Professing Education


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 of wisdom.