Ethics: breaks that need to be made for the transition
Proposals for the French Rio+20 collective and for the Thematic Social Forum in Porto Alegre
Auteurs : Pierre Calame
Please note: the following text is a summary of a number of proposals. It addresses only proposals for “breaks,” and not for the numerous improvements that could be made to the existing systems.
It is part of a series of four texts, each corresponding to one of the four themes selected by the Thematic Social Forum of Porto Alegre: ethics; territory; governance; transition of the economy to sustainable societies.
In the presentation of each theme, the analysis grid covers the four themes, which explains repetitions from one text to another—for instance, the combined territory-economy analysis comes up in the same terms in the “economy” text and the “territory” text—so that each of the fours texts can be read separately. Each text has a corresponding desmogram that provides a synoptic view of the proposals.
A/ The place of responsibility in 21st-century ethics
1. An interdependent world calls for global ethics
As peoples of the Earth, we need to agree on a number of common principles for its management. Our religious and philosophical references, our cultural traditions are very diverse. While we cannot base common ethical principles on a common religious reference, we can do so on principles that are reflected in every society.
2. Responsibility, with numerous cultural variations, is at the core of every society
This has been shown by cross-cultural comparisons and is easy to explain: for a community to exist, there has to be a feeling of reciprocity among its members, everyone needs to take into account the impact of his or her acts on his or her neighbor.
3. The change in scale of interdependencies changes the local view of responsibility into a view of universal responsibility
The different peoples of the Earth do not yet have the feeling that they are members of a true community. And yet, in an irreversibly interdependent globalized system, in which our well-being ultimately depends on how we will maintain and enhance the biosphere and share its benefits fairly, and in which, as we can see with climate change, our current lifestyles have very long-term impacts, the nature of responsibility is changing. It must now cover the impact of our acts on a world scale and in the very long run.
4. Responsibility is proportionate to knowledge and power; it is also the corollary of freedom
The world is too complex and too diverse, and aspirations for freedom are too strong to be able to claim that individual and collective behavior can be guided via imperative moral prescription. On the contrary, every actor, individual and collective, is to be guided by a compass, which is that of exercising responsibility under the gaze of others. This is why responsibility is the corollary of freedom. To be responsible is to be the subject of one’s own life and the citizen of one’s society—from the local to the global.
But responsibility is proportionate to knowledge and power. It is particularly great for those who transform the world, such as scientists, and for those whose action has an impact on the whole world, such as major states or large companies.
5. Responsibility is the condition for human rights to be effective
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights basically covers civil and political rights: freedom of thought and of expression, equality before the law, freedom of assembly, freedom to choose its leaders through democratic elections, etc. These rights can be claimed from political authorities.
Over the decades, there have been attempts to broaden the definition of these rights to include those that ensure human dignity: access to essential goods, the right to living wages, the right to a healthy environment, the right to health, etc. But the more the concept of rights is enlarged, the less effective these are. To whom is a mother to complain about the death of her child if the country does not have a health system that might have saved it?
Rights can only be effective if there are persons and institutions responsible for making them effective.
B/ Ethics and governance
1. The Charter of Universal Responsibilities, third pillar of the international community
Since the early seventies, especially since the first international conference on the environment in Stockholm, the international community has been aware that it cannot rely exclusively on the two pillars adopted in the late forties: the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The thinking of these past decades has brought about a better idea for a possible third pillar that would deal with societies’ interdependence and the interdependence between humankind and the biosphere. This has gradually imposed the idea that this third pillar should take the form of a Charter of Universal Responsibilities.
2. The Charter of Universal Responsibilities provides the benchmark for a new social contract between the different professions and the rest of society
Every profession, every sphere of human activity, benefits in one way or another from the support of the whole of the community; in return and to comply with ethical principles, it must serve the community. This is true in particular for scientists, teachers, journalists, the military, company managers, etc. The concept of responsibility is at the core of the construction of the new social contract.
3. Responsibilities and rights are the two inseparable foundations of citizenship
To be the citizen of a community is not to claim rights from it without having any responsibility to it, but neither is it to be required to assume responsibilities–whether to defend the country or to contribute to collective life by paying taxes–without having rights in return.
Today, citizenship only makes sense at different scales simultaneously, from the local level to the global level. It must be the same for the balance between rights and responsibilities.
4. The Charter of Universal Responsibilities provides the basis for developing international law
International actors need international law. This is not the case today. Admittedly, economic and political actors have to be accountable, but only to their constituents, voters in the case of political leaders, national jurisdictions and shareholders in the case of economic actors. The Charter of Universal Responsibilities will be the foundation for the development of international law, thus fixing this serious malfunction of the current international system.
5. The Charter of Universal Responsibilities will have to be transposed into the different national laws
In the current system, only states have a legal and police system with which they can define and apply sanctions. International conventions only become effective when they are transposed into national law. The European Union, which is accustomed to doing just that, is an excellent example of this type of transposition. What has been learned from this process will allow a rapid transposition of the Charter of Universal Responsibilities into national law.
6. Drawing international jurisprudence from the implementation of the Charter of Universal Responsibilities
A new form of international regulation has appeared over the past two decades: a kind of informal international legal forum made up of an international collective of judges drawing from one another’s national jurisprudence. This process must be reinforced and encouraged for the implementation of the Charter of Universal Responsibilities.
7. Using the Charter of Universal Responsibilities as a basis to reinforce the effectiveness of social, environmental, and economic rights
No one can deny that the effectiveness of these rights depends on the level of development and wealth of a society. Some do much better than others with the same means, however, as shown by the differences in Human Development Indices within a group of countries having equivalent material prosperity.
Applied to the states, the principle of universal responsibility will place political leaders before their own responsibility, which is to draw from the experience of all countries with the same degree of development the best solutions compatible with their available means to give their respective populations economic, social, environmental, and cultural rights that are as effective as possible.
C/ Ethics and the economy
Modes of production and consumption structure how each actor, each citizen, and each society has an impact on the rest of humankind and the biosphere. Sustainable society is impossible when states and companies are not held accountable for their impacts and when, in addition, in the absence of relevant information and of consistent “price” signals, individual consumers themselves are neither able nor willing to appreciate the impact of their lifestyle.
As indicated in the Charter of Universal Responsibilities, responsibilities and co-responsibilities are shared by all but are proportionate to capacity and knowledge. International and national law arising from the Charter of Universal Responsibilities particularly applies to the economy.
1. Responsibility of economic and financial actors
Current law and practices make those responsible for the economy and finance, especially the major ones, irresponsible as much with regard to the international impact of their action as with regard to the long term. The law that can be applied to them is usually national whereas their action is international; when their impact is assessed, their subsidiaries and subcontractors are not taken into account; and many of the payment schemes for company executives or financial agents push to irresponsibility. Institutional responsibility is separate from personal responsibility: this encourages risk taking (“moral hazard”), privatizing profits, and socializing losses. An international law of responsibility is to be built on the basis of the Charter of Universal Responsibilities.
2. Responsibility of political leaders
The impact of economic policies and of lifestyles is decisive and because there is no legal basis to refer to, cannot be considered at the international scale. This is what needs to be remedied.
D/ Ethics and territory
The principle of responsibility is anchored in every society. The statement of a Charter of Universal Responsibilities makes it possible to recognize this ethical principle within each community and to update the nature of the social contract that connects its different members.
1. Development of Territorial Charters of Responsibility
In the majority of the world’s cities there are populations of numerous different backgrounds, including ethnic and religious, which is the outcome of large-scale mixing of populations. Because of this, communities can no longer base their cohesion, as in the past, on shared history, common values, common myths, etc. Hence the importance of completely reviewing the concept of living together, which can be done through the collective development and adoption of a territorial charter of responsibilities defining the rights and responsibilities of each with respect to the rest of the community.
2. Education, a particularly interesting case of implementation of territorial charters of responsibilities
At the international children’s meeting in Brasilia in 2010, which assembled 53 national delegations of 12- to 15-year olds, a children’s charter of responsibility was worked out, adopted, and called « Let’s take care of the planet. » This is a brilliant demonstration of the capacity of a human group reputed to be powerless to declare its own responsibility loud and strong.
At the same time, education systems should be deeply re-examined because subject segmentation hardly prepares children to live in, and manage a complex world. Territories are therefore essential education units because this is the level at which all society’s dimensions are found.
In addition, children cannot exercise their responsibility unless they are trained to do so, on the one hand, and unless their corresponding institutions, education institutions and political institutions, also have the will to exercise their own responsibility. Hence the idea of setting new foundations for education on the basis of a true three-party social contract among local authorities, education systems, and children.