Left: Devin Stewart and Michael Ignatieff, University of Buenos Aires, June 2013
Left: Devin Stewart and Michael Ignatieff, University of Buenos Aires, June 2013

Global Ethical Dialogues: Concept Paper

Jun 12, 2013


Global ethical dialogues within and between cultures and nations have been going on for millennia. No culture has ever been an island. Today's globalization has merely accelerated dialogues that have occurred for centuries. Contemporary activists, thinkers, politicians and policymakers are working across borders, cultures, disciplines, and faiths to think about common solutions to common problems. We may be divided by faiths, ideologies, and histories, but we are united, whether we realize it or not, by the same challenges: maintaining the integrity of institutions, preventing conflict over difference, managing environmental harms and technological risks, and understanding the impact of global economic change on our ways of life and securing justice for those left out.

These dialogues within and between cultures—about how to understand and solve the problems we have in common—go on in thousands of places every day, with global perspectives running up against local ones, entrenched interests encountering moral activists, scholars confronting scholars, faiths competing with faiths.

Two features distinguish the modern situation: new technologies are accelerating the interaction and new ethical principles are structuring the dialogue. New technologies allow for real-time, interactive dialogue as never before. These dialogues are occurring under a new normative dispensation: the idea that every person, every faith, every race and creed come to the table as equals, with the same right to be heard and the same right to shape both the conversation and the outcome. The democratic norm—each person counts for one and no one for more than one—now structures the expectations of the 60 percent of states that are democratic. But the democratic norm also governs moral conversations when individuals, faiths, cultures and nations that are nondemocratic step into the same room to talk. This norm is anchored in the practice of the UN, which accords small and large, weak and powerful states the same sovereign equality. The norm also is anchored in international human rights and international humanitarian law, and much more importantly, it is anchored in the daily social practices and interactions of citizens around the world. These citizens live—or want to live—in a morally flat world, one based on equality of respect, meaning a world where everyone has a right to speak and be heard. The new social media technologies have enormously empowered and enabled this idea of equality of voice.

This norm—equality of voice—has defeated the norm of hierarchies of voice that as late as the mid-20th century still privileged whites over blacks, northern peoples over southern ones, imperial holders of power over their colonial subjects. In the old dispensation, certain voices had standing, not by virtue of what they said, but by virtue of who was saying it. The white race and the English language conferred automatic standing and a place at the top of a voice hierarchy.

The empires are gone, we are in a post-imperial world, but asymmetries of power, influence and resources persist—alongside—and in contradiction to—the emerging norm of equal voice. To this day the voices that command a global audience and global influence, that define academic and policy agendas, still reside in London, Davos and New York. We say all voices are entitled to be heard, but we know that some voices still carry further, have more influence, indeed need only speak in a whisper for their orders to be carried out. Moreover, the memory of a time when your voice was not heard—because of your gender, race, sexual orientation, subject status in an empire—remains a burden that continues to hold back those who want to speak in their own name.

But the power structure of global ethical dialogue is changing rapidly. These inherited hierarchies of intellectual power are being challenged by new voices and sources emerging in Beijing, Rio, and Mumbai. It is not simply that the economic power of the BRICS is empowering their intellectual voices. It is also the case that voice rights are being claimed and exercised by once-silenced groups everywhere, especially women. New norms of consultation and involvement now structure development practice, for example, and require that the voices of those impacted by development—whether it be a new mine, dam, or irrigation project—are heard and listened to.

So, to summarize, global dialogues, within and between societies, are confronted with a major challenge: to reduce the gap between a normative commitment to equal voice and the reality of enduring structural inequality. This creates an unstable but productive situation. The powerful no longer can refuse to give a hearing to the voices of the powerless: the powerful accept that they can lose power if they fail to listen. Even in China, no modern leader could shut his ears to the cries of the people as Mao did. Even in Russia, no modern leader can ignore popular discontent as the czars did.

The waning of voice hierarchies, coupled with the persistence of asymmetries of power, produces a world in which almost everyone now has a chance to speak, and where almost everyone's voice is accorded some minimal respect, but where it remains the case that only the voices of a select few are heard or accorded authority.

This authority can be acquired by power, by election, by knowledge, by celebrity. We ceaselessly produce hierarchies of voice in the defiance of our own normative commitment to equality of voice. We also ceaselessly produce speech communities whose function is to tell us what we want to hear or what we already know.


So the question: How does an organization like Carnegie Council, with a global mandate but based in New York, contribute to meeting this challenge of generating egalitarian dialogue within and between unequal societies? Given that global dialogue on ethical issues is already going on in a thousand places, how can Carnegie make a distinctive contribution?

By setting up dialogues that make an ethical commitment to equal voice: whether by gender, race, origin, nationality, orientation or language; by committing to the idea of a dialogue where there are no trumps—ideological, discursive, or religious; where we respect foundational differences and do not seek to reduce or eliminate them.

So the goal is an inter-connected series of global dialogues on the ethical roots of problems we face in common and what we need to do together to solve them.

We are seeking to find out what happens to ethical debate when:

  • We move the site of the dialogue out of New York, London and the West and conduct it in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East.
  • We take seriously a commitment to equality of voice and equality of respect.
  • We practice a strategy of inclusion and avoid preaching to the converted.
  • We put together philosophers and ethicists, practitioners and activists, and break down barriers of profession, political allegiance, and expertise.
  • We accept that on some fundamental moral, religious, and political questions, the best we can do is to agree to disagree.
  • We accept that we cannot change the difficult history we may have with each other; we can only change our future together.
  • The urgency of their common problems gives us a strong pragmatic reason to learn and share what works and what doesn't.
  • We seek not an outcome or a policy but a method, a way of engaging, debating, working together and building long-term networks of trust across religions, cultures, histories and ethnicities.


Corruption and Trust

No society, developed or developing, northern or southern, escapes the problem of corruption. Every political system, democratic or non-democratic, struggles to maintain the integrity of its institutions. This is a common problem, yet we approach it with differing visions of what public integrity is, what accountability means and how to define and respect the obligations of public office holding. Inherited legacies of colonial rule, political economies, and patrimonial traditions of authority create moral path dependencies that shape but also deform each society's attempt to maintain integrity and honesty in public office. A commonplace of inter-cultural condescension is the idea that certain societies encourage—and are then captured by—a "culture of corruption." One important purpose of a dialogue is to subject this idea to critical scrutiny and to ask whether norms about integrity and trust in public office holding are culturally relative. Or whether in fact there is more agreement about corruption's evil than one would expect. Corruption eats away at all societies and does damage to all of them, in different but devastating ways. If it harms all of us, what progress could we make in refining and re-stating the universal norms that will help all of our societies to rebuild basic trust in our institutions and our office-holders?

Environment and Growth

The rapid rise of global GDP and the staggering economic growth in emerging nations have lifted millions of people out of absolute poverty and offered them new hopes and new life chances. At the same time, global growth is putting unprecedented pressure on the planet we share as well as on the fragile ecosystems that local communities depend on. Finding a balance between growth and sustainability is a practical policy challenge, but it is an ethical challenge too. We value growth for its emancipatory potential as well as for the material benefits it spreads to millions, but we have not found a way to balance this good against the need to protect the biosphere. This is also an ethical conflict between what we owe ourselves and what we owe succeeding generations. Emerging nations, which have just tasted mass prosperity, are reluctant to accept environmental limits to growth preached to them by nations who have enjoyed wealth for centuries. How do we negotiate these conflicts—between what we owe the earth, what we owe ourselves, what we owe future generations—if we accept that neither growth nor sustainability alone can trump?

Citizenship and Difference

Globalization has transformed modern citizenship. Most modern democracies are trying to develop an ideal of common citizenship for populations that come from every corner of the globe, worship in different faiths, speak different languages and disagree on basic matters like the place of religion in politics and the role of women in private and public life.

The unfolding story of multicultural citizenship poses difficult ethical issues: how to balance tolerance and respect for difference with the minimum core of shared values necessary for citizenship; how to create the shared assumptions and national identity necessary for inclusive democratic debate with respect for cultural, religious and sexual identities that are increasingly diverse; how to deal peacefully and inclusively with groups that are not considered citizens.

If they are granted citizenship, how do people in such societies agree to disagree? How do they live together when they do? How much common life must be shared for democratic deliberation to be possible? What limits to tolerance and "live and let live" are necessary to the maintenance of the public goods of shared discussion and common order? How do we adjudicate disagreement when citizens no longer share the same premises or allegiances? Multicultural citizenship is an unfolding experiment: we need to understand why it has been so successful in some societies, and so problematic and fraught with conflict in others.

War and Reconciliation

Before the cataclysm of 1914, visionaries like Andrew Carnegie believed that law, international arbitration and the diffusion of shared knowledge could tame war. A century later, these dreams may seem fanciful, but their idealism continues to challenge the realist insistence that war will, like poverty, always be with us. As we mark the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo, it is time to return to Carnegie's idealist dreams by closely examining the only durable antidote to war: reconciliation. How and why do enemies reconcile? How do peoples forgive and forget, or at least forgive? How do they create new shared institutions? What are the ethical demands of peace-building in societies that have been divided by war?

Technology and Risk

The Fukushima disaster, like Chernobyl before it, throws into sharp relief the ethical issues that surround the management of technological risk. How do societies make public choices about technologies that present them with low probability catastrophic risk? How do they fairly address contested views within society on that risk? How is the public educated about risk and involved in the political process toward an equitable outcome? What are the obligations of scientists and technologists in respect of such risks? No new technology can be deployed without some element of risk and some element of uncertainty as to future consequences. This is as true of innovation in pharmaceuticals and bioscience as it is in the realm of nuclear technology. "First Do No Harm" is the prudential norm of choice, but it is impossible to anticipate all possible harms and it is unwise to reject innovation simply because it entails unpredictable risks. Without the possibility of risk, there is no innovation. So how should we think about intergenerational responsibilities in relation to technological and scientific innovations that may put our health and our environment in some degree of danger? How do we hold politicians, scientists and companies responsible for "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" and how do we reconcile an ethic of public prudence with a culture of innovation?

Democracy and its Challengers

The ideal of democratic self-determination and self-rule has become the norm for more than 60 percent of the regimes in the world's states, but it faces increasing challenge from nondemocratic forms of rule—in China, Russia and Singapore, which combine capitalism with single party rule. While democratic regimes struggle with grid-lock and stagnation, single party government is proving that it has unsuspected advantages in swift and decisive decision-making combined with the capacity to manage economic growth and development. While single-party states also suffer from a lack of inclusiveness and an abundance of nepotism, their success challenges the moral privilege accorded to democratic regimes, according to which democracy is validated by its moral features: the commitment to equal deliberation, constitutional limitations on coercion, and the ethical premise that each should counts for one, and no one counts for more than one. The rise of single party state capitalism also puts into question the supposed indivisibility of economic and political freedom. Is freedom divisible? How do societies balance the desire for freedom with the need for economic growth? Is democracy's moral privilege deserved?


To address these themes, Carnegie Council proposes to get out of New York and send a small delegation to carefully selected sites around the world for an intensive, multi-phased ethical dialogue with academics, activists, politicians and citizens. The sites that are chosen, the agenda of the dialogue and the guest list will be worked out jointly between the Carnegie Council Office in New York, Global Ethics Fellows on site, and collaborators from local institutions and agencies.

The dialogue will include at least three elements:

  • A Site Visit. Exposure to a venue, program or site where the general problem to be discussed—environmental sustainability, for example—is on display in a specific context. The purpose is for both the visitors and local informants to come closer in sharing a common fact base about the problem as it presents itself in a specific instance. The idea will be to get local informants to contribute their knowledge and experience to a general discussion of the problem, and for the visitors to share what they know about other contexts where the same problems arise.
  • A Colloquium. A sustained dialogue with a select, invited group of discussants, around a structured intellectual agenda concerning the theme. No papers, no conference format, but a dialogue of equals, chaired and led by the Carnegie chair.
  • A Public Event. An event open to the general public in which visitors and hosts exchange conclusions from their interaction


    • A Method: Perfecting, over multiple iterations, a format and method for the conduct of inter- and intra-societal ethical dialogue.

    • A Network: The gradual emergence of a network of teachers, activists, politicians and journalists of a global network committed to advancing global dialogue on common problems.

    • A Platform: Increasing the visibility and usefulness of Carnegie Council's web presence as a site for ongoing dialogue, exchange and debate on global ethical issues.

  • A Publication: A book that describes the process, the method and the network and draws together major conclusions on the six themes for publication, authored by the Centennial Chair.

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