Global Ethics for a Global Economy

By Bruce Rich, originally published at Tikkun.

The global economy is in desperate need of a global ethic. The world economic system is driving a significant number of all living creatures to extinction. It is a world order — or disorder — that is increasingly undermining the biological foundations of long-term human civilization. In the words of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the 2011 Davos World Economic Forum, the global economy has become a “global suicide pact.”

The global order of the past twenty years has prioritized unleashing market forces over other social values and created a profoundly unstable, interconnected world. It is a world not only of increased inequality and environmental deterioration but, as the recent global financial crisis shows, one that puts at risk the viability of whole societies and nations, not to mention democracy itself.

A decade ago George Soros warned that market fundamentalism was a greater threat to human society than any totalitarian ideology, noting that “the supreme challenge of our time is to establish a set of values that apply to a largely transactional, global society.” In the words of Catholic theologian Hans Küng, “a global market economy requires a global ethic.”

Each new environmental crisis forces us to recognize that an ethic of respect for all life is also an ethic for long-term human survival and well-being.

Yet in the wake of each new crisis, rhetoric notwithstanding, national and international political systems seem to fall back into a default position of business as usual.

In the United States, we desperately need a program of social and environmental legislation of New Deal proportions, a program that would incorporate a new ethic of care rooted in the recognition of global mutual interdependence. Increasingly we hear the call for such an ethic by groups such as the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

How can we imagine alternatives? Are there historical precedents for a global ethic of care, and has any government ever tried to put it into practice?

Ancient Inscriptions Tell of an Astonishing King

An answer to these questions might take us first to, of all places, Kandahar, southeastern Afghanistan. Following September 11, 2001, Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban and the al-Qaida terrorist network, symbolized the intolerance, chaos, and terrorism that threaten to erupt anywhere with repercussions everywhere in an increasingly interconnected world. In 2010, after nine years of U.S. military intervention, the Taliban reigned in Kandahar more strongly than ever. The United States continues to seek military solutions to growing political challenges and chaos around the world, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also now in Yemen, and in expanded access to bases in Colombia as a platform for possible interventions in much of Latin America.

Yet Kandahar’s history has something profound to tell us. In 1957, Italian archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery there. They uncovered an ancient series of rock inscriptions in the Greek and Aramaic languages (Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and is also thought to have been the native tongue of Jesus). In the inscriptions, an ancient Indian king calls for nonviolence through the practice of moderation, the honoring of parents and elders, abstention from killing animals, and more. Kandahar and most of present-day Afghanistan were part of this great king’s empire. It was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state, built on fundamental values of tolerance, nonviolence, and respect for life, according to the inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. There was more tolerance and respect for life in Afghanistan millennia ago, at least for a time, than today.

To understand the inscriptions in Kandahar, and the origin of the values they proclaimed, we must travel to another place in South Asia, a hill in southeastern India called Dhauli that visitors have climbed for over two thousand years. About six miles south of the capital of Orissa state, Bhubaneswar, it overlooks a quietly beautiful expanse of bright green rice fields stretching to the horizon. It is hard to imagine a more peaceful place, but in 261 BCE the green fields ran red with the blood of more than a hundred thousand, slaughtered by the armies of the same great Indian king who ruled over Kandahar.

Today visitors climb the hill to admire the view and examine the stone edicts the great king had inscribed near the top several years after the battle. When the British deciphered the inscriptions in the nineteenth century, they were astounded to find that they commemorate not a victory but the king’s conversion to a state policy of nonviolence and protection of all living things. The king declares his “debt to all beings,” announces a halt to almost all killing of animals on his behalf for rituals and food, and proclaims the establishment of hospitals for both men and animals. He declares religious tolerance for all sects and sets forth principles of good government. Over the years, he commanded similar rock and pillar inscriptions to be made in sites from Afghanistan (including Kandahar) to the southernmost extremes of India. The king’s name was Ashoka, which means “without sorrow.” Dhauli was the site of Ashoka’s victory over the kingdom of Kalinga, the last and bloodiest conquest he needed to unify India.

In the other rock edicts scattered over various regions of India, Ashoka declares “profound sorrow and regret” for the slaughter at Dhauli; it is this remorse that fueled his conversion to a new ethic, which he calls Dhamma, “the law of piety.” On sixty-foot pillars, which can still be seen today in different parts of the subcontinent, he declares the uniform and equal application of laws, and the establishment of protected natural areas. Even more remarkable from a modern perspective is a pillar edict that amounts to nothing less than a protected species act, listing all the animals the king has declared as exempt from slaughter.

Ashoka goes beyond mere tolerance to state that all religious and philosophical sects have an “essential doctrine,” the progress of which he will nurture “through gifts and recognition.” Here we have a remarkable third-century BCE declaration of ecumenism: beneath the outward form, all religions and beliefs have an essential core that aims for the good and that is worthy of general support.

Ashoka thus poses the more disturbing question of whether there has been any lasting ethical progress in the behavior of states and societies over the past millennia. For our global civilization, fragmented as it is between self-absorbed consumerism and radicalized fundamentalisms, it is an embarrassing question.

We seem to live in an epoch that in important ways gives less primacy to respect for life than the worldview of Ashoka. Contrary to perhaps what one would expect or hope, the richer our world becomes as an economic system, the more the collective imagination of those who rule seems to atrophy so that all common goals collapse into efforts to increase production and trade. Even in a time of crisis when economic fundamentalism appears to be failing on its own terms, there is a collective failure to imagine alternatives.

This article was originally published at Tikkun, and is partially ]reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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