On Ethics – Part 5 – The Ivory Towers in peace

October 28, 2006

This fifth issue of my Ethics series continues to deal with institutional “Ivory Towers” and peaceful means to establish global Ethics. We’ll Man with his flutediscuss diverse topics such as the Ten Commandments, The Geneva Conventions, Magna Carta, Foreign Aid, The United Nations and Global Warming, including the Kyoto Protocol. I’ll use these practical examples to make my point: While usually well meaning, these programs rarely have the impact one might hope for, with some few exceptions. Some power center – often the US – stands in their way to protect self interests.

The last essay dealt with violence, in particular War and its relation to Ethics. The conclusion of that essay was simple: Ethics and Morals are totally incompatible with any aspect of War or other forms of violence on a nation to nation level. War means utter destruction in all possible ways. This essay will reach the conclusion that the peaceful means of spreading “good” Ethics are by no means as fatal as War but still not truly effective. We’ll need to look further for success stories.

The Ivory Tower View of Peaceful Means

The World does not totally lack universal Ethical standards. Magna Carta is a legal version of Ethics that is still going strong after some 800 years. The Ten Commandments is another example – even more so as most major religions build on similar, basic Ethical standards. The UN and its agencies is one example. The Geneva Conventions are yet another example, as is the Kyoto Protocol. Let’s take a closer look at some of the Ivory Towers.

The Images

As always, here are a few comments on the images used in this essay. I’ve said before it is not easy to illustrate abstract themes. There are no pictures of Ethics or Morals. Apart from a few diagrams obtained from various places, I’ve chosen to add images of people. After all, this blog is really all about people, images, art and how we all really relate.

The images are all shot by me. There is no relation between the text and the individuals in the images. The individuals shown are just people who happened to pass before my camera. That’s all. No hidden agendas.

The Ten Commandments

Girl looking outReligion is a very powerful influence on Ethical standards, not to mention daily life, throughout most of the World. Many Christians think of religion as a 2,000 year phenomena. It goes much further back. The Ten Commandments go back almost 3,300 years. Some say Christianity goes to the beginning of time although most scientists and logical people do not quite agree.

Religion and Ethics go hand in hand in most people’s mind. It certainly is a thoroughly researched issue. Some of these researches impact the daily life of billions of people. Consider issues such as World hunger, genocide, human abuses, AIDS, marriage and divorce, gay rights, contraception and sexuality, priest abuse, religion and politics (such as collaboration with the Nazis) and abortion. All of these items reflect Ethical religious actions/inactions and/or failures. Not all of us agree with the religious point of view. No one can deny the power of the church.

The Ten Commandments are an admirable set of Ethical rules. They are short, to the point and indisputable to most people. They are interpreted in somewhat different ways by various Christian factions. Muslims reject the Christian version but support a very similar set of their own. Buddhism and Hinduism also support very comparable thoughts. Astonishingly, the atheist Soviet Union had a Moral Code with a somewhat similar content. There is no question that the Ten Commandments and its counterparts are powerful ethical standards with a Worldwide influence.

Here are links to some alternative commandments:

The Geneva Conventions

The four Geneva Conventions protect POWs and restricts certain kinds of warfare. They are some of the most successful international treaties. They clearly define and relate to Ethical standards. They have evolved over time in different versions. The first version was adopted in the 1860s. The last major revision dates to 1949. Signatory nations (about 200) are required to pass national laws making it a crime to violate the Conventions.

In 1997, two protocols to the Geneva Conventions were added. They give protection to guerrillas in civil wars or wars of national liberation. A third protocol was added in 2006.

Article 4 of the current Conventions may be of interest, considering the current debate of denying the rights of the Conventions to certain “terrorists”. Please do judge for your self. Here is a much shortened version:

Article 4

A. Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Conventions, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:


2. Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:

a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
c) That of carrying arms openly;
d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.


LoversI’m no lawyer. But it seems to me the above applies to many individuals currently denied the rights of the Geneva Conventions. What are those rights? Here is an excerpt:

Article 13

Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Conventions. In particular, no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest.

Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.

Measures of reprisal against prisoners of war are prohibited.

Article 14

Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honor. Women shall be treated with all the regard due to their sex and shall in all cases benefit by treatment as favorable as that granted to men. Prisoners of war shall retain the full civil capacity which they enjoyed at the time of their capture. The Detaining Power may not restrict the exercise, either within or without its own territory, of the rights such capacity confers except in so far as the captivity requires.


Article 17

Every prisoner of war, when questioned on the subject, is bound to give only his surname, first names and rank, date of birth, and army, regimental, personal or serial number, or failing this, equivalent information. If he willfully infringes this rule, he may render himself liable to a restriction of the privileges accorded to his rank or status.


No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.


Does this sound like what is known to be going on in prison/POW camps around the World? Do you trust George W. Bush to come up with a better version?

The Geneva Conventions did neither protect POWs in Japanese hands during WWII nor make life easier in Hanoi Hilton. The Conventions did largely protect Western POWs in Nazi hands during WWII. It did not protect Soviet POWs. The Nazis killed some 3 million Soviet POWs, compared to some half a million German POWs killed by the Soviets.

The Western Allies generally treated German POWs well during the War, but there are rumors about some 1 million German POWs killed right after the War by the US. Israel is widely criticized for violating the treaties by using excessive force (such as cluster bombs against civilians) in the recent Mid East flare up.

You want to read the whole thing? Here is a link. Or read on for some recent evolutions, not all part of the conventions but certainly relevant:Girl with drink

1993 saw the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The Tribunal is a part of the UN and was established by the Security Council. It has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity. It goes on to cover grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and violations of the laws or customs of war. The tribunal deals exclusively with events committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991. The most infamous indicted is Slobodan Milosevic, previous president of Serbia, up till his death in March of 2006. The tribunal indicted 161 persons. About half of these cases are decided. In 43 cases, the tribunal found the defendant guilty.

In 1998, an international conference adopted the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This treaty created an International Criminal Court. The Court opened for business in 2002. It deals with three current cases – all against African nations – Uganda, Congo and Sudan. The former Liberian President Charles Taylor is held by the Court for trial. The Court received a number of complaints regarding the invasion of Iraq but declined actions for various reasons. The US, along with Israel, China, Iraq and a handful of other nations voted against the original treaty. The US did eventually sign but never ratified the treaty. George W. Bush has effectively killed any US support of the Court. George W. Bush wants assurance no Americans will ever be held responsible for war crimes by the Court.

For all its failures, the Geneva Conventions provide some of the best known and respected non-religious Ethical standards in existence. They are successful in its almost universal national acceptance. They helped innumerable POWs, although by no means all. Almost all people on Earth know about them and approve. Universally, a deviation from the Conventions is a serious crime, both legally and ethically

The Magna Carta Legal and Ethical Code

Justice is a critical component of any Ethical and Moral system. Magna Carta has provided such a system for some 800 years. Originally, it was a political charter aimed at limiting the power of English kings. It contains 6 clauses covering a multitude of issues. Over time, it has been revised and suffered ups and downs in influence. The US Constitution is one major point of influence. It provides a basis for common law in many countries.

The four basic points of Magna Carta, easily traceable to modern law and ethics:

  • Independence of church from state: “In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English Church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire…..”, “Wherefore we will and firmly order that the English Church be free, and that the men in our kingdom have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights, and concessions, well and peaceably, freely and quietly, fully and wholly, for themselves and their heirs, of us and our heirs, in all respects and in all places forever, as is aforesaid.”
  • Freedom from undue taxes: ” Neither we nor our bailiffs will seize any land or rent for any debt, as long as the chattels of the debtor are sufficient to repay the debt; “, “No sheriff or bailiff of ours, or other person, shall take the horses or carts of any freeman for transport duty, against the will of the said freeman”, ” Neither we nor our bailiffs shall take, for our castles or for any other work of ours, wood which is not ours, against the will of the owner of that wood.”
  • Habeas Corpus – no imprisonment without due process of law: “No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice”.
  • Rights of unencumbered inheritance: “If any ….. Shall have died, and at the time of his death his heir….. Shall have his inheritance by the old relief, to wit, the heir or heirs….”, “A widow, after the death of her husband, shall forthwith and without difficulty have her marriage portion and inheritance….”

Magna Carta did not prevent any number of Wars since the 1100s. It did not prevent the Holocaust. It did nothing to prevent arms races. Nor did it limit the murders conducted by many despots and dictators. But it is a powerful document providing a fascinating window to the ethics of a far past that still is valid. Here is a good link.

Foreign Aid (Solidarity)

Foreign aidDevelopment aid from the rich countries to the Third World is an attempt to practice Ethics on an international basis. Early on, there was a goal to contribute 1% of GDP in aid. This is now generally reduced to .7%. Some view this as a mostly symbolic effort with limited practical results. Some cynics view it as an attempt by the rich to control the poor. Foreign aid by practically all industrial countries is declining. To quote some facts from this source:

  • In 1970, rich countries of the OECD agreed at the United Nations (Resolution 2626) to give 0.7% of their GNP as aid to the developing countries.
  • Over 35 years on, most of the 20 or so rich OECD countries have never reached that figure, or come close.
  • The rich countries have given an enormous $2.2 trillion dollars in aid since 1960
  • Still, the accumulated total shortfall in their aid since 1970 amounts to $2.5 trillion (at 2003 prices).

That’s a $2.5 TRILLION shortfall. Extrapolate the numbers to 2006 to a shortfall of around $3 TRILLION. Is that all you can expect of the ethical credibility of industrial nations? This is a program based on fundamentally Ethical standards. It is supported in theory by a large part of the World. Of course, you’ll notice from the graph which country is dead last in this type of foreign aid.

The United Nations

The United Nations is a dysfunctional, corrupted, bloated, expensive and inefficient organization. Still, it is the only game in town. For all its faults, it is a major platform to resolve international issues, sometimes with Ethical guidance. The UN has accomplished many good things. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights attempts to reconcile global Ethics. The Security Council provides some important checks and balances on World politics. The various agencies produce some successes, although mostly at an enormously bloated cost.

Here are the official UN goals to be reached by 2015 (or as specified):

  1. Reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day. Reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
  2. Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling
  3. Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015
  4. Reduce by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five
  5. Reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio
  6. Halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS. Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases
  7. Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs; reverse loss of environmental resources.
  8. Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.
  9. Achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020.
  10. Develop further an open trading and financial system that is rule-based, predictable and non-discriminatory, includes a commitment to good governance, development and poverty reduction— nationally and internationally
  11. Address the least developed countries’ special needs. This includes tariff- and quota-free access for their exports; enhanced debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries; cancellation of official bilateral debt; and more generous official development assistance for countries committed to poverty reduction
  12. Address the special needs of landlocked and Small Island developing States
  13. Deal comprehensively with developing countries’ debt problems through national and international measures to make debt sustainable in the long term
  14. In cooperation with the developing countries, develop decent and productive work for youth
  15. In cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, provide access to affordable essential drugs in developing countries
  16. In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies— especially information and communications technologies

Do you know any other organization with similar goals? This may be day dreaming but the goals are still backed by the authority of 192 nations. Even a limited success would be good news.

Do you notice something odd? Global warming is not mentioned. Nor is a goal of reducing international tensions or providing better security. The list passes on resolving international conflicts, such as war. Nowhere is reducing or controlling nuclear proliferation mentioned. There’s nothing about sanctions and other measures against rouge nations. Terrorism is not even mentioned. Fiscal goals or becoming more efficient aren’t worth a point. There is little about promoting freedom and democracy.

Global Warming and the Kyoto Protocol

Few scientists claim Global Warming is not a serious threat to mankind. Almost everyday, more alarming evidence is surfacing. A fair part of the World’s politicians agree. So do most sane people. But most of us will be dead before it really becomes a true and practical disaster. So the Ethical goal of saving the World is immediately clouded by various other issues such as the substantial short term cost to reduce the dangers.

There still is resistance to the notion of climate dangers. Check out this link. Or try this one. Ah, the power of Special Interests.

Here is a list of more realistic evidence of global warming from EcoBridge (use this link for details or follow the links below item by item):

  1. Graph of Historical Trend of Warming Temperatures
  2. Carbon Dioxide Increasing in Atmosphere
  3. Methane Also Increasing
  4. More Frequent Extreme Weather
  5. Disappearing Glaciers
  6. Melting Arctic Sea Ice
  7. Melting Antarctic Sea Ice
  8. Greenland’s Ice Sheet Melting
  9. Tropical Diseases Spreading
  10. Oceans Warming With Coral Bleaching & Disintegration

Carbon emissions by countryThe Kyoto Protocol is an agreement based on UN climate control guidelines. It requires signatories to reduce green house gases. About 160 countries have signed the Protocol. The US and Australia signed but did not ratify the protocol, rendering it effectively dead.

In all honesty, it is a strange agreement. It splits the requirement of nations to reduce emissions into several categories somehow related to ability to pay for the necessary work (or negotiating skills). India and China, both full signatories, are not required to reduce gases at all, in spite of being major polluters. North America is the largest emitter of these gases and will do little or nothing. It is followed by China, doing nothing. India’s contribution to emissions is sky-rocketing, doing nothing. Perhaps Australia is counting on its gases disappearing into its ozone hole? How is this for complex Ethics?

The bottom line is that some major polluters are getting away with it – The US and Australia on legality, China and India on, perhaps, superb negotiating skills. The rest of the World is caught in the middle. Many try their best in spite of the controversy and special interests.

Here is a corporate (BP) view on the Kyoto Protocol:

Global warming is real and needs to be addressed now. Rather than bash or mourn the defunct Kyoto Protocol, we should start taking the small steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions today that can make a big difference down the road. The private sector already understands this, and its efforts will be crucial in improving fossil fuel efficiency and developing alternative sources of energy. To harness business potential, however, governments in the developed World must create incentives, improve scientific research, and forge international partnerships.

Lord Browne of Madingley is Group Chief Executive of BP plc.

Apparently the solution is to leave the private sector alone but provide subsidies to ensure leaving it alone. Is this hypocrisy, anyone? Does it suggest arrogance?

Although the means of reducing dangerous gases have little to do with Ethics, the overall goal of saving civilization certainly has everything to do with Ethics and Morals. How about all of you guys with young children? What do you think about the World 50, 60, 70 years down the road?

US Ethics

The truth is that the peaceful efforts to spread universal Ethical standards have never quite succeeded. One or another power source has always stood in the way of these initiatives to protect against perceived disadvantages. The US, as represented by its government, is one such power.

  • Imposing the US views on the rest of the World: Let’s see. Consider Korea, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Grenada, Teheran/Iran, Lebanon, Panama, Nicaragua, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Philippines, Iraq and Liberia. These are just the countries the US has engaged in war or war like actions since WWII. That averages to one war every four year – just like the election cycle. It does not count the nations that the US is applying close to war like pressure on, such as Iran of late and North Korea being the Axis of Evil. Then we have the War on Terrorism. That alone covers much of the rest of the World (George W. Bush: “You are either with us or against us” or “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”). The World is not impressed, in particular with the frequent “moral” rhetoric of peace, collaboration, friendship, freedom and democracy against the reality of frequent wars and direct support of many dictatorships. The World is also concerned that the US supports or at least accepts the nuclear buildup of India and Pakistan in spite of rhetoric to the opposite.
  • The Geneva Conventions, originally signed by the US in the 1880s: The US has gone through two days of infamy, according to popular opinions: The first was Pearl Harbor. The second was 9/11. I believe the third day of infamy (in reverse) will be when George W. Bush signs away part of the Geneva Conventions. Not only that, he will demolish long standing humanitarian and legal foundations of civilization. That act alone will hasten the steep decline in power, respect and influence triggered by the absurd policies of George W. Bush and friends. For those interested in the Ethics of US recent war conduct – please read some of Ramsey Clark’s writings. Here is a great link.
  • Magna Carta: How is the US Justice System doing as an Ethical outpost? Let’s think. What about fixing Presidential elections? What about the courts allowing gross breaches of civil rights by the President. What about racial profiling? What about the death penalty, rejected long ago by the rest of the civilized World? Does anyone believe we all have access to equal treatment in court? Can a poor person pursue just causes in a system of $300 per hour lawyers?
  • Foreign Aid: 60 years ago, the US implemented the Marshall Plan in an enormously successful rebuild of war torn Europe. Such an effort has never been repeated. Today, with a universal OECD goal of providing .70% of GDP in foreign aid, the US contributes about .14% compared to Norway’s .92%. The US contributions are the lowest (percentage wise) among major countries. As badly perhaps, the US uses various trade policies to protect domestic industries against foreign competition. The World is no longer impressed, especially given the US official, empty words of free trade, generosity and solidarity.
  • The United Nations: The US has long viewed the UN as a thorn in its backside. This is reflected in the $1.5 billion owed to the U.N. by the US and the associated black mail. It is reflected in a long term contemptuous and antagonistic attitude. Just sending a major bully such as John Bolton with “his haircut an offense to the World” is telling the story. Think about the maneuvers of George W. Bush to gain some legality for his Iraq war. Think of the lies supporting those acrobatics that were presented by Foreign Secretary Colin Powell.
  • Global Warming: This is an issue ignored by George W. Bush. He wants to keep cost down for big business and push North Slope oil drilling. Ecology and forward thinking is not his strength. Consider Hurricane Katrina proving even his backward thinking is flawed. On the other hand, Governor Schwarzenegger of California is driving the global warming issue quite hard as a political expedience. Aside from that, there appears to be little hope of any substantial contribution from the US to resolve one of the most obvious threats to mankind. Yet US rhetoric stresses its commitment to environmental safety. Who believes the rhetoric?

Sadly, the US is one of the fiercest opponents to many Ethical international efforts while promoting its own interests to great dismay in the rest of the World. Is the US the Ethical nation it claims to be? Is the US a moral country? If so, how is it moral? Is it worse or better than others? If so why? Does the US stand on Ethical and Moral issues hurt it or not? How does the rest of the World view the US? You judge for yourself. I will expand on my views in a future post.

Where are we?

Ivory Towers, Ivory Towers. “The term Ivory Tower designates a World or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life” (From Wikipedia). I suppose that is a cynical view of the various programs described above. And it’s perhaps not an entirely accurate metaphor. Much of my discussion is about Government responses to various international attempts to promote Ethical programs. I can’t honestly characterize these Government responses as “intellectual”. I certainly can buy the “disconnect” part of the Wikipedia definition. On the other hand, “the practical concerns” are very real.

Man in deep thoughtHow about my version: “The term Ivory Tower designates a World or atmosphere where governments engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday people.” There, I only changed two words but that’s my story. Really, I only needed to change one word, not two. Which one, do you think? Who inhabits the Ivory Tower?

I have gone from the very high level viewpoint of philosophy down one level to existing, major programs on the international or national level. It is easy to show the limitations of agreements and action on high level Ethical issues. While philosophers provide lots of theory, those Ethical views are sometimes misused. Governments say one thing but often act differently on Ethical and Moral issues. Moreover, different philosophers and Governments have wildly diverse interpretations of Ethical matters.

Because of its role in the World, I’ve paid special attention to the US, both in the prior essays and this one. Does the US live up to its responsibility as a World Leader? No, it does not. And its role as a World Leader is declining rapidly as a result. The rest of the World views the US as a threat, not an asset. Ten, fifteen years ago, the US was at the top of its game. The Cold War was won. Everyone discussed how to use the Peace Dividend. Then the Dynasty of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice brought it all down. That is just too bad.

However, look at many of the global efforts on Ethics. Most programs, commandments, treaties or protocols have a basic element of well meaning Ethics. They quite often, not always, mean to do the right thing. The problem lies in execution, the Moral part. Too often, the political will is lacking for one or another reason. Expedience, polls and election days rule. The conclusion must be that there are serious conflicts and distortions regarding Ethics and Morals in the higher echelons of our societies.

So our quest needs to continue. We’ll jump down one more level and look at the diverse Ethics on the individual level.

Thank you


One Response to “On Ethics – Part 5 – The Ivory Towers in peace”

  1. lushbooks said

    Great posts. Have you read “The Turning Point” by Fritjof Capra? That book goes right along with this level of awareness. I’m over on the “innovation and user experience side” at http://multispectives.wordpress.com

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