The Long View: The Ethics of Globalization by Peter Singer

It is a bit of an understatement to say that Peter Singer isn't one of my favorite philosophers. I do have to give the man credit for rigorous intellectual consistency however. He pursues the implications of his positions with single-minded determination. And since his starting points are largely those of the guiding spirit of the age, events keep catching up with his formerly extreme positions as the inevitable logic of those premises win out over ordinary human hypocrisy and moral squeamishness.

John's interest in reviewing this book stems from his interest in Universal States, polities like the Roman Empire and Han China, that occupy the ground state of the system of nations, a condition the world falls into when the energy to maintain a different system is no longer available.

Since we are nearing the time when this state of affairs is likely to occur again, it is worth looking back into history to see what happened before. There have been at least two bursts of cosmopolitanism in the West in the last two thousand years. People ask the same kinds of question in each such age. It is worth at least looking to see what they came up with.Unfortunately, it seems that is exactly what Singer did not do.

One of the most interesting sections here is John's critique of Singer's attempt to apply Rawlsian fairness in a truly global, universal fashion. It is worth re-quoting the argument in full:

In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.

There is something to be said for this. In the last fifteen years, this argument has if anything gotten more popular. I suspect this argument wouldn't have near as much force in the Western mind if it weren't a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but dressing it up as modern philosophy allows us moderns to feel good about being moved by this example.

Unfortunately, the analogy to the people who do need help in the world is imperfect. If we were to extend the analogy a bit, what we see in most places of the world that need help is that the park is a sovereign nation, and the people of the park elected a man who turned into a tyrant, and he tossed the child down the well because the child's father was an opposition leader. And when we ship food to the park, the leader gives it to his cronies and lets the rest starve. We can send in a punitive expedition to kill the leader, but if we leave someone similar just takes his place. If we stay and try to impose some kind of good government, some fraction of the locals inevitably hate us and push back violently.

Not as pithy, but closer to the truth. There is something of this lurking in the background of Singer's argument, because he isn't an advocate of national sovereignty when it leads to human rights abuses. The really strange thing is that something like Singer's argument is exactly what led us to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 under W. I don't think anyone would plausibly consider Singer and George W. Bush to be intellectual bedfellows, but on this issue they are.

What I find so fascinating about John's support for the Iraq War is that many of his own arguments told against him. The argument John marshals here against Singer is that there is a countervailing principle of moral philosophy to the duty to help another human in distress: one should mind one's own business. To treat another human being as having moral agency is to respect the choices they make for themself, or themselves, even if it is objectively a mistake. This principle is buttressed by ordinary human ignorance. Usually, we lack appropriate knowledge to meddle in other's affairs in a helpful way.

As I keep pointing out, the giant mess the United States has made out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Egypt and Ukraine ought to be sufficient to remind us there really are lesser evils.

Readers will be shocked to learn that “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls's immensely influential general theory of ethics, has nothing to say about the rights and duties of individuals outside their own societies. In “One World,” the noted ethicist Peter Singer tries to close this global deficit. According to Singer: “The twentieth century's conquest of space made it possible for a human being to look at our planet from a point not on it, and so to see it, literally, as one world. Now the twenty-first century faces the task of developing a suitable form of government for that single world.”
There are in fact good reasons to believe that the world is moving toward the condition that Toynbee called a “universal state.” This prospect does raise ethical questions, both about whether people of good will should support the process, and about how such a state should be governed if it does arise. Singer's historyless treatment of the subject manages to miss most of the real issues. It does, however, suggest some principles that could turn the later 21st century into a planetary nightmare.
“One World” began as the Dwight Harrington Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, which Singer delivered at Yale in November 2000. The topical justification for the book seems originally to have been the great anti-globalization demonstrations that began with “The Battle in Seattle” in December 1999, when a meeting of the World Trade Organization was met with protest and riot. The book has four themes: One Atmosphere (concerning the environment, especially global warming); One Economy (free trade, especially the operation of the World Trade Organization); One Law (chiefly the duty of humanitarian intervention); and One Community (how foreign aid relates to the general duty to relieve the condition of the poor).
The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon intervened during the lectures' transition to book form. The author's attempts to accommodate the new situation suggest a determination not to be distracted from his pet ideas. The One Atmosphere section begins with a grotesque comparison between the attack on the World Trade Center and the probable effects of emissions from SUVs. Singer asserts that, although the attack was spectacular, the emissions will result in global warming that will kill far more people. Both, he tells us, are examples of areas that require global governance, but global warming is clearly closer to his heart. “One World” is, to a large extent, just another instance of the relentless moralization of environmental issues.
Why should this be? Regarding global warming in particular, I suspect it's because the phenomenon makes such a wonderful unifying principle. Almost all economic activities have some implications for greenhouse-gas emissions. Economic growth, of course, is easily linked to issues like population control, which has a bearing on the global distribution of wealth.
The whole exercise is rather like a game we used to play in college: “What does that have to do with the price of milk?” The idea was to show how anything at all could be shown to have some bearing on that question. Consider, for instance, the surface temperature of Mars. That is obviously related to solar output, which is related to the weather on Earth, which is related to the price of cattle feed, which is obviously related to the price of milk. QED
Similarly, global warming can be used to show that just about anything people do or say has a global ethical dimension. I am inclined to think that global warming is a real phenomenon, and that emissions of greenhouse-gases occasioned by human activity are an important contributing factor. I also know that the projections of how global warming will affect human life in the coming decades are too speculative to take seriously. Global warming is not the key to a master philosophy.
Regarding the world's One Economy, Singer is not much distressed by the prospect that the World Trade Organization might undermine national sovereignty. What disturbs him is that the WTO does not use its position as an international gatekeeper to impose universal environmental and labor standards. The WTO's charter does in fact allow a member state to discriminate against goods that are produced in ways that violate the state's policies in these matters, but the WTO regards such claims skeptically. There is good reason for this. Domestic producers often use environmental and labor arguments to suppress competition, and the same devices are easily deployed against foreign trading partners. Singer, nonetheless, criticizes the World Trade Organization for leaving most environmental and labor standard issues to be settled in other forums.
The WTO was in fact designed to deal strictly with trade issues. The idea was to allay the fears of critics that the WTO would otherwise become too powerful. Good intentions rarely go unpunished.
The section that deals with One Law has the most to say about the mechanisms of global governance (or, to put it bluntly, world government). The occasion for these reflections is the need to ensure that national governments are not allowed to inflict gross and systematic human-rights abuses on their subjects. Singer maintains, plausibly enough, that humanitarian interventions against criminal governments are a duty of the international community, even if that means modifying or dispensing with the principle of state sovereignty.
The idea that sovereignty needs to be limited is scarcely new, and in fact the principle of sovereignty has been in decline since about 1900. A thought that never occurs to Singer is just why the international institutions created to replace it have so often made things worse. It is pretty clear, for example, that the collective security regime of the League of Nations inhibited the ordinary Great Power diplomacy that might have prevented the Second World War. More recently, we know that the spread of weapons of mass destruction has occurred largely under the cover of ineffective international inspection. As for military interventions to prevent massacre, they generally occur when the United States, and more rarely other states, can be shamed into using their own forces to take action. Never one to be deterred by reality, Singer wants the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council to be eliminated. It is hard to see why any power would maintain a usable military establishment if the power lost control of it to an international body. He does suggest that a truly global military should undertake duties of this sort, but he does not explain why an international army would work better than other international institutions.
In this as in other contexts, Singer has nothing but bile for the United States. How dare the US insist that its nationals be excluded from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? How dare the US insist on the maintenance of the Security Council veto? Such things are simply instances of might rather than right, Singer insists.
Well, no. In the international system as it has actually evolved, the US performs many of the functions of an executive. In many ways, the US at the beginning of the 21st century was less like a sovereign state and more like an international utility. It would be odd if the US did not have special “constitutional” status.
In the section on One Community, Singer attempts to expand Rawls's ethics to fit the globe. Rawls did treat international relations in “The Law of Peoples,” of course, but Singer quarrels even with the title. By Singer's account, it is a violation of Rawls's principles to allow nation states to play any analytical role in our ethical calculations of what we owe to others.
John Rawls famously laid it down that “fairness” for a society would consist of those rules we would choose “in the original condition,” before we knew what position luck would give us. Thus, for instance, we would choose that the handicapped be cared for, since we might belong to that group ourselves. According to Rawls, we would be more interested in preventing possible misery than in ensuring that we could enjoy the maximum possible luxury, so we would want a political and economic system that promoted the redistribution of wealth.
Rawls did not apply these principles between societies. Societies, and particularly states, owe each other duties and should live in a law-governed way. However, in his scheme of things, individuals in one society just do not have the same obligations to people in other societies that they have to people in their own. Singer will have none of this. For him, which society you are going to belong to is one of those things you don't know in the “original condition.” Surely you would want a reasonable standard of living wherever you happened to be born in the world? Thus, fairness requires that we value those near to us and those far from us in the same way. Inequalities of wealth between different parts of the world are therefore intolerable.
In support of this proposition, Singer deploys some of those fables of utilitarian calculus that have become his trademark. They run like this: You are walking across a park on your way to deliver the prestigious Acme Lecture on Fine Ideas, when you see a small child fall into a well. There is no one else around to help. Do you rescue the child, even though that might make you miss the lecture, or would you continue punctually on your way to further burnish your academic career? (Well, would you? Would you?) Singer insists that people in developed countries are in exactly the same relationship to starving children in developing countries as the Acme lecturer was to the child down the well. Just as he could have turned aside, at real but bearable cost to himself, to save that child, so people in rich countries should sacrifice the luxurious excess of their standard of living in order to end hunger and disease in developing countries.
Singer is willing to allow some scope to the principle of “partiality.” It is not irrational or unjust for us to take special care of friends and family, he will allow. Friendship and family rank among the great goods of life. However, these considerations do not affect the general principle that we owe a duty of aid to everybody. Now that technological advance has made it possible to carry out that duty, we are morally obligated to create the global political institutions that can do so.
Let me suggest that there is a fundamental ethical imperative to mind your own business. To some degree, simple respect for the moral agency of others requires that you let them make their own mistakes. Just as important, though, is the fact that other people know more about their affairs than you do. Despite his long list of occasions when humanitarian intervention was justified, Singer never quite comes to grips with the fact that the direst poverty in the world is not caused by a lack of foreign assistance, but by the crooks who run the local government. The simple transfusion of goods and foodstuffs from one society to another can make things worse. There is a literature about how food aid has destroyed local agriculture in some instances.
Singer is willing to allow that his global ethics does not answer the many prudential questions that arise whenever we design a given aid program. His chief concern is to establish the principle that some aid is always owing, and only special circumstances may excuse us from not rendering it in a particular instance. The fact is, though, that equally compelling principles tell us something else: first, do no harm.
“One World” does not purport to describe a full system of global ethics. Nonetheless, it does suggest many ideas that are systemically significant, though not perhaps for the reasons the author imagines.
For instance, the willingness of philosophers to use a speculative rhetorical device like global warming illustrates a characteristic failure of modern philosophy. Writing in “First Things” (February 1994), Paul Zaleski describes a little test he sometimes gives his students. He asks them to rank an odd assortment of things, such as “mouse,” “bag,” “man,” “angel,” “the sun,” “crab,” “the Taj Mahal,” “the Idea of the Good,” and so on. From a traditional metaphysical perspective, the top of such a list might be “the Idea of the Good,” or possibly “man.” His students, however, for the most part head the list with “the sun,” apparently on the principle that solar energy makes all the other items possible. Philosophical treatments of environmentalism often reason the same way. The mere size of the biosphere seems to be a sufficient substitute for metaphysical priority.
Perhaps more seriously, Singer has fits of evolutionary psychology. He tells us that there may well be a human predilection to genocide, inculcated in us by evolution. He also tells us that, just because there is some common human impulse to do something, the predilection cannot be adduced as a "reason” in an ethical argument. Thus, though we may have a natural tendency to favor our blood relatives, that is not a justification for doing so. The only ethics we need take seriously are those based on “reciprocity,” on some version of the principle that we should do to others what would want them to do to us.
This doesn't really work. No doubt, in the hypothetical pre-natal state envisioned by Rawls, we would make rules to assign goods on a reciprocal basis. However, the source for those goods will be intuitions and impulses, which Singer assumes arise from evolutionary history. Some ethical systems have criteria for judging nature, but Singer's does not appear to be one of them. Judging from “One World,” at least, it is not clear why the “findings” of evolutionary psychology could not be used as the desiderata for Rawls's utilitarian calculus. Such a philosophy could become a real global menace.
Singer also has his Marxist moments. He has the odd idea that the issues he raises are entirely new, and are simply the ideological consequences of new technology. He seems quite unaware that the political theory and personal ethics of the Middle Ages was “international” to a degree that the modern world has not yet recovered.
Happily, there are other paths to a global ethics. Reflection about “cosmopolis,” or “All under Heaven,” is as old as philosophy. This is not a subject where we need to start from the “original position.”
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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