In Search of Global Ethical Standards

High-Level Expert Group Meeting

22-24 March 1996

Vienna, Austria

Chaired by Helmut Schmidt


1. As human civilization advances into the 21st century, the world is entering a period of transformation at least as profound and far reaching as that of the industrial revolution. Globalization of the world economy is matched by globalization of the world's problems ? population, environment, development, unemployment, security and moral and cultural decadance. Humankind is crying out both for justice and for meaning.

2. The physical changes in technology and the applied sciences have far outstripped the ability of our institutions to respond. The state is still the main instrument for translating collective will into concrete action but everywhere the concept of state sovereignty is under siege. To repeat the well known phrase the nation state is too small for the big problems and too big for local problems. The multinational corporation enjoys unprecedented opportunities as world trade and investment expands but corporate leaders now face agonizing questions about corporate responsibility in unfamiliar areas like human rights. Religious institutions still command the loyalty of hundreds of millions of people but secularization and consumerism command even more support. The world is also afflicted by religious extremism and violence preached and practiced in the name of religion. The use of the word "fundamentalism" in this regard is a misnomer, because religious people everywhere believe deeply in the fundamentals of their faiths, but most religious people also reject violence and believe that force should never be used to advance their cause. So the world is in flux. Where do we turn?

Concrete Recommendations

3. To promote the dissemination of ethical norms, the InterAction Council recognizes that sovereign states are still the primary vehicles of change. Granted that the sovereign states are the main target, we should also pay due attention to the role of electronic mass media and the possible transnational organizations that are increasingly gaining power on the global scene.

4. To ensure some significant degree of success in promoting a global ethic, it is essential and perhaps crucial that religions of the world with divergent believe systems and regions of influence should be able to cooperate closely in persuading the sovereign states and various relevant institutions to help realize this goal. This would serve at least two important functions. On the one hand, this collaborative effort will demonstrate that different religions can indeed meet with open minds in reaching an agreement on the urgency of the problems humanity faces today, and on the role of ethical standards and norms required to combat this world crisis. On the other, the mere fact that all the religions of the world have been able to work in concert to promote global ethical standards will ease the task of disseminating such norms throughout the world.

5. Meetings of the world religious leaders could facilitate the cause of global ethics. Such meetings can specifically urge sovereign states and their leaders, educational institutions, mass media (TV, video, etc.), as well as their own religious institutions, to adopt and promote by every means possible a consensus on the global ethic. It should be stressed that such gatherings should include representatives of religions, making sure to include women. Existing global religious organizations could facilitate such meetings.

6. Recommendations by these groups should be directed mainly to the people in decision-making positions of government, education, mass media, non-governmental non-profit organizations, and religious organizations of each sovereign state. These have direct or indirect involvement with propagation and inculcation of the global ethical standards and norms contained in the recommendations and other basic information related to world religions.

7. If religious leaders accept the invitation of the InterAction Council to meet, the world will welcome a discussion of a concrete action plan to promote the dissemination of the global ethic. While not exclusive, elements of such a plan could include:

  • the compiling of a common code of ethics which could then be put in booklet form and disseminated across the globe.
  • In addition to this general code of ethics, specific codes of ethics should be promoted for the professions, business, political parties, mass media and other critical interests. Such codes of ethics will contribute to self-regulation.
  • Suggestions to the world's leaders that in 1998, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations should convene a conference to consider a Declaration of Human Obligations to complement the earlier crucial work on rights.
  • Development of a global educational curriculum that would include the best contributions of the world's religions and philosophies. Such a curriculum should be available to every educational institution and it should be accessible through the most current communications technologies ? the internet, educational television, videos, radio, etc.
  • To broaden understanding and to combine the intellectual resources necessary for the development of such a curriculum, the United Nations should consider establishing as part of the U.N. University system a World Interfaith Academy that would bring together scholars, students and leaders of the world's faiths.

The Need for Global Ethical Standards

8. As Aristotle taught us the human being is a social animal. Because we must live in society ? because we must live with each other in harmony? human beings need rules and constraints. Ethics are the minimum standards that make a collective life possible. Without ethics and self-restraint that are their result, humankind would revert to the jungle. In a world of unprecedented change humankind has a desperate need of an ethical base on which to stand.

9. The world's religions constitute one of the great traditions of wisdom for humankind. This repository of wisdom, ancient in its origins, has never been needed more. Ethics should precede politics and the law, because political action is concerned with values and choice. Ethics, therefore, must inform and inspire our political leadership. Education at its best opens up human potential to understanding and tolerance. Without ethics and the teaching of right and wrong, our schools become mere factories mass producing labor soon to be obsolescent. Mass communications is one of the most powerful mediums in influencing the mind and behaviors of human beings but the violence, degradation and triviality of much of the media pollute the human spirit rather than elevate it.

10. To respond to this world of change each of our institutions needs a re-dedication to ethical norms. We can find the sources of such a re-dedication in the world's religions and ethical traditions. They have the spiritual resources to give an ethical lead to the solution of our ethnic, national, social, economic and religious tensions. The world's religions have different doctrines but they all advocate a common ethic of basic standards. What unites the world's faiths is far greater than what divides them. They all advocate self-restraint, obligations, responsibilities and sharing. They all advocate the virtues of humility, compassion and justice. Each assesses the maze of life and in its own way discerns the patterns which give meaning to the whole. To solve our global problems we must begin with a common ethical base

The Core of a Global Ethic

11. Today humanity possesses sufficient economic, cultural, and spiritual resources to introduce a better global order, but old and new ethnic, national, social, economic and religious tensions threaten the peaceful building of a better world. In such a dramatic global situation humanity needs a vision of peoples living peacefully together, of ethnic and ethical groupings and of religions sharing responsibility for the care of earth, a vision which rests on hopes, goals, ideals, standards. We are therefore grateful that the Parliament of the World's Religions, which assembled in Chicago in 1993, proclaimed a Declaration towards a Global Ethic which we support in principle.

12. There have been landmark advances to strengthen human rights in international law and justice beginning with the United Nations adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, strengthened by the two Human Rights Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, and elaborated by the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights and Programme for Action. What the U.N. proclaimed on the level of rights, the Chicago Declaration confirmed and deepened from the perspective of obligations: the full realization of intrinsic dignity of the human person, the inalienable freedom and equality in principle of all humans and the necessary solidarity and interdependence of all humans with each other, both as individuals and as communities. Also we are convinced that a better global order cannot be created or enforced by laws, prescriptions, and conventions alone; that action in favor of rights and freedoms presumes a consciousness of responsibility and duty, and that therefore both the minds and hearts of women and men must be addressed; that rights without obligations cannot long endure, and that there will be no better global order without a global ethic.

13. The global ethic is no substitute for the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur'an, the Bhagavadgita, the Discourses of the Buddha or the Teachings of Confucius and of others. A global ethic provides a necessary minimum of common values, standards and basic attitudes. In other words: a minimal basic consensus relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes which can be affirmed by all religions despite their dogmatic differences and can also be supported by non-believers.

14. In affirmation of the Chicago Declaration which for the first time in the history of religions formulated this minimal basic consensus, we recommend two principles which are vital for every individual, social, and political ethic:

(1) Every human being must be treated humanely.

(2) Do unto others as you want others to do unto you. This Rule is part of every great religious tradition.

15. On the basis of these two principles there are four irrevocable commitments on which all religions agree and which we fully support:

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

16. Cognizant of the different approaches of religions towards family planning policies and methods, it was agreed that present population trends make the pursuit of effective family planning inevitable. The positive experience of several countries and religions should be shared and scientific research into family planning should be accelerated.

17. Education, at all levels, has a crucial role to play in inculcating global ethical values in the minds of the younger generation. From the primary school to the university, curricula and syllabi should be restructured to include common global values and to promote understanding of religions other than one's own. Educational programmes should inform values like "affirmative tolerance" and curricular materials should be produced accordingly. The development of the aspirations of youth should be a major emphasis. UNESCO and the United Nations University and other international bodies should work together to achieve this objective. The electronic media should be enlisted.

18. We note the ongoing participatory process, initiated by the Earth Council and Green Cross International to develop and Earth Charter. We welcome this initiative as an example of an effort to involve the world's religions and other groups in defining the basic change in values, behavior and attitudes of government, private sector and civil society, needed for a shift to a sustainable development.

19. Because respect of life is a core ethical commitment, combating the scourge of war and violence must be at the top of the world's priorities. Two issues in particular smut receive immediate attention: the trade in small arms, semi-automatic weapons must be curbed and the easy availability of such weapons must cease. And like small arms, landmines have destroyed a score of innocent lives. This problem is especially acute in Cambodia, in the former Yugoslavia, in Africa and in Afghanistan. The systematic removal and dismantling of landmines is an urgent need.