“To build a global ethic of nonviolence, coexistence, gender equity and peace by facilitating secular processes that cultivate personal and social ethical values.” (FUR)
“To promote universal responsibility in a manner that respects difference and encourages a diversity of beliefs, practices and approaches.” (FUR)
“To enrich educational paradigms that tap the transformative potential of the human mind.” (FUR)
I have always enjoyed philosophy and during my undergraduate years at Simon Fraser University I had the privilege of attending some of the early meetings of the SFU Philosophers Cafe. Sometime around 2009 I had the further privilege of starting a Philosophers Cafe in Squamish BC with the support and moderation of Jill Fellows who was teaching at Quest University at the time. One of our last topics for discussion was “Universal/Global Ethics: Is there such a thing? What would they look like?“. Although the topic and discussion was at times philosophically technical, the underlying meaning of the topic is universal and easily recognizable. The population of the world continues to increase, and boundaries between countries, governments, communities and communications continue to dissolve. These population growth and technologically driven communication changes are bringing together people of widely different values, ethics, laws and perspectives on life and community. One of the important questions that arises with this growth and increasing connection and interaction with diverse populations is “how can we possibly create a harmonious and sustainable future living together on this crowded planet if we all have different ideas as to what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?” Many believe the only way we can attain such a harmonious and sustainable future is through the the development and adoption of Universal Ethics & Responsibility. A set of personal and global values which we all recognize as important and worth promoting and adopting as guides to living our lives, how we behave, and how we treat others. Although the notion of Universal Ethics & Responsibility is undeniably complex and likely to take hundreds if not thousands of years to attain, and will require a level of global cooperation yet to be seen, there is much to be gained by beginning discussions, and trying to adopt some of these values now.
In 1989 when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he donated a portion of the 1/2 million dollar award to many facing starvation in various parts of the world; a portion to some of the leprosy programs in India, a portion to some existing peace programs and a portion to start the Foundation for Universal Responsibility. I believe the Dalai Lama, along with remarkable human beings like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and many others, have already shown us how to create a better world through the universal values of compassion, respect, tolerance and love for one another. Each and every one of us can begin laying the foundation for a world we wish to leave behind for our children and future generations, by adopting some or all of these values right now. I am trying to do my own very, very small part by learning about these great people, their powerful and universal ideas and finding new ways not only to spread their ideas, but to adopt them into my own life on a day-to-day basis.
Although this topic is far too complex to cover adequately in one blog posting, what follows is the outline for the Philosopher’s Cafe talk on Universal & Global Ethics which was originally written by Jill Fellows along with a few edits, additions and paragraphs of my own. I believe it makes for reasonable starting point, from a philosophical standpoint, for a discussion on some of the perspectives on Universal Ethics.
Most of us would agree that it is morally wrong to kill someone. Most of us would also agree that we each have the right to pursue and achieve happiness and to be free from suffering. Many would also agree that harming, deceiving or exploiting someone else for our own personal gain is also wrong. On the other hand, some of us believe that it is acceptable to exploit the environment for personal and financial gain while many others do not believe this is acceptable. As we move down this artificial scale of moral principles, it soon becomes much harder to determine which moral principles can, or should be expected of everyone. Which principles, if any, can (or should) be considered “Universal”? Is there even such a thing as a truly objective and universal set of ethical principles, or are they just arbitrarily created by man and society with an inherent variability from culture to culture, and across time? If we cannot agree on the existence of an objective set of universal ethics, should we try to create them?
There have been several suggestions for an origin of universal ethics. Philosophers of Religion claim that ethics originates from the decrees of a supreme divine being, though Plato’s Euthyphro did raise some questions about this. The Euthyphro asks this question: Is an act pious because God claims that it is pious, or does God claim that it is pious because it is pious? If one answers the former, then the concern is that morality rests on God’s whim (a concern in ancient Greece, since the gods did not always agree, and did tend to change their minds). If one answers the latter, then morality is independent of God’s decision, it just happens that God is good at recognizing a moral act. So, for those who have adopted a divine origin of morality, the question has been how to support the notion that morality originates from God, without the possibility of morality being arbitrary (a result of whatever God decides). This debate, often referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma, is one of many arguments proposed which suggest that there is no universal basis for ethics and that ethics are inherently relative (moral relativism). The Euthyphro might also present a reasonable argument for seeking out a secular basis for universal morality if only to avoid the dilemma of morality from divine origin.
In order to find a basis for Universal Ethics that does not have to deal with the puzzle posed by Plato’s Euthyphro, some philosophers have tried other methods for grounding universal morality. Kant attempted to ground morality in reason and an innate moral duty where our conscience and feelings of guilt or shame help us to recognize when we violate this moral duty. But Kant’s model depends on our belief in the universality of reason, as well as the primacy of reason, and has led to a moral system that some find unsettlingly unemotional. In Kant’s moral system, one does what one knows is right because reason, and one’s moral duty, leads one to believe it is right. Emotions like compassion, empathy and pity are discouraged, since emotion could easily lead one astray.
More recently philosophers have attempted to explain universal morality in terms of evolution. The claim is that there are certain evolutionarily advantageous moral codes to follow. Morality, in effect, is selected because it tends to preserve the group. This explanation of morality doesn’t provide as strong a claim to universality as morality in terms of divinity or in terms of rationality might, since a moral code only preserves as long as it is evolutionarily advantageous in the given climate to hold this moral code.
There are also several people arguing that there is no such thing as universal morality. Known as moral relativists, they argue that morality is relative to the nation, the group, or the individual. David Hume argued that he could find no rational basis for morality (and being an atheist he also denied the possibility of a divine origin of morality). Friedrich Nietzsche argued that realizing that there is no foundation for morality is an opportunity to develop new and useful moral codes, ones that suit our needs and given situation. He urged that we move past a need for universal morality and instead view morality as a useful fiction.
Some scholars and religious leaders have also suggested that regardless of whether or not we can agree on the existence of an objective set of universal ethical principles, we should nevertheless strive towards the development of a Universal Declaration of Global Ethics if we are going to improve our chances of long-term survival on this planet. Earth’s population is approaching 7 billion and continues to grow at a rate of around 80 million a year, or around 2.5 new persons per second. We are running out of space, resources and in many cases, patience and compassion for our neighbors or others who may not share the same language, beliefs, skin color or values as our own. Technologies such as the Internet, “smart” phones and social media are also connecting more people than ever and creating truly global communities. The combination of a growing global population and greater connectivity with people and cultures around the world has pitted many different and often competing social, political, ethical and moral systems, against one another. Various studies also seem to suggest we are becoming less sensitive to violence, show an increased ambivalence to the suffering of others and other countries seem to be increasingly drawn to the extravagant lifestyles and personal profit motives which seem to drive much of western civilization.
In the past, when most countries and civilizations were separated geographically from each other, distinct societies could develop their own political or ethical systems, religious beliefs and social values, with little need to consider the ethical systems of their neighbors. However, as our population continues to expand, and we continue to develop truly global communities and recognize the many shared global responsibilities around renewable resources, sustainable development and the environment, a shared or universal system of ethics is needed to ensure we are all striving for the same shared goals and global responsibilities. A secular universal set of ethical principles which are supported by all cultures, philosophies, faiths and professions could also provide an invaluable framework for dialog between cultures and belief systems. Many would even go so far as stating that a shared, global or universal system of ethics is a fundamental necessity if we are to survive on this crowded planet. At the very least, a global secular system of universal ethics could facilitate a more collective, collaborative and truly global community of people demonstrating a renewed respect and compassion for all people. If we agree that a secular system of universal ethics is something worth pursuing, we are then faced with many new questions, not the least of which is how do we determine the most suitable philosophical basis for this system of ethics?
There are many questions which are raised when we consider the possibility of Universal Ethics. Some of these include: Is there a way to overcome the puzzle posed by Plato’s Euthyphro? Can morality be grounded in reason or duty? If morality is not universal, what are the consequences (is this an opportunity as Nietzsche hoped, or a danger)? If we have no shared system of morality which provides universal codes-for-conduct, can we ever solve moral disagreements using reason and dialogue alone? If we do have a shared system of morality, then what accounts for these current moral disagreements?
Admittedly these are complex philosophical questions but the purpose of these discussions, the end result we hope to achieve, is easily recognizable as a question of universal value for all of us:
“how can we possibly create a harmonious and sustainable future living together on this crowded planet if we all have different ideas as to what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’?“