Extending the Boundaries of the Moral Community

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.