This book is an exercise in philosophical midwifery intended to assist the birth struggle of such new men.
This book is an exercise in philosophical midwifery intended to assist the birth struggle of such new men.
The Meaning of Tikkun OlamThe Hebrew words transliterated as "tikkun olam,"which mean to heal (or repair) the world, have become something of a buzzword in progressive Jewish thought in recent years. They have come to signify virtually any good deed or action that one thinks might be beneficial to the world in some way.
But this broad meaning, empty of specific moral and religious content, is troublesome because it does not adequately capture the historic meaning and origins of the term in Jewish thought. Rabbi Jill Jacobs has attempted to remedy this problem by proposing that the deeper meaning of this term weaves together four distinct historical strands of meaning. (Jacobs, Jill. "The History Of "Tikkun Olam"." Zeek, June 2007).
The first strand refers to the mystical idea from the Kabbalah of removing impurities from the world that impede the full manifestation of divine presence; the second implies the establishment of a sustainable physical world; the third argues for reforming untenable laws and structures of power that produce social injustices and oppressions, and the fourth draws on the Lurianic belief that a individual’s actions can affect the fate of the cosmos.
Drawing on these four strands of meaning, Jacobs proposes that “tikkun olam” means the process of fixing large social and environmental problems through the belief that our individual actions can have a positive effect on the material and the spiritual worlds. Large social problems that affect humanity include problems such as poverty, discrimination, social injustice, human rights abuses, and disease. The large environmental problems of the present time include those that affect the well-being of the physical world and that of other living things, such as global warming, deforestation, species extinction, depletion of natural resources, destruction of wilderness, and so on. The idea that ties these two together is the idea that human actions can affect these large scale issues in a positive way, and that by acting in this way, human beings can act so as to repair the world, even if the things they do are only a “small fix” to a much larger problem. By applying human thought, imagination, and caring to the world, we act as "co-creators" of the world. The idea of repairing the world reminds us of our shared social and environmental responsibilities. Tikkun olam signifies a universal moral responsibility borne by all moral agents to cooperate in sustaining and repairing the social and physical environments we all occupy.
Population Growth – The human population of Earth is expected to reach approximately 10 billion by the middle of the century despite efforts to control and reduce the fertility rates. Almost all of the additional population growth will occur in less developed countries (LDCs), those least able to afford the burden of additional people to feed, clothe, house, and employ. The growth of the human population will place additional strains on natural and other resources that are already becoming critically depleted. In addition, population growth is an important factor in reinforcing other problems, for instance, rapid unplanned urbanization, the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and rising levels of internal and international migrations of people seeking better standards of living.
Chronic Poverty – While the one and a half billion people living in the world’s rich countries generally have fairly commodious lifestyles, collectively they consume more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources, while the other three-quarters of the Earth’s human population, mostly those living in LDCs, barely scrape by with the bare essentials of life, and half of all human beings live on less than $2 a day. Some of the consequences associated with this endemic poverty are that: 850 million adults remain illiterate. 2.7 billion people lack adequate basic sanitation. 1.3 billion do not have clean water for drinking and cooking. More than 1 billion live in extreme poverty barely subsisting on the equivalent of less than $1 a day. Almost all of these are malnourished and lack adequate housing.
Depleted Natural Resources – Fresh water is becoming scarce in many parts of the globe, and this trend is likely to continue if nothing is done to stabilize the atmosphere. Soil needed for growing crops is being eroded by run-off and development, or depleted by over-farming. Oceanic fisheries have been decimated and in some cases have collapsed. Rangeland is being overgrazed. Desertification is accelerating in many regions of the world that were formerly able to support human and other species. Deforestation for land and fuel is continuing and is eroding the Earth’s atmosphere’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas.
Global Climate Change – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the end of the twenty-first century the Earth’s average temperature will rise by as much as 10 degrees F due to global warming, largely produced by the burning of fossil fuels such as gas, oil, and coal. The Arctic ice cap, and Greenland’s ice sheet are melting as are glaciers world-wide. This global increase in temperatures in predicted to cause changes in global weather patterns, increases in droughts and floods, violent storms, and sea-level rise.
Environmental Pollution - Nitrogen run-offs from crop fertilizers have altered the chemistry of rivers and streams. Dumping of human waste and the build-up of persistent toxic compounds has further damaged water quality. Atmospheric ozone is still being depleted despite measures undertaken to slow the process. Nuclear and other persistent toxic wastes make large quantities of land and water unusable for human needs. Burning of fossil fuels, such a coal, and the products of internal combustion engines create unhealthy atmospheric pollution in some cities, such as Bangkok, Beijing, and Mexico City.
Loss of Biodiversity – Due to deforestation, desertification, air and water pollution, and global climate change millions of species are at risk of extinction. There is an accelerating loss of habitat for wild species leading to a loss of biodiversity. Wetlands and coral reefs are threatened by development and pollution. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of bio-invasions of alien species into already weakened ecosystems, further disrupting these systems ability to avoid collapse.
Nuclear proliferation – Despite the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia continue to maintain massive nuclear arsenals which are capable of destroying the Earth many times over. Attempts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and other lethal technologies of mass destruction, have proven largely ineffective as more states have joined the nuclear club or appear to have plans to do so. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, much of US security policy has been premised on the presumed importance of preventing “rogue states” and terrorist organizations from acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.
People who study these issues understand that these twin social and environmental crises of the twenty-first century are interlinked in various ways. We know, for instance, that the extreme poverty that afflicts roughly one third of humanity is one of the causes of environmental destruction of forest lands, endangered species, and fisheries, and is a major driver of the migration of millions of poor people from rural villages to urban slums. We also understand that the high-consumption life-styles of the roughly one billion people who live in the rich world are also contributing to the global environmental crisis. For instance, by continuing the profligate burning of fossil fuels we are adding to the burden of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere, which if left unchecked, will produce a global rise in the sea level which will inundate many coastal and low-lying areas. If we switch from gasoline to biofuels like ethanol that is made from crops like corn or soybeans, we drive up the price of food which hurts poor people, and indirectly promote deforestation by means of the economic incentive to convert rainforest into cropland, and will produce a net increase in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.
While we want to promote economic development that will lift people out of poverty we realize that it cannot follow the same pattern as was followed the Western economies developed during the last two centuries. Billions more people emulating our Western high-consumption lifestyles would imposed additional burdens would on the Earth’s resources and environment would be too great to bear.
There is a sense that human civilization has reached a critical inflection point in its history at which the traditional ways in which we think and act have to change in fundamental ways. But it seems that our current political institutions are just not up to the task of tackling these sorts of problems in an effective and timely fashion. While academic theorizing and campaigning by social activists and nongovernmental organizations have succeeded in keeping these issues on the radar screen of social awareness, and some progress is being made in addressing some of these problems, these efforts have not yet succeeded in bringing about progressive change on the scale that is required.
The gap between what we need to do in the twenty-first century to solve these global problems and our effective capacity to solve them through the mechanisms provided by our existing national and international institutions is called “the global governance gap”. Whether one blames the governance gap it on “short-term” thinking, the parochialism of our current political institutions, ideological blindness, cultural warfare, or other factors, the bottom line is that our current methods for solving global problems are too slow and largely ineffective. As former World Bank official J. F. Rischard puts it: “Quite simply, the current setup for solving global problems doesn’t work. We need a better one and fast” (2002, 60).
These global threats are not the only ones that we face, but they form an important subset because they represent kinds of threats that differ in significant ways from traditional threats.
Traditional threats are ones that can be identified with the action or behavior of particular human agents, are local, are immediate or imminent, and are relatively simple to understand and respond to. For instance, common crimes are examples of standard threats. Threats of these kind cause harm through the deliberate actions of identifiable individual agents, and do so in an immediate and obvious fashion. One generally deals with these kinds of threats by attempting to deter them and by restraining or incapacitating the human agents that produce them. There are also various kinds of standard threats that do not arise from the actions of human agents, for instance, infectious diseases, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and so forth. These have sometimes been termed “natural evils,” and we have been living with them for all of our history as a species. In recent centuries we have been able to devise some effective technologies for containing and controlling these natural threats to human well-being, for instance, in the fields of public health and hygiene and medicine, but preventing many natural threats, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, remains largely beyond our control.
But the global threats we now face have distinctive qualitative and quantitative features that distinguish them from standard threats and also make them particularly difficult to solve.
First, they are global in their scope and potentially affect the well-being of every single person and indeed all living things on the planet. This feature concerns the scope of the problem and also by implication the scale of the changes that need to take place to solve it. Local problems can have local solutions, but global problems require global solutions and our current institutions for global governance are too weak to deal with them.
Second, rather than arising from a specific determinate cause or small set of causes, the etiologies of these global threats are complex and their causes are diffuse. In most cases, the problems mentioned arise as the result of the aggregated behavior of large numbers of independent actors, individual human beings, individual corporations, or individual states. The individual actions that produce the unwanted consequences, e.g. driving ones car to work, producing electricity by means of burning coal, or converting rainforests into grazing land, may not by themselves be very harmful, but when aggregated in massive numbers, they can produce catastrophic consequences that threaten the well-being of the planet and its living inhabitants.
Third, because the harms and risks produced by these threat are the result of aggregated individual actions, the agents who are responsible for causing them cannot (in most cases) be said to have acted with malice of forethought or with the intention to do harm to others. Global threats are unintentional and no one is in particular to blame for having caused them. Because they result from the aggregation of large number of actions it may be pointless to attempt to assign responsibility in the sense of blame or liability for many of them.
Fourth, unlike traditional agent-centered threats, these global threats are slow rather than fast; the costs and harms that results are deferred into the future, and the harms they produce are merely probable rather than immediately discernable in their effects on particular persons.
Fifth, the global threats humankind is currently facing are complex and dynamic. There are complex interdependencies and causal loops connecting the various problems we are facing: for instance, population growth leads to greater demands for resources such as land and water, which produces more pressure to cut down forests, which in turn accelerates soil erosion and water pollution and exacerbates the problem of global warming. One cannot hope to understand these sorts of problem using linear causal reasoning. Their complexity, interactivity, and dynamism require that we adopt a systems theoretic approach to understanding and dealing with these kinds of threats.
The sixth important feature of global threats is they are to one degree or another the result of the human use of modern technology. Many of these problems have arisen in part because of new powers given to us by technological progress, powers which we have not learned to use wisely and responsibly. Part of the problem is that technology has been allowed to assume control of human affairs such that its widespread use has produced unexpected and unpleasant consequences. While there is a temptation to blame our current problems on science and technology, ridding ourselves of modern technologies and returning to some pristine state of nature is not the solution to our problems. If our use of technology is part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution. The problem is not in our having technological power, but in our inability to use it responsibly.
The seventh feature of these threats is that their existence indicates that we are running up against the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity for a human population, which is currently at about 6.6 billion and is expected to rise to between 10 and 11 billion by mid-century. The patterns of economic development that powered the Industrial Revolution and which produced many of these threats are clearly unsustainable. In the past when human groups despoiled their environments they could usually simply move on to another place. But there are no more places left to move -- the Earth is now fully occupied. While some people continue to dream of space colonies as the last frontier for human exploration, those of us in the reality-based community have understood that the Earth, with its finite resources, is our only home in the Cosmos and we human beings finally have to learn to take responsibility for protecting it and preserving it.
If this narrative resonates at all with you, then the obvious question that presents itself is: “What am I to do?” Perhaps as individuals we accept some responsibility for addressing these twin social and environmental crises of the twenty-first century. Maybe we ride our bikes to work rather drive our cars; maybe we decide to become vegetarians, plant gardens in our back yards, or buy only locally grown organic foods and shop for fair-traded or fairly made goods. Maybe we donate money to various charities and nongovernmental organizations that work in the fields of human rights, humanitarian relief, development, or to environmental organizations working to prevent the destruction of the rainforest, protect endangered species, preserve the wilderness, and so forth. We may do these things partly out of a sense of guilt (because we have so much while so many others have so little), or perhaps out of a sense of gratitude (also because we have so much while so many others have so little).
But some of us do these kinds of things because we believe that it is our social responsibility to do so. Those of us who think in this way choose to “take responsibility” for solving some of these big problems, for repairing the world, even though we do so with the knowledge that the little bit we can do in our own lives, with our own homes and families, and in the institutions and organizations in which we work, is really insignificant and will hardly make a dent on the enormous challenges human civilization is facing. Yet we do these things anyway, not because (in most cases) the law tells us that we must do them, but because our reason and our consciences tell us that we ought to.
Those of us who work in these kinds of organizations fire up our computers every morning and hunt and gather information that we think might be useful in finding solutions to these problems, and put those gems we have gathered into articles, reports, and books, hoping that someone will read them who can make a difference. We fly in jet planes around the planet to meetings and conferences trading memes with other people who share our sense of social responsibility in the belief that if we gather enough committed, like-minded people, we can create a broad-based global social movement, and through it the major institutions of society, government and business, may reach a tipping point from which real change can begin.
But in the back of our minds, perhaps, is the doubt that any of this activity is really making a difference. We may have good intentions, and go to bed each night with a clear conscience that assures us that we are doing our part to address these global problems, but we worry that all that we are doing may turn out to be too little too late.
Many thoughtful people have a sense of helplessness and powerlessness when thinking about these kinds of problems. In large measure this reaction is due not only to the enormity of the problems which we face, but to the nature of these problems. There are basically two ways in which people react to these threats. One group sees in this a portent of doom about which they can do nothing, and so they decide to retreat into individualist ego satisfactions, a comfortable life for themselves and their dear ones, but not much involvement in the problems of society, since, they rationalize, such activity is a waste of time. Another group of people come to the conclusion that this retreat from public issues into the satisfactions of private life is part of the problem, and that society can no longer afford not to be oriented towards the collective, long term interests of humanity. They suggest that in order to preserve the world we all share, we must also attempt build into our political and economic systems a concern for the common interests of humanity, for future generations, and for other living things.
Given their urgency, seriousness, and complexity, these global threats are of concern to many people working in diverse disciplines who are actively studying these problems from a variety of different theoretical and practical perspectives. Engineers, economists, ecologists, atmospheric scientists, hydrologists, oceanographers, urban planners, sociologists, political scientists, policy makers, and many other specific scientific specialties can provide useful information and perspectives, and perhaps solutions, to these problems. Human rights activists, environmental campaigners, humanitarian workers, and many others are actively campaigning to find and implement practical solutions to these kinds of problems. And many well-informed individuals are taking steps in their own lives to respond to these kinds of global problems.
Being a philosopher, the kinds of questions that I ask about this constellation of problems and issues concerns the ethical framework we should use when attempting to address and solve them. What should be our ethical response to these kinds of global threats? How do threats of these kinds affect our moral values and the moral norms we live by? Do these kinds of threats raise questions and problems that cannot be adequately handled by our traditional ethics, or are they amenable to being understood and appropriately responded to within the framework of conventional ethical theory? In short, what kind of ethical framework is needed in order to address and solve these kinds of global problems? By providing answers to these kinds of questions perhaps moral philosophers can also make a contribution towards solving them.
Our present, conventional ethical ideas and values are largely incapable of dealing with the kinds of global threats we are facing. Global threats represent moral challenges of a kind that we have not experienced before in human history and they require an innovative ethical response. Indeed, dealing with these threats will require a revaluing of our values, a rethinking and reinventing of our ethical frameworks. I will argue that we need to have a new understanding of some basic assumptions we make about human rights and social responsibilities, and about the nature and scope of the moral community, if we are to develop an ethical framework that will enable us to more effectively address and solve the problems that humanity is facing. In short, I will argue that we need to develop a global ethics. This book explores the possibility of constructing a global ethics based on the concepts of human rights and social responsibilities.
A global ethics can be understood in contrast to conventional ethics. Within our conventional ethical framework most people regard themselves as having certain rights and responsibilities. Conventionally speaking, there are individual rights which persons can claim against other members of their own societies and which their own governments are supposed to enforce and protect. Additionally according to the conventional ethics most people accept, individual competent moral agents also have moral responsibilities to take care of themselves, to care for their families and loved ones, and to respect the civil rights of their co-nationals. But one’s moral responsibilities are generally thought to stop at national borders. On the conventional moral view, worrying about protecting the rights and well-being of people in other countries is their job, not ours.
Moreover, under conventional ethics we do not really have any serious moral responsibilities towards non-human life forms, e.g., animals, insects, plants, microorganisms, and to the complex ecosystems that support them. The non-human parts of the biological world are just not considered to be proper objects of moral concern and do not have any more moral standing than mere things.
Finally, under our conventional moral outlook, most people think we have significant moral responsibilities to care for our own children while they are young, and see to it that they grow up to become competent and responsible adults. Perhaps we also acknowledge a moral duty to ensure that our children and grandchildren will enjoy at least as good lives as we have had. But few people think that our moral responsibilities extend much further than the next one or two generations.
These ethical assumptions are, I believe, no longer viable in the global age we have now entered -- the Anthropocene Era.
The term 'Anthropocene' was coined by geologists Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000. According to their reckoning the Anthropocene era began in the late 18th century, because “during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several 'greenhouse gases", in particular C02 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt's invention of the steam engine in 1784” (2000, 17-18).[i] William Ruddiman has argued that human beings became the dominate influence on the earth's atmosphere long before the Industrial Revolution. According to his reckoning, the Anthropocene began with the Agricultural Revolution approximately 10,000 years ago when humans began clearing land for agriculture and causing deforestation. It is also the first time at which humans began domesticating wild grains and animal species, and breeding these species so as to select variants that better fit human needs.
While hominids have been evolving for millions of years, modern human beings like us, that is, homo sapiens (wise humans), have only been around for about 200,000 years. During most of our evolutionary history we lived as hunter-gatherers in small nomadic clans, and we had little impact on the ecology of the Earth. But due to our talent for technological innovation we have moved rapidly from the Stone Age to the Neolithic era (New Stone Age, circa 8500 BC) in which farming began in the Levant, to the use of metal tools in Copper, Bronze and Iron ages, and then in the 1750s onto the Industrial Revolution. While humans have been altering their natural environment in significant ways for about 10,000 years through farming and the domestication of wild plants and animals, only in the last several centuries has the scale and scope of our activities begun to pose a threat to our survival as a species.
In the twentieth century we acquired the capacity to destroy the Earth many times over with our nuclear weapons; with the advent of genetic engineering we have now learned how to alter life itself at the genetic level; and our current fossil-fuel dependent modes of industry and commerce are disrupting the atmosphere by pumping greenhouse gases into at an ever-increasing rate, risking major climate disruption.
In each of the earlier periods in which technological changes have made it possible for humans to alter their environments human cultures have adapted their ethics to the new kinds of social realities that their increasingly technological modes of living created. It was Karl Marx who proposed the general thesis that the technological base of society embodied in its dominant modes of production determines its cultural superstructure, including its dominant ethical outlook: “The handmill gives you society with feudal lords; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist;” and Peter Singer has suggested adding, “The jet plane, the telephone, and the Internet give you a global society with the transnational corporation and the World Economic Forum” (Singer 2002, 10).
In the Anthropocene epoch the technologies of globalization are creating new kinds of social relations and new kinds of interdependence among peoples, and also new kinds of global threats. Consequently, we must revise our ethics in order to adapt them to the conditions of a planetary civilization in which human action is the most significant force in shaping the future of the Earth.
Philosophers have long believed that ethics, the theories we have of moral goodness, duty, rightness, and virtue, cannot be directly derived from any set facts about human nature. To attempt to derive moral judgments directly on facts concerning natural human characteristics and dispositions is to commit the "naturalistic fallacy." However, in recent years there has also been a recognition that ethical theories should be developed in some sense empirically, within the context of our best current biological, anthropological, sociological, and psychological theories. In ethics we must alter our received ethical theories in order to better take account of our characteristics as natural and as social beings.
Traditional ethics has tended to abstract from the historical conditions of human existence, and has tried to frame theories which apply to all "rational beings." In doing so moral philosophers have sacrificed specificity to the existing human condition. We have failed, by and large, to take into account features of morality which vary according to the stages of the life cycle and have made exceptions of children, the sick, the mentally incapable, and the elderly. Through this abstraction we have made it appear that human beings pop into the world fully capable with a functional capacity for rational decision‑making and fully in command of their faculties and behavior. We have ignored the obvious fact that human beings come into the world in a state of utter dependency and vulnerability, that they attain maturity embedded within a network of interpersonal relationships involving parents, families, friends, teachers, and significant others, and that these relationship condition our existence as moral agents in fundamental ways.
We have also ignored the fact that human beings are related by history to their distant ancestors and to their future progeny, by commonalities of development within their communities and cultures, and that these networks of social relationships must be taken into account in our ethics. Above all, traditional ethics has been anthropocentric: we have regarded humans as separate from nature, and as the only parts of nature which have moral value and moral standing, and so have treated other species of living beings, as mere "things." While a preference for our own kind is perhaps predictable and in some sense natural for us, it cannot be defended on these grounds.
This book is an attempt to correct for these biases of traditional ethical theory. A naturalized ethics is one that takes seriously the idea that humans are natural biological beings who bear special moral relationships to other persons and to other members of the biological world. My approach to global ethics is also secular and nonconsequentialist but draws elements from various other ethical traditions.
I am not particularly interested in arguing against some other approaches that have attempted to develop a global ethics by reinterpreting traditional religious doctrines or applying utilitarian theory. My approach to global ethics is pluralistic, but draws heavily on the work of philosophers such as Hans Jonas (1984) The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Robert E. Goodin (1985). Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; and Virginia Held (2006). The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, Global. New York: Oxford University Press, each of whom have developed ethical theories based on the conceptions of responsibility, vulnerability, and care, notions that I believe are particularly well-suited to addressing the global problems we are facing.
My approach to developing a global ethics also builds upon the existence of the contemporary human rights paradigm, which is, in my view, the closest thing we currently have to the kind of global ethics that I envision. Both the responsibility-based approach and the rights-based approaches to ethical theory are going to be needed in order to construct a comprehensive global ethics, and my specific object here is to integrate them by means of an unorthodox theory of human rights that derives them from social responsibilities.
[i] (See William F. Ruddiman. (2007) Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. My own preference would be to place the beginning of the Anthropocene Era around 1968 when the Apollo 8 spacecraft sent back the now iconic image of the Earth rising above the surface of the moon. This date is also close to the first time a human being set foot on the moon, July 20, 1969, and the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970. I prefer this date because it marks the beginning of "conscious evolution" -- the point at which humans realized that we are responsible for the future evolution of life on Earth.
Conventional accounts of human rights tend to view them as “natural” or “God-given”, and see them as providing the grounds for responsibilities, mainly responsibilities borne by states. On my theory, social responsibilities that we owe towards other members of the human moral community to protect the vulnerable provide the grounds for creating rights. Persons have rights because they are valuable, and vulnerable, and other members of the moral community have the capacity and power to affect their vital interests for good or for ill. Human rights, on this view, are moral constructs which are designed to protect persons from the most commons forms of systematic or institutionalized oppression. While the primary responsibilities for observing and protecting human rights are ascribed to governments, states are only one among several kinds of institutions to which we ascribe the responsibility for observing, protecting, and fulfilling human rights. The shared social responsibility to protect the vulnerable among us is the basis for the moral obligation to oppose and prevent oppression and hence for the construction of human rights norms and their associated implementing institutions.
This inversion of the conventional view of the relationship between rights and responsibilities clears the way for subsuming the ethics of human rights within a more comprehensive ethics of social responsibility which extends the vulnerability/care principle to other kinds of moral relationships, in particular, to non-human species and the environments they depend upon, and to future generations of human beings, relationships that are not currently adequately addressed by the human rights framework. The ethical framework that results places moral responsibilities in the foreground without diminishing the importance of human rights. But it also leads away from our present anthropocentric understanding of the moral community and towards a conception of a global moral community that encompasses nonhuman nature and future generations.
Global ethics involves a radical extension of the boundaries of the moral community assumed by our conventional ethics. This expansion of the boundaries of the moral community entails a radical extension of our social responsibilities into three dimensions. First, we need a cosmopolitan ethics that describes the moral relations among human individuals (persons) who belong to different particular political communities, that is, people of different, ethnicities, nationalities, and citizenships. In a cosmopolitan ethical framework one regards all living persons as citizens of the same country and as members of a single extended moral community in which all of us have certain moral rights and also certain social responsibilities which we owe to others members of this extended moral community. The ethos of international solidarity is already part of the ethics of human rights and it is not very controversial because of the progress of the global human rights movement in the last sixty years. I will argue that we possess significant moral responsibilities towards our fellow human beings who have the same moral status as we do within this cosmopolitan moral community, and that the scope of these moral responsibilities is wider and the responsibilities they entail are stronger than we generally think.
The particular version of a global ethics developed here is thus highly inflationary in terms of our moral responsibilities. I argue that we adult human beings living at the dawn of the Third Millennium and (those who come after us) will have to accept moral responsibilities to other members of the global moral community that we rarely even acknowledge as having and even more rarely effectively fulfill. In particular, as members of a global moral community, nation states, corporations and other organizations, as well as individuals, have non-optional, and non-voluntary moral responsibilities to observe, promote, and protect the enjoyment of internationally recognized human rights for all living persons. A primary message of this book is that we must now acknowledge and accept these responsibilities and devise more effective global institutions as the means for implementing and discharging them.
In order to do this we must analyze the implicit division of moral labor assumed by our conventional ethics, and construct a new one based up an ethics of global social responsibility. Doing this requires that we revise our traditional interactional and personal view of moral responsibility in which individual persons are thought to be personally responsible for shouldering the burdens of solving the big problems of the world, and take an “institutional turn” under which our primary responsibility as individuals is to support the creation of new kinds of political, economic and social governance institutions at the local, national, and global level, that will more effectively fulfill these shared collective responsibilities on our behalves. Governments, transnational corporations and other business enterprises, and nongovernmental and civil society organizations must all shoulder some of the responsibility for managing our planetary civilization. While individuals must also assume the kinds of social responsibilities that fall within their own spheres of competence and capacity, the principal tasks in the new division of moral labor will be carried by institutions and organizations. Because the concept of organizational responsibility is relatively newly and largely unexplored, I will spend a good deal of time discussing this topic.
But, as I conceive it, a global ethics does not end with moral cosmopolitanism. It must also to extend the boundaries of the moral community into a second dimension -- to an intergenerational ethic that describes the moral responsibilities that living persons have towards both near and distant generations of human beings. The intergenerational ethics extends the moral community both backwards and forwards in time, from the present generations who are now alive back in time to our ancestors and forward to those who will come after us. I will argue that an ethics of global responsibility based on the concepts of vulnerability and care also provides a way of understanding these kinds of moral relationships, and indeed that it provides guidance and insight that a rights-only ethical framework cannot match.
Finally, a global ethics also requires the expansion of the moral community into a third dimension -- a biocentric ethics-- that describes the moral relations between human beings and members of other biological species and the elements of the natural world on which they depend. A biocentric ethics ascribes to living beings a moral standing different than mere “things”, which makes them the proper objects of moral concern and therefore of human moral responsibilities. Unlike many other approaches to environmental ethics, my approach employs a multicriterial theory of moral status, similar to that developed by Mary Anne Warren (1997), that creates several plateaus of moral status based upon the different of intrinsic and relational values of different kinds of creatures.
To summarize, as I will use the term, a global ethics is one that attempts to describe an ethical framework for a global moral community -- a community that includes all living persons irrespective national, racial, religious, ethnic, gender or other differences; previous generations of human beings as well as near and distant future generations, and all of those classes of organisms which possess some degree of moral standing and whose well-being, freedom, and survival are deserving of moral consideration by human moral agents. This third extension overturns the dominant anthropocentric character of most previous ethical systems by subsuming human ethics within the broader conception of a biocentric ethics. I believe that this fundamental change in our moral consciousness is now required by conditions of our present evolutionary stage – the Anthropocene Era – the age of the Earth in which human civilization is the dominant causal factor shaping the future of the planet.
Any attempt to construct a system of ethics must issue from a particular ideological and political standpoint, as well as from a particular historical and cultural point of view. In the past, ethical theories have often been presented as absolute and eternal truths that describe an unchanging objective moral reality. I do not believe that ethics should be regarded as body of eternal truths, rather the point of view adopted here is that ethical ideas are products of human intelligence and have evolved and must continue to change in response to the changing conditions of human existence.
My attempt to describe a global ethics is not being put forward as a master narrative that will stand for all time, or for all conceivable human cultures. Instead my goal is to describe a historically-situated, and indeed, provisional ethical theory, one that I believe roughly approximates the kinds of ethical system that will be needed in order to govern the global community of human beings living on Earth in the twenty-first century and beyond. In other words, the sense of the word "ethics” as it is used here is not the eternal or transcendent sense of an objectively true body of norms laid down by divine command or grasped through a pure rational intuition. Thus, while the present work is a good deal less ambitious than some earlier ethical theories produced by philosophers, e.g., those of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Kant who attempted to attain a philosophical standpoint that transcended history and culture, it is nevertheless quite ambitious.
The metaethical position from which the current work proceeds is moral constructivism, the metaethical view which sees morality, ethics, and law as social technologies that we invent in order to regulate human behavior. While the ethical framework I am describing aspires to universality, it is proposed as universal here only in the pragmatic sense that it attempts to provide a description of a global moral community based upon the ideas of universal human rights and corresponding social responsibilities that ought to be included in the ethical culture of human civilization in the twenty-first century. In order for any ethical theory to become universal in this sense, it needs to be effectively communicated and scaled up, so that a significant number of opinion-makers and other persons of influence take it up and employ it.
My approach to ethics is Nietzschean in that I assume that human values are at bottom products of the will -- we construct ethics and morality -- it is not something present in nature itself apart from the human will, nor is it divinely dictated. I believe that we can derive the concept of moral responsibility from the fact that we do, in fact, will certain ends, such as the end of human flourishing, or the end of the preservation and flourishing of life on earth. To say that moral values and imperatives are phenomena of the will, however, is not necessarily to agree that the moral will is arbitrary, subjective or that it must be irrational. The will can be brought under the sway of intelligence, imagination, and reason. Reason's counsel is the one which ought to be heeded if we hope to promote the good of humankind overall, for reason instructs us concerning the relations of means and ends, and so shows us whether the means which we choose are adapted to the ends which we will to promote. Reason can also help us to evaluate ends themselves by providing a theory of the human good, which, while fallible and subject to revision, offers the best available basis for belief concerning what ends we ought to will.
The mistake of the rationalist philosophers of the Enlightenment was not in seeking a rational basis for morality, but in assuming that rationality had to yield an ethical theory that was unified, unchallengable, apodictic, and a priori. In place of this conception of a rationality, I substitute a pluralistic, fallible, revisable search for an adequate ethical theory which can guide our weak and inconstant wills. The moral ends, laws, and virtues which define our societies are social products. This is to say that we create them, and can change them, improve them, or destroy them. Nietzsche was right in thinking that morality is ultimately phenomenon of the will, but he was wrong in thinking that it is the creation of the individual will; rather it is the product of the collective will of society in particular cultures at particular times.
The dominant ethos of human societies is more like Rousseau's idea of the general will. Given its collective character, the dominant ethos is created out of "We-intentions", that is, out of shared moral values and norms which become social realities by their being generally intended. The general moral will rarely be unified, but instead will represent a mosaic of various and sometimes conflicting wills which coexist in uneasy tension. Politics is the process whereby this divided and inconstant collective will, this set of partially overlapping "We-intentions" is translated into decisions concerning collective policies and action. Individuals can affect the general will only as a political actors. The individual, to the extent to which he is socially isolated, betrays his own will by condemning it to ineffectuality.
Thus, it follows, that in order to create a new table of values and a new conception of moral responsibility -- a global ethics -- one must engage an audience who will internalize this conception and promote it as forming a part of the dominant ethos. This is why I have decided to publish this book on the Internet as a philosophical blog. In doing so I am hoping to reach my intended audience, what Paul H. Ray has called "cultural creatives."
I labor under no illusions, however, about how likely it is that the philosophical musings of a college professor will have world-changing implications. No one pays much attention to philosophers anymore. Thomas Nagel (another philosophy professor) has written that, “philosophy, when it has an impact on the world, affects the world only indirectly, through gradual penetration, usually over generations, of questions and arguments from abstruse theoretical writings into the consciousness and habits of thought of educated persons, and from there into political and legal argument, and eventually into the structure of alternatives among which political and practical choices are actually made” (quoted in Alterman, The Nation, 2002), 10). Given the urgency and seriousness of the global threats we are now facing this is hardly good enough. Philosophical ideas need to put on a faster track and made more politically relevant. In an age of instantaneous global communication philosophers need to give careful consideration to the question of how they are communicating their messages and to the audiences they are addressing. Writing for the audience of professional philosophers may be a good way to earn tenure and the respect of one’s professional peers, but it fails as a method for getting one’s ideas into mainstream social consciousness. For this to happen, the important theses and conclusions derived from philosophical analysis and reflection need to be taken up by social movements that will disseminate them to audiences who are in a position to do something about them.
This is the reason why I have chosen to address this book to what have been called "cultural creatives", or to members of what I call the “cosmopolitan class”. Paul Ray, who coined the term, says that,
Cultural Creatives tend to reject the hedonism, materialism, and cynicism generally associated with one-sided elite globalization. They are less concerned with making a lot of money, although most live comfortably. The also tend to walk their talk, three-fourths being involved in volunteer activities. On the deepest level, they are powerfully attuned to global issues and whole systems. Their icon is a photograph of the earth as a blue pearl hanging in black space. (Ray, P.H. Cultural Creatives: How Fifty Million People are Changing the World. New York: Harmony Books, 2000)
Another interesting discussion about this group of people, has been published by Paul Hawken who describes a social movement of "global citizens" consisting of (roughly) 100 million people and 2 million civil society organizations. (Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. New York: Viking, 2007). This movement has no leader, no headquarters, and no unified agenda. However, what unites the various individuals and groups who identify with this movement is the perception that human civilization is reaching a critical inflection point in the current century, and that a major course correction will be needed if we are to avoid a global catastrophe.
While there have always been a few people who had this kind of cosmopolitan outlook, recent changes in communication and transportation technologies are creating a global civil society, and within that society there is emerging a significant class of people who are, I believe, in the best position to take up and enact the kind of ethical framework I develop in this book. This cosmopolitan class is composed of people from all nationalities and religious faiths, all racial and ethnic groups, and from many particular walks of life. It includes scientists and scholars, politicians and statesmen, business men and women, social activists and social entrepreneurs, and others who are involved in progressive social movements. Cosmopolitans tend better travelled, speak more languages, and are more conversant with international affairs than many of their compatriots. To be sure there are some professional philosophers and other academics that belong to the cosmopolitan class; but this book is not addressed only to them. Rather, the audience I have in mind for my moral philosophy are members of progressive social movements, and the leaders of socially responsible corporations, and nongovernmental organizations, who can give these philosophical ideas and theories the legs they will need in order to inspire the mass movement of cultural creatives, the members of the cosmopolitan class who are changing the world.
I hope that the audience of culturally creative cosmopolitans to whom this book is addressed will not find it odd to be counseled by a professional philosopher about an ethical theory for thinking about the global threats of the twenty-first century. There is in fact a great deal of recent philosophy that is highly relevant to addressing and solving these big problems of the world, but little of it manages to get outside of the ambit of peer-reviewed specialty journals and academic books. In the current age of mass media, pundits and spin-doctors get a lot more air time than philosophers, whose voices barely manage into penetrate public discourse. My hope is that by publishing this book as an Internet blog its fate will be different, and that it will serve as a means of making the insights of moral and political philosophers available to a wider audience of committed social activists who can translate the ethical ideas discussed here into practical solutions to the global problems of the twenty-first century.
But before we begin to elaborate our conception of a global ethics it might be useful to ask the question: “Is a global ethics of the kind described here even possible?” At the end of the book I will offer a cautiously optimistic answer to this question. But at the outset it should be noted that there are several good reasons for thinking that a global ethics of the kind outlined here might not be possible.
Basic facts about the innate human moral sense that is the evolutionary product of millions of years of hunter-gather existence, set limits on how far we can project our empathy and with what constancy we can maintain it. History and tradition, as well social and political facts pertaining to the nature and powers in our present global economic system will also be significant obstacles towards achieving any large scale revaluation of values of the kind that I think is needed. Significant kinds of social and economic inequalities both within and among our present human societies will also make it difficult for all people to take up this kind of ethical framework at the same rate or to the same degree.
Large-scale changes in ethical beliefs and values do not happen overnight. Rather they begin with a small number of individuals who embrace them and then they are spread by means of social movements. They are taken up piecemeal, by different people at different rates, and they undergo changes in the process of social diffusion.
However, one basis for an initial cautious affirmation of the possibility of a global ethics is an existence proof: there are, in fact, some individuals, those people who are among the 'cultural creatives' or 'global citizens' who are presently living in accordance with the basic values that a global ethics would dictate.
Some years ago I came across a website on which there appeared a “Declaration of Interdependence” which said that,
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all people are evolved equal; that they are endowed by their existence with certain undeniable responsibilities; that among these are respect for all life forms; stewardship of the biosphere, and the pursuit of a joyful and intelligent exploration of the Earth and the universe."
The kind of global perspective that inspired whoever wrote these words is becoming more widespread. One can find echoes of it in the lives of contemporary people who, through their personal choices, actions and lifestyles, demonstrate the kind of responsibility for themselves and for others that a global ethics requires. Such persons care about the international protection of human rights for all people, and strive to protect and sustain the natural environments they occupy. They also have a lively moral concern about what kind of world they will be leaving to their children and grandchildren, and to future generations to come. Since there are already some people who are enacting the model of global citizenship that I am attempting to describe here, there are grounds for hoping that the seeds of the future that are already present can be nurtured and spread.
In order for this philosophical theory to have any practical impact, the ethics of global responsibility needs to be scaled up. The fundamental practical question about the ethical framework described in this book is whether it can achieve sufficient scale of acceptance within the global community to make a difference in how a significantly large number of people think about the moral condition of humanity in the twenty-first century. How successfully this ethical theory can be scaled up depends upon a number of factors. Let me mention a few of the criteria that can be used to determine how potentially scalable a global ethics that requires a radical expansion of human responsibilities might be.
In order to achieve widespread acceptance and become internalized as part of the dominant ethos an account of a global ethics should:
· Provide a coherent account of the nature, scope, and limitations of the moral responsibilities which moral agents have towards co-nationals, citizens of other states, future generations, and non-human species and the ecosystems on which they depend.
· Allocate the burdens of fulfilling these responsibilities in ways that are practically feasible given the limitations imposed by our nature, our powers and capacities, and our existing traditions.
· Be sustainable and enable future generations to elaborate it and improve it in useful and appropriate ways.
· Be teachable and be understandable by ordinary people, and not so complex and abstract that its implications for practical action cannot be apprehended..
· Be capable of achieving widespread adherence across diverse political, cultural, and economic systems and ideologies.
· Support and provide guidance concerning effective and feasible public policies for addressing global threats and provide practical guidance for policy-makers in dealing with these kinds of issues.
· Provide guidance in resolving conflicts involving different values, rights, and duties and between different fundamental ethical principles.
· Be able to withstand criticism, and demonstrate fruitfulness in solving new problems within the range of issues the overall framework is supposed to address.
There can be no prior assurance that any, let alone all, of these conditions can be satisfied. There is no way to prove that a global ethics is possible before we try to construct and deploy it. In other words, embarking on this project requires that one be willing to “risk the impossible” and to attempt to bring into being something that perhaps cannot be. I am willing to take that risk.
One can do this either by revising the moral principles when they conflict with strong moral intuitions about cases, or by setting aside certain of our moral intuitions when they conflict with what our ethical principles predict should be regarded as the morally correct judgment. One must approach this task with an open mind and be willing to regard at least some of one pre-analytic moral intuitions as fallible or illusory, and also be willing to revise or even abandon
one's proposed ethical principles when they are incapable of being squared with our robust moral intuitions. There is, of course, no reason why one cannot employ both top-down and bottom-up kinds of reasoning in this kind of endeavor and this is the way in which I shall proceed.
My aim in the next chapter is to present a moral principle, which I will call the Vulnerability-Care Principle (VCP) and to try to make the case that it is a plausible candidate for the status of a fundamental ethical principle. For the moment I only wish to convince my readers that the VCP is plausibly thought to be capable of accounting for a wide range of standard moral intuitions which normally conscientious moral observers have about a wide range of moral cases. If I am successful in this, it will not show that the VCP is true in any interesting sense. In order to gain further justification for accepting the VCP as a fundamental principle of ethics one needs also to supply a general rationale for why there should be such a principle of ethics, to show how accepting the VCP as basic helps to illuminate and explain certain moral issues for which we normally think that other ethical principles are more appropriate, and how it helps us to resolve conflicts and solve problems in ethical theory and applied ethics.
Like scientific theories, ethical theories can gain credence by demonstrating they are competitively supported by the available evidence and that they cohere with our considered beliefs in related domains of inquiry. So, for example, the theory of evolution in biology that assumes that extant species evolved over very long periods of time until they reached their present states, must cohere with theories in geology concerning the age of the earth. If the earth were in fact very much younger than is now generally believed, it would imply that either biological evolution would have to work much more quickly than is usually assumed, or that the theory of evolution is false or at least incomplete.
Normative ethical theories about our rights and responsibilities will ultimately have to cohere with theories in the social sciences and in psychology about the nature of social relations and human motivation. If the ethical theory that features the VCP or something like it turns out for one reason or another not to cohere with facts and reliable theories about these matters, then it would count against its feasibility as a fundamental principle of ethics.
So the attainment of a reflective equilibrium between ones ethical theory and a range of moral intuitions is only the first step in providing a rational justification for believing that the VCP, or any ethical principle, is indeed a fundamental principle in ethics. I am not suggesting that can provide such a justification at the present time, but am only attempting to present the VCP as a plausible candidate for this status.
Fortunately, there have been other thinkers who have explored much of the territory I plan to cover and whose guidance I will be relying on for much of what I will have to say about the VCP. In particular, Robert Goodin and Virginia Held have pioneered this approach to ethical theory, and, as will become obvious, I am greatly in their debt as concerns the task of demonstrating the plausibility of the VCP.
My specific contribution will be to attempt to go further than either of these authors and to show that, when properly understood, the VCP is able to provide an account of what we normally think of as the social responsibilities derived from human rights. If I am successful in showing how this is the case, then we will be in a theoretical position in which becomes possible to connect the discourse of human rights with the discourse of social responsibility, and to show how human rights are derived from social responsibilities rather than the other way around, as is normally assumed.
Having made the connection between social responsibilities and human rights, we will then be in a position to argue that the range of our social responsibilities is wider than only those that ground human rights, and extend the VCP to the bio-centric and intergenerational realms. If this is successful, then I believe that I will have succeeded in making the case that the VCP is a plausible candidate for a fundamental principle of ethics, one which when properly understood, can provide a common normative framework for a global ethics of the kind I envision.
Meta-ethics is a set of theories about doing ethics. Ethics, considered broadly, is a normative theory about the nature of the moral life or the moral realm, that is, the realm in which we talk about things like values, duties, rights, virtues, responsibility, blame, guilt, and a variety of other moral concepts. Normative ethics is that branch of ethics that attempts to explain morality, that is, roughly, to give an account of what it is moral agents owe to one another as members of a moral community. I say roughly, because as I will define the notion of a moral community, it will include as members moral patients who are not also moral agents to whom (or to which) moral agents owe moral responsibilities. Morality concerns what it is we should do, and normative ethical theory attempts to give a systematic answer to this question.
The leading candidate for this status is the principle of utility, particularly that version championed by John Stuart Mill, known as the Greatest Happiness Principle. According to this theory, what is morally right for moral agents to do is to act so as to maximize that happiness (or well-being) of all of those (sentient) individuals who are affected by our actions in the long term counting each individuals interest in happiness as equal. This is sometimes referred to as the ethics of universal benevolence. The principle of utility has many variants and many defenders, so many, that I do not have time to review them here. I want to focus only on that group of utilitarians who join this principle of normative ethics to the assumption of theoretical monism, that is, the idea that there is only one fundamental principle of ethics. It is this idea that I want to reject.
Instead, on my view, there will be a plurality of fundamental principles of normative ethics that together describe and explain the moral intuitions that normal, morally sensitive individuals have over a wide range of cases and contexts. In some cases and in some contexts, utility provides a useful moral guide to what conscientious moral agents ought to do. But it is not the only guide to normative rightness and must give way in certain kinds of cases to moral considerations deriving from other fundamental moral principles.
One can appreciate the pluralism of normative ethical principles by focusing on the nature of the arguments that are commonly employed against utilitarianism when it is cast in the role of the master principle of ethics. One finds counter-intuitive examples in which considerations of utility conflict with those of justice, for instance, in the case of the drifter who can be framed for a crime he did not commit. Or arguments involving conflicts between the duty to maximize impartial utility and duties of care that arise because of special interpersonal relationships. Or cases in which the duty to respect personal autonomy runs up against a attempt to do what ones knows to be in another person's best interests. In all of these kinds of arguments the basic structure consists in noticing that the duty to maximize utility conflicts with some other kinds of moral obligations derived from some other moral principle.
The current global consensus on human rights is a good example of this kind of "many-legged" justificatory strategy. Human rights norms and values are justified by a variety of different sorts of moral and practical considerations deriving from considerations of justice, utility, nonmalefiecence, vulnerability, dignity, equality, convention, as well as by religious or metaphysical and metaphysical beliefs. There is no such thing as the justification for human rights. Rather there are a set of partially adequate overlapping justifications for various particular rights as well as a general set of philosophical and political rationales for holding that certain rights should be regarded as belonging to persons as such, irrespective of their particular identities. (See Morton Winston, "Human Rights as Moral Rebellion and Social Construction." Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 6, No. 3 2007: 279-305. for a fuller account).
A plurality of principles also enables us to achieve a better fit between our principles and our moral intuitions over a wide variety of kinds of situations and issues calling for moral reflection and decision. No single moral principle can do the job of describing our actual patterns of moral judgment as well as a set of multiple moral principles. It is not just that normative ethics is just a "messy" field of inquiry that has not yet achieved its true paradigm -- the moral life is just too complex to be reduced to a single over-arching theory of what makes actions morally right, what makes some things morally valuable, and what the good life for human beings consists of.
But because the VCP is a relatively under-studied principle of ethics, one whose theoretical value and importance is not widely understood or appreciated, I think it worth emphasizing it in order to reveal its potential. In my view the VCP is not just as a normative principle that can be used in the private sphere of the family, where it finds it most natural home, but also in the public sphere whether it is often considered not to apply at all or to apply in only limited ways.
(VP): Moral agents acquire special responsibilities to protect the interests of others to the extent that those others are specially vulnerable or in some way dependent on their choices and actions.
According to Goodin, when we analyze many commonsense moral intuitions about our moral responsibilities towards others we recognize that what is crucial to them, "is that others are depending on us. They are particularly vulnerable to our actions and choices. That, I argue, is the true source of all the standard special responsibilities that we so readily acknowledge. The same considerations of vulnerability that make our obligations to our families, friends, clients, and compatriots especially strong can also give rise to similar responsibilities toward a much larger group of people who stand in none of the standard relationships to us" (Goodin 1985, 11). He says that this will use the VP to "ratchet up" from our intuitions about special role-related responsibilities to argue that what we normally think of as general moral duties "derive from fundamentally the same sorts of moral considerations" (11). Before summarizing key aspects of Goodin's argument, it might be helpful to define what is meant by vulnerability.
The concept of vulnerability is, essentially, the state of affairs in which a moral patient is in some way susceptible to injury or harm. The most vulnerable people in the world are, for example, refugees who have lost everything; they are without food, shelter. or clean water; children who have lost their parents and are without schools or caregivers; those stricken with natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods; those who are sick without access to medical care; those who are captives and are at the mercy of others, and in general, anyone who lacks the ability to protect their own most basic interests. The vulnerability principle (VP), calls upon competent and capable moral agents to act so as to avoid placing vulnerable people at risk, and to prevent harm or injury from befalling those who are at risk or are specially vulnerable in some way.
A quote from Goodin serves to clarify this idea further: "It makes perfectly good sense to speak of someone's being vulnerable either to manmade threats or natural ones. Likewise, it makes perfectly good sense to speak of someone's being vulnerable either to harms that come about through others' omissions or neglect or to harms that come about through others' positive actions" (110). His notion of vulnerability is further explained the same page: "This point emerges particularly in relation to such cognate notions as 'helplessness' and 'dependence.' The former is defined as the state of being 'unable to help oneself'; the latter as 'depending upon, being conditioned or subordinate or subject; living at another's cost; reliance, confident trust.' In both these situations, the vulnerability in view is to harms that come about through other people's inactions rather than their actions" (110, note 3). Vulnerability is a dispositional property of things. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to being harmed. But harmed in what way, and by whom, and under what circumstances?
References to vulnerability imply two other references. One is to what the persons or things are vulnerable. Where do their weaknesses lie? What mechanisms are capable of inflicting harm on them? The other is to whom the persons or things are vulnerable. Who can inflict harms on me? Who can protect me against them? One is alway vulnerable to particular agents with respect to particular sorts of threats....Like the notions of power and freedom, that of vulnerability is inherent object and agent relative. (112)
I think it possible to combine Goodin's VP and Held's ethics of care into a general approach to normative ethical theory that I will sometimes refer to as the Ethics of Vulnerability and Care. At a later stage in my argument I shall suggest some important modifications in the way Goodin's Vulnerability Principle (VP) is framed and combine it with some insights Held and others into a single general ethical principle, what I will call the Vulnerability-Care Principle (VCP).
But before turning to these tasks I need to say more about the notions of care and vulnerability.