The Rock Ethics Institute Fellows Seminar met earlier this week to discuss the issue of global responsibility. The readings that provided the basis for the discussion were Iris Marion Young’s “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model”, Andrew Kuper’s “Global Poverty Relief: More than Charity” and Peter Singer’s “Poverty, Facts, and Political Philosophy”. The following summary of the discussion was provided by Cori Wong:

Our conversation on the Peter Singer-Andrew Kuper debate and Iris Marion Young’s presentation of a social connection model of responsibility started with the questions, What are we to do? and Why don’t we act? When all three theorists are trying to address practical ethics and global responsibility, the fact that we (and most others) are not immediately compelled to do significant ameliorative actions is troubling. It was noted that among Singer, Kuper, and Young, there are differing, and at times conflicting, descriptive accounts of global poverty and injustice. More specifically, Singer and Kuper disagree on what sort of actions will actually be helpful and harmful to those who suffer from hunger and poverty. This descriptive discrepancy results in the divergence between their normative claims–Singer says all people who can “afford to” should donate their excess money to aid agencies like Oxfam and Unicef; Kuper says this will do more harm than good, and instead, our focus should shift from individual responsibility to the role of agencies that work for structural changes and support development in other countries. By highlighting this apparent tension in their accounts, it was restated that the fact that so many people do not act on a feeling of responsibility raises, again, the problem of moral motivation. Despite the different emphases on individual responsibility or an alternative notion of responsibility by virtue of one’s involvement in institutional and structural processes that produce inequality and injustice, none of them seemed to be able to convincingly motivate us as readers to do anything in particular. Simply knowing the facts of the matter, reasoning about justice, and then being shown that one has the moral responsibility to act are not enough. 

The following discussion focused largely on the possibility that this lack of moral motivation was rooted to an inadequate conception of other structures that are already in place which dissuade people from donating ten dollars or ten percent of their salaries and which make even thoughtful, green, and fair-trade consumption ethically suspect. In other words, the ethically problematic structures of concern might not only be that sweatshop laborers undergo horrible abuses and that fashionista consumers are implicated in these relationships and processes of exchange, but also that established cultural values and lifestyles are also in need of transformation. Whereas Singer did not seem to give adequate attention to overarching structures in general, the values that undergird practices like following seasonal fashion trends, buying and consuming material goods (even “morally good” goods that are produced in presumably ethical ways), and which support the belief that one has a right to hoard one’s hard earned money and not give it to others who need it are not dramatically challenged in Kuper’s and Young’s call for structural changes. Furthermore, it was noted that the assumption that economic development is the best way to support the flourishing of others seems short-sighted, especially if and when the economic trade structures that are imposed on developing countries are the same structures that led to the growth of (often ethically reprehensible) multi-national corporations. We briefly mentioned that there are also considerations to be made regarding other structural problems, such as the overuse of natural resources and environmental degradation. The group repeatedly returned to the idea that perhaps something like a shift in lifestyle was also in order–the creation of an ethos, the development of a richer notion of the good, the cultivation of a different embodiment of social values to challenge the background assumptions that ground our culture. In such a lifestyle shift, individual actions might be more highly valued, more impactful, and still ethically required. Examples of individual actions that account for unjust structural processes and then try to change them could include the devaluation of material goods, withdrawing from particular elements of the system, and activism and social involvement to further change the systems in question. It was also noted that the social connection model might be helpful for facilitating some of these changes by cultivating a sense of collective responsibility, where external pressures from others might compel more disinclined individuals to act responsibly.
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