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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7 Responses to Global Ethics for a Global Economy

  1. Pretty interesting that the article portrays Kautilya (Canakya) as a person in front of which Michaevelli seems tame, though he does acknowledge the value of his pragmatism. Prabhupada seemed to use Canakya’s statements pretty extensively perhaps because of his pragmatism. I feel Canakya also did make some good moral statements though many of them will not be relevant in our times. According to historical evidence, extensive vegetarianism seeped India more in Asoka’s period. The good thing I liked about Asoka (I attended a talk on him in Stanford) was his emphasis on respect for other paths apart from his own (Buddhism) not just tolerance (tolerance is like what the heck I can do, I am not in majority to impose my view, so just tolerate. Respect means that you feel that others have the right to choose their path that fits their psychological condition). I think it is essential in today’s time. However, it is generally hard for Vaisnavas to do so because hating advaitins and buddhists or at best tolerating them is the only way to be called a pucca vaisnava, disregarding that today’s multi-culturalism makes it very difficult to practice such an ethic. And the irony is that were it not for the multi-culturalism of today, one of the Judeo-Christian religions could have imposed autocratic states in which one could not even be a Vaisnava. Obviously everyone is waiting for the day when the whole day will be converted to their faith. Let us see who wins the race 🙂

  2. Hare Krishna!

    While washing a few days-worth of dishes (my better half is away for 2 weeks, and I tend to let things go), and mulling it over, with my hands in the sink, I came to the conclusion that this is a very exciting and interesting article, simply because it reminds us about what can happen if a real leader among men has a change of heart.

    Krishna addreses this same idea in Bhagavad-gita, when he tells Arjuna that whatever a great man does induces the common poeple to follow suit. We have to remember that this is entirely possible, and that in this way Krishna Consciousness, as introduced by Lord Caitanya, can make tremendous strides in turning the tide of materialistic thinking on our planet. Just imagine if Ashok had access to a ccomputer, a cell phone, and a private jet!

    This can happen, simply if such highly posted persons could come in contact with someone like our Tripurari Swami. And it should be part of our meditation as to how to bring such things about.

    Sadly, the world today is more or less in the grip of the vaishya class, who, for all of their power and resourcefulness, don’t have the capacity to look beyond the bottom line of a financial statement of profit and loss. These are, after all, third class men in terms of the four varnas. A real asset to any community, even a global community, in terms of trade, commerce, and the like. But left unchecked to mangage societies’ affaires – alas, their desires for profit and the power it brings sees no stopping point.

    As Krishna says, these desires burn like a fire, and the more we feed them the greater the flame of desire becomes. A kind of madness. Almost like cancer cells in the social fabric. Through the social body they thrive, extracting the golden eggs. But in their inflamed pursuit to exploit the greater goose, called planet earth, She comes closer and closer to the chopping block, so that there are no more eggs, no more goose, just devastation.

    Remember that Ashok even had a change of heart about animal slaughter. We undestand that the karmic reaction for societies engaged in animal slaughter is war. Mother Nature says, “You want slaughter? All right, try this on for size!” And we have wars.

    The United Nations is simply a collection of dogs in a fancy kennel. The big dogs stare down the small dogs, who know their places in the pecking order. They all come to the table with their own self-centerd agandas. When China rapes the Buddhist nuns in tibet and trys to assasinate the Dalai Lama who has to flee his own country to save his life, America, the land of the brave and the free says nothing. When Isreal implements a Haulocaust on the Palestinians, no one puts a hand in and says, “Enough is enough!” When multi-national oil companies so poison the landscape in Africa and South America that children in those areas are born with congenital cancer, no governments intervene. The United Nations is a hoax, giving lip service, while business goes on as usual.

    But a Krishna Conscious leader can implement such changes that the whole world will take notice. And such an example can be follwed, individually, and by other nations.

    So we have to grow spiritually, enough so that such men will be able to take us seriously. And we should tax our brains as to how we can put such men in touch with our Krishna Conscious leaders who are actually carrying the torch – the torch of knowledge. Om ajnana timirandasya…….. we chant. He has done it for us. Why not for others? We should think like this.

    Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  3. I must correct myself to state that Buddhist or Advaitins have not been that much better either and many times they have mocked the Vaisnava faiths. So it will be incorrect to just selectively criticize vaisnava faiths or Judeo-Christian faiths.

  4. It appears that the real power of the modern ruler is to convince people that they should look out for their own interest before that of any other. Thus the ethic of collectivism has been eroded to a great extent.

    It is interesting also that the very secular states like those in Scandinavia seem to be the most ethically advanced among the developed nations.

    • What Atmananda Prabhu is saying is very significant, if I understand him correctly.

      On the one hand the modern ruler teaches the people in general to be self-centered. In America this is graphic. Because the rulers are thieves and rascals, therefore the common people, being deprived, turn to every manner of dishonesty.

      On the other hand, in countries that are strongly run with the needs of the people in mind, where the leaders are benevolent, the people are satisfied and deal nicely with each other.

      Krishna said it first, whatever the leaders do, the people in general will follow suit.

      Of course, aside from generating good karma, the benefits of which are only temporal, morality in society has one benefit that is important. And that is that the populace can be peaceful, so that they can turn their minds to spiritual pursuit.

      Without spiritual pursuit, morality in society is like a beautiful car going nowhere.

      Hare Krishna! Ishan das

  5. The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvelous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualized in order to understand the trauma that realization of its failure is producing today. For the industrial age has indeed failed to fulfill its Great Promise, and ever growing numbers of people are becoming aware that:
    Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure
    The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings, and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control.
    Economic progress has remained restricted to the rich nations, and the gap between rich and poor nations has ever widened.
    Technical progress itself has created ecological dangers and the dangers of nuclear war, either or both of which may put an end to all civilization and possibly to all life.

    This is from Erich Fromm’s book To Have or To Be, published in 1976.

  6. Its interesting that the West has always looked to the East for searching lasting solutions to the problems it and the world faces. Ashoka, who is also called as Ashoka the Great, was known for bringing the whole India under one rule. In his policies of governance one can find a systematic structure of management, etc. He did extensive welfare for his citizens all across his domain. Details of this can be found in studies about him by historians.
    The Indian national flag has the Ashoka Chakra at its centre, and the logo of the Government of India is the 4-lion statue called as the Ashoka-pillar which still stands in Northern India. At the bottom it reads: “satyam eva jayate” which means “Truth alone triumphs.”

    The West often undermines the East thinking that it is backward, unintelligent, uninformed, and uncultured. But these are the gifts that the West has given to the East (India in particular) when it had colonized it and exploited it for hundreds of years, which earlier was exploited and run down by the Muslim invasions.

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