About the Author

Mathias Risse is Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. His work primarily addresses questions of global justice ranging from human rights, inequality, taxation, trade and immigration to climate change, obligations to future generations and the future of technology, especially also the impact of artificial intelligence on a range of normative issues. He has also worked on questions in ethics, decision theory and 19th century German philosophy, especially Nietzsche. (For some recent writings on race and protest, see: “Giving Account: On Dealing with White Ignorance (Personally and Professionally);” “Statement Regarding My 2004 Paper on Racial Profiling;” “Discrimination, Cognitive Biases, and Human Rights Violations,” based on a talk in Mexico City; “Human Rights and Social Order: Philosophical, Practical and Public Policy Dimensions,” based on a talk in Santiago de Chile regarding the protests in Chile; and “Dangerous Science: Might Population Genetics or Artificial Intelligence Undermine Philosophical Ideas about Equality?,” based on a talk given in Cologne.) 

In addition to HKS, Risse also teaches in Harvard College and the Harvard Extension School, and is affiliated with the Philosophy Department. He has also been involved with executive education at Harvard and in collaboration with international organizations. Risse is the author of On Global Justice (Princeton University Press) and Global Political Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan), as well as On Trade Justice: A Philosophical Plea for a New Global Deal (Oxford University Press, with Gabriel Wollner) and On Justice: Philosophy, History, Foundations (Cambridge University Press). Risse serves as Co-Director of Graduate Studies at the Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics (jointly with Danielle Allen), as well as Director of the McCloy program, a fellowship program for German students. He is also affiliated with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Risse has been the organizer of a number of major international conferences at Harvard and a co-organizer of several more such events in East and South East Asia (Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai), as a way of fostering collaboration among political philosophers and representatives of other fields across cultural divides. He has been a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, New York University Abu Dhabi and Leuphana University in Germany. Risse grew up in a village in Westphalia, Germany. He studied in Bielefeld, Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, and then received his PhD from Princeton in 2000 and taught in the Department of Philosophy at Yale before coming to Harvard in 2002. He lived in Harvard's Eliot House for six years, and now resides in Somerville with his wife. See also www.mathiasrisse.com.

Book Description

Trade has made the world. Still, trade remains an elusive and profoundly difficult area for philosophical thought. This novel account of trade justice makes ideas about exploitation central, giving pride of place to philosophical ideas about global justice but also contributing to moral disputes about practical questions. On Trade Justice is a philosophical plea for a new global deal, in continuation of, but also at appropriate distance to, post-war efforts to design a fair global-governance system in the spirit of the American New Deal of the 1930s.

This book is written in the tradition of contemporary analytical philosophy but also puts its subject into a historical perspective to motivate its relevance. It covers the subject of trade justice from its theoretical foundations to a number of specific issues on which the authors’ account throws light. The state as an actor in the domain of global justice is central to the discussion but it also explores the obligations of business extensively, recognizing the importance of the modern corporation for trade. Topics such as wages injustice, collusion with authoritarian regimes, relocation decisions, and obligations arising from interaction with suppliers and sub-contractors all enter prominently.

Another central actor in the domain of trade is the World Trade Organization. The WTO needs to see itself as an agent of justice. This book explores how this organization should be reformed in light of the proposals it makes. In particular, the WTO needs to endorse a human-rights and development-oriented mandate. Overall, this book hopes to make a theoretical contribution to the creation of an exploitation-free world.

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Alessandra Seiter: How should society think about trade? It's a loaded question that's hard to answer succinctly. Everyday trillions of dollars of goods are exchanged across land, sea and air. Companies in North America hire firms in South America, which work with businesses in Africa that are contracted by organizations in Europe who are buying goods and services from corporations in Asia. Banks in Japan lend monies to tech companies in California which deliver important services for customers in new Delhi, Buenos Aires and Milan. Coffee shops in the northern hemisphere buy coffee beans grown in the southern hemisphere.

Synthesizing this complex network of human activity into a philosophical framework, one that defines right from wrong, justice from injustice, and success from failure, is a profound and complicated task. But that is the task that Harvard Kennedy School Professor Mathias Risse and his co-author, University of Bayreuth, Professor Gabriel Wollner, set out for themselves in their book On Trade Justice: A Philosophical Plea For a New Global Deal. On this episode of Behind the Book we speak with Professor Risse about how to navigate the vast complexities of global trade in the most just manner possible.

The theories that Professors Risse and Wollner lay out in On Trade Justice grew out of Professor Risse's previous work, On Global Justice. In that book Professor Risse proposed that the principles of justice can vary depending on the context in which they're applied. In his formulation, justice takes on a different meaning when it's applied within a country's borders, as opposed to when it's applied outside of those borders. Professor Risse labels these contexts as "grounds of justice", and he views trade as one such ground upon which the principles of justice will be based.

Mathias Risse: The "grounds of justice" approach is there are actually contexts. Different contexts that need to be treated as sufficiently weighty and relevant to be coming under the purview of justice talk.

Seiter: With On Trade Justice, Professors Risse and Wollner take a deeper dive into the concept of trade as a unique context for the application of justice. They set out to formulate what they refer to as a moral ontology. An ontology is a set of categories and concepts within a subject area, and a moral ontology identifies the moral challenges involved in a given subject. Before we talk about this new moral ontology it's important to understand what the authors see as the three dominant existing ontologies that currently guide popular understanding of trade. Amoral trade, instrumental trade, and structural equity. Amoral trade takes a detached, disinterested view towards the transactions that make up global trade.

Risse: Trade is like an interaction among consenting adults. So there's something that I offer. You may or may not take it. You can leave it, right? And that's all there is to it. And in a way trade overall is kind of this phenomenon writ large, right? It's just a myriad of individual interactions.

Seiter: The second moral ontology is instrumental trade, which argues that trade should be pursued purely to advance the utilitarian goals of trading. In other words, maximizing the net benefits of trade while reducing net costs.

Risse: But that's also all there is to it, right? And to that, we want to say this is kind of getting, this is much better than amoral trade, but it's kind of missing what's problematic about trading, the acts of trading. It's too focused on the goal that's pursued by trading rather than what might be inherently problematic, inherently interesting from a justice point. So it kind of misses what's so special about trade.

Seiter: The third existing moral ontology of trade is known as structural equity, which argues that yes, trade has moral dimensions and no, those dimensions aren't just utilitarian. And maybe instead of viewing trade as isolated interactions between nation states, we could view trade as a network of interactions that produce a big heap of things that can then be divided up equitably based on the needs of each country.

Risse: And that we don't like, because that strikes us as not taking, in a way, into account the historical reality of trade, because since trade has made the world, what we can, whoever we are, what we can produce today is a function of a lot of things that have happened in the past.

Seiter: In On Trade Justice, Professors Risse and Wollner propose a fourth moral ontology which they call, "The New Global Deal." Inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s. The New Global Deal would establish an international coordinating body whose primary goals would be the protection of human rights worldwide and the promotion of global economic equity. This organization would hold both nation states and corporations accountable for their trade practices. Ensuring justice for those involved.

This all begs the question of how a new international governing body would be different from the World Trade Organization, which currently regulates international trade. Professors Risse and Wollner believe the WTO, which was established to regulate trade between nations, doesn't adequately address the needs of countries that are still recovering from the exploits of colonization. They believe requirements for joining the WTO favor richer nations and corporations at the expense of poorer countries. To correct for these shortcomings, the New Global Deal would set the terms for what constitutes just trade. In order to set those terms, the authors needed to define the meaning of justice and injustice in the context of global trade. They formulated their definitions around the concepts of reciprocity and exploitation.

Risse: The basic idea behind exploitation, the way we understand it, is there's something that you should have or something, some characteristic, whatever it is that should be yours and that you should be able to exercise, but it's through the exercise of power that you are deprived of that. And there's something wrong with that. The challenge is within the domain of trading think about in all these contexts where trading is relevant, think about what is reciprocity here? What does it mean for people to, we are in something together, we are generating a scheme of co-operative benefits. What can people say about entitlements to that? How can we cultivate that language?

Seiter: Professors Risse and Wollner believe that a New Global Deal would go a long way towards solving some of the ongoing ethical issues that current trade policy often fails to address. These include the manufacturing practices of major corporations, such as Nike and Apple. Or the relationships between democracies and authoritarian regimes. The authors' hope is that through strong policy, coupled with transnational grassroots effort, society can engage in an international push towards socioeconomic equity.

Risse: We have good evidence that grassroots movements-- the right kind of idea, the right kind of influence, the right kind of voice spoken to people-- really makes a difference. But of course, you know, it's hard to shake people out of their normal, their common ways of thinking to actually make them alert that they are political actors. We know it can happen.

Seiter: The book is On Trade Justice: A Philosophical Plea For a New Global Deal written by Mathias Risse, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School and coauthored by Gabriel Wollner. It's published by Oxford University Press.

This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at Harvard Kennedy School. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter @HKSlibrary and visiting our website.