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A Compass for Saving the World

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) & A Global Ethic

A Compass for Saving the World 

by Katherine Marshall

A compass is sorely needed when navigating rough and uncertain terrain. That’s certainly the situation in today’s turbulent world. Both challenges and opportunities seem never ending, and the task for an individual and for the society of determining direction, feasibility, and modes of execution seems overwhelming. Markers of right and wrong sometimes seem crystal clear, but then priorities war one against the other and the path ahead seems to vanish into the mist.

Hans   Küng – Photo:    Wikipedia

Hans Küng – Photo: Wikipedia

The year 2018 marks 25 years since the renowned Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Küng, offered a framework to help navigate the diverse terrain of modern times: Towards a Global Ethic – An Initial Declaration. It can be seen as an intellectual compass based on an understanding of core human values. Küng’s distillation of ancient wisdom, drawn from a wide range of religious teachings and traditions, is an assurance and a reminder that we can look to a common core of principles that unite rather than divide human beings.

Küng and colleagues have worked for a quarter-century amidst today’s global cacophony to refine and promote this coherent framework with the hope that it can serve a lasting and practical purpose across many cultures, disciplines, and sectors of activities. The Global Ethic is thus designed to serve as a moral and a spiritual guide to action in our complex times.

Presented in Chicago in 1993 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the Global Ethic has evolved and taken many forms. It aims to articulate a set of public policy principles grounded in the core teachings of the world’s major religions. Küng has written extensively about the foundations of the global ethic, linking each of the clearly set out branches to core principles of different regions and cultures. To take one example, he argues that there are clear common teachings and a core theology that call for honesty (‘thou shalt not lie’) and respect for property (‘thou shalt not steal’). The basic message is that there is indeed a powerful common core of shared principles that together constitute a Global Ethic.

Promotion of the Global Ethic has been pursued at successive interreligious events and in a long series of meetings and discussions around the world in very different forums. These include the World Economic Forum, the InterAction Council (an assembly of former heads of state), and the International Monetary Fund. The Global Ethic also features prominently in university ethics curricula.


The UN Sets a Globally Ethical Agenda

It is fascinating to reflect on this landmark effort to distill elaborate theologies and ethical norms alongside the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the United Nations General Assembly blessed in September 2015. These goals also cover a vast terrain: they are truly global in scope and aspiration. They address problems of conflict, abuse, violence, corruption, greed, waste, and unfairness. But above all they speak to possibilities and opportunities. At their core the Global Goals (as they are also known) are grounded in the often obscured truths of stunning progress in human welfare that our modern era has made possible: that people can indeed live long and healthy lives enjoying universally acclaimed rights to freedom and prosperity.


What links the two frameworks is an ideal of common purpose and direction and a deeply engrained sense of justice and possibility. They both reflect faith in what is best in humankind but also a set of ideals and aspirations that look to a better world in the future.

The ethical compasses that people learn in families, schools, and religious communities can be misplaced or seem to flicker and fade. Many would argue that humankind today has lost its way, notably in terms of our commitment to decency and an ethic of compassion. True, some people and communities move to clear ideals and rules that leave little wiggle room for doubt or deviation. But contemporary means of communications open worlds of religious teachings, disciplines, approaches, and justifications. The practical freedom which is the ideal for all people and the living possibility for many millions offers infinite possibilities, good and bad. It is far from easy to value diversity and freedom to choose and, at the same time, seek agreement on a common core of principles and objectives.

A persuasive case that common ethical norms can bind cultures together and offer a basis for universal standards is sorely needed. It is vital as a powerful counter to both cynics and doubters and to those who seem driven by forces of conflict and evil. It is needed to inspire and guide.

The Global Ethic offers an instrument for promoting public education and grounding public policy in civic values. It represents a potentially powerful tool for dialogue and teaching in a wide range of settings, and a positive mechanism to highlight the importance and strength of shared values against a perception of diversity and difference among individuals and communities.

Questions of ethical values are, however, not always as straightforward and simple as the Global Ethic would suggest. Public debate often emphasizes cultural differences that impede institutional arrangements to ensure integrity. Different faith traditions as well as cultures do bring shades of difference to interpretations of public morality and integrity. Some describe honesty as a culturally varying virtue, but when people are actually asked about their values, such differences often fade or decline in importance. The Global Ethic makes a strong case for an essential core of common values and purpose.

Dubious realists question whether common values stand any chance of being realized. Here the SDGs offer a path towards answers. The framework of clear targets, quantifiable goals, interim objectives, named accountabilities, and deadlines echo the disciplines of sound management and common sense. We treasure what we measure and measure what we treasure, a business ethic proclaims. True, it is easy to lose sight of ends in a dogged pursuit of a defined path. Constant reference to objectives, targets, and quantifiable indicators can be deadening. But few would doubt the core wisdom of setting clear ends and linking them to means. Disciplined efforts to address public health goals, for example in defeating the ancient scourges of smallpox, polio, malaria, and tuberculosis, have yielded results that can be seen as miraculous.

Choices and decisions must constantly contend with competing possibilities and priorities. Things change and adjustments must be made. That’s where the compass is needed. The SDGs offer, with their long menu of possibilities and demands, both a map and a global to-do list. They are a translation of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into contemporary budget and action decisions, and thus into a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. The Global Ethic anchors both rights and responsibilities in the finest values inherited from human history and faith. Together they offer the compass we need as we move ahead.