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Reviewed by:
  • Guenther "Gene" Haas
Human Rights and the Ethics of Globalization Daniel E. Lee and Elizabeth J. Lee Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 264 pp. $27.99

While there have been numerous books written on the nature of rights in a world of globalization, this book fills a gap by presenting a thoughtful and balanced discussion that is firmly grounded in ethical theory yet takes into account the concerns of both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the realities of the business world. The authors acknowledge that there can be naive troublemakers in NGOs and greedy people in business as well as socially concerned people in both groups.

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 deals with the philosophical foundations for addressing ethical issues in business within the context of globalization. Here the authors advocate for a limited, carefully defined notion of rights, properly noting that not everything of ethical significance falls under the notion of rights. The important distinction they make is between negative rights (the rights to life and freedom), which oblige us never to harm others, and positive rights (rights of entitlement, such as education, medical care, housing), which depend upon the various types of relationships, voluntary or involuntary, in which people find themselves. The former apply universally to neighbors near and far; the latter, because they are defined by relationships, apply primarily to neighbors near to us. With globalization distant neighbors often become near neighbors—for example, when a company builds a production facility in another country. In view of this, the authors argue that the Enlightenment’s individualistic understanding of rights is incomplete. A fuller version of rights (rooted in Aristotle) situates all humans in social communities where mutual charitable treatment is better suited to promoting human flourishing. With this in mind, the authors use the second form of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Always treat others as ends”) to map out some helpful practical guidelines for multinational corporations that are conducive to human well-being. Such guidelines seek to take into consideration all the constituencies that these organizations are called to serve—including shareholders, customers, employees, suppliers, and communities of location.

In part 2 the authors draw on these philosophical foundations and practical guidelines to discuss ethical issues related to business practices in four different [End Page 198] countries: respect for human rights in China given the widespread practice of outsourcing; the condition of workers in Liberia where Firestone is the largest employer; free trade and fair trade issues related to coffee growers in Ethiopia; and the question of whether low-wage factories (maquiladoras) in Mexico exploit workers or provide economic opportunity for them. The authors provide a fair evaluation of each situation rooting their discussion in the nature of each respective business and the conditions over which it has direct control.

Part 3 deals with the possibilities and challenges of dealing with multinational corporations that do not respect human rights. Although many argue for sanctions and treaty provisions, the authors argue that these approaches have their limitations. As an alternative, they recommend the Alien Tort Claims Act as the most promising means of enforcing human rights standards among American multinational corporations with overseas operations.

This is an insightful and balanced book on human rights and social ethics precisely because it has a positive view of markets and is optimistic about achieving greater social responsibility in the business world. It will be helpful to all committed to promoting ethical business practices in a growing global economy—not only in the church and academy but also in the legal community and business world and in NGOs.

Guenther Haas
Redeemer University College


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