Global Responsibilities

Global Responsibilities in the

Post-modern World

Timo Virtala

Keywords: Responsibility, ethics, globalisation


Individualisation and a certain type of globalisation have increased the need of individual responsibility -taking considerably during the last decades. Post-modern society supposes awareness from consumers, tolerance from employer as well as employees and economical expertism from voters. The new responsibility everyman bears concerns not only the neighbourhood where he lives, but also the entire world.

Globalisation plays a two-sided roll in this process. On the one hand globalisation pushes more responsibility to everyman. On the other hand I suppose in my hypothesis that the movement of people – migration, tourism, business travel – increases everymans capability to handle the sudden responsibility he bears.

I base my hypothesis on Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995) theory of the source of moral. He states that ethics are born in the intercourse between individuals. My interpretation is that in order to be responsible over people and nature on the other side of the globe one needs to have face to face meetings over cultural frontiers.


New Responsibilities

The welfare state has become smaller and less solicitous because of privatisation, deregulation and individualisation. Individuals have got more responsibilities over each others and over the environment than earlier.

In the post-modern world individuals are forced to be reflexive over the actions they practice. This mean that they should be aware about the negative results of their actions, even when the actions where meant to have only positive effects (Beck 1992).

By choosing certain products and boycotting others consumers have a great power over world-wide economical balances. This is probably the most visible responsibility people have got: the responsibilities as a consumer. The buying habits have potential to influence the environment, the international division of labour, the use of child labour and the economical gap between north and south – only to mention view examples. Consumerism – to vote with the wallet – has become an essential method to use power.

The post-modern society is multifarious. This means that each individual have the responsibility to be tolerant towards groups and individuals whose habits and rules are different. This concern sexual-, religious-, ethnical- and political minorities, whose behaviour can seem strange and divergent.

Anthony Giddens has written that we need a cosmopolitan attitude, which would “emphasize the responsibility that individuals and groups have for the ideas they hold and the practices in which they engage”. It is important to notice that to emphasise responsibilities does not mean that one have to renounce his or her commitments. Essential is that individuals are flexible in practising them (Giddens 1994, p. 130).

In his latest book he continues the argumentation for the cosmopolitan attitude. He suggests that social democrats should have principle “no rights without responsibilities” as one of their main principle. This would be an ethical principle; these responsibilities would not only concern welfare recipients (Giddens 1998, p. 65-66).

Some scientists go even further than this. A French political scientist Bertrand has suggested kind of reconstruction of the social contract. His idea is that responsibility should be taken as an alternative to states sovereignty. Individuals should permit to belong to more than just a collective, and states should co-operate more with other states and international organisations (Demker 1999).

It is quite obvious that the individual responsibilities have increased. The question is thus how can we reach a society where individuals use these responsibilities in a responsible manner. The distance between action and outcome is a central problem: why should somebody care what is happening on the other side of the world. Before trying to answer this question I will go briefly trough what globalisation means in this context.


The Complexity of Globalisation

Globalisation is today one of the most discussed subject as well as in political, economical and academical debates. The problem of these debates is the complexity of globalisation: how should we understand the concept, and where does it lead (Giddens 1998, p. 28).

This paper is partly based on my sociology Master’s dissertation “Globaliseringens tvÃ¥ ansikten: tolerans och rasism” where I compared Anthony Giddens and Emmanuel Lévinas theories about globalisations effects on ethnical hatred. In that essay I came to the conclusion that even though these theories come to an opposite conclusions are they not contradictory. The reason is that both theories handle only one of the many parts of effects of globalisation. Globalisation is a complex mixture of processes, which have different effects on different individuals depending on context and individual readiness (Virtala 1999 p. 30).

I learned that it is impossible to summarise all globalisations effects inside a single theory. There is a need to concentrate to one particular process of globalisation at a time. Cultural- and economical globalisation, action at distance, immigration, emigration, tourism, the development of communication technology, mass-media, etc. – all these globalisation forms have different effects on individuals and should thereby be examined one at a time. They can even have a great effect on each other (Ibid.).

Giddens has defined globalisation as “intensification of world-wide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens 1997, p. 64). He has also written that globalisation is “action at distance” (Giddens 1994, p. 4).

‘Action at distance’ means on the one hand the power of consumer, phenomenon that was handled earlier in this paper. On the other hand it also means that economical crisis in Asia can be reason to high unemployment in a distant village somewhere in northern Europe, and that an American soap opera influences their standpoint of a ‘good life’ (von Wright 1993, p. 117).

Globalisation, in other words, is not just expansion of capitalism and opening of financial markets round the world. The economical part of globalisation is surely important and perhaps the most easy to notice, but according to Giddens globalisation is most of all transformation of time and space in our lives (Giddens 1998, p. 30-31).

It is possible to use Luhmanns system theory in lightening further globalisations complicated character. According to Luhmann means globalisation that particular function systems have lost their geographical centres. Science, religion, art and economy Рall these function systems work independently from any particular national state or region. Function systems take their influences by communicating with their own sub-systems throughout the world (J̦nhill 1997, p. 237-244).

Essential for this paper is that globalisation have made social relations over cultural borders more usual. All kinds of travel -emigration, immigration, tourism and business travel – have increased rapidly during last twenty years. This is much because of travelling has become cheaper and easier, but also because of above-mentioned globalisations.

It is important to stress that immigration and ‘action at distance’ are both particular phenomenon of globalisation. Action at distance -globalisation is reality even without immigration. The difference between these two globalisation forms is that action at distance –globalisation is unavoidable because there is one global economical system (Ibid., p. 238). Immigration on the other hand is a purely political question. It is up to national governments to receive or not to receive asylum seekers and refugees – this concerns even countries inside the European Union (Virtala 1997, p. 15-20 and 24).


Meetings Which Creates Tolerance

My hypothesis – my answer-suggestion to the question asked earlier – is that globalisation, and particularly the movement of people, helps us to reach a society where individuals feels responsible over their actions, even if the negative effects happens on the other side of the world.

I base my assumption to the philosophy of a French-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, who lived 1906-1995. Lévinas view is that ethics and moral comprehensions are always born in human intercourse: in face to face meetings. A genuine face to face meeting with the Other gives one an opportunity to see the “total nudity of his defenceless eyes” – to comprehend the vulnerability of the fellowman (Lévinas 1969, p. 199).

Lévinas has written that the primordial expression “you shall not commit murder” resist us already in the “gleams in the face of the Other” (Lévinas 1969, p.199). Comprehending the vulnerability of the Other does not only forbid murder, but is the source of all moral comprehension. The responsibility and the ethics are born here, on the concrete level of person to person intercourse. By comprehending the vulnerability of fellowman one feels responsibility over him or her (Kemp 1992, p. 66 and Beavers 1990 p. 2).

There are many examples how Lévinas theory works in practice. One example is ethnocentrism: we care more about the people around us than about the people further away. Europeans sends money to Kosovo but are ignoring the same size humanitarian catastrophe in Africa.

Another example is the fact that we need faces – concrete examples – in order to feel responsibility. When the press writes about starvation, Aids or war in general the reaction from readers is usually quite mild. When the journals writes about a person who suffers undernourishment, about Aids-patient or about family who has lost their house. We must see the face in order to feel responsibility.

Conclusions: immigration helps us to handle global responsibilities

The message from Lévinas is clear: the more people have the opportunity to meet each others in a genuine face to face situation, the more people understand, respect and feels responsible over each others.

As I explained in the beginning of this paper have our society reach a point where we are more or less responsible not only over people around us but also people and places in the other side of the world. The problem is that according to Lévinas ethics demands face to face situation.

It is obvious that for Lévinas face to face meeting is a symbolic concept (Lévinas 1990, p. 101-102 and Kemp 1992, p. 43-44). An interesting question is which kind of meeting is enough lightening to create ethics.

According to Terje Rasmussen, a sociologist in the University of Oslo, can face to face meeting occurs even ‘by distance, when we see suffering from television (Rasmussen 1998).

My conclusion is hereby that some globalisation forms increase the possibilities to face to face meetings over cultural frontiers. These meetings are essential for us to learn to take global responsibilities.

The movement of is definitely a globalisation form which have this kind of effect. Also the development of global mass media and the Internet plays a central part in forming a society of cosmopolitan attitude.

In the political map there have always been isolationists who fight against influences from outside. The economical isolation has become more or less impossibility in Europe and elsewhere because of forming of one global economical system (Jönhill 1997, p. 238). Cultural isolation has also become – on ground of satellite and Internet – at least extreme difficult.

Despite of these the movement of people is still tightly watched. There have been strong arguments to close borders even tightly in front of immigration. L̩vinas study of the source of moral shows that if we fight against the globalisation Рif we close our borders and withdraw inside our national districts Рwe face a risk of anti-tolerance and ethnic hatred.

I am aware of the rise of far-right political movements in many parts of Europe. One could hastily interpret that this is a proof against Lévinas theory of the source of moral. It is essential to point out that Lévinas wrote about genuine face to face meetings between individuals. One explanation to the racism today is that the racists have not had a genuine face to face meeting with the people they hate.

The statement from Giddens I examined in my longer essay concerned how globalisation can lead to renewal of nationalism and ethnicities (Giddens, 1994, p.81). He lifted up two couplings between globalisation and nationalism. The first concerned the weakening power of the national states: the international interdependence gives the local nationalism the space to increase. The second assumption concerns the identity seeking in the post-modern multifarious world. Some individuals need a strong group-identity, for example nationalism, to improve their self-identity.

I do not reject these statements. Georg Henrik von Wright agrees with Giddens in that the current process of disappearing of the national identities creates a “value vacuum” which causes aggressive nationalism and hate of strangers. But he also points out that the weakening of national identities do not have to be a catastrophe in the long run (von Wright 1993, 118). I believe that he means that the contemporary problems with aggressive nationalism concern before all the current transition period. When we have left the old national state system behind and reached a more cosmopolitan order will aggressive nationalism decrease.

To close our borders by argumentation that different ethnical groups does not get on well with each others is no solution. Isolation deteriorates the situation in the long run whereas globalisation makes creation of society with an atmosphere of tolerance, cultural understanding and global responsibility possible.



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