Carnegie Council's Approach to Ethics

Carnegie Council takes a pluralistic approach to ethics. While discarding the conceit that all norms are equally valid, neither does the Council accept that there is only one acceptable lens through which to view ethical questions. Dialogue among societies with vibrant but diverse ethical traditions is essential for meaningful cooperation on tough global problems.

Pluralism, simply put, is empathy for diversity while seeking what is common in humanity. It is the attempt to see some common human value even in the midst of different cultural practice. Pluralists hold that every society has strongly developed codes of duty and restraint that promote some notion of human well being. What makes us human is our capacity to understand these norms, how they developed and why—even if we disagree with them strongly. This empathy enhances the prospects for constructive moral argument.

The rock bottom principle for any normative analysis continues to be the idea of rights. Carnegie Council views rights as entitlements and protections in relation to duties and responsibilities. The challenge for a rights-based analysis of international behavior is in how to draw boundaries for such claims. What does it mean to have a universal right? How can such rights be enforced? What is the relevant community for individual claims of rights? In an age of deep economic integration, shared concerns about global climate change, extensive migration, and increasing flows of technology and information, is it viable to continue to speak about separate communities? Or is a planetary focus necessary and inevitable?

As we consider the obligations of ethical demands related to rights, we inevitably move toward the slippery concept of fairness. In an international context, we are used to the classical, rational actor model of behavior which suggests that states seek to maximize power, both in politics and economics. But in this age of globalization, reciprocity emerges as a central obligation of relations between states. Who owes what to whom? What is the nature of our economic, social, and political connections? What constitutes our horizontal duties (to others) and vertical duties (across generations)? It is no longer sufficient to think of ourselves as single actors acting within one set of social arrangements. We are not only citizens, but consumers and members of civil society nested within a global economy, a global climate, and a global culture. Seen in this way, self-interests are broadly defined as what might be called "enlightened self-interest"—that is, what is good for you is likely to be what is good for others as well.

Taken to the state level, national interests must be seen in terms of global responsibilities. National aspirations must be considered in light of the forces of complex interdependence and international norms. The goal is to develop a principled approach to international affairs.