Ethics and global governance: The poverty of choice

Lecture Theatre, Barber Institute of Fine Art
Arts and Law, Research, Teaching
Thursday 24th March 2011 (17:15-19:00)
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Karen Wright, Vice-Chancellor's Office. Tel: 0121 414 5937. Email:

An inaugural lecture by Professor Heather Widdows, Professor of Global Ethics in the School of Philosophy, Theology & Religion.

Ethics is the attempt to answer Plato’s question ‘how should we live?’. In order to do this moral philosophy has tended to focus on individual’s and their actions and has paid less attention to governance systems, institutions and policy making. However, this is changing and ethics – even ivory tower academic ethics – is beginning to engage with policy and practice and take up the challenge of making the world a better place.

This is nowhere more true than in global ethics where key topics are those of poverty, global inequality, torture, terrorism, scarce natural resources, trafficking of people and goods, climate change, medical tourism – the list goes on. How we respond to these challenges determines the global governance framework within which we live. This is true not only for problems of climate change, where our actions now determine the environment our children and grandchildren will inherit, it is also true for decisions about what is acceptable and permissible for human beings to do and have done to them. For instance, if we collectively decide that it is acceptable to torture or to buy body parts then we are making judgements about what human beings are and these decisions will limit and shape what is possible or permissible for future human beings to do.

If such things are permitted then human beings become types of beings who have parts which can be bought and sold or who can have pain and suffering (to the point of death) inflicted upon them in certain circumstances.

Global ethics is about how we should respond to these dilemmas and increasingly dominant individualist (western) frameworks are proving inadequate to the task. In particular the reliance on consent and choice as the ethical safeguard ignores and neglects important (and in some instances the most important) ethical concerns. For instance, the dominant model of ethics essentially boils down to the claim that anything is ethically permissible if it has been chosen.

If a person has ‘consented’ then it must be ethical: an argument used across the board, from debates about organ sale to prostitution. But – especially in the global context of vast inequalities of wealth – consent is not enough to make something ethical (the fallacy of sufficiency). Consent to sell a body part, or to be trafficked for prostitution, or to work in domestic labour away from home, or to agree to live in a surrogacy warehouse and carry a child for a rich foreign couple, is not enough to make an act ethical.

If the person who consented felt that this was their only option, that literally ‘they had no choice’, this cannot be seen as ensuring ethical practice. A just global ethics requires not that we ‘roll out’ current practices globally – and insist on ever more monitored and informed consent – but instead that we develop new frameworks of ethics and governance which go beyond assuming that ‘choice’, and ‘more choice’, are goods in themselves.