We Need a New Sense of Shared Ethics


Sur le Collegium International, lors de sa création :

L'article de Flora Lewis, publié dans le Herald Tribune du 2 juin 2002, place la création du Collegium international dans le contexte de deux événements décisifs pour le XXIème siècle naissant : le choc des civilisations à travers l'attaque du WTC le 11 septembre 2001 et la révélation de la dérégulation financière par le scandale Enron/Arthur Andersen (d'ailleurs suivi par l'affaire Goldman Sachs/Etat grec).

Herland Tribune, Flora Lewis, Saturday, February 2, 2002

There is an underlying link between the great shocks that brought down two power houses of capitalism, the World Trade Center and Enron, and that reminded us how vulnerable the West is, even in the aspects of the modern world that it dominates. These shocks oblige an effort to think more deeply about the kinds of societies the West is creating, what makes them so offensive to people who purport to seek pure spirituality, and what makes them have such unfair effects.

Ordinary crime is a plague that attacks the need to be able to go about one’s everyday business in safety. But terrorism such as the Sept. 11 attacks defies the very idea of an orderly society, undermining it and replacing its values with a different set of aspirations, whether religious, nationalist, political or otherwise.

Dishonesty in business is nothing new, but megafraud on the scale of Enron’s collapse from a great corporate tower to rubble is a challenge to the values of the modern financial system. The market functions on certain assumptions of fair play and equal opportunity. If they can’t be relied upon, the precautions that would become necessary to make investment worthwhile would make the vast scale of today’s instantaneous exchanges impossible.

In the case both of public security and of economic reliability, a shared standard of ethics is essential. People don’t check on whether fellow airplane passengers, or fellow shoppers, have been certified not to be carrying dangerous weapons. People don’t make sure that the auditors of the blue ribbon company included its 700 special “partnerships” in the Cayman Islands in totaling its debts.

There is a trade-off between efficiency and regulation, but only up to the point where deregulation removes the assurances that expected ethical standards will be respected. Effective and enforced laws matter. Without the rule of law there is only the rule of force and ruse – not the kind of society we want to live in.

But the rule of law is not static, especially in today’s rapidly changing world. There still has to be a fundamental sense of the principles to be expressed through the law – and observed even without law – so there can be shared confidence, an ethos against which behavior can be measured as civilized or not.

I doubt that modern society is any less ethical than it used to be, possibly it is more so. But it feels degraded, perhaps because it is so much bigger and includes so many different kinds of people with conflicting customs, assorted hopes and shames, so many sheer technological and scientific possibilities posing issues people never faced before. There is, in any case, a greater felt need for an evident ethical dimension in the decisions, both private and public, that intervene in all aspects of life and add up to the texture of society.

Political decisions, including how to fight the war on terrorism, how to monitor the stock market, how to audit the auditors, are a part of this, but only a part. We know a great deal needs to be done, but we are not sure how to go about it. Ideology cannot be a guide. It has been discredited and proved too dangerous.

Several small international groups have been addressing these issues since well before the two big shocks that highlighted the urgency of the demands of this new era. One of them, convoked by Milan Kucan, the president of Slovenia, met recently at Bled in Slovenia and prepared an “Appeal for the Establishment of an International Ethical, Political and Scientific Collegium” to be composed of statesmen, experts and laymen.

The document calls for a “world citizenry,” despite the lack of governance in the world at large, and “with time, a world democracy,” though there must be an “ethical quality to the democratic model which is cruelly lacking today. Democracy cannot be confined to the electoral principle or even to the power of people to govern themselves.”

There is a need to rethink the essential values of the society we want, why so many people don’t seem to consider them self-evident, why so many people feel that something of great importance is missing. And we need to rethink what we want to do about these values. It isn’t a matter of new rules but of adjusting the rules we are comfortable with to the new patterns of a world that has changed so much.

Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune – Flora Lewis