HOW can you build a code of ethics for the world? For Harlan Cleveland, the question comes as no surprise. Scholar, columnist, and one of the United States' revered elder statesmen, he has had a lifetime to think about it. Over a leisurely lunch here during this summer's conference of the World Future Society - a group on whose board of directors he sits - he reframes the question.
``I don't think of it as a `code of ethics,''' he says. ``But I think if you turn it around and say, `Aren't there some norms that are so basic to being a human that they are in some sense universal?' the answer is, `Yes.'''
It's an answer that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Ethics, for many people, is seen simply as a matter of ranking one's preferences rather than distinguishing among absolutes like good an evil. The idea of ``universal'' norms, in fact, is often brushed aside as hopelessly absolute in a world where everything is relative.
For Dr. Cleveland, that argument doesn't stand up - especially in an age challenged by such globally wrenching issues as the nuclear threat, environmental degradation, and the gap between the developed and the developing world. ``You can't get it all together on any of those subjects,'' he says pointedly, ``without some sort of a consensus on norms.''
How can that consensus be achieved? One way, he feels, is to recognize that ``the great religious and philosophical traditions'' of the world point to the precept that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. ``I'm told that you can find the Golden Rule in some form in all the great religions,'' he observes.
One of the most powerful universal norms, however, has arisen only recently. He calls it ``the notion of people having inherent human rights - not rights conferred by a higher authority, which is what the situation used to be 300 years ago.'' Throughout history, he explains, human rights were typically ``conferred by God - if you could arrange that - or by the king, or the aristocrats, or the baron, or the guy up in the manor. But they weren't inherent - you weren't born with them.''
The idea of inherent rights, he says, is so ``revolutionary'' that it is not found in traditional interpretations of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or the other religions. Traditionally, he notes, those religions were not universal, but regional - holding sway in some parts of the world, but not in others. This new idea, however, is genuinely universal. ``The idea of inherent rights is the first global superstar in the history of political philosophy,'' he says, adding that ``it is taking off'' in the Soviet Union, China, and a host of other nations.
In recent decades, he notes, this concept of inherent rights has been fleshed out in the International Bill of Rights, which covers economic, social, political, and civil rights. On those subjects, he says, ``we are conceptually in great shape.'' He points in particular to ``the drive to prevent governments from being beastly to their own citizens.''
Along with human rights, however, come human obligations - an area that, says Cleveland, has not developed as rapidly. The strong emphasis on rights, in fact, ``has tended to obscure the fact that everybody also has responsibilities to the whole community.
Those responsibilities, he says, produce ``a new class of issues: I call them global behavioral issues. They are global in range and extent. But they're also behavioral in the sense that the only solution to them involves millions of people doing something different, or stopping doing something they're already doing.''
The primary examples, he says, are environmental issues. ``This is the first generation in the history of the world that finds that what people do to their natural environment is maybe more important than what the natural environment does to and for them.
``We also have some measuring sticks for change that we never had before. And, as always happens with knowledge, as soon as you know something, you have some responsibility.'' By way of example, he says, suppose somebody is about to jump from a bridge to commit suicide. ``If you didn't see that person, you wouldn't have any moral feeling about it. But once you've seen him about to jump, it's your problem. So now we see civilization about to jump. And our problem is, can we feel responsible enough?''
To change global behavior - on the environment, energy, sexual behavior or AIDS - is, he feels, the major challenge. In the case of such global environmental issues as the greenhouse effect or the depletion of the ozone layer, however, that consensus has to be built upon ``the imaginations of chemists - around something where nothing bad has happened yet. And acting where nothing bad has happened yet is not something that we're very good at.''
What, then, should the individual do in the face of these responsibilities? For Cleveland, the answer hinges on an individual sense of ethics. As a junior civil servant in the Truman administration, he recalls, he and some colleagues hammered out a position on ethical decisionmaking that he still finds useful. The ``test question'' for deciding on any action, he says, is, ``If this action, and the procedure by which it was arrived at, should later become a great big controversy, will I still feel alright about it?
``That's a combination of an internalized conscience criterion and a `What will people think?' criterion - neither of which is adequate by itself. Just because your family or your organization thinks [an action is] alright doesn't make it alright. On the other hand, the internalized conscience all by itself is the evangelist who's in touch with God and doesn't care what anybody thinks.''
Needed, says Cleveland, is an ethic that fuses the two. As an example, he cites the case of doing your income tax and asking yourself whether you can treat a certain item as a deduction. The issue, he says, is not simply, ``Is the IRS likely to catch it?'' Nor is it resolved by saying, ``I think this is perfectly justified, and I don't care what anybody thinks.''
The real test, he says, is to imagine being called before a televised Congressional hearing. ``The question is not, `Was it the right thing to do?' The question is, `Do I still feel perfectly comfortable with it even though the klieg lights are on?'''
Ultimately, he says, ``the sanction is openness.'' In fact, he notes, the new openness made possible by electronic communication has changed the ethical behavior of nations in important and probably permanent ways. Nowadays, for example, ``if you go off and conquer some island and set up a colony, the press will be on your case and you'll be so embarrassed that it won't be worth having a colony.
``If you consider that throughout history, raising the flag, blowing the bugle, and going across somebody else's frontier was sort of the way things were done, that is a big ethical change.''