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Future global ethics: environmental change, embedded ethics, evolving human identity.

Work on global ethics looks at ethical connections on a global scale. It should link closely to environmental ethics, recognizing that we live in unified social-ecological systems, and to development ethics, attending systematically to the lives and interests of contemporary and future poor, marginal and vulnerable persons and groups within these systems and to the effects on them of forces around the globe. Fulfilling these tasks requires awareness of work outside academic ethics alone, in other disciplines and across disciplines, in public debates and private agendas.

A relevant ethics enterprise must engage in systematic description and understanding of the ethical stances that are expressed or hidden in the work of influential stakeholders and analysts, and seek to influence and participate, indeed embed itself, in the expressed and hidden choice-making involved in designing and conducting scientific research and in policy analysis and preparation; it will contribute in value-critical and interpretive policy analysis. It should explore how the allocation of attention and concern in research and policy depend on perceptions of identity and of degrees of interconnection, and are influenced by the choice or avoidance of humanistic interpretive methodologies. The paper illustrates these themes with reference to the study of climate change.

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Being in the world: Beyond the International Relations framework and disengaged philosophy

In a contribution to the first issue of this journal I argued the necessity, given comprehensive globalization, of moving ‘Beyond the International Relations Framework’ (Gasper 2005). A typical assumed starting point has been ethics as articulated within a nation-state, and the enterprise of global ethics is then seen as argumentation about how far—if at all—the proposed intranational principles still apply across national boundaries. Common classifications of positions in global or world ethics seemed often to assume that:

(i) giving low normative weight to national boundaries correlates strongly with (ii) giving [serious] normative weight to people beyond one’s national boundaries, and vice versa; in other words that these two dimensions in practice reduce to one. [But they do not.

]… We need to…distinguish various types of ‘cosmopolitan’ position, including many varieties of libertarian position which give neither national boundaries nor pan-human obligations much (if any) importance. (Gasper 2005, 5)’

According low ethical status to national boundaries does not automatically bring interest in the lives and rights of people in other countries. I formulated some of the core issues as follows in another paper:

First, how far do we see shared interests between people, thanks to a perception of causal interdependence…. Second, how far do we value other people’s interests, so that appeals to sympathy can be influential due to interconnections in emotion. Third, how far do we see ourselves and others fundamentally as members of a common humanity, or [instead fundamentally] as members of a national or other limited social community (with, for example, an ethnic, religious, ideological, or economic basis of identity), or as pure individuals; in other words what is our primary self-identification, as interconnected or separate beings.

This prior set of perspectives determines our response to proposed reasoning about ethics and justice. (Gasper 2009, 1-2)

The questions are relevant in how global ethics discussions view human agents and in how agents view themselves; thus the ‘we’ in these formulations refers to everyone, not only—even though especially—to global ethicists and policymakers. Everyone ‘does’ (i.e. takes stances in) global ethics. Without significant globalisation of thought in at least one of the three dimensions mentioned above, academic discussions about global ethics will gain little audience or influence, I suggest.

The perceptions, attitudes, and emotions in these areas determine, for example, how much readiness exists to give attention to a proposition like Paul Collier’s that “Because natural assets are not man-made, the rights of ownership are not confined to the present generation…” (Collier 2014, 45). Accepting a custodial role for the benefit of later generations relies on adopting a primary identity of member of a national community (as Collier presumes, rather than argues) or of the human species (which is where his logic of how to fairly share nonmanmade assets may better lead).The answer to each question affects the answers to the others, as indicated in Figure 1. A person’s answer to ‘Who are you?’, for example, is influenced by his/her answers to ‘Who (and what) are you connected to?’ and ‘Who (and what) do you care about?’. Strongly individualist or nationalist self-identifications, for example, are partly associated with ontologies of separateness and with methodologies that direct attention in certain ways (e.g., according to monetized value and/or within national boundaries); and the self-identifications in turn influence what are felt as obligations.Figure 1: Basic life perceptionsMutually reinforcing mental and emotional narrowness in science, policy and daily life;The narrow scope of attention found in most disciplines has been exacerbated in the case of social sciences and social philosophy by their emergence historically within in most cases an implicit nation-state framework (Wallerstein et al., 1996).

Narrow scope of attention and the associated narrow awareness contribute to low concern for fellow humans outside the nation-state ‘nest’. Further, in increasingly ‘market’ (i.e. business) dominated societies, the transference of the principle of discounting the future in the style of a businessman managing his own monetized assets, over to a society’s management of the relations between generations and groups, as if people too are merely monetized assets to be used in a calculus of economic growth, contributes to de facto lack of serious concern for most fellow humans more than a generation or so ahead.The challenges of global environmental change and unsustainability concern climate change most prominently, but far from solely. The ‘planetary boundaries’ that are already exceeded or increasingly threatened involve, besides greenhouse gas concentrations, the nitrogen cycle, (loss of) biodiversity, ocean acidification, and others (Rockström et al. 2009). Climate change itself involves many significant shifts besides global warming.

In a recent paper I examine the patterns and determinants of attention and non-attention in mainstream discussions of climate change, with reference to ‘The warm nest of the nation’, ‘The song of [endless economic] growth’, and ‘Climate silences’. The last phrase refers to the blind spots: the people and risks that are largely ignored (Gasper 2012).Nationalism plus the promise of never-endingly increasing delectation, supposedly reached and objectively adjudged by ever-growing monetized turnover, lead to the blind spots: the silences about people with little or no power in markets, especially such people who live in other countries, and about the risks they face of loss of their—in financial terms, paltry—livelihoods, including during ‘extreme events’, climatic, social and economic. Messianic belief in economic growth as the solution to all problems diverts attention from risks, especially risks for the poor, and from the costs inflicted on some groups and individuals.

Studies which show high aversion to the ‘risk’ of not being precise, and hence exclude unpredictable extreme events from their adjudications, show correspondingly high willingness to accept the allocation of serious risks to marginal groups who are the least able to absorb and recover from them.A now familiar theme in climate change analysis, expressed in terms of countries, is that the rich cause far more damage and are better protected against that damage and against natural events, while the poor cause far less damage yet are far more vulnerable to harm. This theme applies also, and has more moral force, when understood in terms of persons, around the world (Harris 2010).

Some less familiar themes are: that, even so, the rich are less invulnerable than they often think, and are likely to be damaged too if they seek to marginalise rather than acceptably accommodate the poor; and that this is partly because the rich know less than they think they do, and so need to listen carefully to the poor, including to establish a basis for cooperation. Humanistic skills of interpretive analysis are central for this listening, learning and cooperation. We will see that these themes are at home in and can be nurtured by human security analysis.

I have elsewhere essayed comparison of a series of prominent social science studies on climate change, that considers their breadth of attention, awareness and sympathies (Gasper 2010). The comparison asked, first, how fundamental is the challenge of climate change considered to be; second, how profound is the proposed response. In other words, is climate change seen as a routine, though complex, policy challenge, requiring just a routine even if huge response through mobilization and application of existing conventional policy tools, or is it seen as unprecedented, requiring a transformational response? The issues concern continuous dimensions, so to hint at this the studies are allocated in Table 1 across three categories in each dimension rather than just two.

Table 1: Challenge and response – some leading recent climate change policy studiesTable 1: Challenge and response – some leading recent climate change policy studiesWe see a fairly strong tendency to follow the diagonal, showing the correlation we would expect between the depth of the perceived challenge and the depth of the response (whatever may be the direction of causation). There is also though a significant conservative tendency: in several cases we see a response that is less radical than the diagnosis. These are in the cells shaded grey. For example, the sociologist Anthony Giddens in his book The Politics of Climate Change recognises that we face an exceptional challenge, not least because of what he christens ‘Giddens’ paradox’: that because negative effects are long delayed and uncertain in detail we typically don’t do anything about the behaviour that causes them until the effects become manifest, by which time it will be too late.

He calls this also the teenage smoker principle, which rests on our limited ‘telescopic faculty’ and/or limited self-solidarity. For climate change this is a partly misleading analogy: nearly all the negative effects of an individual’s actions concern other people, mainly in future generations, so the problem may lie more in lack of empathy and wider solidarity. Now in 2014, however, climate change appears to have sufficiently advanced and accelerated that it will substantially affect most people already alive, sometimes enormously so, including the present-day children of rich families and in rich countries, not only the physically and temporally distant poor; so the teenage smoker analogy is at least suggestive, here for whole societies.

Yet having identified both some of the dangers and the difficulty of response by normal means, Giddens’ own paradox is that he rejects and even resents many transformational response proposals, such as for a Green revolution in lifestyles. His discussion shows little or no orientation to Southern experience and the hazards endured by ordinary people there. (As one reflection of this, the book’s first edition even misspelt both its references to Darfur, as Dafur; 2009, 205.) He rejects the Precautionary Principle, disliking its conventional oversimple wording and reminding us that we cannot choose by a principle of avoiding risks, for we face risks in whichever direction we move. But the gist of the Principle is that we should assess and balance risks. John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, suggests that: “we’re driving in a car with bad brakes in a fog and heading for a cliff. We know for sure now that the cliff is out there, we just don’t know exactly where it is. Prudence would suggest that we should start putting on the brakes” (quoted by Friedman, 2009, 160).

Indeed, even if we don’t know for certain but do have a well-grounded concern, and will also be safer on the road if we drive slower and will arrive not much later, then precaution is eminently sensible.A third dimension of comparison thus concerns whether the author’s viewpoint is implicitly from a Northern metropolitan centre of power or is more global in perspective, awareness and sympathies. Fourthly, does the study think that we can sufficiently understand climate change issues using mechanical (‘mechanistic’) methodologies – as if trying to understand a complex system of machinery, where definite knowledge of a perhaps large but still knowable limited number of factors and cause-effect links can suffice for definite and secure knowledge of outcomes? Or does the study hold that we also require interpretive methodologies, for understanding not merely non-human systems but socio-ecological systems that incorporate innovative, creative human meaning-makers? Will projections based on estimated routine, calculable predictable actions suffice, or must we try to think also about possibilities that can be contemplated but not calculated, arising out of conceivable conjunctures, new ideas, evolving feelings and shifting identities?Comparison in terms of these last two dimensions leads to a summary contrast between four ideal-typical responses: ‘Northern technocratic’, ‘Northern interpretive’, ‘global technocratic’, and ‘global interpretive’. I have examined for each type of response a prominent exemplar: for ‘Northern technocratic’, the famous ‘Stern Review’ report on the economics of climate change by Nicholas Stern, commissioned by the U.

K. Government (Stern 2007); for ‘Northern interpretive’, the influential tour d’horizon Why We Disagree About Climate Change by Mike Hulme (2009), founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research; for ‘global technocratic’, UNDP’s Human Development Report on climate change (2007); and for ‘global interpretive’, Gwynne Dyer’s overview of narrative scenarios-based work on impacts and responses to climate change (2010). These studies and others are discussed in Gasper (2010, 2012, 2013b) and Gasper et al. (2013a, 2013b). Table 2 clarifies the selection of the four exemplar studies, whose approaches approximate to the four corners of the table.Table 2: Responses to climate change, classified in terms of viewpoint and methodologyMutually reinforcing mental and emotional generosity, in science, policy and daily lifeAttention in global ethics to the contributions, limits and potential strengthening of the human security perspective seems to me a priority area, given its combination of, first, in situ focus on ordinary persons’ lives, livelihoods and perceptions, with second, analysis of how interlinking local and global systems and forces impinge on those lives.

While the term ‘human security’ directs attention both to human individuals and to the human species, Kinhide  Mushakoji’s sister term ‘common human security’ (Mushakoji 2011) usefully underlines the trans-individual focus. The claim that concern with human security is a fearful paternalist intrusion typically serves instead as excuse for indifference and collusion with oppression. One danger though is that the perspective has become identified in international circles with the Japanese state, which has used ‘human security’ as a banner for its global self-projection and too little as a principle also in domestic policy, certainly with respect to immigrants (see several papers in Truong and Gasper 2011). How the perspective is viewed by the current super-power, the USA, and the emergent super-power, China, requires special attention too, given both countries’ sometime self-perception as unique, central, exceptional and superior.More generally, to avoid being a specialist subdiscipline that talks only to itself and remains in an academic cradle, work in global ethics must be adequately connected to practice and should ally with value-critical policy analysis.

The sort of ‘descriptive global ethics’ sketched above, identifying the value stances and the fields of attention of analysts, policymakers, powerful organisations and leaders of thought, amongst other agents, is part of interpretive value-critical policy analysis (Stone 2002; Wagenaar 2011; Yanow 2000). Some of Thomas Pogge’s policy-oriented work illustrates much of this orientation; and the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology has presented similar advice (e.g.

COMEST 2010).Penz, Drydyk and Bose’s study Displacement by Development (2011) is a strong exemplar of several of the types of desirable integration. It raises awareness of the forms of institutionalization of ethics, or neglect of ethics, in the systems that structure routines of policy, planning, business and administration: in training, in professional codes (or their absence), in governance processes, in systems of measurement and recording and in methodologies of planning and reporting, at all levels, local, national and trans-national.

Another exemplar is the ‘embedded philosophy’ described by Nancy Tuana (2013), that unveils the significant value-choices that are lodged unconsciously in the conventions and choices of technical specialisms and governance systems and that may only be unearthed by sustained cooperation between philosophers and technical specialists. Referring to the work over several years of a team of climate change scientists and philosophers doing integrated ethical-scientific analysis to evaluate proposed geo-engineering responses to global warming (summarized in Tuana et al. 2012), Tuana remarks:

…our work has become unbounded and, indeed, undisciplined in the sense of neither trying to bring together different disciplines nor transforming our disciplines, but rather practicing new ways of thinking together that aim at new knowledges, including rendering transparent what has been overlooked by past practices or made unknowable by [disciplinary] practices. (Tuana et al. 2013, p.

1968; emphases in the original).

It is not enough to attempt to add ethics at a final stage, when ‘thinking about the implications’ of scientific findings. That is too late, long after the vital issues of focus have been decided (largely implicitly)—for example whether the impacts on poor people, women and marginal groups will be considered separately or not.

Instead ethics must be involved at all stages, especially in identifying the areas for attention: “ethical assessment often poses scientific questions that are not typically addressed in natural and [even some] social science assessments”, such as “differences in regional impacts; and potential low-probability / highimpact events” (Tuana et al., 2012, 141). Those are exactly the sorts of questions that are addressed in human security analyses, which also—fundamentally—consider differences in the impacts across different social groups.Most of the deaths that can be expected as a result of global warming, through more numerous and more intense extreme weather events, for example, may be of babies, infants and the old amongst the poorest groups in the poorer countries. These deaths are rarely discussed even in the reports of the IPCC, which confines itself to estimates of impact on the value of gross economic product and of “losses in global consumption” (IPCC WGIII AR5, 2014, 17). Disappearance of such persons has little or no impact on global consumption; in money terms they consume almost nothing.The roles of ethics in a globalized, trans-disciplinary world thus include: supporting responsible science, that takes as central to its fields of study the lives of the poor and those most vulnerable, and that supports responsible development (Penz et al.

2011); and, prior to that, clarifying the basic perceptual choices involved, regarding identity, interconnection and affiliation.


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