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Smith D., 2000, Moral Geographies. Ethics in a World of Difference, Edinburgh University Press, 244 p.

Olivier Milhaud

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1The deeply geographical nature of moral issues

« Our choices are, in effect, guided by a map of moral alternatives, a map of which we are not aware. Through our everyday interactions, we trace the moral geography of our lives »

Stephen Birdsall, 1996

2“This book explores the interface between geography, ethics, and morality” and David Smith helps us to understand “how geographical context is significant to moral practice, and how ethical deliberation is incomplete without recognition of the geographical dimension of human existence” (preface viii). The approach adopted here is between theory and reality, and between particularity and universality. It questions how to build a geographically sensitive ethics in a world of difference – difference defined as “the fact of diversity, or pluralism, in moral beliefs and practices as they vary from place to place (and from time to time)” (p14). Almost all the eight thematic chapters begin with a long theoretical approach, followed by a case study. The structure of the book reflects familiar geographical concepts, largely overlooked by philosophers, such as space, place, distance, landscape, development, nature... This well-documented book should therefore be very useful to geographers but also to moral philosophers as an excellent geographical introduction thanks to its wide demonstration and its case studies emphasizing the importance of context, thus completing J.D. Proctor & D.M. Smith’s Geography and ethics: Journeys in a moral terrain (1999).

3The first chapter is an introduction to legitimate the field in geography (1). As Proctor wrote, “ethics is not so much something that should be added on to science as discovered within it (2)”. After David Harvey and Yi Fu-Tuan, Robert Sack recently attested the moral content of human geography in Homo Geographicus (1997). He argued that geography was at the foundation of moral judgement and “moral goals must be set and justified by us in places and as inhabitants of a world”(3). David Smith distinguishes between ethics as moral theory (or moral philosophy) and morality as practical action (or what people actually believe and do) (p.10). David Smith accepts descriptive ethical relativism (what people believe to be right or wrong does differ among individuals, societies and cultures) but he thinks one has to accept the universality of certain moral values and to recognise the spatial (and temporal) particularity of their application (p.17)(4). Smith often follows Michael Walzer’s distinction between a thin, minimalist or universal morality and a thick, particular or local morality. And this thick approach legitimates the role of the geographer since “the geographer takes up where the philosopher usually leaves off (...) the geographer’s traditional preoccupation with the diversity of human life can readily be applied to moral thought and practice” (p.18).

4The significance of context is clearly underlined through the contingent character of both ethics as theory and morality as practice in time and space. Chapter 2 introduces this ‘historical geography of morality and ethics’. Smith largely follows Alasdair MacIntyre’s book: A Short History of ethics, which emphasises the importance of the historical and social context. From the city-state of ancient Greece (spatially small enough to enhance an identity of interests and large enough to foster an independent community), to the rise of Christianity when persons looked to transcendent moral criteria, and then to the Enlightenment philosophy, “the ascendance of moral universalism in theory was the outcome of historical-geographical circumstances (...) thus, moral universalism is itself contextual, geographically as well as a historical result” (p31). The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson even imagined a gravity model, where the universal benevolence towards others increased as the distance with them was diminished. Urbanisation has also helped to develop an impersonal justice at a local scale, with a shift from a former communitarian identity and morality of partiality to an autonomous identity and impartial morality (p.33). With colonisation, a form of universalism with expanded scope replaced particularism almost all over the world. After the middle of the twentieth century and the development of cosmopolitan perspectives at a global scale, international distributive justice was added to the moral agenda. Since then a new age of parochialism set in, and Smith strongly criticizes this upsurge of communitarian and postmodern thinking, contradictory to human sameness as we will note further.

5Chapter 3, headed ‘landscape, location and place: moral order’, focuses on “the most obvious exemplars of moral geographies” since their “creation (...) as well as their interpretation, are intrinsically moral projects: imposing order or ugliness on the natural landscape, locating to an economic or social purpose, or imbuing particular places with value according to what they represent” (p.45). After many other examples (5), Smith extensively develops two case-studies. The first one is the moral geography of the industrial city, where the landscape reflected a hard, material functionality and aimed at creating a new kind of community. Smith develops the case of Lódz, the ‘Polish Manchester’, which comprised enclaves of individual company towns. With a map and several photographs (with unfortunately laconic captions ), Smith shows how the landscape reflected the class structure of capitalism. If the socialist period has had a strong impact on the landscape of outer parts of the city, its new industrial districts reveal also strategies to extend the spatial scope of producer power. Now “what postsocialism seems to offer is capitalism without paternalism” (p.67). The second case study is “a moral geography of absence: the Lódz ghetto”. Two photographs (p70) are more convincing than a long text: one sees a huge mausoleum incorporating ruins of a prison where 2000 Poles were killed, and a small and isolated monument to more than 200 000 Jewish ghetto dead. What a clear case of selective commemoration! It can be explained first by the fact that the Holocaust tended to be denied or forgotten during three decades, and second by the widespread perception that Jews were beyond the Polish universe of obligation.

6Logically chapter 4 considers the moral significance of proximity, in the context of locality and community. Here locality is taken to be “a place of social relationships manifest in partiality, in the sense of a morality which favours close people over more distant (and different) others” (p.73). Of course to favour people in close proximity was an understandable convention of pre-modern small-scale societies. But “the wider the known world became (...) the more subtle the spatial discrimination might be” (p.75): the Enlightenment ideal of impartiality was claimed; yet conventions of partiality prevailed. In recent years, communitarianism has challenged the philosophy and practice of liberalism (6). In fact, Smith considers that we can reconcile liberalism and communitarianism, since we do live in an unsettled and mobile society, yet we are still creatures of a community with some common values. But can we reconcile a masculinist ethic of justice with a feminist ethic of care (7), which appears to be very close to communitarianism? Obviously there are strong limitations of locality, community and partiality: for instance the idealisation of traditional communities (they were often the place of oppression due to their intolerance of difference) or the risk of over-prioritising the mutuality of face-to-face relationships (it could favour the perpetuation of inequalities among communities). Smith concludes his chapter by a critique of the ambiguous traditional community, through the portrayal of the ‘shtetl’ (literally a small town, in fact a place of residence for most of the Jewish population of Poland) (8).

7Chapter 5 examines the role of distance, with respect to the scope of beneficence. Could the ‘global village’ become a moral community ? The first solution is to build communities of choice, since “communities of place are of diminishing importance in urban areas, where residents tend to form social networks from people brought together for reasons other than proximity of residence” (p.95). In a sense, the purpose is to form affinity groups which intermingle. Since “the practicality of (re)creating community in a globalising world seems increasingly remote” (p.96), Smith pleads in favour of extending the scope of care towards all these others who are similar to ourselves, let us say the entire world. He refuses the spatial convention which distinguishes between justice for the public realm and care for the private, because it “might otherwise force an unnecessary choice between care as conservative parochialism and justice as universalism indifferent to actual human relations” (p.102). Smith concludes his chapter on the scope of beneficence by a moral geography of genocide and rescue, with the case of the Holocaust. Zygmunt Bauman (9) clearly showed that it was difficult for those in charge of propaganda to convince gentile Germans that the Jews they actually knew were conform to the negative nazi stereotypes. The only solution was to concentrate the Jews in ghettoes and to separate them as much as possible from the other Germans in daily life.

8‘Space and Territory: Who should be where’. Under this title, Chapter 6 looks at some moral aspects of the division of geographical space and the contesting moral claims to geographical space (borders, sovereignty, population movement, market power, minority rights). The chapter ends with a brilliant study of “contesting local space: whose Jerusalem ?”. Smith studies in a very vivid and picturesque style the struggle–under cover of the Israeli occupation–between secular Jews and ultra-orthodox Haredi. With a map and two evocative pictures, Smith demonstrates how this offensive group tries to expand its residential space, to control it with moral markers such as posters prescribing local codes of conduct, to occupy it with an orthodox dress code enforced by ‘modesty patrols’, to extend its prohibitions on the use of public space by closing other streets...

9Chapter 7 moves on to distributive issues subsumed under the rubric of territorial social justice. Smith underlines that difference has a dual significance, “as a source of inequality and of solidarity against injustice” (p.137) and that we have to assume “the interdependence of social justice and the good life” (p.138). Then he develops his idea of ‘the place of good fortune’(10). The demonstration for a perspective of social justice as equalisation begins with the arbitrariness of the lottery of birth. If the gap between rich and poor people which has arisen from morally arbitrary factors must be narrowed, the question remains of what we have to equalize: opportunities, resources, capabilities, happiness? Smith mentions the approach of Amartya Sen (1992) who defined poverty as absolute in the sense of impairing people’s capability to function but also as relative with respect to the commodities required to alleviate it. And from human sameness one can easily deduce that everyone has similar basic needs which must be met to lead a happy life. But the problem of the contextuality of the very notion of justice and of different conceptions of social justice remains.

10This perspective of social justice as equalisation is deployed in the particular case of moral aspects of development in Chapter 8. The normativity of development issues is rather obvious (11). Moreover it is a clear case where philosophers join practitioners since development implies both conceptions of human good and technical issues. Smith insists on the recognition of the interaction of the economy with other aspects of society to get an adequate definition of development: “the main moral import was that there is much more to life than the fruits of economic growth, no matter how equitably distributed” (p.160). Smith is rather critical of Friedman’s territorially differentiated approach, since it might encourage relativism. On the contrary human sameness and transnational justice are asserted. Smith develops thoroughly the famous case study of post-apartheid South Africa, where the meaning of development might well have been taken as synonymous with social justice as racial equalisation. The conclusion of the chapter is not optimistic since it requires “a development ethics in which those with more wealth and power not just accept less, but welcome this as a mean to a better quality of life (...). The prospects are not encouraging” (p.176).

11Chapter 9 takes up some moral issues raised by human interaction with nature, in the context of environmental ethics. Nature is no longer regarded as a fixed and universal category but as a social construct, where the natural, the cultural and the moral are intimately related. And environmental ethics addresses the ethical responsibilities of human beings for the natural environment and raises the question of sustainability. Smith first mentions Livingstone’s identifications of attitudes towards nature (12), and warns the reader that extending an anthropocentric ethics into the natural environment itself involves abandoning the criterion of capacity to reason and could lead to devaluate human culture and individual moral worth. The question of environmental equity is mentioned not without humour in a passage where Smith reminds us of the shift in acronyms from NIMBY (‘not in my back yard’) towards BANANA (‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody’), LULUs (‘locally unwanted land uses’) or even the racist PIBBY (‘put it in black back yards’). Of course the question of environmental justice is not just a question of mapping distributions but of mapping power relations that link communities to institutional structures. And international, intergenerational and interspecies scales are also to be considered. Only an integrated approach is useful in dealing with such issues. He concludes this chapter by linking the notions of community and care to environmental ethics: “recognition of caring within community as a virtue capable of incorporating nonhuman nature should be a moral imperative” (p.196).

12The concluding chapter considers what progress has been made in the development of a geographically sensitive ethics. This book is located between theoretical debates around the question of difference and the awful manifestations of conflict in the contemporary world due to the reassertion of difference. Smith defends the “reassertion of the significance of human sameness or close similarity, while accepting that some forms of difference are crucial to the way persons should be treated” (p.198). He also accepts to reveal (at last !) his own moral conceptions: “the moral message of this book is the imperative of developing more caring relations with others, especially those most vulnerable, whoever and wherever they are, within a more egalitarian and environmentally sustainable way of life in which some of the traditional strengths of community can be realised and spatially extended” (p.208). The last sentence of the book is clear: “if the human capacity of putting one’s self in the place of others is to be an effective wellspring of morality, this requires understanding that place, as well as those others” (p.214). In other words, geography matters...

13Unfortunately a few aspects have been left aside or not sufficiently developed, in my view. First there is a suggestion in Chapter 1 that “geography might have a role in moral education” (p5) but Smith merely refers to one of his articles on this matter (13). In the course of the text, in chapter 5, he shows that moral development (how people learn morality) depends on social interaction and therefore on the context in which it takes place. One would have appreciated a more elaborate discussion of it or for instance a reference to the UNESCO symposium Apprendre à vivre ensemble grâce à l’enseignement de l’histoire et de la géographie [Learning peaceful co-existence by history and geography teaching, Geneva, 1998, Final Report](14).

14Besides Smith mentions professional ethics and “increasing pressure of performance assessment and commodification of knowledge, the legitimacy of persons writing about a group of which they are not members, cross-cultural research, reciprocity between researchers and researched” (p.7). But he does not venture to present a systematic consideration of ethics in professional geography.

15Moreover Smith points out that “some references to non-Western ethics will appear in what follows (and in some subsequent chapters), but for the most part this account is confined to the ethics now expressed in the English language” (p25). Of course it is perhaps impossible to be fully aware of both Western and non-Western ethics. Yet for a book on ethics in a world of difference, one might have expected wider analysis and foreign points of view: for instance a reference to Augustin Berque’s works on Asia (15), so as not to forget one half of humankind...

16Among the aspects left out, one could mention the ethical issues raised by the new geography of law with a contradiction between the spatial scope of the application of some laws in theory and their extended or privatized scope in practice: sovereignty is called into question by the right of intervention in internal affairs for humanitarian reasons (the so-called droit d’ingérence in French); the interaction of different juridical norms with different spatial scopes raises ethical issues of the conception of right (16).

17Smith mentions in his preface that “this book is both a first and a last” (p vii). If it is indeed the first integrated text to explore the interface of geography and ethics, Smith has extensively written on this field. Such a long experience may explain why the book is really well written and clear. There is one small mistake (p.127) when Smith considers the Basques as the type of “minorities confined to an enclave within a single [sic] nation state [sic]”: the Basques are both in France and in Spain, even if the question of minority rights is less acute and less violent on the French side, and Spain is not a nation state, if you ask Catalans, Basques and so on.

18One can appreciate the well argued criticism of “the postmodern nightmare of a world in which there is nothing but diversity” (p.137). Of course thanks to postmodern conceptions researchers focus now on the various ‘others’ (women, cultural and ethnic minorities, the homosexuals, the disabled…). But Smith firmly asserts that human sameness comes first. “The rise of postmodern thinking, with its disdain for universalism and encouragement of ethical relativism (or nihilism), undermines the scope for critique of an increasingly unequal world, very much to the disadvantage of those marginalised peoples whom some versions of postmodernism claim to empower” (p.35). But a question remains: is the very idea of morality itself historically and geographically relative? For Smith and for MacIntyre, there are similar moral norms against killing or stealing, or for treating others as you want to be treated yourself (known as the ‘Golden Rule’), and those norms seem inevitable and necessary to the maintenance of social life. But they are applied in very different ways. “It is working between the universal and the particular that morality is created, lived and understood. This is a central truth of ethics in a world of difference” (p.44). But is this central truth universal without self-contradiction?

19Finally remains the central question of this book, that is, its interdisciplinary goal. The book is placed between the re-discovery of the significance of context in geographical knowledge and the discovery of the role of context to understanding morality, away from the dedication of ethics to universalism. But Smith assumes that “in practice (...) moral philosophy seems more in tune with the historical than the geographical context, and disinclined to recognise the significance of such categories as location, place and space at anything other than a very general level” (p.198). To understand the misunderstanding between philosophers and geographers, Smith reminds us of the “suspicion of the ‘modernist’ idea that physical structures can significantly influence human behaviour in the direction of collectivism and mutual responsibility” (p.212). But he immediately adds: “However, the idea that human motivation is impervious to environment is no more defensible than determinism” (p.212). One can easily agree with Smith, but two obstacles remain to achieve interdisciplinary integration. First, geographers do not share the same language as philosophers and Smith does not provide a kind of method for philosophers to read space geographically, even if his case studies are useful to understand a geographical analysis. Second, the case study, “crucial to the development of geographically sensitive ethics” (p.205), is not recognized as central to philosophical methods and Smith’s approach, “essentially pragmatic” (p.204), will perhaps upset a classical philosopher. Nevertheless Smith is optimistic since philosophers recognise that moral theories must become more empirically informed. And his use of case studies throughout the text may encourage philosophers to read geographical literature, to confront abstract deliberations with reality, and to work back and forth between theory and practice. For instance, the starting point of Smith’s approach to post-apartheid South Africa was an egalitarian conception of social justice. But, practically, a distributive conception of justice would not have been appropriate after so many years of segregation. So Smith tries to understand social justice through an understanding of the good life and a rediscovery of the traditional African ethics of care. Then Smith shows that a solution is perhaps to be found in an open conception of South African identity.

20Last but not least, one should not forget the connexion between thinking ethically and living ethically as very well articulated by Paul Cloke: “we have begun to lose sight of key aspects of human collectivity in our work (...) the ability to think as an actor, and not just think about action”(17). Nevertheless I also really appreciate the modesty of Smith’s approach: he is not naive about the role of geography in solving conflicts. As he points out about the Israel/Palestine conflict, “spatial solutions will need moral imagination” (p.199). May this last sentence serve as a strong incentive to read this book and as an expression of an eager hope for further exchanges between geography and moral philosophy.

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Birsdall, S. (1996), ‘Regard, respect and responsibility: sketches for a moral geography of the everyday’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 86, pp. 619-29.

Canto-Sperber, M. (2001), L’Inquiétude morale et la Vie humaine [Moral Concern and Human life], Paris: PUF.

Cloke, P. (2002), ‘Deliver us from evil ? Prospects for living ethically and acting politically in human geography’, Progress in Human Geography, 26, pp. 587-604.

Harvey, D. (1973), Social Justice and the City, London: Edward Arnold.

MacIntyre, A. (1998), A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.

Proctor, J.D., and Smith, D.M. (eds.). (1999), Geography and ethics: Journeys in a moral terrain. London: Routledge Press.

Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sack, R. (1997), Homo Geographicus: A Framework for Action, Awareness, and Moral Concern, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Sen, A. (1992), Inequality Reexamined, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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1.Therefore the distinction between the moral values of good and right and the non-moral values of beauty and truth is refused, since it might suggest the independence of the moral dimension of life from the aesthetic and scientific dimensions (p10).

2.Proctor, J.D. (1998), ‘Expanding the scope of science and ethics’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 88, pp. 290-6. Quoted by Smith, p1.

3.Sack, R. (1997), Homo Geographicus: A Framework for Action, Awareness, and Moral Concern, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, p 24. Quoted by Smith p8.

4.Therefore Smith firmly rejects absolutism (there is a single moral truth) as well as normative ethical relativism which holds that the very validity of moral beliefs and practices can vary among cultures and which therefore requires equal respect for all moral codes even if torture or human sacrifice are incorporated within.

5.The project to build a new bank just near the Tomb of the unknown Soldier in Warsaw, contested street names, the many nineteenth-century schemes to reshape cities so as to exclude ‘polluting’ groups or the ‘red-light’ districts of prostitution in Birmingham...

6.Communitarianism could be recognised through three different aspects: communitarian benevolence (and not justice) is the first virtue of social life; justice arises from particular community understandings; and the common good of the community is superior to individual rights. cf Kymlicka, W. (1993), ‘Community’, in Goodin, R.E. and Pettit, P. (eds), A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, pp. 366-78.

7.Some feminists argue that women are more concerned with relationships than with rights and rules, and by the way it is easier to know what people nearby need, and how best we can help...

8.It was a distinctive setting, a cultural as well as a physical entity, with a dominant system of virtues, both inclusive for all its members (no one was left out but no one was allowed to escape) and exclusive for all the others... Actually the shtetl was not a cultural island, and it was a place where Jews lived side by side with the local population.

9.Bauman, Z. (1989), Modernity and the Holocaust, Cambridge: Polity Press.

10.This expression incorporates first the role played by good fortune in people’s lives, second position in some social structure and third place in its geographical sense.

11.How is well-being to be measured ? Are comparisons among nations or regions possible ? Should the level of development of a society be left to culturally relative criteria ? Is there a universal model to be followed ? are a few basic questions of this field.

12.Reverence towards Mother Nature, utility in a mechanistic vision of an environment requiring management, and community with nature as an integrated entity. Cf Livingstone, D. N. (1995), ‘The polity of nature: representation, virtue, strategy’, Ecumene, 2, pp. 353-77.

13.Smith, D.M. (1995), ‘Moral teaching in geography’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 19, pp. 271-83.

14.André, Y., and Mouzoune, A. (eds) (1999), Colloque sur le thème: Apprendre à vivre ensemble grâce à l'enseignement de l'histoire et de la géographie, Genève, 1998. Rapport final géographie [Learning peaceful co-existence by history and geography teaching, Geneva, 1998, Final Report]. Geneva: International Bureau of Education UNESCO. .Available on the web

15.Berque, A. (1996), Être humains sur la Terre. Principes d’éthique de l’écoumène [Being Human on Earth. Ethical principles of ecumene], Paris: Gallimard.

16.It is now studied by Mireille Delmas-Marty at the Collège de France. Delmas-Marty, M. (2003) « Du désordre mondial à la force du droit international [From world disorder to the reign of international law] » in Le Monde, 21 mars 2003.

17.Cloke, P. (2002), ‘Deliver us from evil ? Prospects for living ethically and acting politically in human geography’, Progress in Human Geography, 26, pp.587-604, p.603.

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Olivier Milhaud, « Smith D., 2000, Moral Geographies. Ethics in a World of Difference, Edinburgh University Press, 244 p. », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Revue de livres, mis en ligne le 26 mai 2003, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL :

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Olivier Milhaud

oliviermilhaud@yahoo.fragrégé de géographieUniversité de Stockholm (Suède)

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