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Carnegie Council Fellows Respond: Making Ethics Matter, 2017

Online Roundtable

September 26, 2017

Points of light (Fireworks) CREDIT: jdmoar (CC)

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world....
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
---W.B. Yeats, 1919

Are we on the verge of another historical period when "the center cannot hold"? If so, what can we do, both as organizations and as individuals?

"History and experience tell us that not all the answers will be found in government," declared Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal recently. "Individuals from all walks of life will be difference-makers, leading from wherever they are. Ethics will be found in people of good will who believe in constructive responses to hard policy challenges. Ethics will be demonstrated by those who are willing to take a stand in defense of the core values of pluralism, rights, and fairness. Ethics will be invigorated by dialogue based on empirical knowledge, mutual respect, and equal regard for others. Carnegie Council will always be a home for these people and their voices."

Read or listen to his full statement here.

Dr. Rosenthal's words launched a discussion among Carnegie Council staff. Four themes emerged:

  • We should not surrender to low elements of public discourse, amplified by rapid-fire social media. Carnegie Council should be a counter-force to the corrosive tone that frequently dominates the news.
  • Focus on the ethical principles at stake. This is the Council's value-added.
  • Demonstrate fact-based, civil dialogue. Let's set an example.
  • Our purpose is educational, not political. Our audiences come to us to learn the facts and to think for themselves.

How does the world look from the perspective of our Carnegie Council Fellows? Here are their responses:

  • Senior Fellow Zach Dorfman is an independent journalist. Previously, he was senior editor of the Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs. Read his thoughts here.
  • Senior Fellow Alexander Görlach is a visiting scholar at Harvard University, where he researches at both the Center for European Studies and the Divinity School in the field of politics and religion. Read his response here.

ZACH DORFMAN: Over the last year, many Americans learned, with increasing dismay, that the values and axioms underlying their political order were much more fragile than almost everyone had previously believed. In fact, many of us—myself included—had the luxury and privilege to take these foundational principles as self-evident and self-perpetuating. The American story is one of moral evolution, consistently pitting a laudable and rare universalism against the cancers in our own national DNA—slavery, racism (and the systematic discrimination that follows from it), displacement of the indigenous, misogyny, and xenophobia, among others. But, especially since the end of World War II, there has been a consensus, that the Enlightenment-era rights and liberties inscribed in our Constitution are what make America, America; that, as the retired diplomat Daniel Fried put it, "the option of a white man's republic ended at Appomattox."

No more. We are at a hinge point in the life of our republic, in a country that has only fulfilled its promise of full democratic legitimacy (at the electoral level), about 50 years ago, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Some of these challenges can simply be chalked up to the passage of time. (There is no one left alive in my own extended family, for instance, who fought in World War II; they have all passed on.) This lack of living historical memory about what fascism was, as a lived reality, as something more than a mere electoral or discursive irritant, has led us to broadly underestimate the threat we now face within our own societies.

As recent elections in Germany, France, the UK, and the U.S. have shown, the global forces of illiberal and fascism are ascendant, mirroring the Post-World War I period. At the time, the defenders of (imperfect, disorderly, vulgar, and often corrupt) democracy were few, and it critics were many. Today, these same critiques are being made by anti-democratic forces the world over—from Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary, to "core" states in the post-World War II global order like the U.S. and France—and the seriousness of their challenge is not being heeded.

The Carnegie Council is an educational organization, nonpolitical (or really, non-partisan) in its tone, demeanor, and outlook. It does not proselytize or advocate for or against specific policies. And that is for the good: now, more than ever, we need spaces in our public life that encourage the free interchange of ideas, that catalyze the intellectual disquiet that precedes real moral growth. But the Council, like all other foundations created for a social purpose, possesses certain core values that are simply immutable. And these—like its commitment to pluralism, liberalism (broadly understood), and representative democracy—are the very issues that have now been brought, again, into the zone of political contestation.

These are things worth fighting for. In the 20th century, entire countries were scoured and scarred battling for, or in opposition to, these principles. No one—politicians, pundits, academics, or scholars—knows where we're headed tomorrow, but all the warning signals are flashing brightly before our eyes. It might be hard to comprehend this today, but the years between 1919 and 1938 weren't referred to as the "interwar period" until the Second World War had already begun.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: As a European of German nationality working on narratives of identity at both Harvard Divinity School and the Center for European Studies during the refugee crisis of 2015, one could very quickly realize that empathy and compassion were the right sentiments, the keys to understanding and navigating this event. Almost one million refugees made their way, mostly on foot, from war-torn Syria to Europe, and within Europe, to Germany. No one leaves his or her country by foot unless it was absolutely necessary, with no other resort in sight.

The refugees from Syria have, however, not only sparked a wave of solidarity in Germany, but also accelerated an already existing anti-Muslim, anti-foreigner sentiment that is, unfortunately, vital in many parts of the word nowadays—the Hindu nationalist government in India denies rights to the Muslims living in the country; the Turkish rulership oppresses Christians, intellectuals, and journalists alike; Mr. Putin in the Kremlin scapegoats homosexuals, declaring them to be the epitome of Western decadence that besieges the fabric of Russian society. This of course is ludicrous, and from the outside one can easily detect that scapegoating is a coverup for a government's unwillingness to adopt and confront their electorates with reality.

Unfortunately this disease has also befallen democratic societies. In England, xenophobia and Islamophobia triggered the Brexiters: "Take our country back" implies "keep the foreigners and Muslims out." And in the United States, President Trump's "make America great again" not only targets Mexicans and Muslims, he also fosters the ideology of white supremacy and antisemitism.

The developments in both the non-democratic parts of the world as well as Western, democratic, liberal societies demand a strong answer and a clear voice of ethics. Seeing basic standards of behavior and language demolished and frameworks of decency destroyed, all people of good will have to stand up and defend the basic principals that make a society good.

Acknowledging the rise of such movements of exclusion, one must ask why do they occur, and why are they occurring now, in this moment of history? We are living during a paradigm shift: the digital revolution. We see the dawn of the machine age and the implications of artificial intelligence. We have entered a phase of uncertainty: how will we live in the future, and how will we make our living? There is fear sparking from this unpredictability. It is fierce, and its repercussions are reverberating throughout the whole world. People retreat to what they know, closing their borders and minds in hopes that change may spare their current way of life.

Inclusiveness, and learning to perceive the world as one global society, is needed. Refugees, whether from political turmoil or climate disaster, will unfortunately become the rule rather than the exception. Global trade and economy is interconnected at unprecedented levels. Whoever preaches that one country can do it alone and find solutions for themselves has to be called out as a liar. But that's not enough. Ethics of inclusiveness must emerge from all the various traditions that exist, be they religious or secular. There has never been a chance for a globalized, cosmopolitan ethic. We have to take that chance!

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