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How Do You Define Global Ethics?

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Thought Leaders Jonathan Haidt, Rachel Kleinfeld, Iam Bremmer, Carne Ross, Andrew Nathan, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Michael Walzer, Gillian Tett, and Brent Scowcroft describe their visions of a global ethic. DISCUSS >>



  • In my judgment, there are three initiatives that we ought to have in mind of a global nature. First, I think an honest, thorough appraisal of what humanity, the human species, is, what the meaning of human existence really is. That can only be based on a dedicated pursuit and evaluation of factual, science-based information to answer the ancient questions of the philosophers. Finally, with this kind of understanding, universal and in-depth, we can ask the question that very much has at its core a global ethic: Where do we wish as a species on this one small planet to go?

    E. O. Wilson

  • The most practical aspect of a global ethic is a recognition that we're all in this together. Precisely because our system is so interconnected these days and shocks can be transmitted very, very fast, we should all recognize that actually if we ignore the parts of the system that are poor or backward or don't seem to have any connectivity to us, we could actually end up damaging ourselves.

    Gillian Tett

  • I almost feel that as a privileged white American woman, I am really least able to comment on whether there is a global ethic. My instinct says that there probably is not, that I know too much about the way culture affects so much in people's lives to think that there would be a global ethic.

    Mary Ellen Iskenderian

  • I think that an ethic emerges in relation to a community. To the extent that there is a functioning community where people are interdependent, where they know each other's names, where their reputation is on the line, then you'll get an ethic emerging. That certainly happens in local communities. It happens within companies. It happens, to a large extent, within nations. It's very hard to scale that up to a global level.

    Jonathan Haidt

  • There's an old notion that goes back to the Greek philosopher Hierocles that our concern for people close to us is much greater than our concern for people who are very, very far from us. So the original idea of rooted cosmopolitanism is simply that there is some home bias as economists would call it that in fact you do care about people who are members of your family or city or country more than you might about those who are not.

    Pankaj Ghemawat

  • What I think we are lacking today, and for the twenty-first century, is the idea of self-examination, a strong responsibility based on moral common ground and ethical teaching. There is a difference between morality and ethics. Ethics is teachable and it's learnable. You can learn about good and bad. But morality is somehow a natural character that you are born with and that you inherit from your family, your community, and so on.

    Mustafa Cerić

  • The idea of "a" global ethic increasingly does not resonate with me precisely because we increasingly can't do global. So what we need is a next-best solution. That next-best solution will be a coalition of the willing. It will be a smaller group of like-minded countries. We owe it to ourselves, when there are challenges like cyber security and nuclear proliferation and climate change that are on our agendas, that are real and urgent and that will cause real hardship for millions and millions of people—we owe it to ourselves not to allow the great to be the enemy of the good. The great is the global and the good is getting anything done. The global is not going to work in this environment.

    Ian Bremmer

  • I do believe there is a global ethic. It has to do with the dignity of individuals, the right to security and liberty, both. I do believe that the human condition in its social setting is universal enough to give rise to global rights and global ethics.

    Steve Coll

  • The global ethic is the recognition both of our interdependence and our common humanity. The ethic calls for us to attempt to realize those two understandings in more practical ways. It calls upon us to try to design institutions that reflect a common humanity in their basic principles.

    Michael W. Doyle

  • Now I think a global ethic means we will feel the same responsibility and love for people in distant countries of no relation to us the same level as we used to feel towards one's own tribe. But it is a very thin and superficial global ethic because it is mainly one subscribed to by what one can loosely define as the elites of the world. Once one gets into the depths of many individual places, one finds that expressions of love and responsibility even today do not extend beyond that of the region or the tribe or the sectarian group.

    Robert D. Kaplan

  • I don't really believe in morals or ethics. I believe what matters is what you do. I worked for a government that claimed to believe in international law, a kind of moral version of the world, and yet was quite happy to break that law when it suited it. I think it is very difficult to suggest universal moral rules that should be applied in all circumstances. I think if there were one, though, it is an obligation of cosmopolitanism, the idea that we have to take the views and the positions of other people seriously.

    Carne Ross

  • I think there is a global ethic of responsibility, the emergence of the responsibility to protect. In 2005, you have all the world states, almost 200, agreeing that all sovereigns have a responsibility to their own citizens, and that responsibility means they don't perpetrate genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or grave and systematic war crimes against their own citizens; and if they do, the world community has a responsibility to step in, to do something about it. Now, that is such a profound change.

    Anne-Marie Slaughter

  • A global ethic like tolerance of minorities of all kinds would be a very good thing to promote. I think the majority of people would like to accept it. I think very small minorities are carrying out intolerance. The question is: What are states and governments going to do with these minorities who are not accepting a broader tolerance?

    Ahmed Rashid

  • We now know about everybody, in principle, and we now can affect everybody, in principle. That just means applying normal moral ideas that are present in almost every moral tradition, that we have at least negative obligations to everybody, that we have at least the negative obligation not to cause harm to strangers who pose no threat to us.

    Kwame Anthony Appiah

  • I think people largely value freedom, even the ones that don't have it. In fact, probably the ones that don't have it value it more. I think that is pretty much global, with some exceptions. Of course, a lot of governments are exceptions that are trying to stop it from happening.

    Alan S. Blinder

  • When I think about global morality, I think the good news is that we're all very similar. The bad news is that, domain-by-domain specific, we can actually get very bad lessons from society around us about what is acceptable and not acceptable.

    Dan Ariely

  • There are many questions that we don't need to have agreement on internationally. We can run our education systems differently, we can deal with religion differently, and so on. But we have to agree on the basic parameters of the institutional order of the world, the supranational institutional order, that in this era of globalization, has become so very dense and very influential. If we could bring the shaping, the design of that supranational institutional order within the purview of a morally based, value-based discourse that includes people from different countries, we would have made a very great step forward.

    Thomas Pogge

  • I think Chomsky, in his early days, in linguistics, made this important point: that although there are lots of different languages—6,000 of them at the moment—they all share what he called a depth grammar. I would call a global ethic the depth grammar of the multiple systems that different cultures have for ordering their common life. In a complex world all of us must be bilingual. We must have our own language of identity and another language to allow us to communicate with the people not like us.

    Jonathan Sacks

  • I think if there is something that is a global ethic for me, it does have to do with, in effect, the greater proximity across people quite independent of the country they live in. Therefore, the greater responsibility, if you are at the top of the income distribution in the world, which is basically the reality for most people in the United States, most people in Europe, to at least be aware of how what they do and don't do affects people elsewhere.

    Nancy Birdsall

  • Yes, there is a global ethic. But it's not just about principles; it's about implementation. Individually, I think the biggest challenge we have is to be consistent, because if we talk about moral principles, and then our kids watch us crossing a red light or cheating to get something, then our kids will learn it is not about our principles, it's about how we implement our principles. People say, "In order to control terrorism, maybe I have to torture people." So can you do that? That's the moral dilemma we have. It is not about one principle; it's about how to integrate different principles in a complicated world.

    Luis Moreno-Ocampo

  • I think the closest thing I can see to a global ethic really is the international human rights framework because, for all of its ambiguity and debatability and fragility, it does exist. That makes them incredibly valuable for everybody who wants to promote a cause, because if you can show that your cause is covered, or should be covered, by this framework, then you are partway there. It means you don't have to create the advocacy case from the ground up.

    Andrew J. Nathan

  • Ethics and the idea of global ethics, it sounds appealing on paper, but I can see how it would be very difficult to get people around the table. Many different aspects of life today, issues around economic approaches and political approaches, tend to be very different. The need for political infrastructure, for example, to be a prerequisite for economic growth is something that is debated and not agreed upon, even with all the data and information that we have.

    Dambisa Moyo

  • I think that what's happening is a global ethic that is shifting from population's self-interest to upper levels of capitalization self-interest.

    Syd Mead

  • I think it's emerging in our time. It's based on that sense and awareness of a common destiny. If you take that seriously, the implications go on and on. They go to environmental justice, to a sense of creating life that is sustainable, to a realization—as so many great moral leaders, from Dr. King to Gandhi, have taught us—that when people are marginalized and oppressed in one place, it affects us all.

    Peter Morales

  • Before, when you had 7 billion people living in 193 separate countries, it was like living on 193 separate boats, so you only had the rules to make sure that the boats didn't collide with each other. But now the 7 billion people don't live in 193 separate boats; they live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. So if you live on the same boat, you clearly want to create a code of conduct among everyone to ensure that you don't sink the boat, because if you sink the boat everybody is going to be affected. So you've got to balance national interest against global interest. I think that's the direction in which global ethics is going to go.

    Kishore Mahbubani

  • I think a lot of work has been done around a global ethic, around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is, I think, a core, foundational set of ethics that was developed by a multicultural, international group of people, endorsed by the United Nations. It's still aspirational in much of the world. There is a universal human desire for at least a baseline economic fairness. It's not acceptable for the rich to sit there while others starve, particularly when the starvation is the product of an unjust system. That you have done well by society and you owe something back also seems to be a fairly universal thing.

    Rebecca MacKinnon

  • I think there are universal values that are shared in all cultures. There's research on that and there are psychological studies, but you can also see it when you're traveling around the world—things like reciprocity, fairness, a sense of justice, trust and what it takes to elicit that trust, being truthful. Those are shared values. But they're interpreted quite differently in different cultures. In some cultures there's a very us-them component.

    Rachel Kleinfeld

  • To me it is the inspired, the aspirational behavioral code that applies to all people irrespective of how they incorporate themselves or whichever communities they feel they belong to. That would be a global ethic. It would be something that one could speak about in terms of its principles, but one would also have to prescribe certain conduct to it as well.

    Parag Khanna

  • A global ethic has to be independent of confession and religious observance as a test of inclusion or exclusion. Andrew Carnegie was nothing but a Scot Presbyterian; that's who he was. But the ethic that comes out of the work of those who follow in his footsteps and who search for international peace can't be defined by a Protestant faith or a Catholic faith or a Muslim or Jewish faith.

    Jay Winter

  • We cannot be separated. The world is one. Humanity is one. And if the world is one, if something happens in one place, it will spread immediately to another corner, so we have to be always together to know each other. Our awareness must be global.

    Hawa Abdi

  • I think about the entrepreneurial spirit that I've seen all over the planet—that spirit of wanting to create and contribute and push things forward, to get up every day and say, "Now what can I do to create more value?" especially with people who see themselves as social entrepreneurs. That spirit of entrepreneurship, of creation, is the most redemptive and life-giving common spirit and common ethic that I have observed.

    Jessica Jackley

  • I think people are very similar, and ethics are similar everywhere in the world. I think we feel responsibility to our family, to our children, to more vulnerable citizens in society.

    Enrique Penalosa

  • I've been fascinated for a number of years about how we can develop and strengthen a global ethic. I am particularly interested in the work of Hans Küng. I really feel that his work in drawing on the great religions of the world, we can also draw on the humanist tradition. That's what the visionaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt. They looked to the great religions and the humanist tradition in 1948, and they gave us an extraordinary document, this Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Mary Robinson

  • A global ethic, to some extent, is opportunities.

    Fazle Hasan Abed

  • Ethics is how we can maintain the good living of people and keep good relations with each other. Ethics is a way to harmonize the way of life for all the human beings around the world.

    Nobuo Tanaka

  • I think global ethics is largely aspirational. Again I refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a document, frankly, that is still largely aspirational. I think the inability of our institutions, for the most part, and individuals, largely, to deliver on these aspirations is still the moral and ethical challenge of our generation.

    Louise Arbour

  • Our awareness of the global nature of humankind is, in fact, a relatively recent phenomenon. I think, to some degree, that has been accompanied by thinkers concerned about humanity as a whole, about the human condition as a whole. There's a kind of big gap, it seems to me, between what some thinkers might be saying about the human condition as a whole and the possibilities of leaders of particular countries being able to take on that agenda.

    David Cannadine

  • I would think that a global ethic would require the combination of two things. One is a greater understanding and broader compassion of how we treat each other. Let's call it the horizontal dimension of a global ethic: how do we treat others; how do others treat each other; our concern about their condition. There is another dimension, though—I might call this a vertical dimension—which is how we treat the planet and what we are leaving to future generations.

    Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

  • I would like to see a global ethic emerging and accepted by all the communities in the world on women. We have declared long ago that women are equal. We recognize the equality of women. But not many countries really practice that.

    Chan Heng Chee

  • We have had great success in taming the physical world around us. We have taken natural resources and built a wonderful life out of them. We have not had that success in dealing with the internal aspects of the human being. I would say that the ultimate in ethics right now—I would use the term "dignity," to be treated as an individual who does not belong to anybody and who has certain rights.

    Brent Scowcroft

  • A global ethic is emerging and I think the financial crisis, as we see it, has actually contributed to this. We realized that there are things that we simply must do together. In other words, we must agree on values, ecology being another one. Very simply, this sort of demon or this foe is beyond the powers of any one of us.

    Tomas Sedlacek

  • We have seen in many countries a real movement that takes people out of poverty and produces economic growth, which gives people standards of living that previous generations didn't have. But it comes at a cost. I think the real challenge is to find ways of developing productive, satisfying societies that don't produce the environmental problems and don't have a lot of the stresses and strains that we face now.

    Lawrence Freedman

  • The global ethic is a set of elementary moral values, standards, and attitudes, which can be found in all great religious and ethical traditions of humankind and can be shared by all human beings, believers and non-believers.

    Hans Küng

  • I would say that the heart of a global ethic for our time, or a convergent point of global ethical systems, is that twofold sense of recognizing one another's dignity and sharing our resources in justice.

    Rowan Williams

  • We need to respect each other. We need to help each other. Humans fear the same thing, even if you are not in the same culture. But when you get pain, you get the same pain. If one woman or girl has been trafficked or has been raped, they are suffering the same way.

    Somaly Mam

  • It's like a mountain with a summit and you have many routes and many paths. Every tradition, every religion, every culture or civilization might have a specific path and we join and we meet at the summit. Global ethics is what we get at the summit, but we have to accept that there are different routes.

    Tariq Ramadan

  • The persistence of stronger ties to ethnic groups than larger national, not to mention global, entities runs counter to "global consciousness." On the other hand, growing awareness of and desire to mitigate global threats such as climate change and nuclear proliferation suggest there is a trend toward "global consciousness."

    David Shinn

  • We used to talk about universalism in ethics. All of us were universalists to some degree, some of us to a greater degree, some of us to a lesser degree. But my moral universalism is minimalist in character. I've defended a kind of minimalist morality for global society.

    Michael Walzer

  • I approach it in a positive way, that we ought to be thinking about nutrition for every human being, keeping people alive so they have a chance to learn and to be productive. I couple this with an intense interest in energy development of all sorts, energy that makes it possible for people really to have lights or heat—in other words, having gotten some food for people, then to try to help them stay alive.

    Richard Lugar

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