Global Ethics “MOOC”

Welcome to the Global Ethics “MOOC” (Massive* Open** Online Course).

*I don’t know about “massive,” but a few of my lovely former students in Constanta expressed interest in following the class that I’m teaching here in Bucharest, so here’s my reply: an informal MOOC.
**By scrolling below, anyone can follow along with (some of) the work being done in my Global Ethics class in the American Studies Department at Bucharest University this spring.

The main questions we’ve explored in this class are…

1.) What is Globalization, when did it start, and (how) is it fundamentally changing the world?

2.) “Who is my neighbor” and how do my personal ethics affect the rest of the planet?

3.) How does Globalization overlap with “Americanization”? What has America’s role as a major world power been in an increasingly interconnected world?

Screen shot 2014-04-01 at 12.19.20 AM

This page will expand every so often as the semester continues.
If you are a former student, you are welcome to email me for more course resources, or to submit a short “response paper” to anything you find interesting in the class and I’ll give you feedback on your content (and grammar, for old times sake).

Introductory thoughts:

I’d like to start by acknowledging the tricky line between Relativism vs. Absolutism in any discussion that involve multiple world views  –

Screen shot 2014-04-01 at 12.30.10 AM(Comic from “Introducing Ethics” by Dave Robinson)

We brainstormed in class about some ideas of “good” or “virtue” that are recognized globally, and came up with ideas like the UN Declaration of Human Rights,

…Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

and the “Golden Rule” from the Bible:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…

We also came to the conclusion that in a more connected world, our actions affect more people, and we increasingly have more knowledge of more people’s aspirations, fears, lifestyles, and hopes than ever before. 

Globalization, the trend to connect us further, is always shaped by human decisions – the daily decisions of corporations, consumers, governments, policy-makers; everyone on the planet, including you.

Then we got to our introductory question about globalization, designed to blow some assumptions out of the water:

1.) Is the World really “Flat?”

Screen shot 2014-04-01 at 1.07.50 AM

Try to answer the following questions without looking at the answers and see how you do:

Please estimate the extent to which the following are internationalized in general. (Don’t go looking for data; the idea here is to test your intuitions).

Telephone calls: international calling minutes as % of total calling minutes


Immigrants: long-term international migrants as % of global population


Direct investment: foreign direct investment around the world as % of total fixed capital investment


Trade: global exports as % of global GDP (Gross Domestic Product)


Answers: Telephone Calls: 2%, Immigrants: 3%, DI: 10%, Trade: 25-30% If you overestimated these figures (ie: guessed that 25% of telephone calls were international or 15% of the world consist of long-term immigrants) then you fit right in with my class – they overestimated every category.

Fun fact: Long term immigration as % of global population is at similar levels to the 1800s – 3%. See where people are migrating, and where they came from today, in this colorful infographic.

The idea that “the world is flat” has been proposed by some to suggest that distance has little meaning in the world of commerce/communication. We discussed the statistics above, taken from resources on economist and professor Pankaj Ghemawat’s website to explore the idea that information and statistics can powerfully shape our perception, and our intuition about globalization can often fail us.

Accuracy about Globalization’s permeance is important because it helps us to think rationally.

If residents of Western Europe knew that… instead of 24% of their neighbors are permanent immigrants (their average guess)… only 8% of their neighbors are immigrants, they might be less prone to a fear of foreigners.

If more Americans knew that… their government gave far less than 30% of it’s expenditure (a common guess) to foreign aid (reality is less than 1%), then they might be more generous with their own donations to charity abroad or might be more supportive of government administered foreign aid programs.

RECAP: So far we’ve covered some links between realistic knowledge about globalization and individual ethics and got the general idea that our world may not be as connected/flat as we thought.

Sources of Ethical Thought

As Socrates once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

In several ethics-modules, we went over ideas like deontology (the theory that our ethical actions must be governed by rules) and utilitarianism (the theory that our ethical actions must be governed by their consequences). We briefly touched on various ODWGs (old dead white guys), from Aquinas to Machiavelli; Kant to Freud, discussing how their ideas shaped global (or western?) thought on ethics.

Individual ethics is the practice of one’s personal morality directed toward what is right and good for society. It includes reflection on the greater good to humankind and leads to behaviors associated with principles and values acceptable to the larger community.

I asked them to design a question around an ethical problem, and pose it to three people in their lives. I instructed them to ask follow-up questions to determine the origin of the interviewee’s ethical stance.

Class members asked questions about…
stray dogs,
and more.
They chose to ask…
and colleagues.
If you try this at home, design follow-up questions: “Why do you believe that? Where did that idea come from, for you?” Often religious conviction, personal experience, societal rules, and legal issues were the answers to why we find particular behaviors deplorable or acceptable.

Food for thought that came up in class: Just a quick consideration about the change in the way women are treated – as property hundreds of years ago, to equals now, shows us that ethics are not as immutable as they seem when we act upon them in the present.

Ethics also have a distinctively local quality to them. In deciding between protecting individual rights (like privacy) or protecting the community from potential harm (by forcing an individual to forgo his rights), certain societies value INDIVIDUALISM over COMMUNITY. This is just one example of many types of cultural differences that might shape the debate over ethics in a cross-cultural setting.

The decision to protect someone’s individual rights and potentially bring harm to a group…or to protect a group by infringing on someone’s individual rights is an example of a “right vs. right” moral decision; one where either outcome could be rationalized as ethical through different frames.

Here are some other examples of “right vs. right” decisions:

  • Truth versus loyalty
  • Individual versus community
  • Short-term versus long-term
  • Justice versus mercy

The contradictory views of ethics we discussed, including utilitarian calculations, rule-based thinking, and care-based thinking can lead us to different versions of “right.”

RECAP: Ethics are derived from others and ultimately affect our relationships with others and how we see our role in the world.

Boots or Baby: The Guilt Trip

Philosopher and activist Peter Singer wrote a book called “The Life You Can Save,” which makes the point that anyone who has more than they need should be giving those in need.

He takes a utilitarian approach to ethics, arguing that resources should be distributed in a way that maximizes happiness and reduces suffering.

He uses illustrations to examine people’s gut feelings toward their ethical responsibilities. Here is an example:

On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee deep. The weather’s cool today though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought just a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand over the child to someone responsible for him and change your clothes you will be late for work. What should you do?

Singer goes on to draw an analogy between the ability to saving a drowning child from a shallow pond to the ability that most people in developed countries have to donate the money it would take to save a child’s life in a developing country. Read more from his book here.

Throughout the book he uses the following basic logic:

  • Suffering and death from lack of food, medical care, and shelter are bad
  • If it is within your power to prevent something really bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it’s wrong not to do so.
  • By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

This could remind us of classic ODWG Thomas Aquinas, who said,

“The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked, and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless.”

As Peter Singer asks in this article, should we consider the “equal value of all human life” a guide to our behavior, or just a nice piece of rhetoric?

Finally, on this subject, we talked about the severe illusion that people are under when they claim to have “earned” certain successes. 
In this TED talk, a rigged game of monopoly revealed how quickly people tend to forget unearned advantage.

We are all really participants in a similarly rigged game of life when you consider Nobel Laureate economist Herman Simon’s statement: Social capital, basically the cards you’re dealt at birth, account for 90% of your future wealth.
Social capital, including good government, education, technology, and other resources are the foundation for all work that leads to wealth creation.

Life truly can be a game of chance, as I’ve written about before, on this post.

There are many human glitches that stop us from helping those in need…

Someone else will do it.

It’ll get done someday.

But I really like Starbucks and Gucci.

People richer than me should be doing more.

Confession time: My personal excuses have tended to range from “But I’m not sure if this nonprofit is the most effective… (without bothering to research thoroughly)” and “But what if I need this money later?… (without bothering to make a financial plan for myself and consciously, carefully setting aside the money I can for the poor).” 

RECAP: If most of us are being completely honest, we act unethically according to Peter Singer’s standards. But is he right, and if so, what does that mean for each of us personally? (And if he’s wrong, what is he missing?)

Maybe if Singer doesn’t do it for you, and you need another look at inequality, you should check out Harvard philosopher T. M. Scanlon’s four biggest reasons why inequality is bad:
1.) Economic inequality can give wealthier people an unacceptable degree of control over the lives of others.
2.) Economic inequality can undermine the fairness of political institutions.
3.) Economic inequality undermines the fairness of the economic system itself.
4.) Workers, as participants in a scheme of cooperation that produces national income, have a claim to a fair share of what they have helped to produce.

Globalization: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?

We discussed…

  • Is it/to what extent is it really happening?
  • Does it produce convergence?
  • Does it undermine the authority of nation-states?
  • Is “globality” different from “modernity?”
  • Is a global culture in the making?In the article that we read during this module, Globalization was defined as…
    a process leading to greater interdependence and mutual awareness (reflexivity)among economic, political, and social units in the world, and among actors in general

We talked about potential starting times for globalization (the beginning of time? the 1600s? WWI?) and the different scholars who see globalization so differently.

John Meyer, with his “World Society” approach, posited that world culture exists, and can be best seen/perpetuated by cultural models created by the nation-state.  He said that globalization started in the 1800s when the idea of the modern nation-state was solidified. Hope-you-remember example from class:

This is what a church looks like (Cross). This is what a McDonalds looks like (Golden Arches). This is what a nation-state looks like (Passports, Flag, Anthem, etc.)

This is what a McDonalds/Church looks like (drawn by one of my clearly creative students during a quiz):


We discussed how populations without nation-state status can adopt the semblance/norms of nation-states in a bid to be recognized as sovereign in the international community (Somaliland in northern Somalia).

Robertson & Hannerz  speak about Globalization as a process of relativization. This theory suggests that more than ever there is a “global ecumene,” a global “knowing of each other.” Every nation’s culture can now be seen as a “subculture” under the umbrella of World Culture.

What it means to live in this place, and how it must be ordered, become universal questions. These questions receive different answers from individuals and societies that define their position in relation to both a system of societies and the shared properties of humankind from very different perspectives.

Immanuel Wallerstien is the main brain behind the theory we called KATNISS THEORY in class, but is more commonly called World-Systems theory.

Wallerstien claims that globalization is “done” and we are in the “swan song” (schwanenlied) of Globalization. According to him, globalization started in the 1600s when Europeans started exploiting other areas of the world for resources, and this exploitation will soon become unsustainable. He devides the world into three concentric circles of economic activity/division of labor 1.) CORE 2.) SEMIPERIPHERAL 3.) PERIPHERAL STATES
The Hunger Games analogy works well here.

Neoliberalism, or complex interdependence theory is one brought to us by political scientists Keohane and Nye view economic interdependence in the post-WWII period as the biggest driver of globalization. The theory is that a web of transnational relations among multiple actors are able to constrain state action. These actors include firms, non-profits, multinational governing bodies and more. A. Slaughter said that the state was disaggregating, or breaking into functionally distinct parts. (ie: Humanitarian or Environmental agencies from two states cooperate because they have shared objectives)  These new networks and alliances formed between state agencies, coordinate and cooperate to adapt to the new challenges of globalization.

Finally, another scholar, Fukuyama sees in a globalized world, the end of ideological struggles:

“What we are witnessing,” he wrote, “is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

He ended his 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Manwith this poignant passage:

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”

RECAP: When did globalization start and how has it affected our economic and political realities? Scholars disagree.

Global Disorder

In this segment, we talked about three scholars who have made controversial statements about the future of the planet. Each of these scholars published influential papers in the early 1990s, and with the advantage of time, we looked at the validity of some of their predictions.

Samuel Huntington foretold the “clash of civilizations.”  He predicted that globalization’s increased contact would lead to more awareness of differences and that this awareness would lead to “clashes.” Civilizations with similar world views would ally themselves against others.

He singled out Islamic civilization as one with “bloody borders,” and recommended that the West acquire a more profound understanding of the religious and philosophical assumptions of other civilizations… especially in an effort to identify commonalities.

Benjamin Barber’s 1992 Jihad vs. McWorld talked about the clash between forces of globalization and localization or tribalization. He called the fragmatization of “cultural jihad” a “centrifugal whirlwind,” and the soulless assimilation of globalization a “centripetal black hole.”

He asked whether the political shifts of the early ’90s toward liberal democratic, capitalistic systems were born of a desire for the right to vote…or shop. He posited,

“What is the Power of the Pentagon compared with Disneyland?”

The reassertion of local/regional identities represented the “breakdown of comity in the name of community” to Barber. Essentially, as smaller groups within nations assert themselves, the sovereignty of nation-states is lost.

He predicted that confederal unions of semi-autonomous communities (smaller than nation-states), tied together into regional economic associations and markets larger than nation states was one path into the future. This would satisfy smaller communities needs for autonomy as well as “McWorld” needs for larger, more integrated markets. He cautioned that neither the forces of McWorld nor Jihad are disposed toward democracy, which must come from the will of the people practicing it.

Journalist Kaplan’s title: “The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet” pretty much sums up his views on the future.

He made some cultural observations, comparing slums in West Africa to slums in Turkey. He views slums as litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses, and was impressed by the orderly slum conditions of the “Golden Mountain.”

He named the Environment the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century, but distinguished who he thought the future winners and losers would be:

We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger, part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Although both parts will be threatened by environmental stress, the Last Man will be able to master it; the First Man will not.

Few would currently agree that even Fukuyama’s First Man or groups of privileged WEIRDos (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) will be able to weather all environmental stress as the effects of global climate change continue to aggregate.  Certain WEIRD lifestyles will simply be more and more unethical, if you care for Peter Singer’s opinion (or mine).


1.) Suppose the following statement from “The Life You Can Save” is unquestionably true: “By donating to aid agencies you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.”

Is his conclusion that “If you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong reasonable or not? Why? Use philosophical concepts (like Utilitarianism) from class to form/support your opinion.
Optional: Did you find any other arguments presented by Peter Singer compelling or utterly unconvincing? Why?

2.) In Paul Piff’s TED talk that we watched about inequality/Monopoly, players were randomly assigned to be rich players in a rigged game.  What happened in this game to player’s attitudes, consumer behavior, and rationalization for winning…and what connections and insight did Paul ultimately draw to society, especially in the United States?

Optional: Are Paul Piff’s studies relevant outside the United States? What information would you like to have about the participants of his studies to determine this?

Optional: What was your reaction to this talk personally; What “rigged” advantages do you have in life?

3.) The following quote is from Benjamin Barbar’s Jihad vs. McWorld:
“The Eastern European revolutions that seemed to arise out of concern for global democratic values quickly deteriorated into a stampede in the general direction of free markets and their ubiquitous, television-promoted shopping malls…
Democracy grows from the bottom up and cannot be imposed from the top down. Civil society has to be built from the inside out.” 

What forces of “Jihad” and/or “McWorld” are at work in Romania? How do these movements affect the democratic process/civil society?






5 Responses to Global Ethics “MOOC”

  1. Pingback: Promoting MOOCs, Taking MOOCs, Making a “MOOC” | Romaniadventure

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  4. This class looks great Anna!

  5. Thanks, Bates. 🙂 The students seemed to like it (most of the time).

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