By On Monday, September 16th, 2013 Categories : Review

In global ethics, one important question concerns the
responsibilities of different agents. One may ask, for
instance, who is responsible for extreme poverty. Some
authors argue that the structures of international order are
unjust and that they are not produced on purpose.
According to those authors, the question about responsible
agents is, therefore, misleading. Extreme poverty is
comparable to unavoidable natural disasters such as earthquakes
and tsunamis. However, if we reject this view and
accept that extreme poverty should be distinguished from
natural disasters, then the question about responsible
agents arises. We should ask which agents have contributed
to the extreme poverty or which agents have not
contributed to the eradication of extreme poverty even if
they could have done so. Many authors have suggested
that the responsible agents are multinational corporations
and industrial states. This claim, however, has been
contested. Some scholars claim that problems of global
poverty are primarily due to individual persons in
affluent countries. The individuals in question fail to fulfil
their duties in such a way that contributes to global
poverty. Charitable giving is too rare, and more importantly,
people in the affluent countries do not force their
politicians to fight against severe poverty in the developing
This brings us to the problems of individual agency
and intentional action. It is customary to distinguish
between actions and other events. Human events can be
divided into actions and mere happenings, but it is
important to notice that, arguably, activities fall short of
actions but are more than mere happenings. When my
arm goes up it may be a mere happening, but it can also be
an action. If I raise my hand in order to say hello, it is an
action. However, if I scratch my head while reading
a book, we could say that my scratching is an activity,
not an action. Breathing is something everyone does, but
we do not say that breathing is an action.
In ordinary language, “action” often refers to an “act,”
but these concepts seem to have different meanings.
Acts are things people do and hence they are, in this
sense, act-types. One person can do the same thing as
another person. For instance, both you and I can vote
politicians who promise to fight against severe poverty.
However, the action of my voting a politician is not the
same action as your voting the same candidate. Obviously,
they are separate actions.
Acts are usually done by doing some other acts. An
individual citizen may fight against severe poverty by
voting for politicians who promise to try to break the
status quo of unjust international order. However, not
every act someone does could be done by doing something
else. If this were the case, then, arguably, nothing would
ever get done. Therefore, it is customary to think that
there are some basic acts, acts that are not done by doing
something else.
There are many theories that aim to explain what happens
when someone acts. Intuitively, it seems that when
a person acts, there is something that the person wants and
then there is an action that he or she believes is effective in
reaching the goal. The person’s desire and belief together
make himor her to form an intention to performan action,
and the intention causes corresponding bodily movements.
The person’s reasons for action are constituted by his or her
desire and belief. This story, however, raises plenty of questions,
and philosophy of action is the field of philosophy
that aims to answer them. A plausible theory of action has
to be able to explain deviant action springing from, say,
weakness of the will or addiction, and it also provides an
account of notions such as self-control, free will, and agency
on the whole.
When a person’s culpability is considered, it is not
enough to consider those desires and beliefs that constitute
the person’s reason for doing what he or she does and
connect with what he or she does intentionally. We may
also want to know whether some effect that was not
intended by the person was foreseen by him or her. In
order to be morally accountable, an agent does not necessarily
have to know what the moral requirements are. The
capacity to find out such things may be enough. For
instance, the citizens of affluent countries may think that
they are doing the right thing when they do not require
changes to the international order. Suppose, however, that
it is wrong not to oppose the status quo and that it is
relatively easy for people to see that this is so if they think
the things through. In this case, they could plausibly be
held responsible for moral negligence.
It is not uncommon to blame collective entities such as
corporations, states, or nations. Often people say things
like “it is the Americans’ fault” or “the Monsanto Company
is guilty of exploitation.” When “Americans” are
morally blamed, it is not always clear what the target of
the criticism is. Sometimes the target of the criticism of the
“Americans” is a multifaceted entity, the United States or
American people. When a person blames “Americans” in
this sense, often the idea is not that the Americans are
collectively responsible in such a way that this attribution
of responsibility can be expressed exhaustively by speaking
merely of individual responsibilities. An extreme view is
that “Americans” can be responsible even though every
individual American is innocent. Another strong thesis is
that when the “Americans” should be blamed, all individual
Americans should be blamed. However, relatively
often the claim that “Americans are responsible” merely
means that a person or persons who happen to be Americans
are responsible. When the President of the United
States of America is believed to be responsible, one way to
express this is to say that the Americans are responsible.
Seemingly collective attributions of responsibility are
often in fact individual responsibility attributions. Therefore,
questions of individual agency are not irrelevant to
the ethical issues in global affairs.
Questions of different types of agency and responsibility
tie in with the concept of global justice. It is important
to determine and analyze the kind of entities and
collectives that can have duties and play a role in global
justice. Furthermore, questions of what kinds of agency
and action are called for when we face the challenges of
the unjust world are central to the discussion of global