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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Political Obligation in the World Society


At a Boisi Center luncheon on October 2, Boston College philosophy professor Jonathan Trejo-Mathys discussed how philosophy can help us understand our moral obligations in an increasingly connected world.

In April 2013 an eight-story Bangladeshi textile factory collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers. Recalling the gruesome accident and the dismal working conditions that preceded it, Trejo-Mathys argued that Americans need to better understand how our close business connections to Bangladeshi workers tie us to their safety and welfare. (He himself was wearing a shirt made in that country, Trejo-Mathys noted.) When industrial disasters occur in the United States, such as the 1911 fire that killed nearly 150 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, Americans frequently strengthen laws that protect workplace safety. Shouldn’t we be obligated to demand the same for Bangladeshis when we buy the products they make in their factories? Or are the differences in our societies too great to expect American-style worker protections?

To make his case, Trejo-Mathys argued that a “world society” now exists that is rooted in our global interconnectedness and generates moral claims on individuals and groups within that large society. Immanuel Kant properly recognized in the eighteenth century that the “violation of rights in one place on the earth [is] felt everywhere.” In our time, states and corporations will be the primary actors that must bring change, since they are the locus of power in the world today.

Drawing upon Kantian and neo-Kantian arguments about the foundations of moral obligation, Trejo-Mathys refuted schools of thought that deny the existence of international moral norms (“IR realism”) or claim such norms to be too thin to be broadly applicable (the “English School”). Neither alternative, he argued, accurately capture the realities of contemporary life, nor provides a solid guide for members of a world society.