The Current Collapse of Ethics

IN FOCUS, 15 May 2023

Leonardo Boff - TRANSCEND Media Service

13 May 2023 – I perceive two main factors, among others, that strike at the heart of ethics: the globalization of predatory capitalism and the commodification of society.

The globalization of capitalism, as a mode of production and its political expression, neo-liberalism showed the perverse consequences of capitalist ethics: its structuring axes are unlimited profit, accumulated individually or by large corporations, unbridled competition, the assault on goods and services of nature, the relaxation of laws and the minimization of the state in its function of guaranteeing a minimally balanced society. Such ethics is highly conflictive because it does not know solidarity, but competition that makes all opponents, if not enemies to be defeated.

Quite different, for example, is the ethics of the Mayan culture. This puts everything centered in the heart, since all things were born from the love of two great hearts, Heaven and Earth. The ethical ideal is to create sensitive, fair, transparent and true hearts in all people.

Or the ethics of “bien vivir y convivir” of the Andeans, based on balance with all things, between humans, with nature and with the universe.

Globalization, interrelating all cultures, also ended up revealing the plurality of ethical paths. One of its consequences is the general relativization of ethical values. We know that law and order, values ​​of fundamental ethical practice, are the prerequisites for any civilization anywhere in the world.

What we observe is that humanity is giving in to barbarism towards a true global dark age, such is the ethical breakdown that we are seeing.

The second major obstacle to ethics is the commodification of society, what Karl Polaniy already called “The Great Transformation” in 1944. It is the phenomenon of the transition from a market economy to a purely market society.

Everything becomes merchandise, something already predicted by Karl Marx in his text “The Misery of Philosophy” of 1848, when he referred to the time when the most sacred things like truth and conscience would be taken to the market; it would be “the time of great corruption and universal venality”. For we live in this time: nowledge, schools, universities, neo-pentecostal churches, courses, lectures, counseling, sex, human organs, everything, everything is an object of business and gain. A self-serving and mercantilist relationship prevails, which greatly weakens solidarity, cooperation and gratuity.

The economy, especially the speculative one, dictates the direction of politics and society as a whole, which is characterized by the generation of a deep gap between the rich few and the great impoverished majorities. Here, traces of barbarism and cruelty are revealed as few times in history.

What is the ethics that can guide us as humanity living in the same Common Home? It is that ethics that is rooted in what is specific to us, as humans and that, therefore, is universal and can be assumed by all.

I believe that in the first place is the ethics of care. According to the fable 220 of the slave Higino of the roman imperial time and well interpreted by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time and detailed by me in Knowing how to care, it constitutes the ontological substratum of the human being, that is to say, that set of objective factors without which the human being would never arise and other living beings.

Because care is of the essence of what is human, everyone can experience it and give it concrete forms, according to different cultures. Care presupposes a friendly and loving relationship with reality, with an outstretched hand for solidarity and not a clenched fist for competition. At the center of care is life. Civilization must be bio-socio-centered.

Another fact of our human essence is the solidarity and ethics that derive from it. We know today through bioanthropology that it was the solidarity of our anthropoid ancestors that allowed us to make the leap from animality to humanity. They sought food and consumed it in solidarity. We all live because there was and there is a minimum of solidarity, starting with the family. What was founding yesterday is still founding today.

Another ethical path, linked to our strict humanity, is the ethics of universal responsibility. To be responsible is to realize the beneficial or harmful consequences of our personal and social actions. Either we responsibly assume the destiny of our Common Home together or else we will walk a path of no return. We are responsible for the sustainability of Gaia and its ecosystems so that we can continue to live together with the whole community of life.

The philosopher Hans Jonas, who first elaborated “The Responsibility Principle”, added to it the importance of collective fear. When this appears and humans begin to realize that they may meet a tragic end and even disappear as a species, an ancestral fear erupts that leads them to an ethic of survival. The unconscious assumption is that the value of life is above any other cultural, religious or economic value.

It is also important to rescue the ethics of justice for all. Justice is the minimum right that we give to the other, so that he can continue to exist and give him what he deserves as a person: dignity and respect. Institutions, in particular, must be fair and equitable to avoid the privileges and social exclusions that so many victims produce, particularly in Brazil, one of the most unequal, that is to say, most unfair in the world. This explains the hatred and discrimination that tear society apart, coming not from the people, but from those wealthy elites who do not accept rights for all but want to preserve their privileges.

Justice does not only apply to humans, but also to nature and the Earth, which are bearers of rights and, therefore, must be included in our concept of socio-ecological democracy.

Finally, we must incorporate an ethic of shared sobriety to achieve what Xi Jinping, the supreme leader of China, said “a moderately well-off society”. This means a minimal and achievable ideal.

These are some fundamental parameters for an ethics, valid for each people and for humanity, gathered in the Common House. Otherwise, we may experience a social and 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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One Response to “The Current Collapse of Ethics”

  1. Indira says:

    Brilliantly started argument – needs a bit more experiential expression to be convincing- I would like to add the “principle of harmony “ and would love further conversations with the author…