Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Toward a Global Economic Ethic: Fraternity Needed

I just got back from a presentation at the United Nations of a new manifesto on advancing a "Global Economic Ethic" by the UN Global Compact, the Swiss Government, Novartis Foundation, and the Global Ethic Foundation. Swiss Ambassador Peter Maurer, UN Global Compact Executive Director Georg Kell, philosopher Hans Kung, economist Jeffrey Sachs, economist Josef Wieland, and Novartis Foundation CEO Klaus Leisinger presented the new manifesto, which draws from all the religious and non-religious moral traditions of the world (including Humanism) and includes as its first signatories Michel Camdessus, Hans Kung, Mary Robinson, Jeffrey Sachs, and Desmond Tutu.

The manifesto starts with a preamble that situates this effort for a more ethical globalization in the urgency of the financial crisis:

For the globalization of economic activity to lead to universal and sustainable prosperity, all those who either take part in or are affected by economic activities are dependent on a values-based commercial exchange and cooperation. This is one of the fundamental lessons of today’s worldwide crisis of the financial and product markets.

At the core of the manifesto are two pillars: humanity and the Golden Rule (or reciprocity).

On humanity, the manifesto states:

The fundamental principle of a desirable global economic ethic is humanity: Being human must be the ethical yardstick for all economic action: It becomes concrete in the following guidelines for doing business in a way that creates value and is oriented to values for the common good.

On the Golden Rule, under its fourth article, the manifesto states:

What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others. This Golden Rule of reciprocity, which for thousands of years has been acknowledged in all religious and humanist traditions, promotes mutual responsibility, solidarity, fairness, tolerance, and respect for all persons involved.

Such attitudes or virtues are the basic pillars of a global economic ethos. Fairness in competition and cooperation for mutual benefit are fundamental principles of a sustainably developing global economy that is in conformity with the Golden Rule.

Some of the discussion at the conference focused on the French motto: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Some argued that while governments and societies have done their best to improve the first two goals--liberty (or freedom) and equality--the third goal of fraternity (or brotherhood) had been dropped by the wayside. And this lack of a sense fraternity--the sense of caring for others--accounts for a lack of ethical thinking in the world.

Coincidentally, the new Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama's personal philosophy (yuai) also emphasizes fraternity.

This morning I attended Japanese economic official Hidehiko Nishiyama's talk at the Japan Society in NYC, moderated by Merit Janow. Giving the audience a sense of where Japan is headed under the DPJ as APEC 2010 approaches, Mr. Nishiyama introduced some concepts:

- Japan's economic policy will emphasize "inclusive growth" (which is to say a fairer economic policy benefiting more people in my words).

- Japan will promote green, sustainable growth, including energy efficiency and green infrastructure.

- Japan will champion "human security," improving food security, human health, etc.

- Yuai (fraternity or brotherhood) will be a guiding principle of Japanese society and Japan's relations with the world.

After the conference, I mentioned Prime Minister Hatoyama's expression to the organizers. Their response: "Probably not a coincidence."

Buddha statue in Kamakura, Japan. Photo by Kristian Stevens (CC).


VDiCarlo said...

As an eternal optimist with a BA in religious studies this post brings me hope. However, as a discerning grad student of development and globalization my response is largely pessimistic.

How do we make the brightest minds in political theory listen to the cries of the greatest humanitarians in order to establish a new agenda for the economic development entities who have cast off fraternity as a global ethic?

Also, the blessing/curse of a global ethic is that it applies to everyone-- the consumer included. All Westerners are exposed to to both the Golden Rule and the devastating realities of Western consumer habits, where is the reconciliation of these two ingrained notions?

Usi Omondiagbe said...

The global economic ethic, as presented in the manifesto, is a laudable project. It will surely contribute to renewed hope in the globalization project. The concepts of humanity and the Golden Rule should not only be promoted at the governmental level but also at the realms of multi-national corporations. This is because transnational corporations are the primary facilitators of global economic integration, and many dehumanizing aspects of globalization could also be primarily attributed to these corporations. Simply put, a global economic ethic is a wonderful gospel in this era, but it should be preached to the right audience.

Laura Melkonian said...

A common ethos for the global economic community is not to be belittled, I feel. That ethics has less bite than written and sanctioned law is correct but that does not imply that for each and all problems in the global business arena legal solutions would be the best.
Today, corporate social responsibility can no longer be entrusted to the law alone; not only because the limited scope of national jurisdiction faces a transnational traffic of goods, services, and persons. More importantly, the more complex modern business relations grow, the less they seem to fit neat legal categories. Corporate activity beyond the law, i.e. moral leadership, is ever more often a de facto requirement for business, but a consistent conceptualization of such leadership remains a challenging task. Divergent cultural, religious, and political values demand the attention of modern executives; thus, bringing ever more undefined variables into the management calculus. Add some postmodern moral vagueness to the mix, and acts of both individual corruption and corporate malfeasance are to be expected.
For these reasons, what K√ľng, Sachs, and Co. have accomplished is no small feat. The overlapping consensus between cultures and religions around the Golden Rule that they have formulated can accomplish two things: 1) enhance the power of regional and local formulations of the selfsame content by the added weight of a global agreement, and 2) close the loophole for those corporations who want to evade even the most basic of moral considerations by a feigned sensitivity to the cultural relativity of ethics. As the example of the UN Declaration of Human Rights shows, moral inactivity becomes much more difficult to justify once one has to face the symbolic power of a global agreement on norms.