An appeal to logic on national sovereignty

One World: The Ethics of Globalization
By Peter Singer
Yale University Press
New Haven and London

In academic circles, Peter Singer is considered one of the top experts on bioethics. His books on the ethics of the treatment of animals, for example, are best sellers in the scholarly world.

He is also known for his controversial views. His ruminations on euthanasia for severely disabled infants have earned him the enmity of anti-abortion and disabled rights groups. Others laud him for his advocacy of humane treatment for animals.

The Australian-born Singer's reputation as a first-class scholar led Princeton University in 1999 to appoint him to the prestigious DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values.

In his latest book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, Prof. Singer turns his attention to the ethical questions surrounding state sovereignty in an increasingly interdependent world.

His conclusions are not new. Like other thinkers over the last hundred years, Prof. Singer suggests that humanity's long-term prospects, even its very survival, turns on the degree to which men and women begin to see themselves as world citizens and build new institutions of global governance that can effectively respond to the challenges posed by sharing one small planet.

"How well we come through the era of globalization (perhaps whether we come through it at all) will depend on how we respond ethically to the idea that we live in one world," writes Prof. Singer, echoing statements by H. G. Wells, Albert Einstein, various secretaries general of the United Nations, and others.

Partly because of Prof. Singer's credentials as a ethicist, and partly because of the utilitarian approach he brings to his analysis, One World is a noteworthy book, offering fresh perspectives and insights.

Prof. Singer considers four areas in which the ethical challenges of global interdependence seem especially pressing: concern over atmospheric pollution; issues of world trade; the problem of genocide and humanitarian intervention; and the disparity of wealth among the nations. He organizes these under short chapter headings - "one atmosphere," "one economy," "one law," and "one community" - that telegraph his conclusion.

Part of what makes the book fresh is Prof. Singer's use of short imaginary analogies to crystallize the ethical issues facing humanity.

For example, writing about the how nation states might equitably share the burden of reducing greenhouses gases - the main issue in the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change Treaty- he asks the reader to imagine "that we live in a village where everyone puts their wastes down a giant sink."

In his analogy, no one knows what happens to the wastes, but since they disappear without impact, no one worries about it, even though some people put lots more down the sink than others.

But then, he writes, "conditions change, so that the sink's capacity to carry away our wastes is used up to the full." There is unpleasant seepage and a bad smell. "[H]ence our right to unchecked waste disposal becomes questionable. For the sink belongs to us all in common, and by using it without restriction now, we are depriving others of their right to use the sink in the same way..."

In the global village, the atmosphere is equivalent to that sink, he suggests. He goes on to analyze the ways that use of the atmosphere might be justly allocated, concluding that some form of emissions trading is not only moral but pragmatic.

In examining the disparities between rich and poor, he asks whether there is an underlying moral basis for preferring our immediate neighbors to others in a distant land - a chain of argument that leads him to call into question humanity's current assumptions about the importance of nationalism.

He asks, for example, why people in the developed world do not feel compelled to spend more on overseas development assistance. Again, he uses an imaginary analogy to make his point. He describes a man named Bob who has sunk his life savings into a fancy antique Bugatti automobile and is then forced to decide whether to throw a switch that will divert a runaway train away from a playing child onto an unused sidetrack where his car is parked. "Bob decides not to throw the switch," he writes. "The child is killed....

"Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong," he continues. But then he reports that for about $200 a year, the life of one of the millions of poor children in the developing world can be easily saved through immunizations, better nutrition, and so on. So he asks: are not all citizens in the developed world, who could surely sacrifice $200 a year to save at least one child, as morally reprehensible as Bob if they do not make such a contribution and/or support the political will of their governments to do so?

Ultimately, Prof. Singer writes, these and other points suggest that our "problems are now too intertwined to be well resolved in a system consisting of nation-states, in which citizens give their primary, and near exclusive, loyalty to their own nation-state, rather than to the largely global community."

Failure by rich nations to recognize the importance of the wider community is not only "seriously morally wrong" but "a danger to their security," he writes.

He calls for stronger "institutions of global decision-making," perhaps along the lines of a European Union style world legislature. He also he considers the prospects for eliminating the veto power on the UN Security Council and the need for some kind of international force to provide assistance when humanitarian intervention is needed.

While such proposals have been made before, what makes Singer's book significant is his extended discussion of the ethics concerning national sovereignty.

"National sovereignty has no intrinsic moral weight," he writes.

What is needed, Prof. Singer writes, is a new global ethic to replace the outmoded concept of sovereignty. Although clearly a secularist in his outlook, Prof. Singer points to religion as one possible source.

"Some aspects of ethics can fairly be claimed to be universal, or nearly so," he writes, pointing specifically to the Golden Rule as found in most world religions.

He notes, however, that the world's religions have had a hard time agreeing on much, and offers that in the end, "it is our capacity to reason that is the universal solvent."

From a Bahá'í view, there is much to agree with in Prof. Singer's analysis. For nearly 160 years, Bahá'ís have advocated stronger international institutions and, specifically, a united world commonwealth with the power of collective security to keep the peace.

Bahá'ís would suggest, however, that religion is the "universal solvent," and that it can and must become the basis for a new global ethic. Bahá'ís believe religion has been the underlying movitation for average men and women to embrace increasingly wider loyalties, whether in creating unity among tribes, city-states, or within nation-states.

Bahá'u'lláh said the principle of human oneness must be the foundation of a new global ethic aimed at promoting a united and ever-advancing global civilization.

"It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world," wrote Bahá'u'lláh more than a century ago. "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens."

Although much of what Prof. Singer outlines has been said before, One World stands as a significant contribution to the ever-enlarging body of work that acknowledges humanity's essential interdependence. His point of view, as a highly respected secular philosopher, offers yet another perspective on the inevitable emergence of a global civilization.