Singing to the wrong tune

Sinclair Davidson, RMIT University

Peter Singer One World: The Ethics of Globalisation, Text Publishing, 2002 (256 pp) ISBN 1-87700-845-1 (paperback) RRP $28.00.

It seems that even world-renowned philosophers have to make tenure. Either that or Peter Singer is cashing in on the anti-globalisation frenzy. Perhaps there are no coherent intelligent arguments against free markets. Singer certainly does not share them with us in his new book, One World: The Ethics of Globalisation. Singer can argue a long running interest in international affairs. He wrote ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ in 1971. His arguments, however, have not improved with time. A potentially fine wine has definitely become vinegar. The blurbs to his books advertise: Singer is influential. Singer is smart. Singer is honest. Singer is infuriating. Singer makes his reader think. In One World, Singer is only infuriating. It is not his best work.

Singer is a utilitarian of sorts. He is not a classical utilitarian, but I suspect of the ‘indirect’ or ‘restrictive’ consequentialist variety (for a glossary of the different types of utilitarian see Glossary, n.d.). Most economists, consciously or not, also subscribe to utilitarianism of some type. This worldview provides a common base from which Singer could easily engage in a debate with economists about globalisation. Based on his previous work most readers, as I certainly did, would expect Singer to be ambivalent—even hostile—to globalisation.

The potential contribution of this book is that Singer should be able to articulate his reasoning to an economic audience. Alas, he fails. Further, he fails not by my standard but by his own. In his Writings on an Ethical Life (hereafter Writings), Singer tells us ‘The notion of living according to ethical standards is tied up with the notion of defending the way one is living, of giving a reason for it, of justifying it’ (2001, p. 13, emphasis mine). Of course reasons and justification might be weak but Singer also tells us in his Writings that ‘in making ethical judgements we go beyond our own likes and dislikes’ (2001, p. 15). In One World, Singer never seems to go beyond his own likes and dislikes. Indeed, the reader gets the impression that Singer is pontificating from on high to lesser mortals, certainly lesser intellects.

Singer is, of course, entitled to his likes and dislikes. Yet from a man who can argue that infanticide and involuntary euthanasia are not unethical we do expect a bit more than ‘The WTO is not really democratic’ or ‘Polluters should pay to clean the air’ and so on. These statements may well be true, but I can and have read them on the letters page of the local newspaper. My favourite was ‘What gives a government the moral right to sell the resources of the country over which it rules?’ (p. 108). Utilitarians are not usually anarchists and neither is Singer.

The book retraces a well-worn path: Kyoto, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Court of Justice, and so on. The market is saturated with books telling the reader about naughty Americans and John Howard, who just refuse be good global citizens. These are current distractions from some more enduring ethical issues raised by globalisation. Singer raises the issue of moral relativism, for example, only on page 155. This would be at the heart of many disputes, ethical and otherwise, in the global economy. Why should western economies that became wealthy due to child labour and exploitation 200 years ago prevent child labour today? Or that destroyed their own natural environments in search of economic growth prevent others from doing so today? Instead we get Singer’s views on current affairs.

In his chapter on the Kyoto Protocol, Singer provides an argument, based on the polluter-pays principle, that rich economies should pay the costs of cleaning the atmosphere. This is a straightforward application of Pigouvian economics and many hold this view. There is, however, a whole range of potential issues for discussion.

Singer supports a polluter-pays principle, but there are many other principles.

First, is global warming really an issue for concern? There is scientific dispute about whether the planet is actually warming up and, if it is, what the cause of that warming might be. Neither Singer nor I are physical scientists and cannot enter that debate. But the Kyoto Protocol is a practical application of the precautionary principle, which economists call a ‘maximin’ decision rule. This is a decision rule that allows the decision maker to avoid a ‘worst-case’ scenario. Surely there are ethical considerations associated with using this decision rule. For example, if we do not know, for certain, that the Earth were warming as a result of human action should we allocate resources to avoiding future warming? Should we retard economic growth in the present to ensure human life in the (far?) future? By Singer’s definition of utilitarianism—‘I must choose the course of action that has the best consequences, on balance, for all affected’ (2001, p. 16)—the answer is probably ‘yes’.

Next, who should bear the costs? Singer supports a polluter-pays principle, but there are many other principles. For example, we could argue a ‘deep pockets’ principle according to which industrialised economies pay because they can afford to. More controversially it could be argued that the beneficiaries of the Kyoto Protocol should pay the costs. Future generations, by definition, cannot pay anything in the present—but their ancestors can. Given declining birth rates in the industrialised world, the ancestors of future generations are currently more likely to live in non-industrialised economies. The ‘beneficiaries pay’ principle suggests that the poor economies of the world bear the costs of the Kyoto Protocol. Singer, however, does not evaluate these arguments. He contends that all individuals have an equal claim on the atmosphere, then jumps to the view that countries can pollute relative to their population on a per capita basis.

There are a number of problems with Singer’s position—some of which he recognises. He even concedes that classical utilitarians would not support his view (p. 45). Further, on my understanding of his argument, it would be unethical for individuals to voluntarily migrate to a high polluting economy such as the United States. Similarly, it would be ethical to move economic production from high polluting economies to low polluting economies, i.e. export pollution to currently under polluted areas of the world. I am unsure, however, if Singer would agree with this interpretation of his argument. The point here is not to score a cheap point, but to indicate the narrowness of Singer’s view. There is so much more to the issue of climate change than he canvasses. Singer supports the Kyoto Protocol and his chapter is designed to demonstrate that support. The Kyoto Protocol, however, already has many proponents and it is not clear that he adds to the existing debate.

Singer’s inconsistent treatment of the World Trade Organization relative to the United Nations is particularly disappointing. He criticises the WTO for promoting free trade to the exclusion of all other considerations. This seems unreasonable: the organisation was established specifically to promote free trade. Singer is complaining that the WTO performs as it was designed to perform (although that would be a very generous interpretation of the WTO’s activity). He also argues that the WTO indirectly violates national sovereignty and is undemocratic. He does concede that the argument that the WTO makes the rich richer and the poor poorer is ‘not proven’ (p. 101). Might it not be simply false? The undemocratic charge is interesting: Singer argues that the decision by consensus approach allows each member veto power and therefore the WTO is undemocratic. Many might find this a strange interpretation of undemocratic. What is even stranger is that the United Nations operates on a system where only five countries have a veto, but Singer does not label that as being ‘undemocratic’.

Singer’s complaint is that the WTO does not regulate the way he would.

Singer has problems with issues of trade and political legitimacy. He has a very strict, and regrettably inconsistent, view of political legitimacy. He combines material from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to define the term democracy. He then concludes that a ‘minimalist concept of democracy is needed, for otherwise there will be few legitimate governments left’ (p. 112). To be blunt, I suspect ‘few’ should read as ‘no’. In fact, Singer insinuates that the United States is not democratic. Here he is particularly partisan and, frankly, dishonest. He invites us to ignore the difficulties of the Florida vote in the 2000 Presidential election and to ponder the electoral college that, strictly speaking, elects the US President. This apparently violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as it ‘discriminates’ against states with large population in the United States, thereby violating equal suffrage. Singer, a resident (perhaps even a citizen) of the United States, should know that the electoral college is population weighted (Federal Election Commission n.d.). In any event, it is not obvious from the sections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Singer quotes (p. 111) that the United States electoral college violates any democratic norm.

Singer proposes that non-renewable resources should only be traded when dealing with a legitimate government. Recognising his confusion over what a legitimate government is, he proposes an ‘internationally respected body … appoint a tribunal … to scrutinise the credentials of each government on a regular basis’ (p. 113). Recall the allegation that the WTO undermines national sovereignty! This also begs the question as to what the United Nations does and whether that organisation could be considered ‘internationally respected’. Of course regulating world trade is what the WTO does and perhaps Singer’s complaint is really that it does not regulate the way he would.

This idea, however, of a supra-national organisation, or even pseudo-world government, determining appropriate trading partners is becoming quite common. Michael Kremer and Seema Jayachandran (2002) of Harvard University base their ‘Odious Debt’ concept on a similar notion. But this idea leaves me uncomfortable. First it does seem to violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Indeed, it violates that very part that Singer relies on to define democracy.

It also seems to me that the process would be open to significant abuse. For example, most oil exporting economies are not democracies, whereas some international pariahs (such as Israel and Taiwan) are! Further, I suspect that the level of uncertainty introduced into world trade would eliminate any potential net benefit to the world population. I am not convinced ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ criterion of classical utilitarianism would be met. Finally, I suspect more international intervention in various countries domestic affairs.

Singer does spend time on the issue of intervention. When should the international community intervene in the affairs of another country? This is a particularly pertinent question at present, with Iraq possibly having weapons of mass destruction, and North Korea developing nuclear capability.

After his Writings on an Ethical Life, many readers will be disappointed.

Singer’s answer is that intervention is appropriate when genocide and/or crimes against humanity are about to occur. Singer provides the official definitions of such crimes and they are well worth noting. Of interest to Australian readers would be Article 2(e) of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, ‘Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’.

Singer is also of the view that intervention can only occur under the auspices of the United Nations. This is where he runs into some difficulty. The United Nations Charter explicitly forbids intervention in the internal domestic affairs of its own members. This prohibition is fatal to much of the United Nations’ activity and Singer recognises that it need be circumvented. In essence the United Nations only has jurisdiction where a country is a menace to its neighbours, but not to its own people. He devises a scheme whereby only legitimate governments could be members of the United Nations and consequently it could intervene in the affairs of non-members.

Again there are problems with this proposal. Singer is now clearer on what constitutes an illegitimate government. A government that has come to power via a military coup would not be legitimate, however, ‘rulers exercising traditional authority’ might be (p. 158). Indeed, an electorate might vote to become or remain undemocratic. At the expense of expressing some unethical thoughts—by Singer’s definition—I suspect that the women of Algeria, Nigeria, Turkey, and Pakistan prefer military rulers to ‘traditional’ rulers. While liberal democracy may be an anathema to some individuals and military dictatorship an anathema to others, I am not convinced that ‘traditional’ rule benefits anyone other than traditional rulers and some men.

The other major problem with this proposal is factual. Most countries are already members of the United Nations. The United Nations charter has no provision or mechanism to exclude members. It is true that the General Assembly may refuse to recognise any particular country’s ambassador, who then cannot take up their seat in the assembly, as happened to South Africa under the apartheid regime. But the point remains, countries cannot be excluded from the United Nations and so Singer’s proposal fails on a factual ground. This is very disappointing: As a ‘UN-ophile’ Singer should have known this.

In any event, by Singer’s definitions there is too little intervention in the world. But Singer gives himself away at page 153: ‘the predictable human costs of the resulting war [make] it wrong to intervene’. Singer’s view is ‘intervene against the weak, but not the strong’. So the world will not go to war with China over its ‘One-Child Policy’, or perhaps even North Korea—which may develop nuclear weapons. No, the world will concentrate on Iraq and Zimbabwe. Interventions against these countries are easy and cheap. While Singer may deny the charge, his view translates into the maxim ‘It is okay to do the right thing as long as it costs you nothing’.

After his Writings many readers will be disappointed. Singer has written this book quickly. It is the equivalent of jotting down a few thoughts before an undergraduate lecture. Many undergraduates are too intimidated to ask the tough questions or are easily fobbed off. The intelligent book reading public, which will be making an investment of cash and time in Singer’s book, deserve better. Singer can produce better. Anyone who has read his essay ‘Darwin for the Left’ knows this. That, however, is not an ethical judgement on my part.


Federal Election Commission, n.d. How the Electoral College Works [Online], Available: [2003, Jan. 20].

Glossary, n.d. [Online], Available: [2003, Jan 20].

Kremer, M. & Jayachandran, S. 2002, ‘Odious Debt’ [Online], Available: [2003, Jan 20].

Singer, P. 1972, ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no.3, pp. 229–243. Reprinted in Writings.

Singer, P. 1998, ‘Darwin for the Left’, Prospect, no. 31, pp. 26–30. Reprinted in Writings.

Singer, P. 2001, Writings on an Ethical Life, Fourth Estate, London.

Sinclair Davidson is an associate professor in the School of Economics and Finance at RMIT University in Melbourne.

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