Ruth Lewis a member of our Emerging Fellows program checks the possibility of evolving liberty with governance in her seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, ‘Sustainable Development’, ‘Socially Responsible Investing’. I am often struck by these sorts of labels that imply an intention to work towards a better world. But have they become weasel words, marketing-driven subjective descriptions that may be co-opted by those without an obligation or a plan to implement firm or agreed objectives? How can we promote or evolve human rights or liberty universally, or create a governance framework to allocate responsibility that can be clearly understood and delivered?
Human rights and liberty may evolve in the future though the use of global standards, long-term commercial goals and non-financial societal measures. This view focusses on the social accountability of the individual entity – a person, corporation, government or NGO for their own actions and is in line with the human rights paradigm of self-governance. Within this type of governance framework, the behaviour of the entity is observed and measured to ensure accountability. Liberty may evolve with honest governance that provides education, a robust and enforced justice system, and which upholds free speech.
A normalised common good for a community may develop where that community can be defined as ‘Earth’. We refer to all citizens of our planet as a global community, with all inhabitants enjoying equal human rights. The problem comes when human rights, as benefits or interests imposed by government or international rules, clash with human responsibility.
Responsibility is related to a duty or obligation for moral or legal purposes, and is assigned to you as a role. Moral responsibility or duty are concepts from a time before the Enlightenment, when civic virtue and social values were pre-eminent. Duty ethics implies living by a set of rules, according to your duty to the society that you live in. This world view defines each person’s place in a hierarchy, whether as a ruler, religious leader or supplicant. These ethical theories are more powerful when considering a governance system that will care for a common good, such as our environment, or a social institution such as a culture or country. The cultural aspect of the welfare of the community is dominant, over the rights or wishes of the individual.
Within a governance system that is respectful and nurturing to the individual and community, duty ethics can promote liberty. However, in some cultures past and present, the governance system may be more concerned with enforcement of a defined duty within a social hierarchy, and may suppress individual liberty or exploit a person or a community for the ‘good’ of the hierarchically superior state. Where this happens, there may be no recognisable individualism or recognition of human rights, as it is beyond the duty paradigm.
How do we morally reconcile egalitarian concepts of liberty and human rights with hierarchically-based duty and moral responsibility to ensure universal and equitable governance? This question underpins many global challenges that we face today, including care of our environment, responsible development of technology and natural resources, improving the living conditions for third world communities or ensuring inhabitants of our world are free to choose their own religion, lifestyle or family groupings.
The solution is to carefully integrate both liberty and duty ethics with an equal recognition of both, for the healthy functioning of the individual within the society that they live in. Equitable governance will promote both liberty and duty in both a rational and a spiritual sense, looking at both short to long term development, and taking account of both high and low-level issues, complexities and inter-relationships.
Governance where the governed have input in shaping the governance and policy development process is a difficult process of finding consensus and reconciling many different points of view. The key is to follow an agreed framework that is able to benefit and validate all of these viewpoints within open and honest channels of communication, with a consideration of societal or collective normative values for the common good, truth and values. Example frameworks that have been developed for this type of framework include ‘Communitarianism’ and ‘Commoning’.
An immediate need is common governance of the world’s natural environment. A purely liberty-based view of governance based on ‘human rights’ may look to exploit the ecosystem for economic growth. This may subsume all other considerations, including our duty to protect nature or our responsibility to preserve the world’s ecology for future generations. The common and integrated view of environmental governance based on equivalent ‘rights’ and ‘duty’ allocates custodianship of countries and corporations for natural resource development, and specific responsibility for any social and ecological damage caused by economic production or consumption. This custodianship includes the duty of current generations to conserve the global environment for future generations. There are signs that future legal international frameworks will normalise explicit intergenerational environmental responsibility in equal measure to the legal status of human rights to ensure accountability for externalities of economic development, together with defined plans for delivery.
Technology can be used as an enabler of open and honest channels of communication and facilitate the transition from the extremes of individualistic liberty and hierarchical duty to a framework of the common good and universal governance. But how can technology judge what is open or honest? And what if the technology includes artificial, autonomous systems or augmented intelligences that need to be factors within the framework of defining the common good?
© Ruth Lewis 2019