GLOBAL ETHICS AND OUR COMMON FUTURE

by Wendy Tyndale, WFDD Co-Ordinator (now researcher)

Islamic Millennium Forum and Asian Muslim Action Network

“A three year-old child called Lucas, commented recently: ‘The world doesn’t know where its home is’. He was looking at a map. He could have been looking at the news”, Eduardo Galeano.

With this anecdote, the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, points us to an essential truth. If the world does not know where its home is, how are we going to reach a consensus about the possible meaning of “global ethics” or “our common future?” A home can be a physical location, but it means more than that. Home gives us our sense of belonging, it is where we develop a sense of responsibility towards other people, it is where life’s most profound meaning is gradually revealed and allowed to mature within us. Home is, ultimately, the place where our spiritual being can flourish.

Signs of homelessness
In our globalised world, our local homes have, in one sense, gained importance. As everything we know seems to be being thrown into the global melting pot, many people are hanging on with more determination than ever to their cultural heritage, their language and their national, regional or ethnic identity. But we are also being challenged to realise that, unless the whole world becomes our home, it will be very hard to imagine how we shall be able to build a “common future”.

People from all over the world are being brought closer together than ever before, particularly through rapid advances in communication and transport, but for some reason or another, the increase in our scientific and technical knowledge has not been accompanied by the wisdom we need, in order to know how best to use it. On the contrary, it appears that we are reluctant to apply the ethical values we learn at home to the way we order the world as a whole.

We seem to be reversing the biblical creation story – instead of order we are creating chaos. Instead of cherishing what is beautiful, honouring one another and providing safety, we are destroying the Earth entrusted to us, dishonouring the majority of our brothers and sisters and engendering so much insecurity, that the survival of the fittest seems to have become our law.

The freedom of the market
There are many complex reasons for the current disorder on our planet, and, as we have seen since 11th September 2001, the disorder can take many forms. But in this article, I shall focus on the problems of poverty and inequity – symptoms of profound disorder, caused by the way we seem to have allowed the market to float so free, that its doings override the most basic ethical principles.

Of course it is recognised by governments and by the multilateral development institutions, such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, that allegedly “morally neutral” markets bring unfair consequences, so that serious efforts must be made to regulate them. But the fact is, that for our global economy to work, we depend on situations which, seen from any humanitarian or religious point of view, highlight some very twisted values.

Since competition is the driving force behind the free market, characteristic of its dynamics is, for instance, the purchase of several pairs of trainers by someone who does not need them but can afford them, while the maker of those shoes is paid so little that she and her family not only go bare foot, but also go hungry to bed.

If the price of coffee falls on the international market, as it has in recent months, it is the poorest people in the chain who suffer. In Guatemala, over 200,000 people have been turned off the coffee plantations this year, and the families who have come down from the mountains for the coffee harvest, bringing all their children with them, are being told to go away. If they are lucky enough to find employment for a day or two, they are paid the equivalent of about two US dollars for 24 hours of labour. At the same time, coffee prices in the supermarkets are kept up and the large coffee importing and processing companies are gaining hands down from the situation.

It is the “natural” working of the market which is leading to the accumulation of more and more wealth in the hands of the few, while life for the poor, becomes increasingly precarious. That 20 per cent of the world’s population enjoys over 80 per cent of the world’s wealth is a statistic which glosses over the de-humanisation of both the rich and the poor.

On one hand it tells of the minority, who seek their happiness in unrestrained consumerism and rely on the accumulation of power, status and wealth for their security. On the other hand, it tells of the majority, mostly women and children, who are struggling to survive in the face of a lack of compassion for their situation of powerlessness, caused by extreme poverty and social exclusion.

But, if the market has taken over our bodies, it is making every effort to take over our souls as well. For consumerism to flourish, our culture and behaviour patterns have to be brought into line. In the name of abstract economic laws, people the world over are being subjected to a strongly value-ridden intrusion into their most intimate community and personal lives by advertising and the mass media.

Through highly sophisticated and insidious means, we are being persuaded that we have needs and desires, which bear no relation either to our essential needs or to the desire for fundamental peace and joy, common to all humanity. If you go to the most remote village in the mountains of Peru, the little wooden shop, which sells everything from shoe laces to brooms and flour, will always sell Coca Cola too, and MacDonalds fast food restaurants are to be found from Russia to Patagonia. But more harmful than all of this, is the acceptance that the manufacture and sales of arms and ammunition can be the mainstay of an economy, on a par with any other product.

The global ethical consequences of this economic disorder are considerable. The arms trade contributes directly to keeping wars going, causing death, bereavement, terror, trauma and a life as refugees for millions of families. Millions more families who are superfluous to the success of the economy are losing their livelihood and dignity. They are the “left overs”, as a Chilean song of the 1980’s put it.

Moreover, as the volume of consumer waste grows and car and aeroplane manufacturers guarantee their own sales, as well as the transport of millions of tons of consumer goods all over the world, more and more motorways and airports are built. Short-term considerations of economic profit almost invariably win out over any thought of our responsibility to future generations, for whom the eco-system of millions of years will have been destroyed.

The choices facing us are far from simple. But, if we accept that economic growth is necessary to combat poverty in the world (and not everybody does accept this), we must ask what kind of growth we are talking about, who benefits from it and whether there is a limit to the costs it brings with it.

It seems that the consumer society is managing to hold us all in a state of immature unawareness that the actions we take will have any consequences or, if they do, that the consequences matter. “The fun now follows the sun round the globe”, says the Disney Annual Report of 1992. So does injustice, exclusion and heartlessness – all in the name of “a-moral” profit.

Spirituality: the source of power and wisdom
For the people of the different world faiths, as well as for many who adhere to no organised religion, spirituality is the only reliable fount from which they can draw hope. An awareness of our deepest spiritual selves, makes us confident that there are alternative ways in which to organise our lives together on this planet.

A spiritual awareness not only puts the tawdry worthlessness of the consumer society into perspective, it also gives us the clear insight that to flout all the basic rules for peaceful co-existence among human beings and with nature can only lead to disaster.
Whether on the grounds that we are creatures of the same Creator, or through an acute awareness of our intimate connection with each other and the natural world, all the religions tell us that we have a responsibility for the welfare of each other and for all that lives on the earth. This is not only a moral precept, it is one of those age-old pieces of wisdom about the best way to ensure that we live together in the most fulfilling way for all. Such wisdom is as applicable to modern times as it was thousands of years ago.

It is by striving for self-transformation through spiritual experience, each within our own cultural and religious traditions, that we can begin to find common ground and unite with each other. There are plenty of people all over the world who realise that there are, indeed, irreconcilable contradictions between God and Mammon; between the truth of the Qur’an (“Do not allow wealth to circulate only among the wealthy” 59.7) and the false realities created by the quick-fix, status and profit–seeking world beamed out by the television channels.

The people who have this awareness are the ones who know where their home is. They are searching for the truth, working with unshakeable trust, on the basis of clear sets of values, to counteract the violence, abandonment and destruction they see around them.

There is Lal, for instance, a Buddhist who has joined the struggle for the rights of the vegetable sellers and market porters in Kandy, Sri Lanka. The centre of Kandy, which includes the market, is being “modernised”, with a grant from the Asian Development Bank. Small traders and porters are being removed to a place five miles away. To the organisers of the project, the fact that they will have lost the source of livelihood which has been in their families for generations is neither here nor there. They do not fit in with the new modern image, nor with the commercial interests of the wholesalers, now turned retailers, who stand to take over their clientele.

Then there is Saif, a Muslim who came from Bangladesh to live in Britain over 20 years ago. He has set up a housing association in North London and works with a multi-faith collaborative effort at community building, which includes various types of vocational and leadership training. “To be a Muslim is to develop a state of awareness, a state of mind”, says Saif. “The Prophet always spoke of welcoming all people, of other faiths or your own. Extend the cushion you are sitting on to your guest, share your plate with him or her.”

And there is Flori, a young indigenous Mayan woman from the highlands of Guatemala. Flori managed somehow to get a university degree and could have aspired to a job in the government, or a private company, but instead she opted to work with rural Mayan women, to ensure that they get an education for their children, decent housing, healthcare and the recognition of their culture by the state authorities.

Religious organisations
If Lal, Saif and Flori would be likely to feel pretty happy in each others’ homes, the same is not always true of the organisations of the great religious traditions, which are all too often prone to turn their homes into their castles. In the face of technological changes and the material and ideological onslaught by the commercial world, different institutionalised religions and different groups within the same religions have reacted differently. For some it has been a question of adapting to, or even actively espousing the global advance of capitalism. Others have taken an entirely negative stand, retreating into the past and trying to shut out modernisation altogether.

All historical moments are undoubtedly challenging in their own way. But, as we enter the 21st century, there can hardly have been a time at which the religious institutions and their leaders have found themselves in greater need of vision, wisdom, courage and compassionate understanding, both of each other and of those within their own ranks who are locked in deep and passionate disagreement. If we are to find a way towards building up a consensus on global ethics as a basis for our common future, their role is going to be crucial.

So what should they do? How can they contribute to ensuring that we even survive long enough to have a common future? If you pour new wine into old wine skins, said Jesus, the skins will burst and the wine will spill out. The spiritual renewal which is such an urgent requirement of our time, will require the renewal, too, of our religious institutions. And this renewal, paradoxically, will almost surely mean returning to the source of our different faith traditions.

If religious institutions are to keep, or in many cases, recover, their credibility, if the contribution they make amid the rapid process of change today is to be truly relevant, they will have to sort out for themselves what can be jettisoned from inside and absorbed from outside. It will never be a question of jeopardising the integrity of their faith, but it will be necessary to revisit that faith and bring out from it the inspiration and vision needed to guide people to find a meaning in life which will enable them to act justly for change.

Our modern age is challenging the religious institutions to consider reforming the way they themselves function. One of the most urgent tasks facing them is to clarify how much of the male domination which is practised within many of their communities is based on their vision of the divine order, and how much it has to do with cultural traditions which could now be considered out of date. And they face the challenge too, of defining what place women, who, with their children, are among the poorest people of the world, would have in a truly “developed” society.

The religious communities have a stronger constituency than all other organisations on which to base credible advocacy work for change among the decision-makers of the world. They have by far the most extensive networks among the materially poorest people. They thus have an intimate knowledge of poverty as well as of the aspirations of the poor.

But in order to be able to suggest new models of “development” and to imbue “progress” with a deeply ethical content, they will need to make more positive and creative relationships with people from the technical and scientific world. The present state of our societies is an unequivocal demonstration of the fact that science and technology are unable to solve our problems. But spirituality on its own will not be sufficient to solve them either. We need to combine scientific rigour with the profoundly humanitarian insights with which spirituality provides us.

In February 1998, James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank, invited religious leaders to enter into a dialogue with the Bank on the topic of poverty and development. The World Faiths Development Dialogue was founded, and there have been a series of encounters. These have demonstrated the vital importance of providing people from the religious side who have a firm spiritual grounding and are intimately acquainted with the situation of poor communities, but who are also well versed in the theory and practice of development economics.

There is no reason for religious organisations to be on the defensive. Being, by their very nature, grounded in the concept of community and sharing, they have a lot to say about how societies should be run. They have a lot to say about leadership, too, especially with regard to setting an example of integrity and a sense of humility and service.

None of the great religious traditions should be keeping silent, either, about the way that the fields of economics and finance have been fenced off, as though they belonged to an area beyond the bounds of moral scrutiny. The Muslim banking system, which, instead of charging interest, ensures that risks are shared by lenders as well as by borrowers, is one example of an alternative way of running things, which has been in place for centuries.

Global ethics
Many of us would agree in principle with the statement that “there will be no better global order without a global ethic” . Moreover, some laudable efforts have been made to try to reach agreement on some universal ethical principles, initially on the basis of the core values, such as loving-kindness, honesty and justice, which are found in all the religions. A common position on global ethics – drawn up, for example, by the United Nations, would be highly desirable, if it served as an instrument to ensure that the different nations subscribed to certain values, such as peace and equity, as the basis on which the world should be run.

Nevertheless, in order to engage in even a meaningful debate about global ethics, we must first understand that “global” must mean “to include the whole globe” and not, as in the case of globalisation, “the spread across the globe of the ideas and culture of the most powerful”. If any consensus about a set of global ethics were to be achieved, it would have to include the values of the economically, politically and socially marginalised on an equal footing with those of the most dominant groups. If this were not the case, the very process itself would not be ethical.

Given the diversity of cultures and of the metaphysical foundations for the different belief systems to be found all over the world, such a common position would be very difficult, if not impossible, to reach, except on a very general basis. It is when we get to specific practice that ethics become important, and it is at that stage that it would almost certainly become apparent that different communities, with different ways of understanding the world and different priorities arising from them, have a different understandings of broad concepts, such as “peace” “justice” and “responsibility”, etc.

Even people who belong to the same cultures differ deeply, for example, about the question of the legitimacy of using war as a means of obtaining peace. The position of a Ghandian or a Quaker is poles apart from that of a nationalistically-inclined Hindu or a member of the United States’ New Christian Right. There are also very different perspectives in different cultures about what justice for women should entail. And the concept of “responsibility” can range from the largely collective perception of indigenous or aboriginal peoples to the highly personal one of a Christian Protestant European.

Perhaps the way to move forward is to see “global ethics” as a process, rather than a product, as concerning itself with the way human beings relate to each other and to nature in different situations, rather than a set of fixed norms. Far more important than coming out with signed documents, is to ensure that vigorous discussions are held all over the world, from government level to the grass roots, about the ethical standards we want to see as a basis for the way we manage our global affairs.

We need to begin to elaborate a coherent overall vision of reality to which we can all aspire, based on commonly held values, or what have been generally known as “virtues”- qualities such as honesty, restraint and loving-kindness. A good way to start would be to study the practical and specific implications of the Golden Rule, to be found in the teachings of every religion in the world: “Do to others as you wish them to do to you”.

Such studies would soon lead us into a debate about issues such as people being used as instruments to achieve economic growth (and the wealth of others), and about forcible recruitment of young boys to national armies or paramilitary forces. There can be no ethical justification for Indonesian teenage girls being kept awake by loud music, so that they can work a 16-hour shift to sew clothes for export. Nor can anyone find any ethical grounds for ten-year old boys in Sierra Leone being taught to kill and maim their fellow human beings.

These and similar issues are being discussed, with others, at the International Labour Organisation and in a special United Nations unit dealing with child soldiers, but they must be brought into more public fora for universal debate. Only then will many of the most grossly unethical aspects of our present world disorder be recognised as such, enabling us to move towards moral rather than purely pragmatic responses to the world’s problems.

Moreover, ethics must be used not only to evaluate the “end product” of a process, but also the way in which that process is carried out, whether the opinions of the people most affected are sought, or whether environmental considerations are taken seriously etc. One thing ethics will clearly tell us, is that the means never justifies the ends. The promise of an economic boom in Thailand tomorrow can never justify the prostitution of my daughter in Bangkok today.

A new global order
The very existence of a common future for humankind presupposes a new global order, to replace the present disorder, which is making it impossible for the world to know where its “home” is. It is not sufficient merely to try to graft a few moral principles onto a system which fundamentally denies them.

We are often told that, with the collapse of the socialist model, there is now no alternative to the present global economic system. The danger is, that the longer we passively accept this, the truer it will become. The attitudes and values entrenched in the present model of globalisation will become so deeply rooted that fewer and fewer people will be capable of having a vision of what an alternative could, and should, look like.

There is no doubt at all that there is an alternative – or rather that there are alternatives. Globalisation is a historical process, which is taking place principally as the result of the advance of technology and science. But it is also a political and economic project, based on the need for the free market economy continually to expand.

It is not a question of abolishing the market as an instrument to make an economic system work. But the market should no longer be allowed to be the overall ruling factor for allocating resources and setting objectives and modes of production. In the same way, competition might serve some desirable ends, but it must not be the principle on which we base our social structure and our relations with each other.

It is supremely urgent that we do not only denounce what is wrong in the present system but that we also come up with alternative proposals. This is, of course, already being done in a major way by the environmental movement, but also by economists who are working on alternative trading and financial structures.

The suggestion made over 20 years ago by James Tobin, for a tax on international currency transactions, is just one of these. The fact that such proposals have not been taken up is not because they are not viable, but because of the enormous power of the multinational corporations, and a general lack of political will on the part of governments to make any real changes.

Economic and social reforms must be based on a culture of respect for life, of non-violence, of dialogue and inclusiveness and of genuine solidarity. This will require putting people into the centre of the agenda and making the elimination of poverty, rather than economic growth, the focus for economic planning. It will also require a re-ordering of the present power structures, at the level of the family, trade union and business, right up to governments and organisations such as the World Trade Organisation or the World Bank.

Our common future
The World Bank’s World Development Report 2000/1 entitled Attacking Poverty states that “poverty amidst plenty is an affront to universal values” . James Wolfensohn has often spoken eloquently in favour of inclusion, equity and the eradication of poverty. He is all too aware of the fact that, after half a century of “development”, any authentically common future for the people of the world is far from being realised.

But a common future – perhaps any future at all for humanity – will only be possible if there is genuine co-operation at a global level. The practice of holding up the image of the West as the only model to follow has been proved to be ineffectual and even dangerous, and so has the practice of giving top-down instructions to people about how they are to run their lives.

The role of “experts” is in urgent need of re-examination. Of course technical expertise is needed, but if people are really to determine their own future, this expertise must be adaptable to comply with a variety of cultural norms, organisational methods and social priorities. Experts need to be trained to listen to people and to absorb what they are saying, to give advice from the wings, rather than from centre stage, and to be ready to recognise that local experience and knowledge might be more relevant than their own on some occasions.

In no way can it ever be a question of recommending that technological and scientific advances should be denied to the needy, but the social, cultural and environmental costs of these advances should always be weighed up. If this is done explicitly and consultations are held with full awareness of the pros and cons on all sides, then we shall no longer experience situations in which peasant farmers refuse to accept mechanisation because practices have been introduced, such as ploughing in the dark, which contradict their religious beliefs. Nor shall we see millions of people displaced from their homes by gigantic hydroelectric dams, whose prime purpose seems all too often to be to make a profit for the construction companies in charge.

It is often said that by giving more consideration to the needs of the poor, the rich will be victimised. Certainly they will have to forego some of their privileges of power and wealth, but they will also be freed from many threats and dangers. Drugs, crime, violence, mass migration, the spread of disease and the exhaustion of many natural resources are all made worse by poverty and social injustice.

Our schools and universities will have a vital role to play in the creation of a new ethical basis for our common future. It is good that the International Development Targets, which have been agreed upon by the United Nations, include primary school education for all girls and boys by the year 2015, but the numbers of children in school is only one part of the picture.

Skills such as reading and writing, or professional training for the judiciary or in agriculture can all be used for good or ill. A corrupt judge or an uncaring agricultural extension worker will not contribute to building a society in which all are included. Educational targets at all levels should also include locally set targets for the teaching of the importance of ethical values, both through the curriculum and through encouraging young people to acquire virtues such as generosity, honesty, compassion and a sense of justice. Of course the evaluation of these latter targets will be difficult, but one of the failures of the present system has been to exclude from the goals of development all those areas of life which cannot be quantified.

The media are a further key instrument for the promotion of ethical values to counteract the cheap individualism, the admiration for wealth and status and the lack of responsibility or long-term vision of the consumer society. Freedom of expression is a right that we should all value, but does this really exist when the main newspapers and many of the television channels are owned by just a few companies, or even individuals? Is it reasonable to suppose that the Star satellite network in Asia, Fox Television in the United States, British Sky Broadcasting in Europe, or any other of the media owned by Rupert Murdoch, might send out programmes or consistently publish articles whose values seriously undermine Murdoch’s commercial interests?

We shall know when we are beginning to succeed in building our common future, based on global ethical principles. The signs will be that instead of being thrown out from “modernised” markets, vegetable sellers and porters will be provided with a fine new space for small traders. Homelessness amidst affluence will be a thing of the past, and indigenous women all over the world will share the rights of everyone to health programmes and education for their children, in accordance with their cultural values. All teenage girls in Indonesia will be at school and there will be no child soldiers. The world will know where its home is.

The Czechoslovakian writer and politician, Vaclav Havel, once said: “We must not be afraid of dreaming the seemingly impossible, if we want the seemingly impossible to become reality”. The dream of a common future for us all, based on commonly accepted and locally specified ethical principles, is not at all impossible, but it requires vision, unity, careful scientific analysis, and above all absolute integrity combined with a tireless commitment on the part of the people who are concerned to bring it about.

References
∑ Barber, Benjamin R., Jihad vs. McWorld, Ballentyne Books, New York, 1995
∑ Edwards Michael, Future Positive: International Cooperation in the 21st Century, London: Earthscan and Sterling, Va: Stylus, 1999.
∑ Goulet, Denis, Development Ethics, Zed Books, 1995.
∑ Harper Sharon (ed), The Lab, the Temple and the Market, the International Development Research Centre and Kumarian Press, Ottowa, 2000.
∑ Küng, Hans (ed), Yes to a Global Ethic, SCM Press, 1999
∑ Ed. Reed, Charles, Development Matters, Church House Publishing, 2001.
∑ Tyndale, Wendy, “Faith and Economics in ‘Development’: A Bridge across the Chasm?” in Development and Practice, Vol. 10, February 2000.
∑ World Faiths Development Dialogue, Occasional Paper No.2, Papers presented by the Faiths’ Delegates at the Consultation on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2000/1 on the themes of Values, Norms and Poverty, Johannesburg 12-14 January 1999.
∑ World Faiths Development Dialogue, Cultures, Spirituality and Development, 2001.