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What does justice require in times of crisis?

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During 2015, large numbers of refugees crossed the Mediterranean in search of a better life. The 2008 financial crisis has had lingering consequences for many citizens in Europe. What does justice require in times of crisis? Dr Laura Valentini’s research on global justice may help us address this questionthis article discusses her work in light of recent political developments.

Images of desperate men, women and children escaping life-threatening situations have dominated the news during 2015. European nations have reacted to the crisis differently; Angela Merkel received widespread international praise as Germany has accepted over a million refugees, while Britain has been criticised for its reluctance to welcome similar numbers.

What are our responsibilities towards those who need help? Dr Valentini’s research, which was awarded a 2015 Philip Leverhulme Prize, suggests that these responsibilities vary depending on our relationship with those in need. If we have contributed to bringing about their plight, she argues, our responsibilities are a matter of justice. Otherwise, they are a less stringent matter of charity.

If a nation’s duty to assist refugees is motivated by justice, Dr Valentini explains, then these refugees have a right to receive assistance. Failing to help them would be akin to “failing to pay a debt we owe to someone”. By contrast, if our duty to assist is a matter of charity, refusing to help refugees would be like failing to assist a poor person on the street: “a failure of good samaritanism”, and wrong for this reason, but not a violation of their rights.

In Dr Valentini’s view, criticism towards Britain is deserved; its responsibilities towards Syrian refugees are not just a matter of charity, but also one of justice. Tony Blair has suggested that the rise of ISIS is partly a downstream consequence of the US-UK-allies intervention in Iraq in 2003. If this is right, Dr Valentini suggests, then the UK’s actions, especially its foreign policy, were a factor in bringing about the conditions that have led to the current refugee crisis. This means that, in its reluctance to take in refugees, “the UK is responsible for a ‘double’ moral failure: of charity as well as justice.” Germany, by contrast, opposed the Iraq intervention, and has been prepared to welcome large numbers of refugees. This arguably explains the praise it has received, though it does not exclude the possibility of German involvement in contributing to the conditions that have culminated in the current crisis.

How can nations reconcile their domestic challenges with international crises? Helping refugees diverts resources that could instead be invested to alleviate domestic poverty, a theme that has featured prominently in contemporary political debate. Many anti-austerity movements treat domestic social justice as a top priority, a position that is especially popular among young voters. Does the creation of a strong domestic welfare state involve a trade-off with global justice? 

The work of Dr Valentini suggests that it is not obvious whether social justice can be achieved domestically without also attending to global challenges. The recent refugee crisis exemplifies how the stability of state-level political communities is linked to what happens beyond their borders. Tragedies abroad—such as the one unfolding in Syria—have immediate consequences at home.

Similarly, the 2008 global financial crisis has painfully exposed the extent to which the prosperity of individual states depends on the functioning of the global economy. In circumstances of global interdependence, domestic social justice might not be achievable without first addressing the inequities of the global economy, combating phenomena like tax competition and financial volatility. This might require the creation of international regulatory mechanisms, and diminished sovereignty for individual states. While this suggestion may be seen by some as an affront to national self-determination, Dr Valentini asks whether “a state is genuinely independent with respect to its own fiscal affairs when it is vulnerable to shocks like the recent crisis?”

For Dr Valentini, domestic and international social justice are linked. Her work shows why, in our globalised world, there is a sense in which, “we’re all in this together”. Our actions—often mediated by those of our states—have a role in determining the lives of distant others, be it through military intervention or participation in the global economy. If this is right, then justice suggests that our common problems require a common solution, possibly pushing us towards a more “cosmopolitan, institutionally integrated world”. Whether collectively nations will be able to muster the political will necessary to bring about such a world remains to be seen.


Dr Laura Valentini of the Department of Government holds a first degree (“laurea”) in Political Science from Pavia University (Italy), and an MA and a PhD in Political Philosophy from University College London. She was a Junior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College (Oxford University), and a postdoc at the Center for Human Values (Princeton University). Prior to joining LSE, she was a Lecturer in Political Philosophy at UCL. Dr Valentini has held visiting positions at the Australian National University, the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, the University of Uppsala, and Harvard University.

A selection from Dr Valentini's research is available on her department webpage.

December 2015