Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Thursday, 14 October 2010
Friday, 15 October 2010 00:00

Without ethics, we face barbarians

On May 11th, 2010, the Inaugural International Forum on "Dialogue among Civilizations and Global Challenges" was held to open the new Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Shanghai's Fudan University. Prof. Philip Chmielewski responds to Dr. Stephan Schlensog's discourse on a global ethic.

For some people the very idea of a universal value may be perceived as a threat to local or to traditional identities. In this, our ever-smaller world, globalization can be understood as a set of processes and connections that threatens lives and livelihoods. In such situations, what is “universal” may be heard only as an alien imposition.

How to draw further popular attention to the Global Ethic? The several dimensions of the ecological crisis and the varied manifestations of concern on the part of people from all walks of life suggest that what may facilitate the raising of consciousness concerning the key principles of the Global Ethic is an explicit attention to sustainable development. The elementary ethical directives: in particular, respect for all forms of life, solidarity, a just economic order, and living in accord with the truth -- all operate to secure the necessary, sufficient, and shared protection of the environment. Concern for the environment which we share could move many to enact the central goals of the Global Ethic in every aspect of their social lives.

How to impel a still wider range of peoples to engage themselves with the Global Ethic Initiative? As the world population shifts from the countryside to the urban sphere, social life has been reshaped by the city and then by the metropolis and now by vast conurbations.

People now need, with respect to neighbors, not merely a Golden but, still more, a Platinum rule. Reciprocity now must move toward a nameless and transient multitude. “Solidarity,” a term created in the newly industrialized cities of Europe, must now be re-cast in order to assist persons to lead humane lives in urban zones where lives, languages, and work are all in unpredictable transition.

Since the Global Ethic Project provides – by way of the central values that emerge from reciprocity and humanity – a map for our shared, stable, peaceful life on this planet, one may then ask “To what end?” Having achieved – through careful and assiduous and varied efforts – principled assent, what is then to be done?

John Forester, a Cornell University expert on participatory processes and public disputes, articulates how dialogue can achieve understanding, whereas discursive negotiation brings us to agreement about practical action.

The naming and activating of virtues together constitute such an avenue of practical action. Directives lead to judgments: for example, x is true or it is false; y is just or it is unjust. Judgments are made by persons. Machines can make choices on the basis of algorithms. On the basis of principles, persons make judgments insofar as they are guided by virtues. A person must be virtuous in order to interpret the principles so that such judgments serve the common life. Persons must be virtuous in order to apply a directive, for example, of non-violence or respect.

Thus, a further project for the Global Ethic Initiative must be the articulation of which culture-specific virtues need to be instilled to activate the two principles and the four elementary directives. Significantly, the tasks that must be undertaken are the shaping of and training in social virtues. For example, within and across different cultures, how do persons learn a virtue corresponding to the directive of solidarity? What virtue corresponds to the directive of toleration? Without a corresponding virtue, let us say, of “inquisitive regard”, toleration can be merely the patient version of condescending contempt.

How are principles, directives, and virtues to be taught and to be learned? If the Global Ethic speaks not simply of “elementary ethical directives” but, importantly, of cultures – for example, “the culture of tolerance” and “the culture of gendered equality” – then, what must be sought or created are region-specific, ethnic-specific, social patterns, cultural practices, and transmitting institutions that convey and inculcate the virtues. One can see that the neighborhood practice of team sports may well be an institution whereby many young persons have learned the virtue of fairness. One wonders what sort of new practices Xu Guangqi had to institute in order to establish the newly created, self-sufficient military settlements near Tianjin.

Who are those who will enact the global ethic? Who will be the agents of ethical change? Who will move toward a world where regional, national, and international processes are fairer, a world where ordinary, daily lives are more stable – physically and socially – for billions of persons?

In addition to the significant participants named in Dr. Schlensog’s address, two further sectors could be addressed as key participants in the vision of the Global Ethic:

- Women in groups around the world can speak and have spoken about non-violence and gendered dignity.

- Another extensively significant range of participants is constituted by workers. The workers of the world can speak and have been united in many nations and through many movements in articulating what is meant by solidarity and in moving toward economic structures that provide sustenance and care – structures that enable these workers to have hope.

Workers are mentioned – whether those on farms or in factories or in metropolitan offices – in order to call attention to the world outside of schools and universities and, further, to bring to mind that the world of work today is shaped by technology.It may be hoped that ethics will guide the creation and use of technology. Also to be grasped is that technology has been re-shaping ethics and will continue to do so.

What is yet to be done? Technology teaches us that a Global Ethic must require the design of socio-artifactual systems that:

- Give a priority to integrity not novelty. This is the ethical norm of error-friendliness. A relevant case involves the gas-pedal control in Toyota automobiles.

- Focus on a discursive limitation between linked systems. Here the ethical guideline is the provision of “system-gates”. The massive leak of crude oil as the result of a disaster on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico provides a relevant, if distressing, study.

- Allow for forgiveness and reversion. The norm for this ethical practice is “secure deletion”. Within the ambit of this standard, one is directed to consider the ramifications of nuclear power.

Technology also teaches not only that lies and deception constitute a socio-cultural threat but also that images and simulations divert attention from actual needs and real desires. Genetic engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence exemplify key areas of investment and education where images and simulations must be interpreted and criticized lest the pressing needs of today’s striving individuals be overshadowed and even made invisible. Even if hyper-real, images are unreal. Actual persons – across cultural-borders and economic barriers, while bearing vital hopes, face real and increasing constraints.

Images are sterile; the real is suffused with potential. Even ethical directives may be clouded by mere images. When gamers participate in an Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft or Second Life, which values within this cyber-culture are being learned? Which values operative in our off-line, carbon-based life are not being learned?

Hope lies in the people. Hope lies in how they, in all their diversity, join to recall the past; how they cooperate and how they agree to shape a future together.

As the people recall, decide, and promise, especially along linguistic and cultural borders, there the ethic of the future will arise. Without ethics, there is no civilization. Without ethics, we face barbarians. When we face barbarians, we too become barbaric.

Drawing by Bendu


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