Logo

Thought Leader: Hans Küng

January 30, 2013

Hans Kung

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart corresponded via email with Dr. Hans Küng. Dr. Küng is a Catholic priest and president of the Foundation for a Global Ethic.

DEVIN STEWART: What is morally distinct about the age we live in?

HANS KÜNG: We do not live any more in the age of modernity where reason, progress, and nation were the leading values. All these modern values have been shaken by the two World Wars and the more recent developments in economy, politics and culture.

In post-modern world there are positive developments:

  • In the ecological dimension: instead of the domination and exploitation of nature, partnership with nature; 

  • in the anthropological dimension: instead of discriminatory male privileges, equality for women and partnership between men and women;

  • in the social dimension: instead of the strong antagonisms between poor and rich classes and between poor countries and rich countries, distributive justice for all peoples and individuals.

DEVIN STEWART: Are things getting better or worse?

Things are going better and worse at the same time. In many moral issues there seems to be no progress at all despite the progress in technology and industry. But I mentioned already the positive developments. I am sure there will be no relapse into the simple exploitation of nature, to the old male domination and to the unchallenged right of the mighty ones.

DEVIN STEWART: What issue or idea concerns you most?

HANS KÜNG: I have committed myself in my whole activity during six decades to the unity of the Christian churches, to peace among the religions and to truly united nations. My whole work is focused on peace among the religions and on the development of a global ethic. This remains my strongest concern.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you define global ethics?

HANS KÜNG: 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.

From primeval times, human beings gradually learned to behave humanely. Human beings are the only living creatures which have shown themselves to be capable of setting up social and cultural norms early on and have continued to develop them. Already during the dawn of mankind, wherever fundamental needs appeared, wherever interpersonal pressures and necessities became apparent, guidelines for behaviour emerged: specific conventions and traditionsin other words, ethical standards, rules, norms, and directives. These guidelines have been tested everywhere in the human race over the course of thousands of years. As one generation succeeded the next, these guidelines became ingrained.

Thus very similar norms developed in very different regions all over the globe. These norms focused on four vital social areas:

  • Regulations to protect human life: prohibiting the killing of humans as one would kill animals, with certain exceptions (to settle conflicts, to punish violence).

  • Regulations to protect the relationships between the sexes: up until the present day, the rules governing who can be allowed to marry whom remain highly complex among Australian aborigines and are far more complicated than in modern societies.

  • Regulations to protect property: the Neolithic revolution meant that, in addition to nomadic hunter-gatherers and fishermen, increasing numbers of people began to settle down, cultivate land and domesticate animals; this led to a desire to own land and private property.

  • Regulations to protect the truth: particularly in sophisticated civilisations and religions, truthfulness and reliability became increasingly important, as did being respected and esteemed (honored) by other people for particular human qualities. This understanding of truth is particularly in evidence in the Hebrew Bible: emet means "fidelity, constancy, dependability."

DEVIN STEWART: What is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?

HANS KÜNG: The greatest challenge is the current rapid accumulation of global crises. We live in a time where several fundamental crises are influencing and reinforcing one another. We are seeing the emergence of climate crises and energy crises, financial crises and economic crises, debt crises and national crises.

DEVIN STEWART: If we don't respond, what kind of future should we expect?

HANS KÜNG: If we do not respond, humanity has no future. Each one of these crises is able to ruin a great deal of human happiness and even survival.

DEVIN STEWART: What would you like to see happen in the next 100 years?

HANS KÜNG: I would like to see happen some realization of the principles of a global ethic, which are expressed and explained in the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World's Religions, adopted in Chicago in 1993. This declaration clearly formulates the principles and directives of a global ethic based on the great religious and ethical traditions of humanity and restated for our modern times; it is unfortunately still not enough known in the United States.

The two basic principles:

  • The Principle of Humanity: Every human being must be treated humanely and not inhumanely.

  • The Golden Rule of Reciprocity: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.

The four Directives or Imperatives of Humanity:

  • A culture of non-violence and of respect for all life: You shall not killbut you shall also not torture, torment, or hurtor to put it positively: Have respect for life!

  • A culture of solidarity and a just economic order: You shall not stealbut you shall also not exploit, bribe, corruptor to put it positively: Act honestly and fairly!

  • A culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness: You shall not liebut you shall also not deceive, falsify, manipulateor to put it positively: Speak and act truthfully!

  • A culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women: You shall not abuse sexualitybut you shall also not abuse, humiliate, or degrade your partneror to put it positively: Respect and love one another!

A global ethic is a realistic vision, a vision that can naturally not be achieved over night but will take time. That already applied to the topical social questions of 30 or 40 years ago: a new understanding of peace and disarmament, an awakening sensitivity to environmental problems, a new view of the roles of men and women, based on partnership. All of these issues had ethical dimensions and the process of rethinking and revising our ideas has taken decadesand has not yet been concluded.

DEVIN STEWART: What does moral leadership mean to you?

HANS KÜNG: Moral leadership is necessary in all spheres of life, such as politics, economy, education. The central presupposition is credibility and integrity. Moral leadership means to stand up for one's moral convictions. Professor Klaus Leisinger (Basel), who cooperated with our Global Ethic Foundation for a Manifesto of Global Economic Ethic, specifies the following characteristics of moral leadership: intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and perseverance; and a wise sense of reason, justice, honesty, and prudence.

DEVIN STEWART: Is world peace possible?

HANS KÜNG: Comprehensive world peace may never be achieved. But the history of the European Union of the last 60 years shows that peace is possible if everybody cooperates. I insist especially on the importance of religions when I state:

  • No peace among nations without peace between religions.

  • No peace between religions without a dialogue between religions.

  • No dialogue between religions without shared ethical values and standards.

DEVIN STEWART: Who is ultimately accountable for the problems you have outlined?

Generally speaking, each of us is accountable. We have not to consider only statesmen, politicians, business leaders, and the UN. Education plays a key role: already children in kindergarten and in elementary school should learn to practice the global ethic principles in the classroom where children of very different religions and ethnic background come together.