Singer discusses ethics of globalization

Nov. 11, 2003 11:04 a.m.

The debate about globalization sparked by the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in December 1999 has become "polarized and polemical to a degree that is unhelpful," Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer said Monday, Nov. 10, in a lecture in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall.

Drawing from his book "One World: The Ethics of Globalization," published in 2002, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics discussed the ethical challenges raised by globalization and the need for people on opposite sides of the debate to talk to each other. The event was sponsored by the Princeton Globalism Project .

Singer outlined four aspects of globalization that raise ethical questions: global warming, international law and justice, free trade and international aid.

Comparing Earth's atmosphere to a "sink down which we pour our waste gases," Singer pointed out that over the last 100 years the industrialized nations have produced more pollution than the developing nations. Ethically, this raises the question of whether it is the responsibility of those who caused the problem to fix it. Arguing for the principle of equality, Singer said that "there is no reason why any inhabitant of this planet has more of a right to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than anyone else."

Regarding international law, Singer said more than 90 nations, but not the United States, have signed a treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. "If we believe in international law, we should welcome this," he said. "The existence of such an impartial court could have been useful post-Sept. 11, such as by making it easier to hand over Taliban leaders to be tried." Singer admonished the Bush administration's "blatant denial" of the United Nations in the months leading up to the war in Iraq. "The idea of one nation ruling the rest of the world is not consistent with the ideals of the U.S. Constitution," he said.

About free trade, Singer asked: "Has the era of free trade widened the gap between rich and poor? Yes." However, he said that while this gap has increased over the last two decades, about 20 percent of the poor have in fact become better off, numbers that are particularly evident in China and India. According to Singer, the bottom 10 percent, in countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have made no gains at all. "We don't have enough data, but there's a case to be made that opening up trade has been beneficial for the majority who are poor, excluding the poorest," he said.

In the face of such an inequity of wealth, Singer stated that there is "an individual obligation and a national obligation" to help developing nations. "Globalization makes it possible for us to know more about what is going on in other countries, and it makes it easier for us to assist," he said. "We used to say that charity begins at home. Now I think that has changed."

Contact: Eric Quinones (609) 258-3601