Is a Global Ethical System Possible?


a dialogue between


Ali-Reza Omidvar & James Soderholm

JS: Is it possible for any country or culture to claim moral high ground or are we now forever swamped by cultural relativism and the idea that there is no master narrative or moral position that is not compromised in some way? Can a culture still be 'wrong' in any sense? Is the idea of global ethical code the wispiest of pipe dreams?

AO: I am going to focus on the extent of how far the idea of a global ethic is attainable 

To answer this question, there are three factors that influence the extent of its attainability. These include moral foundation, motivation and legislation. 

One can clearly observe that without an objective and firm metaphysical foundation for our ethical decisions, we would have no first principle or the ultimate principle from which we derive our morality from. In other words, moral relativism doesn't oblige itself as an ethical framework to a single first principle but rather many principles all of which can be equally valid. From this point, a mixture of a post-modern outlook is sneaked in with a flavour of moral anxiety and uncertainty. The logical problem arises here since many of those principles are contradictory, and thus, none can be said to be valid. One society could promote the killing of infidels as morally right and another as morally wrong. In a truly morally relativistic society, we would have no reason whatsoever to objectively say that the atrocities carried out by the Nazis were wrong. A Utilitarian assumes that pain is bad and happiness is good. I shall begin by saying that words such as 'bad', or 'good' are neither the same as pain and happiness nor they are their derivatives. They are instead moral judgements which are nonsensical if there is no foundation for judging them. Moral judgements also imply what we ought to do and here Hume was right by pointing out the naturalistic fallacy. Other secular ethical theories also fail on the same account namely virtue theory and natural moral law with the exception of Kantian ethics. Needless to say, none of these secular theories is either coherent nor has an objective moral foundation. By that I mean, a foundation not grounded in human opinion or even nature for that matter, but in metaphysics, or in other words, a foundation that is independent of our culture, time, place, and opinion. The first made-up principles in all those ethical theories might have some utility and truth but they all ultimately fail due to their foundations being grounded on the contingency of their own self-defined human nature. So on grounds of a weak moral foundation, it seems any secular ethics cannot provide us with a global ethical framework. I shall elaborate on the two other factors once we discuss this problem of the necessity of an objective moral foundation that is independent of human nature and opinion if we are to have some sort of a global ethical code.

JS: Are we ever likely to get agreement around the world on even one ethical principle by which everyone agrees to live? Even ‘the right to life’ can be disputed a time of war. Given the tacit agreement that we are all living in the messy swamp of moral and cultural relativism, can we do any better than intersubjective agreement, that is, consensus and consensus- building based on rational argumentation? I don’t think this problem has much to do with post-modernism and Lyotard’s famous idea that we must have ‘an incredulity towards metanarratives.’ I think it has more to do with emerging democratic reforms over the last 200 years and a fairly well-educated view that we have to think of cultures on their own terms, to some extent. The jihadists who flew planes into the twin towers on 9-11 were not cowards at all but heroes in their own cultures. That is a hard pill to swallow. I don’t think it’s possible to share even one ethical principle with people who chant ‘Death to the USA and Death to the UK’ in the streets of London. And yet surely ‘we’ (Westerners? Modernists? Secularists?) want to claim that such cries in the street are ethically dubious, at best, and really awful manners, at worst. How do your categories ‘sort out’ this tangle of beliefs of values?

AO: I am going to attempt to address the points that were raised within an analogy and I hope that it would make sense. 

In group A we have two engineers who have no idea of what an aeroplane is and have no conception of it. They also have no access whatsoever to any resources. Think of them as poor isolated engineers. So they set to work to build something that would help man fly and they intend to do this based on consensus and mutual exchange of ideas. In group B, we have two professional aeroplane designers who are expert in their fields. The group A engineers know one thing and that’s to build something that would make man fly. They know that they can possibly succeed by exchanging ideas and coming to consensus on how to go about starting their project, and there is a good possibility that they would come up with ideas that if are provided with time and funding, they could amount to some sort of a simplistic machine that could perhaps make us fly in certain limited conditions, but there is no guarantee. However, they lack the resources, the good old text books and teachings. In other words, they lack the concept of an aeroplane and regardless of what they do, they cannot define their project as an aeroplane without having have to reference to a conception of it. Since they do not have the first principle or the concept of an aeroplane and their motivation is just to make man fly, they will never know if what they have created is an aeroplane at all! Perhaps, there will be a division between groups A as to what is the right way of making man fly. Since there is no conception of an aeroplane and there are many ways which they can go about designing and implementing such a thing, the division deepens. However, there is no doubt that in the process of their exchange of ideas, they might create something that is similar to an aeroplane but the problem is that the uncertainty still remains because they aren’t sure if what they have made is the right instrument of making man fly-let’s call that proper instrument an aeroplane as we know it. Now group B don’t just have a full concept of an aeroplane but they have a strong foundation (education, text books, etc…) on which they can far easier go about exchanging ideas and coming to a consensus about how to design an aeroplane. They are certain what an aeroplane is and they know that if there is a conflict of interest, they can go back to their reference to seek help about certain issues. But for group A there is no guideline to design an aeroplane and rationality even in this case faces multiple interpretations. Who’s to determine the first principles? Given enough time, perhaps the group A engineers can progress exactly to what group B has designed. A crucial difference is that one occurred through an evolution of ideas based on experiment and the other by the development of ideas based on strong foundations. The issue for group A is still that even after consensus, they’re both aware that despite the functionality of their project, they have no real way of knowing whether this thing is the right model to make man fly. Group B also knows that there are other ways, but is also aware that there are boundaries. Though, Group A even after given enough time will not necessarily know what the boundaries could be. This is why it would allow the other engineer within the group A to deviate from any established principle that was the result of consensus through time. However, it is certain that the idea of truth and right values can be discovered in group B far easier and with more certainty than Group A. Group B can also correct Group A if the boundaries aren’t respected. 

Now so much on this analogy, of course we can objectively denounce some cultural practices such as one practiced by the Jihadist as morally wrong if we rely on our strong metaphysical foundations. My second point which was motivation ties into this. In group A, there is no guarantee to be motivated to come to a consensus since there are no objective guidelines and here is where I think Post-modernism sneaks in, as its core fundamental principle is the rejection of the possibility of mutual consensus. Thus, ethics becomes part of our subjective feelings and emotions. However, to answer the question, the way to sort out this tangle of beliefs and values is thorough resurrecting the idea of truth as oppose to feelings. If both groups, for instance, the Islamic Extremists (by whom I mean anyone who holds radical views without resorting to violence) and the Westerners engage in mutual discussions with the attitude of trying to come to a consensus, we might at least be able to agree upon a few objective ethical codes. Though, at current situation it seems improbable since the post-modernists feed on this division and prevent the prospect of mutual consensus by insisting that similar to group A engineers that there are no guidelines to what is objectively true, and since there are no guidelines, mutual consensus is impossible and illusory. 

JS: I really don’t know who these nay-saying post-modernists are. Which of them actually talks about a ‘rejection of the possibility of mutual consensus’? Is this post-modernist a straw man? I would in any case put in his place a post-foundationalist based on John Dewey and Richard Rorty. Rorty argues that we do not need metaphysics to ground our morality—all we need is intersubjective agreement and consensus, and that is all we are ever likely to get. This will mean that we reach impasses with those who simply refuse to acknowledge the guidelines, values and beliefs that we possess, and there is no progress where there is no reasonable dialogue among disputing parties. Failing to engage in any ‘mutual discussions,’ Westerners and Islamic extremists will never find any common ground. CIA-sponsored assassinations and flying jets into sky-scrapers will assure that there is no conversation or rational debate, but only retributional acts of terrorism. So I remain doubtful that anything can be done to establish any global values. The genie of medieval theocracy and the genie of the European Enlightenment live and move in different worlds—until they decide to clash and kill each other, if possible. Where does this end? With the slow death of Europe? With radical Islam being wiped out by vastly superior Western military might? Who can say?

AO: I agree with this point of view that we certainly can have morality grounded in ‘intersubjective agreement and consensus’ but that’s only if the people would have a motive to come to an agreement. If truth is intersubjective and based on social contract, then why would individuals want to agree with someone who feels differently than them? I think this is the intrinsic problem with intersubjective agreement. The fact that, it is constrained only to those who feel the same necessity for a similar type of ethic. This poses another problem of excluding the minority who do not share in this intersubjective type of ethic. What if the intersubjective ethic is based on Nazism or Communism? On what grounds can we condemn such an intersubjective agreement? Or even the practice of slavery was a product of intersubjective agreement. I think we need some objective first principles on which we can build our intersubjective ethics upon. These could be the respect of the individual, fair treatment and respect for legitimate governments. Nietzsche also understood that with the death of God and with the removal of the metaphysical substructure, millions would die as a result. This is purely because intersubjective agreement and consensus is fragile, subject to change and even still subjective to the opinions of the people. Now, I agree with your point that with fundamentalist Islamists and extremists, there can only be minimum discussion and minimum progress. I certainly think that political correctness especially in the west and the cowardice of politicians to speak out against Islamist doctrines, fearing that they will be called a racist or a bigot has contributed enormously towards this problem. I think as I argued if we start with, for instance, the first objective principle that human life has value and that people cannot kill others for the sake of their beliefs, and then we can come to a consensus to take necessary action to stop the growth of any extremist groups by any means that is necessary. But even such principles are not clear to me to be self-evident if we take a fully materialistic view on morality. In the words of Richard Dawkins “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” If we are being honest with the topic of morality, we can see that without some first principles, it would be extraordinary difficult to have a strong morality. And to answer the question of where this ends, I think it ends with the destruction of beliefs such as those which their central theme is contrary to the biblical notion of the individual in Genesis 1:27 [1]. It certainly seems that we can make progress in our morality if at least we start with that principle that each individual life matters and has value. 

JS: But even that seemingly fundamental ‘human right’ is not agreed upon in a time of war or jihad. In fact, the killing of the enemy or the infidel is absolutely necessary for certain cultures to flourish. So if we cannot even find agreement on the value of human life, then how can we move forward on a global level? And religion, far from helping us establish first principles, seems to be creating more murderous mischief than ever, as people insist on dying for different gods.

AO: It is always inevitable that some will even despise being itself, and it is also evident that some individuals actually see it as virtuous and good to kill innocent people. Though, I don’t think it is necessary to come to an agreement with these people in order to have a global ethical system. We can objectively denounce their behaviours and beliefs, and as I initially suggested, passing global legislation against those things are necessary, pragmatic and would indeed ensure that it protects the majority of people who share similar views. I am even tempted to suggest that colonisation of certain countries such as the Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria with the export of western values would be an effective last resort. Perhaps, if one could attain such a goal without having to resort to colonisation, it would be ideal. If one imagines how much oppression and terror the people of those countries go through, I think it would be perfectly justifiable to export Western values in order to save human life, dignity and freedom. As an Iranian, I think now as my eyes have been opened to the ‘superior’ values of the west, generally speaking, I would see it as not only good but necessary on moral grounds to stop such an oppressive theocracy that not only limits people’s freedom to think and speak but has allowed oppression to become legitimized under the guise of Islam. However, going back to my last point, a global legislation at minimum against acts of terrorism is attainable and would at least ensure that the lives of the innocent cannot be ever threatened. But, I would like to make progress from here to build on this global ethical system.

JS: I also would like globally to legislate (split atoms, not infinitives!) some ethical principles to protect innocent civilians from being run off bridges or stabbed in restaurants. Colonialization is indeed far from ideal and in fact may still be keep wounds open and raw. I am speaking and thinking in the abstract. You are not and so I think your words have more weight. I can only hope that one day your words will have so much weight that they tilt the balance of the world in favour of justice, fairness, and kindness.

AO: If we could legislate binding ethical codes on a global level, I think it is necessary to set our parameters clearly and define with clarity what would constitute as minimum necessities for human life, freedom and dignity to be protected. The Human Rights Act and most International laws are not binding if countries don’t sign up to them. What would be your solution to this problem? For any legal or ethical system to be viable, one needs a strong enforcement body. If we could, hypothetically, solve the issue of enforcement, what would be the minimum necessary ethical codes in your opinion?

JS: I don’t think there is a solution except perhaps for constant sanctions against offending counties (which end up hurting mostly those not in power) and a permanent symbolic effort to better the world through international and human rights law. My ethical code boils down to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is not, alas, bulletproof, but it is wise, kind, and very easily to remember.

AO: Yes, it seems like there is no practical way of ensuring that every country would abide on a set of international laws. Also, I do agree with the view that the financial implications of sanctions will mostly hurt the general population. Best example I can relate to is Trump’s recent decision to pull out of the Iranian Nuclear deal and re-impose new sanctions. Far from stopping Iran’s involvement in Syria and crippling the government, the burden has fallen on the economy with Iranian currency losing half of its value in the last 6 months. I do however think that for countries whose governments do not sign up to these international laws, it is possible to educate their people through media hoping that in some time the future generation would move away from theocratic government to a more liberal one. As you might be aware the new generation of Iranians are extremely interested in western values and I think with some online and accessible education, we can make a difference. I do also think that the Golden Rule is a powerful tool as it makes sense on a personal level. As a final question, do you think that if given some time, education would be an effective method to achieve some sort of a global ethic?

JS: I think social media and the internet are often enormously misused and abused but, yes, I do think that they are also a means of enlightenment and education on a mass scale. And the genie of Western liberal values is well out of the bottle. Like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, may it engirdle our troubled planet many times over—and quickly. 


1 "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them”