The eclipse of ethics today

Two factors have reached the ethics’ core: the globalization process and the commoditization of society.


During July 10-13, 2018, it was held in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, an international conference organized by the Society of Theology and Religious Studies (SOTER) on the theme Religion, Ethics and Politics. The presentations were of great current interest and top-level. I will only refer to the discussion about the Eclipse of Ethics that I had to introduce.

The way I see it, two factors have reached the heart of ethics: the process of globalization and commodification of society.

Globalization has shown different types of ethics, according to cultural differences. Western ethics has been relativized, one among many. The great cultures of the East and those of the native peoples have shown that we can be ethical in very different ways.

For example, the Mayan culture focuses mainly in the heart, as all things were born out of the love between the two great hearts from Heaven and Earth. The ethical ideal is to create in all people true, sensitive, fair and transparent hearts. Or the Andean ethics of “good living, good living together,” founded in the balance of all things, between humans, with nature and with the universe.

Such plurality of ethical paths has resulted in a widespread relativization. We know that law and order, values ​​of the fundamental ethical practice, are the prerequisites for any civilization anywhere in the world. What we observe is that humanity is giving in to barbarism towards a true world era of darkness such as the ethical disarray we are seeing.

Shortly before his death in 2017 thinker Sigmund Bauman warned us: “Either humanity holds hands to save us together, or we will thicken the courtship of those who walk toward the abyss”. What is the ethics that could guide us as humanity living in the same single Common House?

The second major impediment to ethics is the commodification of society, what Karl Polanyi in 1944 had called ‘The Great Transformation’. It is the phenomenon of transition from a market economy to a purely market society. Everything becomes a commodity, something already foreseen by Karl Marx in his text The Poverty of Philosophy, 1848, when he referred to the time when the most sacred things such as truth and conscience would be brought to market; It would be the “time of great corruption and universal venality”. Thus, we are living such time. The economy, especially the speculative, dictates the paths of politics and society as a whole. Competition is its trademark and solidarity has virtually disappeared.

What is the ethical ideal of this kind of society? The ability of unlimited accumulation and endless consumption, which generates a great gap between a tiny group that controls much of the world economy and the majorities that are excluded and plunged into hunger and misery. Here is where traits of barbarism and cruelty are revealed as has seldom happened in history.

We need to re-establish an ethic that takes root in what is specifically ours as humans, and, therefore, is universal and can be accepted by all.

I believe that first is the ethic of care, which according to fable 220 of the slave Hyginus, well played by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time, is the ontological substrate of human beings, such set of factors without which humans and other living beings would never emerge. As caring belongs to the essence of what is human everyone can experience it and shape it in concrete forms, according to their cultures. Caring presupposes a friendly and loving relationship with reality, of an outstretched hand for solidarity, and not of a closed fist for domination. In the center of care is life. Civilization must be bio-centered.

Another fact of our human essence is solidarity and the ethics that derives from it. Today, thanks to bio-anthropology, we know that it was the solidarity of our anthropoid ancestors what enabled the leap forward from animality to humanity. They looked for food and consumed it jointly. We all live because there was and there is a minimum of solidarity, beginning with family. What was founding yesterday, it still is today.

Another ethical path linked to our strict humanity is the ethic of universal responsibility. Either we together responsibly assume the destiny of our Common House or we will go down a road of no return. We are responsible for the sustainability of Gaia and her ecosystems, so that we can continue living together with the whole community of life.

Philosopher Hans Jonas, who was the first to develop “The Principle of Responsibility,” added the importance of collective fear. When it arises and humans begin to realize that they can meet a tragic end or even disappear as a species, an ancestral fear breaks in that leads to an ethic of survival. The unconscious assumption is that the value of life is above any other cultural, religious or economic value.

Finally, it is important to rescue the ethics of justice for all. Justice is the minimum right we grant the other so that s/he can continue to exist and getting what s/he deserves as a persons. Especially, institutions must be fair and equitable to prevent the privileges and social exclusion that many victims suffer, particularly in our Brazil, one of the most unequal, i.e. the most unjust country of the world. That is how hatred and discrimination that rip up our society can be explained, as they come not from the people but from the moneyed elites, who always live out of their privileges and do not accept that the poor could climb one step up on the social ladder. Currently, we live under a regime of exception in which both the Constitution and the laws are trampled by Lawfare (the distorted interpretation of the law that the judge practices to harm the accused).

Justice applies not only between humans, but also with nature and the Earth, which are bearers of rights and therefore should be included in our concept of socio-ecological democracy.

Here are some minimum parameters for a valid ethic for every people and for humanity, gathered in the Common House. We must incorporate an ethic of shared sobriety, to achieve what Xi Jinping, supreme leader of China, called “a moderately stocked society:” a minimal and attainable ideal. Otherwise, we will meet a social and ecological Armageddon.


If you like this text, by filling out the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English edition.

Leave a comment