Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle

In 1869 the Irish historian William Lecky (1838-1903) wrote that moral progress is about extending the moral circle.

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity…

What is the effect of globalization on the moral circle? Does trade melt barriers and expand the moral circle or does globalization make "the other" a more salient division allowing politicians to demonize and control through xenophobia?

Two pieces of evidence, one anecdotal the other experimental, suggests that globalization expands the moral circle. The anecdotal evidence is the cover story of this month's Wired titled "1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. This is where your gadgets come from? Should you care?"

Now from a rational point of view this is absurd. Put aside that the suicide rate is higher among American college students than Chinese workers at Foxconn, even odder is that the writer cares about 17 suicides but not say the million plus deaths in China due to lung disease. But no one said that the moral circle grows for rational reasons. In this case, the writer, Joel Johnson, found that the purchase of the cell phone extended his moral circle to workers who assembled the phone half a world away: 

I was burdened by what felt like an outsize provision of guilt–an existential buyer’s remorse for civilization itself. I am here because I want to know: Did my iPhone kill 17 people?

What about the experimental evidence? In an excellent paper, Buchan et al. discuss results from a public good dilemma game that they ran on thousands of people in six countries around the world: Iran, South Africa, Argentina, Russia, Italy and the United States.

In each country the players could contribute to themselves, to a local group or to a world group. Local contributions were doubled and world contributions were tripled such that the world-group maximizing strategy would be for all contributions to go to the world account, the local-group maximizing strategy would be for all contributions to go to the local account and (as usual) the dominant strategy was to contribute to self only. (Local contributions also paid more to self than did contributions to the world account). 

The authors find two strong effects. First, the rate of donation to the world account increased significantly with the extent of a country's globalization, as measured by a globalization index. Second, within countries the rate of donation to the world acount increased with an individual's globalization index (based on measures such as whether the individual worked for an international firm, watched foreign movies, called people abroad etc.) Thus, globalization increases the potential for global cooperation.

The authors conclude:

…not only is living in a more globalized country associated with more cooperation at the world level, but the same relationship holds as the degree of individual global connectedness increases as well. The cosmopolitan hypothesis receives clear support from our experiments.

… our findings suggest that humans' basic “tribal social instincts” may be highly malleable to the influence of the processes of connectedness embedded in globalization. 


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