Creating an Earth Community

Suggestions for the UN Values Caucus

The Values Caucus was established in 1994 at the United Nations by representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It facilitates discussion about spiritual and moral values in international law. This address by Robert Traer was given in January 1995 to a meeting at the United Nations sponsored by the Values Caucus.

The Values Caucus has very commendably asserted that social development must be understood to involve more than economic, political, and legal initiatives. Moral leadership is also required, and spiritual as well as material needs must be considered. Thus the Values Caucus has quoted with approval Under Secretary-General of the UN, Nitin Desai, who recently said, "The central issue [for the WSCD] is to arrive at a shared vision of a good and just society, to assert a shared set of values." (The Earth Times, 12/15/94)

In response to an invitation from the Values Caucus to comment on its efforts thus far, I wish to make three suggestions. The first concerns encouraging and holding accountable "moral leadership." The second has to do with how in the UN context we might appropriately and effectively address the "spiritual" dimension of social development. The third proposes that we employ the concept of an "earth community" to refer to social development which is moral and spiritual, as well as economic, political and legal. Finally, I will comment on how these suggestions might be incorporated into the Draft Declaration and Draft Programme of Action and how they affect recommendations made by the Values Caucus.

Moral Leadership

We expect governments and government officials to provide moral leadership in addition to acting responsibly in economic, political and legal matters. We see moral leadership not as a separate category, but as a dimension of public responsibility. It may be helpful, however, to conceive this as having two aspects. The first is more personal. We expect officials to be exemplary in their actions. We want them to model for the citizens of their countries the kind of moral conduct that makes world community possible.

In English there are several nouns without plurals that have traditionally been used to represent such moral conduct. These include honesty, integrity, equity, justice, and compassion (or mercy). Surely it is not too much to ask officials, as we ask ourselves and other citizens, to aspire to such virtues, even knowing that we may often fall short. Recognizing our own shortcomings, we might include in our moral aspirations the virtues of humility, forgiveness, and repentance. These again are without plurals and thus also represent the kind of character traits that we seek in all officials, regardless of their culture or country. Certainly these are the personal, moral standards to which the great spiritual leaders of our traditions call us, and all men and women, everywhere.

Because we often fail to live up to these standards, we also ask our governments and officials to abide by a rule of law which seeks to reflect these virtues in legal procedures ensuring accountability. Such a just rule of law specifies both rights and responsibilities. Rights provide protection and ensure the possibility of participation in social, economic and political decision-making. Responsibilities clarify duties and allow us, under the rule of law, to hold governments and officials accountable for their actions.

Thus in seeking moral leadership, we not only expect that high personal standards of conduct be maintained. We also require that governments and officials not be "above the law" but be accountable for their conduct.

The Spiritual Dimension

By "spiritual" we mean a dimension of life that is related to being "moral" but is "more than" that. By distinguishing "spiritual needs" from "material needs," the Values Caucus is suggesting that there is a dimension of social development that transcends improving economic circumstances. This dimension is expressed through the cultural and religious traditions of humankind, but these often appear more different than similar. The word "spiritual" is used to suggest that human beings share in a transcendent dimension of life, despite cultural and religious differences.

The word "universal" is sometimes used to refer to this dimension of life, and this word is also used to refer to moral values that transcend particular cultural and religious traditions. We have already seen that certain moral virtues do not, at least in English, have plural forms and thus imply a kind of universal character or morality. The UN Undersecretary-General's affirmation of a "shared vision" or a "shared set of values" as the goal of the Social Summit is a way of pointing to the same issue, as is the use of the word "values" or "shared values" by the Values Caucus.

It is important, however, to see that whatever is "spiritual" or "transcendent" or "universal" must also take a material, immanent, particular form. Not all that is particular is universal, but all that is universal is particular. That is, we are concerned with a dimension of life, and not with that which is simply beyond life. We are concerned with the dimension of the material that is spiritual, not with some notion of spiritual that is other than material. We are concerned with the transcendent dimension of human living, not with the transcendent apart from human living.

This spiritual dimension of life is represented most powerfully by the stories of our religious traditions. In these stories, persons and peoples experience concretely the transcendent dimension of life. In the Jewish story God covenants with the people, Israel. In the Christian story God is manifested in a person, Jesus. In the Muslim story God's will is revealed in a book, the Qur'an. In the Buddhist story, freedom from suffering is discovered by the Buddha in the human act of renunciation. In every case that which is spiritual or transcendent or universal is experienced within the material, immanent, and particular. The stories tell us how to attend to this dimension of life, and urge us to do so. They call us to manifest and make particular, in our own time and place, the spiritual and moral dimensions of life.

These stories suggest that governments and officials have a responsibility at least to provide "an enabling environment" for spiritual and moral development, to use the language of the Draft Declaration for the Social Summit. But the stories also remind us that governments and officials often fall far short of doing so, by pursuing their own narrow self-interest, and thus may well hinder such development.

In the modern context there is a great debate over the extent to which government is able to promote spiritual values and, even assuming that it can, the wisdom urging it to do so. Certainly there is no such thing as being "neutral" in this regard, and I believe the language of the Draft Declaration is as helpful as any, because we are looking for an "enabling environment" for spiritual development. We do not want government to prescribe spiritual development in one way (or prohibit it in others), for we recognize that spiritual development requires freedom of conscience and opportunities for religious and cultural communities to reform and renew their traditions.

In short, we are opposed to government policies that seek to conform spiritual and moral development to an ideology, whether it be communist, socialist, capitalist, or fascist. An enabling economic, political, legal, and moral environment for social development which also takes into consideration spiritual development will be marked by freedom for individuals and communities, respect for diversity, and a commitment to dialogue and cooperation in promoting the common good.

An Earth Community

One of the great challenges in the struggle to achieve social, moral and spiritual development is finding ways to speak clearly and powerfully about what it is we want. There is a tendency to fall back on abstract terms and phrases, such as "values" and "the betterment of the human condition" to mention two which have been used by the Values Caucus. I am sure we all agree that these are not particularly illuminating or compelling. But what are the alternatives?

The development of human rights language in the second half of the 20th century may provide us with a helpful model. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid the cornerstone of this movement in 1948, and that document contained two key concepts. First, human rights were presented as the essential conditions for human dignity. And second, human rights and human dignity were affirmed as a matter of faith. The fifth paragraph of the Preamble reads as follows: "Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…."

This is a statement about values and about spiritual and moral as well as social development, yet it uses language that is concrete and convincing. The Preamble provides reasons for the importance of human rights but acknowledges that these are a matter of faith. Human rights cannot simply be deduced from experience or history, which is marked more by the taking of life than respect for it. Affirming human rights is rather a matter of embracing life in a way that respects the human person, regardless of his or her color, creed, class, caste, or circumstances.

Furthermore, the Preamble provides a core concept, human dignity, as the foundation on which the entire edifice of human rights will be built. And this image, while modern in its formulation, was readily understood as representing the fundamental affirmations of diverse cultural and religious traditions, as I have documented in my book Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle.

At the time of the Earth Summit I suggested that the concept of an "earth community" might serve as the cornerstone for a language of environmental protection and social development. I drafted "An Earth Charter" incorporating this concept, and a revised version of this statement is attached. "Community" is a very positive word within the moral and religious traditions of the world, and affirming and seeking an "earth community" might be a way of signifying our commitment to creating a human community marked by peace, justice and social development and at the same time protecting and sustaining the earth which we share with all the other life we know.

Clearly the concept of human dignity must remain the foundation of social development, but we know that social development must take place within the context of our earth home. In this larger context the notion of human dignity is not sufficiently inclusive to serve as the foundation for an ecological ethic. Furthermore, an earth community must be a community of communities, as our quest for shared values should not be used to undermine the particular religious and cultural traditions which presently ground the moral and spiritual dimension of life for the earth's peoples. Instead we must seek to foster within each religious and cultural tradition the spiritual and moral conduct by which an earth community might be realized.

Recommendations for the Draft Declaration

These suggestions may be applied to the Draft Declaration and Draft Program of Action for the Social Summit (A/CONF.166/PC/L.22), and to the recommendations of the Values Caucus, in the following ways.

First, on page 7 of the Draft Declaration under Part II, Commitments, Section 22, Commitment 1, the Values Caucus has suggested that the word "moral" be inserted after the word "political" in the first commitment, printed in bold type. The amended sentence would read: "We commit ourselves to create an enabling economic, political, moral and legal environment conducive to social development, at all levels." I agree with this recommendation.

But I disagree with the recommendation by the Values Caucus to insert in point (a) under Commitment 1 the word "moral" between the words "stable" and "legal" in the phrase "a stable legal framework," because it is precisely the rule of law which is needed to implement the goals of Commitment 1. This rule of law is spelled out in point (a) as a stable legal framework which "includes and promotes equity, equality of opportunity for all women and men, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, elimination of de jure and de facto discrimination, and promotion of representative organization of civil society." As such a rule of law is moral, it is redundant and misleading to insert the word "moral" in the text.

The Values Caucus has also recommended that the phrase "and shared values" be inserted after "human rights" so the sentence would read "respect for human rights and shared values...." But all of point (a) is a statement of shared values, and inserting this as a separate concept seems to suggest that it is something different. Moreover, it is vague. We know what respect for human rights means, as we have a body of law to which to refer. But we do not know what "shared values" means, unless it refers to the values represented by the entire sentence. In this case, inserting it only creates confusion.

The point here is that the insertion of the world "moral" in Commitment 1 broadens the context of social development, but the additional insertions in point (a) seem to suggest that the realization of this broader notion of social development requires activities and programs explicitly about "shared values" rather than an attentiveness to the moral and spiritual dimensions of social development in all forms of implementation.

My second point is similar. On page 17 of the Draft Declaration the Values Caucus has recommended that under Basis for Action and Objectives, point 8, which states that governments "will strive to create an enabling environment with the following features," an additional feature be added as follows: "a reorientation of values that support the betterment of the human condition." This phrase refers back to point 4 under the Basis for Action and Objectives on page 15 which says: "To promote social development requires a reorientation of values, objectives and priorities, in order to strengthen existing institutions and policies. Human dignity, equity and social justice must be fundamental values of all societies.”

As the features listed under point 8 are specific objectives and include not only sustainable growth but also the protection of human rights and policies which respect diversity, greater community participation and cooperation, it again seems to separate out the notion of "values" by adding it as a separate feature. Surely, all the specific features already listed represent the "reorientation of values" which is required by social development, as acknowledged in point 4. The original statement makes values not a "feature" but fundamental to social development, which is the understanding we wish to convey.

Third, on page 21 of the Draft Declaration the Values Caucus has recommended adding as point C. "An enabling environment for the reorientation of values that support the betterment of the human condition." This would be parallel to A. "A favorable national and international economic environment" and B. "An enabling political and legal environment." I believe this parallel point makes sense, although I would replace the phrase "the betterment of the human condition" with something like "peace, justice and social development" or "the creation of an earth community."

I do not support, however, the stated action (a) which the Values Caucus has recommended be listed under C. It reads as follows: "utilize formal and informal education, the media, institutions and groups dealing with values, and social science research to create values and attitudes that support the changes needed for social development." This statement seems to charge governments with the task of forming values for the society, but it does not distinguish between appropriate activities for government and inappropriate activities. On its face it implies that governments should "utilize" religious, cultural and civil organizations in order to promote a reorientation of values. Yet I am sure that the Values Caucus does not want governments to manipulate religious institutions nor to pressure them to conform to state policy, as communist governments have done in the not so distant past.

In other words, the "enabling environment for the reorientation of values" that support social development must be a free environment that nurtures dialogue and cooperation, rather than an imposed, ideologically oppressive environment. I suggest, therefore, that in place of the action recommended by the Values Caucus, the following actions by government be proposed:

a. Ensuring that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

b. Protecting the civil and religious rights of minority communities.

c. Guaranteeing everyone the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

These and other civil rights, which are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are essential for the kind of civil society in which a free and effective reorientation of values may be achieved.


I wish to conclude by commending the Values Caucus for its efforts to lift up the moral and spiritual dimensions of social development. My suggestions are intended to contribute to this work. In this respect I commend to the Values Caucus the report of the "Seminar on the Ethical and Spiritual Dimensions of Social Progress" (A/CONF.166/PC/27), which I received after I had prepared these comments. It is an extremely thoughtful proposal as to how the discourse of social development might be enriched and deepened.

In summary, I have suggested that we expect moral leadership from our governments and officials, and from ourselves as well; that the singular virtues of honesty, integrity, equity, justice, compassion, humility, forgiveness, and repentance are the marks of such leadership; and that a rule of law is necessary to ensure such leadership through accountability.

I have also suggested that the spiritual dimension of life is most powerfully represented in the stories and concrete practices of our religious traditions, rather than in abstract concepts; that government is not responsible for prescribing spiritual development but has a responsibility to guarantee the fundamental freedoms that are necessary for spiritual flourishing through social development; and that the task of moral and spiritual renewal in our societies and our world belongs to all of us.

Finally, I have suggested that affirming our faith in an earth community, which assures the physical and social conditions for human dignity, may be our best way of fostering development which is not only economic and political but also moral and spiritual. © Robert Traer 2016