Global Ethics and Nonviolence

Author: Dr. Charles Webel

Position: Guarantor of the IER program at UNYP

The idea of a “global ethics” is as old as philosophical and religious ethics, and dates back to at least the 5th-century BCE. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, among others, asserted the existence of such universally desirable values as virtue, fortitude, compassion, temperance, self-control and integrity. 

The classical Greco-Roman“virtues,” unlike some Asian spiritual traditions (most notably Buddhism), did not explicitly include non-violence, but assumed that ethical values were universal, not subjective, and that reason and deliberation were almost always preferable to passion and willfulness, especially when seeking fair and equitable means of conflict resolution.

The obstacles, inner and outer, to “practicing what one preaches,” especially tolerance, love and doing no harm, are many. Aristotle’s notion of “weakness of the will” (akrasia) captures the difficulty at the individual level, while recent social scientific work highlights situational and political constraints on “virtuous” activity as well.

Philosophers, spiritual leaders, many political activists and social and biological scientists have increasingly addressed the “practical” (i.e. empirical and political) applications of such global values as justice and equity. This has led to a proliferation of discussions of the existence and viability of a global set of values, moreover, one that while disseminating what the Scholastics might have called “cardinal virtues” (prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude for Thomas Aquinas), nonetheless promotes respect for most, but not all, cultural differences and practices. However, universal human rights decries as unethical and illegal under international law such crimes against humanity as genocide, ethnic cleansing and violence against women and children.

Nonviolence is both a core global value (“Principled Nonviolence”) for leading an ethical life as well as a technique of conflict transformation (“Strategic Nonviolence”). But philosophical and spiritual justifications of nonviolence as the ethical and political road to global peace would remain merely theoretical if there weren’t practical examples of the efficacy of nonviolence in political and social transformation.

 Despite the fact that the international media cover mostly violent and spectacular events, it is the rule rather than the exception that revolutionary and resistance movements use nonviolent techniques. There is now significant evidence of the widespread, effective use of such techniques.

Recent research by Maria Stephan and Eric Chenoweth demonstrates that nonviolent struggles against despotism and for self-determination are more likely than violent resistance to achieve their political objectives, even against dictatorships and highly repressive regimes. They studied 323 social-change campaigns from 1900 to 2006 and found that major nonviolent campaigns against brutal regimes were successful 53 percent of the time, whereas violent resistance campaigns against state oppressors succeeded only 26 percent of the time. Chenoweth and Stephan suggest two reasons for the success of nonviolent strategies. The first is that nonviolent campaigns are domestically and internationally legitimate, which encourages more broad-based participation. The second reason is that while violent counterattacks by the opposition may also be justified, nonviolent responses to violent attacks enhance popular support for the resistance movement by a potentially sympathetic public.

 The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is a classic example of the strengths and weaknesses of nonviolent and violent political struggles, respectively.  Nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent resistance to produce loyalty shifts by security forces and civilian officials. Also, broad-based campaigns tend to undermine the legitimacy of the opponent. State repression of nonviolent campaigns often backfires. An unjust act often results in civil disobedience by the regime’s supporters, mobilization of the population against the regime, and international criticism of the government. The international community is more likely to censure and sanction states for repressing nonviolent than violent campaigns, which makes it more costly for a government to repress nonviolent than violent protest movements.

In order to legitimize and actualize global peace, based on the value of nonviolence, social and political institutions, ethical norms, economic and social capital, and legal rules have to be fair and uniform.  This will be a major task for the peacemakers of the 21st century. But, despite the formidable inner and outer challenges, there is some reason for optimism, in large part based on the successes of nonviolent social and political movements in overcoming tyranny and injustice and in creating emancipatory and participatory democratic forms of individual and collective governance.


“Charles Webel teaches a variety of courses at UNYP and was  recently Visiting Professor In International and Area Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. A three-time Fulbright Scholar, he has published many  scholarly articles and books, including the standard texts in Peace and Conflict Studies, two influential books on Terrorism, and, most recently, The Politics of Rationality, nominated for the highest award in Political Theory/Philosophy.”

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