[SPECIAL INTERVIEWS WITH SCHOLARS ― (4) Hans Kung on global ethics]Rigidity makes religion hThe following is the fourth in a series of interviews with scholars on major issues of the 21st century. The inverviews were arranged by the JoongAng Ilbo in collaboration with the Global Academy for Neo-Renaissance at Kyung Hee University. The series includes topics on biological science, strategies for the future, nonviolence, environmental ethics, the rise of Northeast Asia and future politics. - Ed.
Hans Kung, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, was born in Switzerland in 1928. He was highly acclaimed in the Catholic community in the 1960s, but later became embroiled in conflicts with the Vatican for his criticism of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility and his push for the ordination of women and marriage of priests. He has a great interest in religion in general and ethics, as well as in Catholicism. He drafted the "Declaration Towards a Global Ethic," and serves as president of the Global Ethic Foundation. His books include “Reforming the Church Today” and “Global Responsibility.”
The forest-lined roads from the Frankfurt airport to Tubingen, where Professor Hans Kung lives, were quiet and charming. When I came to his office, he received me as warmly as a friend even though we had never met before. Perhaps this is in keeping with his global ethic theory, which stipulates that human beings are strangers and judges our attitudes toward each other as based on ethics.
It is said that every human being exists as an individual and becomes a social being when he or she meets another. The literal meaning of the Chinese characters for human being is “between one person and another.”
Humans used to be very weak and powerless compared to the grandiosity of nature, God, and even some animals. Totemism, which reveres animals, reflected the human desire to be as powerful as a bear or a tiger. Therefore, primitive humans had to learn to cooperate with each other and greet strangers in a friendly manner.
With the development of science and technology and the accumulation of wealth, modern humans conquered much of nature and came to occupy a central position in the world. Now human beings all acquired status as individual subjects. Modernity liberated humans from dependence on God, but it was only partial, nothing more than a “self-centered humanism.” This explains why they continue to point daggers at each other despite the advance of civilization.
The conversation continued:
Q. Modern society app-ears to have advanced human dignity and achi-eved liberal democracy but it is still riddled with many problems. Why is that so?
A.I think it comes from our lack of wisdom to stop abusing the advance of science and technology, our lack of consideration for others and the environment, albeit with economic growth, and our lack of ethics in spite of the realization of democracy. In a word, modern society is leaning excessively towards materialism. Both capitalism and communism failed to transform humans into advanced beings. “Ideology” was the mental value that sustained the Cold War regime, but since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, there has been no other mental value to replace it. That is why American neo-capitalism and Japanese economism are still rampant.
I agree that modern society is very materialistic and ideology should break down, but isn’t it also true that there are diverse mental phenomena in postmodern society?
Yes, there are so many values, lifestyles, and random attitudes. But it does not mean that everything should be allowed indiscriminately. In the midst of such diverse modes of life, norms of behavior, and plays on words, we need a basic agreement on a more proactive, humanistic integration, which is a global ethic.
Ethics were emphasized even in ancient times. An emphasis on ethics basically presupposes a suppression of human instincts and desires. Isn’t that the same as going back to asceticism?
I’m not saying that all human desires should be suppressed but only that what every religion and every philosophy accepts unanimously should be adhered to at a minimum. It can be summarized into two things: humanity and the principle of reciprocity. That is, “Everyone should be treated humanely,” and “Do not do to others as you would not have them do to you.” These virtues are common among Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Confucianism.
Professor Samuel Hunting-ton points to religion as the cause of the clash of civilizations. Do you think that religion is too rigid?
It is, to a certain degree. Some religions stick to their tenets and incite hatred. Those religions do not have a universal character. But there are different cases as well. Religion played an important role in bringing about reconciliation in South Africa, Central and South America and in the Philippines. A true religion should be able to promote cooperation between believers and nonbelievers.
As we witnessed in the terrorist acts of 9/11 and in the London bombings recently, the Islamic and Christian civilizations seem to be destined to clash. What do you think?
They are inhumane, unethical acts that cannot be justified for any reason whatsoever. Of course, the perpetrators must have a reason for committing such acts. Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein once cooperated with the U.S. government and had no intention of attacking the Western world. But the United States lied repeatedly, confused them, and dumped them for its own national interests. Despite that, however, their terrorist attacks were wrong responses to the sinister acts of the United States. And the U.S. counteraction, the “war on terrorism,” is a similar mistake.
I agree with the concepts of a global ethic and peace, but do you really think that everyone can be an ethical being? If violence and selfishness cannot be eliminated from human nature, shouldn’t the state be socially sanctioned to use violence in order to manage it?
Human beings are ambiguous and dualistic. They can be good or evil. In this sense, the ideal state is impossible to achieve. We sometimes commit sins or violate humanism. But human beings are free. Therefore, freely creating a better world, a relatively more ideal world, is possible. It is very important to maintain a nonviolent, ethical attitude. International organizations such as the United Nations should address this issue and gradually expand dialogue with individual countries. At the same time, dialogue from the bottom, i.e., at home and in school, should begin as well.
Ethics and dialogue have been emphasized by many others, but people ignore them. Isn’t it like speaking to a deaf ear to continue emphasizing it?
I know what you mean, but it takes a long time and it’s a long process. In modern society, it is even more important to emphasize and teach ethics. Thirty years ago, Koreans were not very interested in environmental problems, but with continued publicity and education, that has changed now. These days, young people are constantly exposed to violence and cruelty via television and other mass media. In comparison, ethics education is degenerating. In this condition, the youth will lose their ethical qualities altogether. Therefore, it is very important to teach them ethics and promote awareness so that they can have a balanced view.
After the interview, Professor Kung gave me many leaflets and other educational materials used at the Global Ethic Foundation. Meeting a “stranger” is indeed helpful.
by Lee Dong-soo
The interviewer is a professor of political theory and serves as associate dean of the Graduate School of NGO Studies at Kyung Hee University.
He received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
He has published a number of books, including “Values and Korean Politics,” “On Utopia: East and West” and “Internet and NGOs.”