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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

One World

Peter Singer

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To purchase One World

Title: One World
Author: Peter Singer
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 206 pages
Availability: One World - US
One World - UK
One World - Canada
  • The ethics of globalization
  • "The core of this book is the Dwight H. Terry Lectures", given by Singer at Yale University in November 2000

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Our Assessment:

B : decent overview of some of the major issues relating to globalization

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 1/2/2003 Morag Fraser
Foreign Affairs . 3-4/2003 G. John Ikenberry
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/3/2004 V.Joshi/R.Skidelsky
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/12/2002 Andrés Martinez
Sydney Morning Herald . 28/12/2002 Paul Sheehan
The Washington Monthly . 11/2002 Gregg Easterbrook

  From the Reviews:
  • "Read it in tandem with Geoffrey Robertson's recently revised opus on human rights, Crimes Against Humanity, and you have a comprehensive picture of the strains on the nation-state world we still inhabit and the direction that world might take -- if we were to be brave, and just." - Morag Fraser, The Age

  • "In his view, the search for widely acceptable principles of global fairness is not simply an intellectual exercise but an imperative that even rich and powerful countries ignore at their peril; we cannot address the vulnerabilities that globalization creates without a shared belief around the world that the system is legitimate and just. (...) His willingness to delve into the prosaic details of agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the World Trade Organization is one of the book's biggest strengths." - G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs

  • "Singer's book is a heroic attempt to picture a world organized and managed according to the principle of utility. It is what a Benthamite world-state would look like. It will annoy those who dislike utilitarianism and be dismissed as irrelevant by practical people." - Vijay Joshi and Robert Skidelsky, The New York Review of Books

  • "As globalization polemics go, the book is rather restrained. More than a rant, it is a stimulating tour of the moral and practical challenges posed by the world's accelerating contraction." - Andrés Martinez, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is possible to agree with all this but still be disappointed. It has to be said, in cool but plain language, that Singer sounds like a bureaucrat who cannot understand why politicians will not devolve more power to him. In his concern with advancing the cause of global equity and equality, he simply discounts tribalism as the primordial social organising unit of humanity." - Paul Sheehan, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "One World is a pretty good book; if it did not come with Peter Singer baggage, I might say a darn good book. Singer, generally a hero to the loony left, struggles with the issues of globalization in a rigorously hard-headed manner rarely seen on this topic." - Gregg Easterbrook, The Washington Monthly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In One World Peter Singer examines four major issues affecting the world today from a "global ethical viewpoint": the impact of human activity on our atmosphere, international trade regulation (specifically the role of the World Trade Organization), the idea of national sovereignty, and the distribution of aid. Each, he argues, is of great significance in this age of globalization: they require our attention -- and often a change in attitude and approach -- if we are to improve the lot of mankind.
       Singer looks at the big picture: one world, as the title has it. He begins with the atmosphere, arguing:

There can be no clearer illustration of the need for human beings to act globally than the issues raised by the impact of human activity on our atmosphere.
       Global warming and related atmospheric-change issues have been much discussed in recent years, and Singer provides an overview of the apparent manifestations of atmospheric change caused by man-made pollution, as well as international efforts (at the conferences in Rio and Kyoto, for example) to counter these (in particular by reducing emissions of so-called greenhouse gases). It is an interesting philosophical problem: certain countries and people contribute far more pollution than others -- but everyone suffers from the consequences (though the consequences are also not evenly distributed -- nor can they often be predicted). Complications are compounded by the fact that polluting more often results in greater economic benefits to the polluter (though in the case of at least one major source of pollution -- private motor vehicles -- there is little real benefit to be derived from driving a gas-guzzler over an energy-efficient vehicle -- and yet people still do it, because of the low incremental cost (the extra cost of gas per mile travelled is apparently considered trivial) and the perceived benefits in, for example, status ('Look at me in my cool car'), and because governments are willing to indulge consumers (who are often also voters) by not prodding car-makers to improve gas mileage -- and, in many countries, by subsidizing gas -- indirectly (in not charging the consumer for all the consequences of gas-use but rather just the ostensible costs of producing the gas and providing it at the pump) or directly (a policy popular in oil-rich countries, even in the developing world)).
       Singer fairly sensibly discusses these issues and the positions currently being taken and considered -- who should (or might) pay for what, and how the costs of implementation can be distributed. Most of this is fairly familiar, even Singer's ethical take, which focusses on equitable distribution (fairness) in bearing the costs. His favoured solution, of global emissions trading, is hardly a radical one, and he makes a reasonable case for it.
       Singer notes that the idea of fairness is pretty much the only one that can bring about change -- industrialized nations "presumed rights as sovereign nations", plus:
the raw military power these nations yield, makes it impossible for anyone else to impose a more ethically defensible solution on them.
       He does close with a question -- an unanswered hope, that perhaps some day the UN might impose sanctions on countries that do really bad things like not play their part in protecting the environment. But it seems little more than wishful thinking. Elsewhere he is a bit more realistic -- as when he acknowledges that: "to cynical observers of the Washington scene, all this must seem absurdly lacking in political realism."
       Singer does do some finger-pointing, especially at America, noting that "all the major industrial nations but one have committed themselves" to doing something about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (fudging the fact that the something remains a very vague thing too). America's outrageous indifference -- both in terms of public policy as well as private behaviour -- is deeply disturbing, but political realism and America's (and Americans') attitude of not just 'me first' but rather 'just me' make Singer's babbling about fairness and ethics sound almost naïve. (As recent interventions abroad again demonstrate, in America 'American might makes right' is the only ethics that count.)

       In his second section Singer focusses on the World Trade Organization, and four central charges against it:
  1. The WTO places economic considerations ahead of concerns for the environment, animal welfare, and even human rights
  2. The WTO erodes national sovereignty.
  3. The WTO is undemocratic.
  4. The WTO increases inequality; or (a stronger charge) it makes the rich richer and leaves the world's poorest people even worse off than they would otherwise have been.
       This is a lot to consider, but Singer does offer a good overview of the main issues, concerns, and responses.
       His discussion of Article XX and the product/process distinction in trade disputes (the WTO having ruled that countries can't discriminate against products from other countries because of the process by which they were made -- even, most of the time, if the process itself is in some way harmful (to the environment, etc.)) is certainly of interest, and points out how the WTO can get carried away in obsessing on the trade aspect of free trade.
       The charge of eroding national sovereignty seems a less compelling one -- perhaps because national sovereignty (certainly in issues of trade), while popular, doesn't seem something of great value (as Singer also discusses elsewhere). Even accepting it (and Singer gives no good reason for doing so) he can't muster much of an argument why erosion would be bad (the treatment of AIDS- and other drugs is the best he can do).
       That the WTO is undemocratic is also, on some level, true, but it might more accurately be called imperfectly democratic -- like the UN (which he also wants to reform), the American Senate (or the manner in which American (and many other) presidents are elected), etc. etc. Singer argues simply for "giving weight to population numbers" -- a too simple non-fix. (Do children count ? (A significant issue given the differing demographics in industrial and non-industrial countries.) What of weighting economic producers -- the people more directly affected by WTO decisions -- versus those who are less affected ? (Singer might say: everyone is affected, but the industrial nations won't go for that.) And wouldn't population-based voting power erode national sovereignty ...?)
       The question of whether the WTO increases inequality is also a complex one, which Singer goes into in some depth. Certainly a valid point is the ability of rulers to screw over their countries by incurring costs (often funds siphoned off to private bank accounts in Switzerland) which must then be borne by the citizens -- a serious problem in many developing nations which are burdened by debts that did little to benefit the population as a whole.

       The third section takes on the need and desirability for international intervention and questions of national sovereignty (a chapter written before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq of 2003). In a global community Singer sees some international humanitarian intervention as desirable -- though firmly believing: "Only the United Nations should attempt to take on this responsibility to protect." Singer makes a good case for why intervention is, under certain circumstances, acceptable and even desirable -- indeed, even a duty, in some circumstances. He also suggests some reforms in the make-up of the United Nations (to make it more "democratic").
       Singer's book does take initial American reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 2001 into account; unfortunately, recent events (Project Iraq 2003, and current American foreign policy in general) have considerably altered conditions. Post facto the US has tried to sell their military intervention in Iraq as a humanitarian gesture, but the excuse for intervention was solely pre-emptively defensive -- laughably Saddam Hussein was perceived to pose a threat to the US, said to have so-called "Weapons of Mass Destruction", and have connections to the World Trade Center-bombing terrorists . In trying to sell intervention to the UN regime change was never at issue, only the disarming of Iraq; the ensuing invasion was solely about regime change (since the Hussein regime apparently had no weapons, much less any capable of "mass destruction"). It now appears clear that America's militarist government (with a "defense" budget projected in 2004 to be larger than the defense budgets of all other nations in the world combined) will dictate when and how intervention will be permissible, with the UN at best allowed to station a few peacekeepers in areas where there are minor skirmishes.
       Ironically, this is a chapter in which Singer seems to believe the US actually might participate in the ethical globally-oriented manner he approves of (unlike say with global warming); sadly, his hopes have certainly been dashed, as the US has again taken a "leading" role (in which ethics, especially of the globally-oriented sort, don't count for anything) while the best-suited organization for the job (the UN) has been pushed out of the picture.

       The final section of the book focusses more on individual action, suggesting that everyone who can has a duty to help those who are less fortunate. Singer begins with the marvelous example of the flood of aid given to the families of victims of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 -- despite the fact that many of these families were already well provided for by insurance, pension rights, and other safety nets. Meanwhile, American aid to the developing world remains negligible -- the lowest, in per capita terms, among industrial nations. Hilariously (and deeply disturbingly) Singer also cites numerous surveys in which Americans are asked how much they believe America is spending on foreign aid -- a typical survey found a median answer of 15 percent of GNP (when in fact it is less than 1 percent). (One wonders if the billions of dollars of armaments recently rained down on Iraq, pulverizing much of the country (and many of its citizens), will be counted as having been 'foreign aid', raising this year's percentage by a bit.)
       Singer argues that we all have a duty to help the greater global community, and not just those in our immediate vicinity (an argument he has made, at greater length, elsewhere too). There's something to this -- a few hundred dollars could alleviate great suffering if directed to the proper places, with Singer suggesting (as others have determined) that 200 dollars can save a child's life.
       There are, of course, also numerous difficulties with this -- many of which he discusses. Among them: distant suffering (or alleviating it) isn't of much interest to most people. Singer correctly argues that that's hardly an ethical point of view, but it also is human nature. In addition, there's the difficulty of actually determining that the 200 dollars contributes to saving a child (and isn't wasted on marketing campaigns or fine hotels for aid workers, etc. etc.) -- and that satisfactory direct proof of having saved a life will almost never be obtainable.
       Singer wastes a lot of time with a thought-experiment by Peter Ungar, which basically amounts to: a man has parked his Bugatti on some train tracks and there's a child on a nearby train track when a train comes. If the man does nothing the kid will be killed -- but the man has the option of throwing a switch, which will divert the train to the tracks the Bugatti is on, saving the child but destroying the car. Singer argues that we have similar opportunities to save children's lives: donating 200 dollars is like throwing the switch, since we lose something of value (200 dollars) but save a life.
       The example is, of course, a terrible one. The train-example is one of immediacy; were there adequate time there would be other solutions (warn the kid, move the Bugatti, etc.) -- and such life and death cases lead to different outcomes than when there is time to deliberate. (People often literally -- and sometimes very foolishly -- risk their lives in order to try to save other people (in fires, iced-over lakes, etc.) -- but won't give a dollar to someone on the street, even if they're in obvious need.) In addition, no immediate expenditure is required in the train example, and as any economist will tell you, the loss of an asset (the Bugatti) is very different from actually spending money in order to do something. (Indeed, a better example would be if there were no Bugatti but instead the switch were coin-operated, requiring the payment of 200 dollars in order to throw it).
       Singer has an obvious point -- that we should help those in need, and that in our global world that includes those very, very far away. Given public misperceptions (at least in America) about foreign aid -- which is also often tied and thus not put to best use (and, from the US, overwhelmingly goes to countries (such as Egypt) for political reasons, and not on a needs-basis) -- there certainly seem to be an opportunity to convince citizens to increase governmental aid (i.e. the use of their tax-dollars) to help those that really need it.
       (Telling numbers: President Bush Jr. was willing to demand some 70 billion dollars for his Iraqi-wargames, while Singer notes that American foreign aid only amounts to 10 billion dollars annually. Interesting priorities, no ? (Admittedly, America's destruction of Iraq had other benefits which might make the huge expenditure worthwhile -- a return on investment that foreign aid does not provide as obviously -- including the opportunity for such elaborate wargames which allowed the armed forces to test all their new toys (most of which seem to have performed very well), as well as returns to American companies in rebuilding everything the Americans wrecked and controlling (it remains to be seen for how long) Iraq's oil production.))

       Singer concludes that "we should be developing the ethical foundations of the coming era of a single world community" -- an admirable if not necessarily realistic ideal (given how poorly we manage this in even our most limited and local communities). Still: it's something to aim for -- but, as he notes:
     There is one great obstacle to further progress in this direction. It has to be said, in cool but plain language, that in recent years the international effort to build a global community has been hampered by the repeated failure of the United States to play its part.
       Since Singer wrote those words the situation has gotten drastically worse, as the US has further distanced itself from many of the institutions and mechanisms designed to improve the global community, including the International Criminal Court of Justice (which Singer mentions, still holding out some hope that the prosecution of terror suspects might move the US to see the benefits of such a court) -- and even subverted institutions it claims to wholeheartedly support, such as the WTO (with President Bush Jr.'s pandering to small special interest groups overriding concerns about upholding free trade ideals, when he instituted patently illegal steel and agricultural tariffs). Admittedly, many other nations -- and many leaders, especially dictators of developing nations -- also show little interest in fostering a global community and doing their part, but America's overwhelming power and financial and industrial might puts it in a category all its own -- and Singer is correct in pointing out that of the many paths open to it it has chosen a singularly self-serving (and self-righteous) one that does come at a large cost to the world as a whole.

       Singer's arguments are largely ethical, and therein lies one of the problems: ethics aren't always obvious and self-evident, and no matter how much is made mention of starving and diseased peoples who could be fairly easily helped, if they are far, far away people will always find more immediate concerns. Similarly, the consequences of actions leading to global warming aren't particularly obvious to consumers -- who thus remain convinced that their little pollution-contribution doesn't amount to much as far as the bigger picture goes.
       Over the long term the more convincing argument may well be the self-serving financial one (which should certainly be an easier sell in the US): unilateral disregard for the global community comes at a high cost. Pollution is a tough one, because the costs are generally deferred (they fall on the next generation, or at least years in the future) which means people prefer to embrace the short-term benefits and ignore the long-term costs (much like smoking -- enjoyable in the short-term, dreadfully expensive (in this case to the individual) in the long-term -- leading people to act completely irrationally and actually engage in this damaging activity). Elsewhere, the benefits are more obvious, from cost-sharing in foreign interventions, to the fact that internationally agreed upon humanitarian intervention (if that's what it truly is) leads to widespread better conditions for populations, making for everything from larger markets for foreign products to their being less likely to become breeding-grounds for terrorists. Similarly, in international trade regulation, a focus on equity that looks beyond the most obvious economic aspects should, over the longer term, also produce markets in which essentially all participants will be better off -- i.e. get more out of it, financially and otherwise. Similarly, the proper distribution of adequate foreign aid can also broaden markets and ultimately increase welfare not just among those who receive the aid but even those that give it.

       One World is an interesting look at very significant issues. Not all of it convinces -- though Singer's necessarily condensed consideration of the issues is in part responsible for this. Certainly, it is a worthwhile reminder that local actions and policies do have global consequences, and that we shouldn't turn a blind eye to these. His discussion is, for the most part, measured and there is little that is truly radical or particularly contentious. There's a lot more to all of this -- but at least the issues are raised, and it's worth reading for that alone.

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One World: Reviews: Peter Singer: Other books by Peter Singer under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian philosopher Peter Singer is the author of the influential Animal Liberation, and currently teaches at Princeton University.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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