Quest for a Global Ethic:
Can We Agree on What's Good?

by Maria Barron


“It’s just not right.”

That frequently heard observation, delivered in sad but helpless tones, applies to a planet-full of constant painful reminders that the problem of evil is not just a personal phenomenon of the Cain-and-Abel sort, the passion that motivates brother to kill brother. In our modern world, distinguished most markedly from other eras by its astounding proliferation of self-contained but ultimately interdependent systems, evil has become deeply systematized and systemic, taking increasingly complex yet bold forms in:

  • hostage-takings, massacres, genocide and war crimes;
  • political deceptions and money-launderings;
  • corporate business and investment scams, schemes, cheating and thievery; and
  • environmental exploitation that threatens future survival.

No, it’s not right. But in a world entangled in a systems model that concentrates the power in a few yet disperses the wrongful activities involved through a web of underlings, it sometimes seems the whole world today is run by one crooked mafia or another. And while in some sense it may have been always thus from the beginning of human society, the sheer numbers of self-possessed systems proliferating today, and their reach, leave people simply expecting, and learning to tolerate, immorality and amorality everywhere they look. We expect to be conned, or at least to be the targets of duplicity, and, in the maze of the systems, to lack a direct way to address the problems. We have become so suspicious, we even look a little squinty-eyed at someone who seems “too sincere.”

In these strange days, “Ethics” is only the name of a philosophy course in ivory tower academia, and the phrase “Business Ethics” borders on a contradiction in terms. “Morals” are Victorian-era chastity belts and pithy sayings from old Greek fables. “Seize the day” — and everything you can find to seize within it (and use up right now) — is the imperative that rings in our lives like the opening bell on Wall Street, sending us out in a rush into our daily world.

It’s just not right. But can we possibly agree on what is? Can we, within our separate systems of nationalities, beliefs, professional and personal values, ideological and political affiliations, seek out a common knowledge of what humanity as a whole understands, deep down, to be right? In an effort to promote the common good, we might yet uncover, across our divisions, a common goodness.

Finding the common ground

Discussions of good and evil, of right and wrong, are central both to religion and to the branch of philosophy known as Ethics. Swiss-born theologian Hans Küng is a 76-year-old student and teacher of both subjects. The author of 50 books of scholarly exploration on the subject of beliefs, he has devoted his recent years to building peace on Earth in his own lifetime, urging humanity to build on a solid footing of already existing common ground — the shared values across cultures that he calls the Global Ethic.

In undertaking to distill the sum total of enumerated principles that could accurately be termed universal standards of goodness, Küng considered not just the maxims of the long-lasting widely practiced traditional religions of the world but also the non-religious philosophical systems of ethics that tend to be favored by scientists and academics. The ethical beliefs of those who put their faith in what they see as something of a post-religious view of life, defined by scientific principles but nonetheless including a sense of moral right and wrong, must not be excluded, he reasoned, if the distillation is to reflect a truly global ethos.

Küng came up with four such principles held in common:

  • Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
  • Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
  • Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
  • Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

The world’s major cultural belief systems — Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all profess belief in the moral rightness of these principles, asserts the learned Professor Küng. Although religious passions are obviously used at times to promote ends in clear opposition to those principles, at their hearts, in their most holy scriptures and practices, the religions fundamentally agree on the commitments required to be a good person living a life of dharma, to use the Hindi word for the sacred practice of right-living or righteousness.

It is by increasing awareness of these shared values, Küng believes, that religions can best contribute to establishing peace on Earth and bringing about a transformation of consciousness that demonstrates global concern for one and all. Many of the faithful, and their more secular neighbors, agree. Küng drafted his first phrasing of the four principles while serving as director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research at the University of Tübingen, Germany. He introduced the concept in his 1990 book, Global Responsibility, first published in English in 1991. His formulation of the principles was then adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in September 1993, in the Council’s Declaration Toward a Global Ethic.

The document was individually signed at that religious parliament by many religious people holding titles of scholarship and piety, representing the beliefs of the Baha’i; the Brahma Kumaris; various branches of Buddhism; Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant denominations of Christianity; Hinduism; Jainism; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism; Islam; Native Religions; Neo Paganism; Sikhism; Taoism; Theosophy; Zoroastrianism; and interfaith organizations. Among the signers was the 14th Dalai Lama, who has since gone on to make his own considerable contribution to the discussion in his 1999 book, Ethics for the New Millennium. Other signers of particular stature or authority within their faiths included Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and a Protestant archbishop.

Küng himself is a Catholic priest, and several decades ago his activist theology of reform and openness played a direct role in the Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII. Vatican II marked the church’s shift to Masses conducted in the language of the congregations, rather than Latin, and toward greater inclusion of the congregants as readers and communion ministers in the Mass.

Küng was ultimately stripped of his license to operate as a Catholic theologian in 1979 when he penned a book questioning papal infallibility, and although he has said the loss of his church’s theological endorsement humiliated him and made him depressed, he has continued to drive on in his theological inquiries, and has become probably the best-known living theologian on the planet. As a priest and respected scholar, but one who sought to reform and then was booted out of the highest circles of authority in his own church, Küng is in a unique position to understand the strengths and failings and continuing importance of religions. He believes there is no chance for peace on Earth without first achieving peace among religions. And that there can be no peace among religions without dialogue to promote understanding. “Men and women in the different religions know far too little of each other,” Küng frequently tells interviewers.

Globalization without ethics is a global crisis

That lack of knowledge about one another contributes to the fundamental global crisis going on now. As the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic states in its introduction:

Hundreds of millions of human beings on our planet increasingly suffer from unemployment, poverty, hunger, and the destruction of their families. Hope for a lasting peace among nations slips away from us. There are tensions between the sexes and generations. Children die, kill, and are killed. More and more countries are shaken by corruption in politics and business. It is increasingly difficult to live together peacefully in our cities because of social, racial, and ethnic conflicts, the abuse of drugs, organized crime, and even anarchy. Even neighbors often live in fear of one another. Our planet continues to be ruthlessly plundered. A collapse of the ecosystem threatens us.

Time and again we see leaders and members of religions incite aggression, fanaticism, hate, and xenophobia — even inspire and legitimize violent and bloody conflicts. Religion often is misused for purely power-political goals, including war. We are filled with disgust.

We condemn these blights and declare that they need not be. An ethic already exists within the religious teachings of the world which can counter the global distress. Of course this ethic provides no direct solution for all the immense problems of the world, but it does supply the moral foundation for a better individual and global order: A vision which can lead women and men away from despair, and society away from chaos.

Implicit in the document is a call for involvement and bridge-building among ethical people across their divisions of belief:

  • We all have a responsibility for a better global order.
  • Our involvement for the sake of human rights, freedom, justice, peace, and the preservation of Earth is absolutely necessary.
  • Our different religious and cultural traditions must not prevent our common involvement in opposing all forms of inhumanity and working for greater humaneness.
  • The principles expressed in this Global Ethic can be affirmed by all persons with ethical convictions, whether religiously grounded or not.
  • As religious and spiritual persons we base our lives on an Ultimate Reality, and draw spiritual power and hope therefrom, in trust, in prayer or meditation, in word or silence. We have a special responsibility for the welfare of all humanity and care for the planet Earth. We do not consider ourselves better than other women and men, but we trust that the ancient wisdom of our religions can point the way for the future.

Listen up, scientists, governments, media, bankers!

The ideas of the Declaration, and the dialogue it has inspired, have gained momentum, at least in the forms of increased attention and awareness, over the last decade. An opinion column in the May 16, 1994, issue of The Scientist, under the headline “Science, Religion Must Share Quest For Global Survival,” discussed the Declaration and urged scientists to join in the new dialogue across the scientific/religious divide.

“For centuries, the subject of human values has been regarded as beyond the realm of science, the exclusive property of theologians and secular philosophers,” wrote Van Rensselaer Potter, professor of oncology, emeritus, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Now we must assert not only that scientists have transcendent values, too, but also that the values embedded in the scientific ethos need to be integrated with those of religion and philosophy in order to facilitate political processes beneficial to the global environment’s health.”

Former heads of state have also joined the call. In September 1997, the InterAction Council of former presidents and prime ministers called for a global ethic and submitted to the United Nations a proposed Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, designed to back up the U.N.’s already adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights from an ethical perspective.

In 1999, the Parliament of World Religions, meeting this time in South Africa, issued a call to those institutions that, for better or worse, influence what is happening in the world and at the same time face new ethical dilemmas because of globalization. The Call to our Guiding Institutions went out to institutions not only of religion and spirituality, but also of government; agriculture, labor, industry, and commerce; education; arts and communications media; science and medicine; and some citizen organizations. The letter encouraged recognition of the principles as well as “creative engagement” in ethical discussions across usual boundaries.

Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, took up the cause and directed it pointedly toward the problem of global financial exploitation when addressing the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Prague in 2000.

“The crucial task,” he said, “is to fundamentally strengthen a system of universally shared moral standards that will make it impossible, on a truly global scale, for the various rules to be time and again circumvented with still more ingenuity than had gone into their invention. Such standards will truly guarantee the weight of the rules and will generate natural respect for them in the societal climate. Actions proven to jeopardize the future of the human race should not only be punishable but, first and foremost, should be generally regarded as a disgrace.”

Generally regarded as a disgrace. In other words, imagine an exploitative action being met with a global chorus of “It’s just not right.”

Even the conservative pope who withdrew Küng’s canonical license apparently never stopped paying attention to Küng’s progressive, forward-thinking brand of theology. In 2001, Pope John Paul II explicitly declared the need for a global ethic in order to prevent the spectre of global domination and homogenization by a single dominant culture. “In all the variety of cultural forms, universal human values exist and they must be brought out and emphasized as the guiding force of all development and progress,” the pope said in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in Rome. These values must be “sought within the human being as such, within universal humanity sprung from the Creator’s hand,” and not imposed by an outside culture, he said.

And that, Küng asserts, is the beauty of the principles he has identified. Based on the concepts of the dignity of the individual person and the Golden Rule of doing to others only what you would wish done to you, the global ethic already exists in the deepest understandings of humanity worldwide. This common knowledge needs only to be brought out, recognized as something we hold in common, and actively upheld.

Our differences are important too

Recognizing our similarities does not imply abandoning our differences, Küng emphasized in an article in the January 2003 issue of Interreligious Insight.

Of course, cultural traditions differ from each other in their understanding of what is helpful and what is unhelpful for the human being, what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. It is absolutely impossible either to gloss over or ignore the very serious differences among the civilizations. However, these differences should not hinder the perception and appreciation of those ethical values and standards which are already held in common and which can jointly be affirmed, on religious or non-religious grounds.

In the time since the Parliament of World Religions first adopted his principles, Küng has brought his campaign to China, India and Iran. Through his Global Ethic Foundation for Intercultural and Interreligious Research, Education and Encounter, established in October 1995 at the University of Tübingen, where he is now a retired professor emeritus, Küng has arranged many opportunities for shared learning. The foundation pursues interreligious and intercultural studies, conferences and symposia, including some specifically addressing tensions among the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Most recently, Küng is addressing business leaders in the United States. As reported by the National Catholic Reporter September 3, 2004, Küng was recently the featured speaker at the Carnegie Bosch Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where his ideas on the global ethic were the subject of a workshop and lecture attended by some 200 business and academic leaders.

Of course, there are critics of the campaign as well. Groups of literalist Bible-believing Christians, who fight the teachings of science and hope for a world-ending battle of Armageddon in their lifetimes, have a tenacious resolve to keep themselves apart from believers of any other stripe so that they can be among the tiny portion of humanity that survives the anticipated global wipeout. Learning of Küng’s efforts toward a global ethic, such millennial cults breathlessly reported to one another on their websites that the dreaded (and yet eagerly anticipated) one-world-religion, which is to be a sign that “the end is near,” was now on hand. Only, there’s been a change in tactics, these websites proclaimed. Unable to establish one religion for the world, the “bad guys,” meaning the religious people of the world, are now pursuing unity in diversity, and that very diversity is the one-world-religion, these Armageddon-oriented websites exclaimed.

That gem of paranoid pretzel logic is a fine example of why a different criticism of the global ethic project has some validity. The ethic expresses an educated, somewhat liberal western interpretation of the various religious mores. The conflicts in the world may be not so much conflicts between the university-educated members of the different religions, but between the hard-line, conservative, separatist groups within those religions who nurture hatred for others outside their immediate circles. Indeed, one could say there are areas all over the world that remain untouched these many years later by the values of the European Age of Enlightenment, and those cultures may not recognize themselves in Küng’s formulation of the global ethic.

In his own self-context as a “hopeful realist,” Küng presses onward for peace in his lifetime, while at the same time expressing the hope, through his foundation, that the next generation of the world’s children will grow up knowing more about one another across cultural lines. Perhaps that’s one reason why one of his more recent formulations of the four global principles is phrased even more simply and enthusiastically, in terms fit to teach small children:

  1. Have respect for all life!
  2. Deal honestly and fairly!
  3. Speak and act truthfully!
  4. Respect and love one another!

For these are the basics of being a good human being.

Links to further reading:

The full text of the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic is online at the Foundation’s website, Click one of the flags to see the site in your language.

A Global Ethic: Development and Goals, an article by Hans Küng in the January 2003 edition of Interreligious Insight, is online at

The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions has a website at

PBS, American public television, publishes a wide-ranging Religion & Ethics newsweekly online at