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Common Good and the Crisis of Globalization

This talk was presented by Joel Rosenthal on February 24, 2012, at the University of Utah’s Sixth Annual International Conference on Human Rights, Conflict Resolution, Nonviolence and Peace.

The concept of “common good” is especially appealing because it is consistent with realism. By realism I mean that actors act according to their interests as a matter of both survival and well-being. Human flourishing implies natural tendencies toward self-help as well as care towards those whose lives are bound up with ours.

This idea—the idea that our self-interests are always bound in some way to the interests of others—takes on a new dimension in the age of globalization. As we have discussed in great detail, the “crisis of globalization” means that we live in global systems that are gaining speed and intensity. Our most basic needs—jobs, health, and security—are now fully embedded in global systems that shape our lives.

The language of common good implies that we have common interests. From an ethical perspective, this observation should remind us of Adam Smith’s emphasis on “mutuality.” There is some irony in the fact that Smith is best known for his description of mercantilism and the accumulation of capital in The Wealth of Nations. Many contemporary theorists miss the fact that modern economics was founded as a moral discipline. Economics, according to Smith, was to be a moral science devoted to normative issues, not a dismal science limited to empirical calculation. I would submit that Smith’s most important contribution came in the first paragraph of his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

In this first paragraph we have the father of the discipline that gives us empirical terms like “maximizing utility” and “rational choice modeling” beginning his entire enterprise with the normative idea of “sympathy.”

Chapter 1
Of Sympathy

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive of it in a lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

In plain terms, the first thing we need to understand is that sympathy, empathy, and mutuality are the foundation of human society. We cannot understand our own interests unless we understand the interests of others.

If global problems do indeed require global solutions, does it then follow that global solutions require global institutions?
If we take seriously that global systems have more impact on our lives than ever before, then we also must take seriously that our rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis others must be evolving as well. To use Michael Walzer’s terms, “thick” and “thin” relations are not as self-evident as they once were. Not long ago, we could be content in thinking that the community most relevant to our lives was clearly bounded. Our thick community would be delineated by those with whom we shared history, language, culture, and interacted with on a daily basis. Our thin relationships were straightforward as well—we understood that distant strangers had relatively little bearing on our identity and our sense of responsibility. Today, globalization has not erased these lines; but it has blurred them in serious ways.

In today’s world, it is clear that global systems have created global-level problems that require global-level solutions. Two questions arise from this observation. First, if global problems do indeed require global solutions, does it then follow that global solutions require global institutions? And second, do global solutions—however they are configured—depend on a foundation of a global ethic?

As for global institutions, in my view new institutions may be useful in some circumstances; but I do not believe that they are the only or sometimes even the best answer to the specific problems we are trying to address. In his book Global Civics, Hakan Altinay points out that on occasion, the institutional approach yields good results. We see that creative and innovative new institutions sometimes do make difference. He specifically mentions the Global Fund to Fight AIDS and the Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN), which creates norms and standards for the World Wide Web. These organizations are global in scope, even if they are not international organizations at the level of the UN and its specialized agencies, or a member-state international organization like the World Trade Organization or the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Altinay also mentions a second, non-institutional approach to global governance which he calls “commensurability.” Here the focus is on attaining agreement on standards for global governance, rather than on creating new institutions. We can imagine a variety of issue areas such as finance, climate, migration, or crime where parties would agree to uphold certain standards within their jurisdiction, thereby addressing an issue of global magnitude by synchronizing their response with others.

Both institutionalism and commensurability point us inexorably toward the question of global ethics. That is, can we and do we find common values upon which to address our common interests? Altinay and others suggest that we do; and for him, global civics is the process by which we discuss and decide our rights and responsibilities in this new world in which we find ourselves. Traditional civics affords us the opportunity to determine the rights and responsibilities arising out of the social contract in a nation-state. Global civics does the same in a larger context.

In a recent lecture at the Carnegie Council, Michael Ignatieff launched the Council’s Centennial theme of “Re-Imagining the Global Ethic” with the following:

I really want to start by asking the simplest question of all, which is, should we be speaking of a global ethic, in the singular, or global ethics, in the plural? Why not start with the most obvious question of all?

I start by saying that a global ethic, in the singular—a perspective that takes all human beings and their habitat as its subject—does exist. It’s doing very well and it’s flourishing in academic philosophy departments around the world.

Its function is to lay bare the ethical presuppositions that underlie injustice and inequality in a globalized world. It’s a critical tool. Its purpose is political: to expose what is unfair and unjust in our world, and expose that from an ideal vantage point, and then to devise the ideal distributions of resources and responsibilities that would make our world fairer. That seems like a very good idea to me.
However, as a realist and a pluralist, Ignatieff warns against a simple, singular approach to the global ethic as a form of global justice.

One of the chimeras or illusions . . . to focus on when we think about a global ethic is the risk of our seeing the global ethic as a non-contradictory set of goods. I just don’t think a global ethic can possibly be a non-contradictory set of goods, because . . . I think there’s a substantial conflict between democracy and justice, between the self-determination of communities and what we owe abstractly in terms of justice to individuals.
So if a global ethic cannot be non-self-contradictory, what is it good for? What can we use it for? Here, I would say that it’s an ethical perspective that allows us to get up above the view from somewhere [in particular]—it gives us an ideal perspective—and it becomes, not a doctrine, but a site of argument.

An ethical perspective allows us to rise above the “view from somewhere.” It becomes not a doctrine but a site of argument.
Ignatieff, like Altinay, sees the common good as something that must be forged out of global debate over sometimes converging and sometimes diverging values and interests. Convergence cannot be assumed as a given. While we may be able to point to universal agreements on certain rights, implementation of those rights is often controversial. As Ignatieff and Altinay remind us, we need a process of encounter between universal claims and particular circumstances. There is no one size to fit all.

As the process of globalization continues to gain strength, there is growing debate over the relationship between the national and the global. Dani Rodrik makes an important contribution to this debate by reminding us, like Ignatieff, that hyper-globalization and democracy are not always compatible. He suggests that the best way to manage the inevitable tension between universal principles and realities on the ground is to create “a thin layer of international rules that leave substantial room for maneuver by national governments.” This is a sort of global governance with a light touch.

In the forthcoming issue of the Carnegie Council’s journal Ethics & International Affairs, David Rodin echoes this point. He argues that global issues require coordinated action at the international, regional, national, and, indeed, individual level. Using the example of climate change, he explains that “ancillary action will be required by numerous actors who are not themselves parties to international agreements and whose responsibilities cannot be fully specified there. These actors will include regional groupings of states, municipal and local authorities, civil society groups, and individuals. Unless action is taken across all these domains, the problem of global warming is likely to be unresolved.”

Therefore, according to Rodin, an issue like climate change “must be addressed through differing combinations of the global and the local. The point of global ethics is not that the management of global issues should always be pushed upward to global mechanisms. The point is rather that identifying the right balance between global and local responsibilities is itself a key function of global ethics.”

Rodin’s and Rodrik’s remarks flag my concern that the global justice agenda, if not properly contextualized as a political force, will become marginalized as a utopian ideology. Many of you will remember Michael Ignatieff’s essay of 10 years ago titled “Human Rights as Idolatry.” It is not hard to imagine a follow-up along these lines today called “Global Justice as Idolatry.” In brief, we have to be careful in prescribing the common good to others. Because there are multiple views of the good life, in my view we are better off thinking about moral minimums than moral maximums. And when it comes deciding on what we should insist upon as the basic common good, this notion has to be worked out by the actors themselves based on what can be achieved on the ground. It will be of no use to invoke transcendental arguments based on religious faith or even secular notions of the sacred. In fact, arguments of this type are likely to be counter-productive.

I think it is important to confront the idea of utopianism—and I hope we can do so in this session. Samuel Moyn’s new book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History frames the issue for us. Moyn reminds us of the problematic aspects of the universalism of human rights. The contemporary human rights movement, says Moyn, is in danger of becoming what he calls “a recipe for the displacement of politics, forcing aspirations for change to present themselves as less controversial than they really are.” Human rights, in other words, is becoming a universal language that masks and encapsulates a particular ideology. We need to be honest about this.

David Rodin: Identifying the right balance between global and local responsibilities is itself a key function of global ethics.
Citing Henry Steiner, Moyn mentions the two missions that the human rights movement has been “apt to confuse.” The first is human rights as catastrophe prevention. The second is human rights as utopian politics. By utopian politics he means the fulfillment of the full range of positive rights as mentioned in various declarations and manifestos. Moyn argues that today, these goals—”preventing catastrophe through minimalist ethical norms and building utopia through maximalist political vision—are absolutely different. One [catastrophe prevention] remains consistent with the moralized breakthrough of human rights in the first place; the other [pursuing a political vision] follows from aspirations human rights have incorporated since then, aspirations that are emphatically visionary but also necessarily divisive.”

Moyn comes out on the minimalist side. He refers to the need to “make room for the contest of genuinely political visions for the future,” and to acknowledge that humanity is “still confused and divided about how to bring about individual and collective freedom in a deeply unjust world.” Even if you disagree with his conclusion, Moyn’s work is very helpful in encouraging deep reflection on the ideology and assumptions contained within the modern human rights movement. The relationship of that movement to the growing community of scholars and activists in the global justice field bears some consideration as well.

With this challenge in mind, I think of global justice and the common good along the lines of what Jay Winter calls “minor utopias.” In his book Dreams of Peace and Freedom: Utopian Moments in the 20th Century, Winter writes of “minor utopias” or “moments of possibility” when new ideas moved from the margin to the center of public life, each suggesting a better future on a global scale. Examples include 1919 when self-determination came into its own; 1948 when human rights became a recognized international moral norm; 1968 when the idea of liberation launched student movements around the world; and 1992 when the concept of global citizenship gained notoriety in a variety of international forums. Each moment of possibility introduced a new principle to be reckoned with. Each changed the way the world was understood.

Winter distinguishes these moments of minor utopia from major utopia. Major utopias are singular in nature, they have blueprints, they imagine an end state that is directed and managed by a central authority. The 20th century saw its share of major utopia projects—Hitler, Stalin, Mao. Each had a project of state-centered social engineering which turned into a nightmare. Minor utopias are different in intent, scale, and process. Minor utopias suggest a direction not an end state; they do not suggest ultimate answers or an end to social conflicts over first principles.

I would suggest that the establishment of the common good in the 21st century will depend on forging common interests around issues of global concern. The approach is likely to be most successful if it is functional, based on needs and possibilities for cooperative, non-zero outcomes (always keeping in mind that interests are becoming increasingly intertwined, and that our interests are bound up with the interests of others). In those areas where it is not possible to agree on what is good, perhaps we can at least try to forge agreement on what is bad, and what is to be avoided.

Universal aspirations for freedom and dignity are having a new moment right now. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements around the world, there is a global sense that accountability matters, and social justice remains a potent political force. As we remember the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War and close in on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI, there is good reason to believe that the quest for the common good can be pursued more peacefully and with less violence than in the past. But of course, there are no guarantees. This much is up to us.

This article was originally published on the PolicyInnovations: For a Fairer Globalization site, a publication of the Carnegie Council. It is being shared here under the following terms of its Creative Commons license