Shifts in Global Ethics
Budiono Kusumohamidjojo, A PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY
Sumber : JAKARTA POST, 16 Desember 2011
Prominent architect-cum-artist Ai Weiwei described the inhuman treatment he suffered from the Chinese law enforcers while in detention and afterward (“Voice of Reason”, Newsweek, Nov. 21). Novelist Yu Hua demonstrated in his work China In Ten Words how the Communist Party’s manipulation of the social fabric resulted in 1.3 billion people in the world having little place in the same world (“The China Primer”, Time, Dec. 5).
It is true that Ai Weiwei has been pretty straight with his criticism of the hypocrisy of Western leaders. While saying “It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse,” he lambasted: “The Western politicians, shame on them if they say they’re not responsible for this.”
That said, the Western world that used to boast of its moral superiority during the last decades compared to the rest of the world should now feel caught out. Indeed, having just finished the decolonization process half a century ago, the West is now in big trouble about how human rights should be respected.
How can we conceive in a historical perspective that the US, the most powerful country, is indebted by US$3 trillion to China, while some troubled countries of the European Union resorted to China for borrowing money to get out of their own crisis? Perhaps just now the West can understand that troubles in your own house necessarily shift respect for human rights to your hinterland. This is not an excuse for human rights violators that prioritize “national stability” at the cost of human rights, but this is exactly the nature of the ruling class.
Starting with the colonization process in the 17th century, the world has become used to the West imposing its own codes of ethical conduct. That situation is changing thanks also to the West’s own failures. We are witnessing examples where capitalism can make the state bankrupt, where banks cannot be trusted at face value, where Western politicians can be liars as much as their colleagues from despotic countries, where the police can be bribed, where priests can be harmful to youngsters, etc.
The world really has to prepare itself for a new constellation of global ethics now in the making. It’s an old Weberian rule that says that the powerful decide on what the others should do (and how to behave). The problem is, that the oldest prevailing civilization in the world that is now on the rise has its own, and quite different, perspectives about what is good and what is evil.
While the West used to believe that freedom is golden, China has managed to keep itself intact through two millennia by imposing a social discipline that would be unacceptable in the West. While the West keeps individualism as sacred, the Confucian tradition praises loyalty to the common cause. While the West values competition as the locomotive of progress, in the Middle Kingdom people tend to say: together we stand through the centuries.
It’s true that the mistakes now committed by China against the ecosystem or social justice are a thing of the past in the Western world thanks to their great revolutions (though the West today is committing new mistakes like heavy borrowing to sustain an upscale welfare, like government like citizen).
There is only one value that jointly counts in both civilizations: hard work. Nonetheless, the oldest philosophies of the world understand that each thing in the universe has its purpose, like it is with hard work. Yet the rest is a big question indeed: What is actually the purpose of hard work, and where do we go with that which we earn from hard work? Mankind in our time has the obligation to rethink that purpose in order to rescue the future of the human race. We can serve this obligation by making utmost use of global information technology available now for the sake of the exchange of ideas and constructive dialogue.
Somehow mankind must come to an updated consensus about the updated social ethics that we should respect, particularly because it is ethics that differentiate humans from sub-humans. If we neglect this obligation, the next generations of the world will not fight each other to gain control over oil or coal or uranium or the open seas, but simply to get access to clean water to drink. By that time, our planet would really feel like hell.