Ethics for the New Era

Sunday 12 July 2009 by CEPRID

Leonardo Boff


Earthcharter Commission

No society, either past or present, lives without an ethic. As social beings, we need to develop a certain consensus, restrain certain actions and create collective projects that give meaning and direction to history. Today, due to globalization, we see the interaction of many ethical systems, which are not all mutually compatible. Given the new era of humanity, now globalized, there is an urgent need for a minimum ethical base that is acceptable to all, in order to facilitate coexistence among peoples. Let us briefly look at how ethics have been formulated throughout history.

Religions are a permanent source of ethics. They encourage values, dictate behavior, and give meaning to the lives of a large portion of humanity, that, in spite of the process of secularization, is governed by a religious world view. Since religions are many and varied, the ethical norms also vary. It would be difficult to establish an ethical consensus based only on religion. Which religion would we take as a reference point? An ethic founded on religion, however, has an inestimable value, because it references the ultimate foundation, that is, the Absolute. The second source is reason. One accomplishment of the Greek philosophers was to build an ethical structure founded on something universal, namely reason, which is present in all human beings. They called the norms that rule personal life ethics, and those that preside over social life, politics. That is why, to the Greeks, politics is always ethical. They did not have, as we do, politics without ethics.

This rational ethic cannot be abandoned, but it does not cover all of human life, because there are other dimensions that are pre-rational, as the emotional life, or post-rational, such as aesthetics and the spiritual experience.

The third source is desire. We are, by nature, beings of desire. Desire possesses an infinite structure. It does not know limits and is undefined because it is naturally diffused. It behooves human beings to give it form. Norms and values appear in the way desire is realized, limited and directed. The ethics of desire melds perfectly with the modern culture that arose from the desire to conquer the world. It acquired a particular form in capitalism, with its drive to satisfy all desires. And it accomplishes this in a manner that exacerbates all desires. The realization of desire is equated with happiness, but in truth, without restraints or controls it can put the species in danger and destroy the planet. We need to integrate it into something more fundamental.

The fourth source is caring, founded in sensible reason and in its rational expression, responsibility. Caring is essentially linked to life, because life without caring cannot be maintained. This is why there is a philosophical tradition that derives from antiquity, the 220 fable-myth of Higinius, that defines the human being as an essentially caring being. The ethics of caring protects, strengthens, preserves, heals and prevents. By its nature, it is not aggressive and when it intervenes in reality it takes into account the benefic or malefic consequences of the intervention. In other words, it is responsible in all human actions. Caring and responsibility always go together.

This ethic is imperative now. The planet, nature, humanity, the peoples, the world of life (Lebenswelt) are calling for caring and responsibility. If we do not transform these attitudes into normative values it will be difficult to avoid catastrophe at all levels. The problems of global warming and the collection of different crises will only be resolved in the spirit of an ethic of collective caring and responsibility. The ethics of a new era. The ethic of caring does not invalidate the other ethics, but makes them serve the principal objective, which is to safeguard life and preserve our Common Home, so that it may continue being inhabitable.

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