What does Global Ethics Day mean in today’s world?

Today is Global Ethics Day. But what does that mean in today’s world? What do we mean by ethics? Do we mean our values? Or do we mean, how we live our lives?

One way to answer this is by referring to what I call, the musings of the Wise Ones. The oldest discussions of character for which there are records come from the ancient Greeks. They are best known from the reflections of such well-known philosophers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, many of Plato’s “Socratic Dialogues” specifically examine virtue and the character of a virtuous person.

There’s the philosopher Herodotus, known for his proto-relativistic creed: “Man is the measure of all things.” And in more recent history, the assessment by the late literary giant, Elie Wiesel who observed, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Or the words of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Albert Schweitzer who wrote, “Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.”  

We can find values amid their ideas. However, I prefer to define ethics by considering the lives, and actions, of religious peacebuilders—individuals who, because of religion, dedicate themselves to pursuing peace. Around the world, such extraordinary yet unknown women and men exist. Driven by faith, they dare to do the work that others are afraid to take on. Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action Network is a group of such individuals, a special breed from the world’s most violent crises. They offer critical insights, real-world skills and examples of ethical leadership that can inspire.

Take for example, Imam Dr. Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye of Nigeria who have been publicly pursuing anti-corruption efforts to keep their country’s upcoming general elections fair and honest. Each has been a voice for safe elections, calling on their fellow countrymen to critically assess what politicians say, to be wary of false promises by politicians, to educate themselves and apply the core values of their religious traditions in their everyday lives and as they exercise their votes. Imam Ashafa noted:

“In every street in Nigeria, you find Churches and Mosques with people calling unto God but yet our attitudes to one another does not portray what we are learning in our various places of worship.”

Similarly, his peace partner Pastor James has added his voice to the Nigerian public’s pre-election preparation. In the past month, alone, he offered valued insights at a four-day interreligious dialogue between leaders of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria and the Fellowship of Christian Students of Nigeria; and again at a capacity-building workshop for youth to better combat corruption. At the latter event, held in Northern-Nigeria, where Boko Haram has spread fear and violence, Pastor James spoke boldly on lingering criminal activities and banditry in the northern states. In so doing, he pursued truth while placing himself at risk. He stated:

“Those that are involved in curtailing these problems are benefiting from it financially, and that is why it is occurring.”

Such efforts are high profile in a country where extremism lurks. Yet these men pursue democratic processes even when laying low and remaining silent would be safer. They are not alone.

Elsewhere in Africa, Peacemaker Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge of South Africa’s Cape Town-based organization Embrace Dignity is helping women and girls in the sex industry, and those who are victims of human trafficking. Working directly with the women, while also putting herself “out there” with political leaders, Nozizwe and her colleagues are trying to move the Parliament of South Africa to pass an equality law that would decriminalize the act of selling sex – thus supporting women’s agency over their own bodies – but would also criminalize the act of paying for sex. Ideally, the law would lower the demand for solicited sex, while simultaneously decreasing the supply of women and girls being trafficked into the sex industry – similar to the Nordic model from 1999. In a recent IOL interview, Nozizwe explained:

“This law must be heavy on the buyers (of sex work), who are creating a demand. If there is no demand, there is no supply. Women are being thrown in the street either by family members or by desperation. That is what caused the demand. We elevate their voices so the government can hear them. We are showing the government that it can be done!”

So again, what do we mean when we talk about ethics? Values or actions that demonstrate values? Actions unveil a person’s moral and ethical character and reveal who they really are. So as we think about Global Ethics Day, let’s identify the strongest values we can muster…and then put them into action.