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. 


Does that boil down to moral subjectivism? If one thinks that "trade extends YOUR moral circle" almost everything will be viewed differently than someone else who thinks "trade extends THE moral circle."

"The average take home from the experiment was PPP adjusted U.S. $34."

It looks like there is a strong correlation between one's country's globalization index and per capita gdp. (Which is intuitive.) Thus one reasonable explanation for the correlation between globalization and global cooperation in the study could simply be that those from poorer countries were less likely to share their money -- because they were poorer. The difference between taking home $25 from the experiment and $50 could have mattered a lot more to the Argentinians and Russians than to the Americans, for example. Similarly, one who works for a multi-national company or watches foreign films is more likely to have a higher income than those from the same country who don't.

I'd be curious to see a similar study which gives the participants starting money as a percentage of their current income. I suspect that in that case the correlation between globalization and global cooperation would drop, perhaps to the null hypothesis.

Did my iPhone kill 17 people?

No, if those numbers are correct, it killed approximately one six-millionth of a person (not even counting the possibility that some of them may have committed suicide anyway for other reasons).

On the other hand, if you talk on it while driving, it still could kill 17 people...

I would be surprised if these effects are universal. A quick look at different corners of the internet give the distinct impression that globalization exacerbates whatever tendencies individuals had in the first place.

Those with a generally cosmopolitan orientations seem to get more so, while those who are generally tribal seem to retract their moral circle in a defensive posture. To put another way, in some folks familiarity breeds all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings of universal brotherhood; in others it breeds contempt.

Buchan et al. don't discuss morality, just a propensity to participate in large-scale cooperation. They find that a greater propensity to engage in large-scale cooperation is associated with globalization, both measured on the country level and on an individual level. The authors agree, as some comments point out, that there results don't demonstrate causation or reveal the mechanism; they assert their results are consistent with the view that globalization leads to a greater willingness to engage in abstract cooperation with distant others.

I've read only enough moral theory to be confused about what might be the message of this research for morality per se. Johnson's "existential buyer's remorse" seems a lot like the emotional impetus behind the fair trade movement, anti-sweatshop attitudes, and so on. Trying to "care" in this way about distant others may end up making those distant other people worse off.

On the other hand, lots of evidence suggests that willingness to engage in cooperation with others (local and distant) tends to lead to overall improvement in people's lives.

If moral progress is "all about extending the moral circle", then why don't we treat rocks as moral agents and end the whole deal.

Because it's not that simple, idiot.

This all seems too clever. Isn't it the singular moral fact of the last thirty years that globalization-friendly policy choices have raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions of Chinese (and others), quite apart from any expanding "moral circle"?

Stuart, -- No, adjusting for PPP is not the same. Specifically, they used the Economist's Big Mac index for the conversion. Looking at a recent Big Mac index I see that Big Macs in Argentina and Russia are significantly less in dollar terms than in the US, therefore Argentinians and Russians would have been given less money than Americans, despite having much lower per capita incomes. Adjusting for cost of living is not the same as adjusting for income. Often it is the exact opposite.


Good catch. Point taken.

"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..."

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

One of the best articles regarding this matter that i read recently. Give me something to think about and some ideas about my next step in what i am doing.

The first anecdote is a literal example of Balzac's moral formulation in Old Goriot: "What would you be willing to do if you knew your actions killed a man in China?" A purely theoretical question in 19th century literature is now a matter of practical fact. However, as has been noted in some of the comments above, those actions which may seem to kill a man in China, in actuality are more likely to save a man in China. As a moral question, this is similar to the trolley problem. Those who don't like the idea the products they buy were manufactured in unpleasant working conditions ignore the alternative that the workers would have otherwise likely been in even worse circumstances, but they absolve themselves from a sense of moral responsibility in that case since they had nothing to do with it from the start. Thus a moral view can lead to a worse outcome than an amoral view.

@Dave: Personally, I think globalization makes us dislike the other.

I feel the dislike is a short term effect. Things will get worse before they get better. The immediate worker generation might feel threatened but the generation after will appreciate it. If one is born privileged, then it hurts if the privilege is suddenly taken away. And globalization does bite some people hard.

A tangential example: Anglo-Indians got a lot of perks in British India. A lot of them hated it when India got independence in 1947. The later generations don't complain much.

Silas: Did you see the commenter here recently refer to the "human-bovine community"? He's not being an idiot, unless you define "idiot" to mean "disagrees with me". He's using hyperbole to make a point.

First, "Big Mac Index"? Are you CRAZY? What per cent of the average daily calories for the various countries does a Big Mac represent? If that is their idea of normalization, consider me DEEPLY skeptical.

Second, being willing to cooperate is very, VERY different from bringing someone into your moral circle. Cooperation is about perceived risk & reward, with aversion potentially affecting the calculus. On the risk side in particular, one pays attention about the ability to punish defectors, but one is not emotionally committed to the other party's cooperation.

The moral circle is much more emotive. A defector in my moral circle is "immoral" for their acts. While punishment might not even be considered a priori, it comes harsh. While I don't expect a cooperator to act against their own interests on my behalf, I do expect those in my moral circle to do so.

Sure, this is cooperation, but it is cooperation at a much deeper level. It's happening with a much longer timescale, sometimes generational. For instance, during the aftermath of the S&L crisis, family friends rented land from my grandfather at favorable rates, allowing him to keep the farm & eventually pay it off. After he and grandma died, the family considered the land to be theirs, once they could get the money. I told my daughters that we owe that family a debt.

The moral circle IS widening, to a degree. But I really don't believe that this is because of trade. Did centuries of trade engender love & respect between the French & English? French & Germans? Germans & Poles?

If "globalization" is the cause, why did we not see the effect when yak hair was being used as mortar in castles and yew wood for longbows?

I bet you would get a much stronger correlation with secure wealth.

Seems to relate the Kwame Appiah's The Honor Code in which he looks at the end of dueling, the abolition of slavery, the end of foot-binding, and "honor killing" in Pakistan. In all the cases an expansion of the "honor world" leads to a change in conduct. "Honor world" seems very similar to "moral circle".

Already knew this from Henrich et al.

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