The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World

Kishore Mahbubani
PublicAffairs Books
“Conclusion: Because Everything That Rises Must Converge” Pages 254 to 259

[One more] suggestion for creating a better global order is to continue applying a little more water and more fertilizer to a new budding plant in our global environment: the emergence of a “global ethic.” Over time, as human communities grew in size and complexity, our sense of moral obligation to other men and women extended from family to larger clans, from clans to tribes, from tribes to fiefdoms, and from fiefdoms and principalities to budding nation-states. This evolution did not, of course, progress in a straight line and varied from region to region. Yet there is also no doubt that over time our sense of the moral community that we belong to has grown steadily in size.

Today, more and more philosophers are noting that our sense of moral community is now slowly but steadily extending to every other member of the human race. In Chapter 1, I quoted Peter Singer, who says that the communications revolution has spawned a “global audience” that creates the basis for a “global ethics.” [1] And how did this global ethic emerge? Another philosopher who is paying close attention to this phenomenon is David Rodin of Oxford. Rodin answers that “we are ‘pushed’ toward a global ethic by the need to address urgent issues that are increasingly global in nature, and we are ‘pulled’ toward a global ethic by a universal core implicit in the very idea of ethics—a core articulated most powerfully by the idea of human rights.” [2]

I agree with Rodin that several forces are generating this global ethic. One paradoxical point to note is that technology can create compassion. Technology, of course, is a material force and has no soul. Yet when technology destroys distances, it extends our sense of moral compassion and our sense of moral obligation to other human beings. One recent dramatic example of the moral impact of technology was provided by a video produced by a charity group in California on Uganda’s notorious war criminal Joseph Kony. In the first three days after its release on March 5, 2012, Kony 2012 was watched by 40 million people all over the world, and by the end of the month the number had grown to almost 90 million. Suddenly, people everywhere became aware that a Ugandan war criminal was on the loose. Anyone who doubts the need for a theory of one world should look at how the film generated a reaction in all corners of our world.

We have known for more than a decade that Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been raping and looting, maiming and killing children and innocent civilians. When I served on the UN Security Council in 2001–2002, we used to receive reports about his activities. The P5had also known about his blatantly immoral activities for a long time, but they did nothing and felt no obligation to do anything in response because they reckoned that no one in the world really cared. One night, people all over the world went from moral indifference to moral outrage. On March 21, less than a month after the international debut of Kony 2012, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced in the US Senate a nonbinding resolution “condemning Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army for committing crimes against humanity and mass atrocities, and supporting ongoing efforts by the United States Government and governments in central Africa to remove Joseph Kony and Lord’s Resistance Army commanders from the battlefield” (S. Res. 402). The resolution received bipartisan cosponsorship from forty-six other senators owing to the immense popularity of the video. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), a cosponsor of the resolution, said, “When you get 100 million Americans looking at something, you will get our attention. This YouTube sensation is gonna help the Congress be more aggressive and will do more to lead to his demise than all other action combined.”

On March 23, the African Union unveiled its plan to dispatch 5,000 soldiers to apprehend and “neutralize” Kony. The international task force includes troops from Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the countries most adversely affected by the LRA, and is supported by 100 US troops deployed to capture Kony prior to the release of Kony 2012. As of August 2012, Kony still has not been apprehended and is believed to be in the Central African Republic commanding between 200 and 700 troops.15

Another force generating this global ethic is logic, especially moral logic. All theories of morality rest on one single assumption: all human beings in the world enjoy the same rights, regardless of whether they are white or black, African or Alaskan, Asian or Latin American. In practice, for most of human history, human beings were not treated equally. We crossed a significant threshold in human history when we adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in December 1948. Yet while lip service was paid to the UDHR by societies all around the world for several decades after that, the general assumption was that each society had a right to determine how it treated its own citizens. Over time, as technology has made all societies (with the exception of North Korea) more transparent, it is hard for any society anywhere to get away with massive violations of human rights. And we crossed another significant threshold in human history in December 2005 when the UN General Assembly announced that the global community had a “responsibility to protect” citizens oppressed by their own governments. The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document stated, “The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

Much of this concern for protecting people in all corners of the world has come from Western societies. It is mobilized by technology that makes people aware of suffering across the globe and by the moral logic that all human beings deserve protection. Logic has, however, always been a double-edged sword. Many Western commentators have, for example, highlighted the harm done to poor African citizens by incompetent or even malevolent African governments. Curiously, when the same Africans suffer the consequences of harmful actions by benign and competent Western governments, Western commentators are slower to express moral outrage. Often there is a deafening silence. Expensive cotton subsidies given by the US Congress to rich American farmers or expensive agricultural subsidies given by the European Union to rich European farmers have hurt and impoverished African farmers. Why is there no moral compassion, or outrage, shown about this?

The emergence of a global ethic will, of course, make it more and more difficult to have double standards like these. Indeed, the force of moral logic will insist that the impact of all harmful actions should be treated with the same moral attention. And as the world gets smaller and smaller, we will find that a lot of our domestic actions will have global consequences and could hurt other people.

This is why the development of effective principles of global ethics is one of our most important intellectual tasks. The good news is that it can be done. Most of the key principles of human ethics are found in all human societies. The principle of “we must treat others as we wish others to treat us” can be found everywhere. This means that, for example, if Americans are concerned that the increased level of greenhouse gas emissions from China could damage their environments and livelihoods and they want the Chinese to exercise restraint, they need to first ask how their own greenhouse gas emissions have hurt Africans and others and what they have done to restrain themselves. The whole world would be better off if the 7 billion citizens of planet earth become more and more aware of the global impact of their activities. As Martin Luther King wisely noted, “An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

This is where a theory of one world would help us a lot. It would provide a bedrock upon which we could rest a moral theory of one world. There will, of course, be disputes for many decades to come on what this new global ethic will encompass. It may be safer to begin with a narrower definition of this coverage as most of us will feel for a long time a greater sense of moral obligation to those who live in our immediate neighborhood.

But we should not be surprised if we rapidly move away from this minimalist approach. It is clear, for example, that the status and role of women vary from society to society. We can and should insist that all women in the world enjoy the same fundamental rights. We should all condemn ferociously the way the Taliban treated Afghan women when it ruled Afghanistan. Yet at the same time, the role and place of women in Islamic societies will be different for a long time from the role and place of women in conservative Christian societies and in liberal Western societies. These differences will remain for a long time. A hundred years ago, there was little outrage in the West about the practice of female circumcision—it was hardly known in the West. Today, there is enormous moral outrage. What happened? Our sense of moral compassion has expanded.

And our sense of moral compassion toward all the other 7 billion global inhabitants of this planet will continue to expand. The world will continue to shrink and shrink. Technology will eliminate distance. When we used to live in small villages, we would inevitably develop a sense of moral community in the village, a sense of moral compassion in the village, and a sense of moral compassion toward all the other villagers. In the next few decades, we will increasingly realize that our village is a world and not that our world is a village.


[1] Singer quoted in Dani Rodrik, “The Nation-State Reborn,” Project Syndicate, February 13, 2012,

[2] David Rodin, “Towards a Global Ethic,” Ethics and International Affairs 26, no. 1 (Spring 2012).

Copyright 2013 Kishore Mahbubani