By now we recognize that economic, social, and psychological factors are all at play in determining happiness. There has been considerable recent attention given to the challenges of falling social capital and psychological instability, even if solutions have not yet been achieved. But what of the fourth factor: ethics? Can we foresee a revival of virtue ethics?

We continue to shy away from virtue ethics in our diverse and pluralistic society in part because we believe implicitly that no ethical consensus is possible. Could there be a meaningful new consensus on ethics that could help to guide behavior and encourage individuals towards the pursuit of virtue?

I am cautiously optimistic. Professor Hans Küng and his colleagues at Tubingen University and the Global Ethic Foundation have convincingly argued that certain basic ethical principles are shared by all major religions, and therefore can become the basis for a shared ethical framework in a diverse and pluralistic society. Two notable attempts in this direction are the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic (1993) adopted by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and more recently the Global Economic Ethic (2009) that focuses on economic issues. This, I believe, is a course urgently in need of further exploration, especially as the world searches for a new, shared sustainable development agenda.

In the Global Economic Ethic, the overarching ethical framework is “the principle of humanity,” meaning that, “The fundamental principle of a desirable global ethic is humanity.” This includes ensuring the basic needs of all people and honoring the Golden Rule of reciprocity (“What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others”).

Within the principle of humanity, the Global Economic Ethic identifies four basic values:

  1. Non-violence and respect for life, including respect for human life and respect for the natural environment;
  2. Justice and solidarity, including rule of law, fair competition, distributive justice, and solidarity;
  3. Honesty and tolerance, including truthfulness, honesty, reliability, toleration of diversity, and rejection of discrimination because of sex, race, nationality, or beliefs;
  4. Mutual esteem and partnership, including fairness and sincerity vis-à-vis stakeholders and the rights to pursue personal and group interests through collective action.

Many other movements worldwide aim at a revival of virtue ethics. One, Action for Happiness, asks its members to live so as to produce as much happiness and as little misery as they can in the world.

There would of course be much work to do to introduce a new virtue ethics into public policy. The US and much of the world are out of practice, to say the least. And there would be a grave danger in trying to force an ethical consensus where one does not exist.

Yet we can still imagine a new ethics agenda with at least five components. The first, following the work of Küng and colleagues, would be to engage in deliberative processes to try to identify ethical values shared (or potentially shared) across society. The second would be more public education in ethical concepts, to help individuals, companies, and governments develop better tools to debate and adopt ethical positions.

Two exemplary initiatives are the Good Project and Action for Happiness. The third would be public policies to promote voluntary, pro-social actions such as national or international service. The fourth would be to encourage civil society organizations to create new tools to monitor business and government for their ethical behavior.

Finally, we need new thinking to understand and elaborate the modern linkages of virtue ethics and happiness. The OECD proposes in this report, for example, that governments collective data not only on subjective well-being but also on the covariates of well-being. The OECD mentions demographics, material conditions, quality of life, and psychological measures.

I would encourage one more category: individual values and social norms regarding honesty, trust, compassion, consumerism, and other aspects of virtue ethics. I am confident that more scientific understanding of the evolving values and norms around the world will offer new pathways to global consensus and happiness.

Jeffrey Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs serves as the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. He is University Professor at Columbia University, the university’s highest academic rank. Sachs was Director of the Earth Institute from 2002 to 2016.

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