A new global ethics
To whom the global ethics is
Even in a world of pervading international and global interdependence states remain the
primary actors in the global system. Though they differ enormously in capabilities,
resources and options available to them, it is the states that define and maintain the
legal and political framework within which they and everybody else moves. Unfortunately,
governments and their judicial and executive organs are often the main violators of the
global ethics. Gross violations of human rights, authoritarianism, oppression and the use
of violence to settle domestic and international conflicts are widespread.
It is, nevertheless, first of all for governments and their respective leaders to
implement the principles and precepts of a global ethics. There are a number of ways open
to them to achieve this. Governments can give ethical considerations more weight by
consistently bringing them to bear on the legal underpinnings of international society.
This may mean strengthening the international rule of law, extending the scope for
independent legal review, improving existing procedures and introducing new legal
mechanisms designed to protect the basic moral values mentioned above.
States can also give greater emphasis to ethical considerations within international
and intergovernmental organizations. They may do this by subjecting organizational
policies more rigorously to criteria of moral conduct, reforming existing organizational
structures and setting up new agencies that reflect ethical principles.
Moreover, governments have crucial ethical responsibilities within their own
territories. In the absence of an ideally integrated international society, the worldwide
attainment of some measure of order and the realization of the basic moral values vitally
depends on the existence of national communities capable of preserving order and securing
those values within their jurisdictions. It must be the states that are the chief
architects seeking to erect and maintain a global constitutional order that is built on
moral principles other than power politics.
There are moves under-way towards the formation of transnational but less than global
regional unions: the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area, and other more
limited trade and monetary agreements between groups of like-minded countries. Although
these could, in principle, be steps towards a more fragmented world with more powerful
self-contained blocks (as was the case before the Second World War), it looks more likely
that they are moves towards a global order with freer movement of goods, services,
capital, money, people and ideas beyond the confines of the regions.
Next to government and states, there are three influential actors on the global stage:
transnational corporations, international organizations, and the global civil society.
Transnational corporations have been praised for making the most valuable contributions to
development and condemned as not perhaps the devil incarnate, but at any rate the devil
incorporated. No doubt, they wield considerable power and are not under global control.
And different corporations behave very differently. Their power and influence enjoins a
corresponding role and responsibility in a global ethics. Their economic power is often
greater than that of some states and their activities can affect the politics of many
governments and many people. Not only do they command enormous wealth and power to hire
and fire, but they also have a powerful influence through their advertising on consumer
choices. Ideally and eventually, a system of global incorporation, global taxation and
global accountability should match the global reach of these companies. Meanwhile
international (i.e. inter-governmental) co-operation will have to limit the abuse of their
power and attempt to steer its use to the public good.
The United Nations family and other world-wide international and regional public
agencies and organizations are specifically charged with promoting the general interest in
different spheres. Here again, a greater degree of public control, accountability,
transparency, and more particularly wider participation by voluntary societies, religious
congregations, trade unions, private firms, professional organizations, women's and youth
associations and so on would be desirable. In principle it is these international
agencies, together with the fledgeling global civil society, that are the seat of the
global conscience of the world.
Last but not least there is the global civil society. The bonds of global
non-governmental organizations, voluntary societies, grassroots organizations, churches
and other religious associations, action groups, professional societies, interest groups
and similar institutions stretch across national frontiers and forge links that bypass
national frontiers and loyalties. They constitute the core of any future world
citizenship, even though their loyalties may be confined to quite narrow issues or
specialized interests. They can mobilize world opinion in order to draw attention to
global problems, such as some environmental or human rights groups have done so
successfully. Greenpeace on environmental issues or Amnesty International on human rights,
or Oxfam on public education in development issues, as well as the execution of projects
are examples. Other organizations provide humanitarian relief or engage in co-operation
beyond state frontiers of their own, for example by linking with local self-help groups
elsewhere and supporting their health, education and other projects.
Undeniably, non-state agents differ vastly in their capabilities, and some of them
appear to possess hardly any influence at all. This seems to exempt them from any role in
a global ethics. Still, to the extent that they do have leverage within their specialized
sphere of activity, they have a responsibility, and they must strive to make their own
specific contribution to the realization of the principles and values a global ethics
considers fundamental. The same is true for individuals. They may not wield political
power but they may have influence in their capacities as officials, managers, teachers and
professors, as consumers, and not least as citizens.
All societies need a basis of moral principles for their self-regulation, for social
control and for their international relations. If we observe, say, bilateral international
negotiations we find that both partners attempt to formulate and appeal to (often tacit or
implicit) moral principles accepted by both sides. Individuals and groups are ready to
make sacrifices for the communities of which they are members. Trust, loyalty, solidarity,
altruism and even love, though readily dismissed by currently fashionable economists, no
doubt do play a part in human relationships. Unlike material goods, they grow on what the
feed on. No society is capable of surviving without them.
The principles of morality do not stop at the frontiers of the state. In the present
fashion of stressing only self-interest we run the danger of underestimating the power of
moral and humanitarian appeals and motives. Holland, Sweden and Norway devote a higher
percentage of their national incomes to aid than most other countries. This can be
regarded as an indicator of the willingness to put international relations and the
obligations of the rich to the help the poor, including help to help themselves, on a
Whatever the rhetoric of national self-interest, moral principles are bound to guide
international co-operation. As hypocrisy is said to be the tribute that vice pays to
virtue, so excessive emphasis on the national self-interest by politicians seems to be the
tribute that virtue pays to vice. Citizens are often, as their responses to disasters and
emergencies clearly show, ahead of their politicians in implementing their loyalties,
obligations and fellow feelings to human beings in need, wherever they may be. There is no
reason why ethics should stop at the national border.