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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



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Universal Ethics: Perspectives and Proposals from Scandinavian Scholars edited by Göran Bexell, Dan-Erik Andersson (The Raoul Wallenberg Institute Human Rights Library, Volume 11: Kluwer Academic Publishers) Questions on universal ethics are of utmost importance for peaceful relations between nations, cultures and religions. Are there common values or are all morals just expressions for various political, economic or religious interests?

In this book scholars from different academic fields and with various views discuss questions that in different ways concern both the possibilities and risks of universal or on ethics. The book is divided into five parts; philosophical and ethical perspectives, human rights perspectives, universal ethics and religion, globalization and global governance, universal ethics and Nordic values. Scholars from such fields as philosophy, ethics, human rights, history, political science, sociology and theology represented. All of the authors are active researchers at Scandinavian universities.

This collection of articles is directed to professionals in various disciplines, but can also serve as an introduction to the subject of universal ethics. 

About the authors

Göran Bexell is Professor of Ethics and Dean of Humanities and Theology at Lund University, Sweden. Since 1996 he has been leading a research program on value conflicts and value communities financed by The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation.

Dan-Erik Andersson is adjunct reader and doctoral student in Ethics at Lund University. He is writing his dissertation on universal ethics. 

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in universal ethics, due to a number of reasons. First of all, increasing globalization and interdependence, and especially the modem communication technology, have made it possible for us to take part in multicultural dialogue. Contacts across national borders are increasing both in quantity and quality. Globalization and especially the world media have made global problems, such as poverty, underdevelopment and deterioration of the environment, obvious to us. The new search for universal ethics is also due to changes in world politics. The end of the Cold War and the destruction of the Berlin wall, the breakdown of apartheid, and the new role of the United Nations, have spurred an interest in identifying cultural and value-based commonalities. Even though, after the Cold War had ended, it was at first argued that there would be unity around one set of Western values, the effect has rather been the recognition that there is in fact no dominant and persuasive cultural model that compels full admiration and emulation in the way the Western synthesis did in the past. This has opened a new and deeper international, intercultural and inter-religious dialogue.

The issue of universal ethics can be studied from many perspectives. The texts of this book have been arranged in five different sections, each of which addresses a significant aspects, different questions and problems of importance in the discussion of universal ethics. In the first part universal ethics are discussed from philosophical and ethical perspectives. Some important and central concepts and demarcations are made. Universal ethics is discussed in relation to three ethical theories; specifically, contract theory, discourse ethics and natural law theory. In the second part, universal ethics is related to human rights. Here, questions on the relation between new and old declarations on universal ethics are investigated. The question of the justification of human rights across normative divides is discussed, as is the relation of human rights to nationalism and minority rights. In the third part, universal ethics is con­sidered in relation to religion. The search for an interreligious ethic is critically investigated, as is the effort to create a European ethic out of Christian values. The question of religious affiliation for a universal ethic is also examined. In the fourth part of the book, universal ethics is discussed in relation to globalization and global governance. The role of the state in an age of globalization is debated, as is the role of culture. The asymmetry of globalization and ethical challenges posed by it are emphasized. In the fifth part, universal ethics is related to Scandinavian values. The question of "community values" is investigated through the existence and impact of social capital in the Scandinavian countries. The political cultures in these countries are also considered from a historical perspective.

The texts of all five parts deal with an important problem of great interest both from theoretical and political perspectives. They give multidisciplinary perspectives on the question of whether universal ethics are at all desirable or even possible. They also give characteristic contributions in that they include not only ethical theory, but also results and perspectives from research within various fields other than philosophy and ethics.

The aim of this book is not simply to provide an original contribution to the theoretical discourse on universal ethics within moral and political philosophy. Rather, its aim is to widen the discussion of universal ethics to include questions on how theoretical studies in philosophy and ethics relate to more empirical studies. There have been conferences and books dealing with universal ethics from a strictly philosophical or ethical perspective, but the broad perspective taken in this book is rather exceptional.

Prominent researchers, representing several different academic disciplines, have been given the opportunity to relate and discuss their research to the question of universal ethics without demanding that they use a common set of concepts or deal with a specified set of problems. The task of each scholar has been to contribute to questions of the theoretical and practical possibilities of a new form of universalism in ethics from the perspective of the scholar's own discipline. The resulting diversity of this open approach gives the reader of this book a broad and interesting view on the manifold questions concerning universal ethics. The broad perspective does not mean that there are no general observations and conclusions to be drawn from the texts.

It is not the intention of this introduction to engage all the texts with each other, but rather to summarise and introduce them. Nevertheless it is interesting to see that there has been no strong objections towards the need for and possibility of a univer­sal ethics. It is obvious that all of the authors have been able to deal with the question of universal ethics in relation to their own field in a most interesting way. All of the texts provide good points of departure for future research of this topic.

The texts presented here represent a spectrum of different perspectives on universal ethics. Nevertheless there are some interesting tendencies that can be seen when reading the texts. It is for example obvious that the discussion of universal ethics is considered to be an important concern for all the researchers of the different disciplines of this book. Besides this general approval of the question as such, it is interesting to see that none of the authors strongly reject the idea of a universal ethics of some kind. There are various critiques, problems and objections presented towards some forms of universal ethics, but there is no severe critique of the prac­tical possibility or the pragmatic need for universal ethics as such. On the contrary, there is in most texts an approval of this need and possibility. This approval of the practical possibility and the pragmatic need of universal ethics are of different kinds, from models of justification to empirical findings in favour of existing value com­munities. This multi-fold support for the idea of universal ethics is a good start for future multidisciplinary research.

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