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The agents of justice



That we live in an unjust world, as Thomas Nagel once noted, might be the least controversial claim one can make in political theory. What justice might ultimately consist in is a different story, where controversy abounds. So it is, too, with the state-of-play in theorizing about the “agents of justice.” That is, who bears responsibility for realizing justice? Much of contemporary political philosophy (whether targeted domestically or globally) operates with the understanding that the state bears primary responsibility for realizing justice. That focus itself is, of course, controversial, but it also shouldn’t mask any of the other important questions that matter both theoretically, and concretely as we are confronted with the challenges of transitioning towards justice in the real world.

For one, even if confined to thinking about the state as the locus of primary responsibility for justice, much of the work relevant for concrete action-guidance requires us to answer questions about how such responsibility distributes down among sub-state actors. What might individuals, agencies, cities, counties, etc. be required to do in light of duties for which the state is the primary bearer? What sorts of relationships of dependence and influence hold between the range of collective individual agents that have a stake in how the responsibility is distributed?

Furthermore, states engage in all manner of illegitimate behavior, and across the world are some of the primary perpetuators of injustice. Perhaps, of course, the state (or some of its various component parts) simply bears responsibility to correct itself. However, at least in the non-ideal world relevant to so many of our normative interests, it is valuable (perhaps even necessary) to think carefully about the range of other agents that hold states accountable, that pick up the slack or fill the gaps. It is certainly already part of the self-conceptions of a wide swath of other actors that they are crucially important agents of justice—whether activists, peace-builders, human rights organizations, NGOs, corporations and investors, charities, private philanthropy, investigative journalists, etc. So, we should be asking, what sorts of duties, rights, permissions do such agents have in the pursuit of justice? What forms of civil disobedience and resistance movements can be justified and in what contexts? What are the benefits and risks in offloading the pursuit of justice from the state to such a tapestry of actors?

Similarly, in the modern world, many non-state entities (and individuals) wield substantial power and, to borrow Rawls’ terminology, profoundly and pervasively affect the life prospects of people the world over (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and multinational corporations across all industries). So, we would do well to theorize carefully how these facts of globalization and concentrations of wealth and power outside the state affect questions about which agents bear what duties to realize justice?