A Glocal Economic Ethic: Now’s the Time

Hans Küng

(adapted from his remarks to the Parliament of the World’s Religions,

which gathered in Melbourne, Australia, in December 2009)

To more and more people, a painful truth is evident: this economic crisis is characterized by a notable absence of common ethical values and standards Yet one might protest: don’t we have laws already that simply need to be enforced? Sure, solutions to this crisis require all provisions of the law. But laws are not enough.

Laws without morality cannot endure, and no legal provision can be implemented without moral alertness based on some elementary ethical standards. As we know, the political will to fight greed, fraud, corruption, and self-aggrandizement is often weak, because it is not supported by an ethical will.

One might ask: but isn’t achieving a global ethic an issue of individual morality? Not at all: it is also an issue of corporate morality, and it concerns the global market economy as a whole.

In short, the failure of markets, institutions, and morality calls for an ethical framework.

Recent history proves that the sustainability of the market economy is by no means guaranteed. One cannot escape the fact that the emergence of global capitalism has brought with it an entirely new set of risks. The search for a single solution to the 

Ethics are not just the icing on the cake, not a marginal or artificial touch-up to apply to the face of the global market economy. 

challenges of the global market economy is unlikely to find a consensus. Instead, what we often observe is mutual recrimination: economists accuse politicians and politicians accuse economists, while the average citizen notices the moral defects of both

protagonists. In any case, if even only one of the three elements – economics, politics, or morality – does not work, it can cause serious difficulties for the market economy.

Scholars distinguish between three types of failures of the capitalist system (see, for instance, Global Capitalism at Bay? by John Dunning, published by Routledge in 2001):

a failure of markets: excessive speculation of property or stock, inappropriate macroeconomic politics, the moral hazard of bad financial behavior made more reckless by the expectation that government will come to the rescue.

a failure of institutions: inefficient functioning of the regulatory and supervisory systems, lack of accountability and transparency, inadequate standards in financial reporting.

a failure of moral virtues: casino-capitalism and corruption, lack of truthfulness, trust, and so- cial responsibility, excessive greed of investors or institutions, falsified balance sheets, illegal manipulation of the markets. A failure of moral virtues lies at the core of the failure of the markets and institutions.

Of course, all three of these dimensions of failure – the result of human effort – could be improved by human effort: the markets, by the behavior of customers and the supply structures; the institutions, by wise regulations, enforced standards, and transparent commitments. People are capable and therefore morally responsible to build an adequate institutional framework for the economy. Ethics are not just the icing on the cake, not a marginal or artificial touch-up to apply to the face of the global market economy. No, we are justified to speak of a moral framework that shapes and informs the main institutions of the economic system – markets, governments, civil society, and supranational organizations.

Ethics do not only denote moral appeals, but moral action. Nevertheless, it often takes a crisis moment to create the pressure to inspire action and economic reform, build a political agenda that supports it, and make it socially acceptable. After 

A manifesto should show a way between an economism that ignores moral standards and a moralism that ignores economic realities. 

all, even in a democratic society it takes repeated effort to convince the majority that a strong ethical framework for operating the global markets is in everyone’s best interest. Such a framework influences the behavior of all involved in production, distribution, and political oversight.

But what are the elements of this ethical frame- work? On this point, many people have doubts: Is a global consensus possible? Hence the urgency of our manifesto, “Global Economic Ethic.” (see www.globaleconomicethic.org.)

The Manifesto can be understood as a precise re- sponse to the current global economic crisis, though work on such an appeal started long before. It is built on the insights of previous international initiatives that embrace cross-cultural religious values and ethical standards.

All ethical values and standards are culture- bound, but there are core values and standards that are universal. In this respect, the United Nations Global Compact, initiated by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999, offers a most valuable starting point for ethical guidance in business, economics, and society. It has already been joined by more than 5,200 corporate participants and stakeholders from over 130 countries.

The claims it makes on corporate conduct in a globalized economy are fourfold:

• respect and support for human rights.

• adherence to responsible labor standards.

• protection of the environment.

• resistance against corruption in all its forms.

These values are obviously based on the conviction that everywhere on earth - in all societies, cultures, and religions - people can recognize basic pillars that allow them to live together peacefully without canceling their own interests and concerns.1

 The contents of the UN Global Compact are very much in accord with ideas of another document, The Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, a statement produced by the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993 in Chicago. Indeed, those who assume these are only abstract and general principles should read the Parliament’s 1993 Declaration statement (see www.global-ethic.org), which provides the ethical frame of reference of our new manifesto.

In the Parliament’s 1993 Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, principles inspired by all the major eth- ical and religious traditions are applied to contemporary situations. The application of cross-cultural global values and ethical standards is indeed possible and practical, despite all cultural differences. They provide the basis for a global ethic based on the principles of humanity, reciprocity, and standards of non-violence, fairness, truthfulness, and partnership.

Thus, much of what is proclaimed as God’s commandment in the Hebrew Bible, in the New Testament, and in the Koran can also be found in the religions and philosophies of Indian and Chinese origin and in humanist philosophies not rooted in any religion. The Parliament’s 1993 Global Ethic Declaration identified two basic principles that underlie all ethical values and standards: humanity and reciprocity. These are foundational to the new manifesto.

First, the principle of humanity. When this is ap- plied, it changes the atmosphere in any office, factory, store, or business: Every human being – man or woman, rich or poor, young or old – must be treated humanely.

Second, the principle of reciprocity, or the Gold- en Rule. It can be found already in the Analects of Confucius, but also in Biblical, Islamic and other traditions: “What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others.”

Moral Globalization

These commonly held principles are echoed in four basic values and standards that are found in the writings of Patanjali, the second-century-BCE founder of yoga, but also in the Buddhist canon and in all major religious and non-religious traditions: not to murder, not to steal, not to lie, not to abuse sexuality. They structure also our manifesto:

a commitment to a culture of non-violence and reverence for life.

a commitment to a culture of fairness and a just economic order.

a commitment to a culture of truthfulness and tolerance. 

a commitment to a culture of partnership and equal rights of men and women.

Standing on these historic commitments, the “Global Economic Ethic” Manifesto reminds all stakeholders in global businesses of their individual responsibilities for humanizing the functioning of the economy. A global ethic does not presuppose a specific ethical system but only a few elementary ethical values and standards common to all humanity – an internal ethical conviction or attitude, a personal commitment to live by binding values and personal fundamental principles or virtues. Globalization needs a global ethic.

Accordingly, this manifesto was drafted by a group of economists, businessmen, and ethicists under the auspices of the Global Ethic Foundation. (For a list of signees, see www.globaleconomicethic. org.) The authors reflected carefully on the criteria. It should show a way between an economism that ignores moral standards and a moralism that ignores 

A global ethic manifesto reminds all stakeholders in global businesses of their individual responsibilities for humanizing the functioning of the economy. 

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economic realities. It should avoid casuistic moral sermons and enthusiastic religious proclamations. It should rather

  • be grounded in economic and political reality. 

  • be comprehensible beyond narrow circles of experts

  • reach to deeper ethical levels.

  • be capable of securing a consensus. The manifesto avoids statements that might a priori be rejected by particular ethical or religious traditions (e.g., on interest rates). 

The manifesto is not a legally binding document but a moral appeal. It is designed to be not a re- pressive but a constructive document that provides everybody in these stormy seas an orientation, a chart to steer by, a map with clear coordinates – a compass and conscience that functions incorruptibly even in crisis, an ethical guideline for the difficult decisions that are unavoidable in the harsh reality of everyday life.

All this may sound a little abstract. But our new manifesto is very concrete. I conclude with words from the Preamble, an invitation to the world community – to business, civil society, and people of faith everywhere: 

“Fair commercial exchange and cooperation will only achieve sustainable societal goals when people’s activities to realize their legitimate private interests and prosperity are embedded in a global ethical framework that enjoys broad acceptance. Such an agreement on globally accepted norms for economic actions and decisions – in short, for an ethic of doing business – is still in its infancy.

“A global economic ethic – a common funda- mental vision of what is legitimate, just, and fair – relies on moral principles and values that from time immemorial have been shared by all cultures and have been supported by common practical experience.

“Each one of us – in our diverse roles as entre- preneurs, investors, creditors, workers, consum- ers, and members of different interest groups in all countries – bears a common and essential respon- sibility, together with our political institutions and international organizations, to recognize and apply this kind of global economic ethic. … This is one of the fundamental lessons of today’s worldwide crisis of the financial and product markets.” 

Swiss theologian Hans Küng, ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1954, has been engaging and provoking questions of Christian doctrine and religious truth for decades. His many books include On Being a Christian (Image Books, 1984), Credo: The Apostles Creed Explained for Today (Wipf & Stock, 2003), and Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (Wipf & Stock, 2004). He is president of the Global Ethic Foundation (www.weltethos.org). 

SIDEBAR: Excerpts from the Manifesto for a Global Economic Ethic (Note: The Manifesto  was launched at United Nations headquarters in October 2009. See globaleconomicethic.org for full text.)

This manifesto takes seriously the rules of the market and of competition; it intends to put these rules on a solid ethical basis for the welfare of all. Nothing less than the experience of the current crisis affecting the whole economic sphere underlines the need for those internationally accepted ethical principles and moral standards, which we all need to breathe life into in our day-to-day business practices.

• Humanity flourishes only in a culture of respect for the individual. The dignity and self-esteem of all human beings – be they superiors, co-workers, business partners, customers, or other interested persons – are inviolable. Never may human beings be treated badly, either through individual ways of conduct or through dishonor- able trading or working conditions. 

• It is legitimate to pursue one’s own interests, but the deliberate pursuit of personal advantage to the detriment to one’s partners – that is, with unethical means – is irreconcilable with sustainable economic activity to mutual advantage. 

• Every form of violence or force in pursuit of economic goals is to be rejected. Slave labor, compulsory labor, child labor, corporal punishment, and other violations of recognized international norms of labor law must be sup- pressed and abolished. 

• The impairment of people’s health through adverse working conditions must be stopped. Occupational safety and product safety according to state-of-the-art technology are basic rights in a culture of non-violence and respect for life. 

• Sustainable treatment of the natural environment on the part of all participants in economic life is an up- permost value-norm for economic activity. Sustainable clean energy (with renewable energy sources as far as possible), clean water, and clean air are elementary conditions for life. Every human being on this planet must have access to them. 

• To be an authentic human being means – in the spirit of the great religious and ethical traditions – not misusing economic and political power in a ruthless struggle for domination. Such power is instead to be used in the service of all human beings. Self-interest and competition serve the development of the productive capacity and the welfare of everyone involved in economic activity. Therefore, mutual respect, reasonable coordination of interests, and the will to conciliate and to show consider- ation must prevail. 

• Responsibility, rectitude, transparency, and fairness are fundamental values of economic life, which must always be characterized by law-abiding integrity. All those en- gaged in economic activity are obliged to comply with the prevailing rules of national and international law. Where deficits exist in the quality or the enforcement of legal norms in a particular country, these should be overruled by self-commitment and self-control; under no circumstances may one take advantage of them for the sake of profit.

• The pursuit of profit is the presupposition for competitiveness. It is the presupposition for the survival of business enterprises and for their social and cultural engagements. Corruption inhibits the public welfare, damaging the economy and the people, because it systematically leads to false allocation and waste of resources. 

• To be authentically human in the spirit of our great religious and ethical traditions means that we must not confuse freedom with arbitrariness or pluralism with indifference to truth. We must cultivate integrity and truthfulness in all our relationships instead of dishonesty, dissembling, and opportunism. 

• Discrimination of human beings because of their sex, their race, their nationality, or their beliefs cannot be reconciled with the principles of a global economic ethic. 

• To be authentically human in the spirit of our great religious and ethical traditions means the following: We need mutual respect, partnership, and understanding, instead of patriarchal domination and degradation, which are expressions of violence and engender counter-violence. Every individual has intrinsic dignity and inalien- able rights, and each also has an inescapable responsibility for what she or he does and does not do. 

• All economic agents should respect the internationally accepted rules of conduct in economic life; they should defend them and, within the framework of their sphere of influence, work together for their realization. fundamental are the human rights and responsibilities as proclaimed by the united Nations in 1948. Other global guidelines issued by recognized transnational institutions – the Global Compact of the united Nations, the Declaration on fundamental Principles and Rights at Work of the International Labour Organization, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the UN Convention against Corruption, to name just a few – all agree with the demands set forth in this manifesto for a Global Economic Ethic. 

• The principles in this manifesto can be endorsed by all men and women with ethical convictions, whether these be religiously grounded or not. The signatories of this declaration commit themselves to being led by its letter and its spirit in their day-to-day economic decisions, actions, and general behavior.


1 Another document, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development guidelines for multinational enterprises, deserves quotation. These guidelines, first devised in 2000, presuppose very specific ethical standards, notably:

• the value of disclosure: it requires the will to truthfulness, honesty, transparency.
• the expectation of environmental protection, public health, and safety: it requires reverence for life, including that of animals and plants.
• the necessity of refraining from slush corruption and bribery: it requires both a basic attitude towards justice and fairness and the will to encompass a just economic system.
• the commitment to avoid any form of gender, color, or age discrimination at the workplace: it implies the partnership of men and women and the necessity of equal rights.