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Social Ethics

Questioning the system

München, 01/02/2015

“Market-based regulation cannot protect the interests of the weak,” says Markus Vogt, Professor of Social Ethics at LMU. Here he considers the implications of globalization and climate change, and explores ways of reducing inequality.

Helping the hungry: The UN’s Food Program provides food assistance to people in need. (Source: Thomas Myhoya/Reuters/Corbis)

At this very moment, over 800 million people don’t have enough to eat. Over the next hour, and every hour after that, hundreds of children under the age of 5, most of them in Africa and Southeast Asia, will die – of hunger or from preventable illnesses. These figures, compiled by United Nations agencies, document the extent of poverty and destitution in the world, and highlight the divide between the countries of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. “World hunger is a case in point that underlines the need to redefine the ideals of solidarity and social justice in global terms,” says Markus Vogt, who holds the Chair of Christian Social Ethics at LMU. “We actually have enough food – the European Union produces 30% more than it consumes. Paradoxically, that surplus is the cause of the problem, because with it we disrupt markets in the Southern hemisphere, deprive local farmers of the incentive to produce, and foster a culture of dependency. In some African countries, more than 70% of agricultural land is not under cultivation.”

Markus Vogt studies the effects of globalization, technological change and global warming, investigates conflicts over resources and the highly unequal distribution of wealth and penury in the world. He sees it as the task of his discipline not only to analyze problems, but to point to ways of solving them. For this reason, Vogt, who also heads the Study Group on Catholic Social Ethics, explores the status and applicability of concepts like justice and solidarity – he speaks of the “moral grammar” of these terms – in the context of modern conflicts. “If in my notion of solidarity people are viewed as passive consumers of aid, I make their situation worse.” The goal should be to equip the deprived with the means to produce their own food, provide for their own livelihoods and preserve their cultural identity. “Selective solidarity, which is paternalistic, is not enough. Solidarity must be exercised at the structural level, and must tackle the injustices that lie at the root of deprivation.”

Exploring the “moral grammar” of justice and solidarity
For Vogt, the “prevailing equity deficits” are most obvious in the area of climate policy. “Climate change hugely restricts opportunities for people in the disadvantaged South, for future generations everywhere and – if one may apply the concept of justice to nature as a whole – for the natural world itself,” Vogt says. The Millennium Report issued by the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) revealed the extent to which the natural world is under stress. One quarter of the world’s arable land and more than one-third of our rainforests have already been destroyed. With reference to the immense scale of environmental damage, Klaus Töpfer, a former Director of the UNEP, once spoke of the “ecological aggression” of the Western world. A report issued by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development forecasts that between 150 million and one billion people will be forced to migrate during the next few decades, owing to climate-driven degradation of living conditions in their homelands.

Rampant urbanization and ecological devastation of natural habitats will add to the disruption. “Environmental degradation is already one of the primary causes of social deprivation,” Vogt says. Overexploitation and poverty are closely linked. “Reducing poverty is therefore the most effective way to mitigate climate change, for action against climate change in the disadvantaged countries of the South can only succeed if it is subjectively perceived as equitable and fair.”

Unfortunately, he adds, competing concepts of justice hinder international efforts to confront the real problems. The concept of justice remains essential. It underlines the pressing need for a new world order that enables us to respond appropriately to conflict situations, but it is such a demanding aspiration that it can paralyze initiative. Different states interpret the idea in very different ways, and some equate it with egalitarianism.

“We use the atmosphere as a cheap garbage dump”
The impact of this divergence can be seen in the negotiations on measures to mitigate climate change. The international community is pursuing a balanced settlement, but one based on “a very inadequate balance-sheet,” says Vogt. Some countries produce very little carbon dioxide (CO2) because they are industrially underdeveloped. China’s emissions are rising, but the country manufactures goods for export. “We improve our CO2 balance mainly by outsourcing CO2-intensive production,” he says. Shouldn’t the resulting emissions be entered on our side of the ledger? Do countries that have been loading the atmosphere with CO2 for the past 150 years have the right to demand that others reduce their emissions? Positive contributions to climate stabilization, such as forests or sustainable land management, are undervalued, he maintains. And as for the follow-on costs: “We use the atmosphere as a cheap garbage dump, and are now trying to internationalize the costs so as to minimize higher follow-on costs by means of climate protection measures. But I doubt that these costs can be accurately assessed. In our case, the financial costs are very high, because we are talking about insurable assets. In the South, human lives are at stake. And these people cannot bear such costs, because their own economic value is underestimated. How does one put a price on a human life?”

Vogt‘s conclusion from all this clear-cut: “We cannot save the climate by repeating the mantra: ‘Global resources are declining, so we have to distribute them differently.’ Our whole attitude to resources must change. The rest of the world strives to attain our levels of prosperity. Unless we change our ways, people in other countries will never accept restrictions on resource consumption.” Nicola Holzapfel / Translation: Paul Hardy

The complete article is available here. The original, German-language article appeared in “Einsichten – das Forschungsmagazin, No. 2/2014”, LMU‘s German-language research magazine.