Local priorities, universal priorities, and enabling harm.

Author:Barry, Christian

"National communities," Michael Ignatieff writes in his thoughtful essay on the prospects for a global ethic, "have some good reasons, as well as some not so good ones, to privilege local ahead of universal priorities and interests." (1) And he goes on to explain the clash of local and universal priorities as rooted in a conflict between the values of "justice and democracy." I would rather suggest that the conflict is an internal one--a conflict inherent in our thinking about what justice requires. But in any case, he is surely right that providing a compelling account of how to distinguish good from bad reasons for privileging local priorities, and identifying how weighty the good reasons for local priorities are, is fundamental to developing a plausible global ethic.

When a national community privileges local over universal priorities, it gives more weight to the interests of its members than they would have in an impartial ordering. Only a radical nationalist affirms the absolute privileging of local priorities, and only the most radical cosmopolitan denies that local priorities can ever be privileged. At present, there is little agreement about just how local and universal priorities should be balanced as a matter of policy, even though (as I will discuss below) there seems to be substantial agreement on some very clear-cut cases.

Before turning to questions of substance, however, it is important to note that there is just as much heated philosophical disagreement over the best method for determining the appropriate balance between local and universal priorities. Some philosophers, as Ignatieff notes, require that privileging the local be justified from an impartial point of view--the view from nowhere in particular. It may seem puzzling that any meaningful local priority could be justified in this way. If we really recognize that we are but one among many, and that our well-being and that of those close to us is of no greater intrinsic importance than the well-being of others, how can we hope to justify the moral weight we ascribe to the interests of our co-nationals, especially to our near and dear, who may be already pretty well off? With this starting point, it may seem obvious that one will arrive at the radical conclusions reached by such theorists as Peter Singer and Peter Unger, who maintain that we act seriously immorally if we fail to give away most of our financially valuable assets to reduce the severe deprivations of others. (2) However, this impression may be misleading. Perhaps allowing certain forms of local priority--to family, close friends, and so on--is required if people are to live lives that they can recognize as having any value, given certain facts about human nature that cannot be easily changed, if they can be changed at all. (3) And perhaps privileging the local is the best administrative device we currently have for protecting the interests of people throughout the world. (4) To take an example from trade policy, having a global order in which each government makes trade policies that enhance the well-being of its citizens without taking into...

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