Defending moral options’ 51 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 909-13.

Cohen LJ (1981) ‘Who is starving whom?’ 47 Theoria 65-81.

Cullity G (1994) ‘International aid and the scope of kindness’ 105 Ethics 99-127.

Cullity G (1996) ‘The life-saving analogy’ in Aiken W and LaFollette H (eds) World Hunger and Moral Obligation (2nd ed) Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs pp 51-69.

Cullity G (2003) ‘Asking too much’ 86 The Monist, 402-18.

Cullity G (forthcoming a) The Moral Demands of Affluence Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Cullity G (forthcoming b) ‘Equality and Globalization’ in Horton K and Patapan H (eds) Reconceiving Equality in a More Global World Routledge, London.

Feinberg J (1970) Doing and Deserving Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Fishkin J (1982) The Limits of Obligation Yale University Press, New Haven.

Gewith A (1978) Reason and Morality University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gewith A (1982) Human Rights: Essays on Justification and Applications University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gewirth A (1995) ‘Rights’ in Honderich T (ed) Oxford Companion to Philosophy Oxford University Press, New York pp 776.

Gewith A (2001) ‘Rights’ in Becker LC and Becker CB (eds) Encyclopedia of Ethics (2nd ed ) Routledge, New York pp 1506-12.

Glendon MA (1991) Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse Free Press, New York.

Gomberg P (2002) ‘The fallacy of philanthropy’ 32 Canadian Journal of Philosophy pp 29-66.

Goodin RE (1985) Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Griffin J (2000) ‘Welfare rights’ 4 The Journal of Ethics pp 27-43.

Griffin J (2001a) ‘Discrepancies between the best philosophical account of human rights and the international law of human rights’ 101 Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1-28.

Griffin J (2001b) ‘First steps in an account of human rights’ 9 European Journal of Philosophy 306-27.

Hart HLA (1984) ‘Are there any natural rights?’ in Waldron (ed) Theories of Rights Oxford University Press, Oxford pp 77-90.

Landes D (1988) The Wealth and Poverty of Nations WW Norton, New York.

Mackie J (1984) ‘Can there be a right-based moral theory?’ in Waldron (ed) Theories of Rights Oxford University Press, Oxford pp 168-81.

Murphy L (1993) ‘The demands of beneficence’ 22 Philosophy and Public Affairs 266-92.

Murphy L (2000) Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory Oxford University Press, New York.

OECD [online] available: <>.

Okin SM (1981) ‘Liberty and welfare: some issues in human rights theory’ in Pennock JR and Chapman JW (eds) Human Rights: Nomos XIII New York University Press, New York pp 230-56.

Pogge TW (1992) ‘Cosmopolitanism and sovereignty’ 103 Ethics 48-75.

Pogge TW (1994) ‘An egalitarian law of peoples’ 23 Philosophy and Public Affairs 195-224.

Rawls J (1999) The Law of Peoples Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.

Raz J (1996) The Morality of Freedom Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Richards DAJ (1981) ‘Rights and autonomy’ 92 Ethics 3-20.

Richards DAJ (1982) ‘International distributive justice’ 24 Nomos 275-99.

Tuck R (1977) Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Waldron J (1984) ‘Introduction’ in Waldron (ed) Theories of Rights Oxford University Press, Oxford pp 1-20.

Waldron J (2000) ‘The role of rights in practical reasoning: “rights” versus “needs” ’ 4 The Journal of Ethics 115-35.

Wallace JD (1978) Virtues and Vices Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

White A R (1984) Rights Clarendon Press, Oxford.

World Bank World Development Report 2000/2001 Washington DC, 2000.

World Bank 2002 World Development Indicators Washington DC, 2002.

AustLII: Copyright Policy | Disclaimers | Privacy Policy | Feedback