there a Global Ethic?
(pdf available here)
IS THERE A GLOBAL ETHIC?
(A talk given to the Center for the Study of Global Ethics, University
of Birmingham UK, in February 2007)
there is a global ethic, at least in the area of human rights, was
agreed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 in
its Declaration of Universal Human Rights. The term used was universal
human rights, not a universal ethic, but presumably universal human
rights implies at least an element within a global ethic. The term
global ethic was introduced a generation ago by the German Catholic
theologian Hans Kung - a theologian who has long been at odds with
the Vatican because of his rejection of the idea of papal infallibility
and his participation in inter-religious dialogue beyond mere gestures
of good will. He meant an ethic which is common to the different
civilizations, cultures and religions of world. This connects with
the Preamble to the United Nations Declaration, which says, 'Disregard
and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which
have outraged the conscience of mankind'. I shall return to that
phrase 'the conscience of mankind' later.
to the foundation of our Birmingham Centre in 2002 the Global Ethic
Foundation, inspired by Hans Kung, held major international conferences
in Germany, addressed by Tony Blair, and in Chicago addressed by
Kofi Annan, whose speeches can be read on the internet, and the
Foundation has produced a draft of a Declaration of a Global Ethic,
to which I shall come to later. I don't know whether or not it was
the original intention that the Birmingham Centre should engage
in this project.
there any universal, or near universal, human ethic? We have to
distinguish various levels of moral principles. All of the long-lived
cultures have thus far been religiously based. Within the world
religions, at the most general level, there is the universality
of what in Christianity is called the Golden Rule. In either its
positive form, Treat others as you would wish them to treat you,
or its negative form, Do not treat others as you would not wish
them to treat you, this occurs in the teachings of all the great
religions. Starting in India, in the Hindu Mahabharata, 'One should
never do that to another which one would regard as regard as injurious
if done to one's own self. This, in brief, is the rule of Righteousness'.
In the Jain Kritanga Sutra we are told that one should go about
'treating all creatures in the world as he would himself be treated'.
In the Buddhist scriptures there are many sayings such as this:
'As a mother cares for her son, all her days, so towards all living
things a man's mind should be all-embracing' (Sutta Nipata); and
for Buddhism the key virtues are karuna, compassion, and metta,
usually translated as loving-kindness. Moving to China, Confucius
taught 'Do not do to others what you would not like yourself', and
in a Taoist scripture (Tai Shang) we read that the good man will
'regard [others'] gains as if they were his own, and their losses
in the same way'. In ancient Persia (including today's Iran) a Zoroastrian
scripture declares, 'That nature only is good when it shall not
do to another whatever is not good for its own self'. Jesus taught,
'As ye would that men shall do to you, do ye also to them likewise'
(Luke 6:31). In the Jewish Talmud, 'What is hateful to yourself
do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah'. And
in the Hadith of Islam we read the Prophet Muhammad's words, 'No
man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which
he desires for himself'. So this general principle of benevolence
is enshrined in the teachings that have shaped all civilizations
since the axial age around the mid-first millennium BCE.
Golden Rule seems to rest on a basic human moral sense which is
presupposed by all ethical theories. This is the 'conscience of
mankind' referred to in the preamble to the United Nations' Declaration
of Universal Human Rights. The moral philosophers from Kant to Mill
to Rawls to today, whether appealing to duties or to calculation
of consequences or to virtues or to human nature, are all trying
to spell out the logical structure of an insight or feeling that
is already there and is shared by us all. One cannot prove such
a fundamental principle. It is too basic to be derived from prior
premises, but the whole of our moral discourse hinges upon it. The
Confucian teacher Mencius in the fourth and third centuries BCE
expressed this basic insight: 'I say that every man has a heart
that pities others, for the heart of every man is moved by fear
or horror, tenderness and mercy, if he sees a child about to fall
into a well. And this is not because he wishes to make friends with
the child's father and mother or to win praise from his countryfolk
and friends, nor because the child's cries hurt him. This shows
that no man . . . is without a heart for right and wrong'. There
are in fact some who lack this heart, who are gratuitously cruel
and who take pleasure in causing pain and distress, and they usually
end up in prison or in an institution for the insane. Either such
psychopaths have always lacked the capacity for consideration of
others, or have been so circumstanced from birth that this capacity
has never been developed, my guess being the latter.
are talking so far about the most general moral principle, which
I shall call the principle of benevolence, a principle that seems
to be virtually universally recognised and accepted in theory. But
when we look at the world around us both locally and globally it
is very evident that the Golden Rule is, in Hamlet's phrase, more
honoured in the breach than the observance. At least, this is true
on the large scale of national policies. Locally, among ourselves
and our neighbours and friends, there is a good deal of mutual kindness
and consideration, though we are also well aware of the all-too-familiar
psychological conditions which run counter to the Golden Rule, selfishness,
greed, lust, envy, and so on.
Is it also the case that seriously held beliefs have interpreted
the basic principle in their own way so as in effect to nullify
it? I presume that Hitler and the Nazi leadership and a part of
the then German population sincerely believed that the Jews were
responsible for most of Europe's problems and were an evil who ought
to be exterminated. For centuries white people believed that black
people were a lower, more primitive species, and that it was accordingly
morally permissible to exploit and enslave them. This has remained
true in our own lifetimes. I was for a while in South Africa during
the apartheid era, with Desmond Tutu and others who were opposing
apartheid, and there were then theologians of the largest Christian
church, the Dutch Reformed, who seriously defended apartheid on
biblical grounds. They sincerely believed that it was God's will
that the white man should rule and black Africans serve. In Britain
today presumably the BNP leaders and their supporters sincerely
believe that the native white population has a higher priority on
all social issues than black and brown immigrants and their descendants.
said that presumably all these people are sincere in their various
racist beliefs. In fact I am inclined to think that, paradoxically,
the most sincere have also been the most evil, the Nazis. But in
South Africa I thought at the time and still think that most whites
who benefited from apartheid were wilfully deceiving themselves.
The Bible can be used selectively, as by the Dutch Reformed Church,
to justify almost anything. And I think that most of those who support
the BNP are supporting what they think is in the own private interests,
reinforced by an irrational racism.
it remains true that there does seem to be a universal moral sense,
however often this is overridden by individual and group interests.
Richard Dawkins, in his widely read book The God Delusion speaks
of 'our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity . . the
wrenching compassion we feel when we see an orphaned child weeping,
an old widow in despair from loneliness, or an animal whimpering
in pain' and 'the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money
or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom
we shall never meet' (215); and he has his own biological explanation
of this. He lists four Darwinian sources of morality. One depends
on what he calls 'the selfish gene'. He says that 'a gene that programs
individual organisms to favour their genetic kin is statistically
likely to benefit copies of itself. Such a gene frequency can increase
in the gene pool to the point where kin altruism becomes the norm'
(216). Hence, he thinks, parents' care for their children, both
in humans and other animals. This care is undoubtedly the case.
But whether an individual 'selfish gene' wants to benefit itself
by making unconscious statistical calculations about how best to
do this, seems to me to be suspiciously like an anthropomorphic
fairy tale. And indeed how does it benefit an individual gene that
there exist many copies or near copies of itself? The second Darwinian
source of morality, according to Dawkins, is reciprocal altruism:
'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. This occurs not only
within but between species. 'The bee needs nectar and the flower
needs pollinating. Flowers can't fly so they pay bees, in the currency
of nectar, for the hire of their wings' (216-7). This is the basis
of all barter, and ultimately of the invention of money.
according to Dawkins, 'kinship and reciprocation' are 'the twin
pillars of altruism in a Darwinian world' (218). Secondary sources
are reputation, including a reputation for kindness and generosity,
which may motivate altruistic behaviour; and as another secondary
source, generosity as 'an advertisement of dominance or superiority'
(218). Dawkins points out that in the early days of humanity our
ancestors lived in small villages or roving bands. In these circumstances
many of your group would be relatives, and others would be people
you met frequently. If relatives, kin altruism would operate. If
non-kin but familiar acquaintances, the principle of reciprocity
would operate. And in a small group there would be ample scope for
the motivations of reputation and superiority-advertisement. All
this, he thinks, evolved in us a general rule of thumb: be nice
to people you have to do with. 'What natural selection favours',
he says, 'is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the
genes that built them' (220). And today, when so many live in towns
and cities, this rule of thumb continues to operate as the Golden
Rule long after the original conditions which produced it have ended.
The Golden Rule is thus a by-product or, as Dawkins says, a misfiring
of an originally biologically useful rule of thumb. Birds have a
rule of thumb to feed the young in their nest. 'Could it be', Dawkins
asks, 'that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to
a reed warbler's parental instinct when it works itself to the bone
for a young cuckoo?' 'An even closer analogy', he adds, 'is the
human urge to adopt a child' (220-1).
To summarise Dawkins' theory, the moral sense embodied in the Golden
Rule is a left-over by-product of a biologically useful rule of
thumb developed in the earliest period when life was lived in small
closed communities. As another example of a biological by-product
he points out that sexual lust continues when there is no prospect
or intention to conceive; and he says, 'There is no reason why the
same should not be true of the lust to be generous and compassionate,
if this is the misfired consequence of ancestral village life' (222).
'Both', he says, 'are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious
mistakes' (221). So he values morality highly, whilst giving a purely
naturalistic account of it. But
do we have a lust to be generous and compassionate that is any way
comparable in its immediacy and intensity with sexual lust? This
seems to me a rhetorical exaggeration.
Dawkins' theory acceptable? It is highly speculative, and is not
a scientific hypothesis since it is not capable of empirical verification
or falsification. But is it nevertheless a plausible speculation?
Not very, I think. It is of course true that we are social animals
and that the early humans lived in small groups in which kinship
and reciprocity would be important factors. But that this situation
should have bred into our genes the rule of thumb, Be nice to everyone
you meet, and that this has been inherited in our genes today, does
not seem to me very plausible. The earliest anatomically modern
humans, homo sapiens sapiens, appear in Africa in the fossil records
approximately two hundred thousand years ago, though the dateings
differ between 130 and 250 thousand years. In evolutionary time
this is the blink of an eye. Is it credible that 'the powerful urge
to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims
on the other side of the world whom we shall never meet', or our
feelings when we see 'an animal whimpering in pain', to quote two
of Dawkins' own examples of altruism, are expressions of the rule
of thumb developed in small enclosed societies, 'Be nice to everyone
you meet'? This seems to me highly implausible. These examples -
and many others - conform to none of the four sources of morality
that he recognises, kinship, reciprocity, reputation, and assertion
of superiority. On the contrary, it seems that we have an innate
sense of sympathy or empathy with others, 'the conscience of mankind',
which is formalised in the Golden Rule.
Where does this innate sense come from?
me now offer a tentative suggestion about the origin of altruism.
The Golden Rule, as a consciously held principle, came about in
the axial period, usually dated as between about 800 and 200 BCE.
It was in this period that remarkable individuals appeared across
the world, standing out from their societies and proclaiming momentous
new insights. In China there were Confucius, Mencius, Lao-Tzu (or
the anonymous author of the Tao Te Ching) and Mo-Tze. In India there
were Gautama the Buddha, Mahavira the founder of the Jain tradition,
the writers of the Upanishads and later of the Bhagavad Gita. In
Palestine there were the great Hebrew prophets - Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah,
the Isaiahs, Ezekial. And in Greece there were Pythagoras, Socrates,
Plato, Aristotle. It used to be thought that Zoroaster also lived
in this period, but he is now thought to have lived much earlier,
around 1200 BCE. But if we see Christianity as presupposing Judaism,
and Islam as presupposing both Judaism and Christianity, then all
the 'great world religions' have either their origins or their roots
in the axial age.
peoples generally lived in small village communities in which the
members thought of themselves as cells in the social organism, rather
than as fully autonomous individuals. But during the axial period
cities developed, specialised production and exchange of goods,
and the development of writing, and in the relatively peaceful environments
of large empires the dawning sense of individual personality emerged
from the communal consciousness of the tribe, spreading beyond kings,
emperors and high priests to ordinary people. This meant that whereas
previously the gods were the god of a particular place or group,
the great axial sages and prophets could speak to the individual
with a message that was potentially of universal significance, not
confined to any one particular area or community. And it was in
this new situation that the Golden Rule was taught within each of
the emerging traditions. All of the versions of it that I quoted
earlier come from this period, including the one from the Zoroastrian
scriptures, which are later than Zoroaster himself.
whereas kinship and reciprocity may well have been the basis of
village and small group morality in the long pre-axial era, my suggestion
is that the more universal principle of the Golden Rule came with
the new religious insights of the axial age. We would not respond
to the needs of tsunami victims, or victims of extreme poverty in
Africa, or of oppression and torture, thousands of miles away, on
the basis of kinship or reciprocity, but we do respond on the basis
of the open ended sympathy and empathy taught for the first time
in the axial age by the great prophets and sages and formalised
in the Golden Rule. Where did they get it from? From a religious
point of view, they had an enhanced awareness of an ultimate transcendent
reality, some being conscious of this as personal and some as beyond
the distinction between the personal and the impersonal. This enhanced
awareness of the Transcendent carried with it a moral imperative.
We probably see the logic of this most clearly in Buddhism, where
liberation (or in western terms salvation) is liberation from the
self-centreed ego, which is the source of all selfishness and unhappiness,
and liberation for an impartial concern for all, self and other.
Ego-transcendence is also central to each of the other world faiths.
from a naturalistic, or non-religious, point of view, how did this
universal sense come about? Not, I have suggested from human biology,
which does not differ through the short period of human existence?
How then? That is a question for naturalistic thinkers to answer.
But however it came about, it remains a fact that the Golden Rule
is universally acknowledged, in principle if by no means also in
practice. But it is a very general principle. It is when we try
to spell out its implications in specific circumstances that the
problems arise. Here we have to distinguish between two levels of
specificity, between what we can call intermediate principles and
specific rules. An example of an intermediate principle might be
'Order society in such a way as to treat everyone fairly', whilst
an example of a specific rule might be 'To treat everyone fairly
requires one person one vote democracy'.
The Global Ethic Foundation has published a Declaration to which
people of all cultures and religions are invited to subscribe. This
a very long document, and I shall use instead a shorter version
proposed by one of the leading figures in this movement, Professor
Leonard Swidler of Philadelphia. He offers nine what he calls Middle
Principles. I will mention them all but comment only on some.
The first concerns legal rights and responsibilities: 'Because all
human beings have an inherent equal dignity, all should be treated
equally before the law and provided with its equal protection'.
The only comment I would make here is possibly only a niggle, namely
that much depends on what the law is. Some laws contain discrimination
within them. For example, there is currently a proposed law in the
USA to allow illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the
country for five years to apply for citizenship, discriminating
between these and those others settled there for less than five
years. There is thus discrimination between the two groups. But
the law makers could argue that all the immigrants are being treated
equally according to the law, and that the law was justified as
being in the interests of the USA. It is the law, not people's treatment
in accordance with it, that is discriminatory. The question that
this formulation of the first Middle Principle leaves unanswered
is, how should we distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable
second Middle Principles is that 'because humans are thinking, and
therefore essentially free-deciding beings, all have the right to
freedom of thought, speech, conscience and religion or belief'.
And there is the rider, 'At the same time, all humans should exercise
[this right] in ways that will respect themselves and all others
and strive to produce maximum benefits, broadly understood, for
both themselves and their fellow human beings'. Again, the general
principle seems right, but it does not help us to decide particular
cases, such as the Danish cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad
with a bomb in his turban, associating him with today's suicide
bombers, or the protests against a play in the Birmingham Rep. about
Sikhs. My own personal view is that the Danish cartoon was misleading
and irresponsible, but that the Sikh protesters were mistaken in
thinking that their actions were justified. The difference between
the two cases is, in my view, that whilst both were offensive to
Muslims and Sikhs respectively, the Danish cartoon was also misleading
- because for Islam suicide is a sin, and also because Muhammad
forbade attacks on non-combatants and on enemy property, - and misleading
in a way that stirred up hatred and prejudice against Muslims; whereas
the play at the Rep. was in internal critique by a Sikh writer of
an aspect, or an alleged aspect, of life in some Sikh gurudwaras.
Others may well judge differently in each case or both. But either
way, the Middle Principle itself does not help us in practice. So
much depends on the particular circumstances.
third Middle Principle is that 'Because humans are thinking beings
with the ability to perceive reality and express it, all individuals
and communities have both the right and the responsibility, as far
as possible, to learn the truth and express it honestly'. Once again,
this seems right, but leaves unanswered the difficult questions.
In some areas the principle seems uncontroversial: in the public
arena, the truth concerning straightforward matters of fact - Did
Iraq have weapons of mass destruction? What are the U.K. immigration
figures? etc. But in the private arena of family and neighbourhood
life, is it always best to tell the truth - for example, to spread
the knowledge of some scandal or misbehaviour? But there is certainly
an important message here for the press and other media. If they
always tried to 'learn the truth and express it honestly', without
headline exaggerations, without spin and bias, society would undoubtedly
be in a better state. But when we come to matters about which there
is no agreement, and is never likely to be, such as questions concerning
religion and ideology, this Middle Principle does not seem to apply.
fourth Middle Principle is that 'Because human beings are free-deciding
beings, all adults have the right to a voice, direct or indirect,
in all decisions that affect them, including a meaningful participation
in choosing their leaders and holding them accountable, as well
as access to all leadership positions for which their talents qualify
them' - in short the claim is that democracy is inherent in a global
ethic. Personally, I agree with this. But I wonder whether it is
as self-evident as we in our culture think. There are some very
important things that democracy does not do well. Because rulers
are elected for a limited period they generally do not tackle long
term problems that require presently unpopular decisions. The obvious
example is global warming. If our government, and other European
governments, and the US government, were drastically to curtail
air travel for pleasure, tax heavily the use of private cars for
pleasure or convenience, and any unnecessary use of electricity
and gas, they would lose the next election. On the other hand, an
enlightened despot, Plato's philosopher king, could do such things.
But the problem here, of course, is the impossible one of ensuring
that the despot is genuinely enlightened. Because this is impossible,
democracy still seems the least bad system.
fifth Middle Principle is that 'Because women and men are inherently
equal and all men and all women have an equal right to the full
development of all their talents as well as freedom to marry, with
equal rights for all women and men in dissolving marriage or living
outside marriage'. I note that nothing is said here, or elsewhere,
about homosexual relationships, or civil partnerships.
sixth Middle Principle is that 'Because humans are free, bodily
and social in nature, all individual humans and communities have
the right to own property of various sorts'. The phrase 'property
of various sorts' is very vague. Does it include industries, owned
by an individual or small group? To newspapers and other media owned
by individuals, like Berlusconi or Murdoch?
The seventh Principle is that 'All
humans should normally have both meaningful work and recreative
leisure'. By way of comment, there is at present a lot of work that
is necessary but that is not otherwise meaningful, but dull, repetitive
and uninteresting. Is it possible for everyone everywhere to have
what they regard as meaningful work? How many today have such work?
Leisure is easier to legislate for. A case could be made for saying
that the less meaningful the work, the greater the leisure time
that should be available. But the Principle itself does not help
us to settle such questions.
The eighth Principle is that 'Because peace as both the absence
of violence and the presence of justice for all humans is the necessary
condition for the complete development of the full humanity of all
humans, all should strive to further the growth of peace on all
levels'. And the proviso which the document adds is that 'violence
is to be vigorously avoided, being resorted to only when its absence
would cause a greater evil'. But questions will always arise at
the time about which is the greater evil. It may be only in hindsight
that we can be sure.
And the ninth and last Principle is that we should all respect the
eco-sphere on which we depend. This, I imagine, is something to
which everyone everywhere will subscribe in theory. But we all violate
it in practice. And the Principle does not help us to determine
what specific measures are practicable in a property owning democracy.
Now a general comment on these principles taken as a whole. We are
all conscious today that our world has become a virtual communicational
unity, that its nations and regions are increasingly economically
interdependent, and that war is insanely destructive. The survival
and flourishing of the human family requires at this point in history
the articulation of at least a basic ethical outlook, and if possible
a set of ethical principles, on which all the major streams of human
culture concur and which can be used to influence their behaviour.
We need to uncover and cultivate the ground of human unity beneath
the multiplicity of nations, cultures, social systems, religions
and ideologies among which and between which conflicts occur.
the European Enlightenment culminating in the eighteenth century
the West has been increasingly suffused with the individualistic,
democratic, liberal, science-oriented, historically-minded outlook
of the Enlightenment, an ethos that can comprehensively be called
modernity. During this period the West has also been basically Christian,
or today largely post-Christian. Indeed Christianity, as a cultural
influence, is identified in the minds of many Christians, particularly
when they make comparisons with other religions, with these liberal
ideals of modernity. From an historical point of view this is incorrect.
For what has happened is that secular modernity has transformed
the outlook of the Christian world, at least in the West, rather
than that Christianity has out of its own distinctive religious
resources introduced these modern liberal values into Western culture.
During much the greater part of its history Christianity has been
neither democratic, nor liberal, nor science-oriented, nor historically-minded.
At any rate, these Intermediate Principles clearly come out of contemporary
Western post-Enlightenment culture. Anyone reading them can readily
identify their provenance, reflecting as it does the concerns and
presuppositions of modernity.
Now most of us, or probably all of
us, as ourselves products of modern Western culture, are likely
to be in favour of these Intermediate Principles, though perhaps
improved in certain details. And we would like them, or something
like them, to become a truly global ethic. For this reason it is
important to note the contrast between Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment
culture. Both, as we have seen, are linked in the West with a Christian,
including post-Christian, mind-set. But there is no prospect whatever
of modern Christianity becoming the global religion, displacing
Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism. . . But perhaps there
is a prospect of the Enlightenment values, which Christianity has
largely adopted, becoming globally accepted. For it may well be
that some of the same influences are at work throughout our increasingly
unified world, transforming other cultures and religions in ways
parallel to that in which they have transformed Christianity - or
rather, much of Christianity, for there is still, and is likely
to continue to be, a large fundamentalist block which remains pre-Enlightenment.
on the other hand this may prove to be only partially the case.
Some, but not all, of the influences that have formed the Western
version of modernity are affecting the other cultures. But there
may well be yet other influences upon them that have not affected
the West, but in due course will. There are Chinese and African
and Indian and other ways of thinking and feeling that perhaps the
West needs to assimilate. For example, there is the African concept
of ubuntu in the Nguni group of languages or botho in the Sotho
languages. As Desmond Tutu explains it, 'It is to say "My humanity
is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours". We belong
in a bundle of life. We say, A person is a person through other
persons . . . . A person with ubuntu . . . has a proper self-assurance
that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole
and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when
others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less
than they are.' (No Future Without Forgiveness, p. 31). This outlook,
which is not based on duties and obligations, is not only concerned
with the relations between individuals, but had huge political significance
because it lay behind Nelson Mandela's policy of reconciliation
rather than revenge, and was expressed in the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission when apartheid had ended. This ubuntu outlook might introduce
another distinctive element into the idea of a global, that is a
human, ethic. Again, the same outlook lay behind Mahatma Gandhi's
principle of non-violence. He accepted the traditional Hindu belief
that the atman, or soul, in each of us is ultimately one. To injure
someone else is to injure part of oneself. 'To be true to such religion',
he said, 'one has to lose oneself in continuous and continuing service
of all life'. Again, this had huge political significance because
it lay behind his ultimately successful non-violent campaign for
Indian independence. And there may be distinctive Chinese and other
ways of thinking that should likewise contribute to a genuinely
global ethic. The different ways of being human that are the great
civilisations and cultures of the earth may in some respects take
different forms within a global modernity, thus affecting any future
my conclusion is that a global ethic remains to be uncovered, and
that to do this requires world-wide consultation going beyond the
present Western versions.