Towards a global ethic

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. Dr. Stephan Schlensog, the Secretary General of the Global Ethic Foundation, Tübingen/Germany, gave his speech on “Global Ethic as the Basis for the Dialogue of Civilizations”.

In 1993, the well-known US political theorist Samuel Huntington sketched out a programme – at first cautiously expressed, in the form of a question, but later touted as a new paradigm of foreign politics – which is summed up in the now famous catchword “Clash of Civilizations”. Is Huntington right in claiming that such a battle between civilizations – especially the clash between “the West” and “Islam” (in coalition with the Chinese world!) – is an unavoidable world scenario? I myself and with me millions of peaceful people around the world are convinced that this is not the case.

Huntington, a Pentagon advisor, was not much concerned with the internal dynamics and diversities of individual cultures. He evidently knew little about complex historical interconnections, fluid transitions, mutual enrichment, and peaceful co-existence. With his dangerous forecast, he provided ideological support – after the end of the Cold War – for the replacement of the enemy image of Communism with the enemy image of Islam, largely to justify a high level of American rearmament and to create a favourable atmosphere for further wars.

Recall that in 1992, a year before Huntington’s article was published and immediately after the end of the first Gulf War, a small group of American ‘neo-conservative’ thinkers and politicians had begun to prepare ideologically for a projected preventive war to secure Near Eastern oil reserves, American hegemony, and Israeli security. After the election of President George W. Bush in 1999, this war was planned in detail and the unprecedented massacre of 11 September 2001 was exploited as a justification for launching an attack against Afghanistan and threatening an attack on Iraq, which had in no way been involved in these terrorist attacks. Finally, in March 2003, the war against Iraq was launched by the Bush administration.

However, instead of defeating terror in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, and all over the world, these wars helped spread terror even more widely. Although millions of Muslims worldwide continue to condemn any form of terror in the name of Islam, these wars against two Islamic countries have inflamed the whole Muslim world, stirring up unspeakable anger and bitterness and hardening the attitudes of many Muslims. Today we recognize that Huntington’s “Clash of civilizations” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What lesson can we learn from this story? The issue of peaceful co-existence between cultures and religions is one of the key issues of the 21st Century. The options have become clear:

– either rivalry amongst religions, the clash of civilizations, and war between nations;


– a culture of dialogue and peace and understanding between the religions and civilizations as a prerequisite of peace among nations.

Honest and critical dialogue does not strive either to sweep differences under the carpet or to promote a syncretistic mixing of religions. It strives for honest encounter and attempts to achieve understanding, based on mutual self-awareness, objectivity, fairness, and clear acknowledgment of what separates and what unites.

For this reason, I congratulate the leadership of the Fudan University for founding the “Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute” as a farsighted and very important sign for our times. I hope that with this work they will make many a valuable and helpful contribution to mutual understanding between cultures and religions and to the clarification of the role of culture and religion in modern civil society.

It is not by chance, that, in its preparatory documents the leadership of this Institute refers programmatically to the Parliament of the World Religions in 1993 in Chicago. With good reason, they claim that this assembly – I quote – “gave a decisive impetus to comparative religious studies as well as to dialogue among religions and civilizations in a spirit of peace and cooperation”. Of what did this ‘decisive impetus’ consist? It was above all the historic event: for the first time in religious history, representatives of the religions of the world reached agreement on the basic elements of a common human ethos as expressed in the Declaration towards a Global Ethic.

Many people have forgotten who inspired and drafted this declaration; it was Hans Ku"ng. Already three years earlier, in 1990, Hans Ku"ng had published a book under the title Global Responsibility. In Search of a New World Ethic, in which he programmatically developed the idea that the religions and philosophies of the world will only be able to contribute towards world peace when they learn to agree on a basic list of those shared ethical values that the major religious and humanist traditions have been promoting for thousands of years.

Hans Ku"ng has always been convinced that there will never be enduring peace among nations without peace between the religions, and that there will never be peace between the religions without dialogue and understanding. Along with practiced spirituality, scholarly exchange and the like, the basis for such dialogue is to be found in common values that have bound us together across cultural boundaries over millennia.

The Parliament of the World Religions, which assembled in Chicago in 1993, had been convoked to commemorate an event that had taken place in Chicago a century earlier. During the 1893 World Fair, the lawyer Charles C. Bonney organised a congress with representatives from 45 Christian and non-Christian religious organisations as the first “Parliament of World’s Religions”, some call it the beginning of the inter-religious movement. In the limelight was the Hindu Vivekananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna, who issued a visionary plea for mutual tolerance and respect between the religions.

Inspired by Hans Ku"ng’s book Global Responsibility, the organizers of the second Parliament 1993 asked Hans Ku"ng to draft a “declaration” describing the elements of a common ethic. In a process of worldwide inter-religious consultation, organised by Hans Ku"ng and our institute, this Global Ethic Declaration took form. At the ‘Parliament’ in September 1993, it was endorsed by the majority of the delegates. I am most gratified that you view this conference and your institute as standing in this important tradition of religious history.


The global ethic idea has in the meantime sent a surge of interest around the globe and has continued to develop over the years. Much of this history may be known to you, some perhaps not. For this reason, I would like to recall briefly those key elements that were formulated in Chicago in 1993 as the starting-point for a global ethic:

At the start is that fundamental general principle which finds expression in the familiar Golden Rule: “that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. This principle was historically first formulated by the great Chinese sage Confucius, but it also to be found with the Buddha and in Hinduism, as well as by Rabbi Hillel in Judaism, by Jesus of Nazareth, and in Islam. In fact, it is found in all the great religious traditions.

Confucius clearly recognized the fundamental importance of this Golden Rule, which he also calls the Rule of “Reciprocity” (shu). To this day, this rule is not only helpful for living together in the private or professional spheres; with this Golden Rule one can also engage in politics. In June, 2009 in Cairo, US-President Barack Obama addressed his first official speech to the Muslim world, closing with the following words:

“It is easier to start wars than to end them. It is easier to blame others than to look inward; to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There is also one rule that lies at the heart of every religion – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples – a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian, or Muslim or Jew. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilisation, and that still beats in the heart of billions. It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today. We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written.”

Closely related to this Golden Rule is a second fundamental ethical principle: Humanity. In all ages, this principle has been cited above all by the great non-religious humanists: “Every human being – whether young or old, male or female, white or coloured, handicapped or not, regardless of his or her world-view – every human being should be treated in a human way!”

These two basic principles, the Golden Rule and the Principle of Humanity, have been concretised in all major cultural traditions in the form of four elementary ethical directives or demands:

‧ The demand for a culture of non-violence and respect for all forms of life: “you shall not kill – and also not torture or injure anyone”.

‧ The demand for a culture of solidarity and a just economic order: “you shall not steal – and also not exploit, bribe, or corrupt anyone.”

‧ The demand for a culture of tolerance and a life in honesty: “you shall not lie”– but also not deceive, dissimulate, or manipulate.

‧ And finally, the demand for a culture of responsibly dealing with sexuality: "you shall not commit adultery – and also not exploit, abuse, or debase your sexual partner.”

These values and norms are not inventions of our own times; they come from mankind’s treasury of ethical experience which has accumulated over thousands of years. They enjoy the authority of humanity’s great religious and ethical traditions, as these have found expression in diverse cultures over hundreds of years. For this reason, they are not regionally or nationally restricted: despite all cultural conditioning and divergent justification in the different cultures, they are in fact universal. For in all cultures, human beings have and are interested in putting life, property, honour, and sexuality under special protection. For this reason, the values and norms of non-violence and respect for life, justice and solidarity, honesty and tolerance, mutual respect and partnership have not been arbitrarily selected, but instead – today more than ever – they are fundamental for the central areas of human life.

It was an important affirmation of our work when the participants of the “First Conference on a Global Ethic and Traditional Chinese Ethics” in Beijing already emphasized in 1997 that the Chicago-Declaration “is of great significance … in a time when the world urgently needs an ethical foundation” and “of greatest value”, because it “includes within the scope of discussion not only religious, but also non-religious circles”.

Quite rightly, they emphasized that “‘global ethic’ is an open system, and its conception is a starting point, not a final destination. We must continue the dialogue and the communication on a foundation of mutual tolerance and understanding”. And they expressed their threefold hope:

– “that the conception of a ‘global ethic’ could be enriched and perfected, publicized and practiced to benefit the establishment of moral relations between all peoples and nations”;

– that it “might make further progress and incorporate and adapt the standpoints of the representatives of the religious, political, academic, and other fields of each and every people and culture”;

– and that it “might become a common consciousness shared by all citizens, organizations, and nations, thus improving the moral condition of China and the world.”

The Global Ethic idea is not utopian.

– It is a vision, which shows us what a better world could and should look like;

– it is a vision for the future, because it is based on the conviction that the promulgation of respect and understanding between cultures and worldviews and the promulgation of ethical standards in politics, industry, trade and society is a political necessity;

– and it is a realistic vision, in many cases already being realized, and with our practical work we are attempting to translate these ideas in many different ways and at many different levels into social and political practice.

The precondition for this is, of course, solid scholarly work examining the fundamentals. Since the 1980s, we have systematically studied the different world religions and the various questions of inter-religious dialogue and of common ethical standards. From the beginning, we worked together with philosophers, ethicists, and scholars in the fields of religious studies and cultural studies: researchers from all over the world engaged in Islamic studies, Jewish studies, Indology, Sinology and other disciplines. Thus I am very happy that such scholarly work will be done also in the “Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute”.

Our work, however, goes well beyond the sphere of religion. With the global ethic theme, we wish to reach all those who have a stake in civil society. For this reason, we seek dialogue with scholars working in the fields of economics, political science, and other disciplines as well. We also seek dialogue with those who bear responsibility for and who make decisions in all of the various areas of society, in short, with men and women in the most diverse spheres of human life.

Thus one can say that the Global Ethic Project is a global educational project. It aims to contribute to a global change in attitudes to ethics. Since we evolved into human beings, mankind has had to learn the hard way to behave with humanity and to behave truly humanely. And, in the course of their personal development, each individual must also learn to do so:

– Children have to learn early on how to assert their own interests in an environment of mutual respect and non-violence. They must develop a basic understanding as early as possible not only of their own interests and rights but also of their duties towards those nearest to them and towards society.

– Managers must learn that they can only perform their job successfully when they follow the rules governing international competition in business and when they do not merely serve the interests of their company’s shareholders but also focus on creating a good social climate and a fair balance between the interests of all the stakeholders in their company.

– In sports, athletes must learn that success does not justify any and every means to that end. Fair play is not just a vague moral imperative but the very precondition for good sports intended to bring fulfilment to those actively participating in them and pleasure to those who view them.

– And politicians need to understand that, in the long run, national interests cannot be asserted by the exercise of power, violence, provocation, or oppression but only by means of political sagacity, fair competition, cooperation and dialogue.

And that is why we work together with teachers and schools as well as with academies and universities; with them, we have developed a whole range of publications and educational materials for teaching in schools and for general education.

I am particularly glad that we have now been able to link up with the Hong Kong Institute for Sino Christian Studies as a partner for our efforts. There, our educational materials will be translated and adapted to the Chinese context, so that gradually they can find entrance into Chinese schools and universities.

In addition to our diverse and varied work with teachers, schools, and school authorities, we engage in dialogue with other people active in civil society. Through publications, training seminars, and lectures we seek to establish ties to managers, politicians, and people from many different professions and occupations. The goal of our efforts is to create awareness among such people of the moral responsibility that each and everyone bears, whatever be his or her individual position and function. Thus I am most pleased to join with the “Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute” to communicate and to propagate such ideas.

Last year, I took part with Hans Ku"ng in the “Second World Conference on Sinology” held at the Renmin University, and together we were guests of the Beijing University. In this connection, the invitation of the Chinese Minister of Religion to a private evening dinner in his residence proved particularly interesting and instructive. There we had an intensive exchange about the role of religion today and about the religious situation in China today. I was astonished to note how great is the interest– not just political but also personal – of high-ranking representatives of China’s political and party leadership for things religious. Our discussion partners showed themselves well informed about the global ethic idea and emphasized how valuable this notion is for contemporary China.

Why should this be the case? Although the global ethic idea arose out of the experience with dialogue between the religions, it appeals to all human beings, whether religious or a-religious. Precisely in China, we see how important it is to focus the inter-religious dialogue not only on conversations, research, exchange between religious people, but also to open up the dialogue between religions and religious communities to include a dialogue with the secular civil society as well. In China, somewhere between 100 and 300 million people are estimated to be religious. More exact numbers are not available, since official censuses exclude questions of religion. In addition, as you know, even when religious affiliation may play a vital role in one’s private life, there is often great reluctance, depending on the religion in question, to come out publicly as a member of a particular religious community.

Nevertheless, whatever course religious life may take in the China of the future and whatever forms the relationship between the state and religion may take, the globalization process will inevitably leave its traces not only on China’s economy but also on its cultural life. On the one hand, religion will become more and more self-evidently present, even independently of religious institutions; on the other hand, innumerable men and women will, with good reasons and in full freedom, choose to live without religion and to shape their lives without it.

More than ever, we must learn that we have a common responsibility for our societies. Notwithstanding all differences, we need common “rules of the game” in our societies – moral values, norms, ethical standards – which will allow us to live in peace and harmony irrespective of borders between worldviews, ethnic groups, cultures, and nations.

Thus, Ladies and Gentlemen, I come to the conclusion of my lecture. China’s great sage Confucius wanted to help mankind to achieve greater humanity, in the full sense of the word. And such humanity must show itself in concrete and tangible behaviour towards fellow men and society. Besides his well-known “Golden Rule”, it is recorded that he once said in one of his talks (3.3): “If a man is not humane, what can he do with the rituals? If a man is not humane, what can he do with music?” And this, if you like, sums up the central concern of the global ethic.

A well-known politician of our time, another very wise man, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, expressed these concerns in his own way. In the “Third Global Ethic Lecture”, held in Tubingen in December 2003 after the start of the devastating Iraq war in that same year, he spoke on the topic “Do we still have universal values?” And at the end of an impressive speech – which you can read on our internet homepage – he came to the following conclusion:

“Do we still have universal values? Yes, we do, but we should not take them for granted.

They need to be carefully thought through.

They need to be defended.

They need to be strengthened.

And we need to find within ourselves the will to live by the values we proclaim – in our private lives, in our local and national societies, and in the world.”



Watch an excerpt of Dr. Schlensog's speech





Stephan Schlensog (史蒂芬‧施倫索格)

Theologian, Secretary General
Global Ethic Foundation

As Secretary General of the Global Ethic Foundation he is responsible for organi-
zation, administration and programme development of the foundation. He is also
coordinating the international activities of the Global Ethic Foundation and their
partner organizations worldwide.

Close collaborator of Prof. Hans Kueng for 25 years and
member of his academic staff. He was academic advisor of the multi media
project "Tracing the way” (for conception, realization and production), developed
a CD-ROM for this project and was advisor for the japanese translation of the
films. An expert in religious studies, he is the author of a volume on theology,
history and ethics of Hinduism ("Der Hinduismus”) and of other publications on
World Religions and Global Ethic. He also has developed the Internet based
learning programme „A Global Ethic now!” which is available in german, english
and french (


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