Sunday, July 18, 2010

Global Injustice and Moral Challenge

@RSAevents My son is studying economics at high school, so I took him to a talk by Amartya Sen at the RSA last week on Reducing Global Injustice. (Follow link for audio and video. See also summary by Mick Yates.) Sen is undoubtedly one of the greatest economists of our time but he is not the most inspiring speaker, and spent much of the time explaining subtle differences between his position and that of other thinkers, rather than presenting a clear ethical argument from first principles. My son found Sen's conversation with Matthew Taylor extremely heavy going, despite Matthew's best efforts to draw out the more interesting aspects of Sen's recent thought.

Someone asked Sen to identify the greatest form of injustice, hoping that he would identify gender inequality, but he rightly refused to do so, saying that different forms of injustice are both incomparable (on what basis can you possibly say that gender inequality is greater or smaller than mass poverty or genocide) and interconnected (injustice against children, invalids, old people and women are not separate injustices). Sen has demonstrated his strong support for women's rights and feminism in his books, but that doesn't mean that gender ranks above all other possible injustices.

Meanwhile, the idea that gender inequality is the central moral challenge of the 21st century is being strongly argued by husband-and-wife team Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - most recently at TED Global 2010. Their position: in the 19th century, the central moral challenge was slavery; in the 20th century, it was totalitarianism; but in this century the issue dominating moral debate is gender inequity. See for example Kristof Calls Gender Parity a 21st Century Moral Challenge, a report of a talk at Fordham Law School in February.

The idea that in 2010 we can already identify the central moral challenge of the 21st century seems farfetched. Totalitarianism didn't exist as an issue in 1910: nobody could possibly have identified totalitarianism as the central moral challenge of the 20th century until at least the 1930s and possibly not until the 1950s. For much of the century communism and fascism were widely perceived as opposites, and it took decades before people were ready to make sense of these as two contrasting manifestations of a single phenomenon which came to be labelled totalitarianism.

One might even argue that the various manifestations of totalitarianism grew up in the 1920s as a series of flawed responses to the very issues that were perceived as uppermost in 1910. So we should be very wary of declaring the central moral challenge of the century, as if we could predict the pattern of the next ninety years. History tells us that humankind is perfectly capable of creating appalling new injustices, which could make all present injustices seem trivial in comparison.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are highly acclaimed journalists, who have won Pulizer Prizes for their earlier work, and perhaps the desire to punctuate history in convenient 100-year chunks is a journalistic meme. But in calling out gender inequality as the central moral challenge of a century that has only just started, this not only brings them into conflict with those who would see some other injustice as equally or even more important, as well as those such as Sen who object to singling out any injustice as central. It also brings them into conflict with those such as Nancy Kallitechnis who argue that gender inequality has been a central moral challenge for thousands of years already.

What is the purpose/effect of singling out one central moral challenge? Presumably the intended effect is to mobilize efforts around this challenge, and around some set of perceived solutions. But this kind of thinking is dangerously close to slipping back into the centralizing mindset that Kristof and WuDunn have already identified as the central moral challenge of the century in which they grew up. For the 21st century, perhaps we need fewer hedgehogs and more foxes.


  1. I appreciate what Kristof is trying to accomplish, but I am concerned that moral condemnation can gel into the creation of an ideological foundation for conflict. Warmongers like nothing more than a lofty, moral objective to give credence to their aims at empire.

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  3. I'm curious, what about two other forms of injustice, ethnocentrism and racism as well?

  4. As I understand his argument, Sen is opposed to all kinds of injustice, and refuses (I think rightly) to single out any one kind of injustice as greater than other kinds - whether gender or race or ethnocentrism or whatever.

    Of course, even if we refuse to rank categories of injustice, that doesn't stop us comparing instances of injustice. Many people suffer compound injustice, involving a combination of race, gender and other factors, and that's probably worse than only suffering one kind. But if a black woman suffers injustice, it simply doesn't make sense to say that x% of the injustice she experiences is racially based and y% is gender-based. Part of Sen's argument is that injustice simply isn't amenable to that kind of cost-accounting.