-Universal ethics and global moral education-

This is a preprint version  of the article published as:
Winkler, E.A. (2022) Are universal ethics necessary? And possible?
A systematic theory of universal ethics and a code for global moral education. 
SN Soc Sci 2, 66. https://doi.org/10.1007/s43545-022-00350-7


Are universal ethics necessary? And possible?

A systematic theory of universal ethics and a code for global moral education

By Enno A. Winkler MD PhD


Abstract: This paper analyzes the political, philosophical, societal, legal, educational, biological, psychological and technological reasons why there is an urgent need for basic intercultural and interfaith ethics in the world and whether it is possible to formulate a valid code of such ethics. It is shown that universal ethics could be founded on natural law, which can be understood in both religious and secular ways. Alternatively, universal ethics could be based on a single supreme principle that is independent of worldview and culture: human dignity. In accordance with these concepts, a minimalist and normative code of essential, self-evident universal ethical principles and norms is proposed. The implementation of universal ethics in society is a long-term political task that could be achieved by including universal ethics in the compulsory school curriculum of all countries and in the UNESCO agenda of Global Citizen Education.

Keywords: universal ethics, global moral values, human dignity, ethics education, global citizen education, interfaith, intercultural, risk prevention, peace and conflict




Do we need universal ethics, that is, basic ethics that are valid across places, cultures, religions, secular worldviews and times and that serve as an objective foundation for specific ethics, common law and global moral education? How could a code of universal ethics conceptually be justified? And how could it be formulated? What are the prerequisites? Do ethics have a biological basis (Wilson 1998)? How could a code of universal ethics be implemented around the world?

Some people are now fighting the climate disaster. However, climate change is only one of the many threats to humankind that are caused or will be caused by the underlying main problem:  human behavior and the lack of a minimum set of human values that all people have in common and that all people are obliged to respect. Our challenge for the twenty-first century is therefore to discover a rational basis for a global ethics, which has a universal normative force, but assumes cultural differences, and to set up this ethics (Cortina 2014).

The following study and its conclusions are an effort to unravel the tohuwabohu of myriads of existing ethical opinions, beliefs, ideas and frameworks that generally lack a valid universal foundation/source of authority, evaluate their essence in the light of intuition (innate knowledge), life experience, the natural and human sciences and reason, and create a system of ethics that is truly universal and systhematic, coherent and practicable. By making it known to political, cultural, sociological, religious, moral, legal, educational, psychological, economic, anthropological and environmental scientists and other interested persons, it opens up to debate,  improvement and further development.

1. The need for universal ethics

Immanuel Kant believed that we are neither wholly determined to act by natural impulse nor free of nonrational impulse. Hence, we need some common rules of conduct that tell us how we ought to act when it is in our power to choose (McCormick n.d., chap. 8b). Charles Darwin (1874, 117) considered morality a crucial instinct for survival in social animals: no tribe (or other community) can hold together if behaviors such as murder, robbery, and falseness are common. And Sissela Bok (1995/2002, 12-13) thought that a minimalist set of common moral values that everyone knows is indispensable for interpersonal, cross-cultural and interfaith communication and cooperation. However, there are also other crucial reasons why we need universal ethics, and I would like to add several 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 for politics across places, cultures, beliefs and times.
3. To provide the Universal Human Rights of the United Nations (1948) with their necessary and, until now, missing counterpart: Universal Human Duties. Rights are not sustainable without duties (Arias Sanchez 1997). In addition, 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)(2015) with universally valid moral standards.
5. Secondary or specific/applied ethics such as political ethics, security ethics, bioethics, business ethics, educational ethics, public sector ethics, environmental ethics, information ethics, and positive law, presuppose a common starting point/objective foundation to be consistent. Otherwise, they would only reflect the personal feelings and opinions of their authors. This also applies to global moral education.               
6. Long-term existential risk reduction/prevention (see also Bostrom 2002):  Humanity will disappear when our planet, solar system or galaxy undergo substantial changes or disintegrate, in 800-900 million years at the latest when the rising temperatures caused by the changing sun will make the biosphere unsustainable (Bounama, von Bloh and Franck 2004). However, humans will become extinct long before then due to certain processes and events that are partially or totally caused by themselves if they are not willing to accept basic rules of conduct in common.
Such events/processes could include overpopulation; the exhaustion of natural resources and energy; gray goo; poisoning of the land, atmosphere and oceans; nuclear, chemical, biological,  climatic and cyber disasters; pandemics; global drug addiction;  genetic and immunological degeneration; losing the balance between individualism and collectivism;  the destruction of the biological family; a decline in social integration and cohesion; an increase in psychopaths; the normalization of physical and mental disorders; sectarian interests converted into ideologies, ideologies converted into religions and religions converted  into ideologies or even sectarian interests; corruption of the mind, language and power; indoctrination and mind-control/programming technology; autonomic artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness; the dehumanization of human enhancement technologies (transhumanism); the abolition of human dignity; systemic loss, violation or misrepresentation of moral values and law/anarchy; an increase in human evilness and aggressiveness; global madness; and global terrorism, global wars and “new” wars (Kaldor 2013) that cannot be prevented or solved with technical weapons alone. It could be that one or another or a combination of these processes will even constitute what I would call “human phyloapoptosis” or the programmed death of the human species, but that the human will could override.

Hereinafter, a systematic theory of universal ethics is presented and a normative and minimalist universal code of ethics is proposed, which was developed by the author in the 1990s and published in 2002, without, however, providing its conceptual foundations (Winkler 2002).


2. Definitions and Methodology

2.1. Methodology 
A universal ethic for humans is like a tree where the roots are the foundation and the trunk is the code. From the trunk arise branches, twigs and leaves that simbolizise secondary or specific/applied ethics such as political, environmental, bio-, business and professional ethics, and laws and rules, respectively, in accordance with their locational, cultural, historical, or other circumstantial context.

Ethical theories such as deontological ethics, consequentialist/utilitarian ethics, virtue ethics, the various types of contract/consensus/discourse ethics, the ethics of justice, and ideology based ethics, all of which are general ethics that often have been intended or misinterpreted as universal/global ethics, do not fit into this scheme because their foundations/sources of authority are neither universal, if the connotations of place, culture, times, personal characteristics or other circumstances cannot be eliminated, nor are they specific. That is why they have difficulties, inter alia, in formulating a valid code of universal ethics.

A code or system 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 BCE) in the West (Rommen 1936, 5-6) and  Lao-tze (c.604-531 BCE)  in the East (Shih 1953, 125-128), showing remarkable simultaneity in its emergence. It may be, however, that natural law emerged even earlier in civilizations of which we have no or no coeval written record, as is the case of the indian Rigveda that was composed between 1500 and 1200 BCE (Mohanty 2019) but written down only hundreds of years later, which makes it uncertain whether the idea of eternal / natural law was there from the beginning or was added only later. Thereafter, natural law is found in one form or another in almost all major religions and philosophies, although it has been most developed in the Christian tradition (see International Theological Commission 2009).

If we follow the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (2001, 27-38), who is a successor of Saint Thomas de Aquinas, “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”. It is that participation in the eternal law of the cosmos (the ontological element), the knowledge of which is innate to humans and can be discovered by them (the gnoseological element) by becoming aware of their inclinations/moral instincts and applying reason.

According to Maritain, this cognitive process advances little by little as humankind’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 also be understood in a secular way, that is, as the totality of the laws of the cosmos. In both cases, natural law can be defined as that participation in the eternal law, the knowledge of which is innate to humans and can be discovered by them.

To relativize the historical connotations of the gnoseological component of classical natural law, however, it is convenient to restrict natural law to the very essentials of human existence and fulfillment (see also International Theological Comission 2009, para.52). It is also appropriate to replace "becoming aware of human’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 into a code of universal ethics were performed using intuition, life experience, research (study of the history of ethical thought, cultures, religions, human evolution, ecology, genetics, neuroscience, sociology, psychology and astrophysics) and applying reason.

2.2. Definitions
Humans, as a species, are biological, self-aware living beings that are endowed with reason and personal dignity, are dualistic (both individual and social) and are conditioned to inhabit the planet Earth and its reachable surroundings.  This essence of human nature is the same in all people and is independent of religions, worldviews, cultures and history. Human beings, who, for whatever reason, lack self-awareness or reason, are still humans,

Ethics are a system of moral principles and norms that guide the relationships between humans and between humans and their natural and artificial environment. The code of ethics described in this paper does not include the relationship between humans and God, thereby allowing the parallel coexistence of the code with religious codes.

Universal, in our context, means that it applies to all people across places, cultures, religions, worldviews and lifetimes of human individuals, human societies and the human species as a whole. This definition also implies that what is universal must be normative. Since —according to Maritain (2001, 28) — everything existing in nature has its own natural law (that is, the normality of its functioning), human universal ethics are universal only for humans and will disappear when humanity becomes extinct, either as a result of the events and processes described above and/or, in an extreme situation, by collective suicide.

: The code must be narrowed 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, positive law and global moral education. Furthermore, “minimalist values require no special erudition, or even literacy, to be understood” (Bok 1995/2002, 18-19) and are easy to remember, which is a prerequisite for compliance.

Innate or connatural knowledge is genetically and epigenetically transmitted preconscious knowledge
Instinct: Instincts are pre-/subconsciously processed complex patterns of automated behavior.

Intuition, which in a religious context can be confused with revelation, is the act of becoming aware of the results of 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: To be 1) universal and 2) effective, a code of universal ethics has to be normative; that is, it must possess not only a moral "ought" but also a legal "ought" to guide human actions and choices. According to Rommen (1936, 138), natural law binds all people collectively and each one separately.


3.  Proposal of a code of universal ethics

3.1. The code

1) Each human being is endowed with personal dignity. 2) His liberty finds its limits where the dignity of the other begins. 3) State, religious, economic and other office holders are in his service.