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BP and a global ethic

Guest Blogger

Bruce Rich looks far from our own world for solutions to the great problems facing civilization. His quest takes him back to ancient times where he finds virtue in an ethical system developed by an Indian emperor called Ashoka in the third century B.C. In his book “To Uphold the World: A Call for a New Global Ethic From Ancient India,” Rich shows how in our day of globalization and multicultural tensions we have much to learn from Ashoka’s policy of nonviolence and compassion. Here, he argues that the BP oil spill makes the need for a global ethic all the more pressing. Rich is a D.C. attorney who promotes environmental and social standards for international finance.

By Bruce Rich

In the aftermath of the BP oil spill what has been left unsaid amidst all the finger pointing is that it is the latest example of a global economy in desperate need of a global ethic.

The world economic system is driving a significant number of all living creatures to extinction. It is a world order -- or disorder -- which is increasingly undermining the biological foundations of long-term human civilization. Millions on the Gulf Coast now realize belatedly just how much their economic and social survival is linked to the respect and safeguard of other species and ecosystems.

The global order of the past 20 years has prioritized market forces over other social values and created a profoundly unstable, interconnected world. A financial crisis in Greece tanks the Dow Jones Industrial Average in New York and China’s cheap manufacturing affects the polar ice caps. It is a world not only of increased inequality and environmental deterioration, but, as the global financial crisis shows, one where the viability of whole societies, nations, and democracy itself can be put at risk.

A decade ago George Soros warned that market fundamentalism was a greater threat to human society than any totalitarian ideology, noting that “the supreme challenge of our time is to establish a set of values that applies to a largely transactional, global society.” In the words of Catholic theologian Hans Küng, “a global market economy requires a global ethic.” And each new environmental crisis forces us to recognize that an ethic of respect for all life is also an ethic for long-term human survival and well-being.

As an advocate for environmental and social standards for international finance, I thought of the historical nature of this principle, when in India I came across edicts etched into rock faces and stone pillars by the 3rd Century BC Indian Emperor Ashoka. A warrior who became a Buddhist, Ashoka expressed huge remorse over the suffering he caused in his final war unifying India.

His edicts, inscribed over much of South Asia, including most of today’s Afghanistan, set forth a secular ethic of compassion and non-violence, religious toleration, establishment of forest and nature reserves, and protection of species. Ashoka established a network of free medical services for humans and animals throughout his empire, as well as social welfare for widows and the indigent.

But Ashoka’s great ethical leap might not have taken place without the foundations laid by Kautilya, the chief counselor of Ashoka’s grandfather. Kautilya wrote history’s first treatise on economics, the “Arthasastra,” literally the “science of material wealth,” which proclaimed the accumulation of material riches as the chief underpinning of human society. He also recommended amoral realpolitik as an effective political approach and was a master of the practice.

Though their reasoning was different, Kautilya and Ashoka both helped the poor and protected forests and animals. Kautilya thought such measures strengthened the long-term stability of the state, while Ashoka acted on ethical principles of non-violence and protection of all life. Kautilya’s reasoning was utilitarian and rested on a narrow, pessimistic view of human nature. Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen has compared Kautilya’s view of human motivation to that of many conventional contemporary economists.

Ashoka wrote that he had changed his viewpoint and tried to create a civic order which would prompt a similar ethical change among the inhabitants of his empire. His was a more hopeful view of human nature, but he probably also realized the Kautilyan world view could not alone hold together a large, diverse empire of nations.

Two millennia later Adam Smith in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” concluded that the three values of justice, prudence and beneficence uphold the social and economic order. “Justice,” he emphasized, “is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice. ... if it is removed, the great, immense fabric of human society ... must in a moment crumble to atoms.” Ashoka went farther and recognized that justice, prudence and beneficence extended to all living beings.

Like Ashoka, we are living in a Kautilyan age and must find a new global ethic to preserve our civilization. Thinkers from Ashoka to Adam Smith to Amartya Sen, all see that if human society is to survive, economic activity has to be embedded in a framework of common ethical values. We need a global consensus for an ethic to guide national and international economic activity.

Some global lenders have set standards to mitigate the social and environmental impact of their projects. This is a small beginning in a universal consensus but not near enough. The need for a universal ethic is crucial. The BP disaster, coming in the wake of the global economic crisis, is yet one more wake up call. How many more are needed?

By Steven E. Levingston  |  June 22, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: global ethic; environmentalism and BP;  
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