The Weight of the World

Associate Professor of Philosophy Kok-Chor Tan examines the intricacies of distributive justice on a global scale.
May 31, 2012

Bad luck. We’ve all experienced it—the car breakdown on the way to work; the AC sputtering out on the hottest day of the year. Some bad luck isn’t as easy to recover from, though, especially when it veers into the tragic: natural disasters, serious health concerns and crippling poverty. According to Kok-Chor Tan, Associate Professor of Philosophy, how a society handles bad luck is at the core of its moral identity and ability to provide distributive justice. It’s just one model he is using to help make sense of human rights on an international level.

"There’s no longer a disagreement about basic human rights," says Tan. "We know this because even the worst war criminals who violate them deny it. Tyrants don’t say, ‘We’re committing or permitting genocide, and we don’t care.’ They lie, they say, ‘No, you’re mistaken, there’s no genocide.’ This denial affirms the presence of a global human rights culture that even tyrants recognize to have moral weight.”

As a political philosopher, Tan seeks new ways to interpret societal structures and how they affect the individual. In his new book, Justice, Institutions, and Luck, he uses a three-prong model to examine distributive justice. The first, what Tan refers to as the site question, applies to the rules of society as defined by its institutions and how they regulate personal conduct, decisions and day-to-day interaction with people. The second approach, the ground question, determines how society handles the transfer of resources from people more well off to those less privileged, and why such a commitment is pivotal. The final question deals with scope—whether the application of these principles has global relevance.

Tan’s principle of mitigating bad luck falls under the second category: the more intimate application of egalitarian justice. ‘It’s not a commitment that derives from some prior political relationship with people. It’s about relating to another person as an equal, on moral grounds,” says Tan. It could be the case that their life should not be worse off because of a congenital disease, that the rest of us have some obligation to address this, and at least not let uncontrollable situations be the sole reason why this person’s life is going less well.’

This interpersonal obligation also comes in the form of political rights. Tan argues under a just society, members should not have the right to impose a social legal order that precludes others who may have other reasonable world, religious and metaphysical views on life. The controversy surrounding same-sex marriage would apply here.

"What a person might consider natural is not a sufficient basis for determining what justice demands. Not so long ago in this country mixed-raced marriages were deemed disgusting, unnatural, and so on," Tan says. “In a just society, one individual should not have the right to impose ideals that preclude others’ pursuits or arrangements based on a potentially controversial view of what is natural or not natural.”

Controversies surrounding corporations that have a dire effect on the public—Wall Street’s profit margins have oft been cited during the 99 percent movements—need not be overly complicated, Tan says. Corporations, like any institution, need regulations that balance assurance of personal rights and the ability to profit with meeting the obligations of a just society in regards to mitigating situations like poverty and sickness. “Corporations are profit-maximizing entities. They should be left free to do a bit of that. But we need much stricter rules to regulate this activity. The question is whether the rules they play by are fair—whether they are reflective of distributive justice.”

In the near future, Tan plans to focus on the ideal of justice within a corrupt system. "If there has been a violation of justice in the past, should we talk about reparations? Or, say there was a dictator who shunned human rights, should the international community respond? And how do we ensure distributive justice in non-ideal situations?"