The Current Demise of Ethics


Leonardo Boff – TRANSCEND Media Service

10 Sep 2018 – Between July 10 and 13, 2018, an international congress organized by the Society of Theology and Sciences of Religion, (Sociedad de Teología y Ciencias de la Religión, SOTER) on the subjects, Religion, Ethics and Politics was celebrated in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The expositions were very timely, and of superior quality. I will only deal with the debate on the Demise of Ethics, which I introduced.

In my understanding, two factors have touched the heart of ethics: the process of globalization and the commercialization of society.

Globalization has revealed the different types of ethics, based on cultural differences. Western ethics, one of many, has been relativized. The great Oriental cultures and the cultures of the original Nations have shown that we can be ethical in very different forms.

For example, the Maya culture centers everything in the heart, because everything was born from the love of the two great hearts: those of the Heavens and of the Earth. The ethical ideal is to create in all persons hearts that are sensible, just, transparent and true: the ethics of “good living and coexisting” of the nations of the Andes, centered in the equilibrium of all things, among human beings, with Nature and with the Universe.

A consequence of this variety of ethical paths has been generalized relativity. We know that law and order, values of basic practical ethics, are prerequisites for any civilization anywhere in the world. The ethical disaster that we now foresee is because humanity is yielding ground to barbarity, towards a true worldwide age of darkness.

Shortly before his death in 2017, thinker Sigmund Bauman warned:

“Either humanity joins hands to save all of us together; or together we will swell the funeral procession of those who walk towards the abyss”.

What kind of ethics could guide us as humanity living in the same Common Home? The second great obstacle to ethics is the commercialization of society, which already in 1944 Karl Polanyi called “The Great Transformation”. That is the phenomenon of transitioning from a market economy to a society of pure commerce. Everything is transformed into merchandise, which Karl Marx already foresaw in his 1848 text The Poverty of Philosophy, where he noted that the most sacred things, such as truth and consciousness, would be commercialized; and this would be the “time of great corruption and universal venality”. We are now living in that time. The economy, especially the speculative sector, dictates the path of politics and of society as a whole. Competition is its trademark and solidarity has practically disappeared.

Which is the ideal ethics of this type of society? The capacity for unlimited accumulation and limitless consumption, which creates a great gap between a very small group that controls most of the world economy and the great majorities, who are excluded and drowning in hunger and misery. Here are revealed traits of barbarity and cruelty as rarely have been seen in history. We must go back to create an ethics rooted in that which is specifically ours as human beings and which, for that reason, is universal and can be adopted by all.

I believe that in the very first place, is the ethics of caring. According to the fable 220 of the slave Higinio, well interpreted by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time, it consists of the ontological substratum of the human being; that group of factors without which the human being and other living beings never could have arisen. Because caring pertains to the human essence, we all can live and give in concrete ways, according to our cultures. Caring presupposes a friendly and loving relationship with reality, an extended hand for solidarity and not a clenched fist for domination. Life is at the center of caring. The civilization must be bio-centered.

Another part of our human essence is solidarity and the ethics that derives from solidarity. We now know from bio-anthropology that it was solidarity among our anthropoid ancestors that allowed them to hone their animal state into humanity. They searched for food and consumed it together, in solidarity. We all live because there existed, and still exists, a minimum of solidarity, starting with the family. What was foundational yesterday continues to be so today.

Another aspect closely tied to our humanity is the ethics of universal responsibility. Either we together undertake responsibility for the destiny of our Common Home, or together we will walk a path of no return. We are responsible for the sustainability of Gaia and the ability of her ecosystems to flourish within the whole community of life.

Philosopher Hans Jonas, who first elaborated “The Principle of Responsibility”, added the importance of collective fear. When collective fear arises and humans start to realize that they may come to a tragic end and even disappear as a species, a primordial fear erupts that puts them into survival mode ethics. The unconscious presupposition is that the value of life is greater than any other value: cultural, religious or economic.

Finally, it is important to resurrect the ethics of justice for all. Justice is the minimum right that we must guarantee the other to be able to continue coexisting and receiving what we as people deserve. In particular, the institutions must be just and equitable, to avoid class privilege and the social exclusions that produce so many victims, particularly in our country, which is one of the most unequal and most unjust in the world. This explains the hatred and discrimination that tear society apart. They come not from the people but from the moneyed elites that have always lived a privileged life, and who do not allow the poor to move even one rung up on the social ladder.

We presently live under an exceptional regime in, where the Constitution and the laws of the country are trampled by the Lawfare (the distorted interpretation of the law practiced by a judge, so as to hurt the accused).

Justice has value not only among humans but also with nature and the Earth, which are the carriers of rights and for that reason they must be included in our concept of socio-ecological democracy.

These are some minimum parameters for an ethics to be valid for each individual, and for all of humanity, gathered in our Common Home. We must incorporate an ethics of a shared sobriety to accomplish what Xi Jinping, supreme leader of China, used to call “a moderately supplied society”. This is a minimum and reachable ideal. Otherwise, we may experience a socio-ecological Armageddon.


Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian, ecologist, writer and university professor exponent of the Liberation Theology. He is a former friar, member of the Franciscan Order, respected for his advocacy of social causes and environmental issues. Boff is a founding member of the Earthcharter Commission.


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