Ethics Education


A Code for Global Universal Ethics Education, its conceptual foundations and its political implications
By Enno A. Winkler MD PhD

Abstract: The paper analyzes the political, philosophical, societal, legal, educational, biological and technological reasons why there is an urgent need for intercultural and interfaith ethics in the world and whether it would be possible to formulate a valid code of such ethics. It is shown that universal ethics could be based on natural law which can be understood in a religious as well as in a secular way. Alternatively it could be based on one single supreme principle, which is independent of worldview and culture and which is human dignity. In accordance herewith, a minimalist and normative code of essential, self-evident universal ethical principles and norms is proposed. This code does not require special erudition, or even literacy, to be understood and is easy to remember, facilitating compliance. The implementation of universal ethics in society is a long-term political task and could be achieved by including it in the compulsory school education of all countries and in the UNESCOs agenda of Global Citizen Education.

Keywords: Universal ethics, global moral values, human dignity, ethics education, global citizen education, interfaith, intercultural, risk prevention.


Do we need universal ethics, that is, ethics which is valid across places, cultures, religions, secular worldviews and times? How could a code of universal ethics conceptually be justified? And how could it be formulated? Does ethics have a biological basis? How could the code be implemented around the world? Would education policy help with implementation?

1. The need for universal ethics
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed, that we are neither wholly determined to act by natural impulse, nor are we free of non-rational impulse. Hence we need some common rules of conduct, which tell us how we ought to act when it is in our power to choose (1). Charles Darwin (1809- 1882) considered morality a crucial instinct for survival in social animals: No tribe (or other community) could hold together if murder, robbery, falseness, etc. were common (2). And Sissela Bok (1934-) thought that  a minimalist  set of common moral values that everyone knows is indispensable for  interpersonal, cross-cultural and interfaith communication and cooperation (3). However, there are also other, crucial reasons why we need universal ethics and I would like to add some of the most obvious:
1. To achieve a more peaceful and sustainable world in which every human individual, family and community can have a good life and thrive.
2. To serve as guidance to policy across places, cultures, beliefs and times.
3. To provide the Universal Human Rights of the United Nations with their necessary and up to now lacking counterpart, that is, with Universal Human Duties. Rights are not sustainable without duties. Also, without obligations in common any claim supported by strong lobbies could eventually be presented as a human right.
4. To provide UNESCO’s Global Citizenship Education Program (GCED) with universally valid moral standards.
5. Specific ethics such as political ethics, security ethics, bioethics, business ethics, educational ethics, public sector ethics, environmental ethics, information ethics, etc. and positive law require a starting point, a common foundation/ lowest denominator, to be consistent.
6. Long term existential risk reduction/prevention:  Humanity will disappear when our planet, solar system or galaxy undergo substantial changes or disintegrate, at the latest in 800-900 million years when the rising temperatures caused by the changing sun will make the biosphere unsustainable (4). But long before humans will become extinct due to certain processes and events, which are partially or totally produced by themselves, if they are not willing to accept basic rules of conduct in common.
Such events/processes could be: overpopulation; exhaustion of natural resources and energy; grey goo; poisoning of the land, atmosphere and oceans; nuclear, chemical, biological,  climatic and cyber disasters; pandemics; global drug addiction;  genetic degeneration;  destruction of the biologic family;  normalization of physical and mental disorders; sectarian interests converted into ideologies, ideologies converted into religions and religions converted  into ideologies; mind control technology; autonomic artificial intelligence; systemic loss, violation or misrepresentation of moral values and law / anarchy; global madness; global terrorism, global wars and “new” wars (5)  which cannot be prevented nor solved with technical weapons only; etc. It could be that one or another of these processes even constitutes what I would call “human phyloapoptosis” or programmed death of the human species, but which human will could change.
Hereinafter, a normative and minimalist code for global universal ethics education will be proposed which was developed by the author in the nineties and published on his website in 2002, however without giving any arguments (6).


2. Definitions and methodology

2.1. Methodology 

A code of universal ethics could be based on Natural Law, which is the most agreed upon metaphysical foundation of universal ethics. Another approach, which is based on one supreme ethical principle, will be presented in the discussion.

The concept of Natural Law is as old as philosophy and can be traced back to Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 536–470 B.C.E.)  in the west (7)  and  Lao-tze (c. 604. - c. 531 B.C.E.) in the east (8), showing a remarkable simultaneity in its appearance. It may be, however, that it emerged even earlier in civilizations of which we have no written record. Later it is found in one form or another in almost all major religions and philosophies, although it became most developed in the Christian tradition.
If we follow the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), who is a successor of Saint Thomas de Aquinas (1225-1274), “Natural Law is an ideal order relating to human actions, a divide between the suitable and the unsuitable, between what is proper and what is improper to the ends of human nature or essence”(9). It is that participation of the Eternal Law of the cosmos (the ontological element) whose knowledge is innate to man and can be discovered by him (the gnoseological element) by becoming aware of his inclinations/moral instincts and applying reason (10).
According to Maritain, this cognitive process advances little by little as man’s moral conscience develops, temporary errors included. Although the Eternal Law of the cosmos (and thus also Natural Law) is divine for the Thomists, I hold that it can be understood also in a secular way. In both cases Natural Law will remain to be that participation of the Eternal Law whose knowledge is innate to man and can be discovered by him.

In order to relativize the historical connotations of the gnoseological component of classical Natural Law, it is convenient, however, to restrict Natural Law to the very essentials for human existence and fulfilment. It is also appropriate to replace "becoming aware of man’s inclinations/instincts” with "intuition / revelation".

What is important for the purpose of this presentation is that both the religious and the secular perception of the Eternal Law of the cosmos and ergo of Natural Law can coexist in peace and with them the religious and secular understanding of universal ethics.

Based on these conceptual foundations, the identification of essential and self-evident ethical principles and norms for human survival and fulfillment and their compilation to a code of universal ethics was done using life experience, intuition, research (study of the history of ethical thought, cultures, religions, human evolution, genetics, neuroscience, sociology, psychology and astrophysics) and applying reason.

2.2. Definitions

Humans are biological, self-conscious living beings, which are endowed with reason, are dualistic both individual and social, and are conditioned for inhabiting the planet earth and its reachable surroundings.  This essence of human nature is the same in all people and independent of human religions, worldviews, cultures and history.
Universal in our context means that it applies to all people across places, cultures, religions, worldviews and lifetimes of the human individuals, human societies and the human species as a whole.  Since  —according to Maritain­—  everything existing in nature has his own natural law (that is the normality of its functioning) , human universal ethics is universal only for humans and disappears when humanity becomes extinct.
Minimalist: The code has to be narrowed down to the ends of the very essence of human nature, in order to 1) relativize the historical connotations of the gnoseological element of classical natural law and 2) serve as the starting point and lowest common denominator for specific ethics and positive law. Apart from this, “minimalist values require no special erudition, or even literacy, to be understood” ( 3) and are easy to remember, which is a prerequisite for compliance.
Innate or connatural knowledge is genetically and epigenetically transmitted preconscious knowledge, in the literature sometimes also referred to as “inconscient” knowledge.
Instinct: Instincts are pre/subconscious processed complex patterns of automated behaviour.
Intuition, which in a religious context may be perceived as revelation, is the becoming aware of the results of the subconscious processing (“reasoning” at evolutionarily lower level brain centers) of accessible preconscious, subconscious and conscious knowledge, of which the first is innate and the latter two are acquired.
Normative :  A code of universal ethics has to be normative, that is, possess a moral and legal ought to guide human actions and choices. According to Maritain, Natural Law binds all men collectively and each one separately.  


3. Proposal of a code of universal ethics
3.1. The Code                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         


Each human being is endowed with personal dignity.
His liberty finds its limits where the dignity of the other begins.                                                            State, religious, economic and other office holders are in his service


1) Respect the other as yourself.
2) Do not lie.
3) Do not steal.
4) Respect life.
5) Protect nature.


The violation of these principles and commandments is subject to social rejection and punishment under equal rules and law for everybody. 

3. 2. Explanatory notes
3. 2. 1 Principles: Principle I refers to the dignity of the human individual, that is, to his liberty. It is the origin, basis and fundamental content and end of any human ethics and can be found in all major religions, secular worldviews, constitutions and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (11).  Principle II regulates the situation when there are two or more individuals, restricting the unlimited liberty of an individual in relation to his next (rationale of social behaviour, equality and justice). For example, freedom of expression ends where the dignity of the other begins. And Principle III regulates the relations in an organized human community. It is the democratic principle, based on human dignity, and a logical consequence of principles I and II.
3.2.2. Commandments: These commandments are the essentials and self-evident. Their combination enables derive secondary moral norms using experience and practical reason. The combination of commandments 2) y 3) for example gives: Do not defraud / do not corrupt! The combination of commandments 1) y 4) encloses: Do not torture!
Commandment 1) applies not only to human individuals, but, by extension, also to their natural environment as basis of their existence and to their family, community and society as a whole. It is the rule of reciprocity, the “golden rule”, the most basic norm which regulates the relations between people and reflects nonviolence, the human rights and the democratic principle. It is modified, though, in order to be valid also in the absence of empathy, sympathy or compassion and to allow solving certain situations, such as when a judge has to put someone in prison for breaking the law. Commandments 2) and 3) are basic norms that are crucial for transparency, trust and security and thus for the peaceful coexistence of people. Commandment 4) protects the life and integrity of humans, animals and plants, the most basic right of every living being. But it does not say “Do not kill” since that would exclude all life that depends on organic alimentation, would exclude defend us against microbes and assassins, and would exclude issues like voluntary euthanasia. Since animals and plants are included in this commandment, it leads over to Commandment 5) that protects nature (and thus environment), because it is the origin and basis of our existence. It says “protect nature” and not “preserve nature” because the latter would exclude feed us from nature or destroy a meteorite that threatens earth.
Since life is not just a black or white issue, moral situations are not either. In some situations it may be necessary to go back to the most essential norm of universal ethics which is the modified golden rule and use practical reason and life experience to solve a moral question.
3.2.3. Enforcement:  This provision is intended to ensure that the code is not only a moral “ought”, but also a legal “ought” from which there is no escape because its violation is punishable. Punishment, however, presupposes the will to commit an inexcusable ethical violation. Sometimes a lower-ranking ethical norm has to be violated in order to save a higher norm or there may be doubts as to which norm is the one to comply with. In these cases the judgement has to take into account the circumstances of the offense and possibly acquit the offender.

3.3. Implementation of universal ethics
3.3.1. Readiness: The implementation of universal ethics requires a political, societal, cultural and religious climate that is open to interfaith and intercultural ethics. The fostering of this readiness is an assignment of education, information, and intercultural and interfaith experience of all stakeholders of the civic society.
3.3.2. Education: Human behaviour is determined in early childhood. Universal ethics should therefore be included into the compulsory school education of all countries. I started a campaign in this sense, asking teachers, schools and local, regional and national educational authorities to integrate universal ethics into the teaching of their area of influence (12).  A good idea would be the incorporation of the Code of Universal Ethics  into UNESCOs  Global Citizen Education (GCED), which puts emphasis on  the education in key universal values but does not define basic ethics in common (13).
3.3.3. Legislation: The universality of the code excludes the existence of legally binding norms that conflict with it. Teaching universal ethics —for the moment possibly just as an aspiration/postulate, to facilitate acceptance particularly in countries with historical-relativistic compatibility reservations such as China—  will cause that existing conflicting norms will be adapted to the code over time and that new norms will respect the code. This is a long term political process, which could last 3-4 generations (75-100 years), that is until universal ethics is fully established in the education, public opinion and law of all countries.


4. Discussion
It is a fact that philosophers discussed ethics for millennia without managing to establish a valid code of universal ethics for humans. By trying to give universal ethics a metaphysical foundation, their attempts usually got lost in the labyrinths of philosophical circular thinking. Other attempts, such as those of the UN / UNESCO and those of the Parliament of World Religions, also failed all.

The question is, could there be a code of ethics, which is not based on metaphysics, but nevertheless is universal in the terms given above?  I think yes! Sissela Bok suggested that a minimalist set of common values already recognized in every society, which leaves room for cultural diversity, could be acknowledged as common and be respected all over the world (14).  However, universal ethics for humans could be build also upon just one single “supreme principle of morality” (Kant) (15),  deriving other essential principles and rules from this supreme principle. Unlike for Kant, the supreme principle of morality for me is not an order how to establish universal moral norms, but the most obvious and consented principle/end of human existence, which is that we already know from natural law ethics: Human dignity. The commitment to human dignity, in form of the Golden Rule or Rule of Reciprocity, evidently originated in the human dualistic condition as both an individual and a social being. Reciprocal “morality”, in fact, even can be traced back to the existential instinct of the first primitive animals to contribute to the survival and progression of the group, in order to ensure in turn their own survival and progression. According to H.J. Gensler the golden rule has been common to all major religions and philosophies throughout human history (16).
The resulting minimalist, normative, universal ethics could be called the Ethics of Human Dignity and textually would be the same as the code of Natural Law Ethics described above.  Both ethics, though, are first and foremost Existential Ethics.

There is much discussion whether the so called eastern collectivistic and western individualistic cultures can tolerate a common basic ethics. However, intercultural plurality could be interpreted as a surface phenomenon which is assuredly compatible with an universally valid depth-structure of the ethical consciousness (17). Cross-cultural psychologist S. Schwartz found that individualism and collectivism do not necessarily conflict (18).  What is more, China as the most influential representative of eastern cultures even does not defend a cultural-relativistic, but only a historical-relativistic position (19).

Some critics of a code of common basic ethics also argue that such code does not regulate specifics or that the code would “require a process for extending to the specifics of any particular issues between any particular combination of cultures or interest”.  Ideally this extension process would consist in deriving the specifics from the code using experience and practical reason. But there are already myriads of laws and norms in use in the world (which in addition are meticulously diversified by millions of legislators, judges, public prosecutors and lawyers),  which of course cannot all be enumerated in one single code nor can they be derived from the code or adapted to it in a single act. Neither specific human situations nor their appropriate regulations, however, are contained in the essence of man (20).  Specifics are the field of specific ethics and common law, not of a superior code of universal ethics. Although the specifics inversely must comply with the code, and if not, have to be adapted to it over time. In any case, there seems to be no need for a complex system of ethics to guide human choices and actions in general.

The leap from essential, self-evident moral principles and rules, whether religiously or secularly justified, to a code of universal human ethics is ultimately a decision of the free will, that is, a political decision. It is that free will that can decide to a great extent whether humanity will continue on the path of self-destruction or will work for an earth where all people can thrive.


5. Conclusion
There is an obvious and urgent need for a code of interfaith and intercultural ethics in the world. This universal ethics is possible if based on natural law —which can be understood in a religious as well as in a secular way— or alternatively on one single supreme principle which is derived from the nature of man and which is the same as the first principle of natural law ethics: Human dignity. On this conceptual basis, a code of essential, self-evident ethical principles and norms is formulated, using intuition, research and applying reason. The code does not require special erudition, or even literacy, to be understood, and is easy to remember, facilitating compliance. The implementation of universal ethics is a long-term political task and could be achieved by including it in the compulsory school education of all countries and in the UNESCOs agenda of Global Citizen Education.


6. Notes:
1 McCormick n.d., chapter 8b. 
2 Darwin 1874, 117.
3 Bok 1995a. 
4 Bounama et al. 2004.
5 Kaldor 2013
6 Winkler 2002.
7 Rommen 1936, part I, chapter I.
8 Shih 1953, 117-156. 
9 Maritain 2001a, 29. 
10 ____. 2001b, 27-35
11 The Chinese Constitution stipulates in Article 38 that "The personal dignity of the citizens of the People's Republic of China is inviolable”. See also Chengming and Yucheng 2014.
12 Winkler 2012.
13 UNESCO 2015.
14 Bok 1995b.
15 Wood n .d.
16 Gensler 2013, 76-107. .
17 See Schockenhoff 2003, 73.
18 Schwartz 1990: cited in Yu 1990.
19 Pohl, n.d
20 Maritain 2001c, 30.

7. References:
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Kaldor, M., (2013). In Defence of New Wars. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 2(1), p.Art. 4. DOI:
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­­­McCormick, M. (n.d.). “Immanuel Kant: Metaphysics.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
Pohl, K.H.(n.d.). “ Zur Universalität und Relativität von Ethik und Menschenrechten im Dialog mit China”,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
Rommen, H.A. (1936). “The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy.” Translation by Thomas R. Hanley. Introduction and Bibliography by Russell Hittinger, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
Schockenhoff, E. (2003): “Natural Law & Human Dignity. Universal Ethics in an Historical World.” Translation by Brian McNeil. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.
Shih, H. (1953).” The Natural Law in the Chinese Tradition”, In: Natural Law Institute Proceedings, Vol. 5, Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
UNESCO (2015). “Global Citizenship Education: Topics and learning objectives.” Paris: UNESCO,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
Winkler, E.A., (2002). “A code of global universal ethics”,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
____. (2012). “Universal ethics campaign”,, accessed on 28 May 2017.
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Yu, C.H. (1990). “Chinese ethics and universal human rights”,, accessed on 28 May 2017.

© 29/05/2017  Enno A.Winkler