Global Ethics: Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest

By Hayes, Sharon | Social Alternatives, Third Quarter 2007 | Go to article overview

Global Ethics: Beyond Enlightened Self-Interest

Hayes, Sharon, Social Alternatives


This article explores why developed nations and their citizens have a moral obligation to assist the disadvantaged in both local and global contexts. Contemporary international relations policies tend to propose action that is based on national self-interest in providing aid and assistance to third world nations. Theorists such as Pogge and Singer have attempted to overcome the self-interest problem by offering cosmopolitan and utilitarian solutions respectively, with Pogge focusing on the concept of universal citizenship and Singer on the global impartiality of our obligations to others. This article suggests that these theorists do not go far enough, and that a much stronger moral impetus needs to be acknowledged, one that recognises the universality of moral agency and our action commitments in respect to that acknowledgement. It engages with current debates concerning the nature and extent of moral obligation within a framework of global ethics, and offers an alternative framework that identifies and focuses on our moral outrage over poverty and global disadvantage as a foundation for developing policies consistent with cosmopolitan values.

It certainly is a strange logic the way we in the western world think about poverty and disadvantage. Living as we do in a relatively wealthy environment, we tend to ignore evidence of poverty in others' lives, both locally and globally. The recent campaign speeches of Labor PM hopeful Kevin Rudd illustrate this observation. With forty percent of Australians living on annual salaries of $40,000 or less, one would think the traditional Labor line would be endorsing policies that boost the living standards of this group of battlers. Yet Rudd's focus is not on the proverbial working class battler; rather, it is the upper middle classes - those on $200,000 household salaries - that Rudd is courting with promises of tax cuts and other benefits. Clearly the battlers aren't going to win the election for Rudd, so he needs to focus upwards towards the professional and entrepreneurial classes if he is to achieve the goal of Prime Ministership. When a household living on an annual income of $200,000 or more is considered to be disadvantaged, to be battling to get ahead, one wonders at the strange logic of the spin doctors in politics. But beyond that, it is the actual $200,000 households themselves who say they are feeling the pinch (Hamilton and Denniss 2005). No longer is a six figure income enough to achieve financial freedom. The six figure battler feels he is doing it tough, what with interest rates going up, not to mention the price of a good bottle of wine. It might be argued that wealth is relative, and that the upper middle class battler is disadvantaged because most of what they earn falls into the 43% tax bracket. But poverty is not relative. By no means can a household earning six figures fall under the umbrella of poverty. So how does the logic work?

It is perhaps an obvious point to say that politicians typically act out of self-interest. Ever since Anthony Downs (1957) argued that the goal of politics is to win (rather than to achieve social and financial goals to benefit society), academia has more or less1 accepted what the average person already knew. Thus, when Rudd advocates for the six figure battler he is acting out of self-interest. Correspondingly, any benefit offered to any sector in society by a political party is founded on self-interest. The political party plays to its supporters, and attempts to increase this support base by appealing to as wide an audience as possible. But while Rudd (indeed, all politicians) focuses on offering those benefits that will achieve the greatest number of votes, the average voter is also acting out of self-interest by voting with their hip pocket. Both the politician and the average citizen also use this logic when thinking about social issues (Hamilton and Denniss 2005).

The 2005 United Nations Human Development Report (HDR) points out that most governments and their citizens tend to think about and react to poverty when it is urgently thrust into the public sphere by the media. …

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