Extra-Solar Religion & Science

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1-3 Ethics

A concerted effort to combat the threat to survival of life on our planet requires an ethic that can be agreed to by nations sharing its governance. The last time this was achieved was in 1948, prompted by experience of the Second World War and seeing the effects of nuclear weapons on cities. It provided a short statement defining how people should interact with each other in a way that promotes our survival. It is set forth in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

While this was couched in terms current in mid-20th century, changes in outlook in the 21st century call for a revision to recognize the equality of women and the scientific discovery of the neurophysiology supporting people's capacity for empathy. It also should state explicitly that rights entail responsibilities as this aspect of rights is often forgotten. I suggest:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity, rights, and responsibilities. They are endowed with empathy, reason and conscience and should act toward one another as one harmonious family.

Revisions like this were considered during development of the preamble but were omitted because they were thought unlikely to receive enough votes from national representatives to pass the Declaration unanimously. It did pass unanimously, with abstentions by the Soviet Bloc and Saudi Arabia. The leader of the committee drafting the resolution, Eleanor Roosevelt, had already recognized that the U.S. Congress would not ratify a declaration of equal rights for women. As the Declaration also recognized equal rights for all races, it was never ratified by the U.S. Senate.

The Declaration was drafted by a European Jew, an Arab Muslim, and a Chinese Confucian under the chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, an American Christian. It was completed by a full committee representing 52 countries in 1948, well before a growing sensitivity to women’s rights would question the gender implications of “brotherhood” and “chairmanship”. But it was also developed before ideas behind reason and conscience became better understood. So, I think it is important to re-visit these words.

This is not a new consideration. It arose during the search for words for the Preamble. In describing the process, Mary Ann Glendon, in her book A World Made New explains that the Confucian, Pen-chun Chang, argued against the use of “conscience” because it did not reflect the Chinese view of a harmonious relationship between people. This, he argued, was expressed by the Chinese word ren, translated as “two-mindedness”. We can translate this now as empathy because we have discovered a physical basis for this “two-mindedness” ingrained in our brain. Through its presence, we are able to react almost instantly to another person’s facial emotions and body language. We do this by mirroring the other’s physical state, so achieving empathy by sharing the feelings physically expressed. It is an important way of gaining insight into another’s viewpoint and getting along together.

If we react by suppressing our response, as we often do in competitive societies, we ignore the other’s feelings, as if we have a brain trained to be less than human. Empathy is more fundamental than conscience, which involves a review of an action by reason and memory. This additional processing by the brain delays the response, which becomes preempted at the time by the immediate emotional response of interpersonal feelings.

So for a harmonious society, retention of compassionate and empathetic responses are of the utmost importance if people are to achieve an ethical social order. If immediate responses are not driven by empathy and reason, they become based on self-centered and tribal attitudes that lead to conflict and deterioration and waste of precious national resources. Empathy is the more prudent choice for a people capable of destroying civilization and their planet.

Empathy, reason, and conscience are qualities required by individuals if a civilization is to endure for a long period of time with the aid of formal social systems based on mutual help, in much the same way as recommended by leading thinkers in the past. These include Confucius (practice reciprocity and courtesy), the Buddha (recognize the universality of suffering and alleviate it), and Jesus of Nazareth (Sermon on the Mountain), and other thinkers. My guess is that many religions on Earth provide leadership in this respect.

The addition of "responsibilities" to the statement in the Preamble recognizes that universal rights are only available if we each take responsibility to ensure those rights are enjoyed by others. It is easily forgotten, but conscience should remind us of this.

To convert the ethic recommended for Earth's nations into a form we would hope to find in extraterrestrial communications, replace "human" with "sentient" and hold stoutly to the terrestrial viewpoint that sentient beings will be defined by empathy, reason, and conscience. Thus, for an extra-solar civilization, the universal ethic might be

All sentient beings are born free and equal in dignity, rights, and responsibilities. They are endowed with empathy, reason and conscience and should act toward one another as members of one Galactic family.

I hope that any travelers from Earth encountering such a civilization will be recognized as sentient beings.  7/11/2020  1:59

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