Challenging Religion’s Place in Global Affairs: Hans Küng on Peace, Ethics, and Corruption

By: Katherine Marshall

April 19, 2021

Hans Küng and the Global Ethic

Among Hans Küng’s most enduring contributions over a remarkable lifetime were his intensive efforts to define and elaborate a global ethical framework drawing on what he saw as the core, tested, and widely held principles of different religious traditions. He presented the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic as a foundational approach at a historic interreligious gathering, the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, and his approach has played important roles in shaping many subsequent interreligious discussions and institutions. Küng took the concepts well beyond dialogue in interreligious settings, with presentations and exhibitions at, notably, the Washington, DC, headquarters of the International Monetary Fund and the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum. The global ethic features in some university ethics curricula, and many continue to hope that it can be an effective instrument for uniting people worldwide in working together toward a more ethical world.

Küng argued that many have lost their moral footing in a globalized, fast-paced world largely driven by economic and political forces, and that a newly framed, unifying ethical framework was urgently needed. Until recently, discussions of public integrity and standards of civic behavior were often permeated with religious language, with debates shaped in large measure by theologians and religious leaders. Today, discussions of public integrity and ethics obviously vary by country and community, and the tenor and vocabulary rarely echo, at least explicitly, the past religiously infused approaches. While Küng understood the value of secular approaches, he knew that for many individuals and communities their religious traditions continue to provide both their moral anchors and compasses, and a powerful source of morally driven civic engagement.

While Küng understood the value of secular approaches, he knew that for many individuals and communities their religious traditions continue to provide both their moral anchors and compasses.

With the framework of the global ethic, Hans Küng engaged two critical sets of global issues: religious roles in peacebuilding, and international efforts to address corruption.

The roles that religious ideas, attitudes, and institutions play in conflicts is a central (and continuing) preoccupation of interreligious movements and action, and many analysts and practitioners hark back to Küng’s triple premises: There can be “no peace among the nations without peace among the religions,” and then “no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions,” and finally “no dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundation of the religions.” The focus on religious and moral foundations of both conflict and conflict resolution, and reliance on dialogue and, from there, engagement, has infused much work of interreligious engagement over the decades. First and foremost, it helps to ensure a thorough and thoughtful interrogation of religious dimensions of both conflicts and work for peace.

Hans Küng engaged also on the topic of corruption, in part through interactions with Transparency International and its founder, Peter Eigen. In an afterword to Eigen’s 2003 book that traces the global movement to fight graft, Küng outlines his argument that governance failures link to the lack of political will, in turn the result of the absence of “moral will” to back it. Without this moral will, which he ties to attitudes toward injustice, even the best laws are not implemented. He applies this analysis also to the market economic system and its social and ecological underpinnings: “History shows that successful economies have always relied on a strong moral foundation,” and economies crumble, he argues, when the foundation is undermined. Küng thus maintains that the global efforts to address both market systems and their failures, exemplified in corruption, must be linked to the effort to build on the common framework of a global ethic.

Küng maintains that the global efforts to address both market systems and their failures, exemplified in corruption, must be linked to the effort to build on the common framework of a global ethic.

The language of human rights, which draws in important ways on religious principles, offers a shared universal framework. While the aspirations for this human rights framework are that it serves as a universal norm, we have yet to achieve that in a practical sense, and the lively contemporary debates around human rights show how far there is to go toward the ideal of a solid common ground. Different teachings and values in practice, including those taught by different religious bodies, need to play vital roles in moving people and framing their lived values in many settings.

Hans Küng wrote extensively about the foundations of the global ethic that he formulated, linking each segment to his understanding of two central principles: commitments to humanity and to relationships. Drawing on what he understood as commonalities in the major teachings of world religious traditions, he highlighted respect for life, non-violence, solidarity, justice, tolerance, truthfulness, gender equality, and partnership. Specific examples include his focus on teachings and core theology on the critical topics of honesty (“Thou shalt not lie”) and respect for property (“Thou shalt not steal”). His basic message was that there is indeed a powerful common core of shared moral principles, which constitutes a global ethic.

His basic message was that there is indeed a powerful common core of shared moral principles, which constitutes a global ethic. 

Hans Küng’s global ethic aspired to serve as a bridge connecting people and institutions across varying vocabularies and underlying approaches, in the process countering fears that invoking the moral teachings of individual faith traditions would be divisive in societies with several different religious and secular communities. Separating the global ethic from a single tradition might, he argued, help to counter skepticism as to whether faith leaders and institutions truly live up to their own preaching and teaching on morality. The framework was to advance what he saw as a continuing process of shaping common values toward acceptance of human rights, humane working conditions, and demands for protection of the environment

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