Globalization of Ethics
Although Asia Seems to Lack Europe’s Cultural Core, Ethical Constants have Long Governed Asian Societies
Many Europeans doubt that Asia can catch up with Europe in terms of regional integration. But Asia not only has the type of stable common ethical foundations that were so important to European integration; it also has a well developed set of moral principles, some of which were an established part of Asian culture long before similar principles were adopted in Europe. Indeed, these Asian principles can serve as a part of an emerging common global ethic.
Of course, Asia does not yet have a cohesive core culture comparable to that of Europe, which is founded on the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Enlightenment. But Europeans ought not to be too arrogant, because, in recent years, that common European culture has itself proven to be fragile, particularly in light of the Bush administration’s divide-and-rule strategy pitting "Old Europe" against "New Europe." And, just as the inhuman terror attacks of September 11, 2001 severely damaged Islam’s credibility in many people’s eyes, the invasion of Iraq, which was based on lies, has damaged both Christianity and the Western community of values.
Although Asia seems to lack Europe’s cultural core, there are core ethical constants that have long governed Asian societies and indicate common ethical foundations. Indeed, in some respect, Asia has more experience with intercultural relations than Europe. As early as the third century B.C., Buddhism spread peacefully from India to Sri Lanka and to large parts of Southeast Asia. In the first century C.E., it continued its advance, spreading along the Silk Road to Central Asia and China, and finally made its way to Korea and Japan centuries later.
Ethnically homogeneous Japan is an example of how three different religions – Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism – can coexist peacefully and, in many cases, intermingle. Even Islam – which mostly spread in the wake of military conquests in the Middle East, India, and North Africa – expanded rather peacefully into Southeast Asia in the footsteps of merchants, scholars and mystics.
Moreover, there was a historically important and ethically oriented humanism in China as early as the fifth century B.C. The concept of "ren," which corresponds to our "humanum" is a central term in the Chinese tradition.
Likewise, Confucius was the first to formulate the Golden Rule of Reciprocity: "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself." Through the spread of Chinese characters, the concept of ren and the Golden Rule spread throughout the vast Chinese-influenced area that reaches from Central Asia to Taiwan and from Korea to Singapore.
This Golden Rule, however, also appears in the Indian tradition. In Jainism, it is stated as: "A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated." In Buddhism: "A state that is not pleasant or delightful to me must also be so to him; and a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" In Hinduism: "One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality."
This "Golden Rule" can also, of course, be found in the Abrahamic religions. Rabbi Hillel (60 B.C.) said: "What is hurtful to yourself do not do to your fellow man." Jesus worded it positively: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." Islam, too, has a similar concept: "None of you believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself."
Moreover, such commonalities go beyond the principle of humanity and the Golden Rule of Reciprocity. Four concrete ethical rules were laid down in the Buddhist canon by Patanjali, the founder of Yoga, in the Chinese tradition and, of course, in the three prophetic religions: "Do not kill," "do not steal," "do not bear false witness," and "do not abuse sexuality."
These trans-cultural ethical rules form structural elements of a common human ethic, whatever we call it, and make almost irrelevant the idea of a deep antagonism between "Asian" and "Western" values. If Asia focuses on its trans-cultural ethical core, an entirely new spirit of unity can be developed that uses soft power instead of military force and does not know enemies, but only partners and competitors. In this way, Asia could catch up with the West in terms of its cultural integration while contributing to the establishment of a genuinely peaceful new world order.
This project differs from the West’s human rights movement, which is based on natural law thinking. The point is rather to integrate values, standards, and attitudes of ethical-religious traditions that, while appearing in each culture in a specific form, are common to all, and that can be supported by non-religious people as well.
Hans Küng is President of the Foundation for a Global Ethic (Stiftung Weltethos) and Professor Emeritus of Ecumenical Theology at the University of Tübingen.
Project Syndicate/Internationale Politik, 2007.