Rawls’ and Pogge’s arguments


John Rawls’ perspective on rights and justice is considered amongst the most illustrative considering its foundation in the social constructs of freedom with respect to what an individual can do to further their own interests without compromising on the concept of equality. Rawls concept of rights is rather narrow and considered as fully centered on international enforceability. The criticisms he has so far received are for the international distributive justice considering that he fails to address the differences in societies. Thomas Pogge’s arguments are based on moral concerns where the main basis is natural law or natural rights. The main point here is on global order, where he argues for the idea that despite the differences in societies in terms of the social constructs of fairness, there is a possibility for a global framework. Both individuals in this case are rather inspired by Kant among other great thinkers and thus their accounts of rights could be expected to have some common ground. Considering that the main goal for a definition of rights is their harmonization and application in the international context, it can be noted that the better account should be able to cut across social, cultural and political as well as economic divides. This paper considers these arguments put forward by Thomas Pogge and John Rawls with respect to the concept of rights at the international context. Moreover, to do so, the paper will focus on the discussion of similarities and differences of the two accounts before evaluating the better account between the two. 

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The first similarity between the two accounts of rights would be with respect to the fundamental considerations. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues that rights are an original agreement between the individual and the society (466). This implies that rights are mainly dependent on the society within which the individual exists. From this definition, it is seen that Rawls’ account of rights is that of a fundamental grant that the society owes her people. This is however dependent on the rationality of the individual in question, and their definition of personal interests. Fairness and justice here can thus only be exercised if the context within which they exist is similar. Considering the first principle applied in the A Theory of Justice, equality is a mandatory aspect when looking at the distribution or assignment of rights and responsibilities. This implies a need for harmonization or consistent definition of the original agreement across the society in question. According to Rawls, it can thus be considered that the major limitation to global application of the definition of rights is the social constructionist perspective in which different societies look at individual freedoms differently and thus to a larger extent have different expectations with respect to the context of personal interests (461). 

This perspective presents the concept of rights as relative, likely to vary from society to society and also dependent upon the individual in question. The fact that the rights are an agreement between the society and the individual also implies that rights may be fundamental but not really given to every member of the society. The definition presented by Rawls indicates a condition, in which the individual in question must be considered as rational and free, with the ability for equal engagements when defining the terms of association with the society. Equality is considered as paramount in this context where rights are individually assigned based on one’s ability to be rational and engage others on the basis of level grounds. 

It can be stated at this point that Pogge’s view concurs with Rawls’ given that morality is also largely an individual concept. One’s moral compass is constructed around what they consider as right or wrong and in each case it is dependent on the prevailing circumstances. By using morality as a basis for his account of rights, Pogge implies that societies are independent when it comes to crafting their list of rights. He however takes his definition a step further to consider the universal aspect of rights (187). Pogge eliminates the boundaries that come with social constructionist perspectives by finding a way to make the rights concept international. He explains that by narrowing the content if possibilities, morality can be applicable to across national and regional boundaries because they become shareable once they are rid of the specialized factors that tie them to a given culture. Thus it can be stated that among other things, Pogge’s perspective on the concept of rights agrees with Rawls’ as explained in A Theory of Justice although Pogge seems to take on the more globalized aspect that sees a possibility of coexistence within the same human rights framework despite differences in national and regional socio cultural dispensations.   

 Pogge’s account of rights identifies the need for individualism in defining human rights, and yet it also confronts the need for uniformity as the means to establishing fairness and justice on an international front (192). Without imposing on people, this definition dictates accommodation for various cultural dispensations with regards to the rights and liberties. Without emphasizing on the specific needs of the individual, this definition implies a certain importance to the knowledge and understanding of the individual. This means that the rights are relatively personalized without distorting their universal implications. This definition thus allows for interpretation at a personal level but only in a way that is justifiable within the larger context. On the account of this factor it can be noted that Rawls argument actually lives up to this explanation of rights. The established argument here is that the rights are a contract between the individual and society or government, implying some personalization in its conceptualization. There however is a disparity in that with the involvement of the society or government as a partner in the said contract, there is a need for specifications that thus alter the personalization of the rights. In addition, with the involvement of authority, there comes a need for strict definitions that avoid misinterpretation that may create conflicts between the parties of the contract. It can thus be said here that while the basis is similar, the arguments presented have different outcomes of the individualization of the definition of rights.       


The main difference that these arguments have is in terms of the accounts would be the definition of equality. In Rawls’ argument, rights are original agreements between the society and the individual based on their ability to further personal interests on an equal level with others and with the society as a whole. The definition however prescribes a condition, which are rationality and the ability to define fairness or equality. Considering this fact, it can be seen that equality here is a matter of circumstances where not every human being would be considered as deserving of these rights. The major contention is that there is an element of discriminative justice here when it comes to deciding on who can claim the right to do as they please within a given environment (Caranti 44). Pogge, on the other hand, bases his argument on the idea of a moral compass. In his context, equality is presented within the social constructions where right and wrong have basic universal definitions (Pogge 194). The individuals claiming these rights only have to act within their society’s social constructs of morality and not based on their rationality. This definition is thus rather more inclusive in as far as the idea of rights is concerned. Moreover, while morality’s dependence on social constructions may be crippling in some cases, the universal perspective that the author lends to this view frees it from these restraints by emphasizing the need to look at the bigger picture when judging the context of one’s morality. Pogge mostly focuses on the shareable factors that cut across national and political divides in a bid to find a common ground in the definition of rights, especially for a world where the international community identifies the relevance in concern for the wellbeing of humanity in its entirety.  

Another difference between these two would be in the scope within which they can be considered applicable. The definition applied by Thomas Pogge embraces the idea that people within different cultures have different expectations when it comes to morality (188). This means that they have varying moral compasses that would align them differently towards certain definitions of rights. What this acknowledgement accomplishes is creating a definition of rights that is relative and yet universal in its context. While the international rights definition is useful in directing the moral compass in an individual basis, it is also rather invaluable when looking into a unified definition of the same. This definition provides a link between the domestic and international concepts of human rights by being broad and accommodating, in order to allow for personalized interpretations as well as generalized implementations. The Rawls argument seems to be specific in its hesitant assumption that the concept of rights can be simply transferable to an international scope without changing its basis. On one hand, this argument aims to be applicable within different local contexts thus the expectation that it fits the international arena is more valid than invalid. However, in order to cover a wider scope the definition would need to be altered to provide some room for flexible application as required in a larger or rather wider socio cultural context (Caranti 37). This means that Rawls’ concept of rights and justice is largely inapplicable in the international context whereas Pogge provides the more intricate explanation for human rights within the domestic and international contexts. 


Both arguments have their merits and demerits in terms of the definition of rights. However, it must be noted that the main contention in as far as human rights are concerned is in its harmonization for the globalized world. The account presented by Rawls is explorative within a domestic context in that it allows for among other things the conceptualization of interpretations that are relevant to the social context in which the individual exists. This means that the definition of rights available to an individual is one that is based on their immediate surroundings, needs and expectations. The contractual part however implies the involvement of an authority which is the government or the society, thus introducing the need for harmonized definitions that could affect the personalized aspect of these rights. The argument by Pogge on the other hand provides a scope within which the definition is more individualistic with no room for constraints. By putting the definition within a context that can be revised depending on the socio cultural circumstances of the individual; this argument provides more clarity for the applicability of these rights across various cultures and divides. In so doing, Pogge is able to create a situation in which the human rights can be considered and interpreted differently in the various socio cultural dispensations without distorting their implications at the international level (198). 


When looking to define human rights, John Rawls would have them as contracts between the individual and the society or government where the basis is the rationality of the individual and their ability to relate fairly with others. According to Thomas Pogge on the other hand, the rights are more individualistic in their conceptualization and interpretation given that they are defined on the basis of morality. Morality is known to depend on the personal orientation towards right and wrong, thus making rights on this account, a matter of individual consideration. As such, it can be stated that Thomas Pogge provides the better account of rights by allowing for individualistic interpretation that is applicable within the international context. Each culture is fully conversant with the things that they can or cannot do, like what is wrong and what is right. The challenge, that has prompted the involvement of renowned social scientists, is in its application in the international context where the ability to harmonize the perceptions and interpretations is pivotal. Moreover, while John Rawls does a great job in breaking down the meaning of rights within a domestic context, it is the international context that matters more in the present day thus making Thomas Pogge’s the better argument.

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