Moral Rights in International Political Discourse on Global Ethics

Yesterday, I was pleased to find in my inbox a response to my recent blog post on global citizenship by His Excellency Alvaro Cedeno Molinari, who serves as the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan. His narrative reply elaborates on his thoughts on global citizenship as originally presented to the Junior Chamber International Tokyo a few weeks ago.

In his response, Molinari appears to argue for a conceptualization of morality best suited to natural law (lex naturalis). By this, I mean that he appears to conceptualize certain global ethics as natural rights for all humanity. I say this because he argues that there exists an ontologically objective “moral right” for all humans to live in a world that respects nature. He maintains this to be the case even if the positive laws governing inter-state and intra-state behavior fail to construct such rights in the absence of global consensus on their necessity. And, he appears to argue for epistemological objectivity through an appeal to rationalism when he takes the methodological approach of “restating the obvious” and outlining moral truths.

In Molinari’s argument, one therefore finds a natural affinity to classical natural law theory grounded in moral realism. Yet, at the same time, one also finds a strong sense of moral idealism in his response. This is evident in his reference to Einstein’s quote, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

So, how does one reconcile notions of moral rights with a world where intra-state and inter-state relations are governed almost exclusively by international and domestic conventions (ex. laws)?

To begin with, it is important to point out that aspects of Molinari’s argument are not mutually exclusive of a social constructivist interpretation of morality. If we engage our imaginations as Molinari suggests, we can imagine ideal worlds. Each of these ideal worlds will be subjective. By this, I mean that they will represent each individual’s world as viewed through that individual’s mental states. However, these subjective worlds may in fact share common features. And, these common features may hinge on certain shared imagined rights and obligations governing human behavior.

The crux of socially constructing new moral rights and obligations therefore hinges on our ability to collectively agree on shared features. These shared features represent the lowest common denominator (LCD) of what we consider to be our shared conceptualization of “morality.” It is through such shared features that we can socially construct “moral rights” through positive law (jus positum). But, if we don’t explore these imagined worlds and determine our own subjective moral rights and obligations, we cannot hope to collectively define a set of common features upon which to base new laws and conventions since the ideal worlds upon which they are based are not experienced as part of every day life.

Of course, moral rights and obligations need not be based on a social constructivist theoretical approach. There are a wide variety of alternatives upon which to conceptualize such rights in both objective (ex. moral realism) and subjective terms (ex. ethical subjectivism). And, this takes us back to my earlier comments on the apparent affinity between Molinari’s arguments and the appeal of moral realism and the natural law of morality.

If one contends that such moral rights and obligations exist absent formal and/or informal conventions (i.e. international laws; international conventions, etc.), then one of the most common philosophical arguments held is the claim that they just exist out there in reality and we can come to know what they are through our sensory experiences or through reason. In this sense, moral rights and obligations are held to be natural. It is not explicit whether or not Molinari endorses this reading, but many others have in the past. And, at least from my reading of Molinari, it would appear that he is attracted to similar philosophical predispositions.

In any event, I found the Ambassador’s response to be quite valuable so I would encourage others to read it over as well. Perhaps you will arrive at different conclusions. But, either way, I believe that it is important for each of us to consider Molinari’s claim that there are certain objective moral rights and obligations when we consider the emerging concept of “global citizenship.” Whether you agree with Molinari’s argument will depend upon your own philosophical commitments. However, if you maintain that such moral rights and obligations are in fact natural rights and obligations that exist out there beyond humankind, then you would place yourself in opposition to those who argue that these written declarations provide the sole basis for the existence of such moral rights and obligations in the social world. Yet, at the same time, you would in turn possess a theoretical basis for endorsing the notion that such moral rights and obligations can exist absent their constitution through formal and/or informal conventions, which is a central tenet of Molinari’s conceptualization of global citizenship.

Michael Edward Walsh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. He is also the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre and a Visiting Scholar at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @aseanreporting.

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