We Need a Clear, Common Ethic on Social Justice

If you've been paying attention, it's a little hard not to feel like the world's going to hell in a hand basket. The COP21 meeting is just the latest event to underscore our troubles. Stopping the descent requires a renewed understanding of what we owe each other as humans. These times call for a common ethic of social justice.

Consider what we're facing.

We have a global refugee crisis testing our ability to function as a human community, even more so in the wake of Paris and Beirut. Governors want to shut their doors to Syrian refugees and the U.S. House gave them an assist with a bill that imposes stringent and extra security checks before the country considers settling a Syrian refugee. All of this is happening in the general context of increasing inequality, racial tension and isolationism in the U.S., and a shaking of the ties that bind the European Union.

We are experiencing environmental scarcity and catastrophes that smash our poorest and most vulnerable. Yet, we lack a common understanding of our obligations to environmental justice, or even what the words "environmental justice" mean. In fact, swaths of people believe it is an act of politics to use the word "justice" at all.

Some of our biggest, most powerful transnational actors are global corporations. They operate under the one, shared ethic we do have - the primacy of the free markets. That ethic, in which profitability is the ultimate measure, restricts us from holding those corporations sufficiently accountable for their actions.

At home, we are approaching a moment of racial crisis, one in which race and poverty are inextricably linked. We aren't ready. We don't know how to talk about race, and we lack a common understanding of what's causing the inequality.

Further, the conversations in the 2016 presidential race are embarrassing. They are a condemnation of our ability to be serious, and to address the core questions about the social contract tearing at our democratic fabric.

So what do we do? How do we develop a common ethic of social justice in this "super-diverse," interdependent world? We hold dialogs to create one. To paraphrase climate blogger Andy Revkin, we intentionally build a "new cultural narrative" on social justice.

We include diverse, but allied, religious and cultural norms. We build on common human values that we know to be true, but sometimes eschew because they're hard, and expensive, and uncomfortable. And, we acknowledge that the narrative of the market - the one that arguably is common - is great for building individual wealth, but woefully insufficient for addressing common needs and obligations.

As with the formation of global governance structures - think Breton Woods, the Geneva Conventions, even Vatican II - such a process will take time. To give it a boost, however, here are a handful of principles we could include.

First, each person has a fundamental dignity resulting from the fact of being human. That dignity is inalienable, and therefore must be preserved.

Second, given that dignity, each person has a right to pursue his or her full potential. That includes the right to the basic resources required to do so, and a responsibility to provide access to those resources.

Third, work is essential to the expression of human potential. It's about more than productivity for the employer. As such, the economy exists to serve people, not the other way around.

Fourth, we are all inextricably connected. Therefore, we are responsible to and for each other, across race, class, ethnicity and geographic boundaries.

Fifth, the power and resources to solve problems should, as much as possible, be in the hands of those experiencing the problem. It improves efficiency, but also ensures that those suffering have a voice in the approach and the outcomes, so they aren't victimized twice.

Sixth, the rich and enfranchised already are in pretty good shape. So, when we make policies, or allocate resources, the poor and disenfranchised should get to go to the front of the line.

Several of these principles come from Catholic social theology, but many also are supported by science, law and common practice. For example, Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen immortalized the right to fulfill one's potential in his "capability approach." The idea that we are inextricably linked? The human genome project demonstrated in the 1990s that humans share 99.9% of the same genetic code.

During his U.S. visit in September, Pope Francis told Congress, "Let us seek for others the same possibilities we seek for ourselves." He's a religious leader, but that's a broad human concept. It's time for us to decide explicitly, as a human community, whether we agree. We need a new, common ethic of social justice.