OddbjØrn Leirvik




Global Ethics and Moral Disagreement

After September 11, 2001



A Christian-Muslim Perspective



Global issues are always approached from somewhere. My personal vantage point is Christian-Muslim relations and interfaith dialogue on ethics in Norway. But here as everywhere, local dialogues are affected by events on the global stage. In this article,  I will first give some examples of how dialogue on communal ethics in Norway has entailed interfaith involvement in global issues. In the second part I will share some reflections on the notion of ‘global ethics’. Here I will also pre­sent the notion of ‘well-grounded moral disagreement’, which I believe is partic­ularly relevant in a Muslim-Christian context. In the final part I will discuss what kind of lessons can be drawn from Muslim and Christian reac­tions to the dramatic events of 11 September and its global aftermath.



Introduction: From the Local to the Global


Like interfaith dialogue in general, Christian-Muslim dialogue of an organised kind is a very recent phenomenon in Norway. But during the 1990s it gained con­siderable momentum and even aspired to deal with global challenges.


The first partners to set up a regular structure for interreligious dialogue in Nor­way were, perhaps not surprisingly, Christians and Muslims. Against the back­ground of growing grassroots contact a national Contact Group between the Church of Norway and the Islamic Council of Norway was established in 1993. The Lutheran Church of Norway is a state church, comprising 86% of the population. The Islamic Council of Norway is an umbrella organization for most of the organised Muslims in Norway.[1] The Contact Group has provided an opportunity for regular dialogue and personal networking be­tween leaders of the national church and the main non-Christian community in Norway. The other churches in Norway have also joined the Contact Group, which has become a truly ecumenical enterprise not only in the Christian but in the wider, Abrahamic sense.


During the 1990s several multilateral dialogue projects were also initiated. These projects have included representatives of other world religions, alternative spir­ituality and secular humanism as well as Christians and Muslims. Two pioneering projects were carried out at the Humanist Academy of Nansenskolen and later documented in books. The first occurred in 1992-93 under the heading of “Communal Ethics in Multicultural Norway.” A  second project in 1996-97 focused on ”Religion, Life Stances and Human Rights in Norway” (see Eidsvåg and Leirvik 1993 and Eidsvåg and Larsen 1993).


In a broader perspective the cues of ‘communal ethics’ and ‘human rights’ in­dicate respectively two different approaches to interfaith dialogue on ethics. In a human rights approach, one searches for the minimum of consensus which is necessary to avoid discrimination against religious groups and violation of indi­vidual integrity. In a quest for communal ethics one tends to be more ambitious. The search is then for a maximum of consensus between adherents of different faiths on pressing ethical issues. In the communal ethics project at Nansenskolen, the participants sorted out disagreement and sought for consensus on life issues such as genetics, abortion, the relation between parents and children, sexuality and marriage, and euthanasia. In both projects the approach was mainly inductive, with concrete challenges (pertaining to attitudes as well as legislation) as the starting point.


In 1996 a permanent forum for interfaith dialogue was formed: The Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities in Norway. Although the Council mainly addresses questions of interfaith attitudes and government policies in Norway, it has also become a springboard for global involvement. In 1998 the interfaith council co-initiated the so-called “Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief.” The Oslo Coalition engages leaders of the Islamic Council, the Church of Norway, the Council of Free Churches, the Jewish Community, the Buddhist Community, the Bahá’ís and the Humanist Association in Norway. The basis of the Oslo Coalition is common standards for human rights, as expressed in binding international conventions. Its plan for 2002 included interreligious cooperation with relevant partners in countries such as Russia, China, Indonesia, Iran, and the Sudan. Focal points are religious freedom, gender equality, religious and civic education, and interfaith dialogue in areas of communal strife.


The formation of the Oslo Coalition indicates that the well-known Norwegian ambition of international peacemaking has already become an interfaith vision. Although its scope is human rights standards, the work of the Oslo Coalition is also marked by a quest for communal ethics in a wider sense. Its human basis is personal net­works formed by face-to-face dialogues in Norway, which have also kindled a desire for doing something together internationally. Probably, any meaningful approach to global ethics must be based in small-scale, personal networks. Al­luding to the works of the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I will suggest that global ethics cannot do without an ethics of the face, oriented to­wards the vulnerability of the other (see Levinas 1985 and 1991).


A closer look at the agenda of the Oslo Coalition will show that Muslim-Christian issues occupy a central place. Both in Norway and internationally Christians and Muslims are increasingly engaging each other in both bilateral and multilateral forums. The varying practice of referring either to ‘Muslim-Christian’ or ‘Christian-Muslim’ dialogue invites a reflection on who takes the initiative in in­terfaith enterprises. The bilateral Contact Group between the churches and the Is­lamic Council was initially a Christian-Muslim enterprise, in the sense that the initiative came from the Church of Norway, the national church of the over­whelming majority. The multilateral interfaith council—and the ensuing Oslo Co­alition—has a different background. It grew out of a minority alliance between secular humanists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others. The alliance was formed as a protest against the proposal of a new compulsory subject of religious education in primary schools, which the minorities felt was too much oriented to­ward Christianity as the national religion. On the initiative of this minority al­liance, the churches were invited to take part in the construction of an overall, non-governmental interfaith council in Norway. With a view to Christian and Muslim participation, the council was thus a Muslim-Christian initiative rather than a Christian-Muslim one.


In my view, focusing on minority concerns in Norway is a good starting point for common involvement in global issues. Global ethics should always have the con­cerns of the minorities and those most vulnerable as its focal point. Thus, it is good that interfaith dialogue in Norway is Muslim-Christian and not only Chris­tian-Muslim. By the same token, interfaith dialogue in the Sudan should be Christian-Muslim and not only Muslim-Christian.



Global Ethic/s and Well-grounded Moral Disagreement


Proceeding to the broader question of global ethics, it should be noted that the qualification ‘global’ in ‘global ethics’ may mean two different things. It can either refer to the global scope of ethical reflection or to ethical values that may be globally endorsed (Gerle 1995: 12-14.). In both cases, the quest for global eth­ics—like the search for communal ethics in national contexts—should be expected to be slightly more ambitious than a human rights approach. A global ethics does not stop at stating inviolable rights: it aims at formulating interfaith moral obli­gations.


In a quest for global ethics there is also the question of whether one should take a deductive or inductive approach. In a deductive search for values that can be glo­bally endorsed the great ethical traditions constitute the frame of reference. The alternative inductive approach is oriented more directly towards pressing global challenges that often transcend the scope of traditional ethical reasoning. The in­ductive approach looks for ethical responses to concrete challenges, not just for general values.


The two approaches are not mutually exclusive but still distinctive. In current international discussion a distinction is often made between ‘global ethics’ and a ‘global ethic’. When translating the vision of his Projekt Weltethos, Hans Küng speaks insistently of “a world ethic” or “global ethic.”[2] His Global Ethic Foun­dation is based on the idea

... that the religions of the world can make a contribution to the peace of humankind only if they reflect on those elements of an ethic which they already have in common: on a fundamental consensus on binding values, irrevocable standards and personal attitudes. (Website of the Global Ethic Foundation)

The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic”, which was drafted by Küng and adop­ted by the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993, has the same orien­tation. As Küng puts it: “The Declaration should have the name ‘Declaration toward a Global Ethic’, not  ‘Global Ethics’. ‘Ethic’ means a basic moral atti­tude, whereas ‘ethics’ denotes the philosophical or theological theory of moral attitudes, values and norms ...” (Küng and Kuschel 1993: 59f.)[3]


As one can see, Küng distinguishes between (1) the values and attitudes of ”a global ethic” and (2) the traditional ethical systems in which moral formation will normally take place—such as Christian Ethics and Islamic Ethics. In addition, the Global Ethic project may also call for interreligious codes of ethics for groups of professionals. Such concrete ‘ethics’ must obviously be developed inductively.[4] But the project itself is focused on more general values that can be deducted from the great traditions.


The main part of the Global Ethic Declaration is a sermon-like admonition struc­tured around “four irrevocable directives” which link up with classical Abraham­ic as well as Eastern injunctions. The Declaration calls for commitment to (1) “a culture of non-violence and respect for life” (“You shall not kill!”), (2) “a cul­ture of solidarity and a just economic order” (“You shall not steal!”), (3) “a cul­ture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness” (”You shall not lie!”), and “a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women” (“You shall not commit sexual immorality!”).


The focus of the Declaration is on values and attitudes (an ethic or ethos) that must be globally endorsed for peace and respect to prevail. This does not mean that the Declaration neglects the particular contributions of the different faith communities. In fact, the Declaration urges the communities of faith to formulate ”their very specific ethic”, which can be lived in forgiveness and compassion, renunciation and selfless sacrifice. The Declaration seems to imply that such ideals or virtues can be nourished only by faith, as part of, for instance, a spe­cifically Christian or Islamic ethics. But it also calls for a renewed “conversion of the heart” to those values that, through deduction from the different traditions, may be said to be truly universal.


A different, more inductive approach to the question of global ethics can be found in Elisabeth Gerle’s book In Search of a Global Ethics. Here she calls for a more contextual and process-oriented approach to global ethics. Venturing beyond gen­eral values and attitudes, Gerle speaks of  ‘ethics’ and not of an ‘ethic’. She launches two clearly interrelated critiques of the deductive, ‘universal values’ ap­proach. Firstly, she notes that “The asymmetry of the world complicates the no­tion of the universal .… The asymmetry has to do with power and participation giving some groups more choices and more influence than others” (Gerle 1995: 19).


Secondly, and in conjunction with feminist insights, she suggests that relatedness rather than abstract values should be the point of departure for the search for a global ethics. With Seyla Benhabib she calls for a contextually sensitive univer­salism which is interactive rather than conceptual (Gerle 1995: 38f.; Benhabib 1992: 3), putting the stress on groups of people acting together.


Gerle seems to be advocating an inductive moral approach to pressing challenges that are unprecedented in nature and global in range. To survive in dignity and  justice, people everywhere must engage in formulating a global ethics which sur­passes traditional confines and the commonalities of “basic attitudes.” The global struggle against AIDS or for ecological balance would suffice as life-and-death examples.


But—and this a main point in my own reflection on ethical dialogue—if one leaves the realm of abstract values and approaches the realities of moral action in a quest for concrete responses to shared challenges, one will always have to face the reality of moral disagreement. At the level of applied ethics this cannot be avoided.


In the Scandinavian context the concept of well-grounded moral disagreement has been introduced by the Swedish ethicist Göran Bexell who introduced his theory of “a well-grounded moral view” in Christian ethics in 1990 (Bexell 1990: 4; 1992: 31-36) ; Bexell and Grenholm 1997: 258-74). According to Bexell, there are four different elements in a well grounded-moral view: (1) a consideration of facts and experiences, (2) an evaluation of relevant norms and values from the traditions, (3) a moral choice based on both facts and ethical evaluations, and (4) the element of personal virtue and character. There must a balance between these elements in a well-grounded moral view.


It is on this basis that Bexell also speaks of a well-grounded moral disagreement. He lists several examples of how Christians have lived with—or should learn to live with—contrary moral judgements that are recognised by the moral com­munity as plausible and legitimate interpretations of Christian ethics. A classical example is absolute pacifism versus moral judgements based on the theory of just wars. A late modern example is conflicting moral judgements within the Scandi­navian churches (and elsewhere) regarding homosexual relations.


How should the question of moral disagreement be dealt with by Muslims and Christians and globally? At one level, it is a constant challenge for Christian and Islamic ethics respectively to decide what kind of moral positions may be re­garded as plausible and legitimate applications of the classical tradition in ques­tion. Experience shows that this process is open-ended and calls for respectful di­alogue within each moral community.


But the question of how to handle moral disagreement also arises at the inter­reli­gious level. In many cases some Christians and some Muslims reach moral judgments that are nearly identical but conflict with the moral judgments of other co-religionists. In the last half of this article I will look at Muslim-Christian responses to 11 September and the ensuing bombing of Afghanistan as an example. Again, Norwegian reactions will be my vantage point.



Christian-Muslim Reactions to September 11 and its Aftermath


In his book The Clash of Civilisations (1997) Samuel Huntington argues that global con­flicts in the post-Cold War era will be increasingly defined by identity politics and coincide with the fault lines between culturally and religiously de­fined “civil­isations.” In Huntington’s view, this is particularly true of Western Christianity and Islam.


In my view, Huntington seriously underestimates the internal differences and conflicts within the so-called ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ civilisations. A closer look at reactions to September 11 and the ensuing ‘war on terrorism’ disproves Hun­tington’s theory rather than confirms it.


Five days after September 11, the Bishop of Oslo, the General Secretary of the Humanist Association, the Jewish Rabbi, and the vice-president of the Islamic Council stood “Together in grief” in an interfaith event which affirmed their joint rejection of religiously-motivated violence. Hand in hand, they sung “We Shall Overcome”.[5] In other Norwegian cities too there were similar symbolic events staged by Christians and Muslims together.[6]


Two weeks after September 11 the Contact Group between the Church of Nor­way and the Islamic Council had its regular meeting. A press release was formulated in which Christians and Muslims were encouraged to participate in each other’s grief and concern. Aware of the danger that Muslims in Norway might be victimised because of the terrorist attacks, Christians and Muslims were also encouraged to make contact on the local level. Conscious of the greater responsibility carried by the majority community, Church of Norway parishes were enjoined to take the initiative and to act as shields.[7]


In Norway official reactions to 11 September were nearly entirely united among Muslims and Christian leaders. But what happened after the US-led ‘war on terrorism’ was launched, with the bombing of Afghanistan as its first dramatic expression? In Norway the Islamic Council soon voiced their apprehension that the bombing campaign would only entail new innocent civilian losses.[8] Perhaps more surprisingly—in view of the fact that the Norwe­gian government unreservedly supported the bombing—several bishops reacted similarly.[9] On October 12, the Church of Norway’s Committee on International Issues went as far as to state that the bombing campaign was both “ethically doubtful and strategically unwise.” The Committee stated that in the struggle against terrorism, the call of the churches is always to side with the victims—either in the US or in Afghanistan—and, from the perspective of the victims to call for reconciliation.[10]


The next day the church committee’s resolution was the top news on the Islamic Council’s website. A few weeks later, converging Muslim and Christian views materialised as well in a joint letter from the imam of the largest Pakistani mosque in Oslo and the General Secretary of the Church of Norway’s Council on Ecumenical and International Relations. The letter was sent to Kjell Magne Bondevik, the Christian Democrat prime minister of Norway. In this letter Muslim and Christian leaders jointly criticised the government’s unreserved support for American policy, demanded a halt to the bombing for humanitarian reasons, and called for international responses to terrorism that do not inflict suffering on innocent civilians.[11] The focus was on vulnerability and the greater responsibility of the more powerful. It is interesting to note that two days before the mosque in question had expressed its abhorrence of the massacre of Christian worshippers in the Pakistani city of Bahawalpur. Their imminent protest showed a Muslim concern for the vulnerable other (Aftenposten (October 29, 2001)).


If Muslims and Christians could learn to interact on the basis of a shared concern for the vulnerable other, that would surely be a great step forward in the quest for global ethics. But the basic attitude of shared concern for the vulnerable other does not necessarily mean agreement on the level of applied ethics. Returning to Norwegian church leaders’ reactions to the bombing campaign, it must be added that their reactions were not unanimous. When the Synod met in mid-November, it had to recognise different moral judgements as to the legitimacy of the bombing campaign.


This could be described as a well-grounded moral disagreement, which probably also involved different evaluations on the factual level. In the light of the eventual fall of Taliban, many would contest the initial evaluation of the Church Com­mit­tee that the bombing campaign was “strategically unwise.” Apart from divergent views at the factual level, there was also the normative controversy between just war approaches of a more or less restrictive kind and more pacifist stands.


The interesting thing is that the moral disagreement in question did not in any way coincide with cultural and religious divides. Some Muslims and some Chris­tians joined hands against other Muslims and other Christians, who held different moral and political views on how terrorism should be com­bated. The same was true internationally. It should be noted that those who favoured the combating of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida by means of heavy bombing that threatened innocent civilians also did so on an interfaith basis. I am not primarily referring to the political alliance that was forged between the US government and important Muslim regimes in the region. The ethical component in that kind of alliances is not always crystal-clear. But also within the complex mix of power politics and alleged moral agendas an interfaith ethics of the face may be at work.


Let me cite but one example from the battlefield. The American captain Jason Amerine took part in covert operations on the ground together with the forces of Hamid Karzai, before the Taliban were defeated and Karzai became the new head of government. Before the eventual fall of the Taliban-held village they were attempting together to liberate, both Amerine and Karzai were lightly wounded by an American bomb which went astray. In an illustrated newspaper interview, Amerine speaks warm-heartedly of Karzai as a “comrade.”[12] In a photograph from the inauguration ceremony one could see Karzai in prayer with some dist­racted European observers in the background. As for Amerine, I do not know if he is among the Christian soldiers who celebrated the Eucharist on Afghan soil, or whether he is a Jew or a non-believer. In any case, the military anti-Taliban campaign was an interfaith campaign as good as any and as controversial as always. Obviously, there are good reasons for being suspicious of the alleged moral agenda of a superpower or of that of different factions in a civil war. But who am I to suggest that the alliance between the US and the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan was only motivated by ephemeral political considerations and not by some strong moral motives as well?


What I am suggesting is that both the bombing campaign and the protest against it may be taken as interfaith examples of moral disagreement. Not all parties would be ready to see the disagreement in question as ‘well-grounded’—in view of Christian or Islamic ethics. But globalisation implies that such disagreements on the level of applied ethics will increasingly be interfaith in nature: not in the sense of Christian versus Muslim views but in terms of controversial Muslim-Christian alliances that converge with corresponding intra-Muslim and intra­-Christian controversies.


Until now I have not mentioned Osama bin Laden. How does he fit into this picture, dead or alive? It is the task of Muslims to decide whether he and his like represent a well-grounded version of Islamic ethics. Most Muslim leaders who have spoken out state emphatically that he is not. But a not negligible minority of militant Muslims have supported his draconic views of divine justice. Muslims are often asked by Christian dialogue partners to be more liberal, for instance, in questions about gender relations. In this case, Muslims and Christians alike probably see the need to be more restrictive as to who is inside and who is out­side the respectable moral community.


For Western Christians, the main ethical challenge is perhaps of a different kind. A paramount challenge in the West is how to draw the line between Christian ethics and state logics, such as the power politics of a ‘great nation’ and its military allies who sometimes claim to have a moral agenda but act primarily on the principle of self-interest.


Conclusion: Muslim-Christian Concern for the Vulnerable Other


In conclusion, I would like to underline once more the importance of personal networks in both Muslim-Christian dialogue and global ethics endeavours. In acute crises such face-to-face networks show their real value. Recent events have demonstrated what an ethics of the face à la Levinas is all about: it has to do with recognising the vulnerability of the other in critical awareness of asymmetrical relationships which always leave the stronger party with a greater responsibility. A global ethics of the face invites us to recognise our shared vulnerability in shifting power relations.


While searching for ethical responses to the other’s vulnerability, one will also have to face moral disagreements. As long as interfaith partners recognise that divergent moral judgements are ‘well-grounded’, such controversies will not be antagonistic. As I see it, both Christians and Muslims need to become more generous in accepting that common values may lead to differing moral judgements. But the question of limits to acceptable positions and actions can never be suspended. On the contrary, the question of limits must now be ap­proached even more vigorously and on an interfaith basis. Linking Bexell’s theory with the ethics of the face, I will suggest that a moral view (or action) that does not respect the integrity and vulnerability of the other should not be con­sidered as well-grounded—either by Christians nor Muslims.


This is global ethics or, if one prefers, inductive universalism in ethics: not only the willingness to abide by some minimal human rights standards, not only the readiness to state some basic ‘global ethic’ attitudes but first and last the will to enter into concrete, moral alliances that are intercultural and interfaith in nature. If based on face-to-face relations, such alliances will be as morally binding as they are ethically controversial. In fact, they may entail a new kind of moral community.


What would be the role of Muslim-Christian dialogue in this process? In this article I have given an indirect answer by reflecting on Muslim and Christian responses to post-September 11 events. The implication of my reflections is that Muslims and Christians are challenged in a special way to develop a global ethics  of shared concern for the vulnerable other. In my introduction I said that global ethics can only be approached from somewhere. The ‘somewhere’ of Muslim-Christian dialogue is a shared legacy of spiritual as well as political competition for control in more or less the same geographical areas, paired with a solid stock of enemy images which have led Muslims and Christians to perceive each other as main antagonists. These images are still very much alive on both sides and must be carefully dismantled and disarmed if there will ever be a global ethics which is sensitive to the vulnerable other. This challenge can only be met by Muslims and Christians together in action.


Historically, both Christians and Muslims have had great difficulty in recognising shared values. They have had even more problems with recognising and ac­cepting well-grounded moral disagreement. And we have just recently embarked upon the task of putting up mutually binding limits to morally acceptable action. The time has come to tackle the questions of moral disagreement and limits to moral action together, as a contribution to a global ethics which is both obligating and generous.





Benhabib, Seyla. (1992). Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bexell, Göran. (1990). En välgrundad moraluppfattning.” In: Svensk Teologisk Kvartal­skrift 66: 145-153.

(1992). Kyrkan och etiken. Stockholm: Verbum.

Bexell, Göran and Carl-Eric Grenholm. (1997). Teologisk etikk. En introduktion. Stockholm: Verbum.

Eidsvåg, Inge and Oddbjørn Leirvik (eds). (1993). Fellesskapsetikk i et flerkulturelt Norge. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Eidsvåg, Inge and Lena Larsen (eds). (1993). Religion, livssyn og menneskerettigheter i Norge. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Gerle, Elisabeth. (1995). In Search of a Global Ethics: Theological, Political, and Femin­ist Perspectives based on a Critical Analysis of JPIC and WOMP. Lund: Lund University Press.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1997). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. London: Simon and Schuster.

Küng, Hans. (1991). Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (London: SCM Press 1991).

Küng, Hans and Karl-Josef Kuschel (eds). (1993). A Global Ethic: The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. London: SCM Press 1993.

Küng, Hans and Helmut Schmidt (eds.). (1998). A Global Ethic and Global Responsi­bili­ties: Two Declarations. London: SCM Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. (1985). Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Pitts­burgh: Duquesne University Press. Ch. 7: The Face.”

Levinas, Emmanuel. (1991). Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority. Dordrecht/Boston/Lon­don: Kluwer. Section III.B: Ethics and the Face.”


[1] Of Norway’s about 100,000 Muslims (2% of the population), in 2001 about 63,000 were members of a Muslim organisation in Norway.

[2] His book Projekt Weltethos (1990) was translated into English with the title: Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic (1991). The Norwegian translation was given the title Etikk for verdens fremtid (1991).

[3] In Küng and Schmidt 1998 Küng calls for  a globalization of ethics,” but only in terms of values and attitudes: no uniform ethical system but a necessary minimum of shared ethical values, basic attitudes and criteria to which all regions, nations and interest groups can commit themselves. In other words there is a need for a common basic human ethic”  (p. 105).

[4] In one of its concluding paragraphs (35), the 1993 Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” calls for the development of up-do-date codes of ethics” for as many professions as pos­sible, such as those of physicians, scientists, business people, journalists, and politicians.”


[5] Dagsavisen (September 17, 2001).

[6] See reports of interfaith events in Bergen and Kristiansand in Bergens Tidende 6 (October 2001) and Fædrelandsvennen 23 (October 2001).

[7] Published on the website of the Church of Norway, www.kirken.no (25 September 2001).

[8] Cf. their website, www.islam.no.

[9]    Biskopar krev bombestans,” Klassekampen (October 29, 2001).

[10]  www.kirken.no (October 18, 2001).

[11] Norske kristne og muslimer krever bombestans,” Aftenposten (October 31, 2001); cf.Ber Gud stoppe Bondevik,” Dagbladet (October 31, 2001).

[12] For  the following, see Aftenposten (December 23, 2001): 8.