Symposium at the Scottish Parliament: From War to a Global Ethic

Nov 21, 2013

Is it possible to create a global code of ethics? In this Carnegie Council Centennial Symposium at the Scottish Parliament, the panelists discuss Andrew Carnegie's legacy; what has changed since his time; and Carnegie Council's contribution to the vital task of moving toward a shared international understanding with which to face today's problems.

This Carnegie Council Centennial Symposium took place in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, on October 16, 2013. It was part of Andrew Carnegie's International Legacy Week 2013, which celebrated the huge impact made by the Scots-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and the global network of trusts and foundations he endowed.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I came up with a creative idea, which was to write a letter or a report to Andrew Carnegie almost 100 years since he founded our organization. I sat in my office and composed this letter to Andrew Carnegie, which I will share with you:

Dear Mr. Carnegie,

As the current president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, it is my privilege to report to you on the eve of our 100th anniversary of our founding. My report begins with gratitude on behalf of our board chairman Robert Shaw and our Centennial chairman Michael Ignatieff, and also several current board members of the Carnegie Council who have traveled all the way to be here today, most from the U.S., one from London, Kathleen Cheek-Milby, Jonathan Gage, Stephen Hibbard, and Bruce Jentleson.

I want to thank the Scottish Parliament, especially its Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick and First Minister Alex Salmond.

I also wish to thank our hosts, Angus Hogg and Martyn Evans of the Carnegie UK Trust, who have welcomed us home to Edinburgh and Dunfermline, and have worked so hard to organize events this week.

Finally, I want to thank Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, who has brought together and reenergized the many Carnegie institutions that still work in the spirit you launched. Vartan asks us from time to time, "What have you done to honor your ancestors?" This meeting and this letter is a gesture in that direction.

It's not often that we have the opportunity to think in terms of 100 years. It's a span well-suited to remind us that, while our lives are time-bound, our connections endure, and as much as things change, they remain the same.

Looking back in a personal way, I can see and feel your world of 1914. I can imagine my grandfather, soon to be a telegraph officer in the U.S. Army, his tour of duty awaiting him in France. Today I find myself wondering if his Morse code was really much different than our texts and Twitter, all dots and dashes turned into hashtags and pixels.

In looking forward, I can almost visualize our successors in 2114. I suspect that whatever technology they use to communicate 100 years from now, it will be both simple and astounding, in some ways familiar enough for us to understand and in other ways astonishing. As much as things change, they remain the same.

The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs remains proud to be the youngest of your endowments, the last one you established. We remember that you created us with urgency just prior to the outbreak of the Great War. As I understand it, your animating idea for yet another Carnegie initiative was the belief that politics was not just the business of institution building; it was also the business of moral transformation. It was not enough to build the Peace Palace at The Hague and to lobby kaisers, kings, czars, and presidents to establish the League of Nations and World Court. Peaceful resolution of conflict would depend on changing patterns of behavior, and this change would depend ultimately on moral arguments and educational efforts in favor of peace.

The challenge for us today, as it was at the time of our founding, is to use our moral traditions to help us imagine a better future. Today's Carnegie Council focuses on the one central question that preoccupied you and your colleagues at our founding: How can we learn to live together peacefully while acknowledging our deepest differences?

The history of the past 100 years shows that, in your assessment of world politics, you got some things right and other things wrong. This is the all-important background upon which our Council has tried to make its mark on the world. So let's start with what you got right.

You were perhaps most right about the stubborn nature of militarism. We know now that the glorification of war in 1914 led to " . . . the trenches, the mud, the rats, the typhus, and the general futility of World War I" [quote from Nicholson Baker’s essay, "Why I'm a Pacifist"] and the wars that followed. It is only with the most tragic irony today that we quote the poets: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, "How sweet and right it is to die for one's country." Even the bitterness of World War I did not stem the numerous 20th century slaughters which followed. And yet, despite all of the blood spilled, can we say that the glorification of war has receded?

You were also right about the corrosive effects of imperialism. Your offer to pay $20 million to purchase the Philippine Islands in order to ensure their independence from Spain and then the United States was a gesture as heartfelt as it was dramatic. As you said at the time, it is neither natural nor morally right for powerful nations to rule over the less powerful. Empire saps the dignity of both the rulers and the ruled.

The past 100 years shows that empire bears its share of responsibility for the sorry record of rivalry and conflict in the 20th century. Many of the political struggles we see today, particularly in the Middle East, can be traced directly to the redrawing of maps in 1919. Economic struggle, especially the persistence of vast global economic inequality, also must be considered in this light.

You were right about the centrality of self-determination and minority rights as keystones to living in a peaceful world. In a world of divided communities, peace depends on pluralism. Pluralism demands institutional arrangements that allow people to live deeply rooted in their communities and yet peaceably with outsiders. Post-World War II Europe has provided a positive example—a most positive example—of what is possible. As we see in Scotland today, pluralism is evolving as a peaceful and invigorating concept. But, of course, this is not so in many other places around the world, where pluralism is indeed failing miserably. Over the past 100 years, we have learned not to underestimate both the possibilities and the limits of pluralism.

Finally, you were right about the stubborn nature of religion as a formative element in both war and peace. Religion has surely played its role in conflicts, sometimes exacerbated by leaders who have self-righteously and cynically used religious ideology and moral rhetoric to pursue interests. Yet religiously inspired voices have also been central to the promotion of human dignity and social justice. In either case, we live in a world today that is still often defined according to religious principles in contest.

Now let's turn for a moment to what you got wrong. (This is easier to do with Mr. Carnegie long gone. I don't know if I would do this if he were here. But here's my honest assessment, and I hope I would have the courage to deliver this in person.)

You were wrong about the simple allure of peace, the assumption that citizens and leaders would inevitably value peace as the highest good. As Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said recently when asked for a comment on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, "War is obviously terrible, but it's not the ultimate evil. Some things are worse, and one is the deliberate slaughter of civilians." Or, as Barack Obama put it in his Nobel Lecture, "Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason."

In this vein, you were also wrong about the presumed strength of law as the ultimate trump to power politics. Law depends on both reason and reciprocity, two qualities not always in great supply, especially in extreme situations. The force of reason rarely trumps the imperatives of necessity, realpolitik, ideology, and national mythologies.

You were also wrong to assume that international institutions like the League of Nations could temper the heat of national ambitions and shape cold calculations of national interests. For all of the moderating influences of international institutions, the Great Powers would never respond faithfully to distant, faceless, unaccountable bureaucracies. Rather, the Great Powers would tend to use such organizations as instruments of power, as a means rather than an end to international politics. As many American secretaries of state have said in commenting upon the United Nations, our approach is "together where we can, alone where we must."

Finally, you were wrong about the inevitability of social progress. What your biographers have called your "cock-eyed optimism" fed your liberal illusion that peace was merely a technical matter, something that could be engineered by societies that were becoming ever more civilized with the passing of time. Your favorite saying, "All goes well since all gets better," may have reflected your personal experience, but today we have to face the fact that we live in a split world. There are haves and have-notes, those who live in zones of peace, while others live in zones of conflict. For those of us in the privileged world, things are indeed good. For at least 2 billion of our brothers and sisters in poor and unstable areas, things are not so good, and there is no presumption of good times ahead.

For all you got wrong, however, there is an undeniable opportunity we have to build on your legacy to shape the future and work for positive change. And this is what I'd like to focus on in this last section of my letter. As you demonstrated with all of your philanthropy, it is indeed possible to change the way people think. It is indeed possible to change what is considered moral, just, and right. Legitimacy rests on sentiment and judgment. Legitimacy is, ultimately, a matter of human decision.

You were persistent in pointing out that civilized nations abandoned practices like slavery and dueling. Surely, you thought, the practice of war—the killing of man by man—would follow into extinction. You would be pleased to know that Steven Pinker wrote a book last year (The Better Angels of Our Nature) arguing that while war is still too much with us, the world is indeed a less violent place than it was 100 years ago. Following your line of thought, he argued that this trend toward a less violent world is inextricably bound to a shift in ethics—a shift in what is considered expected and required behavior.

We have learned over the past 100 years that ethics matter. And here is where our Council has tried to do its part. Ethics as we practice it goes beyond moral assertion to entertain competing moral claims. For us, ethics invites moral argument rather than moral assertion. Ethical inquiry enables us to include all moral arguments, religious and secular. It gives equal moral voice to all while giving us the tools to think for ourselves and stand our ground accordingly.

We like to think of our approach today as a sort of enlightened realism—a realism that enables us to understand our own values and interests in light of the values and interests of others. This approach demands the humility to abandon any hint of a crusading spirit and a genuine commitment to try to understand the point of view of others. This is the intent and purpose of our Centennial project, to be described by my co-panelists. I hope you will see that it is built on hard-won lessons of historical experience—that it is pluralist and pragmatic in nature.

Thanks to the rapid expansion and advances of communications technology, it is now possible for the Carnegie Council to encourage a multi-directional global conversation. Our Studio and Global Ethics Network ventures leverage advances in digital media in service of the enduring values that have guided the Council through its history. We convene, publish, and broadcast programs that reach hundreds of thousands of people around the world. In this way, we believe we are honoring your intention to imagine a better future—together with our viewers, listeners, and readers—through education and advocacy for ethics.

None of this is done alone. So please allow me to conclude by sharing one last thought. This thought is a lesson learned from our long association with the Uehiro Foundation of Japan, especially its chairman Mr. Eiji Uehiro and its director, my good friend Dr. Noboru Maruyama, who is with us today.

What I've learned from our Japanese friends is that it is not enough to publish books or broadcast programs on TV and radio, as important as these measurable results may be. What is really important is that we build relationships in the spirit of mutual learning.

One might ask why we travel so far, so frequently, to convene meetings like this one, especially when so much can be done these days by Skype, email, text, and so on. The reason is clear: There is simply no substitute for personal human interaction of the kind we have today.

We cannot build institutions without building relationships of lasting value. In fact, the value of an institution like the Carnegie Council is its ability to transmit values over time and space through the lives of the people it touches.

I remember years ago, when I asked Dr. Maruyama if it were really necessary for me to attend a particular conference we were co-sponsoring when the topic was outside my field of expertise. He responded without hesitation, "If you do not attend, the conference will be meaningless." I took his point.

So I'm now going to yield to my co-panelists, Adam Roberts and Michael Ignatieff, to elaborate on what your legacy means for us today. These gentlemen represent the best of what the Council can and should be. We at the Carnegie Council have been very lucky in friendship, and I hope that 100 years from now, our successors will be lucky enough to have such strong voices for ethics at their side as partners and friends.

Joel Rosenthal

DAVID RODIN: Joel, thank you so much for framing the issues so poignantly with that set of reflections about where we've come in the last 100 years in terms of carrying Andrew Carnegie's vision forward.

I'd now like to invite Adam Roberts to take the floor and reflect a little bit more on the historical aspects of some of those issues.

ADAM ROBERTS: I have to say, I agreed with every word and every syllable of Joel's report. I thought he was bold in his criticism of his, as it were, ultimate employer and deeply thoughtful in what he said, and respectful at the same time.

Had I been writing the letter myself, I might have added something. I might have added that Carnegie's views, being an odd mixture of anti-imperialism and social Darwinism, were not wholly coherent, shall we say, intellectually.

Or I might have added that Carnegie's persona in the United States was deeply conservative and that in Scotland, radical and in between the two.

But had I done that, I think I would have risked being treated much as Rupert Murdoch treated one of his editors who had displeased him. Rupert Murdoch called him in and said, "Consider yourself emeritus, and the editor said, rather foolishly, "What exactly do you mean by emeritus?" Murdoch apparently said, "‘E' means you're an idiot and ‘meritus' means you're fired." [Laughter] But that's me that would have been fired. I think Joel's version was the more tactful.

It is true that there was an element in Carnegie's personality, based on his astonishing success in the United States in whatever business he entered into—whether it was running railways; horse trading, literally; building an iron and steel empire, or whatever, an astounding success—that American sense that you can change things and change the world was deeply embedded, and it's not surprising that it was transferred across to the world of international security.

But then, of course, he was inevitably deeply, deeply disillusioned by and dispirited by the First World War, as was bound to be the case. I think he was living in Scotland most of that time. Of course, the effect in Scotland was catastrophic. As I left Waverley Station this afternoon, I passed a memorial tablet to those who died in the First World War, employees of the North British Railway Company—just an astonishing number from that one company. And it is not surprising that there should be disillusion. Of course, he died in 1919, still, I think, bitterly disappointed by the ghastly turn that events had taken.

The question before us today has to do with the effect of these two world wars on our sense of global ethic. It doesn't need me to tell you that the attempt at the end of the First World War to sort out the huge number of international problems left by it was hugely unsuccessful. In a sense, we've all been engaged in a game of what they call in the West Indies "learning by burning"—learning from bitter experience.

One of the features of the post-World War I world was, yes, there was one, as it were, guiding principle which Carnegie would have understood—in fact, two: the idea of international organization and the idea of national self-determination. But both were very inconsistently and inadequately applied. It is impossible to say, really, that there was much in the way of an ethical basis for the League of Nations, not in the way there was for the United Nations. That's one of the things that has been learnt by bitter experience. The global system which lacks an ethical basis, as well as lacking a series of practical arrangements, is in for trouble. It doesn't have a residue of popular support to see it through bad times.

Some of that lesson was learnt by the time the United Nations was formed in 1945, with much more emphasis on principles, including human rights, and much more emphasis, too, on the need for decision making and—dare I say it?—yes, some realist understanding that the international institution would have to co-exist with Great Powers operating and sometimes doing things in their own way.

That sense that there was a need for a global ethic has developed since then, but we're left with a problem—or, rather, a series of problems. One is that the development of an ethical system—a common ethical system, a shared one—is extraordinarily difficult because, by their very nature, ethical ideas belong to particular communities, to particular religions. The ethical code of people living in a tropical climate in the desert, for example, is quite different from the ethical code of people living in crowded, urban northern societies. I could go on about that. But the result is a Babel of different ethical codes, but with common features. It's interesting to see where they do most overlap and where they don't.

Then, of course, ethical systems sometimes run into difficulty because they become over-rigid and fail to adapt to change, as I would argue is the case with Roman Catholic views of sexuality, for example, that just run into one bit of trouble after another because of an inability to change.

So there is a need to try to get beyond this Babel-like quality, without trying to create an Esperanto of ethics, which would be, it seems to me, a wholly artificial exercise that would be likely to end in disaster.

If one is, therefore, looking for some kind of international understanding, it seems to me it's not a matter of negotiating between representatives of different ethical systems; it's a matter of, as the Chinese say, "crossing the river by feeling the stones." It's a matter of sounding out different communities as to what the possible areas of agreement might be.

It's on this basis that I think the enterprise on which the Carnegie Council has embarked is a very, very interesting one. I was going to quote Steven Pinker, because it seems to me that he has established a very interesting long-term statistical basis for arguing that, after all, in some respects, Carnegie may have been right. In some respects—to quote Carnegie's famous words—"all is well since all grows better." There is some evidence for that in the decline in, for example, murder rates in practically all societies over a very long historical period. There's evidence for it nearer to our own time in the remarkable decline of international war. So maybe there's been a danger, that in avoiding Carnegie's optimism, we may have swung sometimes too far on the side of pessimism and failed to recognize the achievements of human society and the capacity that that demonstrates for human society to further improve.

There is an irony at the heart of all of this, which is one of the issues that I'm sure the discussions on global ethics will have to embark upon, which is the irony that the main form of conflict in the world today is conflict within post-colonial societies. That vision that was very widely shared, that I'm sure many of us in the room shared, that decolonization would end major sources of conflict—and certainly Carnegie shared—has proved to be a bit of a mirage, and the task of creating new societies with legitimate frontiers, legitimate political systems, settled relations with their neighbors has been extraordinarily difficult in most cases.

Some separations have occurred peacefully and successfully — Norway from Sweden, Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. Some of you may be tempted to add a case from nearer at home that has not yet quite happened.

But if you look overall at the statistics of conflict in the world today, it is overwhelmingly in post-colonial territories, where all the kinds of problems of ethnic identity, establishing a public morality, an ethic whereby people do not steal all the money from the exchequer, etc.—all of that is proving to be a difficult task, to say nothing of creating multi-party democracies, the essential precondition of which is a very simple one: A party has got to be willing to lose an election. And that's not actually something that's easy to do in all cases.

So my conclusion is that it's an absolutely vital task, because whatever area we look in, whether it's the environment, whether it's the setting up of new states or the re-establishment of decent governance in states where it has failed, whether it's our own relations within the European Union—in all these matters, it's not just a matter of law; it's also a matter of attitude. Indeed, we have run into some problems because of poor ethical attitudes in the UK, and indeed in the world more generally—not least over gross disparities of income. There's a huge variety of areas which are better tackled, or at least necessarily tackled first, on an ethical basis, with some notion of shared understandings, before they are necessarily tackled on a legal basis.

It's very tempting to say that law is enough. After all, we have uniquely in world history—and Carnegie would recognize this—a situation where there is a legal framework about when it is legitimate to use force—and not that is universally adhered to, at least in theory—which is the UN Charter, and we have a universal set of rules about certain limitations on the use of force, particularly in the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. There has never been a period in history before where that kind of formal agreement existed.

Yet turning that into practice and making sure it's implemented isn't just a matter of black letter law; it's a matter of a great deal else besides. I welcome the Carnegie proposal, not because it will give us a universal ethic, but because it will contribute to that necessary understanding that we need to move further in that direction.

Thanks very much.

DAVID RODIN: Thank you, Adam. I think it is tremendously helpful to have that perspective on the prospects of this project from someone like yourself, who, although I guess you wouldn't see yourself as being somebody who works directly in the field of ethics, but works very much on the possibility of the development of international law and institutions, which, in a lot of ways, are really where the ethical aspirations, as it were, collide with political reality. So it's tremendous to get that perspective on the possibilities, but also the constraints and challenges of this project.

I think I would like to turn to Michael now to wrap up with a set of reflections on what we've been doing within the Council and your own assessment for the prospects of this really extraordinary project that we have embarked on.


I'm going to be professorial, in the sense that I'm going to say one thing and I'm going to say it for 10 minutes.

If you think about a global ethic, I think you can't think of it in terms of 27 articles or 36 articles. You can't give it propositional content, in my view. As Adam has said, we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have a thickening web of international obligation, convention, and consensual agreement—for example, over the use of force.

My sense of what we're talking about when we're talking about a global ethic is the process rules for conversation, the process rules that allow us to manage and discuss disagreement—a slightly paradoxical view of this. It's not a search for unanimity. It's a search for what the process rules are by which we live together and—that wonderful phrase—agree to disagree.

So that's my starting point.

The second thought I would add is that if we're not looking at rules, we're looking at how we imagine each other, how we conceive each other, how we think of each other as bound together in a common moral universe, despite the fact that we disagree on points of substance.

That leads to another thought. If you ask yourself what really separates the world of Andrew Carnegie, 1914, and the world we live in, 2014, it's that we do live in a post-imperial world. The world of Andrew Carnegie—and, as Joel and Adam have pointed out, Carnegie, with, I think, great prescience, fought against this, particularly in his combat against the American occupation of the Philippines—but he lived in a world of empires, and the moral world of the world of empires is a world of racial hierarchy: There are some races and peoples born and entitled to rule. There are some races and peoples condemned to serve. Certain races and peoples are designed to lift others from barbarism to civilization.

The world of 1914 is still very much that world. When people imagine themselves and imagine the other, they imagine themselves within that frame of racial hierarchy.

We know that that begins to blow up during the First World War. That's what the First World War is, the nemesis of this imperial view of each other. It ends in 1919 with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the Turkish Empire, the German Empire.

But that's not the end of the story, because the 20th century from 1919 to 1989—or at least to 1945—is dominated by two other ideologies of human hierarchy, one of them fascism, the idea that certain people are born to rule, innate racial superiority. And we know where that ends. It ends in Auschwitz. It's extremely important, to understand where we are in 2014, to understand the terminal disgrace of ideologies of racial superiority, because we know exactly where they lead. It's a shared understanding of our world that I think is irrevocable, unchangeable.

These second ideology, of course, was the ideology of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the fact that the working class has a kind of innate moral superiority and a right to rule and a right to revenge itself on the injustice of past time. That ideology chunters along until 1989, when it falls on its face and collapses.

It's enormously important that in 2014 we're out the other side of murderous ideologies of racial or class superiority. It's just really important. If you ask what's good about the world, that would be one of them. We're at the end of all the ideologies of racial and imperial superiority. Between 1945 and now, the number of independent nation-states in the global system has gone from about 40 in 1945 to close to 200. The self-determination revolution has occurred.

Sir Adam has pointed out just how problematic that self-determination revolution is. Many of these states are badly governed. Many of these states are unstable. But they rule themselves. We have lived through an age in which we think it's legitimate for one group of people to rule other people.

That brings us to the present, with the disgrace of ideologies that legitimate moral superiority of one group of people over another. So we negotiate difference every day. In this city and the city I flew out from last night, Toronto—20 to 25 percent of its population was born in another country—we encounter the plurality of religions and races every time we get on a subway car.

We're working from a new normative assumption—an assumption so new that we, I think, haven't fully digested it—which is that nobody is better than anybody else. Nobody starts the race of life with a moral entitlement to give other people lessons. It's not that some people aren't given better cards in life. It's not that there isn't injustice and oppression. But nothing can be legitimized—forms of power and oppression cannot be legitimized—by presumptions of racial, ethnic superiority.

The unit of ethical analysis is the individual soul, in a way—no longer aggregate groups. Nobody speaks on behalf of the working class. Nobody speaks on behalf of white people. Nobody even speaks on behalf of black people now. The subject of ethical discourse in the global world is the individual. We all construe the individual differently. We construe the relationships to the community differently. But we start from "nobody's better than anybody else," and the subject of our discussion is what happens or what ought to happen to individuals.

Why human rights matters is—we disagree intensely about the balance of human rights, the conflict between different rights, what rights mean in this or that context, but we know that we're talking about the same thing. We're talking about the solitary human person. The importance of human rights is that it's retail; it's not wholesale. It's retail. Human beings matter, retail. Each single human person, period—regardless of rational capacity, regardless of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, whatever—matters.

We then proceed to argue about how you cash that out. The arguments are fierce, and the disagreements may not even end. But we start from a base line of human equality and a base line of the enormous importance of the individual.

We're not free of murderous ideologies. Three weeks ago, some gunmen walked into a Kenyan shopping center and said, "The Muslims get out of here," and sprayed bullets at all the rest. So we're not free of people who think it's appropriate to distinguish who lives and who dies on the basis of a characteristic like religion. But they are on the run. They are on the run, because there isn't another faith — and almost all Muslims you talk to think that that was an abomination.

So we've got problems. I'm not trying to usher in Panglossian optimism. But I do think that if you think about the disgrace and abandonment of racial hierarchy, human hierarchies of race, class, gender—I haven't said enough about gender, but that's also there—we start from a new condition in which a conversation about how we live together occurs: Each individual matters, and no one is better than anybody else.

That's extraordinarily important for how we go forward, because it creates the process rules for what we then argue about. The arguments will be as sharp and as important as ever, but the capacity to murder on the basis of our arguments seems to me diminished. The capacity to hate each other on the basis of these arguments is diminished, because there are more than process rules; there are limitation rules. There are things we can't do to human beings, no matter what we feel. That seems to me an enormous human advance.

So, in a sense, I think that Andrew Carnegie's cock-eyed optimism continues to inspire me, and I hope it inspires you.


DAVID RODIN: Thank you so much, Michael.

I wonder if I could just kick off the discussion by raising a couple of questions of my own for the panelists.

Adam referenced the wonderful old Chinese metaphor of crossing the river by feeling for the stones. I think it's a very apt metaphor. Obviously, if you're going to be engaged in that kind of progress, it's pretty good to have an idea of what the river is that you're trying to cross. It seems to me that as we look out over the next 100 years, there are a couple of what we might call abiding realities that clearly are going to structure some of the main challenges that we will have to face as we move forward. Let me give you a very incomplete account of what some of those abiding realities are.

One of them is clearly going to be the process of what some economists have called the great rebalancing—the fact that the period of domination of the globe by Europe and North America that began with the Industrial Revolution, not least with activities here in Scotland, is coming to a close. The world seems to be reverting to a much older and longer-standing pattern of allocation of power in which the greatest quantum of economic power resides in South and East Asia.

At the same time, there's a lot of evidence now that the incredible period of growth and productivity that lasted essentially from the middle of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, that led to turbo-charged growth and economic productivity, has declined, and it's unclear that we will ever be able to get back to those levels of growth, at least not without very, very high and perhaps destabilizing levels of debt.

Thirdly, partly as a result of those two huge trends, we see inequality increasing in many, many parts of the world.

At the same time as we face those challenges, we face two potentially existential challenges in terms, first of all, of the continued existence of nuclear weapons that could wipe out all life on the earth and the new and emerging threat that we're running up against some kind of carrying capacity limit for carbon emissions in the globe.

Now, as I say, that's a very, very incomplete set of challenges. But it strikes me that in any account of how we, as humanity, can successfully navigate the next 100 years, those are going to be really, really fundamental elements of that challenge. So it strikes me that a basic precondition for any kind of viable or effective global ethic, if we want to use that term, is that it has something useful and meaningful to say about those challenges. In listening to your reflections about this project of thinking and trying to feel toward something like a global ethic, a number of themes emerged.

Adam warned against the foolishness of trying to, as it were, seek out some kind of ethical Esperanto, some kind of a mixture of different ethical traditions.

Michael talked about an aspiration which in some ways is very modest, of finding a set of process rules through which we can navigate these debates. But it struck me, when you talked about that, when you fleshed that out more, you invoked ideas that actually, I think, take us quite a way beyond that. You talked, for example, about the ending of ideologies of racial and ethnic superiority, about this idea that, as it were, the fundamental ethical currency is the individual human soul rather than groups. They do seem to be more substantive ethical propositional truths that take us beyond purely process rules.

I guess my question is, given some kind of understanding of what these huge challenges are that we're going to have to face over the next 100 years, what ought we to expect from a global ethic? What ought it to look like? How ambitious should we be in that process of moving from a purely, as it were, process-based conception into something more substantive?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I think that's the biggest question I've ever been asked in my entire life. I really do. I just don't know how to put my arms around it, David, which is a compliment to you.

Let me pick up just one piece of it. I think it matters enormously that China's rise to power is accompanied by an overcoming, both on their side and on our side, of a truly terrible history of mutual racial stereotyping and bad memories of imperial oppression—the Boxer Rebellion, the occupation and sacking of Beijing—bad memories and misunderstandings that come out of the history of the Chinese-Western interaction over six centuries. One of the things we're living through is that that whole relationship is being reset, so that you go to China and you think this is an amazing place and these are amazing people. They have changed unbelievably in 30 years.

They look at us and, I hope, don't see the imperial oppressors of the past.

I don't know what that does, but it makes it a little easier to do some business. I would be as modest as that. And you fix one thing at a time.

On the global climate change thing, you say, "Look, we have no interest in stopping you growing or going through the industrialization trajectory that we did as imperial powers. All we're saying is, look out your damn window. It's a problem we share. So what do we do here? You've got too many coal-fired plants. Can we sell you some natural gas and get it down a bit?"

I'm a passionate incrementalist. All I'm saying is that incrementalism is only possible when you look at each other and think the imperial past is over; we're both in the present together, dealing with that challenge, and we'll deal with it one bite at a time.

I guess that's my first swipe at the huge questions you're raising.

DAVID RODIN: Adam, I wonder if I could ask you to reflect a little bit. Do you think that law is the primary locus for where we ought to be addressing these kinds of challenges? Is it sufficient? How does it figure into that overall challenge that I was talking about?

ADAM ROBERTS: I think law and ethics in lots of societies exist side-by-side. Sometimes they overlap.

The Bedouin are very interesting. They have a system of law which is essentially written in poetry or retold in poetry. You could argue until the cows come home whether it constitutes a system of law or one of ethics. It's backed up by a thoroughly realist threat, because Bedouin society, being dispersed, can't have policemen on every corner, and retaliation is what keeps the rules enforced.

There's extraordinary variety and complexity in what type of society and what type of problem is appropriately addressed by law and what exactly you mean when you say that, and whether it means being implemented through courts by some consensual process or implemented by a law of retaliation.

You can see where I'm going. I'm reluctant to give a general answer as to what is appropriate or what the relative position is of law and ethics, when both have a place. We all know there are issues in our daily lives where an unwritten code of ethics is more important than the law of the land. There are other issues in our lives where the law of the land may be more important than ethical codes. Both have a place.

I want, if I may, to come back to the question David asked Michael, just to agree with what both of you were really saying. Ethical rules do, yes, need to address big issues. They exist in societies for intensely practical reasons. They survive for practical reasons, almost in a Darwinian process. Because they are good rules, they come to grow and to gain traction. The intensely practical reasons that we can think of for the next century would include all of the topics that you mentioned and perhaps some others as well.

So I'm totally with you on the fact that Michael's conversations about the code, if they begin with the useful proposition of equality, will inevitably go in those further directions. And Michael, like it or not, will be feeling the stones as he crosses the river.

Just finally, in response to that, I should just confess that I am deeply conflicted on one point. I think the beginning of understanding of international relations is to understand that different societies do see the world differently. They have had different experiences of the world—particularly, different experiences of war. They have different ways of thinking, different ideologies, yes, but also just different ideas as to what the worst disaster can be that could befall our society, based on their own experience.

We have tended to underestimate the importance of difference of perspective of different societies, and indeed within many societies. Some of the troubles we got into in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have been due to an over-simple assumption that the liberal project is one that can be applied universally, without recognition of what the starting point is of the different society. We need to get inside the minds of other societies.

You can see that that is in potential conflict with the idea of a global ethical dialogue being on a level playing field. There are difficulties there. But all I can say is that we need to recognize that conflict as part of the process of a global ethical dialogue and not give up on the dialogue just because we're up against one of the most intractable issues in international relations, which is the hard wiring of people's minds as a product of history in ways that are inevitably going to be very slow to alter. Fast results are not something that the Carnegie Council would be expecting, I think, from this project.

Maybe your second century letter will be able to announce some spectacular results. But it might take that long.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Actually, I can speak a little bit to that. We see what we're doing as an educational effort. I think there's a role, David, for thinking about your question in terms of education. What is the research agenda in this area, as Michael and Adam were saying? But also what is the teaching agenda? What can we learn, in a research mode, getting into the minds of others?

We have more and more ability, through digital technology and ease of travel and building of global networks and so on, new tools to use to engage in this kind of inquiry.

But also just as important to us is, what are we teaching? What are we teaching children? What are we teaching at the college and university level? Perhaps even more profound, what are we teaching in terms of public education, continuing education?

There is a real role to play so that people can understand the experience of others perhaps, but also giving voice to people—Michael, you were saying how each individual matters, no one better than anyone else. People want to have a voice. Having more and more opportunity in today's world to provide that kind of educational process and structure—and I agree, Adam. I think that kind of approach is long term, and there has to be a certain amount of optimism to engage in it.

But we think that it's really worthwhile and an area where we can help to engineer a genuinely global conversation, perhaps a genuinely global educational effort that could make some difference.

DAVID RODIN: I think that's really interesting. I was really struck by the fact that each one of you in your remarks really laid an emphasis on this fundamental fact of difference or plurality, as you described it, Joel. As a moral philosopher working in this area, in the Western philosophical tradition there's kind of a totalizing element to that tradition, in a sense that it has often seen its task and its function as being the divination of a kind of objective moral reality. So it's not surprising that that tradition has a great deal of difficulty in dealing with this fundamental messy reality of difference and pluralism.

I guess one of the ways of describing the challenge that we're all struggling with here is the one of finding a process, as it were, that can recognize that plurality, without simply falling into a kind of relativism, where we just throw up our hands and say that there's nothing here, and navigating a path between them.

In the project, it strikes me that the emphasis within the Council on developing the discussion, developing the dialogue through a process of education, of dissemination, of discourse that takes place on the kind of retail, individualist level that Michael was describing is a very, very important and attractive one.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Up on the platform, we've been talking confidently about this project. It might be useful to just describe in a little grittier detail what actually is going on.

Devin Stewart and I were in Rio de Janiero, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo in June for two weeks of dialogue on a global ethic, and we chose as our particular topic the issue of corruption and public trust. The dialogue was with cops, judges, lawyers, academics, journalists—in other words, not a standard academic thing. It had lots of what we call site visits. We spent a whole four hours in a favela in Rio trying to understand what corruption and public trust looks like if you're in a favela and the cops are on the corner. We tried to figure out why a million people were in the streets of Rio in June protesting corruption. We talked to the people carrying the banners in the streets. So this is taking ethical inquiry into the streets as much as we can.

The easy part is getting everybody to say, in a kind of basic way, corruption's a bad thing, and here's what corruption is. The development of global normative standards on corruption is the work of Transparency International, international legal conventions—there's no shortage of good, important boilerplate on this subject.

What's interesting and what varies democratic society to democratic society, and authoritarian society as well, is the excuses people use to justify corruption. That's where it gets really interesting. Every society has them. That's where you begin to burrow down.

I don't know whether there are any Portuguese speakers here. When I was in Brazil, I kept hearing this word gichino. As I understand it, gichino is the word you use when you're trying to work around a rule and get someone to work around and dip under and around. It's basically a complex form of legitimization of a corrupt practice.

I'm not identifying Brazil as having more of a problem than Argentina and certainly not than Canada. Canadians are notoriously holier-than-thou on every subject. But it helped, being in Brazil, that I was able to point out that the very week we were in Brazil the mayor of Montreal had been indicted for corruption. So I felt we're all in this together.

I'm trying to give you the flavor of some of these practical dialogues. You begin to learn, if you want to promote a global norm, that stealing from the public purse is not a good idea—that's a good global norm to have. But if you're going to spread that and extend it, you have to understand how people wiggle around it—and not merely how they wiggle around it in practice. That's a job for the cops. The job for a philosopher is to understand how you rationalize getting around it.

That's where gichino comes in. That's the kind of project we're doing. We will be going literally around the world, going out and exploring these normative universals, like it's not good to steal from the public purse, and looking at how they work in practical contexts on the ground. That's kind of what we're trying to do. Then, when we come back, someone—I guess me and Devin—is going to have to figure out what we found. But we owe you a report about this, and that's what you're definitely going to get.

DAVID RODIN: It is an incredibly exciting project.

So in the time that we have remaining, I'd like to open it up to the floor for questions.

QUESTION: Piers Pollack [phonetic], Carnegie Mellon.

I'm working for the letter 100 years from now on the subject of peace. Often, conflict arises and leads to harming others because they are seen as the other. What we have seen since 1945 is that perhaps every new nation has been created so that we can separate ourselves from someone who is different from ourselves. There's much greater pluralism in Scotland or the UK or the United States today than in 1945. There's less pluralism in Croatia than there was in Yugoslavia. There's less in South Sudan than there was in Sudan. We're looking at a structure that's emerging that will allow those who are like myself to be concentrated and perhaps see others beyond the border.

What implications do you see for peace?

DAVID RODIN: Interesting. And I can just add to that. Some people argue that the Internet is also having a comparable effect like that, by coalescing like-minded people together.

ADAM ROBERTS: I think we have two opposite processes going on. In Europe particularly, there has been a tendency to weaken, as it were, the separation between states, in ways that you know. But overwhelmingly in the rest of the world, the story is still one of the creation of new sovereign states. It's extraordinary how long there persisted a literature suggesting that, as it were, integration was the pattern of our times, when at the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, what did the component parts want to do? In each case they wanted to set up separate sovereign states.

I agree with what I think was implicit in your question, that there is a potential problem in that for the kind of global dialogue that is being discussed, in that new states are often particularly assertive about their difference from their neighbors and from their former masters and can be quite, as it were, prickly in that matter.

I think it's one of those issues where one has to go with the flow. One has to recognize that there is bound to be a phase of nervous new assertive sovereignty. It would be fatal to go and try to preach against it. Then ultimately that may yield to a more cosmopolitan vision.

Of course, the fact that global populations are on the move to the extent that they are may increase the necessity for ethical codes to address the issue of, as it were, ethnic difference within many societies. That, of course, as we know from British politics, is an extremely difficult issue. If immigration rates are too high, one sees an increase in racist attitudes towards new immigrants and so on.

So I agree, it's a central problem which needs to be addressed in this context.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Kurt Mills, University of Glasgow.

I have two very quick questions, first for Sir Adam. You talked about inflexibility. I'm wondering whether we're seeing that in the institutional infrastructure of the world right now, particularly within the UN, particularly within the Security Council. The Security Council has not kept up with the new realities of having four times as many states today as we had back in 1945. It has been unable to reform itself. I think this perhaps calls into question the legitimacy of the Security Council and its decisions.

The second question, for Professor Ignatieff: You talked about the end of imperialism. Yes, I agree, but I also wonder whether we still have one final imperial power. For a very long time, I've resisted engaging in the rhetoric of imperialism with respect to the United States. But it engages in half of the world's military spending. (This is my own country.) It gives itself the power and the authority to intervene in basically any country that it wants to and kill hundreds of thousands of people. It gives itself the ability to use drones to assassinate people, including its own citizens.

Embedded within the foreign policy and broader political structure of the United States is this idea of American exceptionalism: We are better than anybody else, and we can tell other people what to do, and we can do things that nobody else can do. We saw this even in President Obama's speech at the UN just a couple weeks ago, where he referred to this exceptionalism.

I wonder whether we need to rethink this end of imperialism to a certain extent.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I think there's a lot about the exercise of American power that's malign. That's another argument. But I just don't think it fits the paradigm of the empires that we have seen historically. It exercises disproportionate power in the global system, but I also think its power is ebbing, relatively. A country that can't pass a budget or raise the debt ceiling, and hasn't been able to do so for 25 years, has got some problems in the machine room.

It's obviously too early to extrapolate grand conclusions from this. The 20th century was the American century, and I don't think America's friends or America's foes believe the 21st century will be America's century.

ADAM ROBERTS: Just two bits of that I would pick up on. First of all, when you said the United States intervenes in countries and kills hundreds of thousands of people, I do think it's very important to be discriminate and to look at the individual interventions and why they occurred. In some cases—I'm not saying in all, but in some—there were profoundly moral and life-saving reasons for intervening.

One case that's interesting is Kosovo. I think we can all agree that one of the emotions that is very seldom expressed in international relations is gratitude. Yet, to this day in Kosovo, the majority of the inhabitants, the Kosovars, or Albanians, express gratitude to NATO for what it did in 1999. The situation there, when a third or a quarter—I forget the exact statistics, but a huge proportion of the population—has been displaced, fled their homes because they were not safe—not acting is a moral hazard, as well as acting.

I'm not saying that there haven't been American crimes elsewhere—there have been many—but I do think it's important to differentiate.

Very often the worst problems have arisen when the United States has underestimated the nationalism of others. It's a characteristic fault of Western policies, particularly American, but also British in the past, simply to underestimate the nationalism of others and to assume that they would welcome a bunch of foreign soldiers coming in and would continue to give them a welcome years afterwards. Maybe the welcome in Kosovo has survived because we didn't stay there very long.

On the UN, of course, you're right. Wherever one goes in the world, the question is rightly raised about whether the fact that the Security Council has been unable to enlarge the permanent membership doesn't threaten the legitimacy of the organization. That question is so widely raised that one has to agree that there is a threat to the legitimacy of the organization in that.

The fundamental problem in reforming the Security Council seems to me to be summable-up in one word, which is China. The United States says it is willing to consider enlargement. I don't know whether the United States would continue to say that if it wasn't so absolutely certain that China would veto any expansion, so they can hide, as it were, behind China's cover.

But the fact is that China has good reasons to fear the addition of two neighbors with whom it has had historically difficult relations, Japan and India. That process of getting China to accept that is one which I think has to be embarked on in a way that hasn't really even been tried yet.

The most difficult one is the relation between China and Japan. There are issues there that do need to be addressed, have not been adequately addressed. That's where I would start.

I think it is true that the institution of the UN has many faults, but I think there is a particular responsibility there in China and in the way in which India and Japan press their cases as well.

QUESTION: A lot of the speakers have talked about this idea that we live in a post-colonial world. I'm reminded of the fact that recently the African Union has been criticizing the International Criminal Court [ICC] because they see it picking on African leaders above other kinds of leaders. I think a lot of people in the developing world actually see that we live in a neo-colonial world.

I wonder, with this campaign of trying to create a global ethic and a global ethical code, how can we do it without coming across as neo-imperial powers who are using sort of soft power and pseudo-intellectualism to control others rather than the fire and steel of the past?

QUESTION: I'd like the views of the panel, on the assumption you may all have read it—but you may not have done—on John Holden's report on soft power and the extent to which you feel soft power can help us move towards a global ethic as opposed to conventional state-to-state diplomatic relations.

DAVID RODIN: Two very interesting questions. Maybe just one very tiny reflection on the perception that the ICC is focusing solely on Africa.

I think it's rather unfortunate that all of the cases so far within the ICC have been focused on African states. But that's not true of international justice more generally. If you think, for example, also about the international criminal tribunals, which are the predecessors of the ICC, those obviously were focusing on areas outside of Africa. But you're right, certainly, that that is the perception.

Shall I just run from Joel through to Michael and just ask you to reflect on those questions and any last thoughts?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Just very briefly, I think the soft power idea is extremely important. I think behind some of the questions we have heard before—I speak, I guess, as the only American up here—has been the concern about the militarization of American foreign policy. As a result of the capacity that the United States has, there has been a temptation to use the instruments or the tools that we have to achieve certain outcomes.

In the United States, Professor Joseph Nye is well known for his theory of soft power [Editor's note: Check out Nye's 2004 Carnegie talk on soft power], which has been transformed into "smart power," the idea that if you look at it on a spectrum, perhaps the pendulum needs to swing away from the militarization of foreign policy towards other instruments of power.

I appreciate the comment about the potential for neo-colonialism in our project. I'll be interested in how our co-panelists handle this. I guess I'll just retreat to my original position. We embark, in all of our work, not just this project, in a spirit of mutual learning and trying to engage in an enterprise of mutual learning. We don't seek to create new institutions in the sense of this idea that we have global problems which require global solutions, which require global institutions. I think there's a lot in that.

That's not really our approach. We take more of a minimalist position, which Michael mentioned before: How do we agree to disagree? What's a sort of baseline of common interests? This is the spirit of what we do. I hope it's not perceived as a neo-colonial exercise. I think a lot of it depends on how we do what we do.

ADAM ROBERTS: Two things, one on the ICC. It is a fact that the majority of the African cases that have gone to the ICC have gone to it by self-referral. That's to say, the state itself has requested that this issue be tackled by the ICC. That's a reflection of the fact that in many of the states the issue is perceived to be too complex and difficult for their own judicial system to be able to cope with it.

In a sense, one may say, yes, that shows that it is, in some sense, colonial. But I think it's a realistic reflection of facts on the ground that it is so.

The way in which the ICC has handled this is deeply unfortunate. Unfortunately, the first prosecutor of the ICC, Mr. Ocampo, conveyed the impression that he was a savior going to different countries to save them. He would arrive in, let us say, the Democratic Republic of Congo and declare that the era of impunity is over, as if he was, as it were, looking for business, rather than being the judicious prosecutor whose job is to assess the evidence calmly that comes before him. That reinforced the impression of the ICC as a proactive body in a way that I think was deeply unfortunate and a mistake. He is no longer the chief prosecutor of the ICC.

On the neo-colonialism business, I would simply say that we are really in a post-colonial age in the sense that there are lots of centers of ideas and proposals. If one, for example, goes to East Africa, the Chinese role in Kenya is deeply impressive. Their missions are infinitely larger than the missions of other countries. You can feel the power and the sway of China in the mere size of the buildings in Nairobi.

There are many influences at work. Ideas, proposals cross frontiers as easily as the wind and the weather. Just as it's no use blaming the weather on neo-colonialism—at least I don't think so; climate change hasn't got that bad yet (it may do so)—I think one has to accept that it is a normal part of the, as it were, intercourse of life that there should be exchanges of ideas. There will be many other people involved in developing international ethical ideas, some religious groups, some non-religious. The Carnegie Council is just one of those, and I think it will be a particularly interesting one.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: I've always thought that if I had to choose between being an intellectual or a pseudo-intellectual, I'd prefer to be an intellectual. So that was a thing.

ADAM ROBERTS: Are you casting any aspersions?


I think one of the central difficulties with the global ethic project is raised by some of these questions, which is that we do live in a world that is deeply unequal, with structural inequalities of power that are reproduced. Africa is still chained by very difficult colonial inheritances, which Adam Roberts has evoked. The terms of trade between these nations and developed nations is extremely difficult. The policies of developed nations towards developing nations make it very difficult for them to grow. No one wants to deny any of that.

But it is also the case that we meet and talk with Africans in a fundamentally different moral universe than we did 50 years ago. It just is a fact.

That discursive equality does not change the difficult realities of power. No global ethics project wants to kind of sweep the realities of the common agricultural policies' adverse impacts on African agriculture under the table. The point is to create a place in which we're in the same room talking about precisely that kind of inequality, that kind of unfairness, that kind of wrongness, from a condition of deeply understood discursive equality.

I just think that we've got to seize the opportunity to recast these relationships in this new condition of discursive equality, instead of reproducing old paradigms in which we're locked in superordination and subordination and neo-colonialist roles we can't break. We're in a new world, and Africans welcome that new world and want to grab it with both hands. And I certainly do, too, as part of this project.

DAVID RODIN: Thank you very much to all of you. It has been an extraordinary experience for me to chair this panel. I hope we have managed to give you a little bit of insight. Joel began with the question—or the challenge, rather, I guess—what have we done to own our ancestors? I hope that we have given you some sense of the way that we're attempting to do that, by engaging in this project, of the magnitude of this project, of the way that we're trying to approach it through a spirit of realism, of humility, a full appreciation of the complexity of the challenges, but also, I think, with a real sense of ambition and also of optimism.

It has been fantastic to be able to share this time with this extraordinary panel of presenters. I'd like to ask you all please to join with me in thanking them.

You may also like

Still from Origin. Credit: Neon/IMDB

JUL 15, 2024 Article

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Origin"

This review explores global issues around race and oppression in Ava DuVernay's "Origin," based on Isabel Wilkerson's book "Caste." How can we start this discussion?

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

No traducido

Este contenido aún no ha sido traducido a su idioma. Puede solicitar una traducción haciendo clic en el botón de abajo.

Solicitar traducción