The Global Ethic: Hans Küng’s Lasting Gift to the World

By: Myriam Renaud

May 3, 2021

Responding to: Hans Küng and the Global Ethic

The Global Ethic: Hans Küng’s Lasting Gift to the World

In the late 1980s, a question preoccupied Hans Küng: Can there be peace in the world without peace between the religions? Küng decided the answer was no—how then to end persistent conflict between the religions? Moral codes lay at the core of every religious tradition, and though too often transgressed, these codes aimed to secure justice, fairness, and freedom from violence. Küng decided that if these shared moral commitments could be identified, they would offer a foundation for cooperation, serving as common ground for the religious traditions to work together peacefully on issues of mutual concern.

Thus, Küng called for a global ethic. He chose the word “ethic” to indicate that he did not seek a theory of morality, but an “ethos,” a way of life guided by moral principles capable of fostering harmonious coexistence. The serendipitous coming together of Küng and leaders of the international Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago led to the document known as the global ethic, or officially, Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration)

He chose the word 'ethic' to indicate that he did not seek a theory of morality, but an 'ethos,' a way of life guided by moral principles capable of fostering harmonious coexistence.

Küng did not intend to elaborate this ethic himself, but the parliament’s then Executive Director Daniel Gómez-Ibañez persuaded him to take up this task. The parliament was organizing an international gathering of the religions in Chicago in 1993, and Gómez-Ibañez hoped to use this occasion to present the global ethic.

Küng decided the global ethic should not duplicate the U.N.’s Declaration of Human Rights, since rights are secured by agreements between nation-states. Instead, the global ethic would support the U.N.’s declaration by focusing on how human beings should treat each other. The global ethic would have a religious foundation but, to be inclusive, it would not contain explicitly religious or theological language. Finally, religious believers needed to recognize the outlines of moral codes familiar to them from their respective traditions.

The global ethic would have a religious foundation but, to be inclusive, it would not contain explicitly religious or theological language.

Küng anchored the global ethic in two foundational principles: the Golden Rule and the mandate to treat all human beings humanely. Based on these, Küng identified four moral commitments that he termed directives, describing them as irrevocable because they are unchanging and unconditional because they apply to everyone without exception. Still, their role was not to serve as “bonds and chains” but to provide moral orientation. The four directives are: 

  1. commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life
  2. commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
  3. commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness
  4. commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women

Each of the directives are further elaborated—for example, part of Directive 1 reads:

“…no people, no state, no race, no religion has the right to hate, to discriminate against, to ‘cleanse’, to exile, much less to liquidate a ‘foreign’ minority which is different in behaviour or holds different beliefs.”

The global ethic has been interpreted by some as an attempt to develop a single, global ideology. It does insist that differences between the religions should not prevent them from affirming moral commitments that they hold in common. However, it inveighs against any attempt to “gloss over” these differences. 

The directives have also been criticized for being abstract. This is by design—for Küng, the general formulation of the directives gives religions the latitude to reformulate the global ethic in terms that are meaningful for their practitioners. 

For Küng, the general formulation of the directives gives religions the latitude to reformulate the global ethic in terms that are meaningful for their practitioners.

Küng is often considered the sole author of the global ethic, though this is not accurate. Though willing to stand alone when taking controversial positions, Küng was, in colloquial terms, a team player. While he is primarily responsible for the global ethic’s longest section, “Principles of a Global Ethic,” he agreed to combine it with the section, the “Declaration of a Global Ethic,” written by Gómez-Ibañez and Rev. Dr. Thomas Baima.

In addition, as he wrote the global ethic, Küng consulted with his wide network of students, religious leaders, and academic colleagues from various traditions and parts of the world on his initial drafts. The parliament’s international and diverse set of religious leaders, in turn, solicited feedback from more than a hundred religious leaders and scholars. Küng integrated their comments into his draft. This collaborative approach bolsters the claim that the global ethic succeeds in expressing the religious and secular traditions’ minimal moral commitments. 

The global ethic is a heroic attempt to set down the moral norms shared by religious traditions throughout the world. For this reason, it resists the impulse to include values, standards, and attitudes that remain widely contested. For example, the global ethic is silent on issues of abortion, LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage, the ordination of women, and more. It is heteronormative and treats gender as a binary. 

And yet, while disciplined about articulating globally shared norms, the global ethic is aspirational, especially when it comes to women’s rights.

And yet, while disciplined about articulating globally shared norms, the global ethic is aspirational, especially when it comes to women’s rights. The plight of women was a long-held concern of Küng’s. Indeed, when Pope Paul VI released his Humanae Vitae in 1968, Küng feared this encyclical would harm women because it inveighed against contraception, and it sparked his inquiry into papal infallibility. The global ethic does not mention birth control, but Directive 4 calls for a commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women. Today, this directive’s language may strike some as outmoded and even anachronistic, but a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women still lacks support in much of the world.

Küng did not intend for the global ethic to remain a static document. In 2018, after global agreement on environmental issues had emerged, he participated in the parliament’s effort to expand the global ethic with a new, fifth directive elaborating a commitment to a culture of sustainability and care for the Earth.

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