Monday, January 23, 2012

A Conversation with Thomas Pogge

Last week, philosopher Thomas Pogge spoke at Carnegie Council. Our intern Sarah Aston summarizes his talk below:

Today’s international and economic system is founded on the principle of “profit maximization at any cost” and our challenge is to change this attitude argues Thomas Pogge of Yale University. Talking with Carnegie Council as part of the Ethics Matters series, Pogge reflected on his education under the guidance of political philosopher and advocate of universal justice John Rawls, and how seemingly abstract theories of justice can, and should be, applied to areas of international and social politics.

Pogge is known for his bold comparisons of today’s population in the developed world with the German population of 1930s Nazi Germany. Like the latter, we are, according to Pogge, part of a huge organism that allows for terrible atrocities to happen to our fellow mankind. Statistics show that one-third of all deaths today are premature due to poverty and yet we do not actively seek any solution to this problem in our system.

Drawing on this comparison, Pogge explained that he was compelled to develop Rawls’s theory of justice and practically apply it to areas of society. Rawls argues that there are two principles of justice that must be met within society and that all rational human beings would agree to these principles under a “veil of ignorance” in which they are unaware of their position in society. The first principle of Rawls’s theory is “First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” and this is where Pogge develops on Rawls’s work.

While Rawls argued that it was up to economists and politicians to satisfy this principle, Pogge argues that there must be clear instructions and guidance in order to change the system. His work with the Health Impact Fund is an example. Talking to Carnegie Council, Pogge explained that during research into the pharmaceutical industry he saw that the industry was driven by profit margins and competitive pricing rather than aiding those in need of the drugs. Pogge’s proposal to change the incentive system with a government - sponsored scheme of rewarding those companies that provide drugs to the most people with the highest impact and the lowest prices is a way of providing guidance on how to satisfy Rawls’s first principle of justice.

Pogge has chosen to focus on the pharmaceutical industry, but he told the Council that his work could be applied to all areas of the international system and that the system itself needed to address its system of incentives. When asked if he was optimistic about the future of the system he responded by saying we needed to design an economic system that meets the basic requirements of everyone and the way to do that is through education which will take a long time to filter through. The crisis we face today, however, offers an opportunity to reevaluate and re-structure our system.

- Sarah Aston

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