Global Ethics

American University, Philosophy 693

Fall 2013

SYNOPSIS: This course is more accurately described as a consideration of "global ethical issues," than as an attempt to articulate "a global ethic." By this distinction, I mean two things.

First, and most basically, the promise of intellectual work in this area is not likely to be the articulation of an ethic, be it a comprehensive one, or even more modestly a coherent framework for cosmopolitanism in global affairs. Second, I want to emphasize the global nature of the field. Where traditional moral philosophy has tended towards what we might call a "transactional" model of human relations, global ethics consists primarily of philosophical reflection on problems that are global in nature. Murder, lying, and cheating are classic examples of transactional ethical thinking: interactions between individuals are scrutinized with regard to their context and the action at hand is weighed as a specific moral instance—the act of violence, the decision to lie, and so on. Much philosophical work on ethics in international relations proceeds along the same premises: states are conceptualized as individual agents who weigh competing moral claims about various courses of action.

The modern world's most significant moral problems, however, do not fit neatly into this transactional model. Climate change, terrorism, poverty, HIV/Aids, ethnic violence, religious extremism, deforestation, species loss, and food insecurity are only a few of the challenges we face at the beginning of a new century. Each of these problems is complex: multiple moral agents bear some culpability and numerous persons and institutions bear consequences. What is to be done about these various crises? Given the tremendous variety of cultures, political structures, as well as religious and philosophical perspectives involved in any one of the aforementioned global issues, ethical answers (or policy solutions) are unlikely to come easily.

This course explores such complexities along two fronts: the emergence of global ethical questions and the globalization of ethics itself. How did it come to pass that there are problems with a "global scope"? Similarly, what are the circumstances through which such problems came to be addressed within a shared "global framework" of moral precepts and political structures?

Before we can turn to the constructive task of philosophy we must take stock of where we stand historically. In tracing the long arc of the modernity to its sources, we will identify a link between the quest for moral certainty and the increasing exchange between peoples and nations. Our reading of contemporary moral philosophy through the retrospective, critical lens of globalization provides an opportunity to consider anew the nature of the global ethical issues.

This course is designed as a true seminar: it is intended to be a learning experience for all participants, including the instructor. Our semester together is structured around a series of cogent questions and employs a contingent schedule for readings. However, the intended outcomes for this course remain open-ended. Student-directed learning will guide us in important ways and our seminar discussions may well push the course in unexpected directions. To this end, your full participation—in terms of reading, discussion, and writing—is essential for our success.