Development Ethics

Ethics may be defined as the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles. It deals with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character, the adherence to the code of behavior that is considered right or acceptable. Development philosophers and other ethicists formulate ethical principles relevant to social change in poor countries, analyze and assess the moral dimensions of development theories and seek to resolve the moral quandaries raised in development policies and practice:

  1. In what direction and by what means should a society ‘develop’?
  2. Who is morally responsible for beneficial change?
  3. What are the obligations, if any, of rich societies (and their citizens) to poor societies?

Sources of Development Ethics
There are several sources for moral assessment of the theory and practice of development. First, beginning in the 1940s, activists and social critics—such as Gandhi in India, Raúl Prébisch in Latin America, and Frantz Fanon in Africa—criticized colonial and/or
orthodox economic development.

Second, since the early 1960s, American Denis Goulet, has argued that ‘development needs to be redefined, demystified, and thrust into the arena of moral debate. Goulet was a pioneer in addressing ‘the ethical and value questions posed by development theory, planning, and practice. One of the most important lessons taught by Goulet, is that so-called ‘development’, owing to its costs in human suffering and loss of meaning, can amount to ‘antidevelopment’.

A third source of development ethics is the effort of Anglo-American moral philosophers to deepen and broaden philosophical debate about famine relief and food aid in the 1970s. Many philosophers debated whether affluent nations (or their citizens) have moral
obligations to aid starving people in poor countries and, if they do, what are the nature, bases and extent of those obligations. By the early eighties, however, moral philosophers had come to agree with those development specialists who for many years had believed that famine relief and food aid were only one part of the solution to the problems of hunger, poverty, underdevelopment and international injustice. What is needed, argued these philosophers, is not merely an ethics of aid but a more comprehensive, empirically informed, and policy relevant ‘ethics of Third World development’.

A fourth source of development ethics is the work of Paul Streeten and Amartya Sen. Both economists have addressed the causes of global economic inequality, hunger and underdevelopment and attacked these problems with, among other things, a conception of
development explicitly formulated in terms of ethical principles. Building on Streeten’s ‘basic human needs’ strategy, Sen argues that development should be understood ultimately not as economic growth, industrialization or modernization, which are at best means (and sometimes not very good means), but as the expansion of people’s ‘valuable capabilities and functioning’: ‘what people can or cannot do, e.g., whether they can live long, escape avoidable morbidity, be well nourished, be able to read and write and communicate, take part in literary and scientific pursuits, and so forth.

Areas of Consensus in Development Ethics
Although they differ on a number of matters, development ethicists exhibit a wide consensus about the commitments that inform their enterprise, the questions they are posing and the unreasonableness of certain answers. Development ethicists typically ask the following related questions:

  1. What should count as (good) development?
  2. What should be a society’s basic economic, political and cultural goals and strategies, and what principles should inform their selection?
  3. What moral issues emerge in development policymaking and practice and how should they be resolved?
  4. How should the burdens and benefits of development be conceived and distributed?
  5. Who or what should be responsible for bringing about development? A nation’s government, civil society or the market? What role—if any— should more affluent states, international institutions, and nongovernmental associations and individuals have in the self-development of poor countries?
  6. What are the most serious local, national and international impediments to good development?
  7. To what extent, if any, do moral skepticism, moral relativism, national sovereignty and political realism pose a challenge to this boundary-crossing ethical inquiry?
  8. Who should decide these questions and by what methods?

In addition to accepting the importance of these questions, most development ethicists share ideas about their field and the general parameters for ethically based development:

First, development ethicists contend that development practices and theories have ethical and value dimensions and can benefit from explicit ethical analysis and criticism.

Second, development ethicists tend to see development as a multidisciplinary field that has both theoretical and practical components that intertwine in various ways. Hence, development ethicists aim not merely to understand development, conceived generally as desirable social change, but also to argue for and promote specific conceptions of such change.

Third, although they may understand the terms in somewhat different ways, development ethicists are committed to understanding and reducing human deprivation and misery in poor countries.

Fourth, a consensus exists that development projects and aid givers should seek strategies in which both human well-being and a healthy environment jointly exist and are mutually reinforcing

Fifth, these ethicists are aware that what is frequently called ‘development’— for instance, economic growth—has created as many problems as it has solved. ‘Development’ can be used both descriptively and normatively. In the descriptive sense, ‘development’ is usually identified as the processes of economic growth, industrialization, and modernization that result in a society’s achieving a high (per capita) gross domestic product. So conceived, a ‘developed’ society may be either celebrated or criticized. In the normative sense, a developed society, ranging from villages to national and regional societies, is one whose established institutions realize or approximate (what the proponent believes to be) worthwhile goals—most centrally, the overcoming of economic and social deprivation. In order to avoid confusion, when a normative sense of ‘development’ is meant, the noun is often preceded by a positive adjective such as ‘good’ or ‘ethically justified’.

A sixth area of agreement is that development ethics must be conducted at various levels of generality and specificity. Just as development debates occur at various levels of abstraction, so development ethics should assess:

  1. Basic ethical principles,
  2. Development goals and models such as ‘economic growth’, ‘growth with equity’, ‘basic needs’ and, in the nineties, ‘sustainable development’, ‘structural adjustment’ and ‘human development’ (United Nations Development Programme), and
  3. Specific institutions and strategies.

Seventh, most development ethicists believe their enterprise should be international in the triple sense that the ethicists engaged in it come from many nations, including poor ones; that they are seeking to forge an international consensus; and that this consensus emphasizes a commitment to alleviating worldwide deprivation.

Eighth, although many development ethicists contend that at least some development principles or procedures are relevant for any poor country; most agree that development strategies must be contextually sensitive. What constitutes the best means—for instance, state provisioning, market mechanisms, civil society and their hybrids—will depend on a society’s history and stage of social change as well as on regional and global forces.

Areas of Disagreements in Development Ethics
A first unresolved issue concerns the scope of development ethics. Development ethics originated as the ‘ethics of Third World Development’ there is no consensus, however, on whether or not development ethics should extend beyond its central concern of assessing the development ends and means of poor societies.

Some argue that development ethicists should criticize human deprivation wherever it exists and that rich countries, since they too have problems of poverty, powerlessness, and alienation, are ‘underdeveloped’ and, hence, fall properly within the scope of development ethics. Others contend that since development ethicists address questions of rich country responsibility and global distributive justice, they should not restrict themselves to official development assistance but also should treat international trade, capital flows, migration, environmental pacts, military intervention, and responses to human rights violations committed by prior regimes.

The chief argument against extending the boundaries in these ways is that development ethics would thereby become too ambitious and diffuse. If development ethics grew to be identical with all social ethics or all international ethics, the result might be that insufficient attention would be paid to alleviating poverty and powerlessness in poor countries. Development ethicists also are divided on the status of the moral norms that they seek to justify and apply. Three positions have emerged. Universalists, argue that development goals and principles are valid for all societies. Particularists, reply that universalism masks ethnocentrism and (Northern) cultural imperialism.

A third approach tries to avoid the standoff between the first two positions. On this view, development ethics should forge a cross-cultural consensus in which a society’s own freedom to make development choices is one among a plurality of fundamental norms and in which these norms are of sufficient generality so as not only to permit but also to require sensitivity to societal differences.

Development ethicists also differ with respect to whether (good) societal development should have—as an ultimate goal—the promotion of values other than the present and future human good. Some development ethicists ascribe intrinsic value, equal to or even superior to the good of individual human beings, to human communities of various kinds, for instance, family, nation or cultural group.

Others argue that nonhuman individuals and species, as well as ecological communities, have equal and even superior value to human individuals. Those committed to ‘eco-development’ or ‘sustainable development’ do not yet agree on what should be sustained as
an end in itself and what should be maintained as an indispensable or merely helpful means. Nor do they agree on how to surmount conflicts among intrinsic values.

Culture and Development
Culture is defined broadly to include every aspect of the day-to-day life of a group of human beings that is transmitted from one generation to another. Economic transactions, social customs and relationships, political ideologies, artistic expression, language, and religious practices reflect cultural values and behaviors. Cultural sustainable development implies development that is shaped by – and takes into account its impact on – the shared ideas, beliefs, and values as well as the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic standards of a community An increased sensitivity to cultural aspects within mainstream development theory can be attributed to the decline and disintegration of those cultures subjected to the forces of “westernization.” The shortcomings of past development efforts have challenged development practitioners to broaden their focus to include culture. Besides the lessons of history, two broad forces have influenced the emerging awareness of culture in development thinking:

postmodernism and cultural pluralism.
In postmodern philosophy the focus is no longer on discovering absolutes, but on exploring the relationship between probabilities. Relativity rather than exclusive absolutism has become normative. Postmodern philosophy has pointed out that scientists (and others) are biased not only by their convictions about preferred theories and methods, but also by their metaphysical worldviews. The cultural plurality of our global community has not always been affirmed. History is full of examples of cultural elitism in which one group made exclusive claims for itself and condemned others. Recent history has shaped the demand for a recognition and acceptance of
pluralism. The world wars in the first half of this century resulted in a greater consciousness of the right of differing cultures and people groups to exist.

More recently the struggle for justice of aboriginal peoples everywhere has made us poignantly aware of the power of solidarity in language and spirituality, and of the resilience of culture. Formal recognition of aboriginal peoples and their right to self-determination has supported the notion of cultural plurality.

Models of Development and Cultural Change
Central to the concept of cultural sustainability is an understanding of the process of change. Cultures evolve; and change is inherent in the life process. Cultural change often results from an introduction of new ideas or technology or from ecological or economic
change. Cultures, like other systems, tend to seek regularity and equilibrium, but also are faced with contradictions and conflicts. To resolve these, change takes place. Over the last five decades, the highly increased pace of change in most cultures around the world underscores the need to understand the change process. Cultural change can result from many development approaches. The table below shows models of development that is invariably associated with some form of cultural change.

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