An Ethic of Civilisation

Civilisation is the never-ending goal of human evolution which may lead us to a still more advanced form of Homo sapiens. But it cannot do this without a solid basis in ethics.

Inexorably, it seems, humankind has been drawn into the state of living together. From our tribal beginnings we graduated, apparently in the Middle East, to living in cities. Now in the 20th and 21st centuries this “living together” has reached a new level, that of the so-called global village. In this modern time we have also come to acknowledge in a deeper way the fact that we humans are, for all our extraordinary attributes and powers, only one of the multitudinous forms of life or existence on the planet and in the universe.

The word “civilisation” comes from the Latin word for city, which was “civitas.” In broad terms it means a high state of human development – cultural, technological and so on. As Cristian Violatti1 observes, however:

The meaning of the term civilization has changed several times during its history, and even today it is used in several ways. It is commonly used to describe human societies "with a high level of cultural and technological development", as opposed to what many consider to be less "advanced" societies. This definition, however, is unclear, subjective, and it carries with it assumptions no longer accepted by modern scholarship on how human societies have changed during their long past.

Not only this, but the concept of civilisation as purely a materialistic achievement is inadequate for it says nothing about the quality of the inner life, even though that may be implicit to some degree in the word “cultural.” I would add that civilisation is the condition where everyone – not just the few or the many - is able to have full enjoyment of life.

Accepting that there are different ideas about what constitutes civilisation, we nevertheless have an imperative now that we are just a global village – an imperative to find a common ground, a common ethical foundation for our dealings with each other. Our very survival gives us no choice in this matter. Fortunately, while cultural and other differences continue to militate in favour of pluralism and against the adoption of just one view, there is a large amount of agreement, expressed explicitly and implicitly in all sorts of “comings together” around the world.

Fundamental ethical principles

Civilisation, it seems to me, rests on three ethical principles.

The first I would label as truth in living, that we adopt a whole and balanced worldview which appreciates the good while acknowledging the bad, including the shortcomings in ourselves. Albert Schweitzer described this as “taking the world as it is.” This is the truthfulness in which “the world means the horrible in the glorious, the meaningless in the fullness of meaning, the sorrowful in the joyful”2. Such a deep degree of understanding and acceptance is not given to us as of right but acquired over time through dedicated pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. And it is not only a matter of deep insight, for it also requires us to be completely honest about the way things are. Without such honesty we cannot proceed.

The second fundamental principle of civilisation is the one commonly called the Golden Rule, that we treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. In other words, we should treat each other with love, kindness, compassion, care, concern, tolerance, respect, truthfulness, justice, and so on. An extension of the Golden Rule is Schweitzer’s concept of Reverence for Life, which is that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil. This also is an ethic of civilisation, though potentially it goes beyond “mere” civilising to a still higher state of existence, somewhere in the realm of the kingdom of God (whatever that term might mean).

The third fundamental principle of civilisation is that of continuous improvement, constantly seeking to make things better for ourselves and others. This principle rests on the belief that life, however good it might be in all sorts of ways, is always capable of improvement. Moving in this direction requires first that we understand properly how things are at present and how they might develop (the first principle of civilisation) and then that we realise that nothing much ever gets done by just one person: we are, all humankind, a team.

Rationale for civilisation ethics

What rationale might support the three ethical principles outlined above?

Principle of truth in living

Any rationale in this area has to stand on two premises that might be regarded as axiomatic, i.e. self-evidently true. Both have to do with the way we deal with plurality, the fact that each person or thing is but one in a sea of many. The first is the idea that we have to assign value to people and things in order to live. The second is that dealing with others requires us to have an ethic of some sort, a moral framework on which to base our actions.

Self-evidently, the better we are at assigning value, the more competent we are in the business of living and thriving. As life gets more and more complex, the harder we have to work at competence. The full person has to be engaged – the physical, intellectual and moral person. Mindpower has to be superhuman, for we are dealing with all branches of knowledge, trying to understand and value not only things as they are now but as they might be in future. And together with mindpower there have to be diligence and absolute truthfulness: truthfulness in its largest sense, encompassing the totality of things, and rigorously and honestly distinguishing the good from the bad, the pro-life from the anti-life.

Principle of goodwill - the Golden Rule

Faced with the necessity of having to deal with other people day-in day-out, we are each forced to develop a relational ethic of some kind. Albert Schweitzer understood this when he argued that civilisation cannot exist without an ethic; and if civilisation is understood to be a high state of human development, it follows surely that the ethic must be at a correspondingly high level. In Out of My Life and Thought, p. 148, Schweitzer said:

But what is civilization?

The essential element in civilization is the ethical perfecting of the individual as well as society. At the same time, every spiritual and every material step forward has significance for civilization. The will to civilization is, then, the universal will to progress that is conscious of the ethical as the highest value. In spite of the great importance we attach to the achievements of science and human prowess, it is obvious that only a humanity that is striving for ethical ends can benefit in full measure from material progress and can overcome the dangers that accompany it.....

The only possible way out of chaos is for us to adopt a concept of the world based on the ideal of true civilization.

But what is the nature of that concept of the world in which the will to the general progress and the will to the ethical progress join and are linked together?

It consists in an ethical affirmation of the world and of life.

This ethical affirmation he found in the idea of Reverence for Life, that is, care and respect for all other creatures. Obviously, innumerable other thinkers have also argued the case for goodwill; normative ethics is full of such discussion, from the ancient Greeks through to Kant and John Rawls. Religion links goodwill with the sacred or divine, which it sees as the source of all things good. The various faith traditions are united in teaching that the sacred or divine is ultimately good and that we humans therefore do best when we too are good. (The secular equivalent is that life is good and – again - we humans do best when we are good). Virtue is commonly held by the different faith traditions to be our sacred duty. At the same time, each tradition has its own particular slant, its own distinctive contribution to the overall argument. Christianity speaks of loving one’s enemies; Indian religions speak of ahimsa (doing no harm); religion in southern Africa speaks of ubuntu (humanity towards others); and so on.

Ultimately, though, this is something that transcends argument, for it is something that comes from the heart. We rationalise goodwill but it exists and manifests itself in any case. It is almost unbelievably powerful, as powerful as the universal creative urge itself, to which we are all subject. One mark of the development of the human race is that, in principle if not in practice, we have come to deem all people as being of equal value. People may be unequal in all sorts of other ways, but their very existence makes them universally the same. Even the poorest, most unfortunate person has value in that he or she can call forth goodness in other people. The essential equality of humankind is a fundamental and very widely held tenet.

We come now to the Golden Rule, which curiously, according to Bill Puka in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,3 has received little notice from moral philosophers despite its prominence in commonsense ethics. The Golden Rule can be justified partly by self-interest, for clearly we don’t advance very far without the goodwill of others. This has always been the case, but is increasingly more so, for complexity drives us all to greater interdependence. So while complexity causes stresses and strains, it also makes us all cohere all the more, clinging to each for mutual support. Throughout the course of our history, goodwill has been institutionalised; societies have made good relations between people a legal obligation, an essential part of citizenship. Thus we are all, as we grow up, socialised into this way of thinking, that we must or should behave “properly.” Intersecting with this pro-social ideation there is the natural instinct for altruism, the disinterested and selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. Part of altruism is the simple pleasure we get at seeing happiness in other people, not just ourselves. There is an even greater pleasure when we ourselves are agents of that happiness. And altruism is capable of the highest possible goodness by way of self-sacrifice, whereby a person can give his or her own life for others. Such acts of self-negation are typically (and symbolically) both low points and high points in the course of civilisation.

Civilisation flourishes when we give to others and enter their lives, seeing and feeling things as they do. Yet paradoxically, we also have to inflict harm in order just to live and be happy. Civilisation teaches us how to do this without unnecessary suffering; it replaces conflict with competition and makes all sorts of rules to prevent and contain discord. We enhance civilisation not by letting opposites fight but by holding them in balance or in check, and giving space for goodwill to flow. This is the extraordinary dynamic of our constant struggle to achieve a better world.

Principle of continuous improvement

We might say here that the end state to which we all aspire is summed up in the words of Robert Kennedy, “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

It may be said that this is not an ethical principle so much as a life urge: the urge not only to live but to live well. This, however, is a matter of degree. Meeting our basic needs such as food, shelter, companionship and so on is obviously something that is, in a sense, deeper than ethics, but it is when we enter the realm of wants that ethics cannot be avoided. Here we come to the matter of choice, inasmuch as needs are not a matter of choice but wants are, and ethics are all about choice. At some point in our progression up the hierarchy of needs, we choose to pursue things like education, fulfilment through work, material rewards, and so on, and in doing so we make ethical choices – we decide that we want to, in all sorts of ways, improve. At this point we intersect with the Golden Rule, for improvement is not possible without positive relationships with other people, and nor is it enjoyable without these relationships, for pleasure is always better when shared.

Challenges to ethics

There are five obvious challenges to the ethical principles as described.

Firstly, there is the limitation of our own needs, namely that we have to kill and harm simply to survive. Secondly, there is the narrowness of our own sphere of interest: we are interested in the wellbeing of our immediate circle of family, friends and acquaintances, then the various communities we belong to, but we have diminished interest in strangers except for isolated instances that capture our attention. Thirdly, there is the divide between private and public ethics, for while we as individuals might commit ourselves to a certain way of living, we cannot bind others to doing so. Fourthly, there is failed reciprocity, that is, what might happen when other people let us down and fail to meet their obligation of behaving with goodwill. Lastly, there is inertia or failure to act, which one way or another holds back our creative impulses and stops us from doing whatever is necessary to make continual improvement.

Let us now explore these matters in more detail.

The human being is inescapably animal, and it therefore follows that we have to kill and harm just in order to live. This may seem, from an idealistic point of view, rather gloomy, yet it is not entirely so, for civilisation itself depends on constant renewal which can take place only through death and decay. As in all aspects of life there is room for manoeuvring. Increasing knowledge and commitment to ethical action enable us to moderate our actions in order that other life may be protected and promoted. This is one of the glories of the environmental movement. Gabriel Langfeldt4 tells us that Schweitzer said: “The fundamental law of ethics … is that we must not cause suffering to any animate being, even the lowest (unless we ourselves are having to obey the principle of necessary self-defence) and that we, as far as we are able, shall be active to benefit other things through positive action.” We accept harsh reality while appreciating that, through our agency exercised thoughtfully, there can be good outcomes.

The second challenge identified above, namely that of our sphere of interest, is also one with positive aspects. We are tribal. We look after family and friends first, our immediate neighbourhood next, and so on. This can all too easily lead us into error, as when tribalism turns into a loyalty that sees others as enemies. Nationalism is an example; nationalism has been a huge driving force for social and economic advancement, but it has also led to horrific wars and regimes of oppression. In these sorts of situations we must never forget that the Golden Rule applies to all people without exception.

A variant on this theme is that, as the population of the world increases, proportionally we disengage from other individuals. We switch off because we cannot cope with the burden of numbers. To protect our own individuality we have to put other people at arm’s length or simply not see them at all. This phenomenon can be offset by philosophical (as distinct from political) communitarianism, which seeks to achieve a better balance between the wellbeing of the individual and the community. Social media also play a part here, for they enable a much richer networking of relationships between people. Thus, while my sphere of associates may be limited, there are innumerable other spheres, all of which connect. In such a connected society, no one person should be forgotten; and when it is evident that there are outsiders, there are other people who are on the lookout for outsiders and ready to bring them inside. While we cannot be all things to all people, we can at least work for good within our immediate communities, hoping and trusting that our efforts will align with others and together contribute to goodness on the grand scale.

The third challenge mentioned above, the divide between private and public ethics, is a difficult one. There is a degree of crossover here with the previous limitation, that no one individual can take responsibility for all others. Even the most generous society is afflicted with big doses of self-interest when public decisions are to be made. This is one reason why few countries are generous givers of foreign aid or accepting of large numbers of refugees. Worsening the problem is the fact that governments are typically too self-interested to push ethical boundaries in a positive direction. Yet it is the role of governments not only to gauge public opinion on issues that demand goodwill, but also to lead, to take politically courageous decisions that will in the longer term be of greater benefit than citizens are prepared to recognise.

The fourth challenge, that of failed reciprocity, is indeed a severe drain on the goodwill of people trying to make a better world. The sad reality is that bad behaviour is everpresent in human affairs. As a rule of thumb we might say that every step forward is negated by a step back, with just the barest margin of positive effect that makes it possible for us all to advance towards civilisation, inch by inch. There is plenty of good advice here. The Christian would say to turn the other cheek, having faith that goodness will in the end triumph. History would seem to bear this out, for it is evident that, while we continue to repeat errors of the past, on the whole our race has progressed and we do behave better, even though often this is simply because we have institutionalised good behaviours, thereby making them the norm rather than the reverse. But as we all know, rules are not enough. The impulse to act out the Golden Rule has to be constantly nurtured within us all so that instinctively we behave in ways that are favourable to each other and to civilisation as a whole.

A related consideration is that the Golden Rule may not always be the most practical approach to a situation. For example, a criminal or bully might want to be treated with indulgence and repeated leniency, but this would not necessarily achieve any lasting benefit. Perhaps the best that we can hope to achieve is to align ourselves with the good in its fullest state, which is truth and love and creative action (where creative action may mean simply surviving). In other words, forgiving bad behaviour may be an act of love, but goodness resides also in truth, which may require a corrective act of justice.

The fifth and last challenge to civilisation is inertia or failure to act. This is a negation of the principle of continuous improvement and comes from apathy (which is precursor to laziness) and fear. Apathy takes many forms, from turning a blind eye to suffering to immersion in games or social media or TV. Fear is a sadder phenomenon, a lack or loss of courage, a failure in belief that things can improve. The reality is that, despite these negatives which together have a huge cumulative drain on our wellbeing, we advance anyway. The commitment to continuous improvement is a force so deep within our psyche that it cannot be denied.

The ethic of civilisation or goodwill to others is already deeply rooted in human society around the world. This does not prevent it from falling under constant challenge, by way of either abuse or others or neglect. Not only this, but there are also new situations arising every day where fresh applications of the principle have to be worked out and put into practice. If we fail to keep our ethical senses alert, new violations of the principle occur without our noticing them; we have fallen asleep at the wheel. Consequently, we have a shared obligation to keep preaching goodwill, keep talking about it, keep debating the best ways of remaining ethical, and above all keep practising it, for the best means of propagating an idea or set of ideas is by example.

The goals of civilisation

What specifically are our goals when we talk about the march towards ever-increasing levels of civilisation? We noted before that the idea of civilisation is variable, changing over time and from one culture to another. Commonly we talk about advanced states of progress in science, human thought, standards of living, and so on. These ideals are in a sense crystallised in the notion of rights5.

In terms of rights, the cornerstones of civilisation could be said to be freedom, justice and peace, which are the aspirations acknowledged in the first sentence of the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a loose sense these three equate to the goals of the French Revolution, which were liberty, equality and fraternity. Freedom is a natural state that begins at birth, inasmuch as we are free to have our own thoughts and feelings and personality. Freedom is also the benefit that flows from justice and peace combined. Justice relates to fairness which is founded upon an essential equality; we might say it is the wise application of truth in human affairs, the outcome of a whole and balanced understanding of things. Peace is the realisation of fraternity or mutual care and responsibility; it is the ultimate harmony, the universal enactment of compassion. Peace cannot exist in any real sense without justice or freedom; all three are intertwined.

Freedom is sometimes considered the first of the natural rights of humankind, but no rights are natural, for rights are in reality a product of human thought. Thus we may say freedom, like life itself and the pursuit of happiness, is a natural condition of humankind but not a natural right. Like all of these conditions it has a variable meaning according to circumstance. Thus we are born free but cannot live or thrive without surrendering some of that freedom, giving it up for various forms of rule or discipline. When we do so, however, we attain other – higher – forms of freedom. Similarly, justice and peace are matters subject to constant negotiation; for example, we accept the tensions inherent in working with other people, collaboratively or cooperatively or in competition, in order to achieve a higher level of peace.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, though written as long ago as 1948, serves still as a more or less generally accepted standard. As stated in the Preamble it is the agreed “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” – the starting point for envisioning a civilised society in our time. To paraphrase, the authors and signatories of the Universal Declaration contemplated a world where all people might enjoy (subject to the performance of certain duties):

· Freedom

· Peace and security

· Justice

· The benefits of marriage and family life

· The benefits of community membership and nationality

· A voice in government

· An adequate standard of living

· The right to own property

· A reasonable standard of education

· Employment

· Social security

· Enjoyment of rest and leisure, and

· The full and free development of personality.

This then gives us a picture of the endgame when the ethics of civilisation have been put into effect.

The truly civilised person – Homo civilis

What I have just described is the macro picture of a supposed future world. To complete the picture we also need to consider the micro, in other words what sort of people would populate this splendid world. Anthropologists hold that life on our planet has developed to the point where we the human race may be described as Homo sapiens or wise man, but should this be regarded as the endpoint in our development? One possibility is that, as the Transhumanists would have it, we will somehow merge with our technological creations – artificial intelligence and the like – to become a new super-race. However, another idea that I prefer is that, technology aside, we will so improve our ability to live together that we will morph from Homo sapiens to Homo civilis, meaning civilised man. Homo civilis is a term not recognised by anthropology but a label which some use for an advanced stage of human development that remains anatomically within Homo sapiens (see for example Wojciech Kalaga6).

Thus a truly civilised person might be described as Homo sapiens (wise man) plus. Homo sapiens has knowledge and understanding but these in themselves, though necessary, are not sufficient to constitute civilisation. The essence of civilisation is relationship, or a very high degree of connection with other people and other forms of life. One might even say that civilisation requires connection with all existence, all that is, including the spiritual dimension of existence. Thus the civilised person has in the first place knowledge and understanding, but adds to this both benevolence (good wishes) and active goodwill.

The civilised person reflects the overall unity but also complexity of the world as a whole. Thus for example I envisage this person to have qualities of insight into things, with appreciation of the good but also acceptance of the many imperfections of life and commitment to doing better. The civilised person has wholeness, internal harmony and balance. Truth and love and continual creative action are evident in the life of this person. Living with integrity, he or she applies all aspects of life in the work of civilisation: applying the confidence that comes through commitment to goodness, the vigour that comes through proper self-care, the habits of organisation that come through care for property, the personal wealth, the human connections, the learning and the wisdom. But when will we have a critical mass of people such as this?


1. Cristian Violatti. “Civilization: Definition.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 2014.

2. Albert Schweitzer. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Page 204.

3. Bill Puka. “The Golden Rule.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ca. 2010.

4. Gabriel Langfeldt. Albert Schweitzer: A Study of His Philosophy of Life. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960. Page 74.

5. Christian Michel. “Why We Have Rights.” Mises Institute. 2009.

6. Wojciech Kalaga, ed. Civilisation and Fear: Anxiety and the Writing of the Subject. Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012.

The human race has collectively and irrevocably chosen a path of continuous improvement, seeking to make life better, aiming always for the “good”, however that term might be understood. This is the drive to the ever elusive goal of civilisation, where everyone – not just the few or the many - has full enjoyment of life.

Three principles underpin this search for civilisation. They are truth in living, the Golden Rule, and commitment to continuous movement. They are not without limitations, for example the human necessity to harm in order just to survive, and the fact that we are inescapably tribal and thus limited in our concern for a wider wellbeing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives us a standard for practical action towards civilisation. But as individuals we can also embrace the three principles and thereby aim to transform ourselves from Homo sapiens (the wise person) to the truly advanced state of being represented by the notion of Homo civilis (the civilised person).