History of The Global Ethic

The historic document, Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration), was one of the most significant outcomes of the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions. More than 200 scholars, religious leaders, and theologians from the world’s religions were consulted during a two-year period. During the Parliament itself, the declaration was signed by over a hundred religious and spiritual leaders from all over the world. Since then, it has been signed by hundreds more people.

The Global Ethic, as it is more commonly known, clearly states that certain moral commitments are not variously interpreted according to the cultures of each country. Fundamental to the religious faiths of all the world’s peoples is the requirement to treat all persons humanely, without exception. Also fundamental to the religious faiths is the Golden Rule, as well as a demand for peace and justice.

A major achievement of the Global Ethic is that agreement was found. In a world which sometimes seems drenched with the blood of inter-religious wars, identifying a certain number of moral principles shared by the world’s religions is perhaps even more significant than the details of the document itself. The Parliament invites everyone to use the Global Ethic as a source of guidance. 

The 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions

The seeds of the present document were planted in 1988 and 1989 in separate developments in Europe and North America. First, in 1988 the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions was formed in Chicago to organize a centennial celebration of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions that would focus on the encounter of religion and issues of critical importance to the world.

Second, at the University of Tübingen in Germany, Prof. Hans Küng was engaged in a search for a new world ethic grounded in the critical issues of the world. At the heart of his concerns: “It has become increasingly clear to me in recent years that the one world in which we live has a chance of survival only if there is no longer any room in it for spheres of differing, contradictory and even antagonistic ethics. This one world needs one basic ethic. This one world society certainly does not need a unitary religion and a unitary ideology, but it does need some norms, values, ideals, and goals to bring it together and to be binding on it.”

The paths of Parliament organizers and Prof. Küng crossed in 1989 when he came to speak at the University of Chicago about his concerns and the manifesto on which he was working, Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. After a subsequent exchange of letters, Prof. Küng agreed that the 1993 Parliament would be the ideal launch for a global ethic which might be endorsed by the world’s best known religious and spiritual leaders. Though Küng never supposed that he would be involved in drafting this ethic, the Executive Director of the Council, Dr. Daniel Gómez-Ibáñez, traveled to Tübingen to persuade him to do so.

Hans Küng and the Parliament collaborate

Once Prof. Küng had accepted the challenge, he decided that the Global Ethic should be based on principles that religious and non-religious persons alike would recognize as valid. To achieve this, he did not include sectarian dogma or theology and, to avoid emphasizing one religion over another, the document contains no quotes from sacred texts. And, since not all religions are theistic (Buddhism being the best-known examples), Global Ethic makes no references to God.

Still, Prof. Küng did not want to produce a merely secular declaration, something which would have been more appropriate for the world of jurisprudence, laws, and rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, is such a document. The global ethic is not about rights. It is about responsibilities. The values, standards, and attitudes expressed in the ethic are not intended to be negotiable or the subject of legislation or litigation. They are statements intended to resonate in the hearts of individuals.

As Prof. Küng worked on the document (aided by his own and the council’s extensive network of scholars, religious leaders, and theologians), he also decided that it could not be a political declaration. Nor could it be an enthusiastic religious or mystical declaration. Nor should it be a philosophical treatise. It should simply present rules for living and insights that come from the human experience.

The ethic focuses on problems and issues

Prof. Küng discovered that the ethic itself could be based principally on an ancient precept found in religious teachings everywhere, “What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others.” Or in positive terms: “What you wish done to yourself, do to others!” Whence the fundamental demand of the global ethic: Every human being must be treated humanely.

From this principle could be drawn at least four standards of behavior which are held firmly by faiths the world over. The Global Ethic calls them “irrevocable directives.” They are: (1) Do not kill; have respect for life! (2) Do not steal; deal honestly and fairly! (3) Do not lie; speak and act truthfully. (4) Do not commit sexual immorality; respect and love one another! The implications of these ancient commandments (and related precepts) are developed in four corresponding sections.

Though Prof. Küng and the Council had consulted with an extensive network of scholars, religious leaders, and theologians representing the world’s religions, the trustees of the Parliament approached its approval cautiously. They created several committees to review and revise Prof. Küng’s draft. Rev. Thomas A. Baima of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and Dr. Gómez-Ibáñez wrote an introductory summary for the declaration. The current version of the Global Ethic was approved by the Council’s Trustees in late July 1993.

An ethic for the world

The first formal presentation of the document was to approximately 212 of the world’s religious and spiritual leaders who were participating in the 1993 Parliament. They gathered for special sessions on three consecutive afternoons. After much discussion, most of these leaders signed the document because, as they repeatedly said, the world desperately needed evidence of ethical agreement.

The Global Ethic was conceived as a set of minimum binding norms and values which might provide a basic ethical framework for humankind. A living document subject to criticism and debate, it will always need revision.

The Global Ethic is silent about many issues, including abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation, and organ transplants. That's because it expresses common moral ground and, in 1993, no agreement on these issues had yet been identified. However, since 1993, there is general agreement has emerged related to questions of sustainable development and of care for the environment and the natural world. On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the global ethic, the Parliament has launched a lengthy, collaborative process to draft and then add a directive that expresses common ground on these issues. This expanded global ethic will be highlighted and discussed at the 2018 Parliament in Toronto.

NOTE: This account is drawn from "Towards a Global Ethic," a talk given by Dr. Daniel Gómez-Ibáñez at the Fifth National Conference of Ethics in America held in Long Beach, California, March 10, 1994.