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June 06, 2012, Wednesday

Law, ethics and civilization

Last week, İstanbul hosted two major UN meetings. The Alliance of Civilizations Partners Forum and the Somalia Conference both revealed the challenges and hopes regarding the state of our humanity in the 21st century.

 Over 100 states, dozens of nongovernmental organizations, international companies, academics, experts and intellectuals attended the meetings. Both events were opened by speeches by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Alliance of Civilizations forum, co-chaired by the prime ministers of Turkey and Spain under the UN, seeks to achieve, as I understand it, both “civilization” and “alliance” in a world gone wild by extremisms of all sorts, consumerism, ego-centrism and growing injustices. Civilization is not an abstract concept for academic discussion. It refers to a state of law, ethics and humanity whereby human beings live a free and dignified life. It underlies our fundamental humanity and the need to create conditions in which our potential as rational and moral beings can be realized.

Given the disturbing realities of the 21st century world, the present state of humanity can hardly be qualified as anything approaching rational and moral. Wars, nuclear arms, the defense budgets of nation-states, global warming, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the deepening xenophobia, new forms of racism and a host of other social and political ills make “civilized life,” the purported goal of humanity, an increasingly rare commodity. This is a fact despite the hubris of the modern thinkers who believe in a sort of universal progressivism and transcendent civilizationism and naively hold that humanity, as it continues to mature, will overcome its problems by being more aggressive in its drive to create more advanced technological devices, high-speed communications and larger global economic institutions. The problem is not the new and better modern technological devices but what we do with them.

Modern societies have already lost the “coherent, integral and organic” ways of living, what the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies called “Gemeinschaft” (community in a large sense of the term) almost a century ago, and have replaced them, willingly or not, with the “secondary, anonymous and functional” relationships of Gesellscaft, or what we call modern societies today. Late modernity’s attempt to make civilization the definition of reason, law and ethics is an impossible enterprise because its anonymous and pragmatic ethos reduces reality to utility and instrumental rationality. “Only that which is directly related to us is real” says one hard-core description of modern pragmatism. And it continues, “Things do not exist in themselves; they are no longer substances but they exist in and for the sake of what they do with us and what we do with them.”

The not-so-subtle attitude that we can do anything we want because we have the means to do so has already created many catastrophes for the natural environment and human societies. But since the belief in progressive civilizationism and ego-centric humanism remains strong, we pretend that we live rational, moral and civilized lives. But the reality is that reason, law and ethics, the three pillars of any human civilization, are subverted by the premises and practices of global capitalism and nation-state politics.

A just and civilized world order is contingent upon law and ethics. A global legal system is necessary to ensure the rights of individuals. But it is not enough because law is eventually underpinned by ethics. For any legal system to function properly and effectively, one also needs ethics, a morality that teaches individuals, communities and states to respect the rights of others and nurture a sense of compassion and sympathy. There are many cases in which a legally lawful action, such as profiteering, can be morally indefensible. We need both law and ethics for a civilized world.

This goes to the very core of our humanity. One of the root meanings of the word human, “al-insan” in Arabic, is related to nurturing empathy for others. The human person is one who has empathy for the natural world and other human beings. A civilized life also means developing genuine empathy and compassion for others.

This brings me to the UN Somalia Conference held in İstanbul around the same time as the Alliance of Civilizations Partners Forum last week. With its civil war, famine and poverty, Somalia is another dark stain on the state of our humanity in the 21st century. Like many other human catastrophes, it exposes the extent to which our high-tech global world has become insensitive to human suffering.

A civilized world order will emerge not with more technological gadgets or plans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but with law, ethics and a genuine sense of compassion and empathy for others.

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