Moral Progress and World History: Ethics and Global Interconnectedness
This paper approaches cosmopolitan subjectivity by asking whether, in a world of increasing interconnectedness, there is a corresponding growth in cosmopolitan ethical sensitivity. One school of thought – in the tradition of Arnold Toynbee – would say that our capacity for harming one another over great distances has increased in history without a concomitant ethical commitment to reduce such harms, while others – as exemplified by Peter Singer – have suggested that there has been sufficient moral progress to ensure that the new destructive powers held by human beings through the agency of states and other institutions will not be used irresponsibly. Central to the paper is “the harm principle” which takes it as a given that harm and the suffering it causes are basic human evils. It also asserts that human beings have a capacity to respond to the suffering of others with acts of rescue, and to commit themselves to avoiding actions that would harm others. Even when those others are at great distances from us geographically, institutionally or historically, there is a disposition to care about them and to avoid harming them. The paper appeals to the tradition of David Hume and Adam Smith who highlighted the caring emotions of compassion and pity, rather than the tradition of Kant for whom our feelings of concern for others were not as important as our rationally grounded duties not to harm them. The paper asserts that it is our mutual vulnerability to harm and suffering that grounds universal human solidarity.