The Ethics of Development
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The Ethics of Development

An Introduction

David Ingram, Thomas J Derdak

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The Ethics of Development

An Introduction

David Ingram, Thomas J Derdak

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The Ethics of Development: An Introduction systematically and comprehensively examines the ethical issues surrounding the concept of development. The book addresses important questions such as:

  • What does development mean?
  • Is there a human right to development?
  • If we aim for sustainable development in an age of global climate change, should developed nations sacrifice economic growth for the sake of allowing developing countries to catch up?
  • Should eradication of poverty or diminution of radical inequality be the principal focus of developmental policy?
  • What are the macroeconomic theories of development? And how have they informed development policy?
  • How does development work in practice?

Featuring case studies throughout, this textbook provides a philosophical introduction to an incredibly topical issue studied by students within the fields of applied ethics, global justice, economics, politics, sociology, and public policy.

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The ethics of development begins with the ethics of ranking societies and individuals. We don’t need to rank societies and individuals in order to help them meet their most basic needs. Emergency food, clothing, shelter, and medical care can be provided to the desperately needy on an ad hoc basis. Nor need we rank societies and individuals who are not desperately needy as judged by their own standards. Aboriginal peoples in New Guinea were doing just fine (thank you) until they were “discovered” by outsiders. It is only when we think about how those who are chronically needy fare relative to everyone else, not only in terms of their low levels of consumption but also in terms of their lack of power in surviving as free and equals in a world dominated by legal and economic elites, that their vulnerability appears – to them as well as to us – as a phenomenon of “underdevelopment.”
In theory, the problem of vulnerability, or domination by others, can be solved by removing oneself from those others. In practice, this is virtually impossible to do. So, the question of development, or relative power and capability, cannot not be dismissed. One might here object that the idea of development did not originally manifest itself within an ethical criticism of domination but arose instead within a colonial ideology justifying domination, specifically that of white, European-descended peoples over darker-skinned Africans and Amerindians. That this objection still finds salience among critics of development poses a challenge we shall have to address head on.
The concept of development refers to at least two distinct processes. Societies are said to develop, or evolve, by becoming structurally more complex. This kind of social development is connected to another kind: the social development of individuals. As social structures become more complex, individuals interacting within them assume new roles and develop new capabilities. The more structurally complex their interaction becomes, the more deliberate (and less habitual and routine) their way of relating to themselves and to others becomes.
This chapter begins by exploring the idea of societal development. This idea has a long pedigree dating back to the European Enlightenment, if not earlier. Before there was social science, philosophers operating out of the Enlightenment tradition speculated that the universal destiny of humanity was to become free, principally by adopting the kinds of institutions – the so-called “rights of man and citizen” – that rationally minded Europeans, shaking off the yoke of religious and monarchic authority, were adopting for themselves. The first generation of social scientists at the dawn of the twentieth century borrowed much from this philosophical legacy but wrapped it up in the mantle of respectable empirical science. These new accounts of modernization had staying power throughout and beyond the twentieth century. The critics of development as modernization, however, have raised empirical, conceptual, and ethical objections to the entire development project. Is there some way to incorporate this salubrious criticism into an account of development without abandoning the concept altogether?
After proposing one way this might be done, we turn to contemporary views about measuring development. Here our attention is also drawn to the idea of individual development. Can we elaborate a defensible theory of universal human capabilities that can serve to ground judgments about individual and societal development? Is such a theory about normal human functioning susceptible to ideological and/or ethnocentric manipulation?

What is progress? The Enlightenment debate: Locke and Rousseau

Development theory in its economistic form can be traced back to early modern moral philosophy. John Locke famously extolled the greater industrial and agricultural productivity as well as individual progress in material well-being that a monetized exchange economy grounded in private property and a division of labor afforded, in comparison to the impoverished lifestyle yielded by North American Indian economies based on simple hunting and gathering (Chapter V, Second Treatise of Government [1690]):
[I]t cannot be supposed that God meant [the world] should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labour was to be his title to it) (para. 34)… There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land and poor in all the comforts of life… yet for want of improving it by labour, have not one hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy; and a king of a large and fruitful territory there feeds, lodges and is clad worse than a day labourer in England (para 41).
Locke’s dismissal of the impoverished lives of native Americans compared to the lives of his English compatriots also contains a moral condemnation of sorts: those who are not rational and industrious (the Americans) disobey God’s command to stake out private property claims and increase bounty for all through cultivation and hard labor. The uncultivated land they occupy is “waste” that is divinely predestined to be settled by acquisitive, hard-working Europeans. Indeed, even the lowliest of wage earners within Europe’s stratified society of rich and poor lives better than a tribal chief.
One can read into Locke’s moral indictment of native Americans a more contemporary allusion to what we today call “the tragedy of the commons” or “free rider” problem. This problem involves individuals taking freely from a common store of goods without individually contributing to its growth and provision. For Locke, and most economists today, the temptation to ride freely on the work of others can be solved by converting common property into private property. If individuals are responsible for their own provision, then they will have greater incentive to maintain and grow it. Hence, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tribal peoples in Africa, North American, and Australia were encouraged (often compelled) to convert their communal property into private holdings.
Just over half a century later Jean-Jacques Rousseau, citing Locke against himself, would impugn the moral inequality necessitated by Locke’s conception of economic development:
Even those enriched exclusively by labor could hardly base their property on better claims. They could very well say: “I am the one who built that wall; I have earned this land with my labor.” In response to them it could be said: “Who gave you the boundary lines? By what right to do you claim to exact payment at our expense for labor we did not impose on you? Are you unaware that a multitude of your brothers perish or suffer from need of what you have in excess; and that you needed explicit and unanimous consent from the human race to help yourself to anything from the common subsistence that went beyond your own?”1
Rousseau’s diatribe against progress opened up a debate that has continued to this day: an economy that encourages hard work by offering prospects for unlimited material gain also opens the door to greater social inequality and, most worrisome, greater political domination of rich over poor. In Rousseau – a lover of untrammeled nature – we see the beginnings of the Romantic reaction against industrial capitalism and the beginnings, as well, of a new tragedy of the commons, in which nature is regarded as an exploitable resource for private gain and collectively unsustainable consumption.
Aside from inspiring the French Revolution, Rousseau’s intention was not to impugn the idea of progress among his contemporaries but broaden it beyond its narrow economic understanding. Enlightenment philosophies of history developed by Condorcet, Kant, and Hegel around the turn of the nineteenth century inclined to measure progress along the moral and political dimensions set out by Rousseau, specifically in terms of the universal realization of individual freedom. Civil and political rights would figure predominantly in their vision of a rational society, along with a notion of a market economy based on private property. Sharing Rousseau’s fanciful depiction of “savages” as lacking in reason and ambition, many of them would endorse denying them these rights, pending their “enlightenment” under European tutelage.

The dynamic of crisis-driven development: Marx

The tension between economic and moral progress, evident in the growing impoverishment of the industrial working class, would come to a head in Marx’s understanding of world history as a contradiction- and conflict-driven process tending toward the eventual elimination of domination, misery, toil, and alienation in a stateless communist utopia.
Because the Marxist vision of development provided a critique of mainstream development theory during the post-WWII era, it bears some elaborating. Inspired by the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, Marx believed that laboring activity was the motor force behind human development and social change:
Hegel grasps the self-development of man as a process… comprehends objective man as the result of his own work. The actual, active relationship of man to himself as a species-being… is possible only insofar as he actually brings forth all of his species-powers – which in turn is only possible through the collective effort of Mankind, only as a result of history – and treats them as objects, something which immediately is again only possible in the form of alienation.2
Hegel famously argued that the entirety of world history could be read as the story of the human spirit striving to bring forth its essential species nature as free, something he believed the European society of his time was in the process of accomplishing. Powering history was humanity’s own reflection on its state of un-freedom. African and Asian societies, he judged, were unfree compared to Europe insofar as they hadn’t developed the capacity to dominate nature through science and hadn’t liberated the individual from collective domination and despotic authority. However, in developing science and free political institutions, European society had to undergo its own crisis-laden learning process; it had to abandon natural and communal forms of life – viz., it had to “alienate” people from nature and themselves – while at the same time emancipating slaves and serfs.
Marx’s conception of world history, which he dubbed historical materialism, jettisoned Hegel’s metaphysics of a providential human spirit in favor of class conflict as the motor of human development. Marx believed that a critical level of population growth compels simple communal societies to become economic class societies. In early class society, an aristocratic ruling class of warriors and priests charged with coordinating and defending the apparatus of production lives off the labor of slaves and serfs. Inevitably, Marx reasoned, new technologies and ways of organizing production (social labor) run up against old property and political relations. In Europe, the evolution of the communal guild system of craft production into the modern industrial factory, and the parallel evolution of the communal system of cultivation based on the manorial commons into large-scale, enclosed (viz. privatized) farms, ushered in the end of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. Capitalism creates new freedoms – economic, civil, and political – but at a severe social cost. Money, trade, and profit become the new idols, replacing religion and social stability. As Marx pointedly observed in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life.”3
From Marx’s time down to the present day, the preceding image of societal development as a technological, crisis-driven process of liberation – from nature, religion, and authority – has continued to captivate development theory. But Marx thought that communism (his word for a stateless utopia beyond domination) – not capitalism – was the endpoint of history. Capitalism, he argued, fails to liberate humanity from toil but instead subjects the mass of industrial workers (the proletariat) to the most alienating form of factory work: “The work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and… [the worker] becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.”4 The division between physical and mental labor robs labor of its freedom, creativity, and sociality – the very qualities that enable it to develop people’s powers. Marx accordingly reasoned that workers organized in factories would rebel against their dehumanization and impoverishment, this time propelled by ever-worsening crises of overproduction – a symptom of the growing concentration of wealth among the ruling capitalist-investor class. Out of the ashes of capitalism would rise a newborn humanity free to develop its powers fully:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of common wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.5
This oft-quoted passage is of interest to us for two reasons: It looks ahead to the capabilities theory of development we discuss below; and it begs several questions that must be answered before the ethics of development can get off the ground. As for the first reason, Marx rejects a simple recipe for development based on increasing economic consumption and distributing wealth equally, concluding that what is most important to justice in a fully developed society is ensuring that each has the resources needed to fulfill his or her individual needs “for all around development.” As for the second reason, Marx assumes that this moral aim of development depends on eliminating scarcity and creating abundance for all by developing “the forces of production” to the greatest extent possible. Eliminating scarcity is important because doing so reduces social conflict and enables us to develop our loving, sociable natures to the point where being a generous person is more important than having more possessions.
Marx conceded that the overall humanitarian goal of eliminating scarcity might require short-term suffering and reverse development. His comments on British colonial rule in India, written for the New York Tribune between 1853 and 1858, defend the necessity of British despotism and its destructive and deadly imposition of free trade and modern capitalism in that region, even while condemning its inhumanity. That said, it is not Marx’s endorsement of tutelary colonial despotism that is important for those of us today living in the twenty-first ...