Millennium Global Challenges, No. 15. How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?

Reference: The Millennium Project

Is the acceleration of global change beyond conventional means of ethical evaluation? Must we invent anticipatory ethical systems? Just as law has a body of previous judgments upon which to draw for guidance, will we also need bodies of ethical judgments about future possible events? For example, is it ethical to clone ourselves or bring dinosaurs back to life or invent thousands of new life forms from synthetic biology? Despite the extraordinary achievements of S&T, future risks from their continued acceleration and globalization remain and give rise to future ethical issues. On the brighter side, new technologies also make it easier for more people to do more good at a faster pace than ever before. Single individuals initiate groups on the Internet, organizing actions worldwide around specific ethical issues. News media, blogs, mobile phone cameras, ethics commissions, and NGOs are increasingly exposing unethical decisions and corrupt practices.

The killing of bin-Laden raises political, legal, and ethical issues with a broad range of views. Some examples: it may have improved the future by hastening the collapse of Al Qaida; the U.S. has killed more innocent people in response to the smaller number killed on 9/11; it will prevent many future deaths; vengeance is not justice. Related to this are the future possibilities and ethical issues of a single individual who is massively destructive. Hopefully a future SIMAD is identified before he or she has the chance to be massively destructive. Picture the person building new bio-viruses in a basement laboratory that if delivered could kill millions of people. Do civil rights apply, or should society impose sanctions before the fact? In bin-Laden’s case, was the killing justified because many believed it will help save lives and create a better future? To reduce the number of future SIMADs, healthy psychological development of all children should be the concern of everyone. Such observations are not new, but the consequences of failure to realize their importance may be much more serious in the future than in the past.

The moral will to act in collaboration across national, institutional, religious, and ideological boundaries that is necessary to address today’s global challenges requires global ethics. Public morality based on religious metaphysics is challenged daily by growing secularism, leaving many unsure about the moral basis for decision-making. Unfortunately, religions and ideologies that claim moral superiority give rise to “we-they” splits.

The UN Global Compact — with 8,000 participants, including over 5,300 businesses in 130 countries — was created to reinforce ethics in decision-making; it has improved business-NGO collaboration, raised the profile of corporate responsibility programs, and increased businesses’ non-financial reporting mandates in many countries. The Compact has been used to encourage corporations to urge their countries to ratify the UN Convention against Corruption, which has been ratified by 143 states. As of March 2011 there were 26 first-year country reviews of corruption under way via the convention. Article 51 calls on states parties to return stolen assets; the unethically acquired wealth by Arab dictators is being uncovered, and this might be a test of this article. The International Criminal Court has successfully tried political leaders, and proceedings are Web-cast.

Some believe that Wikileaks will ultimately improve ethical considerations in global decisions, since, it is argued, it shows that many unethical decisions led to poorer results than expected. The global financial crisis demonstrated the interdependence of economics and ethics.

Although quick fixes have pulled the world out of recession, the underlining ethics has not been addressed sufficiently to prevent future crises. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights continues to shape discussions about global ethics and decisions across religious and ideological divides. UNESCO’s Global Ethics Observatory is a set of databases of ethics institutions, teaching, codes of contact, and experts.

Collective responsibility for global ethics in decisionmaking is embryonic but growing. Corporate social responsibility programs, ethical marketing, and social investing are increasing. Global ethics also are emerging around the world through the evolution of ISO standards and international treaties that are defining the norms of civilization. Yet 12–27 million people are slaves today, more than at the height of the nineteenth-century slave trade; the World Bank estimates over $1 trillion is paid each year in bribes; and organized crime takes in $2–3 trillion annually.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index measures perceived levels of corruption in the public sector in 178 countries. In 2010 the least corrupt countries were seen to be Denmark, New Zealand, and Singapore; the most corrupt were Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, and Chad. Sixty percent of the people surveyed said that they thought corruption in their countries had increased over the last three years; in Europe, almost 75% said they thought things were getting worse. Around the world, 25% said that they paid bribes in the last year to police (mentioned most often), tax authorities, and other officials. In poor countries, half the people reported paying a bribe in the past year, usually for permits, improved services, and to “avoid problems with authorities.”

Entertainment media could promote memes like “make decisions that are good for me, you, and the world.” We need to create better incentives for ethics in global decisions, promote parental guidance to establish a sense of values, encourage respect for legitimate authority, support the identification and success of the influence of role models, implement cost-effective strategies for global education for a more enlightened world, and make behavior match the values people say they believe in. Ethical and spiritual education should grow in balance with the new powers given to humanity by technological progress. Challenge 15 will be addressed seriously when corruption decreases by 50% from the World Bank estimates of 2006, when ethical business standards are internationally practiced and regularly audited, when essentially all students receive education in ethics and responsible citizenship, and when there is a general acknowledgment that global ethics transcends religion and nationality.

Regional Considerations

Africa: The North African uprisings in 2011 were calls for ethics in decision-making. Transparency International chapters in sub-Saharan Africa work to counter corruption. The Business Ethics Network of Africa continues to grow, with conferences, research, and publications. Most African government anti-corruption units are not considered successful, Eight African countries surveyed by Transparency International report that 20% of those interviewed in eight African countries surveyed who had contact with the judicial system reported having paid a bribe.

Asia and Oceania: As China’s global decision-making role increases, it will face traditional versus western value conflicts. Some believe the rate of urbanization and economic growth is so fast in Asia that it is difficult to consider global ethics, while Asians do not believe there are common global ethics and maintain that the pursuit to create them is a western notion.

Europe: Long-range demographic projections indicate Europe will become the first Moslemmajority content [sic]. The European integration processes both help and challenge ethical standards as cultures meet and question each others’ ways of thinking and acting. Its future immigration policies will have global significance, increasing discussions of ethics and identity for Europe. The European Ethics Network is linking efforts to improve ethical decision-making, while Ethics Enterprise is working to mobilize an international network of ethicists and organizes innovative actions to attract attention for ethics in business.

Latin America: University courses in business ethics are growing throughout Latin America. Problems such as lack of personal security, limited access to education and health services, lack of faith in politics, badly damaged institutions that do not fulfill their role (such as the Justice system and police), and accelerated environmental degradation in some countries are aspects of a serious lack of ethical values. The prevalence of legal formality, in other countries, does not guarantee equal rights, as large sections of the population remain excluded from the guarantees of goods and people. It also manifests a serious lack of ethical standards in the mass media.

North America: With the emergence of the G8 and BRIC — the emerging powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China — and the increasing powers of the World Trade Organization, ICC, regional organizations, and social media, it is reasonable to forecast a transition from the U.S. being the only superpower to a more multipolar world. But how that will change global decision-making and ethical considerations is not as clear. Although the U.S. has provided some leadership in bringing ethical considerations into many international organizations and forums, its ethical leadership is compromised — there is still no generally accepted way to get corrupting money out of politics and elections or to stop “cozy relationships” between regulators and those they regulate.

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