Embracing universal moral values

2009-03-31 00:00

Welcome indeed is the news that some of our schools are supporting an initiative by Judith Brown, Lady Principal of The Wykeham Collegiate, to promote the teaching of integrity. Understood as active commitment to moral principle, integrity is a vital, comprehensive moral quality, as I explain below. While we certainly need it in our homes and schools, as Judith Brown rightly says in her recent article in The Witness, we also need integrity everywhere. This article offers some thoughts about its cross-cultural value, in support of the initiative mentioned above.

In a culturally and religiously plural society like ours, embedded as it is in a globalising world marked by great diversities of history, culture and belief, it is of the utmost importance to understand that true integrity requires of us an active commitment to the core ethical values that are shared by most, if not all, cultures, as distinct from a focus on this or that particular culture.

My own culture might, for example, regard the death penalty as right and good, indeed as non-negotiable. And it might thereby hinder me from accepting that those who reject killing, whether on the scaffold or the battlefield, as morally wrong, have reasons for their beliefs that can be just as plausible as mine. This danger makes it important to distinguish between culture-specific values and values that can claim to be universal, and to focus on the latter.

Thus understood, integrity becomes a powerful way of building an inclusive moral presence in our schools and elsewhere in society, enabling us to see that the best in what might be called our provincial value systems is in fact also global.

What exactly are these global values? Fortunately, a century and more of comparative ethics has given us an answer. Rushworth Kidder at the Institute for Global Ethics in the United States and his team have researched this issue. They provide the following list of eight globally shared values: love, truthfulness, fairness, freedom, unity — what some of us call inclusivity — tolerance, responsibility and respect for life. Active commitment to moral principle means being committed to such a set of globally shared values. That makes integrity a foundational ethical quality embracing or comprehending all those values.

Another way to appreciate the importance of understanding integrity in terms of universal moral values is to recall that the Golden Rule occurs independently in all the great value systems of history. Christians express it in the words of Christ as doing to others what we would have them do to us. A century before Christ, the great Jewish Rabbi Hillel taught that what is hateful to us, we must not do to others. The same principle was taught by Confucius four hundred years earlier in China. It also features in Hindu ethics. Islam’s Hadith cites Prophet Muhammed as saying “No man is a true believer unless he desires for another what he desires for himself.” Who can fail to see the remarkable moral consensus these sayings reveal, and rejoice at it?

There are many negative forces at work in our world, greed, violence and environmental damage being among the worst. If we can teach our children, at home and at school, the importance of integrity, of living and working on the basis of the Golden Rule and the core, globally shared values it implies, we will be doing something enormously valuable. Not only can it help goodness to prevail over evil. By its inherent inclusivity, it will also help us build a united moral presence embracing people of any and every culture, background and belief. All success, then, to this important step towards a better future.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant and a professor emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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