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Globalization a Challenge for Ethicists

Critics fear it threatens native cultures, speeds environmental decay, widens rich-poor gap.

November 09, 2002|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

At a time when billions of dollars move between continents in an instant and workers half a world away produce goods sold in the local hardware store, religious thinkers increasingly ponder whether their traditions can impose an ethic on globalization.

Globalization affords new opportunities and a higher standard of living for some, religious critics say. But they worry that it threatens indigenous cultures, accelerates environmental destruction and widens the gap between haves and have-nots.

Catholic figures have been among the most active in debating the role that religion can play in shaping globalization.

The billion-member church has a worldwide reach, a hierarchical structure and adherents in both rich and poor countries, all of which positions it uniquely to observe and experience globalization's impact.

"I don't think the church is trying to stop it. I think they're trying to shape it, direct it," said Father Bryan Hehir, executive director of Catholic Charities U.S.A. He was a key figure in the development of major pastoral letters that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops delivered in the mid-1980s on the economy and nuclear armaments. Last week, he spoke in Los Angeles at a forum on globalization hosted by Loyola Marymount University.

The key for the church, he said, is to try to temper the disruptions that rapid globalization can cause. "You can't create international integration at the price of social disintegration," Hehir said in his speech to the forum.

The ethical implications of globalization were raised last year by Pope John Paul II in addressing the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, which met in Rome to consider globalization. Globalization, the pope said, "enshrines a kind of triumph of the market and its logic."

The trend brings rapid changes to social systems and cultures, the pope said. "Many people, especially the disadvantaged, experience this as something that has been forced upon them, rather than as a process in which they can actively participate," he added.

"Ethical values cannot be dictated by technological innovations, engineering or efficiency; they are grounded in the very nature of the human person," the pope said. "Ethics demands that systems be attuned to the needs of man, and not that man be sacrificed for the sake of the system."

At the Los Angeles forum, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony echoed the pope's words. "Globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it," Mahony said. But he cautioned that globalization, like other systems, must serve "the human person" and the common good.

Religious concern for the poor and social and economic justice is not new, of course. But globalization poses unprecedented challenges. Moral teachings have not kept pace with fast-breaking developments on the world economic front, critics of globalization say.

"In this area it is a little bit like bioethics," Hehir said. "We've done medical ethics for a long time in the Catholic Church, but we're confronting a set of questions today that our predecessors never experienced. It is that way with globalization."

The problems caused by globalization are not limited to other nations, speakers at the forum said.

Mahony said Los Angeles is not only a global city but a "globalized" one. The five-county Los Angeles metropolitan region is shaped by the economies of the United States, Latin America, and the Pacific Basin. Wages, working conditions, migration and prices are all influenced by globalization.

Each of these issues brings with it a moral component, he said. For example, he said, some Southern Californians are coming to realize that the bargain prices they pay for clothes, toys or electronics "are possible only because they exact a great price from workers who produce them" around the world.

"Our social teaching is unwilling to relinquish responsibility for economic systems ... to the 'invisible hand of the market,' " he said.

Mahony and Hehir both said the church begins with a preferential option for the poor. "That's the dominant note," Hehir said in an interview. A second note is support for creating new international institutions or strengthening existing institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, so the rights and dignity of individuals are protected.

The international market is the only one not regulated by an overarching political authority, Hehir noted. Without such safeguards, the good that comes from globalization may not be equally distributed.

Or, as Mahony put it, "jurisdiction gaps" prevent existing institutions from adequately responding to the challenges of global markets.

"Globalization, like the dramatic advances in technology and medicine, needs to be given moral direction by women and men of goodwill," Mahony said. "Globalization must be made to serve the essential dignity of every single human person."

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