Defending the Duty of Assistance?

Social Theory and Practice, 2009

22 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2008 Last revised: 4 Nov 2008

See all articles by Chris Armstrong

Chris Armstrong

University of Southampton - Faculty of Law, Arts and Social Sciences

Date Written: June 27, 2008


Whereas the drive to elaborate principles and practices of global distributive justice is continuing apace in the academy, Rawls's last book The Law of Peoples rejected the very idea of global distributive justice, and recommended instead a 'duty of assistance' towards societies burdened by unfavourable conditions - a concession that was described by many critics as wholly inadequate to the task of addressing global economic injustice. Recently, though, some more friendly critics (including Samuel Freeman, David Reidy and Mathias Risse) have argued for a reappraisal. Perhaps the duty is a demanding one, which enjoys clear advantages over some accounts of global distributive justice. And relatedly, perhaps The Law of Peoples possesses greater resources for theorising issues of global economic justice than has sometimes been recognised.

This paper evaluates this attempt at rehabilitation. The character of the duty of assistance is set out, and the reasons why it is held to be superior to principles of global distributive justice are briefly canvassed. The supposed advantages enjoyed by the duty are examined, and it is shown that these are far less impressive than has been suggested by both Rawls and some recent defenders of his position. The paper also considers the ways in which the account developed in The Law of Peoples is able to contribute to the theorisation of global economic injustice. Although the account does provide more resources than has sometimes been recognised, it is argued that as the duty-based account is pushed further on this issue, it becomes still less plausible to claim that it possesses appreciable advantages over various positions on global distributive justice. More pointedly, its supposed advantages turn out to be in tension with each other. As such, if the provision of an adequate position on global economic justice is the goal, the reappraisal of The Law of Peoples may ultimately demand a transcendence of at least some of its key elements.

Keywords: Law of Peoples, John Rawls, Duty of Assistance, Global Distributive Justice, Trade Justice

Suggested Citation

Armstrong, Chris, Defending the Duty of Assistance? (June 27, 2008). Social Theory and Practice, 2009, Available at SSRN:

Chris Armstrong (Contact Author)

University of Southampton - Faculty of Law, Arts and Social Sciences ( email )

Southampton, SO17 1BJ
Great Britain

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