Global Ethics Research Paper

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In this research paper various approaches to global ethics are outlined. Within the field of inquiry called global ethics, two senses of a “global ethic” are distinguished, and several theories presenting a global ethic or cosmopolitan ethic outlined. These are then contrasted to several alternative accounts – relativism, communitarianism, international skepticism, internationalism, and profit-based business ethics. Illustrations from bioethics issues are given at various points.


Global ethics is a field of inquiry into the character of ethical relations between people across the world. It covers the relations between people as individuals as well as relations between corporate bodies such as nation-states or business companies. Global ethics as an inquiry is commonly focused on the nature, extent, and justification of ethical values and norms that make up what may be called a global ethic, generally understood as a set of universal values and norms including some norms to do with trans boundary responsibilities. Someone doing global ethics (or world ethics as it used sometimes to be called (Dower 1998\2007)) is usually comparing different normative theories such as Kantianism and utilitarianism in relation to global relations generally or some particular global issues such as climate change, war, and peace, development issues, or health issues and defending one of them. (In what follows, if the reader is more familiar with the language of world ethics/ethic, then he/she should substitute mentally this terminology for the terminology of global ethics/ethic in the text.)

However there are at least two other approaches possible under the general label of global ethics. Second, someone interested in global ethics may be interested in more abstract theoretical issues about the nature of a global ethic, for instance, about what makes such an ethic possible in the face of diverse ethical approaches among individuals and between cultures, and might even take skeptical view about the possibility of a global ethic, by questioning in general the universality of values or questioning the idea of significant obligations between different societies and states. Third, a more descriptive or social science approach is possible, whether the global ethicist attempts to map out different ethical approaches across the world (much as someone studying world religions is interested in the diversity of religions across the world) or documents the extent to which human relations are now informed by various multiple globally shared ethics and/or converging on one such shared ethic or another, that is, with an interest in what may be called the globalization of ethics (as distinct from the ethics of globalization which is the ethical critique of aspects of what goes on in the world under the label globalization).

Although the main focus of the article is on global ethics in the first sense – the delineation of different theories of global ethics and how they are applied to global issues including some issues coming under bioethics – the concerns raised under the other ideas of global ethics will from time to time feature in the discussion, not least because they are all interrelated to one another.

There are at least three main sources of interest in global ethics in the modern world. First, there is the historically long trajectory of interest in the idea of a universal ethic which is found in at least some of the ethical thought of all the major religious traditions. One source of this in the Western world was the thinking of the Stoics in the GrecoRoman world. Their vision of cosmopolitanism (being a citizen of the world/universe) was of all humanity living in one large moral community in which a common moral law was acknowledged. This kind of thinking was reflected in the Catholic idea of the natural law applicable to all human beings and of the jus gentium – the moral law accessible to all peoples. In the eighteenth century, the explicit idea of cosmopolitanism was again made much of, particularly, in the writing of Kant. This dimension is part of a theological and philosophical tradition.

Second, it has become increasingly apparent, especially since the Second World War, how many problems that we have are global problems, where problems are caused in one country by the actions of other countries or corporate bodies such as transnational companies, and where solutions to common problems require cooperation and coordination between countries. Here a global ethic of collective self-interest becomes applicable.

Third, with increasing information and communications across the world – the globalization of knowledge and community – people are more aware of their global interconnectedness, their identities being more formed by relations across the world not merely local relations, and there is more recognition of common values, but equally of how much values differ. These all become important aspects of how the world is experienced.

What Then Is A Global Ethic?

There are two ways of approaching this question. First, one can think of it as the ethic accepted by an individual or a group which has a certain global content. It is that individual’s or group’s ethical view of the world. This view is likely to have two main elements: first, some set of values and norms that are believed to be universally valid that is applicable to human beings anywhere; second, some view about our obligations or responsibilities, again seen as universally valid, toward people anywhere in the world, for instance, that the wealthy of one country have some obligations to help alleviate extreme poverty in other countries. Various ethical theories, some of which will be discussed more fully shortly, drawn from philosophy and theology, present and defend a global ethic in this sense. Second, an ethic can be thought of as global in the sense of being globally accepted, that is, that there is a set of values and norms that are accepted by people all over the world – perhaps by people, for instance, who share a particular religious faith or by the community worldwide of international diplomats (or people in business companies). In this sense there could be a number of different “global ethics.” What is of interest to some is whether there is a core set of values that can be said to be actually universally shared (or at least nearly universally shared since there are always some ethical odd balls). This could then be seen as the global ethic that is almost universally shared.

An example of this last idea is the Declaration Towards a Global Ethic of the World Parliament of Religions in 1993, which seeks to articulate the common moral core to all the major religions – reflecting the approach of one of its key advocates, namely, Hans Kung (Kung and Kuschel 1993). Bhikhu Parekh presents the idea of a global ethic as one which is both consented to and assented: consented to through the process of inter-cultural dialogue, but at the same time assented to because each person or group has their own reasons philosophical, theological, or drawn from cultural narratives – for assented to it (Parekh 2005, p. 27). The relevance of these ideas will become apparent later on.

Examples of global ethics as ethical theories are now given, which all illustrate both the idea of universality and the idea of trans boundary responsibility.


This ethical approach – often associated with cosmopolitanism although it is only one of a number of cosmopolitan approaches – stems from the thinking of the eighteenth century enlightenment German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s central idea is that what makes us human is our capacity for rational agency. This is manifested in both our capacity to choose means appropriate to pursuing our “ends” or goals but also our moral agency whereby we acknowledge that other human beings are also rational agents whose agency is to be respected.

This core idea gives us both the key idea of what human well-being involves – the person’s exercise of rational agency – and the key idea of ethical obligation which he called the categorical imperative. This was expressed in a number of ways including the principle “act on that maxim that you can will to be universal law” and “so act that you treat humanity whether in yourself or in others always as an end not merely as a means.” Our ethical decisions should reflect these principles. These ideas of the core of human well-being and of duty are seen as applicable to all human beings anywhere.

But Kant’s ethical position is not merely a universalist one, he is clear that our duties are owed to any human being across borders. If it is wrong to deceive (because deceiving deliberately undermines the rational agency of others), it is wrong to deceive someone anywhere. To use a modern example: it is as wrong to sell a medicine to someone in China or Kenya as in one’s own country, knowing that it is misdescribed or defective.

A modern example of a Kantian approach is that of Onora O’Neill who seeks to show that extreme poverty undermines human well-being, primarily because it undermines or restricts the exercise of rational agency in the form of control over one’s life (O’Neill 1989). So to the extent that international companies pursue policies that undermine that, then “material injustice” is being done, and individuals in other parts of the world who are involved in the modern global economy have a duty to counteract these tendencies.

The ways, for instance, mining, agribusiness, or modern medical and pharmaceutical practices are conducted will have a bearing on the life conditions of very poor people.


Another major ethical approach with huge implications for global ethics is utilitarianism. Developed in the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century by philosophers like Bentham and Mill, its central tenet is that what makes our actions right is their tendency to promote human wellbeing and wrong their tendency to reduce it. More precisely it is a maximizing principle: what we ought to do is maximize good outcomes by promoting the best balance of good over bad outcomes. In its classical formulation, the good was seen as pleasure or happiness and the bad as pain/suffering and unhappiness (and Bentham recognized that higher animals’ pleasures and pains were relevant too) – hence, the label “the greatest happiness principle.” Later utilitarians have tended to broaden the conception of what the good is in terms, for instance, of preference satisfaction (since it is not obvious that pleasure is the only thing which is good in itself).

So what is central to utilitarianism are two key ideas – that human well-being is understood in terms of pleasure, happiness, or preference satisfaction and one’s duty at bottom is to promote it in any way as much as possible. As Bentham said, everyone is to count for one and no one more than one. This is a universal principle applying to everyone. The theory is also global in the sense that our duty is to promote the best balance of good over bad for all people affected by one’s action, near and far. A good example of this way of thinking called “consequentialist” was Singer’s approach. He argued in response to famine and extreme poverty that “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance we ought to do it” (Singer 1972, p. 231). Singer also applied this approach later to other issues such as climate change and global governance.

One can see how this approach has relevance to many bioethics issues, for instance, in the pharmaceutical industry and agribusiness. If rules controlling the distribution of drugs or the sale of seeds protected by intellectual property rights do not really conduce to the maximum betterment of human beings, then questions can be asked about the way the global economy runs that enables companies to exercise this kind of control that leads to what many would see as disproportionate profit taking. Another area utilitarians are interested in that is relevant to bioethics issues is population control, since many would argue that fewer people are likely have happier lives than more people on an already crowded planet.


Another very influential ethical approach is that of libertarianism. Libertarianism is not often presented as a global ethic (certainly not as cosmopolitan), for reasons noted later, but it has both the key features of a global ethic, namely, universality and trans boundary responsibility.

The central value for the libertarian is liberty – the freedom of individuals from interference from both fellow human beings but also from the state or other institutions that exercise coercive limitations on what individuals may do. Of course some degree of law and order is required to check the exercise of liberty that invades another’s liberty, as Robert Nozick acknowledges in his well-known exposition of the libertarian position (Nozick 1974). Many liberties are acknowledged, some central to bioethics, such as patient autonomy, the right to choose to die with dignity, and the use of body parts. But a key liberty is economic liberty – to freely enter into transactions of employment and transfer of goods – and generally this is seen as including the liberty to form economic associations, small and big, and to be subject to as little taxation as possible since taxation is a restriction on economic liberty.

The core universal value is liberty, and the duty in others is not to interfere in that liberty. The trans boundary corollary of this (not always emphasized or explicitly acknowledged) is to promote libertarian ideas in other parts of the world where they are not currently (enough) in place. Hence, the agendas of many powerful countries in the world are to promote liberalization – whether through IMF policies of structural adjustment, “liberal peace building,” investment agreements in poorer countries, and so on.

Libertarianism as outlined needs to be contrasted with liberalism which is a rather broader idea and covers other positions such as social liberalism which is quite different from libertarianism. Social liberalism stresses a key point denied or downplayed by libertarianism: that liberty is only valuable if certain background conditions are satisfied, such as sufficient income, access to healthcare without the capacity to pay for it, and proper education. This idea, made prominent in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971), is a feature of some theories discussed below.

Comparison Of These Three Approaches

It will be apparent that the libertarian approach to global ethic is rather different from the previous approaches, both because it does not make much of the idea that we have positive duties to promote the well-being of others and because it tends to confer a legitimacy on the moral rights of associations in the modern form of large capitalist institutions. It is not in line with the cosmopolitan intent of the other two, if cosmopolitan is centrally about the primacy of the individual, as reflected in Pogge’s definition of cosmopolitanism:

Three elements are shared by all cosmopolitan positions. First, individualism: the ultimate units of concern are human beings, or persons – rather than, say, family lines, tribes, ethnic, cultural or religious communities, nations, or states. .. . Second, universality: the status of ultimate unit of concern attaches to every living human being equally – not merely to some sub-set, such as men, aristocrats, Aryans, whites, or Muslims. Third, generality: this special status has global force. Persons are ultimate units of concern for everyone – not only for their compatriots, fellow religionists, or suchlike. (Pogge 2003, p. 169)

One thing that is striking about the above theories is that they are all rather formal/abstract both in terms of their accounts of what human wellbeing consists in and in their accounts of the central principle of ethics underlying more specific rules of moral life. This contrasts with the approaches discussed later, but it is worth noting here that this formality or thinness may be seen as both a weakness and a strength. It may be seen as a weakness if one thinks that well-being and moral duty have a richness and complexity to them not recognized: this unease may come from the theories mentioned below, but it may come from various religious conceptions of global ethics which may see ethics as derived from specific theoretical sources and tradition or from an ecological perspective that stresses the need for nonhuman values as well. However, there is no necessary conflict between these broad philosophical theories (or indeed the ones discussed later) and specific religious sources or ecological perspectives, especially if we note the point mentioned above, namely, Parekh’s idea of an ethic both consented to and assented to. This thinness may precisely be a strength in addressing the challenge of relativism, as discussed below, since this thinness may allow for another way of accounting for diversity of values different from the relativist account.

The following accounts of global ethics provide in varying degree a richer account of the content of a global ethic: theory of human rights, the capabilities approach, and global justice. The first gives an account of the elements of human well-being we have a right to and a global normative framework for their realization, the second develops a particular conception of what human well-being consists in, and the third gives a particular interpretation of the global ethical framework necessary for the advancement of human well-being.

Human Rights

Human rights are by their very definition rights that all human beings possess in virtue of their humanity, not rights that happen to be accorded to some group of people by law or convention. It is generally assumed that along with their universality there is also a trans boundary obligation in others anywhere not to undermine them and to some extent to promote them. Such rights are at bottom moral rights possessed by all human beings. Of course human rights also refer to the legal expression of human rights in international human rights law and various national and regional conventions that promote them. It is no doubt an important part of the normative framework for the protection and promotion of human rights that they are juridified in international law (though it needs to be noted that someone can support an international human rights framework as furthering human well-being without necessarily believing in human rights as an ethical theory, as indeed Bentham did). However the legal side is not considered here.

Human rights theory is not a single theory. It covers a number of approaches, both in terms of the theoretical justification given, in terms of the range of things which human beings have a right to, and in terms of the kind of correlative obligations others have and who has them. In effect what we have right to constitutes according to the theory the most important elements of human wellbeing – things like, at a very basic level, following Shue, subsistence, security, and basic liberty (Shue 1996). Most theories will spell rights out in much more detail, as UN documents illustrate. There is no space here to elaborate on these. Two key points need mentioning here. Historically, in the second half of the twentieth century, certainly up to the end of the cold war in 1989, there were two camps, the Western one that stressed the importance of liberty rights and the correlative duty not to interfere and the Soviet camp that stressed socioeconomic rights and the duty to promote them by positive intervention. After the end of the cold war, it came generally to be recognized that this was an oversimplification and that human rights is an immensely complicated field. It remains true that for some there is an emphasis upon developing appropriate regulatory frameworks for human rights observance, and for others the main emphasis should be on positive promotion of human rights through active interventions (development assistance) and by providing positive enabling conditions for human rights to be realized. This issue is not so much about a conflict between those who value liberties and those who do not, as about different views about what it is to value liberty. As noted before the social liberal is far more concerned than the libertarian with providing the enabling conditions in which human beings can develop and exercise their liberty in meaningful ways through developing infrastructures including education and healthcare provision.

The Capabilities Approach

This is worth a brief separate mention because it has become a very influential way of understanding what human well-being is all about – that is, of understanding just what the elements of human well-being are that we have the right to. It has been developed by a number of recent thinkers, most notably Amartya Sen the Indian economist philosopher (Sen 1999) and Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher interested in applying certain elements of Aristotelianism to modern development issues. The key point is that human beings need to develop a range of capabilities essential to a fully rounded human life that an agent has reason to value, and for this they both need proper nurture and education to develop their capabilities and then a social and economic structure including an appropriate rights-conferring legal framework in which they are able to exercise their acquired capabilities. The important thing about this approach is that it counterbalances an undue emphasis on economic well-being and on development as simply economic development.

Its message is certainly interpreted to be global in the sense that the image of human well-being is seen as universally applicable. The assumption, though not the explicit emphasis, is that given this concept of human good, we all through the international community have duty not to impede and also where appropriate to promote conditions for people to realize their capability to lead a full human life.

Global Justice

Much interest recently in global ethics or cosmopolitanism has been focused on questions of global justice and injustice. There is no single theory of global justice any more than there is for justice within ordinary morality. What is significant about claims about global justice is just this: that it is seen appropriate that claims of justice can be made across borders in regard to worldwide relations. Claims about global justice are not alternatives to the above theories of global ethics which have been considered, rather particular ways of interpreting or unpacking them. O’Neill, for instance, sees Kantianism as providing a theory of global justice by which we can condemn what is often done by business companies as unjust; Thomas Pogge likewise develops a particular account of human rights as the basis for claiming that the undermining of rights is a matter of global injustice (Pogge 2003).

Some approaches to global justice will focus on the idea of justice involving violating or undermining human rights or, where failure to do so is a culpable omission, failing to promote the realization of human rights, whatever rights are taken to be central (with libertarians stressing, against the general tendency of the other views, the rights of entrepreneurs to do their thing with limited interference). Others may put more emphasis on the general idea of distribution – that, where distribution becomes so unequal that some people have very little and others an awful lot, there is something unjust about such a distribution. This may be about the distribution of wealth or income or more generally of the conditions which enable people to exercise their rights of capabilities effectively or more specifically of access to food or healthcare or a healthy environment. This includes an environment not made worse by others’ unfairly high usage of carbon dioxide by exceeding their entitlement to a share of the atmospheric commons – climate justice being a big specific aspect of global justice.

Theories Of Global Ethics Compared

Before turning to some general challenges to the whole idea of global ethic, some general points about the above theories of global ethics should be noted. It should be clear that what all these theories do is put an emphasis on the individual wherever he or she is located and accord in some sense equal moral status to all individuals. As such what these theories prescribe in terms of actions, policies, and the design and development of institutions, political, legal, economic, and so on are things which may well not be what as a matter of fact is generally done or promoted as the world is. This is because what informs the actions, programs, etc. of both individuals and institutions, including business companies, is in fact other ethical theories which justify paying much more attention to the interests of more limited groups. Notable among these are internationalism as a theory of international relations and communitarianism as a theory about the kinds of obligations individuals have in relation to their communities. These and other theories in opposition to global ethics will be discussed shortly.

That said, there are significant differences in what all the above global ethics theories actually prescribe. Quite apart from the tensions between the libertarian approach and Kantianism/utilitarianism noted earlier, there are others which are partly because of different values and norms that the theories put forward and partly in terms of different empirical assessments of what the likely consequences are of different policies. For instance, a utilitarian might favor vigorous family planning policies or even forced family limitations, whereas a Catholic might object to the first as unnatural, and someone who believed in the human right of parents to have as many children as they want may object to the second. Here different global norms are at stake. Two people might both believe in the right to life as the right to conditions for a satisfactory life, but one promotes radical cutbacks in carbon emissions because she believes that high carbon emissions will damage life conditions, whereas someone else might question this because he thinks the risks are less and because he thinks that vigorous economic growth, which would be impeded by reducing carbon emissions, contributes to improving life conditions. Here the difference is in the main about different readings of the facts. But they are both global ethics positions.

Opposition To Theories Of Global Ethics

Opposition to global ethics comes from a number of quarters. Five kinds of opposition are considered. The first two are in opposition to the general idea of a global ethic as applied to individuals. These are relativism that claims that there are no universal values and communitarianism that says that obligations are primarily to fellow members of a community including political communities like one’s state and that trans boundary obligations are nonexistent or minimal. The second two are opposed to cosmopolitanism (as a global ethic is seen in this contrast) as rival theories of international relations, namely, skeptical realism that claims there are no ethical relations between states and internationalism that claims that although there are ethical relations between states, these are much more limited than any global ethics approach suggests. Finally, a typical defense of business ethics focuses on the right of companies to maximize profits, where corporate social responsibility is seen as no more than a public relations exercise.

Ethical Relativism

Basically the thesis is that there are no universal values (Wong 1984). The theory comes in various forms: descriptive or cultural relativism simply asserts that as a matter of fact different societies have different values and norms; this is usually backed by two more complex theses: meta-ethical relativism as the claim that right just means what is approved by society and normative relativism as the claim that what is right in a society is what that society says it is (so when in Rome do as the Romans do). A consequence of this is that to judge the behavior of others in other societies as wrong is intellectually wrongheaded and to promote one’s values elsewhere and especially to impose them are wrong. Relativists often see their theory as underlining what is wrong with colonialism and modern equivalents, e.g., of promoting “modern” values such as Western democracy in other countries.

Relativist thought is a large challenge to much that is done in the name of bioethics insofar as bioethics is a global project for promoting certain views about life, death, and health. If other countries do not have Western conceptions of healthcare, are they wrong (or vice versa, are Western norms wrong), or are they just different? If attitudes toward abortion, euthanasia, birth control, female genital mutilation, or the role of women are different, are they just different or can people from each perspective assess the attitudes of others as morally questionable?

Relativists may acknowledge that there are some values that are common whereas others are not. If it so happens that there are certain shared values, this could be the basis for a shared global ethic. If the area of commonality is a core which is essential to being human, then indeed we have in effect a global ethic as a theory. If on the other hand the commonality is, as it were, something that happens to be shared, then this raises a problem linked to the second difficulty with a relativist position.

It also throws out more than it might seem. Often what motivate relativism are a rejection of the Western imposition of its values on the rest of the world and a rejection of colonialism as unjust. But in so doing and not providing an alternative universal framework, relativism cannot criticize colonialism from a global point of view. Of course it could be part of the particular morality of a society that it criticizes colonialism, but it cannot expect as universally reasonable the same attitude from other societies whose internal moral outlook is not like this and is, for instance, xenophobic.

Another way of seeing the mixture of diversity of values alongside a core of widely if not universally accepted values is that there is a set of core values which are the same, but the ways they are expressed are different in different settings. Ways of caring for loved ones when sick or old may be quite different in different cultures but express the same basic attitude of care.

So the response to relativism from a global ethics or cosmopolitan point of view is to acknowledge diversity but put forward global responsibility to promote the conditions of human flourishing where the latter is defined in a culturally sensitive universalism (see solidarist pluralism in Dower (1998\2007)). That is, the distinction needs to be recognized between some core values (the basic preconditions of human flourishing and the core moral values that are prerequisites of society), and other values (conceptions of well-being and social customs) which may vary considerably from society to society are a distinction between an essentially universal core and other variable values and variable expression of core values.


Communitarianism is the second major challenge to global ethics or cosmopolitanism in respect to the claim about significant trans boundary obligation. It is inspired by the idea that morality is derived or primarily derived from actual community (Sandel 1982). It is in communities that there are shared traditions and shared common acceptance of certain moral norms and understandings of well-being and moral obligations derived from reciprocity. Such communities may be quite small or local but also much larger in political communities held together not merely by shared moral norms but legal norms as well. The general thrust of much communitarian thinking is to emphasize that our obligations are to members of our community not to humanity as a whole. As such it comes into tension with the approach of global ethics or cosmopolitanism insofar as the latter emphasize our trans boundary obligations to everyone. Of course some communitarians may make something of the fact that there is also a global community – or various communities with members all over the world as with churches and other voluntary associations – but the obligations we owe to the community as a whole are generally seen as much less.

Such an approach of course brings into question a lot of the things that advocates of global ethics or cosmopolitanism would commend – significant personal generosity in aid giving to help people in distant countries, engaging in fair trade to help poor farmers elsewhere, or cutting one’s carbon emissions. Of course all these actions, particularly the third, may seem to be things that are sensible to do because of benefits that will come to the people in one’s own community – less poverty means more trading possibilities in the future and reducing climate change requires coordinated efforts by everyone, etc. Measures to control an outbreak of disease in one country may stem from a desire to prevent its spread to one’s own country. But the point is that the reason for doing this is the interests of those from one’s own community, not the interests of humanity.

What is partly at issue between communitarianism and global ethics is whether to recognize that obligation does not primarily or only arise from established reciprocity but from the capacity to affect others for good or ill – something we can clearly have extensively in the modern interdependent world. (Much more needs to be said about the relationship of cosmopolitanism and communitarianism and, linked to this, just how extensive trans boundary obligations are claimed to be: see Dower (1998\2007).)

International Skepticism

International skepticism or skeptical realism challenges the whole idea of a global ethic from a point of view focused on relations between nation-states. Although it derives some of its rationale from ethical theories like relativism and communitarianism, it is a specific view that there are no ethical relations between states. Because they are sovereign and do not have a higher power or political authority like a world government above them, states exist in a moral vacuum in which the pursuit of power and national interests is legitimate. Hobbes argued that because genuine moral norms require enforceability, there are no moral norms in international relations. This does not mean that an international skeptic will be against cooperation or indeed developing common rules or even international law, but for him these are to be favored when they further the interests of one’s state and disregarded (maybe secretly) when they do not, e.g., by disregarding the rules or going to war. For instance, supporting international disease control is a good idea if that helps to protect one’s own state.

Supporters of global ethics will, while conceding that much of international relations is as a matter of fact conducted in this way, argue that, ethically, ethical obligation does not depend on enforceability but also that the extent of international cooperation through international institutions and law and other consequences of globalization makes this an unrealistic way of reading the world.


Internationalism or the “society of states” theory of international relations has been the dominant theory in the last four and a half centuries. The system of nation-states was established in Europe after the Thirty Years War through the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. This system of nation-states has spread to cover the whole world, and the United Nations is itself a late expression of the model, since it is an organization whose members are nation-states.

Unlike the realist position, states were seen as constituting some kind of society and as such were subject to the norms of that society. Historically these norms were seen to be the right to sovereignty with corresponding duty of noninterference, the duty to preserve the society of states, the acceptance of the rules of war (jus ad bellum and jus in bello), and the acceptance of the principle pactasunt servanda, meaning that agreements such as treaties or internationally agreed laws should be observed (Bull 1977). The rationale for this tended to be either the agreement of states themselves to create and maintain the norm-governed system for mutual advantage or some theory about the natural rights of states. Historically, the morality of states can be seen as a limited one: states as such did not have significant duties to promote the interests of other states or those of their nationals.

As such this approach stands in contrast to cosmopolitanism since the latter grounds an ethic in the well-being of all human beings and as such may critique what is done by states in the name of the morality of states. If a state says that it has a right to exploit its natural resources – such as by extracting fossils fuels or cutting down rain forests – this may come into conflict with a cosmopolitan view that we should restrain such activities for the global common good.

Whether or not the morality of states approach is a form of global ethic, it is clearly an “international ethic,” and its emphasis is different from what is typically advanced in a global ethic, namely, a focus on what furthers human wellbeing generally, whether that is state action, the action of individuals, or the action of other bodies.

The relevance of this to bioethics is significant, for instance, in the areas of food production and medicines. The World Trade Organisation, whose representatives are states, determines many of the rules governing patents on seeds, particularly genetically modified seeds, and drugs. Although it is companies that get these patents, it is countries that determine the rules, with often the powerful countries in such negotiations also benefiting from the companies involved. Often the costs of seeds and drugs for poor people are such that their interests are not served and indeed thwarted, and, from the point of view of many with a global ethic, this is deeply unsatisfactory.

That said, in the modern world, there is no clear opposition between the morality of states approach and cosmopolitanism. The historical “limited” morality of states has gradually become transformed into a much more extended morality. This is due to a number of factors: first, the increased need for international cooperation because of common global threats, such as the spread of diseases, various environmental problems such as species loss and climate change, and global food and water security; second, linked to this, the sheer proliferation of internationally agreed laws that juridify positive obligations to help others; third, the fact that due to globalization far more of countries’ citizens have global moral concerns which can influence foreign policy; and fourth, increasing interest in the idea of states themselves being “good international citizens” (i.e., citizens of the society of states) with a serious commitment to furthering, for instance, human rights (Linklater 1992). It remains true however that the morality of states approach is somewhat different from typical global ethics approaches, both in terms of justification and in terms of what it advocates.

Business Ethics

Finally, there is the issue of how to understand the ethics of business, whether small or transnational corporations. According to the global ethic perspective, businesses like any other body capable of agency are subject to this ethic, and if business practices clearly go against the interests of those affected overall, ethical questions can be raised. This comes up against the standard view of businesses, namely, that they exist – it is their rationale – to maximize profit for shareholders (subject to the requirement of relevant laws). While there is a common view that free enterprise, small and large, contributes in the long run to human well-being, it is increasingly recognized that the way businesses operate should be subject to more ethical constraints than had often been recognized. This is expressed in ideas of corporate social responsibility, whether within a country or globally, or in the global context of “corporate global citizenship.”

Businesses are and, from a global ethics point of view, should be increasingly subject to regulatory frameworks in respect to protection of the environment, workers’ rights, health and safety standards, and provision of healthcare. From a global ethics point of view, this applies globally. From an ethical point of view, businesses should not merely be subject to such regulation but should accept that they ought to be subject to them. The reality is of course often rather different. Apart from the idea of patents and intellectual property rights already referred to, there is also the big issue of tax havens through which much profit is not subject to tax. From the point of view of cosmopolitanism, far more of the value of the goods or resources taken from poor countries ought to be made available to poor countries to improve the life conditions, including of course the health conditions, of the very poor of the world.


In this research paper various approaches to global ethics and also a number of fairly common views opposed to this approach have been mapped out, and some of the issues have been illustrated with examples from bioethics. It is for the reader to apply the framework to more detailed issues that arise within the many fields of bioethics.

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