The Possibility of Global Governance – introduction and summary

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             […] For decades now, and more than ever before, the global political agenda is set by complex socio-political issues that burden both our natural environment and our human well-being. Sketching what goes wrong in our world today, the picture does not look very bright: structural poverty, ever expanding industrialisation and urbanisation, environmental degradation, anticipated overpopulation, economic exploitation, adverse manifestations of technological risk, unstable financial markets and uncontrollable financial speculation, adding up to old and new forms of social and political oppression and political, ethnic and religious conflicts, make the world a hard place to live. The stakes are high, and so are the challenges to tackle them. Taking into account the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Agenda 21 and the many that followed these primordial principle commitments, one can say that our society has made progress in developing and formulating general ideas about what needs to be done. These ideas are ethically grounded as they typically (and rightly) refer to fundamental values such as human dignity and equality and the value of nature and also in the way they refer to more modern ‘organisational’ values such as transparency and fair play in politics and in the economy of goods, services and finance. Guided by these ethics while faced with the observed or expected malaises, one could wonder why deliberations on what would be the right thing to do remain stuck in deadlocks over conflicting rationalities or, in the better case, in vague (re)formulations of non-binding commitments. Is it only self-interest and lack of political will of distinct actors to blame or is there more at stake? […]

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‘The Possibility of Global Governance’ is a research and philosophical activism project about the global ethics of sustainable development governance. It does however not initially focus on the ethical implications of the complex social problems listed above. Rather the emphasis is on the ethics related to the way we make sense of them in knowledge generation and decision making. The research develops along the following three consecutive lines of reasoning.

1 – Fair and effective governance of our complex social problems requires a fair dealing with their complexity.

2 – Our traditional governing methods of representative democracy, science, the market and education, as relics of modernity, are no longer able to ‘grasp’ the complexity of the complex social problems we face.

3 – Fair and effective global governance requires advanced approaches to democratic decision making, policy supportive research and education that would have the capacity to enable and enforce the attitudes of reflexivity and intellectual solidarity as a way to fairly deal with the complexity of our complex social problems and to generate societal trust based on their methods instead of on promised outcomes.

As the core idea of the research is developed in the first line, this one is elaborated in more detail here:

1 – Fair and effective governance of our complex social problems requires a fair dealing with their complexity.

What do we mean when we say we live in a complex world? In this research, problems such as combating climate change, the provision of affordable access to healthy food for all, or evaluation of the possible use of risk-inherent technologies are characterized as ‘complex social problems’ of which the complexity can be described by the same set of seven characteristics:

1. diversified impact

– Individuals and/or groups are affected by the problem in diverse ways (benefit vs adverse consequence, diverse ‘degrees’ of benefits or adverse consequences).

– The impact can be economic or related to physical or psychic health, or individual or collective social wellbeing.

– The character and degree of impact may evolve or vary in a contingent way in time. – The impact may also manifest later in time (with the possibility that it manifests after or during several generations).

2. interdependence

– The problem is caused and/or influenced by multiple factors (social, economic, technical, natural) and relates itself to other problems.

– Interdependence can change in time. – The context of concern becomes global.

3. the need for a ‘broader’ coherent approach (organizational complexity)

Due to diversified impact and interdependence, problems need to be tackled ‘together’ in a coherent, systematic and ‘holistic’ approach. This approach needs to take into account the following four additional characteristics of complexity:

4. relative responsibilities

Due to diversified impact, interdependence and the organizational complexity, responsibility cannot be assigned to one specific actor. Responsibilities are relative in two ways:

– (1) mutual: the possibility for one actor to take responsibility can depend on whether another actor takes responsibility or not;

– (2) collective: our collective responsibility is relative in the sense that it will need to be ‘handed over’ to a next ‘collective’ (a new government, next generations).

5. knowledge-related uncertainty (knowledge problem)

Analysis of the problem is complicated by uncertainty due to speculative, incomplete or contradictory knowledge, with respect to the character and evolution of impact and interdependence, and with respect to the effects of the coherent and holistic approach;

6. value pluralism (evaluation problem)

Evaluation of diversified impact, interdependence and organizational complexity and of subsequent relative responsibilities is complicated due to

– the knowledge problem;

– the existence of different visions based on different specific values and world views;

– the existence of different interests of concerned actors;

– the fact that it is therefore impossible to determine in consensus what would be the ‘real’ problem or the ‘root’ of the problem;

– the fact that ‘meta-values’ such as ‘equality’, ‘freedom’ and ‘sustainability’ cannot be translated unambiguously into practical responsibilities or actions;

7. relative authorities (authority problem)

The authority of actors who evaluate and judge the problem and rationalise their interests and responsibilities related to it in a future-oriented perspective is relative in two ways:

– The ‘individual’ authority of concerned actors is relative in the sense that, due to the knowledge and evaluation problem, authority cannot be ‘demonstrated’ or ‘enforced’ purely on the basis of knowledge or judgement. As a consequence, that authority needs to lean on ‘external’ references (the mandate of the elected politician, the diplomas and experience of the scientific expert, the commercial success of the entrepreneur, the social status of the spiritual leader, the appeal to justice of the activist, etc.).

– The ‘collective’ authority of concerned actors who operate within the traditional governing modes of politics, science, and the market is relative, as these governing modes cannot rely on an objective ‘authority of method’: the systems of representative democracy (through party politics and elections) and the market both lean on the principle of competition, while science is faced with the fact that it needs to deal with future-oriented hypotheses. As such, concerned actors have the opportunity to reject or question the relevance and credibility of the judgement of other actors, and consequently to question the legitimacy of their authority, and consequently reflects on what it would imply to deal with this complexity fairly.

Tackling complex social problems requires all concerned actors to recognize their character of complexity and to reflect on how to deal with it in a responsible way. The idea proposed in the research is that this complexity puts an ‘ethical demand’ on every concerned actor, in the sense of an appeal to adopt a ‘public reflexive attitude in face of that complexity’. That reflexive attitude would not only concern the way each actor rationalises the problem as such, but also the way he/she rationalises his/her own interests, the interests of others, and the general interest in relation to that problem. The joint preparedness for public reflexivity of all concerned actors would enable a dialogue that, unavoidably, will also have a confrontational character, as every actor would need to be prepared to give account of his/her interests, hopes, hypotheses, beliefs, and concerns with respect to the problem at stake. That joint preparedness can be described as a form of ‘intellectual solidarity’ as, in arguing about observable unacceptable situations (e.g. extreme poverty), perceived worrisome situations or evolutions (e.g. climate change or population growth), or practices or proposed policy measures with a potential controversial character (e.g. the use of risk-inherent technologies, genetically modified organisms, or a tax on wealth), concerned actors would need to be prepared to reflect openly towards each other and towards ‘the outside world’ about the way they not only rationalise the problem as such, but also their own interests, the interests of others, and the general interest in relation to that problem.

It is important to stress that reflexivity as an ethical attitude should not be understood as a ‘psychological state of being’ of concerned individuals. The idea is that, if a sense of intellectual solidarity implies reflexivity as an ethical attitude, one may also understand that the ability to adopt this attitude requires reflexivity as an ‘intellectual skill’, seeing the bigger picture and yourself in it (with your interests, hopes, hypotheses, beliefs and concerns). The important thing is that reflexivity as an intellectual skill, although it may benefit from solitary reflection, cannot be ‘instructed’ or ‘taught’. Neither can it be ‘enforced’ or ‘stretched’ in the same way as one can do with transparency in a negotiation or deliberation setting. For all of us, reflexivity as an intellectual skill essentially emerges as an ethical experience in interaction with others. That interaction may be informal, but it may be clear that the meaningful and ‘logical’ interactions in this sense are those of the formal methods of knowledge generation and decision making we use to make sense of our co-existence and social organization: political deliberation, scientific research and education.

Why, for the better of society, this focus on the rather abstract concepts of reflexivity and intellectual solidarity instead of on clear facts, diplomatic (but hard) deliberation, pragmatic architectures and hard-boiled regulation? These concepts are more than ethical attitudes for some kind of utopian society. At first instance, they provide the basic elements for a critique on the way we organise politics, the market, science and education today. This is the focus of the second line of reasoning of the research:

2 – Our traditional governance methods of representative democracy, science, the market and education are no longer able to ‘grasp’ the complexity of the complex social problems we face.

Representative democracy, inspired by the ideology of ‘democracy as organized conflict’ and practiced through the system of elections and party politics tends to stimulate polarisation, populism and political self-protection and allows strategic interpretation of the possibility and necessity of public participation. In addition, formal democracy remains restricted within the nation state while the proclaimed central value of nation state sovereignty tends to hinder rather than facilitate global governance of that problem. The market, as a simplistic system driven by competition, return on investment and profit, is not able to determine its own ethical boundaries. Science, still solely driven by the doctrine of scientific truth, is unable to deal with the knowledge-related uncertainty and value pluralism that mark the problems for which it aims to provide policy-supportive scientific advice. And, last but not least, education is still organised in parallel unrelated ‘disciplines’ and cultural and religious comfort zones instead of pluralist, critical, and reflexive in itself. Young people are educated to function optimally in the strategic political, cultural, and economic orders of today instead of as a cosmopolitan citizens with a (self-)critical mind and a sense for ethics in general and for intellectual solidarity in particular. Despite of the complexity of our complex social problems, our ‘modern’ politics, markets, research practices and educational systems are set up in such a way so as to allow a strategic maintenance of the comfort zones set up around the various political, economic, social, cultural and religious positions supported in their own way by simplified and therefore polarising rationales used to protect and defend the own interests, beliefs, identities and integrities. That ‘comfort of polarisation’ is the real crisis of humanity today, and this idea, together with the idea of the need for reflexivity as an ethical attitude and intellectual solidarity as an ethical commitment in face of complexity, form the point of departure for the third line of reasoning:

3 – Fair and effective global governance requires advanced approaches to democratic decision making, policy supportive research and education that would have the capacity to enable and enforce the attitudes of reflexivity and intellectual solidarity as a way to fairly deal with the complexity of our complex social problems and to generate societal trust based on their methods instead of on promised outcomes.

The general and neutral characterization of complexity of complex social problems inspires an ethics of care perspective based on the simple insight that we are all bound in that complexity. Recognising complexity and acting accordingly is thus not a choice. The idea that ‘we are all in it together’ informs the view that we should care for our relations with each other, not only in the sense that we need to be reflexive with respect to how our complex relations ‘emerge’ and ‘work’, but also in the sense that we need each other to make sense of complex social problems. The basic idea is that the ‘fact of complexity’ brings along three new characteristics of modern co-existence that can be named ‘connectedness’, ‘vulnerability’, and ‘sense of engagement’:

Connectedness

We are connected with each other ‘in complexity’. We cannot any longer escape or avoid it. Fair dealing with each other implies fair dealing with the complexity that binds us.

Intellectual solidarity implies our joint preparedness to enable and participate in intellectual confrontation with respect to the ratio’s we use to defend our interests, hopes, hypotheses, believes and concerns and the ratio’s we use to relativize our uncertainties and doubts.

Vulnerability

In complexity, we became intellectually dependent on each other while we face our own and each other’s ‘authority problem’. Intellectual solidarity implies that we should care for the vulnerability of the ignorant and the confused, but also for that of ‘mandated authority’ (such as that of ‘the scientific expert’, the ‘teacher’ or ‘the elected political representative’) and of those who cannot be involved at all (the next generations, but also as those among us who are intellectually incapable to join)

(Sense of) Engagement

Our experiences now extend from the local to the global. As intelligent reflective beings, becoming involved in deliberating issues of general societal concern became a new source of meaning and moral motivation for each one of us. As citizens, we want to enjoy the right to be responsible in the complexity that binds us, although not only in our own interest. The will to contribute to making sense of the complexity of our co-existence can be understood as driven by an intellectual need and as a form of ‘intellectual’ altruism. Intellectual solidarity implies the joint preparedness to enable and support ‘intellectual emancipation’ of others with the aim of providing every human being with the possibility of developing ‘reflexivity as an intellectual skill’, or thus to develop a (self-)critical sense and to be a (self-)critical actor in society.

Based on this perspective, the final idea is that advanced approaches to democratic decision making, policy supportive research and education can put this view in practice:

An advanced method of political negotiation and decision making inspired by the ethical attitudes of reflexivity and intellectual solidarity would be a form of ‘deliberative democracy’ that sees deliberation as a collective self-critical reflection and learning process among all concerned, rather than as a competition between conflicting views driven by self-interest. Political deliberation liberated from the confinement of political parties and nation states, and enriched with opinions from civil society and citizens, and with well-considered and (self-)critical scientific advice would have the potential to be fair in the way it would enforce actors to give account of how they rationalise their interests from out of strategic positions, but also in the way it would enable actors to do so from out of vulnerable positions. It would be effective as it would have the potential to generate societal trust based on its method instead of on promised outcomes.

in an advanced method of science, knowledge to advise policy is generated in a ‘transdisciplinary’ and ‘inclusive’ way, or thus as a joint exercise of problem definition and problem solving with input from the natural and social sciences and the humanities as well as from citizens and informed civil society.

An advanced form of education is pluralist, critical, and reflexive in itself, and gives every human being the possibility to develop as a cosmopolitan citizen with a (self-)critical mind and a sense for ethics in general and for intellectual solidarity in particular.

While the utopian picture of ‘global deliberative democracy’ would imply a total political reform on all levels, it may be clear that we do not need deep utopian reform of our society to make research already now transdisciplinary and inclusive, and to make education already now pluralist, critical, and reflexive. Even in the old modes of political conflict, steered and limited by party politics and nation state sovereignty, it is possible in principle to organise public and civil society participation in deliberation around concrete issues, and to take the outcome of that deliberation seriously. So although we do not live in a society inspired by intellectual solidarity, we have the capacity to foster it and to put it in practice.

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