Unit 4: Empowerment, Agency, and Global Justice: Revisiting the Universal-Relative Debate
Thus far, the material we have studied has assumed individuals are rational actors, capable of making decisions in a societal context. These individuals are empowered and capable of engaging in self-advocacy. However, a significant number of individuals do not live in these conditions. In this unit, we consider questions of global and distributive justice in light of the most disempowered segment of society: children.
We examine two critical contexts for children: marriage and armed conflict. We can also consider this notion of advocacy, and its converse voicelessness, in light of environmental issues. We explore resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and waste distribution. The nexus of these two seemingly disparate topics – advocacy for children and the environment – is crystallized in the question: how are debates on global justice meaningful in light of those who lack access to any form of justice?
Completing this unit should take you approximately 6 hours.
4.1: Empowerment, Agency, and Distributive Justice
Every day, we make choices about how to live. When will we get up? What tasks are most important to us to accomplish that day? Where will we go? We make our choices within the constraints imposed upon us in a variety of ways. We live in places we can afford to live, even if we might prefer a home elsewhere. We work at the jobs we could attain the education or training for, even if we would rather spend our days doing something else. We go to work, the store, and the doctor based on what we can afford, where we are required to be, and countless other factors.
Theorists sometimes suppose humans possess perfect rationality and that everyone has equal opportunity and knowledge regarding their options in life, but that is not the reality most of us live in. This section introduces some basic ideas of power, what it means to be empowered, and how people can be oppressed.
4.2: Child Brides
Children are uniquely disempowered and vulnerable. They generally rely on others for their survival, making it possible for adults to abuse them. One form is child marriage, which provides a window into the empowerment and agency issues we explore in this unit.
Women are also often vulnerable in society because their rights and access to resources are constrained by law or custom. They can face a unique set of dangers, such as trafficking, sexual violence, and domestic abuse. They offer another example of how some populations are cut off from exercising power and agency in their everyday lives.
4.3: Child Soldiers
Just as their dependence on adults can render children vulnerable to child marriage and sexual abuse, it can make it easy for adults to recruit children into armed forces. While this is a significant breach of international law, it is still common in worldwide conflicts. It is a prominent human rights issue that activists are working to combat every day. These resources provide a window into this issue and the efforts to end the use of child soldiers.
4.4: Resource Scarcity and Competition
In this section, we return to the question of how poverty impacts human rights. How does living in poverty affect a person's access to human rights? This issue raises questions about poor and rich countries, economic development, and class inequality. What resources are required to live a good life, and how do we determine people's access to these resources? What obligations do those who can access more resources in wealthier countries have toward people who live in poorer countries? What about people who live in wealthy countries, but still cannot access the basic resources required for life?
4.5: Who Gets the Leftovers: Environmental Racism, Degradation, and Waste
Overwhelmingly, environmental degradation, climate change, and pollution have a disproportionate impact on people of color worldwide. This is true internationally, where nonwhite countries bear the brunt of environmentally-damaging policies, and domestically, where communities of color are more likely to be affected by pollution and have limited access to resources, such as clean water. In this section, we discuss environmental justice and review several case studies to understand this obstacle to global justice better.
Unit 4 Current Events Exercise