The question of moral foundations is one of the deepest and most important questions of our time. Human beings today appear to be writhing in confusion, doubt, and base emotions of hate and fear. Human beings appear trapped in gigantic institutions that disrupt and ignore all moral foundations, such as unrestrained capitalism and militarism. Human beings appear wrapped in egoism, selfishness, divisiveness, and cant. Politicians appear corrupt, bureaucrats appear corrupt, corporations out to maximize profits at the expense of people appear corrupt. Where can we turn? Are there any authentic moral foundations that can guide human life?

Yet throughout the Western philosophical tradition there appeared moral thinkers whose voices remain in the background of all this chaos. Socrates, in the 5th century BCE, questioned why Athenians should be concerned with money, social standing, and reputation and not the least about wisdom, truth, and the health of their soul. He declared that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. Cicero, in the 1st century BCE, passionately defended and promoted a natural, universal law of justice for all human beings. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, affirmed, following Romans 2:14, that “the light of reason is placed by nature in every person to guide him in his acts,” and the first principle deriving from the use of reason is to “always do good and avoid evil.”

Nicholas of Cusa, in the 15th century, experienced all reality (God and the world) as a unified, integrated whole and love for the other as oneself as a concrete expression of this integrated wholeness of pure relationship. Immanuel Kant, in the 18th century, identified the absolute equality of all persons before the universal moral law and declared that we should always put human dignity first in every relationship with other people, never using them merely as a means. Emanuel Levinas, in the 20th century, identified the moral relationship of absolute responsibility for the other as our most fundamental reality — prior to culture, self-interest, science, and even religion.

In the 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche predicted that the entire Western tradition, built upon such ethical principles that assumed a key place for human beings within the cosmic scheme of things, was about to collapse into what he called ‘nihilism’ — the conclusion that there is no truth, no meaning, no significance whatsoever to human existence. One thinks here of the ‘post-truth world’ under US President Donald Trump and his legions of violent and irrational followers.

Scholarly books like Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century also appear to bear out Nietzsche’s predictions. Man’s inhumanity to man manifests itself in the 20th century as unspeakable cruelty and barbarism. In the 21st century, weaponized drones haunt the skies over many nations, on occasion blowing up wedding parties or funeral services in their unspeakably evil quest to extra-judicially hunt and kill all who oppose their militarized empire of global domination and exploitation. All appeal to noble values is just empty rhetoric. The facts of our savagery and barbarism speak for themselves.

Yet if there is any insight at all in the history of moral thought in the West, where can it be found in the face of today’s violent and irrational world chaos? Levinas points out that it is found in the everyday experience of each of us insofar as we simply recognize one another. As thinkers like Jürgen Habermas have demonstrated, human beings could not exist without one another. We (in our very selfhood) are inextricably formed into persons through our mutual interactions. Other persons constitute our primary reality as children even before we form a selfhood of our own.

For Levinas, the primacy of the other is a primacy of responsibility for the other. This is our primordial and constitutive experience. It is not an epistemological derivation of some facts upon which to build up a knowledge base. It is more fundamental than epistemology. Human beings are not some mere generic products of culture. Nor are we simply a manifestation of natural evolutionary processes. We are born in relationship and we experience, at the most primordial level, an absolute moral responsibility for the other, prior to culture and nature.

If we take Levinas’ insight seriously, we can easily discern that the dominant institutions of the modern world (for the past several centuries) — militarized sovereign nation-states and global capitalism — are founded on principles that have nothing to do with our primordial responsibility for the other. Both institutions claim to be “objective,” that is, they are mechanistic systems that are simply factual and operate apart from moral principles. Nations are objectively sovereign, we are told, relating to one another in terms of power and competition, and capitalism is founded on “objective” economic principles, economists say, independent of their moral consequences.

Could these integrated dual systems be a primary cause of the moral chaos and nihilism within which the world has been mired for the past century and longer? Both systems ignore what is primordial about human beings — our moral responsibility for the other. The world is organized on false principles derived from early-modern (Newtonian) cosmology that claimed all things were made of independent atoms. Hence, nation states call themselves “sovereign” in pretense that they are somehow independent atoms, separate from the whole of humanity, and capitalist corporations operate out of self-interest as if they were independent of this same whole.

If we operate the world system on false premises that ignore our primordial moral relationship with one another, no wonder Glovers’ Moral History of the Twentieth Century documents a world of savagery and barbarism. All the ethical thinkers cited above, in one way or another recognized human dignity as primary. Under the modern world system, human dignity is a secondary thought, a mere marginal voice, a mere cultural appendage to the world disorder of fragmented “objective” atomism.

Human dignity was highlighted in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed as a nonbinding resolution on 10 December 1948. But the UN System (that institutionalizes both militarized sovereign nation-states and global capitalism) was founded in the UN Charter of 1945. There is an immense contradiction here. The primordial reality of human dignity (and hence inalienable human rights) is marginalized to a mere resolution while the institutionalized world system, in effect, denies that dignity at every turn.

In his introduction to Levinas’ book Humanism of the Other, Richard A. Cohen sums up the central thought of Levinas (2006, xxxvi):

To be for the other otherwise than being and before culture, to serve the other morally, and to serve all others in justice — here lies the ultimate exigency of meaning and the dignity of humankind.

To be human is “otherwise than being” because we are not simply units of some external reality called “being.” Neither are we merely ciphers of universal human culture. We are “before” both culture and being. Each of us is primordially for one another, not reducible to being or culture.

Infinity breaks into the world of objectified language and being through the human visage and the human face. Each of us is responsible for the other prior even to our responsibility to ourselves. Evolution and human civilization bring forth a species whose primordial mandate is to serve one another. We need institutions that enhance our ability to serve one another. Levinas declares (1969, 241):

Freedom is not realized outside of social and political institutions, which open to it the access to fresh air necessary for its expansion, its respiration, and even, perhaps, its spontaneous generation.

In my own rendering of Levinas’ thought, the state and government need not be understood as a totalistic impersonal order embodied in oppressive laws but rather as institutionalizing a set of a priori principles making possible human flourishing and ethical face-to-face relationships. Therefore, it is possible for government to be liberating and moral, rather than savage and barbaric. This is exactly the role of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Here are some features of the Earth Constitution:

  • it is based on human dignity and the common good of all humanity (not on territorial divisions or power relationships);
  • it affirms the entire range of human rights including the right to peace and the right to a healthy planetary ecology and these rights are enshrined within enforceable, democratically legislated world law (and not just a cultural ideal like the UN Declaration);
  • it is fully democratic (representing all persons everywhere), non-military, and places sovereignty (that is ultimate authority) with the collective people of Earth;
  • it requires every sworn-in public official to take an oath of ‘service to humanity’;
  • its first and foremost broad function is to end war and disarm the nations and its second is to protect universal human rights, including the entire range of human freedoms;
  • it is premised throughout on the principle of unity in diversity, joining all humanity in political and economic unity while affirming the wonderful diversity of nations, cultures, religions, languages, and persons;
  • it is a ‘living document’ with well designed mechanisms for reviewing and updating its clauses as time passes;
  • it ultimately assures “to every child the right to the full realization of his or her potential” (Article 13.12).

Here we encounter an emerging world system that, for the first time in history, does not structurally impede the priority of human moral relationships. It supplies, in the words of Levinas, “the fresh air for the expansion of freedom.” It makes possible, again for the first time in history, Socrates' conviction that it is better to suffer evil than to do it. It embodies the full universality of the principle of justice as Cicero demanded. It gives human beings a real framework in which to do good and avoid evil as Aquinas advocated.

It embodies the integrated relationships of the whole, including the ecological wholeness of our planet, as Nicholas of Cusa required. It is premised on the universal human dignity, focused on by Kant, treating every person as an end in themselves. And it makes possible a world system in which the priority of ethical relationships to culture, to being, and to all institutions is confirmed.

This is precisely why we need to ratify the Earth Constitution under the democratic requirements articulated in its Article 17. This does not in itself constitute human liberation into the priority of the ethical dimension pointed to by all the above thinkers. But, for the first time in history, it makes this liberation possible. Unlike our present world-system, it is not an impediment to moral action.

It does not force us into paying war taxes, or complicity with drone killings, or compromise with multinational corporations. Nor does it subvert the democratic process with millions of dollars in ‘dark money,’ or involve us in the fear and security measures that destroy our relationships with people in other countries across the planet. The Earth Constitution can liberate us from our nihilism and our cynicism, as well as our complicity.

It is designed to protect the ecology of our planet (see Martin 2021), to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and ultimately all weapons of war, and to empower all peoples everywhere “to serve humanity.” The key to the ethical growth and liberation of humanity lies in institutions that empower and do not hinder that growth. Here is the way out of nihilism with its concomitant barbarism and savagery. Before it is too late, we need to ratify this Constitution for the Federation of Earth.


1 Constitution for the Federation of Earth. In print with the Institute for Economic Democracy Press, Appomattox, VA, 2010 and 2014.
2 Glover, Jonathan (1999). Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.
3 Martin, Glen T. (2021). The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press.
4 Levinas, Emmanuel (1969). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.
5 Levinas, Emmanuel (2006). Humanism of the Other. Intro by Richard A. Cohen. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.