Excerpt from The Code for Global Ethics




THE WORLD FACES a crisis of civilization, which is in reality a moral crisis. The modern moral worldview that has evolved since the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment seems to be weathering. There is a recrudescence of the old moral formulas that encourage conflicts and wars. Humanity is in need of a new moral revival, free of sectarian references, in order to pursue its long march for survival in a climate of progress and liberty.

The Code for Global Ethics proposes an imperative and more explicitly universal code of rights and obligations for all individuals, whether they be ordinary citizens or leaders of countries, of corporations or religious organizations. It outlines the principles of rational humanism to be applied within the global context of a shrinking and a politically and economically interdependent world. Such a universal and global code of conduct is then compared to alternative moral codes—codes usually based on sectarian religious systems—with a demonstration of why such narrow or ethnically centered moral systems have failed humanity in the past. In our view, humanism is about idealism, compassion and mutual tolerance, in a true spirit of humanity. It is a truly universal vision of humankind.

Since our worldview affects how we interact with others, any moral code must be judged as to how its adherents treat other people and whether or not it improves people's lives. If the adherents treat others badly and their moral values reduce others' quality of life, it is a bad moral code; if the adherents treat others with dignity and respect and their actions improve the lives of the greatest number, it is a good code of ethics. This is the ultimate pragmatic test of reality and results.

It would seem that there is not necessarily an irreconcilable antagonism between humanism as a universal philosophy and religion as a personal human experience.[1] It is only when religion becomes an aggressive political movement that crushes human liberty and dignity that it becomes hostile to the humanist worldview. In other words, it is only when religion turns against humanity that there is a conflict between humanism and religion. The centuries-long Inquisition in Europe which was responsible for the deaths of thousands of individuals, guilty only of following their conscience and personal beliefs, is a good example of the kind of conflict that can arise between humanism and organized religion.

In the past, the principles espoused by organized religions were often intended to apply to a particular ethnic group, to members of a particular nationality, or to co-religionists and insiders of a religious denomination. In almost all cases, these moral principles were not meant to be universal, applicable to all humans without distinction of race, sex, language, or nationality—especially when it was a matter of politico-religious morality. It seems that, historically, religious or political leaders used religious laws and precepts to increase the social and political cohesion and unity of their own group or community, and its eventual survival, while at the same time emphasizing their differences with, and often their hostility towards, other groups and other communities. As South African archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu put it, “Religion is like a knife. If you use it to slice bread, it's good. If you use it to slice off your neighbor's arm, it's bad. Unfortunately, throughout history, the knife of religion has been used just as often to cut other people's throats as to cut bread.

One can easily arrive at such a conclusion after reading the books that support the monotheist religions of Judaism (the Torah), Christianity (the Bible) and Islam (the Qur'an or Koran). History is replete with calls to kill in the name of some god. In these three professed revealed books, one discovers, for example, that while it is written, “do not kill,” what is really meant is do not kill the insiders or allies. But anything goes regarding the outsiders—the members of opposing religions or coalitions, the foreigners, the strangers, the infidels, the non-believers, the miscreants, the pagans, the enemies.

Human ethics is indeed complex, essentially because morality and cooperation tend to come much more naturally within groups than between groups. The challenge of civilization and of humanist ethics in particular is to extend in-group morality to a harder to achieve between-group morality, in a truly global context.


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[1] For a succinct view of humanism as a philosophy of life, see Corliss Lamont, The Philosophy of Humanism.