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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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Ethics, Economics and International Relations: Transparent Sovereignty in the Commonwealth of Life
Peter G. Brown

Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2000
196 pp. Pb. 16; ISBN 0-7486-0892-3



In the current debate over the benefits and ills of globalization, it is rare to find an author willing to attack the fundamentals of neoclassical economics themselves: economic growth on the macro side and increased efficiency on the micro side. Yet this is exactly what Peter G. Brown does in Ethics, Economics and International Relations with his conception of stewardship economics, which aims to restore, protect and enhance not only human existence but the existence of the entire ?commonwealth of life.?

Borrowing heavily from John Locke, Brown formulates a ?tripartite rights-based conception? of human rights: ?? rights of bodily integrity, rights of moral, political and religious choice, and subsistence rights? (p. 20). As these rights extend across space ? they apply equally to a person in Zimbabwe as they do to a person in Sweden ? Brown also argues they extend across time ? to future generations ? and among nonhuman species. The argument for considering nonhuman species in the tripartite rights conception is tenuous at best, hinging on Darwinian logic that humans share a common ancestry with animals and on evidence of the ability of animals to ?reason, communicate, and feel pain? (p. 36).

Brown criticizes the use of GDP growth as a goal and as a measure of progress, arguing that, among other reasons, GDP growth neglects to measure wealth (clear-cutting a forest would reflect positive growth but have negative effects on resource wealth) or the distribution of income. Stewardship economics would instead convert the primary goal of government to that of ensuring the long-term viability of the commonwealth of life in order to meet the tripartite rights conception in a multigenerational context. Brown argues that this is not only a goal, but according to a Golden Rule type of logic, a moral duty of both governments and individuals.

Perhaps Brown?s greatest contribution to theory, this duty manifests itself in the concept of transparent sovereignty ? the minimal requirement of every state and individual ?to protect the basic rights of its citizens; to act impartially; to derive its legitimacy from the consent of the governed; to avoid waste; to protect and restore the commonwealth of life; and to enable its citizens to achieve wealth? (p. 124) within a legitimate range. The international community thus has an obligation to intervene in conflicts through international treaties, institutions, economic incentives and sanctions, and, in extreme cases, the use of force.

Brown?s vision of a global economic system which maintains at its center a desire to protect the rights of humans, animals and the environment in the present and in the years to come is commendable ? and many of his arguments legitimate ? but such a radical transformation, even on an incremental basis, is quite unlikely given the current global framework.


Michael J. Harrison, American University



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