Mamphela Ramphele,
Towards a global morality

The concept of global citizenship is in constant revision. One thing we can all agree on, however, is that we need pratical guidelines to give us, as global citizens, the freedom to identify and pursue our personal goals, without infringing on the rights of our fellow citizens to do the same.


It has become something of a truism to point out that individuals, organisations and nations do not work in isolation. The concept of a 'global economy' is now so deeply entrenched in our understanding of the world that we can effortlessly forge a logical connection between pension cuts in Ireland and the transaction irregularities of an investment banking firm in the US.

Global trade has altered the course of human history. Capitalism has always provided a reason to cross borders and forge relations with new groups, and in the twentieth century, economic isolation became both rare and unsustainable, as the apartheid government of South Africa was eventually forced to recognise.

Some see the existence of market forces as a necessary condition for global cooperation. Perhaps it is necessary, but I believe it to be far from sufficient. A global economy provides the backdrop to foundational international relations, but it does not govern the nature of those relations. That is to say, the 'invisible hand' has never been so helpful as to point out unifying political and moral values, which themselves are necessary for legitimate global governance.

These are the values that we continue to define, to evaluate and to debate. When one talks of global citizenship, one necessarily engages with a concept that is in constant revision. There is no consensus from either an objective standpoint, where we ask which laws should govern individuals in the global context, or even subjectively, where we ask what it means to the individual to be a global citizen. 

One thing we can all agree on, however, is that we need pratical guidelines to give us, as global citizens, the freedom to identify and pursue our personal goals, without infringing on the rights of our fellow citizens to do the same.

Historically, the means by which organisations such as the United Nations have met this challenge have taken the form of articulating and adopting a shared political agenda between participating nations. The desire for this stemmed, in part, from the advent of nuclear warfare and the panic that it provoked in the aftermath of the Second World War. The prevention of large-scale destruction and loss of life topped the international political agenda for decades.

In contrast, our current global political climate has seen the emphasis shift to the individual, and is characterised by the redefining and careful marshalling of state boundaries and bureaucratic jurisdictions. Panic is no longer reserved for the possibility of another world war or nuclear destruction, but has found a new home in the monitoring of individuals’ movements across borders, as well as the trafficking of material goods, artefacts, fauna and flora.

These restrictions affect us as individuals, and so any conception of global citizenship must adequately account for the individual. Negotiating and agreeing on shared political values in the form of rules and regulations are important aspects of global governance, but they should be seen as merely laying the groundwork for a more personal understanding of what it means to be part of a global community. 

Global citizenship is best defined in the same spirit that citizenship to a democratic nation state is: Citizens are constituents of the state; they are not submissive to it. There is a push-pull relationship between the two that continuously shapes and reshapes moral and social conventions. In a thriving democracy this relationship becomes highly complex and nuanced, but both sides must be willing to participate.

Applied to the larger issue at hand, I believe that the value of a moral framework cannot be understated, since without one, global governance is all control and no response. If global citizenship is to hold any personal significance, then it is imperative that we explore the possibilities of a global moral framework, one that is developed through and responsive to all global citizens.

Such moral conventions are not exhausted by international laws and regulations, and thus they are more difficult to articulate and define. They are the products of open dialogue across nations, and they are precipitated by a respect for freedom of speech and political and ideological diversity.

Dialogue has been taking place in the global context, and much of it is, as is so often the case, owed to the arts. In spaces where questions take precedence over answers, we find our awareness drawn to new paradigms and new understandings.

Whereas politicians and statesmen might see their roles as smoothing out the objective landscape of international cooperation, it is often the role of the artist to communicate a subtler message, one that transcends the broad facts and speaks to our deeper moral precepts and dispositions. 

These subtle messages require our considered attention, and with patience and persistence we will move ever closer to a meaningful understanding of global governance.

  • Dr Mamphela Ramphele

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