Global wisdom traditions

Are there values we all share simply because we are human? Or do different cultures have fundamentally different values? Does respecting different cultures require us to simply take their values as we find them? Or are there universal standards against which they may be judged? That different cultures may embrace different values seems undeniable, but do they embrace totally different values? Evidence of human diversity provided by historians and anthropologists is sometimes used to justify the notion that culturally and morally there is no common ground, but there is also evidence that points in the opposite direction. This workroom brings together materials with which to explore these convergences and divergences.

Within the traditions sampled here there are considerable differences, for instance in respect of the acceptance of slavery, the rejection of homosexuality, and generally with regard to the status of animals. Even so, some recurrent features can be discerned. Sometimes items of common ground have been labelled ‘wisdom’ or ‘natural law’. Sometimes they appear as parts of formal codes, sometimes as scattered insights. Some of the philosophical issues involved in looking for shared values are identified in entries on absolutism, biogenetic determinants, categorical imperative, commandments and laws, natural law, relativism, universal values as set out in the Dictionary and Thesaurus for Ethics and Moral Education workroom.


The ‘Tao’ of C. S. Lewis

One of the more eclectic attempts to pull together a set of common human values appears as an appendix to The Abolition of Man by the well-known children’s author C. S. Lewis. The book contains his reflections on education. They also provide a backdrop to the beliefs and values which inform his children’s stories and science fiction. He argues for common sense as a universal basis of objective values. Lumping together moralities from East and West, both ‘religious’ and ‘pagan’, he acknowledges variations, but he insists that ‘from within’ they share in a common progressive Way which he calls the Tao: ‘What I have for convenience called the Tao and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason is not one among a series of possible system of values. It is the sole source of all value judgements’ (p 33). ‘In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, we find the concrete reality in which we participate to be truly human: the real common will and common reason of humanity, alive and growing like a tree, and  branching out, as the situation varies into ever new beauties and dignities of application’ (p 51). For Lewis, all civilizations may be branches of a single original human civilization, hence the shared values.

The sources he draws upon are many and varied, including the Indian Laws of Manu, the Chinese Analects of Confucius, so-called negative confessions from Ancient Egypt and a hymn to the Babylonian god Shamash, as well as more obvious candidates such as the Bible and various philosophers. From this immense variety Lewis abstracts a number of basic ‘laws’ and ‘duties’, which he illustrates rather than defines. The law of general beneficence instructs us on how we should behave towards everyone, and can be expressed either negatively (‘Do not murder’ – Judaism) or positively ('He who is asked for alms should always give' – Hinduism). The law of specific beneficence recognises that some may have a particularly strong claim on us, so Lewis identifies special duties to parents, elders and ancestors as well as duties to children and posterity ('Part of us is claimed by our country, part by our parents, part by our friends’ – Roman, Cicero).

 The law of justice deals with ‘sexual justice’ (adultery), honesty ('I have not stolen’ – Ancient Egyptian) and ‘justice in court’ ('Whoso takes no bribe ... well pleasing is this to Samas' – Babylonian). The law of good faith and veracity covers adjacent ground ('Anything is better than treachery' – Viking). The law of mercy directs us to attend to the disadvantaged (‘The poor and the sick should be regarded as lords of the atmosphere’ - Hinduism) while the law of magnanimity enjoins us not to be content with doing the least we can (‘Love learning and if attacked be ready to die for the Good Way’ – Chinese, Confucius).


Folk Tales and Proverbs

 While Lewis assembled his ‘Tao’ primarily from religious and philosophical texts, others have sought commonalities between cultures in different areas. A liking for telling stories and quoting wise sayings can be found evidenced across a very wide variety of cultures and thousands of years. One of the earliest known works of world literature, the Sumerian Instructions of Shuruppak is at least 4,500 years old and contains many kinds of advice  (‘You should not pass judgment when you drink beer’), some of which is clearly proverbial in nature. Recent research has also shown that some folk tales may go back just as far in time, if not further.

The biblical book of Proverbs is one of many to survive in whole or in part from the ancient world, and bears sufficient resemblance to the Egyptian work, the Instruction of Amenenope to suggest either borrowing in one direction or another or a common source. Similarly, research done at Durham University suggests that some folk tales have travelled across both centuries and continents. The most famous collection from antiquity, the one attributed to Aesop, contains materials that are at least 2,500 years old and of very diverse origins. A much later collection, that of the Brothers Grimm, contains the story of Little Red Riding Hood, which formed one of the starting points for the Durham research.

The advice given in proverbs is not always of an ethical nature, and the heroes of folk tales are often a long way from being saints. If proverbs and folk tales provide evidence of commonly held human values, they are not always or necessarily moral values. Nevertheless they provide a fascinating, varied and massive resource. One of the most best places to begin exploring folk tales is at D. L. Ashliman’s Folklore and Mythology Electric Texts where the entries are listed under different themes. For proverbs, a useful resource is Creative Proverbs, where items are indexed under countries.


Codes Ancient and Modern

 Neither folk tales nor proverbs seek to present a systematic approach to values, and the ‘Tao’ of Lewis consists of a systematic arrangement applied to pre-existing materials. However, more systematic approaches do exist, and they have existed for an extremely long time. Although not necessarily the first, probably the most famous from antiquity is the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was a king of Babylon who reigned nearly 4,000 years ago. His code was found carved on stones excavated in Iran in 1901. It is very clearly a legal code, and a lot of it is dedicated to setting out appropriate punishments for different kinds of misbehaviour. This includes, literally, the idea of a tooth for a tooth: ‘If a man knock out a tooth of a man of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.’ However, nowhere does it say, ‘Do not knock out the tooth of another!’, so the code is more a set of precedents than a set of precepts, although some basic underlying principles can be inferred. Nevertheless, the range of misbehaviours covered in this way is quite broad, ranging from sexual and economic matters, to offences regarding slaves, to failures to perform public duties, to the mismanagement of animals.

Probably the best known code from antiquity is the one known as the Ten Commandments or Decalogue. They appear in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, which are common to both Judaic and Christian scripture, although the two versions are not identical. In the Jewish tradition, they are usually referred to as ‘words’ or ‘proclamations’ rather than ‘commandments’, but they form a fundamental element of the covenant between God and his people (however ‘his people’ are characterized). Compared with the verbosity and complexity of the Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments are simplicity itself, but their coverage is also much reduced. In the Exodus version, the first four commandments are about how God is to be respected and worshipped, the fifth is about respect for parents, the next four might be regarded as elements of a very basic criminal code (do not murder, steal, commit adultery or give false testimony), and the tenth advises against coveting anything that belongs to another. Rather than being a systematic code, the Ten Commandments could be seen as a collection of religious, cultural, legal and moral precepts.

If the Ten Commandments err on the side of brevity, the same cannot be said of the emperor Asoka, who ruled the Indian sub-continent nearly from around 270 to 230 BCE. During his long reign he had various rocks and pillars inscribed with what are generally known as his ‘edicts’. Although some of these communicated similar messages (but in different places), many were used to elaborate on different themes, especially after the emperor converted to Buddhism. He frequently enjoins obedience to parents, generosity to friends, and kindness to animals. More surprisingly, perhaps, he also advocates the toleration of other religions. Rather than setting out a list of penalties in the manner of Hammurabi, he is more concerned to point people in the direction of good behaviour, believing that virtue brings its own rewards. To the extent that there is a ‘system’ to Asoka’s edicts, it lies in the exposition of the Buddhist philosophy.

The idea of putting a code of conduct on public display was common in the classical world. Laws rarely changed, and by being exposed in a public place, they were visible to everyone. A well-preserved example was found in Gortyn on Crete. It dates to around 500 BCE and is thought to be the oldest surviving example of its kind. The Gortyn code deals with issues such as property rights, sexual misconduct (adultery and rape), the custody of children, and so on. As it is incomplete it is difficult to know what else it contained. Lack of adequate evidence makes it impossible to know how much or how little the laws of Gortyn has in common with other ancient Greek city-states. However, it is clear that many of the concerns addressed by the code were also addressed by Hammurabi over 1,000 years earlier.

A code of a different kind was once to be found in Oenoanda, an ancient Greek town in what is now Turkey. A local philosopher and benefactor called Diogenes had a systematic exposition of the works of Epicurus carved onto the wall of a portico there sometime in the second century CE. Many fragments of the text have been found, and more may well still be buried there. Unlike the scattered edicts of Asoka, this was an attempt to put on public display in a single place a single philosophical worldview, systematically expounded. The basic precept of the Epicurean approach to life was not to worry, especially about God and death. The Epicurean worldview was far from universally held, but by setting out the arguments for it, Diogenes believed those who understood it would recognise its universal truth.

A more modern attempt to come up with something holding universal validity is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations (then having only 58 members) in December 1948. Article 1 states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’, and the other articles spell out what those rights are. The emphasis throughout is strongly and clearly on the individual (e.g. freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, freedom of movement), although sometimes a more social dimension is apparent (e.g. the right to education and paid holidays) where duties to deliver are placed on unnamed others. This social dimension was taken further in the less well-known International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the United Nations (then having 122 members) in 1966, which clearly makes states responsible for education and public health, amongst other things. Although not all governments deliver equally on their obligations, the Universal Declaration and International Covenant have some claim to embody universal values universally acknowledged.


Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Whereas the United Nations is very much a political body, the Parliament of the World’s Religions brings together representatives from the world’s different religious communities (including Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian). It was founded in 1893 to bring religions together and develop a positive dialogue between faiths. In its centenary year, 1993, it adopted a ‘Global Ethic’, based on shared principles and values. At the heart of this was the ‘golden rule’ that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated by them. Four basic commitments were agreed (to which was subsequently added a fifth): (1) to a culture of non-violence and respect for life; (2) to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order; (3) to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness; (4) to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women; and (5) to a culture of sustainability and care for the Earth. The basic thinking behind the Global Ethic was set out in a statement formulated by a group of scholars headed by Hans Kung. The fact that a group from very different religious traditions can produce an agreed document about basic values is a powerful statement in its own right.


Moral Foundations Theory

Moral Foundations Theory seeks to identify not so much what are our basic values are, but what underpins them. The approach is secular, and more specifically, psychological. According to its proponents, ‘the theory proposes that several innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of “intuitive ethics.” Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world.’ Each foundation (so far there are five, but other candidates have been identified) deals with a different sensitivity (for example, to the pain of others, or to the honesty of others), and different people may attach different degrees of importance to different foundations. A more detailed exposition of the theory, which is very much a work in progress, can be found here.


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