One World: The Ethics of Globalization , by Peter Singer. Yale University Press, 235 pages, $21.95.
Dot-com, Dow 50,000, the imperial C.E.O.: Onto the heap of 90’s-era mementos, can we also toss all those television commercials featuring cute children dressed in-were those jubbahs, tunics or saris?-sitting in dutiful rows in village schools, their eyes lit like little lanterns, patiently awaiting globalization?
Meet the New Economy, same as the Old Economy: No one believes any more that the Internet is a medium of universal enlightenment; many now regard the I.M.F. as an agent of hardship, if not of doom; and the killjoy dilemmas facing a rapidly shrinking planet have returned from giddy exile. What are we to do about atmospheric warming? When developing countries fail to develop, who or what is at fault? To such time-bomb issues, the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has turned in his new book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization . He believes that “how well we come through the era of globalization will depend on how we respond ethically to the idea that we live in one world.”
Pete Singer is a one-man antidote to the good-time 90’s, a guy who’s been called, in turn, a Nazi, a messenger of death and a disabilities bigot. To refresh everyone’s memory: Mr. Singer started out a backwater Australian academic who believed passionately in the rights of animals. He became a headline-worthy controversialist, and chief enemy of think-tank virtuecrats, by arguing that, under certain conditions, euthanasia and even infanticide can sometimes be morally justified. But forget the cartoon shoot-outs that have accompanied his every university appointment; Mr. Singer’s at his best when he argues that our ethical thinking lags behind the pace of technological change. To cite one typically incendiary example from the Singer files: We have invented gadgets to keep the comatose alive indefinitely; this is ingenious, but in a world of rationed health care, is it really humane?
In One World , Mr. Singer argues that advanced technology and liberalized trade are dissolving national boundaries. We think locally, but inadvertently we’re acting globally. “By spraying deodorant at your armpit in your New York apartment,” he explains, “you could … be contributing to the skin cancer deaths, many years later, of people living in Punta Arenas, Chile.” Meanwhile, the nation-states proceed as if the Treaty of Westphalia had been signed yesterday: Each huddles within its own borders, leaving the earth’s most harrowing problems orphaned. Mr. Singer’s book is intended as a pointed rebuke to the great founding text of contemporary liberalism, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice , which confined its definition of justice to the boundaries of a single society. Now that we live beyond the nation-state, Mr. Singer argues, we must get past Mr. Rawls and agonize the conscience of the well-off with a new question: Do we owe something to a young child growing up in Camden, N.J., that we don’t also owe the more miserable child growing up in sub-Sahara Africa?
Before Mr. Singer turns to this, though, he makes good on the book’s Bonoesque title (echoed in the chapter titles “One Economy,” “One Atmosphere,” “One Law”), and tackles four more immediate issues: atmospheric warming, the World Trade Organization, the possibility of a world court and foreign aid. Mr. Singer succeeds best when he’s most specific: How strong is the scientific consensus on global warming? (Very.) Does the W.T.O. actually resemble the portrait of villainy painted by the army of protesters that now harass its every meeting? (Mostly.) Instead of the usual finger-pointing and vitriol, Mr. Singer sheds light, most particularly on a line the W.T.O. draws between what a product is and how it was produced. This “product/process” distinction, as Mr. Singer labels it, is a bit of self-serving casuistry: It prevents countries from forbidding imported goods based on how they are produced-for example, fur from animals caught in steel-jaw leg-hold traps, or tuna caught in dolphin-snaring nets.
Mr. Singer clicks from point to point with his trademark humorless efficiency; and if he sometimes sounds like Klaatu exiting the spaceship- pitiful humans, I am here to help you -it’s clear that he really is trying to root out the truth. The statistics on how much money C.E.O.’s make vis-à-vis the little guy pale in comparison with the discrepancies between wealthy and poor nations. And the effects of the extractive industries on the Third World have been, by and large, miserable. (Instead of democracy and prosperity, the multinationals have often helped foster chronic poverty and a succession of corrupt military regimes.) With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has been responsible, over a three-decade period, for 30 percent of the cumulative emissions. (Both Western Europe and Japan-hardly Amish outposts-get by without spewing anything like as much.) It’s hard not to agree when Mr. Singer writes, “The fact that 178 nations, including every major industrial nation in the world except the United States, have now indicated their intention to ratify the Kyoto Protocol makes the position of the United States particularly odious from an ethical perspective.”
Much of One World is quite powerful, easy to find sympathy with, and not too much like being stuck next to Sally Struthers at a charity gala. To vexing questions, Peter Singer brings the sensibility of a morally gifted simpleton. As a rhetorical ploy, this can be quite moving. If you do it right, you’re the Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier ; it stands for the absolute refusal to obfuscate or delay in the face of human suffering.
Why does Mr. Singer feel the need to dress up his urgent message as philosophy? For the deep thinkers, from Aquinas to Milton to Dostoyevsky, the presence of suffering in the world has been an occasion for doubt, not certitude. And here is where One World gets into trouble: One minute we’re in the realm of philosophy-which Mr. Singer identifies with totally open inquiry, all received belief and prejudices suspended-the next we’re in the realm of journalistic outrage, in which already-inflamed belief and prejudices are further fanned. When Mr. Singer asks us to think beyond our unreflecting priorities-our commitment to our own family and community-he enlists philosophy as a kind of solvent, breaking down the presumably primitive and outmoded distinctions we make between those close to us and those far away. But once we go down that road, there’s no telling where we’ll stop. Every sympathy may eventually dissolve in the face of unrelenting inquiry. Consider two men whose philosophizing, each in its own way, stripped them of their ordinary humanity: Nietzsche, who concluded the weak deserve nothing; and King Lear, who defended luxury by asking us to “reason not the need: our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous: / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s ….” Mr. Singer likes to invoke Locke and Kant, but there’s only one thing he’s proven regarding that miserable child growing up in the sub-Sahara: Philosophy will not help her.
Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.