In Search of a Global Ethic

Research in 25 cities shows that norms across cultures may not be so different after all.

By Devin Stewart

Tagged EthicsHuman Rights

On the occasion of Carnegie Council’s centennial anniversary, I had the privilege of spending three years (2013-2015) traveling with Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff to a wide variety of communities in 25 cities in eight countries on five continents to examine how norms are shared or contested. It was a search for a global ethic—a set of moral values that applies to the welfare of the shared planet and can be embraced by a range of communities and cultures—which we hoped was not completely elusive. Since we didn’t know exactly what we would find, our expedition had a whiff of adventure to it. We set off with an open mind, a lot of humility, some skepticism, and a research question: Is there a global ethic?

Our reason for visiting these communities was the truism that moral claims are ultimately contested locally. Our “global ethical dialogues,” in fact, were examinations of the construction of local norms. From that, we hoped to detect shared values across cultures. While the focus is often on grand international politics, the real action that shapes people’s everyday lives occurs in courtrooms, police stations, public squares, hospitals, and newsrooms. To that end, we met with police officers, judges, lawyers, activists, religious leaders, social workers, journalists, and others on the frontlines of social change. Some of the most illuminating discussions were with police chiefs and student protesters (probably because the police have no time for posturing, and the young have the most to gain from shaping the future).

We first identified six themes with global significance: corruption, environment, citizenship, reconciliation, technology, and democracy. We then reached out to Carnegie Council’s network of ethics fellows at nearly 50 universities around the world to help us arrange visits to their communities. We would confer with the partners on the relevant themes and local case studies that would illustrate local manifestations of the global theme. The most ubiquitous themes turned out to be citizenship and corruption, which we came to realize were opposite sides of the same coin—that of community cohesion.

After consulting with our local interlocutors, the case studies we decided to explore were: the 2005 Mensalao government vote-buying case and other corruption scandals, including the 2013 protests against bus fares and soccer stadiums, in Brazil; the dispute between Uruguay and Argentina over a controversial pulp mill plant in Fray Bentos on the Uruguay River; the aftermath of the Los Angeles 1992 riots over police brutality and inequality; race relations and the “stop and frisk” tactics of the New York Police Department in Queens; the reconciliation process between Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats in Bosnia since the war in the 1990s; the recovery of communities in the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan since the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis; ethnic violence and inter-religious relations in Burma since its drive in 2011 toward democratization; and the state of relations between ethnicities in South Africa since the end of Apartheid in 1994. All were local expressions of global problems that continue to galvanize communities to this day.

Our investigations into these cases took us to meet with hundreds of interviewees in some extraordinary places that often symbolized the moral dispute at hand. Among them, we visited the following: the scene of a prolonged blockade of a bridge by residents of Gualeguaychu; a center for undocumented immigrants in Queens and a immigrant outreach police division in Brooklyn; favelas and anti-corruption protests of historic proportions in Rio de Janeiro; a security company created by former gang members in South Central Los Angeles; genocide survivors and mass graves in Srebrenica; the irradiated Japanese ghost town of Namie and surrounding areas destroyed by the tsunami; the site of interreligious rape and murder in Mandalay; and informal squatter settlements and townships outside of Johannesburg.

A final challenge in this project was that of avoiding the perception that we were two East Coast intellectuals on an odyssey to fix the problems of the developing world. We tried to address that perception by clearly stating up front that our goal was to learn, not to lecture.

Nevertheless, we still usually encountered a cynic in each country who would accuse our project of having “neo-imperialist” undertones. Another criticism was the rhetorical if not patronizing question asked of us by elites: “What are you going to do for these people?” Our response was that we went out to meet people out of respect for their opinions, and I take some comfort in the fact that the people who had such criticisms were always (and ironically) well-to-do academics, not the people at the center of disputes. The vast majority of people we met actually thanked us for listening to their stories.

So all that said, what did I find? What I found was that, if there is a shared value across cultures, it might be “dignity,” which is the state of being respected or having self-worth. It’s a two-way street between society and the individual. Dignity is conferred on the individual when his or her society has the basic operational ingredients of jobs and justice, or educational and economic opportunity and a fair justice system, including honest police officers and courts.

What stands in the way of human dignity? In a word, it is “corruption” in all of its varying forms: graft, greed, bribery, lies, impunity, and incompetence.

On a more abstract level, dignity comes about when a society respects the other values upheld in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely human rights, freedom, and justice. Even in the most destitute communities, ones with no water, food, or electricity, we saw hope that these things can be reached. A South African squatter who lacked any modern convenience, including plumbing or electricity, told us her dream was starting her own catering business. Another told us she had “hope that we can change” the village for the better. A third said she wanted to get a job to help her family. The variable in each society is the context that shapes the hope for dignity or the context that allows for quotidian “ordinary virtues,” as Ignatieff has put it. In the moral realm, what people say they want is “equal access to opportunity,” “accountable institutions,” and a “voice.” Interestingly, scarcely anyone put these goals in the language of “human rights.”

The story gets more complicated when one takes into account local norms, which are shaped by the specific community’s unique history and culture, and, making matters even more complex, those very norms change over time.

In a recent essay, legal scholar Noah Feldman claims that “when we’re arguing about the nature of rights, there’s no definitive answer that can be gleaned from looking to universal practice. You can’t find moral laws in the fundamental structure of the universe. You have to convince other people that the rights you consider universal are worth protecting.” Is a global ethic therefore a chimera? For Feldman, the contest of rights and norms is rightly one about making the case, an ongoing dialogue with no end.

Societies are works in progress. My findings, however, would suggest that dignity is a universal norm. Local norms are the particular ways, given a nation’s history and culture, that dignity is achieved in that context. Norms can change, and nothing is ever completely settled, including reconciliation or the journey on Theodore Parker’s long, unending arc toward justice. The human moral project is never finished. Former enemies in the Bosnian War told us that they still live “side by side but not together” two decades after the war. We saw a “spite church” near Srebrenica—so named because it was built near Muslim mass graves out of spite.

What stands in the way of human dignity? In a word, it is “corruption” in all of its varying forms: graft, greed, bribery, lies, impunity, and incompetence. Now, many would argue that inequality is the single biggest global challenge, and inequality and corruption are certainly mutually reinforcing and even mutually causal. But my findings would place corruption as enemy number one. Why?

First, there are many causes of inequality and not all of them are bad, including the free market, free trade, and an open capitalist system. Some of the causes are neutral or at least debatable, such as globalization and moneyed influence in politics couched as “free speech.” Moreover, while inequality is certainly an urgent issue, as economist Dambisa Moyo has noted, “Identifying the best policies for reducing inequality remains a puzzle.”

But when it comes to corruption, all of the causes are negative, as it is intrinsically immoral and usually illegal; moreover its enabler includes system failure such as ineffective law enforcement and dishonest courts, as well a weak media culture. Government officials who steal from the public, companies that pay bribes, politicians who act with impunity, and financiers who embezzle or hide their wealth are the first order problems. While the causes of inequality are multitudinous and complex, I would go so far as to argue that corruption is caused by the fundamental human flaw of greed.

That is, corruption stems from the human condition and the frailty of the moral self. Those are challenges with ancient origins. Corruption also has unquestionably deleterious consequences on the individual and society. It destroys public trust, gives resources and power to the incompetent, and exacerbates inequality and poverty. Even in lawful Japan, the nuclear crisis in the Fukushima Prefecture was thought to have stemmed from the cozy relationships among the government, regulators, and electric utility companies–the “nuclear village,” as it is called. Public trust in the Japanese government has since fallen to historic lows and anxiety about the future is pervasive. When we traveled near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, I felt as if I was peering into the face of Medusa, the grotesque symbol of a once loved character that was brutally ravaged by the sea.

Second, in every community we visited, corruption was cited as that society’s “greatest single bane,” as former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has called it. The ordinary Nigerian suffers from abject poverty due to corruption and the greed of the country’s leaders, Obasanjo has written. What has sparked recent unrest in Brazil, Bosnia, Burma, Japan, and the United States? Activists, who have been empowered by information technology and social media, point to corruption in their government, politicians, police departments, and corporations.

Liberators, the freedom fighters, and the righteous political opposition are still human, and they are tempted by the same greed that tempts the oppressors.

“Don’t treat us like clowns,” was the refrain we heard in Brazil among protesters as they rallied against government waste, fraud, and corruption. Their protests were conducted in solidarity with the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Silent Protest in Egypt. While the Internet has fueled the rate and intensity of recent protests, however, social media is no substitute for political leadership. As the world has witnessed in Brazil and the Arab Spring, an opposition movement requires leadership, an asset that blessed the movements for justice in Burma with Aung San Suu Kyi and South Africa with Nelson Mandela.

The problem is that the liberators, the freedom fighters, and the righteous political opposition are still human, and they are tempted by the same greed that tempts the oppressors. In our visits, we have heard the phrase that the liberators become the oppressors once they have power. Two expressions I heard in South Africa from black student activists struck me: “The African National Congress has become like a mafia that has replaced our previous white oppressors;” and “my ancestors did not fight for me to be able to share a toilet with a white person.” They found Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation” and the notion of “born frees” to be patronizing, empty slogans. Disaffected students feel that apartheid was dismantled only to provide the liberators with opportunities for graft and the people with flimsy political rights that are meaningless without greater economic equity and opportunity.

That power corrupts is clichéd but true. Unfortunately, the cycle of power often only creates opportunities for new groups to benefit from graft. The path out of the vicious cycle is to create institutions, such as strong courts, trustworthy police, and a strong civil society, that can ultimately hold government and the powerful to account, thus making a society that confers dignity on each individual. As Francis Fukuyama has noted, while patrimonialism leads to economic inefficiency and violent solutions to security problems, a better system is one that follows the rule of law and is accountable to the public—and has the capacity to serve the people. A society that recognizes that the struggle to achieve greater justice and human dignity is never complete is a society that is searching and may have found the basis for a global ethic. We hope this project might help individuals and societies get there.

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Devin Stewart is senior fellow and senior program director at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City.

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