CEVI on Global Ethics

The Field of Global Ethics

as both

Ethics of Globalization and Ethics under Globalization


The Era of Globalization

By the end of the 20th century, the world has become a smaller place than it used to be. Societies from all over the world are increasingly being linked into what has been called ‘one global system.’ Of course, human interdependence at a global level sustaining human practice within local communities is hardly a recent phenomenon. International trade and migration, e.g., is at least as old as written history and the capitalistic world-system has since the 16th century produced a global reality of world-making.
However, starting by the end of the 1960’s and rapidly accelerating into the 21st century, technological, economical, political and other forces have crafted a world in which this interdependence has reached an unprecedented level. In his 1999 Reith lectures, Anthony Giddens labelled this globalizing world a ‘runaway world.’ “We live,” so he says, “in a world of transformations, affecting almost every aspect of what we do.”
Accompanying this process of globalisation is the widespread recognition of these new global human interdependencies and of their ethical relevance. The on-going process of globalization leads to the emergence of a ‘global order’ engendering new and pressing moral and ethical issues.

Global Worries: Global Ethics as an ‘Ethics of Globalization’

The global dimension of many of these issues makes itself felt on many levels and in many ways, forcing societal, political, economical and individual actors to take this into account in their policies and strategies.
Political and economic leaders and institutions, e.g., are now addressing domestic issues in terms of globalization and referring to global trends increasingly legitimates local as well as international policies. Also, trans-national non-governmental organizations are, in an increasingly overt way, presenting themselves as effective and efficient actors for service delivery, advocacy and policy making on ethically relevant issues. The global dimension also influences communications and interactions on an individual and interpersonal level.
The recognition of the ethical relevance of these interdependencies has already led to analyses of social and political evolutions couched in terms of critiques of:
  • the one-sidedness (biased and limited) of ‘economic globalization,’
  • generalized environmental crisis,
  • worldwide social and cultural disintegration,
  • the rise of racism and xenophobia,
  • the sclerosis of lifestyles and life forms,
  • the disruption of social protection,
  • the spreading of migration,
  • the violation of public places,
  • the erosion of the nation-state,
  • the growth of media dictated mass consumption coupled with earth-devastating waste-patterns.
All this points towards a growing awareness of the moral implications of the globalizing process and towards the establishment of what could be called an Ethics of Globalization in which moral issues are analysed from a perspective in which the impact of globalization figures predominantly. The Center for Ethics and Value Inquiry welcomes this new development within this emerging field of ethics and wants to to contribute to it actively by promoting critical research into these political, economical, social and cultural issues.

Worrying Globally: Global Ethics as ‘Ethics under Globalization’

However, this Ethics of Globalization does not, according to CEVI, pre-empt the field of Global Ethics. The recognition of an enhanced global human interdependency under globalization and its effects has contributed to what could be called a widespread moral perplexity. Sometimes this moral perplexity is called ‘bewilderment’ (Morris Ginzburg), ‘indeterminacy’ (Abraham Edel) or even ‘crisis’ (Emmanuel Levinas).
The specificity of this contemporary moral perplexity lies in its relation to an ever-growing sense of discontent and unease with:
  • post-industrial society,
  • a scientistic ideology,
  • and a strictly utilitarian obsessions of narrow material progress,
all of them unaccompanied by a spiritual evolution and a moral development of mankind.
The social and political evolutions during this era of globalization, are giving rise to a moral disarray and cynicism, as can be heard in phrases and laments like ‘the end of modernity,’ ‘against ethics,’ ‘the closing down of humanism,’ ‘expertise-oriented administration of human existence,’ ‘moral aestheticism and relativism,’ and so on.
Another factor fuelling this moral perplexity of our age is the radicalization of the tension between on the one hand a much needed long-term vision for human aspirations and on the other hand the always threatening urgency and short-term applicability of policies. The moral perplexity of the era of globalization has rendered us, in the words of Jerome Bindé, a ‘temporal myopia.’ Apparently, modern ethics has reached its limits in dealing with this kind of issues.

For CEVI an Ethics of Globalization, therefore, has to be complemented by a critical study of ethics and morality under the conditions of globalization. Ethical reasoning about issues of globalization has now become an issue of globalization itself. It is precisely this that is captured under the heading of Ethics under Globalization.
Morality and ethical thought are fundamentally embedded in the ways of life they are practiced in. Globalization has fundamentally restructured human ways of living and is deeply affecting our worldview. “For better or worse,” according to Giddens, “it is propelling us into a global order that no one fully understands, but which is making its effects felt upon all of us.”
One of these effects is a widespread unease about the aspirations of contemporary ethics, contributing to the moral perplexity referred to earlier. Contemporary ethics seems unable to cope with the new and pressing issues with which we are confronted in the era of globalization. A global world order, therefore, also requires a fresh look at ethics—taken as a human endeavour and grounded in the world it reflects upon.

A Fresh Look at ‘Global Ethics’

CEVI’s delineation of the field of Global Ethics as both Ethics of Globalization and Ethics under Globalization should not be understood as reflecting a demarcation between theory and practice of Global Ethics. This would merely amount to a reiteration of a traditional way of coping with moral issues in which an ethical theory is developed and then applied to specific moral problems under the heading of applied ethics.
In contrast to this, a major theme for CEVI is the intricate structure of theoretical and practical outlooks in ethics in general and in global ethics in particular. In this, the research in Global Ethics that CEVI wants to promote, resonates with, among other, a broadly Deweyan-pragmatist tradition in ethics, with the semantic-historical research program of N. Luhmann, and with the important contribution of Abraham Edel to the development of an ethical science in which the idea of a flexible ‘valuational’ base in human judgment plays an crucial role.
The emphasis on the intricate structure of theoretical and practical outlooks leads to a critique of current scientistic ideologies and technological-expertise visions concerning ethical rationality and to a defence of a prudent point of view concerning the philosophical foundation of ethical principles. These principles will forever remain provisory and incomplete. CEVI, therefore, will continuously stress the meaning of human and natural diversity and ‘difference’. We should leave behind us all simple and one-dimensional visions of human progress.
CEVI champions a new form and content of humanism, relying on a realistic view on man and man’s place in nature and which tops human responsibility before human and natural diversity (cf. Jonas, Naess, Korten, Levinas, …). CEVI wants to contribute to ethical reasoning that is able to tackle the moral perplexity of our period, through investigations into the value formulation of alternative visions of a citizen-based and nature-respecting consciousness.

CEVI’s aim is to establish a thoughtful defence against the widespread ‘unhappy moral conscience’ which seems to be besotting a considerable group of contemporary intellectuals and which gets expressed in many ways, like, e.g., in:

  • an absolutist culturalism,
  • an oversimplified defence of local communities,
  • an undifferentiated defence of local knowledge, topping especially a certain ‘local moral knowledge’,
  • a self-defeating defence of the moral significance of particularist and oppressive traditions, social practices, manners and conventional usages,
  • the idea that ‘traditional knowledge’ is the unsurpassable vehicle of the moral life of individuals,
  • and by laying siege to the idea of a non-local and universalising moral-philosophical program.

It should be clear that CEVI favours an idea of ethical inquiry based on the consciousness of the limits of any general foundationalist philosophy, refusing however the delusions of a fatalist and more than often self-defeating relativistic moral philosophy.

For CEVI it is clear that we cannot and ought not return to an oversimplified moral universalism. The unique and definitive universal moral content of humanity is not yet present in any human realization. It is still absent and awaited for – cf. Aristotle’s steresis – in the global and dynamic context of man’s ongoing moral life on earth, a context which in a rigid, static and absolutist moral philosophy is out of place. The whole of humanity is an ever-developing ‘moral laboratory’, in which peoples and cultures are contributing with their plural experiments in life and judgment.

CEVI’s general orientation champions the relative autonomy of moral thinking.

To conclude, we would like to refer to Marcus Singer, who once said that “the great difficulty in morals is not really a matter of theory. It lies in the resolution of concrete cases (…) For the problems are often so complex and difficult, and no man is omniscient (…) Yet this is no reason for despair or for scepticism. In the reasonable disagreements of reasonable men we may find, so far as we are reasonable, both hope and enlightenment …”

We also feel indebted to the words of Vladimir Jankélévitch, spoken in his magnum opus, A Treatise of the Virtues: “the things respected are relative and contradictory, but the fact of respecting is not.”