Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
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A New Global Ethics

Hans Küng
Director of Tübingen University, Institute of Ecumenical Studies, Germany

Challenges and Responses

real audio file1. We live in a world and time, in which we observe new dangerous tensions and polarisations between believers and non-believers, religious people and agnostics, secularists, between clericals and anti-clericals – not only in Russia, and Europe, but also in Africa, in North-America, and in Asia.

To this challenge I respond: There can be no survival of humanity without a coalition of believers and non-believers in mutual respect!

But many people tell me: Are we not living in a period of a new cultural confrontation? Indeed:

2. We live in a world and time, where humanity is menaced by a 'clash of civilizations', e.g. between the Muslim civilization and the Western civilization. We are threatened not so much by a new world war, but by all sorts of conflicts in a specific country or in a city, a street or a school.

To this challenge I respond: There will be no peace among the civilizations without peace among the religions!

But many people will ask: Is it not precisely the religions that often support and inspire hatred, enmity and war? Indeed:

3. We live in a world and time, in which peace in many countries is menaced by all sorts of religious fundamentalism, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, often simply rooted in social misery, in reaction to Western secularism and in the desire of a basic orientation in life.

To this challenge I respond: There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions!

But many people will object: Are there not so many dogmatic differences and obstacles between the different faiths, which make real dialogue a naive illusion? Indeed:

4. We live in a world and time, in which better relations between religions are blocked by all sort of dogmatisms which exist not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but in all churches, religions and ideologies.

To this challenge I respond: There will be no new world order without a world ethic, a global ethic despite dogmatic differences.

New World Order and World Ethic

1. In negative terms: A better world order will not be introduced on the basis:

  • solely of diplomatic offensives which all too often are unable to guarantee peace and stability in a certain region and which are often, as now in former Yugoslavia, characterized more by hypocrisy than honesty;
  • simply of humanitarian help which cannot replace political actions and solutions: the European powers, by substituting in political action, put themselves in the power of the aggressors and became complicit in the crimes of war;
  • primarily of military interventions: of course an absolute pacifism would allow a new holocaust, a new genocide at the end of this 'never again century'. But indeed, the consequences of military interventions tend often to be more negative than positive;
  • solely of international law, as long as such a law rests on the unlimited sovereignty of states and is focused more on the rights of states than on the rights of peoples and individuals. If moral convictions and moral intentions do not back a law, armistice or treaty, powers as in Bosnia are not even prepared to defend the principle that only peaceful and negotiated territorial change is acceptable in Europe.

2. In positive terms: A better world order will ultimately only be created on the basis of

  • common visions, ideals, values, aims and criteria;
  • heightened global responsibility on the part of peoples and their leaders;
  • a new binding and uniting ethic for all humankind, including states and those in power, which embraces cultures and religions. No new world order without a new world ethic, a global ethic.

3. What is the function of such a global ethic?

Global ethic is not a new ideology or superstructure;

  • it will not make the specific ethics of the different religions and philosophies superfluous;
  • it is therefore no substitute for the Torah, Sermon on the Mount, the Qur'an, the Bhagavadgita, the Discourses of the Buddha or the Sayings of Confucius.

Global ethic is nothing less than the necessary minimum of common values, standards and basic attitudes. In other words:

  • a minimal basis consensus relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes, which can be affirmed by all religions despite their 'dogmatic' differences and can also be supported by non-believers.

This consensus of values will be a decisive contribution to overcome the crisis of orientation which became a real world problem.

But is that not pure utopia? No, one of the most astonishing and at the same time most welcome phenomena of the last decade of the twentieth century is the almost explosive spread of the notion of a world ethic, not only in theology, philosophy and education, but also in world politics and the world economy. Let us take a look at the most important developments.

November 8, 1996: A new global ethics:
Introduction (Flora Lewis)
Hans Kung
Riffat Hassan
Discussion panel
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
pijltje.gif (895 bytes) General Introduction


World politics discovers the global ethic

When I published the book Projekt Weltethos (Global Responsibility. In Search of a New World Ethic) in 1990, there were hardly any documents on a global ethic from world organizations to which I could refer. Of course there were declarations on human rights, above all the 1948 Declaration of the United Nations, but there were no declarations on human responsibilities. However, now, six years later, I can refer to three important international documents which not only acknowledge human rights, but also speak explicitly of human responsibilities. Indeed they programmatically call for a global ethic and even attempt to spell it out in concrete terms.

(a) The international Commission on Global Governance (1995)

The report of the Commission on Global Governance is entitled Our Global Neighbourhood. The phenomenon of globalization forms the starting point for this four-hundred-page analysis. Here it is striking that before any of the great problem areas (global security, economic interdependence, international law, reforming the United Nations) are tackled, the question of 'values for the global neighbourhood' is raised, and in the face of the rise in tensions between neighbours, there is a call for 'neighbourhood ethics'! For without a global ethic the frictions and tensions in life together in the one world would multiply. 'Without leadership (a courageous leadership infused with that ethic at all levels of society) even the best-designed institutions and strategies will fail.' There is then the terse comment that 'global values must be the cornerstone of global governance'. Here the commission believes that 'many people world-wide, particularly the young, are more willing to respond to these issues than their governments, for whom the short term in the context of political expediency tends to take preference'.

But what basis can be given to an 'ethical dimension of the world political order'? Here, too, it is worth noting that this document gives the Golden Rule as the main basic principle: 'People should treat others as they would themselves wish to be treated.' On this basis the basic values of respect for life, freedom, justice, mutual respect, readiness to help and integrity are developed: 'All these values derive in one way or another from the principle, which is in accord with religious teaching around the world, that people should treat others as they would themselves wish to be treated.'

Similarly, it is part of the fundamental moral teachings of each of the great traditions that one should treat others as one would want to be treated oneself. Some version of this "Golden Rule" finds explicit expression in Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and is implicit in the practices of other faiths. The deeply human urge to avoid avoidable suffering and some notion of the basic moral equality of all human beings together form an indispensable point of reference and a strong pillar of support for any attempt to work out a global ethics.

Report 'Our Creative Diversity'

Furthermore, there is an explicit call for 'these values to be expressed in the form of a global civic ethic with specific rights and responsibilities', in which 'all citizens, as individuals and as members of different private groups and associations, should accept the obligation to recognize and help protect the rights of others'. This ethic should be incorporated into the developing 'fabric of international norms'.7 For such a global ethic 'would help humanize the impersonal workings of bureaucracies and markets and constrain the competitive and self-serving instincts of individuals and groups'.8 Without this global ethic the new wider global civil society which is coming into being could 'become unfocused and even unruly'.

In connection with this a request is made. The authors were presumably unaware that it had already been made in a discussion in the Revolutionary Parliament of 1789, in Paris, but could not be met at that time: 'Rights need to be joined with responsibilities.' For the 'tendency to emphasize rights while forgetting responsibilities' has 'deleterious consequences'. 'We therefore urge the international community to unite in support of a global ethic of common rights and shared responsibilities. In our view, such an ethic – reinforcing the fundamental rights that are already part of the fabric of international norms – would provide the moral foundation for constructing a more effective system of global governance.'

Achieving significant improvements will depend on the co-operation and the good will of innumerable people all over the world. Securing a better future for all may involve sacrifices and will require profound changes in attitudes (including cultural attitudes) and behaviour, not least in people's social priorities, the educational system, the patterns of consumption, and even the most basic beliefs about how the individual should relate to society and the earth.

Report 'Our Creative Diversity'

The international commission expresses the hope that 'over time, these principles could be embodied in a more binding international document – a global charter of Civil Society – that could provide a basis for all to agree on rules that should govern the global neighbourhood'.

(b) The World Commission on Culture and Development (1995)

The major report by the World Commission on Culture and Development which was published in collaboration with the UN and UNESCO under the title Our Creative Diversity is of equal importance.14 Here a 'commitment to pluralism' is presupposed, but this statement is preceded by a chapter which stresses what is held in common rather than the differences: 'A New Global Ethics', an ethic of humankind, a world ethic.

But why do we need a global ethic? Because collaboration between people of different cultures and interests could be made easier and their conflicts diminished and limited if all peoples and groups saw themselves 'bound and motivated' by 'shared commitments'. So it is 'imperative to look for a core of shared ethical values and principles'.

But what could the sources of such a global ethic be? The formulation of a global ethic must be inspired by the cultural resources, the insights, emotional experiences, historical memories and spiritual orientations of peoples. Despite all the differences between cultures there are some themes which appear in almost all cultural traditions and which could serve as the inspiration for a global ethic. The first of these sources are the great cultural traditions, especially 'the idea of human vulnerability and the attendant ethical impulse to alleviate suffering where such is possible and to provide security to each individual'.16 Now this is more a Buddhist formulation of the starting point, but it is also acceptable to other religions. And here too at the same time reference is made above all to the Golden Rule, which has found expression in the traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and is also implicit in the practices of other faiths, thus pointing to the equal moral worth of all human beings.

...every man is moved by fear and horror, tenderness and mercy, if he suddenly sees a child about to fall into a well ... no man is without a heart for right and wrong

Meng-tze, III

Alongside the elements from the great cultural traditions, this commission also attempts to develop elements of an ethic which derive from 'global civic culture' and which are similarly to be incorporated into a new global ethic. Here the main reference is to human rights.

Yet however much one might support all the demands for human rights, democracy, the protection of minorities, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and equal treatment in and between the generations, all these principles are more social and political rights and postulates than ethical principles. And for the Commission too, just how difficult it is to derive a common ethic for humankind from the human rights which are proclaimed emerges from the fact that human rights are perceived very differently in some non-Western societies. In southern Asia, for example, some human rights activists have had to recognize:

  1. that many rights would be regarded only in the context of religion, the family or other institutions;
  2. that people would always talk about their responsibilities before the question of their human rights;
  3. that the human rights as expressed in the UN Declaration are either unknown or very far removed from their own experience.

However, as a person with religious responsibilities, I ask myself why in its welcome plea for a global ethic the World Commission does not speak more energetically and substantively about the great religious and ethical traditions of humankind. Is it for fear of the very word 'religion' or for fear of the reality of the religions? I suppose that this restraint can be explained in the light of the fatal role which some religions have played in more recent history, and still play – in connection with human rights, democracy and world peace. But I ask myself: has not the newest era of all, the post-modern era of human history, from Eastern Europe to Latin America and from South Africa to the Philippines, shown that religions can have not only a destructive but also a constructive effect, and can release a tremendous dynamic to liberate people from totalitarian systems, to protect human dignity, to establish human rights and preserve world peace?

Underlying the stance that the concept of human rights is fundamentally secular, and, therefore, outside of, and even antithetical to, the world view of religion, is – of course – a certain view of religion in general, or of particular religions.

Riffat Hassan

So I would argue that we should go on the offensive in using the incomparable resources of the world religions for establishing and implementing a world ethic. We should do so for three reasons:

  1. Time and again over the millennia the religions have demonstrated their inexhaustible power.
  2. The religions speak much more concretely of human responsibilities than some more recent ethical doctrines.
  3. The great leading religious figures of humankind have lived out an ethic in an exemplary way.

I have nothing against philosophical and political arguments for a global ethic: all constructive philosophical and political ideas, notions and arguments are most welcome. But in a 'post-modern' age we should discard that neglect of the religions so characteristic of modernity (which was often purely reactionary) in favour of a realistic assessment. That has happened most recently of all in a third international document which supports the two other documents while introducing a greater degree of concreteness and differentiation.

The core of a global ethic

The statement by the InterAction Council, which consists of former Presidents and Prime Ministers (Helmut Schmidt of Germany, Pierre Trudeau of Canada, Miguel de la Madrid of Mexico and others), was approved in Vancouver on 22 May 1996 under the title 'In Search of Global Ethical Standards'. It openly addresses the negative role which the religions have often played, and still play, in the world: 'The world is also afflicted by religious extremism and violence preached and practised in the name of religion.'17 But the positive role of the religions is also noted: 'Religious institutions still command the loyalty of hundreds of millions of people',18 and do so despite all secularization and consumerism. 'The world's religions constitute one of the great traditions of wisdom for humankind. This repository of wisdom, ancient in its origins, has never been needed more.'19 The minimal criteria which make it possible to live together at all are important; without ethics and self-restraint humankind would revert to the jungle. 'In a world of unprecedented change humankind has a desperate need of an ethical base on which to stand.'20

Now follow some statements on ethics and politics which are decisive for the problems with which we are concerned: 'Ethics should precede politics and the law, because political action is concerned with values and choice. Ethics, therefore, must inform and inspire our political leadership.'21 To respond to the epoch-making change which is coming about, our institutions need a re-dedication to ethical norms: 'We can find the sources of such a re-dedication in the world's religious and ethical traditions. They have the spiritual resources to give an ethical lead to the solution of our ethnic, national, social, economic and religious tensions. The world's religions have different doctrines but they all advocate a common ethic of basic standards. What unites the world's faiths is far greater than what divides them.'

This declaration defines much more precisely the core of a global ethic which can also be found in the other declarations. The InterAction Council achieves this precision by taking up the 'Declaration toward a Global Ethic' passed by the Parliament of the World's Religions:23 'We are therefore grateful that the Parliament of the World's Religions, which met in Chicago in 1993, proclaimed a Declaration toward a Global Ethic which we support in principle.'24 The InterAction Council clearly emphasizes that what the United Nations proclaimed in its Universal Declaration on Human Rights, strengthened by the two Human Rights Covenants, is confirmed and deepened from the perspective of obligations by this Chicago Declaration: the full realization of the intrinsic dignity of the human person, the inalienable freedom and equality of all humans, and the necessary solidarity and interdependence of all humans with each other, both as individuals and as communities.

The legal and the ethical levels are distinguished much more clearly here than in the other two documents: 'Also we are convinced that a better global order cannot be created or enforced by laws, prescriptions, and conventions alone; that action in favour of rights and freedoms presumes a consciousness of responsibility of duty, and that therefore both the minds and hearts of women and men must be addressed; that rights without obligations cannot long endure, and that there will be no better global order without a global ethic.'

Here the Inter-Action Council is very well aware that a global ethic is no substitute for the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur'an, the Bhagavadgita, the Discourses of the Buddha or the Teachings of Confucius and others. A global ethic can only create the necessary minimum of common values, standards and basic attitudes. Here the concept of a global ethic is defined very well, on the basis of the Chicago Declaration: 'a minimal basic consensus relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes which can be affirmed by all religions despite their dogmatic differences and can also be supported by non-believers'.26 The alliance of believers and non-believers (at the same time also that of theologians, philosophers, and scholars in the fields of religion and social science) in the matter of ethics is important. It is even more important that this body of experienced statesmen explicitly takes over as the core of a global ethic what was stated for the first time in the history of religion in the Declaration of the Parliament of the World's Religions as vitally necessary for any individual, social and political ethic.

The 'Declaration toward a Global Ethic' does not aim to invent a new morality and then impose it on the various religions from outside (and even from the West). It simply aims to make known what religions in West and East, North and South already hold in common, but is so often obscured by numerous 'dogmatic' disputes and intolerable self-opinionatedness. In short, this Declaration seeks to emphasize the minimal ethic which is absolutely necessary for human survival. It is not directed against anyone, but invites all, believers and also non-believers, to adopt this ethic and live in accordance with it. In the words of the Declaration:

'On the basis of personal experiences and the burdensome history of our planet we have learned

  • that a better global order cannot be created or enforced by laws, prescriptions, and conventions alone;
  • that the realization of peace, justice, and the protection of earth depends on the insight and readiness of men and women to act justly;
  • that action in favour of rights and freedoms presumes a consciousness of responsibility and duty, and that therefore both the minds and hearts of women and men must be addressed;
  • that rights without morality cannot long endure, and that there will be no better global order without a global ethic.'

And then the following two fundamental demands are developed:

  1. 'Every human being (white or coloured, man or woman, rich or poor) must be treated humanely.'
  2. 'What you do not wish done to yourself, so not do to others!' Or in positive terms: 'What you wish done to yourself, do to others!' (found already in the Sayings of Confucius and practically in every great religious tradition on earth).

On this basis four irrevocable directives are developed. All religions agree on the following commitments:

  1. Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life:
    'You shall not kill'! Or in positive terms: 'Have respect for life'!
  2. Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order:
    'You shall not steal'! Or in positive terms: 'Deal honestly and fairly'!
  3. Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness:
    'You shall not lie'! Or in positive terms: 'Speak and act truthfully'!
  4. Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women: 'You shall not commit sexual immorality'! Or in positive terms: 'Respect and love one another'!

Let me conclude by quoting again the 'Declaration Towards a Global Ethic':

'We are convinced of the fundamental unity of the human family on Earth. We recall the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. What it formally proclaimed on the level of rights we wish to confirm and deepen here from the perspective of an ethic [...] We appeal to all the inhabitants of this planet. Earth cannot be changed for the better unless the consciousness of individuals is changed. We pledge to work for such transformation in individual and collective consciousness, for the awakening of our spiritual powers through reflection, meditation, prayer, or positive thinking, for a conversion of the heart. Together we can move mountains! Without a willingness to take risks and a readiness to sacrifice there can be no fundamental change in our situation! Therefore we commit ourselves to a common global ethic, to better mutual understanding, as well as to socially beneficial, peace-fostering, and Earth-friendly ways of life.

We invite all men and women, whether religious or not, to do the same!'

our creative diversity