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Local Priorities, Universal Priorities, and Enabling Harm

  • Christian Barry

“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.” 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.

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1 See Michael Ignatieff, “Reimagining a Global Ethic,” in this issue.

2 See Singer, Peter, The Life You Can Save (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009), p. 19; and Unger, Peter, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 134.

3 See Singer, Peter, One World, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003).

4 See Goodin, Robert, “What Is So Special about Our Fellow Countrymen?Ethics 98 (1988), pp. 663–86.

5 See Miller, David, On Nationality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

6 See Williams, Bernard, “Persons, Character, and Morality,” reprinted in his Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

7 See Wolf, Susan, “Moral Saints,” Journal of Philosophy 79 (1982), pp. 419–39.

8 Scheffler, Samuel, Boundaries and Allegiances (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 36.

9 See Thomas Pogge, “Bounds of Nationalism,” reprinted as chapter 5 in Pogge, Thomas, World Poverty and Human Rights (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).

10 Barry, Christian and Øverland, Gerhard, “The Feasible Alternatives Thesis: Kicking Away the Livelihoods of the Global Poor,” Philosophy, Politics and Economics (May 10, 2011); doi:10.1177/1470594X10387273.

11 Kristof, Nicholas D., “Farm Subsidies That Kill,” New York Times, July 5, 2002.

12 See Rickless, Samuel C., “The Moral Status of Enabling Harm,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 92 (2011), pp. 6686; and Hanser, Matthew, “Killing, Letting Die and Preventing People from Being Saved,” Utilitas 11 (1998), pp. 277–95.

* I am grateful to the editors of Ethics & International Affairs and Helen Taylor for comments on an earlier version of this essay.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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