A Dialogue on Global Citizenship, Global Ethics, and Moral Rights

We are sharing here a digital dialogue that took place between Michael Edward Walsh, a visiting scholar at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and Alvaro Cedeno Molinari, Costa Rican ambassador to Japan, on topics related to global ethics and citizenship. —CARNEGIE COUNCIL

Global Citizenship in International Political Discourse
by Michael Edward Walsh

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by His Excellency Alvaro Molinari, the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan, on the concept of “Global Citizenship and the Creation of Shared Value.”

Speaking to the International Committee of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Tokyo, Molinari argued that the recently awarded Olympic Games provides the people of Japan with a unique opportunity to be a global thought leader on environmental sustainability. Citing a number of Japanese technological innovations, Molinari challenged the young Japanese business leaders in attendance to push themselves to show the world “what you have done, how you have done it, and how it can be done in other countries.” He held that such an effort would not only pay economic dividends but also enhance the country’s long-term political influence within the international community.

If Japan was to pursue such an agenda, Molinari suggested that the country embrace the concept of “global citizenship.” He defined this as a culture of “different leadership styles, cultural sensitivities, capacities for team building, cross-cultural communications regardless of language, negotiation skills, and a sense of global ethics.”

As an International Relations theorist, I found Molinari’s appeal to “global citizenship” to be an interesting point for conceptual inquiry. For, it would appear that both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” remain conceptually weak; making it difficult to operationalize either as a guide for human behavior.

Let’s take “global ethics” as an example. “Is there a collectively accepted set of ethical commitments that count as [global ethics] across the member states of the international community?” While there are certain moral rights and obligations codified in international laws and conventions which can be said to represent ethical commitments, there also remains significant divergence in their interpretation. For example, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council regularly disagree on the most fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter, “When, if ever, is it permissible for one state to violate the territorial integrity of another?” And, these debates often extend beyond the legal into the ethical (ex. Right to Protect principle).

The question then is “What are global ethics?” If the members of the United Nations do not currently agree on the answer to this question, including what rights/obligations entail from “global ethics,” it is difficult to understand what exactly an appeal to “global citizenship” means when employed in international political discourse. To have any real force, both “global citizenship” and “global ethics” will need to evolve into strong concepts with collectively agreed upon meaning in specific contexts. Right now, that simply is not the case. And, as a consequence, appeals to global citizenship remain purely idealist in outlook and subjective in nature.


Imagination Moves Mountains
by Alvaro Cedeno Molinari

Albert Einstein is quoted as having said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”, perhaps based on the fact that, as a kindergarten toddler, he was taught how to imagine before he was even taught how to read or write or make the simplest mathematical computations. We all know what happened next: he imagined mathematical formulations about theories related to the origin and dynamics of the universe, some of which have not yet been disproven, many decades after he imagined them. And I stress the fact that he imagined them because he never traveled at the speed of light to have even the slightest empirical proof of what he was suggesting.

Since humans settled their predominant nomadic lifestyle some 10,000 years ago when they managed to domesticate crops and developed what we know today as agriculture, we have developed a sense of ethnocentrism, giving great importance to the location of our community and believing there is not much more beyond our surroundings and definitely not better than what “we” have “here”.

Even today, the Chinese name of China is “zhong guo”, which translates into “middle kingdom” or the central kingdom. It could be claimed that it makes historical sense given the times when the centuries-long battles of the kingdoms over what today is Chinese territory came to an end when all kingdoms were consolidated into one and had their political center at “Go Gong”, what we know today as the Forbidden City.

But the truth is that many Chinese people, mainly those that have never traveled abroad—the immensely vast majority of them—believe nobody has it better than them in terms of quality of life, civil and political rights and freedoms, environmental standards. In fact, we all behave like this, in a way, believing that what “we” have “here” is better than others elsewhere.

The times we live in today, where we have sufficient information about material limits of the natural environment, about the socioeconomic services provided by ecosystems worldwide and about the essential constraints that affect the subsistence of life on Earth within this century, make it mandatory that we focus on the dynamics of a conflict so severe and so widespread as climate change, in order to transform unsustainable tendencies and recover viability of human civilization on the planet.

Perhaps it is important to restate the obvious: this is the only planet in the universe where there is scientific proof of the existence of life, and humans are the only species with such awareness. This puts us atop the hierarchy of intelligent species and the only one willing and able to actually change the course of actions that are conducive to collapse of human civilization as we know it, and also to the extinction of thousands of species that, simply but sadly, exist no longer and have disappeared within this generation.

But as David Suzuki exclaimed at a conference at United Nations University in Tokyo on December of 2012, “What intelligent species pours every year billions of metric tons of a highly toxic chemical into the very air it breathes!"

Einstein also said “we cannot solve problems thinking in the same way we did when we fell into them.” Therefore, there is no choice but to imagine a new way forward and shift into paradigms of collective action that are not yet here. This includes, but is not limited to, multilateral institutions, modern diplomacy as we have come to understand it in the last 300 years, the representative political systems that have been mainstream in most states during most of the last 100 years at least, and perhaps even the way in which we create laws, public policies, economic incentives, and even the territorial limits we have self-imposed onto us humans. Needless to say, we are the only species that has artificially created limits to deter large migrations. This could be detrimental in the long run in our quest for solutions to climate change.

Upon reimagining human civilization, a quest for an identity that entails a feeling of belonging to the planet itself lies at the foundation of an urgent reconstruction. That is, a sense of wellbeing that includes not only all human beings but also all forms of life; a special sensitivity for all forms of life as a proof that we are still bioliterate; a vision for the future in which the elements that sustain life on Earth are enriched and not degraded any further.

So, being a global citizen means it does not really matter where one is born or what passport one carries, where one resides or what work one does. The main concept is being aware that, whatever one does, there is a consequence, an impact, an output that affects the entire global environmental ecosystem. This is true, whether our multilateral organizations are aware of it or not.

Throughout his experiments with truth, Gandhi not only transformed himself but also transformed millions of people even beyond his own life. The impact of his life’s quest can be described in political terms, even though his intentions and his methods were anything but political. He was only searching for the truth and verifying it empirically over and over again.

The country I represent has a unique track record in its institutionalized decision-making based on ethical principles that transcend even the local culture that defines it. In the XIX century, coffee growers imposed taxes on themselves in order to create government funds to invest in public infrastructure. In that same century, a military general who presided the country abolished the death penalty and, later on, a peculiar Education Minister pushed for a reform that made education public, obligatory, free and sponsored by the State.

During the first half of the XX century, universal healthcare was institutionalized and the military army was abolished. Environmental conservation started around mid-XX century and it included heavily investing public funds in renewable energies. Today, Costa Rica has legally reserved up to a third of its territory as conservation areas; it generates up to 95% of electricity from renewable sources; it created the payment for environmental services, a policy innovation that is considered today as an optimal mechanism to regenerate biocapacity and recreate natural capital; it is a pioneer in ecological tourism; and it hosts ten times more biodiversity per square kilometer than any other country.

All of this has been the result of an understanding that the Costa Rican nation is part of a larger entity, both of human beings and of other forms of life. This makes Costa Ricans aware of their global citizenship, conscious that we might not necessarily have it better than others elsewhere, but content with our current path of development. So proves the three years in a row topping the Happy Planet Index.

To end on a future note, since 2007 Costa Rica launched the Peace with Nature initiative, an aspiration to become the first carbon-neutral country, which is no easy task, but an audacious and doable challenge. Although there has been criticism about the feasibility to reach the goal by the expected date of 2021, there has been widespread consensus to attempt it on behalf of public and private institutions, as well as academia and other civil society organizations. Most interestingly, there is no law or public policy behind this initiative. It was simply a presidential call for action and the public responded affirmatively. This is ethics. And it moves mountains.

Moral Rights in International Political Discourse on Global Ethics

In his response, Molinari appears to argue for a conceptualization of morality best suited to natural law (lex naturalis). By this, I mean that he appears to conceptualize certain global ethics as natural rights for all humanity. I say this because he argues that there exists an ontologically objective “moral right” for all humans to live in a world that respects nature. He maintains this to be the case even if the positive laws governing inter-state and intra-state behavior fail to construct such rights in the absence of global consensus on their necessity. And, he appears to argue for epistemological objectivity through an appeal to rationalism when he takes the methodological approach of “restating the obvious” and outlining moral truths.

In Molinari’s argument, one therefore finds a natural affinity to classical natural law theory grounded in moral realism. Yet, at the same time, one also finds a strong sense of moral idealism in his response. This is evident in his reference to Einstein’s quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

So, how does one reconcile notions of moral rights with a world where intra-state and inter-state relations are governed almost exclusively by international and domestic conventions (ex. laws)?

To begin with, it is important to point out that aspects of Molinari’s argument are not mutually exclusive of a social constructivist interpretation of morality. If we engage our imaginations as Molinari suggests, we can imagine ideal worlds. Each of these ideal worlds will be subjective. By this, I mean that they will represent each individual’s world as viewed through that individual’s mental states. However, these subjective worlds may in fact share common features. And, these common features may hinge on certain shared imagined rights and obligations governing human behavior.

The crux of socially constructing new moral rights and obligations therefore hinges on our ability to collectively agree on shared features. These shared features represent the lowest common denominator (LCD) of what we consider to be our shared conceptualization of “morality.” It is through such shared features that we can socially construct “moral rights” through positive law (jus positum). But, if we don’t explore these imagined worlds and determine our own subjective moral rights and obligations, we cannot hope to collectively define a set of common features upon which to base new laws and conventions since the ideal worlds upon which they are based are not experienced as part of every day life.

Of course, moral rights and obligations need not be based on a social constructivist theoretical approach. There are a wide variety of alternatives upon which to conceptualize such rights in both objective (ex. moral realism) and subjective terms (ex. ethical subjectivism). And, this takes us back to my earlier comments on the apparent affinity between Molinari’s arguments and the appeal of moral realism and the natural law of morality.

If one contends that such moral rights and obligations exist absent formal and/or informal conventions (i.e. international laws; international conventions, etc.), then one of the most common philosophical arguments held is the claim that they just exist out there in reality and we can come to know what they are through our sensory experiences or through reason. In this sense, moral rights and obligations are held to be natural. It is not explicit whether or not Molinari endorses this reading, but many others have in the past. And, at least from my reading of Molinari, it would appear that he is attracted to similar philosophical predispositions.

In any event, I found the Ambassador’s response to be quite valuable. Perhaps you will arrive at different conclusions. But, either way, I believe that it is important for each of us to consider Molinari’s claim that there are certain objective moral rights and obligations when we consider the emerging concept of “global citizenship.” Whether you agree with Molinari’s argument will depend upon your own philosophical commitments. However, if you maintain that such moral rights and obligations are in fact natural rights and obligations that exist out there beyond humankind, then you would place yourself in opposition to those who argue that these written declarations provide the sole basis for the existence of such moral rights and obligations in the social world. Yet, at the same time, you would in turn possess a theoretical basis for endorsing the notion that such moral rights and obligations can exist absent their constitution through formal and/or informal conventions, which is a central tenet of Molinari’s conceptualization of global citizenship.

PHOTO CREDIT: World Bank (CC).

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Tags: citizenship, communication, cosmopolitanism, diplomacy, environment, ethics, morals, nature, rights


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Comment by Al LeBlanc on March 31, 2014 at 9:38am

Seems to me there is an emerging connection of "human consciences of all individuals", (especially in today's interconnected social media world) underlying  "global ethics" .   For example, human cannibalism is extinct (except in extreme cases) ? If connected at all on the world-wide web/smart phones/communications satellites, individuals will be exposed to a common yearning/individual responsibility for the common good and a "win-win" mentality of "U&Me/UsAll" . "A rising tide of peace raises all boats."

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