Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

In Search of a Global Ethic

Ann Skeet and Patrick Coutermarsh

It's a mix you might only find on the campus of the Jesuit university in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara: the second CEO of Apple, a pioneer in the study of business ethics and corporate responsibility, a former Santa Clara University business school dean, a current executive director of the ethics center at Ateneo University in Manila, and a mix of current and retired business people and scholars considering, over breakfast, the pursuit of a global ethic.

Presenter Kirk Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, suggested that the starting point for finding a global ethic is a series of questions: Is there a single definition of human values, or many? Is there a core of values that all societies and religions hold? Are there some behaviors that are universally held to be unethical?

The need for a global ethic is greater than ever. We live in an increasingly interconnected world resulting in more opportunities for both cooperation and conflict. Value-based disagreements are at the core of many conflicts between nations, and solutions for social and environmental problems invariably require global cooperation.

We considered Western definitions of what is ethical behavior: greatest good, rights and duties, fairness, virtues, common good and right relationships. We were reminded of themes offered from religions around the world including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Islam, and Judaism.

We reflected on scholar Hans Kung's attempt to synthesize them into Principles of Global Ethics:

*Every human being must be treated humanely

*Treat others as you like to be treated

*Have respect for life; no violence

*Deal honestly and fairly; no cheating, favoritism

*Respect and love one another; cherish and love

We traipsed through the history of attempts to adopt global ethics from the good work, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, in the formulation of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the more recent Millennium Development Goals.

The 1993 Parliament, "Toward a Global Ethic," is largely based on a familiar concept, the golden rule: What you wish done to yourself, do to others! In addition, the Declaration affirms four essential affirmations for a global ethic:

*Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life

*Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order

*Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness

*Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women

The United Nations Millennium goals serve as an example of an attempt at a global ethic that is driven toward action. The goals were established in the year 2000, following the Millennium Summit, with all 189 UN member states committing to helping achieve these goals by 2015.

*To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

*To achieve universal primary education

*To promote gender equality

*To reduce child mortality

*To improve maternal health

*To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

*To ensure environmental sustainability

*To develop a global partnership for development

Similarly, the United Nations Global Compact is an initiative that offers a principle-based framework for businesses to adhere to sustainable and socially responsible policies. The principles are divided into four areas: human rights, labor, the environment, and anti-corruption.

We were asked by Hanson's co-presenter, Oscar Bulaong, Jr., a philosophy professor at Ateneo de Manila, "Is it worth trying to find a common, global set of ethics?"

How do we best arrive at norms that resolve tension between lawless or a "no rules" state of play and overregulation that grinds organizations to a halt and can create unwanted markets as a result?

Business, in the form of the firm itself, emerged as a source of hope. Andre Delbecq, McCarthy University Professor at Santa Clara University, where he served as the business school dean for a decade, reminded us that corporations could use a shared mission as a unifying principle. The specificity of a singular mission provides legitimacy for the dialogue needed to bring forward norms of ethical behavior across cultures and belief systems found in global corporations. For example, Google will need to accept and respond to the cultural differences around privacy in Europe in order to meet the goals it has set to fulfill its mission.

As with many forms of inquiry, our discussion left us with more questions than answers. Who decides which ethical standards are universal? Once found, how does a global ethic spread? What role do governments, businesses, religions, and other institutions play? How do we address unethical behavior?

Slides from the Presentation

Ann Skeet is the director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and Patrick Coutermarsh is the Coordinator of the Business Ethics Program.

Jun 1, 2015