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Ethics For A Broken World by Tim Mulgan

Alfred Archer looks at Tim Mulgan’s look forward at people looking back, with anger.

Imagine a broken world – a world with a chaotic climate that is unable to produce enough resources to meet everyone’s basic needs. Further imagine that this is our world a hundred years in the future. This world has been broken not by natural disaster, nor as a result of the actions of that future world’s inhabitants: it is people living today who have broken the future world, by acting in ways that we know will have devastating consequences for the environment. How would the inhabitants of this future world view the moral and political thinking of the society that led to their world being broken – our society? This is the question that Tim Mulgan investigates in this thought-provoking book. But the aim of the book is neither to provide a definitive answer to this question, nor to investigate how future people will actually think. Mulgan has three different goals. The first is to illuminate the ways in which current moral and political thought is a product of the circumstances within which it has arisen. Mulgan also wishes to emphasize the importance of taking future people into account in our present moral and political decision-making. Mulgan’s central goal, though, is to re-introduce the central ideas of contemporary political thought in thought-provoking way. Thus Ethics For A Broken World takes the form of a series of ‘history of philosophy’ lectures from the broken future world. Some of the key theories of our contemporary moral and political thought are introduced for the sceptical audience of the future, including ideas of rights, utilitarianism, the social contract and democracy, and their substance examined from the future perspective. In this way Mulgan makes clear the contingency of contemporary ethical theory, and he shows how some of the assumptions made by the original defenders of those ideas already no longer apply. For instance, we can no longer assume, as John Rawls did, that the future will be one of progress, or that the favourable conditions under which we now live will persist. It is entirely possible to believe that such ideas might even seem completely alien to future people.

Mulgan also investigates how some of our contemporary ideas might be adapted for a world that is unable to secure everyone’s basic needs. In such a world there could be no ‘social contract’ which would guarantee everyone’s basic needs. Perhaps instead, equal opportunities for the fulfilment of basic needs could be guaranteed by a ‘survival lottery’, where everyone has an equal chance of being granted access to what they need. Mulgan demonstrates the importance of taking future people into account in our moral decision-making in a similar way, by illustrating the contradiction in giving all present people a chance to influence decisions while giving no consideration to the concerns of future people. This point is particularly relevant when it comes to democracy. The lecturer and future students express shock that people nowadays could be allowed to vote with no consideration given for how their decisions might affect future people – raising the question of whether present-day democracy undermines future democracy. If we suppose that it does, we must also face the question of what should be done about it.

Present Assessments

Those who have already been introduced to the moral and political theories that Mulgan investigates would certainly find this book a useful way of consolidating their knowledge and thinking about those ideas in a new way. I’m less sure that Ethics For A Broken World would be the best introduction to those theories. In fact, it would be a strange book to give to someone who has no knowledge of them and is approaching them for the first time. This though is a minor point to make. Rather, this book would be ideal for someone with some knowledge of contemporary ethical theories who wishes to read a critical discussion of them. It also serves as a useful reminder to those working in moral philosophy of the dependency of the discipline on the assumptions working in the social and political context in which theories are formed. What is particularly impressive about this book is the engaging style in which it is written. It is accessible, entertaining, and even funny. This makes it the perfect book for those with an amateur interest in the subject.

Despite the fact that it isn’t Mulgan’s aim to highlight the immorality of our current political and economic behaviour, the inhabitants of the broken world occasionally pass judgment on us. The anger that Mulgan allows his imaginary lecturer and students is a powerful way of making the reader consider the effect that our actions could have on future generations. This message could not be more timely and we would do well to pay attention to it. In Mulgan’s words:

“The idea that we hold the resources of the earth in trust for future generations was a very powerful one for many affluent people. They could have applied it to their collective decision-making. Unfortunately for us, and for the future of our world, they did not.” (p.220)

© Alfred Archer 2012

Alfred Archer is a PhD student in moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

Ethics For A Broken World by Tim Mulgan, Acumen Publishing, 2011, ISBN 978-1844654888.

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