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Can one be moral in an immoral system?

Jackie Smith | Friday, November 5, 2010

In his academic forum address, Thomas Friedman repeatedly criticized the failures of the U.S. economy to match the competitive needs of our global economy. This failure is certainly related to the decline of critical thinking and discourse, which requires more serious and empirically grounded discussions of the causes and effects of national and global economic policies than this forum demonstrated.

Friedman’s popularity is the result of his over-simplistic and individualized account of how the world works. For him, the problems we’re facing result from the selfish actions of a single generation. One doesn’t need to feel disempowered by the hugeness of the problems we face, for individual action and “sustainable” values can make a difference.

Nowhere in Friedman’s account is the problem of large-scale inequality addressed. Apparently all individuals in this “flat world” are equally able to improve their situation by plugging into the new technology that is globalization 3.0.

Cute metaphors sell books and make one a popular journalist, but they don’t advance public knowledge and insight into what we need to do to solve the pressing problems of our day.

Social science analysts of globalization trace the roots of the current crises back

hundreds of years. These are not the result of one generation’s failures. Rather, they are the highly predictable outcomes of a world economy and decades of government policies designed to seek perpetual growth. Changing individuals’ values won’t alter this. To borrow Friedman’s metaphor, we need to change the operating system, not just the users. And this will require more knowledge of the social structures and political processes that define the global political economy.

Can we be satisfied with the idea that our individual goodness can overcome a fundamentally immoral system, as Friedman suggests? Or as an earlier academic forum speaker, anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer concludes in his book, “Pathologies of Power,” are we “benefitting from a social and political order that promises a body count?” These are the tough questions we must ask to advance our thinking about the ethics of the global economy.

Jackie Smith

associate professor of Sociology and Peace Studies

Nov. 5