Editors’ Note [Full Text]

| April 2012
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The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs will turn one hundred years old in February 2014. Andrew Carnegie founded the Council in 1914 with a specific purpose in mind: he thought it was possible to avoid the Great War that he and many others believed was on the horizon. In fact, he approached the project with considerable optimism, confident that the barbarity of industrial war would become a thing of the past. Humanity was evolving, becoming more civilized with each passing decade. Common interests and common sense would surely make large-scale war a relic of bygone days, similar to other uncivilized practices, such as slavery and dueling. Sadly, it was not to be.

The twentieth century brought many horrors, including three world wars (if we count the cold war), the Holocaust, genocides, famines, ethnic cleansing, and terrorism. Yet it also brought amazing normative shifts. Standards have risen, expectations have changed. Universal education, the right to vote, social security, civil rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities, environmental awareness—all were once thought to be unrealizable, if thought of at all, and yet today they are largely considered basic and fundamental.

Despite the many intractable conflicts we see in today’s world and despite the vast inequalities and unfair circumstances that persist, there are common interests we can build upon. In a globalizing world, we have many opportunities to work toward harmonizing norms and standards to make our planet a more peaceful place. It now seems reasonable to think that the days of large-scale industrial war may be numbered. And perhaps the concept of war itself might evolve into something that looks more like cooperative policing than the “total-war” scenarios we have seen over the past hundred years. We have a lot of work to do here—especially in the area of reducing nuclear weapons—but it is feasible, especially
if we base it on a common global ethic.

The following symposium is a product of the inaugural meeting of the Carnegie Council’s Global Ethics Network in November 2011 at the Council’s headquarters in New York City. Over the next two years a network of participants, led by a talented group of Global Ethics Fellows—some of whom have contributed responses to this symposium—will help establish a new framework for debating a global ethic, and produce interactive pedagogical tools, original university-level curricula, and lasting cross-border partnerships. Ethics & International Affairs will collaborate closely with the Fellows and others involved in this ambitious project, publishing innovative work on the role of changing values and norms in international relations today.

In the following essay, Michael Ignatieff takes a global ethic to mean “a morality whose object is ‘one world’ in which all human beings are entitled to equal moral concern and in which we have common responsibilities to our habitat,” and which “seeks to defend all human beings and our common habitat against partialities and interests grounded in family, community, ethnicity, economic position, and nation.” The idea comes to life in applying it to specific cases where claims of universality and particularity compete.

We agree: life on earth is fast becoming a shared destiny. Reimagining a global ethic—with all of its possibilities and limitations—is no longer a luxury. It is a practical necessity. As the Council looks toward its centennial and beyond, we invite you to join us in this challenging but critical task.

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Category: Editors' Note, Issue 26.1, Symposium: In Search of a Global Ethic

Comments (2)

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  1. David Chester says:

    I find myself becoming very cynical when it comes to any discussion about global ethics. Man as such doesn’t seem to know what ethics is nor is he the slightest bit interested in establishing what they are nor how he should abide by them. Yet to my way of thinking the ethics by which we should live is sumed up by one simple sentence which can be applied to every human relationship that involves many kinds of ethics. It is this:

    Don’t do to your neighbor anything which you do not want him to do to you!

    This principle which is a double-negative variation of the “Golden Rule” was first formulated by Hillel the Elder whose active (mature) life roughly was the same as that of Jesus. Hillel was head of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and had the strength to actually oppose Biblical Law when it was no longer needed. His introduction of the Procbull for debt non-cancelling was an end to the past requirements associated with the Jubilee Year.

    By Hillels stand regarding ethical behavour was it possible for the saintly attitude of the Golden Rule to be changed into something that was at least slightly practicle for us to follow. yet there are so many cases where this tule is ignored, even on ths site where people claim the right to condone what others believe to be true without showing any respect for their opinions, thta to my way of thinking there is very little purpose in continuing with this review of ethics and the world scene.

  2. Peter Fallon says:

    Not knowing anything about Hillels but knowing about living in this world and seeing 24/7 the lack of ethics and morals from high political sources from all countries politicians and decisions being made that are self serving, greed, power, meglomania, tyranical governments, torture being allowed, genocide and all other vile actions, wars which seem to be an ad continuim with man and no end in sight.
    That does not stop me from believing that we must continue to find solutions to the worlds problems, it will never happen in my lifetime, but if we see that there are organisations that are trying at least to do something, I talk of The Arab League, hopefully they can quell the fundamentalist Islamic groups and bring some kind of understanding betwen the west and the east.
    The worlds politicians need to sit down and look at all the conflicts without prejudice, as we see in the UN, China and Russia automatically always siding with each other in the Security Council against the rest of the Western powers, it is time that all those people grew up, looked at the situations from a humanistic and moral point of view, looked at the poor victims who are at the receiving end of the decisions made by their respective parliaments, and I also mean our own government and all politicians here in Britain who live in a dream world they have no idea the result on the ordinary peoples lives by their decisions, one must also cite the disgraceful debacle of the MP’s and Lords expenses, amazingly they could not see what they were doing was immoral and greedy, (I still have the Telegraph’s special edition magazine giving all the claims made)
    I do not agree with Mr. Chester that there is very little purpose in continuing with this review of ethics and the world scene. We must have hope we must force ourselves to have hope that as the generations come after us they can slowly change in their personal attitude and help the world come at long last to some semblance of peace.
    As the late John Lennon said: “People say i’m a dreamer but i’m not the only one, I hope some day you will join me and the world will live as one.”