Global Ethics

  • Jonathan RoseEmail author
Living reference work entry


Unethical Behavior Virtue Ethic Ethical Action Corruption Perception Index Transparency International 
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Ethics and integrity are now widely recognized to be crucial for the development and maintenance of a well-functioning and stable public administration and moreover are seen as being a necessary component for achieving a well-functioning public policy. The effects of corruption, by contrast, are seen to present a central challenge to the functioning of the state. However, while almost all would agree at the abstract level that corruption is bad and integrity is good, it is conceptually difficult to understand what behavior ought to be thought of as “corrupt” and what behavior or attitudes ought to represent “ethics.” This is partly a question of definitions; corruption has dozens of definitions that would all label different bundles of actions as corrupt or not. Yet, moreover, this difficulty is also a question of culture and the relativity of ethics. Simply, some cultures view certain actions as ethically permissible while others do not. This in turn raises important questions about what is the “right” balance between ethical universalism and ethical relativism. It is against this backdrop that the challenge of creating a global standard of ethics has to be understood.

Global ethics is a standard of administrative ethics that could be applied across the world and to which all states and administrations, or at least the vast majority thereof, can subscribe. This problem can be approached in two ways: (1) We can define an ethical standard that is, in some sense, “universal.” Since this standard has a universal relevance, it can be freely adopted globally. (2) We can define a system of ethical behavior that is acceptable to some group of (powerful) people and, through incentives or force, implement them on a global scale. In neither case we are necessarily required to create a complete ethical system; global ethics can be “minimal” in the sense that they can represent a few core tenants rather than an entire ethical belief system. However, even attempts to specify the specific components of such “core” ethics have proved extremely difficult even among academics (see Lawton et al. 2015: 332–334), and agreement among policy makers (or the general public) seems to be a far-off dream.

This chapter discusses both the theory and practice of ethical regulation in a global context. It considers the implications of different (and culturally bound) conceptual understandings of what ethics are and the challenges that differences of opinion here pose for our attempts to create a consensual global ethics. It also discusses how global ethics have been approached in practice, noting that real-world applications have frequently made significant use of coercion of one kind or another. This chapter begins by discussing the theoretical foundations of ethics and the challenges posed by ethical relativism for creating a “global ethics.” It then discusses real-world attempts to introduce global ethics. Ultimately, it concludes that global ethics will inherently remain problematic in its application so long as its application relies on unequal power distributions to force one culture’s understanding of ethics upon the world.

Local Values and Global Ethics

At the broadest level, there is agreement about the nature of ethics. Ethics are the rules or principles that claim the authority to guide how we ought to act and how we ought to live (Singer 1994: 3–4). Ethics involve judgments about what is “right” and what is “wrong”: ethical actions are those that are “right,” while unethical actions are those that are “wrong.” Unfortunately, despite somewhat broad agreement as to the nature of ethics, the specific delineation of what actions are to be considered ethical has been the subject of enormous contention, and moreover the means by which we ought to choose which actions are ethical, or not, is also a contentious subject. Are ethical actions those that support the greatest happiness to the greatest number (as per utilitarianism)? Or are they those that arise from the inherent ethical virtues of the person acting (as per virtue ethics)? Are they those actions that promote some conception of justice (as per Rawls 1971)? Or moreover are ethical actions those that we consider ethical using our own personal conception of what ethical actions are, informed by our own specific culture and values (as per relativism)? These are conceptually difficult questions, for which we are unlikely to ever reach a definitive conclusion.

While relativism is not be the primary means through which the ethical content of actions has been understood either in theory or in practice, the challenge posed by relativism is particularly great from the perspective of creating global ethics. Indeed, if we accept the relativist perspective, it becomes somewhat meaningless to talk of a “global ethics” at all, because the question immediately becomes one of “whose ethics?” If ethical standards cannot be agreed by reference to some shared standard of probity, then we run the risk of ethics being a situation in which “might makes right,” where “global” ethics are defined almost exclusively by a dominant political culture and the rest of the world are coerced to obey. While this may (or may not) be successful in implementing a global framework, it appears to be far from ideal normatively and moreover runs the risk of principled noncompliance.

The philosophic case for relativism has rarely been made more forcefully than by the respected philosopher Mackie (1977: 15) who began his important work on the subject with the bold statement that “There are no objective values.” Philosophically, this means that there is no objective standard of moral rightness or moral wrongness, and instead all judgments about rightness and wrongness are inherently based upon cultural and personal norms. As a necessary consequence, there can be no objective standard of “ethics.” While there are of course instrumental arguments in favor of certain approaches – perhaps, for example, because they have previously been associated with “better” outcomes – this is not sufficient for establishing a global ethics. Indeed, at least on the relativist argument, there also can be no universal agreement about the ends of public life, and thus there can be no universal agreement about what we should be maximizing. Western conceptions, heavily influenced by theorists like Max Weber, often seek an impartial and professional bureaucracy that can impartially implement some conception of societal good (see also Rothstein 2011). However, this is a view that is not always shared in non-Western contexts. Indeed, in many contexts the establishment of close relationships is seen as the key to successful implementation of policies. Not only does this create a tension between different conceptualizations of “good” public services, but under certain circumstances it can also lead to problems delineating when a system is corrupt and when it is operating ethically (cf. Dunfee and Warren 2001).

This discussion is not about which system leads to more efficient outputs, but instead is about the moral “rightness” of various systems. Fundamentally, the discussion is a question of values, and which values are morally better. If Mackie’s claims about the absence of objective values are correct, there can never be a satisfactory answer to this question. As such, discussions are immediately refocused in terms of adherence to the moral tastes of the powerful or instead are reconceptualized as a push for some form of efficiency. While a push for greater efficiency at the global level may be an ultimately useful goal, it is hard to see this as an adequate response to the problem of global ethics.

Some have objected to such a line on the rationale that, irrespective of divergent moral codes, “the abstract virtue of justice… and, in some form and in some degree, the virtue of honesty” are (more or less) universal features of moral systems (Strawson 1961: 12). If this were the case, it might be supposed that we can still build a global ethics around the idea of procedural justice, irrespective of what the individual features of the procedures are. Under such a system, what is ethical is merely that which follows the stated procedures and that which is unethical is that which does not (in a manner similar to the impartiality criterion proposed by Rothstein 2011: 12–17). Nonetheless, this response still struggles with situations in which the formal procedures are demonstrably unjust, and our moral intuition is that it is unethical to follow them, such as is the case in apartheid systems. Moreover, any claim to even minimal universal ethics still relies upon an ultimately subjective claim about values. Because such a claim is subjective, it remains entirely possible that some groups will reject the very notion of such a claim to “global” ethics.

The Practical World of Global Ethics

So far it has been noted that if all values are ultimately subjective – and there is no compelling reason to think they are not – then there is no universal moral case for global ethics, however defined. Moreover, we also cannot know what ought to form the content of a truly global ethics, because views about the specific content of a global ethics are defined individually or perhaps by reference to a specific culture. To the extent that both of these factors are necessary for a workable global ethics, global ethics are impossible. Nonetheless, as has been alluded to, it remains possible to establish a global ethical system by fiat. Under such a system, some authority takes the lead in establishing a global ethical system that is then either imposed globally or is constructed as part of a package that makes acceptance essentially inevitable in the long run.

While establishing a system of global ethics by fiat risks defining ethics in terms of the personal values of the globally powerful, it does provide a practical way forward that could lead to a globally workable solution. This is similar to the process that has taken place with human rights, which eventually led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (for a discussion, see Habermas 2010). Indeed, Habermas (2010: 470) argues that “human rights circumscribe precisely that part (and only that part) of morality which can be translated into the medium of coercive law and become political reality in the robust shape of effective civil rights.” In this sense, human rights are the art of the possible. In exactly the same way, we might seek a global ethics that delineates only that part of a broader ethical morality that we can realistically implement through legislative codes. This pushes us toward a minimal global ethics but perhaps one that can actually be implemented. While, of course, this has the potential to merely reflect the interests of a few powerful individuals or institutions, the focus on what is possible also builds in some notion of responsiveness to different cultural understandings, even if only because it is very difficult to override cultural traditions.

Attempts to create a global ethical system by fiat have taken different forms. Some approaches have been strictly legal or regulatory, attempting to build up a global ethical framework either through transnational agreements or national laws that can be applied more broadly. Other approaches have focused on persuasion, in which groups such as NGOs have sought to use their persuasive power to push countries toward implementing the NGOs’ own interpretation of global ethics. Both of these approaches have been far more successful than hopes that ethical systems would independently converge on some formulation of global ethics as a result of some underlying “innate” conceptualization of ethics and integrity.

Global Ethics by Force: Legal and Regulatory Responses

While individual countries do not normally have the power to impose their conceptualizations of ethics upon other countries, certain countries have been particularly successful in spreading their own view of global ethics. The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 (FCPA) has been particularly important in this regard. Originally introduced in response to a series of important revelations about high-profile cases of bribery, the FCPA explicitly aimed to criminalize bribing foreign (i.e., non-US) public officials. While such legislation only directly criminalizes those people subject to US law, which in practice means most US citizens and companies with important business interests in the USA, the legislation has the significant secondary effect of imposing an anti-bribery ethic more widely (Spahn 2013: 10). Indeed, the FCPA has an important role to play in reducing the global supply of bribes, a fact that is particularly important in light of the significance of US-based businesses for the global economy and international trade. While it is possible that this supply-side approach to global ethics will also lead to a reduction in demand for bribes, failure to do so does not challenge the importance of the FCPA from a global ethics standpoint. Even if foreign public officials still desire bribes, and so fundamentally lack ethics, the fact that they are cut off from an important source of potential bribes is significant. Moreover, by focusing on the supply side of bribery, the FCPA is able to work within a single culture, thereby bypassing some (but not all) of the philosophical objections to global ethics discussed above. Nonetheless, the FCPA has been criticized and was criticized particularly strongly during its early years before a series of important reforms. Key criticisms included that “the FCPA is too vague in its terminology, that the Act is largely rhetorical and that its criminal sanctions are unenforceable in an international context” (Bader and Shaw 1983: 632). However, regardless of such criticisms, by introducing a strong expectation of integrity, the FCPA has been particularly important for the creation of global ethical norms (Spahn 2013).

The most important practical limitation of the FCPA is that it only affects US citizens and US companies. Addressing this, the OECD incorporated similar responsibilities as part of the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions, 1997 (see OECD 2011). This convention set the expectation that OECD countries would implement rules similar to the FCPA in their own legal systems, and thus signing the convention represents a commitment to tackling paying bribes to foreign officials. The Convention has a similar focus upon the act of bribing a foreign public official itself rather than on receiving a bribe, again reinforcing the supply-side approach. Crucially, however, by 2016 41 countries have signed the OECD Convention, including Russia and Brazil (OECD 2016). This seriously expands the range of such global ethical principles. While implementation of these policies within each country’s individual legislative framework is in practice a slow process, it appears that there is at least a broad-based desire to prevent the bribery of foreign public officials. Moreover, the countries that have signed up to the Convention, including the USA, Germany, Japan, France, and the UK, represent a significant proportion of the global export economy. By implementing a commitment that citizens of these countries will not engage in bribery of foreign public officials, it theoretically becomes much harder for foreign public officials to take bribes.

Unfortunately, implementing a system of global ethics by fiat does not inherently mean that those operating within the global ethical system will internalize those ethical values; enforcement thus becomes a key challenge. While enforcement has been less than ideal in many countries, some have tried bold new ways to force individuals and companies operating within their territories to adhere to the predefined system of global ethics. One notable example is the UK’s approach in the Bribery Act (2010). Like much other regulation in this area, the Bribery Act explicitly criminalizes bribing foreign public officials, but it also criminalizes paying bribes more generally as well as receiving bribes. However, what is particularly important from a global ethics standpoint is that the Bribery Act also criminalizes the failure by commercial organizations to take reasonable steps to prevent bribery (Bribery Act 2010: §7). This duty applies to both companies registered in the UK regardless of where they are doing business as well as all companies operating within the UK regardless of where they are registered. Thus, the coercive power of UK law is able to extend beyond the territorial boundaries of the UK. This expands the scope of potential enforcement significantly and increases the saliency of the ethical requirements in the global context, particularly because of the importance of the UK as an international business center.

Global Ethics by Persuasion

Despite the successes of the “force” approach to global ethics, it still remains an imposition that fits uneasily with the idea that we might be able to foster a consensual global ethical system. Moreover, there will always remain a fear that such an imposition will not lead to a reduction in unethical behavior but instead simply to a relocation of unethical behavior into presently unregulated areas. Particularly because the approach taken by the FCPA, and OECD more generally, only explicitly targets the bribe payer, it is not apparent that such approaches increase the desire of bribe takers to be ethical at all. Persuasion-based approaches may offer a way to address this gap. If individual countries themselves can come to see the value of ethics internally and can have a strong desire to implement and enforce ethical codes, then we may be able to address the desire of public officials to accept bribes from international actors. While governments may also seek to encourage greater ethical behavior within other countries, NGOs and third sector bodies have been particularly important in this campaign for greater ethics and integrity internationally. The importance of NGOs in this context is both a reflection of their propensity to focus on a single issue and also their ability to have an explicitly transnational focus in their work. From the point of view of global ethics, it also matters that NGOs are usually coherent institutions that are working to a common understanding both of what ethics are and how ethical goals ought to be achieved. That does not mean that they seek to persuade governments to implement identical policies in every country regardless of context but instead that they seek to persuade governments to implement at least a minimal standard of global ethics that is contextually appropriate.

Transparency International (TI) is probably the most important NGO seeking to foster global ethics. Since their founding in the early 1990s, they have gone on to publish hundreds of reports pushing for greater ethics and accountability both within specific countries and in international organizations. While TI, of course, does not have primary legislative functions, they have been very successful in persuading legislatures to propose laws promoting integrity. Yet what TI is perhaps now best known for is their Corruption Perceptions Index, their annual measure of the extent to which corruption is perceived to be a problem in the countries of the world. By turning the extent of global corruption and thus the absence of global ethics into an important yearly talking point, and moreover seemingly creating a desire to be seen to be doing better in the yearly rankings, TI has been able to use a significant degree of “soft power” to promote global ethics. Moreover, because the index officially relies on a single understanding of what corruption is and because it is applied to the whole world simultaneously, the measure has been an important force in globalizing our approach to corruption and integrity. While the Corruption Perceptions Index itself has been strongly criticized as a measure of corruption (for a recent review, see Heywood and Rose 2014), it cannot be denied that it has been enormously important for the development of a global concern about corruption and integrity. While other groups have produced similar indices – notably including the World Bank’s Control of Corruption Index – few groups have been able to achieve the level of prominence or impact of TI.

The European Commission has also been important in promoting Europe-wide standards of ethics. While the European Commission has much more power than bodies like TI or the World Bank, they have pursued an approach to global ethics that is based largely upon persuasion and information sharing. The European Commission’s Anti-Corruption Report (2014), for example, discussed the problem of ethics in a European-wide context and went on to give recommendations for promoting ethics and integrity within each member state of the EU. The implementation (or not) of such recommendations is a matter for national governments, but what matters more than the policy success or failure is that the project as a whole taps into the idea of a core shared understanding of administrative ethics. This shared understanding may or may not have already existed at some minimal level, but it is important to note that the mere act of cross-cultural working inherently builds toward a deeper sharing of concepts.

These persuasion-based approaches do not inherently require the exercise of power against countries. Indeed, there remains a hope that such approaches can be empowering, because they are restricted to recommending and suggesting; the specifics of implementation are left up to individual countries or cultures. Nevertheless, we must remain cautious about the possibility of suggestions becoming requirements. If access to international aid or development loans becomes conditional upon accepting such “suggestions,” our system of global ethics runs the very real danger of becoming unethical.


This chapter has looked at the problem of global ethics both from a philosophical standpoint and from the “real-world” perspective of global ethics in action. Philosophically, it has been noted that we have very good reasons to be suspicious of the idea that we will ever create a universally acceptable standard of ethics. Indeed, it may be the case that it is impossible to truly create a global ethics that all of humanity can subscribe to without coercion. On the practical level, where coercion of many different forms is the norm, there are many reasons to be optimistic that we can arrive at a situation in which some minimal standard of ethics can be applied globally. Innovations like the OECD’s Convention on Combating Bribery are in a very real sense creating a global standard of ethics. However, such innovations inherently rely on unequal power distributions – OECD member states can implement these rules and force their application more broadly because they are rich and powerful countries. Built into such reasoning is a lack of agency given to poorer and less powerful countries; what is good for poorer countries is defined almost exclusively in terms of the attitudes and desires of the global elite. Of course, poorer countries also want to tackle corruption and will also benefit from a higher ethical standard, but approaches that ignore local cultures and customs are likely to be less effective than those that work with them. Ultimately, the challenge for policy makers will be devising policies that can realistically be applied globally but that do no alienate those with different cultural understandings of what is ethical. Persuasion-based approaches may offer hope here, because they can give some control back to individual countries and cultures and empower them to design their own ethical frameworks within a global standard. Nonetheless, defining what the minimal global standard is, or ought to be, again raises conceptually difficult questions about the fundamental nature of ethics.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Politics and Public PolicyDe Montfort UniversityLeicesterUK