Why Global Ethics Matters

Among the eight possible choices of the Philosophy optional themes, it seems that the one focusing on  People, Nations and Cultures best encapsulates the very spirit of the IB Diploma.  Since every Higher Level  Philosophy candidate has to choose two themes from the eight on the syllabus, why not combine Theories and Problems of Ethics with topical issues such as the impact of globalization on traditional cultures or the future role of international institutions in an ever-changing  world. Global ethics is, in my opinion, the best philosophical preparation for future responsible citizens, open to new ideas and prepared to face new challenges.

Teaching global ethics is an invitation to bring together different ethical traditions which can be applied to highly sensitive contemporary situations. Would, for instance, Bentham approve of the systematic use of torture on prisoners suspected of terrorist links, in the name of the Utility principle? How would contractualist theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, approach the question of a peaceful international order or the delicate issue of transitional justice in a post-conflict situation? By contrasting and confronting established ethical theories with postmodern ethical perspectives, IB students can make their own value judgements on what characterizes ‘justice’, ‘citizenship’ or ‘democracy’.  The study of John Rawls’ theory of justice may lead to impassioned debates and an overall reassessment of the concept of ‘the good society’, in the light of other political theorists such as Plato or Marx. In the same way, no one can remain indifferent to Peter Singer’s controversial plea for a new interpretation of distributive justice, not to mention his ardent defence of animal rights. Productive discussions can be triggered off by a critical study of carefully selected extracts from ‘Animal Liberation’ or the more recent ‘One World’.

Global ethics highlights the difficulties associated with any attempt at reaching some universal ethical truth. How can individuals with their own personal beliefs and their different cultural and political values arrive at some global consensus based on a shared trust in the power of objective and fair argumentation? This is the very question that Jurgen Habermas has been tackling in his theory of communicative reason and its emphasis on the pivotal role of democratic conditions in the public sphere if its members are to thrive as individuals and citizens.  There are many lessons to be learnt from the study of global ethics, but the most profitable one for any IB student choosing this option, is that agreements on fundamental issues, engaging the future of the human race, can only be the result of tolerant consensus, taking into account the ineradicable differences of each participant prepared to share in the common quest for new ethical values.    

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