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Geographical engagements with issues of Morality Assignment

The place of morality in the study of human geography is a debate that has gone on since the 1990’s. It came about via the evolution of the discipline from the cultural turn. Geography of spatial science which was prominent in the 1960’s was slowly becoming redundant because mapping areas just using quantitative techniques did not tell the geographer the total truth about an area.

The qualitative geographical analysis of areas, brought about by the ‘cultural turn’, brought moral issues straight to the attention of geographers. … at a time when the euphoria of technological progress was being deflated by discovery of the persistence of dire poverty within otherwise affluent societies as well as in the underdeveloped world. Inequality became an issue. So did social justice as the morality of the ‘development gap’, political domination, social deprivation, racial discrimination and the like was increasingly called into question…. The quality of life became a focus for academic and political debate. ‘ (Smith, 2000a: 2-3)

Smith argues that since the rise of globalisation (2000a: vii) the discipline of human geography has largely fallen into the hands of capitalism. Funding is given to geographers to research how an area can be exploited for substantial economic gain. Is this ethically right? Should geographers use their knowledge of the world to help suffering or to just carry on describing the world as they have been doing for the last century? In this essay we will be look at whether geographers have a moral responsibility to help people in the world they research.

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We will be doing this by looking at, firstly why we have a moral obligation to help people who are suffering and secondly at Peter Dicken’s work on ‘the moral geographies of uneven development. ‘ In the same year (2000b) Smith also wrote an article on ‘the place of good fortune’. ‘This expression incorporates three meanings of ‘place’: the role or part played by good fortune in people’s lives, position in some social structure and place in its geographical sense. Each has an important bearing on human well-being. The crucial fact is that chance or luck are important elements in life.

The crucial question to be explored is its moral significance. ‘ (Smith, 2000b: 3) He argues that the outcomes of our lives depend on three main factors, which ultimately overlap into one. The most important one is the ‘luck’ in our lives. For example if we had not been born into a middle class household in a western country then it would be a lot harder for us to be where we are now. The families that we were born into have greatly influenced our future. Hard working parents proved good role models as well as providing the support we needed for success.

We would have found it a lot harder to reach the stage of our lives that we now enjoy if we had, say, been born into a lower class family living in a poor, run down council estate in the inner city. We would not have had the resources that we are used to now, such as computers, all our books bought for us or the intellectual support of our parents. Poor public services, such as an overcrowded school and no public library, would have meant that the quality of education we received would have been worse, partly due to substandard teaching and the disruptive behaviour of the students around us.

The fact that we were also born into a family in the western world instead of a family in the developing world means that we should always have the possibility to make some kind of successful lives for ourselves even if this is hard for us. Political and social security ensured we had access to free medical care, fair policing and some standard of education. Unlike people in the developing world, we can sleep at night knowing that we are safe, knowing that if we fall ill there is easy access to health care and, since we live in a democratic society, we will not be imprisoned for something we may say.

If we had been born into a poor, deprived family the chances of us reaching university would have been a lot smaller and if born in the developing world, most likely nonexistent. ‘So much of what people achieve is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, of having good luck in family, teachers, friends, and circumstances, that no one is in a strong position to take much credit for the way their lives turn out. There is no such thing as a literally self-made man . ‘ (Baker, 1987: 60) Baker agrees with what Smith is saying, and that you cannot take much credit other than luck for where you are now.

Even if you have come from an impoverished background you can still work your way out of it; however someone who lives in extreme insecurity due to poverty, war or an oppressive regime cannot. Smith argues that because of our good fortune we have a moral responsibility to help others who are not as fortunate as our selves. There is however another moral implication in geography that we have to take seriously. ‘Too often, research will inescapably be connected with the professional need to attract research funding, and publication will be about fulfilling the requirements and expectations of an academic career.

Moreover, the unwillingness to promote and fund long-term, longitudinal research has created the conditions for ‘flip’ ethnographies by which researchers too often breeze in and out of research situations, with insufficient commitment to the people and issues concerned. ‘ (Cloke, 2002: 591 Cloke argues that the ways human geographers lead their lives, tends to mean that research undertaken is done, as quickly as possible and only to the standard the organisations giving the funding want. That means the geographer cannot really understand the people he is researching because he does not commit to them for the period of time that is needed.

This, according to Cloke is not moral because an inaccurate portrayal of the subjects is presented as full research. Smith agrees with Cloke and he uses the work of Tuan (1986: 13) to illustrate his points. ‘In considering how morality is lived and imagined in different times and places, he linked the geographer’s traditional interests in transformed nature with moral ethical systems. In so doing, he put morality at the very core of human creativity, and of geography. ‘ (Smith 2000a: 4) As geographers any research we undertake must have morality at its ‘core’.

We can still do research for our own gain but it must be interlinked with new ‘moral’ and ‘ethical systems’. This means we need to spend a significant amount of time researching a particular group of people so the complete truth can be shown to the world. We should not just carry out research which just gives the funding organizations the information they want to hear. We have looked at why morality should be an important feature in human geography so now we look a case study at how geographers demonstrate morality in their research.

The case study we will be looking at is Paul Dicken’s work on ‘Globalization, and Uneven Development’ (2004) ‘… it is frequently assumed that ‘under-developed’ countries are impeded by their own ways of life, and that they need to ‘modernize’ or ‘Westernize”. (Smith 2004: 13) There is a very large debate in human geography about globalization and development. This is mainly because different human geographers will give different views on the topic. The majority of the time the view a geographer gives is due to whatever organisation is funding him.

For example, a geographer working for Oxfam would argue the globalisation is destroying the lives of people in the developing world. It is increasing unemployment which leads to greater poverty, and it is bringing greater environmental pollution. On the other hand a geographer funded by a multinational corporation would argue that globalization is helping to develop the lives of the developing world. ‘The extent to which the ‘goods’ exceed the ‘bads’ is a contested issue, as is the issue of who are the ‘winners’ and who are the ‘losers’ because such goods and bads are, themselves, highly unequally distributed both geographically and socially. (Dicken 2004: 18)

Dicken argues that it is difficult to argue whether globalization is good or bad because of the wide differences in situation of locations. For example, globalization because of neo-liberalism, in China has been very beneficial for the country. The majority of people are in jobs, earning a living and China is expected to have the largest economy in the world come ‘2026’. (BBC, 2006) However the story is very different in other countries.

‘Despite considerable advances in some parts of the world, one in five people (around 1. billion) live on less than $1 per day. Nearly 70 per cent of these utterly impoverished people live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. (Dicken 2004: 21)’ The argument here is how should we help these people, and is globalization the right way? Geographers need to make moral decisions on whether globalizing trade is the best thing for the country not whether it’s the best thing for western world. The policies the geographers help to formulate have serious implications for billions of people.

Why though, is there a problem with polices that open up the whole world to global trade? ‘Openness’, then, is the name of game. But this will only work if the playing field is relatively level – which it clearly is not. And it also has to work both ways – which clearly it does not. Tariffs imposed by the developed countries on imports of many developing country products remain very high. It is common for tariffs to increase with the degree of processing (so-called ‘tariff escalation’), so that higher-value products from developing countries are discriminated against.

At the same time, agricultural subsidies make imports from developing countries uncompetitive. In other words, the odds are stacked against them (Dicken 2004: 26) Customs Unions between countries make it very hard for developing countries to sell any products they make. This is because the tariff imposed by the union makesthe cost of their product shoot up. Basically opening up developing countries to the world market will make them worse off and the only gain will be to the developed countries.

When Geographers think about development in the global context, they have to consider whether the money earned outweighs the number of people who will be affected by the policies they enforce. There is a very large moral argument concerning the involvement of geographers with global development polices because the money is always in the hands of the developed country which always favours its own interests. Should there be an engagement between morality and human geography? Most certainly yes, because those who benefit from academic knowledge should do everything in their power to help the people who most need it in the world.

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