Local Priorities, Universal Priorities, and Enabling Harm

| March 2012
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“National communities,” Michael Ignatieff writes in his thoughtful essay on the prospects for a global ethic, “have some good reasons, as well as some not so good ones, to privilege local ahead of universal priorities and interests. And he goes on to explain the clash of local and universal priorities as rooted in a conflict between the values of “justice and democracy.” I would rather suggest that the conflict is an internal one—a conflict inherent in our thinking about what justice requires. But in any case, he is surely right that providing a compelling account of how to distinguish good from bad reasons for privileging local priorities, and identifying how weighty the good reasons for local priorities are, is fundamental to developing a plausible global ethic. When a national community privileges local over universal priorities, it gives more weight to the interests of its members than they would have in an impartial ordering. Only a radical nationalist affirms the absolute privileging of local priorities, and only the most radical cosmopolitan denies that local priorities can ever be privileged. At present, there is little agreement about just how local and universal priorities should be balanced as a matter of policy, even though (as I will discuss below) there seems to be substantial agreement on some very clear-cut cases.

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Category: Essay, Global Governance, Issue 26.1, Symposium: In Search of a Global Ethic

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