Brings a Need for Global Ethics
VIENNA - Like it or not, globalization is here - in some ways. It isn't a global
village, nothing cozy and not that much communal about it. But things, people and money,
especially money, do move around as never before, and more and more barriers are breached.
The porousness of societies isn't even, but it won't be stopped.
Still. people are trying to cling to the familiar and the reassuring, to take more
control of their lives from distant centers of power, to strengthen the role of local and
regional authority, which they feel they have a better chance of influencing.
It makes for inevitable strains, compounded by profound transformations driven by
technology. The transformations will be as least as far-reaching as that oft be industrial
revolution in every sphere - social, political, cultural, moral, as well as economic.
These interpenetrating pressures, sparking rival ambitions, provoke reactions that have
led to the prediction of a great "clash of civilizations," a world full of
people who can't and don't really want to get on with each other. But they are also
leading to new efforts to emphasize the feelings and impulses that human beings share, to
find common standards on which they can agree.
A small group met in Vienna last weekend to consider how it might be possible to work
out a global ethic, basic standards for human relations that all can accept as desirable
even if, in the eternal human way, they don't always practice what they preach.
The meeting was convoked by German ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on behalf of the
Inter-Action Council, a club of former heads of government with plenty of experience on
the problems of running societies and an urge to use their freedom from political
responsibilities to transcend the constraints.
On the thesis that religion is a basic source of moral and ethical concepts, there were
representatives of all the major religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism as well as
Christianity, Judaism Islam.
Not surprisingly, the people who turned up shared a wish for tolerance and a rejection
of violence. Fanatics don't hold much with this kind of endeavor, and none were present.
But most people are not fanatics, and these have come to feel the need to make themselves
heard above the angry din.
They picked at each other's words now and then, as committees are bound to do. But they
had w trouble concluding that the essence of the diverse religious teachings they espouse
is much the same. If it could be jointly articulated, it would show the quarreling world
how much more human beings do have in common than the difference that set them against
The idea of inevitable cultural hostility which puts sets of values in certain conflict
was easily dismissed. There are differences of emphasis, with Asian societies stressing
the needs of community, and the respect for authority that goes with it, against the
emphasis on the individual in the modern West. But both emphases were recognized as
present and necessary for everybody, not really contradictory.
Democracy may have arisen in the West as the way of striving for the universal
aspiration to dignity and freedom, but it isn't alien to the underlying concepts that
infuse religion and moral philosophy everywhere.
A call was made for "affirmative tolerance," which means not just accepting
that others have different traditions, different beliefs, different habits of behavior,
but being prepared to offer equal respect.
The plan is to prepare a declaration of global ethics, perhaps to convene a meeting of
highest religious authorities for all the world to see and hear the message of
convergence, to recommend educational materials for wide distribution, possibly to
enshrine a constant dedication to human amity and the sanctity of life in a World Academy.
These are grandiose ideas. They are not all that new, they inspired the universalism of
the French revolutionary declaration on the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of
Independence. They are contained in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights,
speaking for all traditions for the first time and passed without a dissenting vote.
But there is a new recognition that the world is changing dramatically and that ideas
and attitudes are having trouble keeping up with new physical and material circumstances.
Another declaration, a summit Or religious leaders, a call for global ethics to provide
a yardstick for the decisions that people great and small must make each day, will not
chase away all the pain and bewilderment of being driven into a new era by our very
success at invention.
It is a start, though, on seeking the wisdom to deal with the explosion of knowledge,
capacity and sheer human presence in the world. We have learned how to do a lot of things.
We must try to relearn why.
© Flora Lewis