ABSTRACT: I discuss the nature and
genesis of international development ethics as well as its current
areas of consensus, controversies, challenges, and agenda. A relatively
new field of applied ethics, international development ethics is
ethical reflection on the ends and means of socioeconomic change in
poor countries and regions. It has several sources: criticism of
colonialism and post-World War II developmental strategies; Denis
Goulet's writings; Anglo-American philosophical debates about the
ethics of famine relief; and Paul Streeten's and Amartya Sen's
approaches to development. Development ethicists agree that the moral
dimension of development theory and practice is just as important as
the scientific and policy components. What is often called
"development" (e.g., economic growth) may be bad for people,
communities, and the environment. Hence, the process of development
should be reconceived as beneficial change, usually specified as
alleviating human misery and environmental degradation in poor
The Nature of Development Ethics
National policymakers, project managers and international aid donors
involved in development in poor countries often confront moral
questions in their work. Development scholars recognize that
social-scientific theories of 'development' and 'underdevelopment' have
ethical or as well as empirical and policy components. Development
philosophers and other ethicists formulate ethical principles relevant
to social change in poor countries, analyze and assess the moral
dimensions of development theories and seek to resolve the moral
quandaries raised in development policies and practice: In what
direction and by what means should a society 'develop'? Who is morally
responsible for beneficial change? What are the obligations, if any, of
rich societies (and their citizens) to poor societies?
There are several sources for moral assessment of the theory and
practice of development. First, beginning in the 1940s, activists and
social critics—such as Gandhi in India, Raúl Prébisch in Latin America,
and Frantz Fanon in Africa—criticized colonial and/or orthodox economic
development. Second, since the early 1960s, American Denis Goulet,
influenced by French economist Louis-Joseph Lebret and social
scientists such as Gunner Myrdal, has argued that 'development needs to
be redefined, demystified, and thrust into the arena of moral debate'
(Goulet 1971, p. xix). Drawing on his training in continental
philosophy, political science and social planning as well as on his
grassroots experience in numerous projects in poor countries, Goulet
was a pioneer in addressing 'the ethical and value questions posed by
development theory, planning, and practice' (Goulet 1977, p. 5). One of
the most important lessons taught by Goulet, in such studies as The
Cruel Choice: A New Concept in the Theory of Development (1971),
is that so-called 'development', owing to its costs in human suffering
and loss of meaning, can amount to 'anti-development' (Cf. Berger 1974).
A third source of development ethics is the effort of Anglo-American
moral philosophers to deepen and broaden philosophical debate about
famine relief and food aid. Beginning in the early seventies, often in
response to Peter Singer's utilitarian argument for famine relief
(1972) and Garrett Hardin's 'lifeboat ethics' (1974), many philosophers
debated whether affluent nations (or their citizens) have moral
obligations to aid starving people in poor countries and, if they do,
what are the nature, bases and extent of those obligations (see Aiken
and LaFollette 1996). By the early eighties, however, moral
philosophers, such as Nigel Dower, Onora O'Neill and Jerome M. Segal,
had come to agree with those development specialists who for many years
had believed that famine relief and food aid were only one part of the
solution to the problems of hunger, poverty, underdevelopment and
international injustice. What is needed, argued these philosophers, is
not merely an ethics of aid but a more comprehensive, empirically
informed, and policy relevant 'ethics of Third World development'. The
kind of assistance and North--South relations that are called for will
depend on how (good) development is understood.
A fourth source of development ethics is the work of Paul Streeten and
Amartya Sen. Both economists have addressed the causes of global
economic inequality, hunger and underdevelopment and attacked these
problems with, among other things, a conception of development
explicitly formulated in terms of ethical principles. Building on
Streeten's 'basic human needs' strategy, Sen argues that development
should be understood ultimately not as economic growth,
industrialization or modernization, which are at best means (and
sometimes not very good means), but as the expansion of people's
'valuable capabilities and functionings': 'what people can or cannot
do, e.g., whether they can live long, escape avoidable morbidity, be
well nourished, be able to read and write and communicate, take part in
literary and scientific pursuits, and so forth' (Sen 1984, p. 497; see
Nussbaum and Sen 1993 and Nussbaum and Glover 1995).
These four sources have been especially influential in the work of
Anglo-American development ethicists. When practiced by Latin
Americans, Asians, Africans and non-Anglo Europeans, development ethics
often draws on philosophical and moral traditions distinctive of their
cultural contexts. See, for example, the writings of Luis Camacho
(Costa Rica) and Godfrey Gunatilleke (Sri Lanka).
2. Areas of Consensus
Although they differ on a number of matters, development ethicists
exhibit a wide consensus about the commitments that inform their
enterprise, the questions they are posing and the unreasonableness of
certain answers. Development ethicists typically ask the following
- What should count as (good) development?
- Should we continue using the concept of development instead of, for
example, 'progress,' 'transformation,' 'liberation,' or
'postdevelopment alternatives to development' (Escobar 1995)?
- What should be a society's basic economic, political and cultural
goals and strategies, and what principles should inform their
- What moral issues emerge in development policymaking and practice and
how should they be resolved?
- How should the burdens and benefits of development be conceived and
- Who or what should be responsible for bringing about development? A
nation's government, civil society or the market? What role—if any—
should more affluent states, international institutions, and
nongovernmental associations and individuals have in the
self-development of poor countries?
- What are the most serious local, national and international
impediments to good development?
- To what extent, if any, do moral scepticism, moral relativism,
national sovereignty and political realism pose a challenge to this
boundary-crossing ethical inquiry?
- Who should decide these questions and by what methods?
In addition to accepting the importance of these questions, most
development ethicists share ideas about their field and the general
parameters for ethically based development. First, development
ethicists contend that development practices and theories have ethical
and value dimensions and can benefit from explicit ethical analysis and
criticism. Second, development ethicists tend to see development as a
multidisciplinary field that has both theoretical and practical
components that intertwine in various ways. Hence, development
ethicists aim not merely to understand development, conceived generally
as desirable social change, but also to argue for and promote specific
conceptions of such change. Third, although they may understand the
terms in somewhat different ways, development ethicists are committed
to understanding and reducing human deprivation and misery in poor
countries. Fourth, a consensus exists that development projects and aid
givers should seek strategies in which both human well-being and a
healthy environment jointly exist and are mutually reinforcing (Engel
and Engel 1990). Fifth, these ethicists are aware that what is
frequently called 'development'— for instance, economic growth—has
created as many problems as it has solved. 'Development' can be used
both descriptively and normatively. In the descriptive sense,
'development' is usually identified as the processes of economic
growth, industrialization, and modernization that result in a society's
achieving a high (per capita) gross domestic product. So conceived, a
'developed' society may be either celebrated or criticized. In the
normative sense, a developed society, ranging from villages to national
and regional societies, is one whose established institutions realize
or approximate (what the proponent believes to be) worthwhile
goals—most centrally, the overcoming of economic and social
deprivation. In order to avoid confusion, when a normative sense of
'development' is meant, the noun is often preceded by a positive
adjective such as 'good' or 'ethically justified'.
A sixth area of agreement is that development ethics must be conducted
at various levels of generality and specificity. Just as development
debates occur at various levels of abstraction, so development ethics
should assess (1) basic ethical principles, (2) development goals and
models such as 'economic growth', 'growth with equity', 'basic needs'
and, in the nineties, 'sustainable development', 'structural
adjustment' and 'human development' (United Nations Development
Programme), and (3) specific institutions and strategies.
Seventh, most development ethicists believe their enterprise should be
international in the triple sense that the ethicists engaged in it come
from many nations, including poor ones; that they are seeking to forge
an international consensus; and that this consensus emphasizes a
commitment to alleviating worldwide deprivation.
Eighth, although many development ethicists contend that at least some
development principles or procedures are relevant for any poor country,
most agree that development strategies must be contextually sensitive.
What constitutes the best means—for instance, state provisioning,
market mechanisms, civil society and their hybrids—will depend on a
society's history and stage of social change as well as on regional and
Ninth, this flexibility concerning development models and strategies is
compatible with the uniform rejection of certain extreme. For example,
most development ethicists would repudiate two models: (1) the
maximization of economic growth in a society without paying any direct
attention to converting greater opulence into better human living
conditions for its members, what Sen and Jean Drèze call 'unaimed
opulence', and (2) an authoritarian egalitarianism in which physical
needs are satisfied at the expense of political liberties.
3. Controversies and Agenda
In addition to these points of agreement, there are several divisions
and unsettled issues. A first unresolved issue concerns the scope of
development ethics. Development ethics originated as the 'ethics of
Third World Development'. There are good reasons to drop—as a Cold War
relic —the 'First--Second--Third World' trichotomy. There is no
consensus, however, on whether or not development ethics should extend
beyond its central concern of assessing the development ends and means
of poor societies.
Some argue that development ethicists should criticize human
deprivation wherever it exists and that rich countries, since they too
have problems of poverty, powerlessness, and alienation, are
'underdeveloped' and, hence, fall properly within the scope of
development ethics. Perhaps the socioeconomic model that the North has
been exporting to the South results in the underdevelopment of both.
Others contend that since development ethicists address questions of
rich country responsibility and global distributive justice, they
should not restrict themselves to official development assistance but
also should treat international trade, capital flows, migration,
environmental pacts, military intervention, and responses to human
rights violations committed by prior regimes. The chief argument
against extending the boundaries in these ways is that development
ethics would thereby become too ambitious and diffuse. If development
ethics grew to be identical with all social ethics or all international
ethics, the result might be that insufficient attention would be paid
to alleviating poverty and powerlessness in poor countries.
Both sides agree that development ethicists should assess various kinds
of North--South (and South--South) relations with respect to their
effects in reducing economic and political inequality in poor
countries. What is unresolved, however, is whether development ethics
also should address such topics as the ethics of trade, military
intervention and international institutions.
Development ethicists also are divided on the status of the moral norms
that they seek to justify and apply. Three positions have emerged.
Universalists, such as utilitarians and Kantians, argue that
development goals and principles are valid for all societies.
Particularists, especially communitarians and postmodern relativists,
reply that universalism masks ethnocentrism and (Northern) cultural
imperialism. Pro-development particularists either eschew all universal
principles or affirm only the procedural principle that each
nation or society should draw only on its own traditions and decide its
own development ethic and path. (Anti-development particularists,
rejecting both change brought from the outside and public reasoning
about social change, condemn all development discourse and practice.) A
third approach—advanced, for example, by Martha Nussbaum, Jonathan
Glover, Seyla Benhabib and David Crocker (Nussbaum and Glover
1995)—tries to avoid the standoff between the first two positions. On
this view, development ethics should forge a cross-cultural consensus
in which a society's own freedom to make development choices is one
among a plurality of fundamental norms and in which these norms are of
sufficient generality so as not only to permit but also to require
sensitivity to societal differences.
Next is a question related to the universalism--particularism debate:
to what extent, if any, should development ethicists propose visions
committed to a certain conception of human well-being, and how 'thick'
or extensive should this vision be? There is a continuum here: at one
end, there is more commitment to the values of individual choice,
tolerance of differences, and public deliberation about societal ends
and means; and, at the other, more normative guidance about the good
human life but less room for individual and social choice.
Supposing that development principles should have some substantive
content (beyond the procedural principle that each society or person
should decide for itself), there are disagreements about that content.
Assuming that societal development concerns human development, with
what moral categories should human it be conceived? Candidates for such
fundamental moral notions include utility (preference satisfaction);
social primary goods, such as income; negative liberty; basic human
needs; autonomy; valuable capabilities and functionings; and rights.
Although some think that a development ethic ought to include more than
one of these moral concepts, development ethicists differ with respect
to which ones to embrace and how to relate them. One alternative would
be to work out a concept of human well-being that combines, on the one
hand, a neo-Kantian commitment to autonomy, critical dialogue and
public deliberation with, on the other hand, neo-Aristotelian beliefs
in the importance of physical health and social participation.
Development duties might then flow from the idea that all humans should
have a right to at least a minimal level of well-being.
There is also an ongoing debate about how development's benefits,
burdens and responsibilities should be distributed within poor
countries and between rich and poor countries. Utilitarians prescribe
simple aggregation and maximization of individual utilities. Rawlsians
advocate that income and wealth be maximized for the least well-off
(individuals or nations). Libertarians contend that a society should
guarantee no form of equality apart from equal freedom from the
interference of government and other people. Capabilities ethicists
defend governmental responsibility to enable everyone to be able to
advance to a level of sufficiency with respect to the valuable
Development ethicists also differ with respect to whether (good)
societal development should have—as an ultimate goal—the promotion of
values other than the present and future human good. Some development
ethicists ascribe intrinsic value, equal to or even superior to the
good of individual human beings, to human communities of various kinds,
for instance, family, nation or cultural group. Others argue that
nonhuman individuals and species, as well as ecological communities,
have equal and even superior value to human individuals. Those
committed to 'ecodevelopment' or 'sustainable development' do not yet
agree on what should be sustained as an end in itself and what should
be maintained as an indispensable or merely helpful means. Nor do they
agree on how to surmount conflicts among intrinsic values.
The agenda of development ethics is—through an interdisciplinary and
cross-cultural dialogue that deepens and widens the current consensus—
to apply ethical wisdom to enhance human well-being and international
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