The Third Nishan Forum on World Civilizations
Jinan, Shandong University, May 20th, 2014
Remarks par Hans d’Orville
Assistant Director-General for Strategic Planning of UNESCO
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, allow me to thank the organizers of the Nishan Forum and in particular Dr. Xu Jialu, the eminent scholar and initiator of the Forum, for extending their invitation to UNESCO at the 3rd edition of this important event. I profoundly regret my absence due to force majeure, which makes it necessary that this speech is read to you on my behalf.
Since its inception in 2010, the Nishan Forum has gradually gained importance and influence as an international platform for cultural dialogue and intellectual exchange. From “diversity” and “harmony”, two key words of its previous editions, the Forum is now putting the emphasis on “common ethics”, a theme that is gaining importance in national and international debates as the globalization process creates new interrogations and challenges for decision-makers and citizens alike.
Two questions seem of importance in the current global context. The first one is the reason why we are discussing about human common ethics at this Forum. The ideals of peace, tolerance and dialogue, the principles inscribed in the United Nations Charter, the Constitution of UNESCO or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all stem from humanistic values which can be identified throughout human history on all continents. All of this raises the issue of how we can translate such universal values into the realities of the present. This question is essential for international cooperation as embodied in such global agendas as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the forthcoming post-2015 development agenda. We are clearly faced with an ethical challenge here, notably when realizing that armed conflict and extremist violence keep hindering the progress of many nations, or when reflecting on the fact that 57 million children of school age are still deprived of access to primary education and that 774 million adults are illiterate - more than 10 percent of the world population.
My second question is why we feel it matters so much to gather here today in the cradle of Confucianism. I think the reason is that we are often frustrated with the lack of effective solutions to deal with the problems of modern society, which are often of an ethical and not a pragmatic nature. If modern society brings us a high-level of material comfort, we also observe that excess and abuse in some cases hamper and weaken social patterns on different levels: the increasing gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged, the exaggerated indulgence in pursuing personal satisfaction… Increasingly, as was noted by the participants in the previous editions of the Nishan Forum, we find that we cannot follow the old way of thinking to solve these problems which arose due to the implementation of these conventionally held thoughts. Instead, new inspirations are needed to find a way out.
We start turning to ancient wisdom for innovative answers, feeling that modernity may not hold all the solutions to the problems it creates. Last year the launch of the International Confucian Ecological Alliance (ICEA) was one example. Led by TuWeiming, a distinguished Professor of Harvard University and Beijing University and a world renowned Confucian scholar, the Alliance includes several Confucian institutions and academies in China to explore Confucianism’s value in new world settings. During his visit to Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, in last November, Mr XiJinping, the Chinese President, encouraged scholars to follow the principles of “making the past serve the present” and “keeping the essential while discarding the dross” when researching ethics passed down from the forefathers. This is not only a direct encouragement from the Chinese leaders to rediscover and transmit the ancestral though still practical values of Confucianism, but also a sign of a revival and keen interest in the long tradition of the philosophic heritage, which for centuries has played a critical and central role in all aspects of life in China.
This then is an encouraging development, one that UNESCO fully supports. UNESCO works daily to create opportunities for dialogue between tradition and modernity, with the resilience of societies as our goal, and to bridge the past and the present, aiming at a future based on sustainability and solidarity. Creating such a harmony amid differences cannot be performed only through compliance with formal laws and procedures. It requires an ethical approach to problems.
Laws and principles are the product of logical thinking, whereas ethics reflect the intentions of our heart. Stemming from the Greek word “ethos”, which pertains to cultural belonging and practices, the concept of “ethics” was introduced by Socrates as personal reflection on our duties as citizens as well as human beings. Subsequently it was defined by Aristotle as a philosophical discipline. He pointed to the need for decision-makers to create the conditions where citizens can spontaneously adhere to the values of living together in peace. What is fascinating is that the greatest minds in other cultures have reached similar conclusions. This is obvious in the philosophy of Confucius and can also be found in the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest texts of law, written some 4,000 years ago in the MiddleEast.
I feel that more space needs to be created for ethics, where people can be bound together with common values originating from the essences of different civilizations. Under conditions of globalization where diverse systems of beliefs and values co-exist, compete and even occasionally contradict, a range of social issues, including the prevailing mistrust between people, will not be solved if we rely solely on a single system of values and beliefs.
Even though ethics systems change with time, and particularly under the impact and with the influence of globalization and new technology, basic ethical values, such as culture of peace and tolerance, mutual understanding and dialogue, harmonious and inclusive co-existence, preservation and transmission of cultures and values, and sustainable and responsible environmental protection, remain the same through all civilizations.
Social transformations, new forms of governance, the rise of non-state actors have changed the way in which the international community works while new concepts and principles, such as cultural diversity, sustainable development, and global citizenship have enlarged our vision and have expanded the scope of our aspirations. As a result, new circumstances and perspectives require us to further develop and enhance partnership not only with the existing stakeholders, but also with new actors so as to reach out to a larger public and raise their awareness, especially among the youth.
In modern philosophic theories, Confucian ethics is considered by some scholars and experts as an example of “role ethics”, based on family roles andthus not individualistic approaches.Confucian roles center around the concept of filial piety (“xiao” in Chinese), a respect for family members. Morality is derived from a person's relationship with its community and is determined through a person's fulfillment of a role, such as that of a parent or a child. Not emphasized as rational, Confucian roles originate through human emotions (“xing” in Chinese). As an example, in Confucianism, justice, equality and common wellbeing are emphasized more prominently than individual freedom, and a greater importance is given to the sympathy and compassion of the leaders over their rationality.
For Chinese Confucian scholar Yao Zhongqiu, “Confucianism calls for self-cultivation and self-rule by individuals. It also requires people see themselves as existing in a social circle with others, which means one should not harm others’ interests in pursuit of their own. Neither should their own efforts be sacrificed, as in collectivism”. This mixture of individual and collective perspectives and its implicit goal of finding a fine balance between the two sides of the same coin is indeed a very inspiring and thought-provoking way of thinking when we look for new approaches to describe ethics in a multicultural world where we value both the uniqueness of our identities and the diversity of different cultures and beliefs of the world.
In fact, through preaching benevolence and justice, Confucianism can be deemed as a contribution from the Chinese civilization to the world, to cope with some “social illnesses” of today’s society in which many worship materialism and crave for individual gains without consideration for the needs and aspirations of those who live in extreme poverty, suffer from conflict or lack access tofood, health, education and other public goods. “The mind of the virtuous man is conversant with righteousness; the mind of the mean man is conversant with gain.” Confucius gave us his guidance on this issue long time ago.
Some values from different civilizations can sometimes be contrasted with each other. However, instead of being antagonistic, they are rather complementary and with different emphasis. The real question we should ask is how to distil and enrich the essence of different ethical values and integrate them into an intellectual and spiritual source for solving modern society’s problems. When talking about problem-solving and conciliation, Confucius told us that “the main object lies in reaching a solution to a case based upon morals and with a warm heart”. Even though in today’s context we may also need standardized processes and rules, the Chinese philosopher’s wisdom still remains very much inspirational.
From the perspective of UNESCO, the theme of this year’s Nishan Forum “Human Common Ethics amid Different Beliefs” holds a key for dealing with many of the global issues confronting the international community. With its five programme sectors and an extensive network all over the world, UNESCO has a unique mandate and a strong position to address these issues in a holistic and trans-disciplinary manner.
In 2002, the Member States of UNESCO decided that ethics is one of the five priority areas of the organization. Since then, the Organization has been engaged in various activities and initiatives such as the global setting on the ethics of science and technology and in particular bioethics, as well as in raising awareness through publications, events and conferences. On the other hand, UNESCO has developed its strategy for the Dialogue among Civilizations based on several documents emanating either from the Organization or from resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. It later launched the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures for the period of 2013-2022. The Organization has been seeking to strengthen the processes that are conducive to a favorable interaction, mutual understanding and even convergence between an array of cultures through the discovery of a common heritage and shared ethical values.
More particularly, UNESCO has been supportive of the activities of the Nishan Forum in the past years. The holding of the “Paris-Nishan Forum on Confucianism and New Humanism in a Globalized World” at UNESCO Headquarters in April 2012 wasa solid demonstration of the Organization’s engagement in forging a common vision with other stakeholders and partners.
In recent years, UNESCO and its Director-General have advocated for a New Humanism, as is elaborated in a new publication distributed to you today. It expresses the “soul searching” for a common ethics in the era of globalization, characterized by cultural diversity and societal complexity. The Organization’s New Humanism Project aims to advance UNESCO’s leadership in fostering a new global understanding of how humanity can live up to its aspirations for peace and sustainable development in our rapidly changing world. UNESCO is committed to explore the conceptual relevance, raise awareness and propose possible avenues for building new common ethics and practices – and thus it echoes the objectives of the Nishan Forum.
At a conference in last August, the Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that China’s soft power lies in its splendid culture. Confucianism can be one of the key composing elements of this process, not only for its contribution to the Chinese nation but also for what it can offer to the whole international community. Today, by gathering here at the Forum, I do believe that each of the participants is making his or her own contribution to build a more ethical and harmonious world. Based on the discussions at the previous editions of the Nishan Forum, Iwould hope that the Forum participants, who hail from different cultures, will reach a measure of consensus as a result of the dialogue promoted through the Nishan Forum.
For JosteinGaarder, an international writer and the author of the bestseller book Sophie’s World, “Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others.” I think this is a very accurate universal description of what human common ethics should mean regardless our beliefs.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I will conclude with a sentence that Chinese people often use: we all live under the same sky; we all are brothers and sisters. “Different beliefs, common ethics” - this should resonate with all of us.
Thank you for your attention.