Ethics & International Affairs Volume 17.2 (Fall 2003): Book Reviews: "One World: The Ethics of Globalization" Peter Singer (New Haven: Yale University Press 2002) and "World Poverty and Human Rights," Thomas Pogge (Cambridge: Polity, 2002)

Sep 22, 2003

Leif Wenar (reviewer)

The opening of Peter Singer's book juxtaposes airliners smashing into the World Trade Center with keys being turned in the ignitions of American sport utility vehicles. The first is a single, dramatic event that killed many humans, the second is a series of small events that will over time lead to the deaths of many times more. Each case highlights the heightened interdependence of human lives in our times. Both suggest an urgent need for a global ethics that will reflect the fact that we live, as Singer says, in one world.

Singer lays out his global ethic by addressing four large questions about the morality of globalization: Who should be responsible for slowing global warming? When is military intervention justified on humanitarian grounds? Is globalization good for the poor? What do I owe to poor people outside my country? Singer's answers to these questions reveal a moral outlook that is consistently utilitarian, democratic, and pragmatic. From this perspective he finds our institutions and sensibilities wholly inadequate to new realities of our world and offers what he believes are realistic proposals for progressive reforms.

On the subject of climate change, Singer cross-examines George W. Bush's assertion that the Kyoto treaty would have burdened the United States unfairly. No major theory of justice, Singer says, bears out this claim of unfairness—not utilitarianism, not Rawls's theory, not strict egalitarianism, and not a Lockean historical view (which Singer characterizes as "you broke it, you fix it"). Singer proposes that a fair distribution of the burdens could be achieved by assigning to each country a tradable entitlement to emit greenhouse gases at a level proportionate to its population. Given the grave human consequences of global warming, Singer says, a reform on these lines must be a high moral priority.

Singer believes that humanitarian intervention into murderous or cruelly negligent states should be not only permissible but mandatory. Only a global body like the United Nations has the moral authority to intervene, yet the UN is itself now woefully undemocratic. To become more legitimate, the UN must reduce the power of the single-state veto in the Security Council and allow direct popular elections of representatives to the General Assembly roughly on the model of the European Parliament.

On the charge that globalization has increased poverty and inequality Singer returns the Scottish verdict of "not proven." He does, however, deplore the World Trade Organization's (WTO) prioritization of free trade over workers' rights, animal rights, and environmental integrity, and again demands empowerment of international institutions to ensure that these values are not overwhelmed in the pursuit of economic efficiency.

As for our personal duties toward our fellow human beings, Singer reprises his famous 1972 article on famine and takes aim at the widespread belief that our compatriots have a much stronger claim to our assistance. This belief is simply obsolete, Singer claims. Most citizens of the rich countries should regard devoting one percent of their income to global poverty relief as a minimal requirement for leading a life that is morally decent.

Singer intends his book to be uncomfortable reading, and particularly uncomfortable for Americans. The world's biggest polluter has consistently blocked pollution control. The nation that talks most about justice is almost alone in refusing to be bound by international systems of justice. The country that is by far the richest is also the rich country least generous to the world's poor. With great power comes great moral responsibility—Singer contends that the United States is failing in its global responsibilities unconscionably.

Singer's arguments are direct, honest, and forceful. The book presents excellent overviews of technical issues central to current debates (such as the product/process distinction in the WTO rules, and the legality of humanitarian intervention within the UN Charter), as well as philosophical reflections on a wide range of global trends. It is the most useful survey in print of the moral dimensions of globalization.

However, some may find unsatisfying Singer's condemnation of our habit of giving moral priority to our compatriots. We do tend to feel that we have stronger duties to help those inside our community, and it is hard to see how philosophical argument alone could convince us that we should picture ourselves as members of a global instead of a national community. This is where Thomas Pogge's extraordinary book on world poverty takes over. We must, Pogge says, stop thinking about global justice solely in terms of helping the poor. The poor need to be helped because of the injustices we inflict upon them. The sick and starving of the world are not merely dying, Pogge says. We are killing them, and we are killing them in huge numbers. We are therefore not only failing in a weak positive duty to help, but violating a strong negative duty against harm.

One great strength of Pogge's book is its vivid rendering of the magnitude and the misery of severe poverty in our world. These facts are still not widely enough discussed. Yet what is distinctive here is Pogge's argument that this situation constitutes a violation of fundamental rights, a violation perpetrated by the small minority of the human race that controls most of the resources. The rich are, Pogge says, using their overwhelming political, economic, and military power to impose a world order that unfairly prevents the poor from living a decent life and that predictably results in their suffering and death. This order is imposed by the rich for the benefit of the rich, yet a less deadly alternative is available that would require the rich to give up only a small fraction of their current benefits. By opting to enrich themselves unfairly through force, the leaders of the rich countries and those who support them are perpetrating a massive crime against humanity.

Pogge criticizes the subsidies and trade barriers in rich countries that disable the economies of poor countries, and which the rich countries insist on in the WTO by using their vastly superior bargaining power. Nor is he impressed by the "voluntary" nature of the WTO. The leaders of the poor countries who agree to WTO membership are themselves part of the powerful minority that imposes the repressive order on the world's poor people. Certainly these leaders are often enough not supported by their own people, but are rather kept in power by the bribes, aid, loans, and arms supplied by the rich.

This criticism is part of Pogge's attack on "explanatory nationalism," the common thesis that world poverty can be attributed to corruption and incompetence in poor countries. The thesis is incomplete, Pogge argues, since it fails to mention that these local factors themselves have global causes. Some of the most powerful causes lie deep within the system of state sovereignty upheld by the rich countries. Within our current system, any group that can seize and maintain power within a country receives unlimited authorization to enrich itself by selling off the country’s resources and borrowing against the country's future. This system creates strong incentives toward violent coups and oppressive rule. These incentives have been catastrophic for the world's poor, while serving very well the interests of rich countries who want cheap resources. Pogge proposes two extremely interesting revisions to the sovereignty system that would give the world’s poor more power to resist local oppression by creating incentives for maintaining democratic governance. Pogge also reprises his well-known proposal for a global scheme for taxing natural resource use, which is intended to keep the poor from being wholly dispossessed of the benefits of the world’s wealth. Pogge's book is as demanding as Singer's is accessible. Pogge's analyses are relentless, and he draws out their implications with a steely resolve. Yet those who take time for careful study will be well rewarded. This book is the product of a powerful and generative philosophical imagination. In addition to its main analyses, the book presents a new conception of human rights, an assessment of the political dilemmas facing fledgling democracies, and an intriguing argument that our moral code may itself contain hidden "loopholes." This is certainly the most acute study of the moral dimensions of world poverty to date; it is also a significant work of philosophy in its own right.

Both Singer and Pogge insist that we must develop stronger international institutions to address the serious moral problems generated by the current system of state sovereignty. Both put forward provocative suggestions for what these strengthened institutions might look like. Yet the main impact of both books may be to unsettle what Pogge has called everyone's favorite prejudice—the prejudice that the way in which citizens of rich countries currently live their lives is, on the whole, morally acceptable.

—Leif Wenar University of Sheffield

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