Expanding the moral circle – considering my iPhone

What are the ethical implications of the iPhone in my pocket? Of the MacBook Pro on which I type these words? What are the ripples in the great pond of the world that I’m sending out through my use (overuse, abuse?) of technology? How might we consider globalization and the “expanding moral circle”?

Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle

From Marginal Revolution: Small steps toward a much better world

In 1869 the Irish historian William Lecky (1838-1903) wrote that moral progress is about extending the moral circle.

At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity…

What is the effect of globalization on the moral circle? Does trade melt barriers and expand the moral circle or does globalization make “the other” a more salient division allowing politicians to demonize and control through xenophobia?

Two pieces of evidence, one anecdotal the other experimental, suggests that globalization expands the moral circle. The anecdotal evidence is the cover story of this month’s Wired titled “1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. This is where your gadgets come from? Should you care?”

Now from a rational point of view this is absurd. Put aside that the suicide rate is higher among American college students than Chinese workers at Foxconn, even odder is that the writer cares about 17 suicides but not say the million plus deaths in China due to lung disease. But no one said that the moral circle grows for rational reasons. In this case, the writer, Joel Johnson, found that the purchase of the cell phone extended his moral circle to workers who assembled the phone half a world away:

I was burdened by what felt like an outsize provision of guilt—an existential buyer’s remorse for civilization itself. I am here because I want to know: Did my iPhone kill 17 people?

Past Posts