Thinking about those “American values”.

It’s July 4th, or Independence Day in the United States. Given its placement in the summertime, it is one of this county’s favorite holidays. This year, however, with so much distressing churn in American politics and so much of the country immersed in a remarkably callous culture war against “the other” and against those who are the most marginalized and most vulnerable, it may seem to American citizens that there is far less to celebrate and much more to worry about than in years past.

We now have a Congress that shows little inclination to deliberate on what the common good is, or how best to achieve and sustain it. We have a Supreme Court that appears to have no interest at all in avoiding deeply partisan, right-of-center judgments that undercut women’s bodily autonomy, erode voting rights, and expand the influence of Big Money to distort the will and interests of average and less affluent citizens. And, we have an executive branch that is desperate for younger, more visionary, and more accountable leadership that is unquestionably committed to protecting and promoting democratic values.

As America’s only nonprofit practitioner organization of international development ethicists, democratic values and the quality of governance are prime concerns for the Center for Values in International Development (C4V). As ethicists, however, we operate with one foundational moral commitment: to recognize and respect the universal, equal, and inalienable human dignity of every person. In our view, holding that moral stance puts us on the best pathway to supporting solidarity, care, peace, and development. In C4V’s view, all of us are “developing countries”.

With our roots in philosophy, C4V takes guidance from the Stoics who argued that differences and diversity between and among persons should never impede our ability to see the humanity and dignity in all persons. The fostering and protection of that type of moral community ought to take highest priority in governance and be central in the work of international development.

Moral community? Solidarity? Dignity? To many Americans, these are abstractions viewed best as a distraction, or simply as irrelevant or naive. Our national creed seems to be unapologetically utilitarian and self-interested, with “efficiency and effectiveness” being the gold standard. So many of us glorify and yearn for the prodigious wealth and power acquisition enjoyed by the elites in our society. The gap between the wealthy and the poor grows wider, faster, and the intensity of human and environmental suffering grows.

For reasons that elude us, most Americans lack the political and moral will to take credible, responsible, and caring action to reverse these trends. Capitalism and utilitarian standards of public policy make a mockery of human rights principles, and most Americans in leadership and in STEM-based academia cynically dismiss or conveniently ignore the groundwork of universal human dignity upon which those human rights rest. Are we as Americans really ready to abandon any notions of forging that moral community of solidarity and commitment to the common good – ethical principles that this country was founded on?

On this Independence Day, it is helpful to observe that those of us engaged in international development’s reinvention are trying to reconceptualize – explicitly or not – the moral values that define our relationship with colleagues in the less affluent parts of the world commonly termed “the Global South”. No longer clinging to the pretense of being the “white savior” agent of charity and benevolence, many of us now seek terms of partnership with the people of the Global South in international development work that is far more reciprocal and mutually respectful.

In such a process of reinventing foreign aid and international development, how we see ourselves as a nation and how we forge the institutions that support international development have everything to do with our moral sense of identity, with the clarity of defining our goals, and with how we justify the means by which we pursue such results. In this context and as Americans, when we meet with our international development colleagues around the world, we ought never to be reticent to share our perspective on the moral values that we hold most dear. Sharing our values is not the same as imposing our values, but it is the start of a reciprocal relationship of mutual respect and mutual learning. Moral consciousness, moral clarity, ethical action, a deep sense of caring and interdependency, and accountability – all these ethical norms ought to be key factors in such a process of partnership in international development.

Such considerations almost never arise explicitly in the work of international development practitioners and their funders and institutions. USAID, the World Bank, and most philanthropies have no ethicists on their staff. Moral vocabulary is thin; public service, integrity, and leadership based on a vision of a morally better world are notions that rarely find space in international development. Human rights are framed only as laws and treaties to be protected, not ideals to be promoted. Even in this constrained approach, our development institutions limit their focus on civil and political human rights. The whole panoply of moral thinking that underpins human rights is ignored, and the cultural, economic, and social human rights are seldom even spoken of. As development practitioners, if we are truly committed to universal human dignity, we ought to apply the entire range of human rights – legally and morally – in support of human development and well-being. 

Let’s start with carving out some time today to think about what “American values” are, and what they ought to be. That reflection will serve us well as we return to our work tomorrow, or Monday if we have generous employers, in making international development as humane and caring as possible.

Chloe Schwenke, Ph.D.

President and founder

Photo Credit: iStock

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