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Soraj Hongladarom

Cosmopolitan Justice in a Changing World

On Onora O'Neill: Bounds of Justice

 The challenge of economic and cultural globalization

Onora O'Neill:
Bounds of Justice.
Cambridge University Press,
219 pages
ISBN 0-521-44744-5

Cambridge University Press:
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  Philosophy, one might say, is a reflection on actual circumstances surrounding the philosopher. With the benefits of historical hindsight, we can look at Plato's work as a direct response to Athens at the time of its experiment with democracy and with its protracted wars. His Theory of Form could be regarded as a continuation of the project of his mentor Socrates, and a reaction against the sophists. Kant wrote his critical work in order to find a secure basis for knowledge which was free from the pretensions of reason, and one could acknowledge that this was a response to Newtonian physics, which demonstrated that one and the same physical principle was in operation everywhere in the universe. For it was Newtonian physics itself which, in Kant's eyes, would be dislodged from its seemingly secure basis were a ground had not been prepared in order that it be adequately justified.


  The above historical sketches may or may not be accurate. However, one could hardly deny that philosophy is a function of changing times and circumstances. And in this early part of the twenty-first century, a defining characteristic of the age can be nothing other than the spread of economic and cultural globalization to every corner of the globe, facilitated by the advances in information and communication technologies. In the world where news and information can spread virtually everywhere at click of the mouse, clearly new kinds of philosophical questions are emerging. These may be rehashments of age old questions, but it is evident that these rehashed questions have assumed a new content and a renewed urgency, which make them clearly distinguishable from their ancestors.


  This is exactly what Onora O'Neill is trying to do in her recent work. The book is a collection of essays on the kind of justice that, in her view, itself does justice to the changing world, the world of mass migration and of instantaneous communication. The individual pieces form chapters in the book, and deal with such topics as 'Four Models of Practical Reasoning', 'Agency and Autonomy', 'Which are the Offers You Can't Refuse?', 'Transnational Economic Justice', 'Distant Strangers, Moral Standing and Porous Boundaries', among others.

 A Kantian conception of justice

»The picture of human life which Kant assumes is one in which agents with limited capacities and varied vulnerabilities interact; this picture is required if a universalizability criterion is to identify obligations of justice.«

Onora O'Neill


  O'Neill is arguing for a kind of justice that is true to the vision of Kant; that is, the only kind of justice that can be operational in contemporary world must be one that is non-arbitrary and accessible by all. Deriving her thoughts from Kant, O'Neill sees a possible principle of justice as one which must first lack the kind of arbitrariness that besets the older kinds of justice that are based on metaphysical assumptions. Moreover, the kind of justice she envisions must also be such that nobody is in principle excluded from it. The relation with Kantian ethics is familiar. Armed with this Kantian conception, O'Neill proceeds to tackle a range of issues, including women's rights, agency, autonomy, transnational economic justice, and others.


  The back cover of the paperback edition of the book says: »Onora O'Neill explores and argues for an account of justice that is fundamentally cosmopolitan rather than civic, yet takes serious account of institutions and boundaries, and of human diversity and vulnerability. Starting from conceptions that are central to any account of justice – those of reason, action, judgement, coercion, obligations and rights – she discusses whether and how culturally or politically specific concepts and view, which limit the claims and scope of justice, can be avoided.« The key word here is 'cosmopolitan', and this is meant by O'Neill to be the kind of justice that extends across political boundaries. Former conceptions of justice, according to her, usually concentrate on a specified limit of boundary, mostly national or cultural one. She asks instead how are we to think seriously about the issues that threaten to destroy the viability of political or cultural boundaries altogether. In such a scenario, how should we think about the kind of justice that is most suitable? It is to O'Neill's credit that she has brought this very important matter to the fore.

 Four models of practical reasoning

»Any convincing account of justice builds upon some conception of reason: yet the more self-consciously we think about reason, the less confident we become that we know what reason requires, or what authorship those requirements have. [...] We appeal to reason as an authoritative arbiter of disputes. But when we are asked to vindicate this confidence, it ebbs. This is hardly surprising. If reason is the basis of all vindication, how can we vindicate it?«

Onora O'Neill


  As already mentioned, the chapters in the book could also be taken as individual essays. Yet they are divided into two groups. The first batch of essays deal with a broader, more philosophical issue concerning justice, and the second batch seek to apply the insights from the philosophical underpinnings toward contemporary problems. And in order to prevent this review from expanding into a critical essay, I will limit my discussion only on what is perhaps O'Neill's most important essay, where she delineates her conception of justice.


  In "Four Models of Practical Reasoning", she proposes a kind of thinking about practical reasoning that neither falls victim to the older, metaphysics-based conception that seeks to justify practical reasoning on a metaphysics, nor to the later conception which bases the reasoning on subjective ends. She terms both conceptions 'teleological conceptions', which shows their connection with the old metaphysics. This leaves her with two other models, both of which are action based in the sense that they do away with the teleological conception. The first of these two, action-based practical reasoning based on shared commitments, is rejected because it is liable to generate conflicts between an individual and her society. As in the case of Antigone, O'Neill argues that the communitarian kind of practical reasoning, one whose basis for justification relies on shared commitments, social or cultural norms (such as found in the works of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor), as well as personal commitments such as argued for by Wittgensteinians such as John McDowell, has the burden of showing satisfactorily how this conflict can be resolved. Moreover, the injunction that actions be based on social or other empirically defined norms would seem to be arbitrary and not generally accessible.


  Thus, for O'Neill, the only viable model of practical reasoning is the one she proposes, namely one that is derived from Kant and is non-arbitrary as well as accessible by all. She calls this the 'critical conception'. She views that the critical conception is not marred by the charge that the third model is one where adherence to norms or commitments might not always be rational. Furthermore, commitments to empirically based social or cultural norms would, for her, make the conception of justice a very difficult one to apply to real situations of cross-cultural and cross-boundary issues. The reason is quite simple. If the viable conception of justice is only the one based on a particular set of social and cultural norms, then it is very hard to see how that conception could be of use in cross-cultural situations.

 Justice in cross-cultural situations

In this issue:

Soraj Hongladarom:
"Cultures and Global Justice".


  In my paper in this issue of polylog, I take O'Neill to task when I argue there that her conception of justice is too broad and too formal to be able to do the work she apparently would like it to do. I would not like to repeat my argument here. However, I would like to add another dimension of my argument in this review. Communitarians, or those who derive their thinking on political philosophy and justice from a broadly Hegelian approach, do not have to limit the bases of justification to a specified limit of society or culture. Especially in this age when news and information flows across the globe at unprecedented volume and speed, it does not seem tenable to insist that nations or cultures can be neatly separated one from another. Thus when there is a clash of norms following an interchange of various cultures, communitarians might want to say that here the clashing norms will find a way toward a resolution, perhaps an Aufhebung in the Hegelian sense.

Soraj Hongladarom
is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.


  In any case, there being clashing norms presuppose that the cultures coming into contact have lost their pristine sense of identity. Cultures coming into contact mean that there will emerge a new kind of culture wherein these clashing cultures are all parts. Now we have the familiar problem of living together under the same roof. But it does not seem fair for O'Neill to argue that accounts of justice based on actual norms cannot do the work of cosmopolitan justice.

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