One World:
The Ethics of Globalization

by Peter Singer
256 pages,
ISBN: 0300096860

Post Your Opinion
Awaiting a Global Ethic
by Anthony Skelton

It's Saturday. You have just finished reading the paper and have decided to go for a stroll in a nearby park. After a time, you come to the edge of a stream, a favorite spot for neighborhood families. From the corner of your eye you notice that an unattended child has slipped into the water and is struggling to stay afloat. Without your help she will surely drown. But aiding her does not come without a cost to you: your Gap khakis, suede jacket and new loafers will be ruined.
Most of us agree that saving your wardrobe rather than a drowning child would be monstrous. After all, a life is much more important than a fancy, well-tailored outfit. But this situation is not as hypothetical as we might think it is. We are in an analogous position with respect to many of the world's poorest and most needy children living in distant foreign nations. Instead of giving to Oxfam, Unicef or other aid organizations, many of us choose to spend our money on the myriad widgets offered to us by our innovative consumer economy, allowing these children to die of entirely preventable malnourishment, dehydration and disease. Yet if we are bound by our initial intuitive judgement, then it seems we ought to make large sacrifices in order to make the world's needy better off. We ought to refrain from buying fancy clothes, and a whole lot more, in order to save lives. Otherwise, we are monsters by our own lights!
This is the argument (nay, the challenge) that Peter Singer, Australian philosopher and now Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, put to us thirty years ago in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. But it's an argument that many of us are simply unwilling to accept. After all, don't we have a greater obligation to citizens of our own community and our own nation than to citizens who fall outside our communal or national boundaries? Indeed, many have thought that we have no obligations at all to distant foreign nationals, no matter how desperate their need.
Singer returns to this issue in the final chapter of his timely and engaging, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, a book investigating the ethical dimensions of the environmental, economic and legal integration that characterizes the new global order. Once again he argues that national boundaries are irrelevant to our moral obligations. The fact that people live outside our borders does not justify our pursuit of lavish lifestyles at the expense of the lives of these people who, through no fault of their own, face starvation and imminent death. Singer recommends that to those outside our national boundaries, we should give at least a (mere) one-percent of our income, a benchmark that only very few countries or individuals meet. (The Canadian government gives just .34 percent of GDP in foreign aid.)
In the past, our country of residence has determined our trading partnerships, environmental concerns and the laws that govern us, among many others things. But this is no longer the case in a world of intense economic integration, multi-national corporations, global environmental accords and international criminal courts. In order to ensure that this process is carried out in a respectful manner, ethics too must go global. As Singer puts it: "how well we come through the era of globalization (perhaps whether we come through it at all) will depend on how we respond ethically to the idea that we live in one world."
Singer's point of departure is global environmental regulation. He argues that the Kyoto Accord is a good beginning for improving our common and fledgling atmosphere. It is not enough, however; what is morally required is that we determine how much greenhouse gas the atmosphere can sustainably absorb and then opt for "equal per capita future entitlements to share of the capacity of the environmental sink, tied to the current United Nations projection of population growth per country in 2050." This proposal means an eighty percent reduction in emissions in some major industrial countries, including Canada. Yet this approach is much more palatable than the "You broke it, you fix it" principle that might require rich industrial nations to bear the entire cost of fixing our atmosphere.
The chapter on the global economy takes up several complaints often leveled against the World Trade Organization, the body that governs global trade. Singer finds that most of the complaints stick: the WTO does often place economic values ahead of environmental values (in practice though not necessarily in theory) and it is undemocratic in certain respects. But he does not think its dogged pursuit of global free trade perpetuates inequality and poverty. At best, the statistics are inconclusive: "whether it has helped more people than it has harmed and whether it has caused more good to those it has helped than it has brought misery to those it has harmed is something that, without better data, we just cannot know." Yet, Singer seems to think that economic globalization is not on the whole a bad thing, provided it agrees with sound moral thinking that respects decent labour standards and environmental values.
Despite American resistance, the International Criminal Court came into existence in 2002. Its mandate is to prosecute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. But an international criminal law raises thorny issues. In chapter four, Singer struggles with what might be the most appropriate conditions under which it may be considered permissible to intervene militarily in another country (as NATO did in Kosovo) in order to prevent international crimes from occurring. The basic idea is that intervention is legitimate when it is designed to stop the large-scale loss of life. Here, he discusses the role the UN might have in determining when intervention is justified, and he encourages it to be more democratic.
"One World" is a balanced and informed discussion of global governance. Singer proposes sensible and (with some effort) realizable goals aimed at making our global community a better place. Missing from much of this book are Singer's characteristically radical positions. Thirty years ago, in his discussion of our obligations to the needy, he argued for a sacrifice much greater than a mere one percent of our income; he argued that we should give until it hurts. In fact, absent from this book is the radical, hard-edged utilitarianism that Singer often borrows from his nineteenth century pals Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick and which urges us to maximize aggregate wellbeing (i.e, to improve the lot of the greatest number of people possible). It is replaced by a much less partisan approach that aims for solutions that are agreeable even to those who find utilitarianism distasteful (as many do). This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is simply the cost of dealing with other reasonable people with whom we have profound disagreement regarding what is morally acceptable and what is necessary for the good life.
The New Yorker has referred to Singer as the "most controversial philosopher alive." He is most famous for his book Animal Liberation, in which he mounts a passionate defense in favor of granting non-human animals moral standing. The permissibility of abortion, certain forms of euthanasia and (under some conditions) infanticide are only some of the other positions that Singer endorses, the clearest expressions of which appear in his Practical Ethics. Last year, he tested the commitment of even his staunchest advocates when he suggested in the on-line magazine Nerve that sexual liaisons between animals and humans are not always morally wrong.
Disagreement with these positions should not deter one from reading this persuasive book. One World serves as a welcome alternative to the familiar discussions of globalization that tend to vacillate between, on the one hand, socialist mumbo jumbo and, on the other, untutored libertarianism. It should be read by all those who care about sensible solutions to the maladies that threaten the wellbeing of our global village populace.
In order for Singer's approach to fly it must attempt to coordinate the dual aims of helping the world's most needy to be better off while persuading the inhabitants of industrialized nations to live more modestly. Here is the hitch: More modest living will likely result in lower economic outputs which, in turn, will mean much less money for the poor and needy of the world. How will our economy be able to support and aid the needy while we enforce an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions? How will developing nations grow wealthier through industrialization if environmental accords and other restrictions impede it? Answers to these questions will likely be tied to new technologies and a more earnest commitment to finding solutions. In the long run, solutions could be about fewer people getting by on fewer resources. Finding the right answers to these questions may well be the most consequential task facing us as we strive to bring about a global ethic. Singer urges us on.

Anthony Skelton is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a part-time philosophy instructor at Trent University.

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