Global Ethics
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Global Ethics

An Introduction

Kimberly Hutchings

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eBook - ePub

Global Ethics

An Introduction

Kimberly Hutchings

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About This Book

This revised edition of Kimberly Hutchings's best-selling textbook provides an accessible introduction to the field of Global Ethics for students of politics, international relations and globalization. It offers an overview and assessment of key perspectives in Global Ethics and their implications for substantive moral issues in global politics. These include the morality of state and non-state violence, the obligations of rich to poor in a globalizing world, and the scope and nature of international human rights. The second edition contains expanded coverage of pressing contemporary issues relating to migration, changes in the technologies of war, and the global environment. Hutchings's excellent book helps non-specialist students to understand the assumptions underpinning different moral traditions, and enables them to formulate their own views on how to approach moral judgement and prescription – essential in a world which, though it is shared by all, possesses massive cultural differences and inequalities of power.

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What is Global Ethics?


The words ‘global’ and ‘ethics’ are familiar to most English-speaking people from everyday conversations about public events and private behaviour. We’ve all heard, read or used expressions such as ‘global warming’ or ‘globalization’ in the context of discussions about the environment or the world economy. We’ve all heard, read or used terms such as ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’ in the context of people’s actions in their personal or professional lives. But what does the ‘Global Ethics’ in the title of this book mean? Global Ethics (always capitalized when used in this sense) is a field of theoretical inquiry that addresses ethical questions and problems arising out of the global interconnection and interdependence of the world’s population.
In contrast to other fields of theoretical inquiry that come under the broad heading of Applied Ethics, which are usually clear about the nature and reality of the field of application (for example, Professional Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Medical Ethics), within Global Ethics the term ‘global’ is deeply contested. Not only is its meaning debatable, but scholars also differ over whether it refers to something, i.e. globalization, which actually has happened or is happening. This means that theorists engaged in Global Ethics do not just disagree about ethical theory but also about what significance, if any, is to be attached to the term ‘global’. The purpose of this chapter is to sketch out the terrain, and some of the defining disagreements, of Global Ethics as a field of theoretical inquiry. Subsequent chapters will flesh out the arguments touched on here in much more depth and detail. The first part of the chapter will focus on the constituent terms of Global Ethics. First, we will examine debates over the meaning of ‘global’. Second, we will examine the term ‘ethics’, the distinction between ‘Ethics’ as a mode of philosophical inquiry and ‘ethics’ as sets of substantive principles and values, and the relation and distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’, ‘ethics’ and ‘politics’. Having done this, we will look briefly at the variety of understandings of Global Ethics and of the range of questions and issues that come within its scope. On this basis we will arrive at a working definition of the field of Global Ethics and its key concerns. We will then examine how world religions claim to provide answers to the questions raised by Global Ethics. We will conclude, however, that the questions and issues identified as the subject matter of Global Ethics cannot be resolved on the basis of religion. The chapter will end with an outline of the rest of the book and some advice on how to use this book as an aid to learning.

Defining our terms


The word ‘global’ is generally used to signify something pertaining to the world as a whole. If something has global causes or global effects, then the suggestion is that either its causes or its effects are worldwide. This may mean ‘world’ in the sense of the terrestrial globe of the earth (as in global atmosphere), but it may also mean ‘world’ in terms of humanity, and the humanly organized terrestrial space of homes, villages, cities, nations, states and regions (as in global economy). The applicability of the term ‘global’ is a matter for debate amongst natural scientists when it refers to the earth, but it becomes a matter for debate amongst social scientists and philosophers when the reference is not simply to the material globe, but to people, and to the situation that people have constructed in relation to that materiality. People have always lived in a global world in the first sense, but there are ongoing arguments as to what extent and in what ways, if at all, their situation is, has been, or will ever be global in the second sense.
So, when global is used in the second sense, what does it signify? Here I suggest we can distinguish between two distinct but related dimensions of meaning. On the one hand global signifies a worldwide scale of commonality and, on the other hand, it signifies a worldwide scale of interconnection. In the first sense, when we are told that we live in a global (or globalized) world, we are being told that we live in a world in which all humanity shares a common situation. Whereas in the past, our scale of commonality with others may have been that of our tribe, our city or our state, we are now in a world in which there are significant commonalities across all borders of collective identity, linguistic, cultural, legal or political. Examples of this kind of claim for worldwide commonality across people and peoples include statements in which ‘we’ signifies humanity as such, such as: ‘we are participants in a world market’; ‘we are all subjects of international law’; or ‘all of us have certain basic human rights’.
Related to, but also distinct from, claims about global sameness or commonality is the second dimension of the meaning of global, in which it refers to the worldwide interrelatedness of humanity. The claim here is that humanity’s situation is a global one, because we are interconnected at a global level and therefore the actions (individual or collective) of people in one part of the globe affect, and will be affected by, the actions of people in other parts of the globe to an unprecedented degree. Another way of putting it is to say that human beings are now involved in interdependent and reciprocal relations with each other on a global scale. For example, my purchase of a shirt depends on the cheap labour that produced the shirt, which is in turn dependent in one direction on the international bank that finances the mortgage on the shirt factory’s premises, and on the other on the foreign child whose labour is so cheap. Each of these actors is in turn dependent on my actions as a British consumer. Economically, socially, culturally and politically, we are embedded in, and depend on, relations with strangers from all parts of the world.
A global world, therefore, contrasts with a world in which the economic, social, cultural and political relations between people are confined within discrete local communities. In a global world, local events are affected by global processes (for example, in the global financial crisis of 2008). But it is not just that the global affects the local; in a global world the distinction between the local and the global becomes much more difficult to draw. At the level of everyday life, from eating habits to religious beliefs, in a globalized world strangeness and strangers are no longer at a distance; they are living in the neighbourhood. And social, economic and political activities that originate locally have intended and unintended global implications. This phenomenon has led to the label ‘glocalization’ being used to describe the effects of globalization, which both transform and are transformed by local actors (Robertson and White 2003; Watson 2004).
At a commonsense level, then, the claim that we live in a global age is the claim that the earth’s human population shares a common situation in significant respects, and is deeply interdependent and interconnected. Within the social sciences, however, the meaning and status of this claim has been the subject of ongoing analysis and argument. Scholars have examined the nature and extent of globalization in different sectors of human activity, and differ fundamentally about whether our age is indeed global and, if it is, whether this is a recent development or not (Held and McGrew 2003; Robertson and White 2003; Wiarda 2007). There are those who argue that a technologically and economically driven process of globalization has undermined the significance of territorial distance, cultural difference and, most importantly, the political borders between states. On this view, the state has lost its salience as the key actor in world politics, and as the key mediator between the individual ‘inside’ the state and the international ‘outside’. Instead, multinational corporations, regimes of global governance and a variety of global civil (and uncivil) non-governmental organizations have risen in significance (Held 2004; Mathews 2004; Ohmae 2004). In contrast, others are more sceptical, arguing that the state remains the key mode of economic, political and social organization, and that great powers continue to set the agenda of world politics (Hirst and Thompson 1996). Many scholars, however, hold a more nuanced position, in which globalization is more or less advanced in different sectors (e.g. economic, political, technological, cultural, communicative) or for different regions, peoples or classes of people, and in which the implications of globalization undermine or reinforce state power depending on the particular state and region in question (Rosecrance and Stein 2006).
Reflective exercise
Write down the list of activities you engage in on a normal day. Do any of them suggest that your everyday life is globalized and, if so, in what sense? Think about this in relation to what you are wearing, what you eat and drink, what music you listen to, how you travel, with whom you communicate, how you communicate. Do you see your own life as more or less globalized than that of people in other parts of the world?


Scholars may disagree about the nature and extent of globalization, but there is unanimity on the point that, to the extent that the human world is global, this necessarily has implications for human identity and human relations. It is here that ethical issues arise and that a link between ‘global’ and ‘ethics’ is formed. In everyday language, the word ‘ethical’ is sometimes used as the equivalent of ‘morally good’, implying that an ethical person is someone who does the morally right thing. In fact, ethics in its original meaning refers to codes of behaviour or sets of values that set out what it is right or wrong to do within particular contexts. An ethical person is therefore someone who aims to act according to such codes or values. When we discuss ‘professional ethics’ or ‘medical ethics’, we are discussing what the appropriate guidelines are for practitioners to follow in order to fulfil the aims and goals of their profession. So, for instance, we might raise the ethical question of what it is appropriate for doctors to do when the patient in their care is in a persistent vegetative state and they get conflicting instructions from their patient’s living will and their patient’s nearest and dearest. But, of course, the everyday meaning of ethics extends beyond the values and principles that should govern behaviour in a particular professional role; it gets applied to all aspects of human behaviour, so that one can ponder, and disagree about, what it is ethically right to do as a parent, a lover, a friend and so on.
Within moral philosophy, ethics has two meanings. Firstly, it is used in a way that reflects our commonsense usage to refer to substantive ethical beliefs, values and principles about what it is right or wrong to do (lower-case ethics). Secondly, it refers to the systematic philosophical investigation of the ground and nature of ethical principles and values (uppercase Ethics). In its latter sense, philosophical Ethics can be broken down into three distinct but related domains: Meta-Ethics; Normative Ethics; and Applied Ethics. Meta-Ethics is concerned with the most abstract foundational questions, such as the possibility of moral truth or the meaning of moral agency. Normative Ethics, which always relies on certain meta-ethical assumptions, is concerned with the elaboration and defence of substantive moral theories that provide answers about how to determine moral rightness and wrongness in general (see ethical theories discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 below). Applied Ethics is concerned with applying Normative Ethics to particular issues and situations (see Chapters 48 of this book). Within this book, we will be most concerned with Normative and Applied Ethics, but we will also encounter meta-ethical issues and questions along the way, since both Normative and Applied Ethics rely on...

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