Santa Clara University

A Global Ethic

Hans Kung, scholar, Roman Catholic priest, author of some 50 books on religion and theology, has never been shy about rocking the boat. Nor is he everyone’s favorite theologian. For years, he has challenged Catholics to look more critically at tenets emanating from Rome. Boldly rattling the Vatican with his book, “Infallibility? An Inquiry,” questioning papal irrevocability and opposing church teaching on issues like contraception and women’s ordination, the Swiss-born theologian urged reforms and pushed the limits until Rome yanked his license to teach theology in 1979. The ban did not inhibit his prolific writing, however, and in fact only made him that much more interesting to many young priests.

“We believe that governments have gone too far toward attempting to provide security by infringing upon the rights of the innocent, shifting the burden of proof and removing due process. Too easily some world leaders have accepted the idea that liberty cannot be defended by the principles of liberty. These events demonstrate that a debate about responsibilities and ethics is an urgent necessity today for all countries, but in particular for Western democracies.”
—InterAction Council, statement at Santa Clara University symposium, April 1-2, 2005

SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J., calls Kung “one of the great theologians of the 20th Century,” adding, “he has been able to capture Roman Catholic social teachings on human dignity and the common good and put those principles into the secular language of social responsibility and human rights in a way that resonates across national and religious boundaries.”

After writing extensively on world religions, Kung has broadened his focus to take on worldwide political and economic institutions. He is crusading for a global “ethic for humankind,” a new world paradigm that would extend standards of basic morality and responsibility not only in religious circles but to people in the corporate, economic, and political spheres. Kung came to Santa Clara University in April to discuss that idea through two projects.

He brought an exhibit on world religions and global ethics to SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, with the theme that a common ethical code, along with dialogue and peace among religions, must presage peace among nations. “Even if we disagree on many dogmas of our faiths, there is a consensus on norms of behavior, on ethics,” he says.

At the same time, Kung is working with the InterAction Council, an independent organization of former presidents and prime ministers that also met at Santa Clara to formulate a world charter on human ethical responsibilities. Through his books, Global Responsibility and A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, Kung is recognized as the godfather of the global ethic concept.

“I give him credit for his wisdom and his willingness to lead what is not always a very popular program. We tend to say we have rights, but not claim responsibility,” said former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who attended the InterAction symposium at Santa Clara. “It’s very important in this age of conflict across the world.”

Kung drafted both the InterAction Council’s global responsibility code and a separate Declaration Toward a Global Ethic that was passed in 1993 in Chicago by the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The essence of a global ethic, he says, in basic values like the Golden Rule, honesty, and mutual respect in sexual and family situations. Kung talked about his goals with Santa Clara Magazine.

Q. After a lifetime studying theology, Catholicism, other religions, and great thinkers, what inspired your re-focus to global ethics?

Kung: “It was a long, long way to global ethics...I count according to my decades. Afterwards you can see a certain order in your life. In the ’50s I was concentrated on the questions of Christian existence and I wrote my dissertation, “Justification” ...on the differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. In the ’60s I was concentrated on the second Vatican Council. I wrote The Council, Reform and Reunion, and, at the end of the decade, Infallible? An Inquiry—a question which is still not yet answered.

In the ’70s I worked out my own theology of exegetical and historical foundations, and wrote On Being A Christian and then Does God Exist.”

“In the ’80s I turned to world religions. Then in the ’90s I came to the global ethic, and my book on global responsibility: A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics. I kept my center but I enlarged the circles of my interest.

Q. Is the world today less ethical and moral than in past eras?

Kung: “Our age is characterized by scandals in every field—colossal scandals. I think of what happened on Wall Street with WorldCom, with Enron, and this mixture with politics—that the same people who made these frauds paid for the election of the president—and everything that was going on, lying with regard to the war in Iraq. But that was not unique. We had scandals in Europe. You have had great scandals in media, a journalist even for the New York Times who fabricated the whole thing. And we have great scandals in sports. With the new possibilities of a global economy and globalization, we also have now many global scandals. There are great opportunities for these crimes. I say that globalization of the economy, technology and communication has to be accompanied by the globalization of ethics.”

Hans Kung
“Political ethics does not imply an inflexible doctrinaire standpoint which allows no compromise … Nor does political ethics imply any crafty, sharp tactics, which have an excuse for everything. Unless the political situation is assessed by ethical norms, the result is a total lack of conscience. Instead of this, political ethics implies an obligation of conscience which is not focused on what is good or right in the abstract, but on what is good or right in the concrete situation.”

Hans Kung, from A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics.


Q. What specific changes are needed to conform politics and business to the global ethic and social justice that you envision?

Kung: “Global ethic means the insistence on certain ethical standards which are elementary. Do not lie. Do not steal. Every human being must be treated humanely. What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others. Nonviolence, respect for life, fairness, justice, tolerance, mutual respect and partnership.”

“We have different religions and different world views. But democracy presupposes a set of values and ethical standards if it functions well. Without these ethical standards you get corruption in all fields.”

Q. How can those values overcome a culture of greed and immorality?

Kung: “It cannot be just proscribed. It’s not a question of law. It’s a question of inner conviction. It is a process of conscientization. A change of consciousness in a whole generation. We need initiatives like the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities of the InterAction Council. We need cooperation of the United Nations, academia, et cetera. But it also is necessary that these principles are introduced in the school system. In German-speaking countries, we have very many schools that are now teaching, global ethics.”

“It’s a big process ... It’s not just a question of the individual. It’s a question of the media; it’s a question of politics. It has to become a problem of public interest. As a matter of fact, with all these scandals you get now, you get more public interest. When I started to write about global ethics, for instance that you have to tell the truth, that was considered natural—no problem. But you see now how a whole government leads a nation into a war in such a way, as everybody now knows, with reasons that were not true. That is now in the public interest, and people say we need a government which tells us the truth. And I hope that in the next election these questions are not silenced as in the last one, but discussed.”

Q. The global ethic includes respect for life. What does it tell us about people in vegetative state, as in the Terri Schiavo case? Is there any clarity about when the soul leaves the body?

Kung: “If the brain is dead then the person is dead. But the global ethic has to concentrate on the values and standards which are, so to speak, undisputed. So in the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, there are four cases that are not treated, not because they are not important but because there is no consensus. They are anti-conception, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia.” (Kung says the euthanasia category includes life-support issues.)

“If you asked my personal opinion, I find it scandalous that a person has remained in a coma for fifteen years, and then you have such a discussion and an intervention of Congress and intervention of the president.”

“I think we shall see a change because of this scandal. A lot of people are now reflecting and saying ‘I would not like to have the same destiny.’”

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