Christina Dineen – Needs and the Demands of Justice

This is a write-up of the weekly meeting of the Political Theory Research Group, 19th October

jakarta_slumhome_2A Jakarta Slum (Credit Jonathon McIntosh (CC BY 2.0))

Christina presented a draft of the final chapter of her PhD, ‘Need and the Demands of Justice’. What is need, and what kind of moral obligations does it place on us? Christina argues that agents with the ability to meliorate the existentially urgent needs of humans have a duty to help, up to the threshold of sacrificing things of significant cost to themselves. Even agents without that ability, however, have a duty to respond to the existentially urgent needs of others, such that they acknowledge the gravity of their plight. This chapter focuses upon the concrete nature and extent of those duties. In order for agents to effectively discharge their duties in the face of an immensely complicated picture of global suffering, Christina argues that agents have a duty of coordination. This permits the organisation of a division of labour according to a strategic plan that identifies high priority areas. In many ways, this is a vision with an affinity to the research and organisation of ‘effective altruism’, scaled-up to the level of global institutional coordination. Christina emphasises that responsive actions should be attentive to context, focus on net impact, and undergo iterative learning. She also defends a pro tanto duty of enforceability in which states are licensed to enforce a system of coordinated, global harm-reduction.

Discussion clustered around questions of empirics, namely, to what extent can philosophy guide our global efforts to meet human needs without engaging with issues of world politics, international political economy, and the nature and limits of human coordination, among much else relevant to an understanding of the causal dynamics that continue to disappoint human needs. Relatedly, there was a concern that global harm-reduction could become trapped in a ‘relief paradigm’ focused on meeting near-term needs at the expense of long-term, systematic change or revolution. It was also contended that a compelling, positive justification of a duty of enforceability was not self-evident from the given premises, and that the argument focused too heavily on negative justification.

Written by Louis Fletcher.


Christina Dineen is a PhD student in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh.