Grounded Responsibility in a Connected World:
Book Review of Peter Singer's One World
Full Title: One World: The Ethics of Globalization.
Author: Peter Singer.
Publisher: New Haven, CN: Yale University Press
John M. Novak
Brock University, Ontario
In a world emphasizing "wisdom-lite," where perplexed
postmodernists warn about the dangers of monoculturalism, and
color-coded electoral results show that the United States is really
two nations under Canada, it would seem writing a rational, carefully
argued book entitled One World seems out-of-step. Peter
Singer, however, is willing to risk standing-out because he thinks
there is something important to stand for. He stands for the importance
of global responsibility and points out the necessity of thinking
about one atmosphere, one economy, one law, and one community.
Educators seeking to ground their pedagogy in the problems of
people rather than the theories of specialists will do well to
attend to his ethical analysis as well as his prescriptions for
the one world we mutually inhabit.
Singer's book is the result of his Terry Foundation Lecture entitled
"Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy" delivered
at Yale University. Other lectures in this series have included
John Dewey's A Common Faith, Paul Tillich's The Courage
to Be, and Jacques Maritain's Education at the Crossroads.
Singer holds his own in this elite group and his book cogently
challenges people to come to grips with the interconnectedness
of life on this planet.
A question asked early in the book and that helps frame its thesis
is "To whom do we justify ourselves?" Singer sees people
as essentially social beings and points out that if we justify
ourselves to the tribe or nation we will only have a tribal or
national ethic that does not take us far enough in dealing with
our interconnected tensions in a changing world. The challenge
for us today, however, deals with "how well we will come
through the era of globalization…and this will depend on
how we respond ethically to the idea that we live in one world"
(p. 13). This challenge is not only a moral challenge; it involves
the long-term security of the rich nations of the world. It is
in their atmospheric, economic, legal, and social interests to
see what is being done now and what might be done in the future
to make our shared world an ethically responsible and safer place.
Singer begins his analysis by showing that the atmosphere has
been assumed to be a giant global sink with a limitless capacity.
Although everyone has used this sink, industrialized nations have
been the primary users. For example, "the United States,
with about five per cent of the world's population…was responsible
for 30 per cent of the cumulative emissions, whereas India, with
17 per cent of the world's population, was responsible for less
than two per cent of the emissions" (p. 32). With a sink
of limitless capacity, this is no real problem. However, the report
of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change claims that there
is new and strong evidence that the sink has limits. The consequences
of not attending to these limits results in global warming with
its effects on increasing natural disasters, tropical diseases,
and changes in food production patterns as well as rising sea
levels. All nations will be seriously affected. The Kyoto Protocol
has attempted to use a system of justice and ingenuity in dealing
with the best output for the atmosphere. Its mechanism of emissions
trading is an early and important attempt to limit green house
gas emissions. Since Russia has now signed the Protocol, only
one nation, the United States, which is also the largest emitter,
has not joined in. Perhaps, the present President of the United
States, like his father, believes that "the American lifestyle
is not up for negotiation" (p. 2). This certainly gives a
new meaning to the assertion that "They hate us because we
are free." Do we assume the assertion entails freedom to
pollute indiscriminately or freedom to act with disregard for
the consequences on the rest of the world?
Moving to the economy, Singer examines the dynamics of the World
Trade Organization in terms of the four charges: 1) It places
economic concerns over others; 2) It erodes national sovereignty;
3) It is undemocratic; and 4) It increases inequality. In terms
of economics trumping social values, Singer points out how difficult
it is for this not to be the case. Ethical issues are seen as
a subset of economic issues and have to be couched as such. A
"Golden Straightjacket" that prevents individual nations
from going their own way controls the erosion of national sovereignty.
Nations can much more easily get in than get out. Claims to democratic
operations are questioned because there is no weight given to
population numbers. In addition, the Appellate Body does not answer
to a majority of its members. Regarding inequality, the court
is still out. This is an important ethical issue but it is still
not clear if the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting
poorer. In providing a practical ethical suggestion for the global
economy, Singer points out the inherent responsibility of all
nations and corporations to refrain from enabling dictators to
sell off their country's natural resources. To do so, he claims,
is the same as an individual knowingly buying stolen goods. In
an ethically principled world, economic values are not isolated
deal breakers but rather are a part of a rational and humane system
of thought and action.
The issue of one law raises many philosophical questions about
transcultural moral judgments. Singer argues that one can certainly
work to appreciate, preserve, and learn from other cultures without
being a cultural relativist. A consistent cultural relativist
stance is very difficult to maintain in an interconnected world.
For example, a cultural relativist would have to accept whatever
any other culture did, even if that involved another culture's
value of conquering other cultures. Accepting that there is a
scope for rational argument in ethics means that "we can
…ask whether the values we are upholding are sound, defensible,
and justifiable" (p. 140). Transcultural moral judgments
depend on everyone's capacity and willingness to reason. This,
Singer argues, is a universal human capacity, without which we
would just have power struggles.
Although rationality has a major role in Singer's notion of one
community, so does imagination. In order to get beyond the tribal
ways of ethical thinking, people imagined themselves to be a part
of a larger nation. This helped remove some tribal barriers. The
next step is to imagine ourselves as a part of a global community
of reciprocity. This will help remove some of the national barriers.
The real test of the workings of such a global community can be
seen in the ways wealthy nations overcome the tendency to live
high and let others die. If we would not allow this at a local
or national level, why would we allow this at the global level?
This review only touches on the subtlety and cogency of Singer's
arguments and examples. Unlike some news networks, he strives
to present a fair and balanced approach to complex issues. He
demonstrates the dedication and imagination necessary to pursue
wisdom in a time of great tensions and possibilities. Professors
of education can build on this book and work to be a force in
creating an ethics of global responsibility. Such a task involves
standing out and undertaking the heavy work of not making light