#73 – Event Report – Ethics as Global Sustainability



Sebastiano MAFFETTONE, Professor of Political Philosophy, LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome

WANG Jianbao 王建宝 Director, Center for the Humanities and Business Ethics, Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business






Sustainability, in its various forms, has become the dominating concept of our era. As the world transitions through a range of different crises, the need for a sustainable society and economy keeps growing and affecting the ways in which actions are taken in these respective fields. An effective global governance for sustainability is also needed and achieving it is the responsibility of all countries; but considering the enormous range of bodies and the diversity of principles involved in this process, it becomes natural to ask, “which actions can, in fact, be considered ethical?”.


Professor Sebastiano Maffettone, professor of Political Philosophy at LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome, and doctor Wang Jianbao, director of the Center for the Humanities and Business Ethics at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing, addressed this question and raised some of the points in common with the diverging views present in the Western and Chinese discourses on ethics.


As explained by Maffettone’s historical description, the Western concept of “general sustainability” has consistently evolved since 1968, when the word was first introduced and only part of public ethics. A following step was linked to the need for making capitalism, which was not called into question for what it is but for its form, more “human”. Business ethics stepped in and the stakeholder analysis became the new analytical tool for developing a strategic view of the human and institutional landscape of a project and to enlarge the circle of individuals involved. The internalization of business ethics then brought the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), according to which business ethics is not adopted through a top-down process, but it is now based within the firm. Moving forward, social enterprises, which have both historically and conceptually arrived later than CSR, moved their focus form having a “social responsibility” to the need for directing a social mission. While more recently, social impact investing practices, which were also mentioned in the latest EU meeting as one of its main goals, seem to have the capability to achieve excellent results, which would include the establishment of ethics in the business world and the decentralization of welfare, but are, however, hampered by the difficulties encountered in bringing together financial and social targets.


All in all, what emerges from Maffettone’s speech is the fact that in order to achieve systemic sustainability, it is above all necessary to have stability within a just regime. A greater focus on a combination of different elements, such as environmental protection, technological innovation, education, etc., can be the means by which the three E0s on which sustainability is based – efficiency, equity and environment – can be obtained.



His colleague Wang Jianbao pointed out that there are three different challenges that we are currently facing. First of all, the enormous gap between the wealthy and the poor hasn’t narrowed down and political and economic policies, as well as humanitarian efforts, are needed to help everyone benefit from globalization. The second challenge concerns social mobility. In China, where about 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty, social mobility is not as big an issue as it is in the rest of the world, where it seems that a solution is still far from being found. Finally, the question of how to carry out a global development that is fari and equal for all as well as sustainable at the same time, still persists.


According to Wang Jianbao, what is substantially lacking is a sharable global values, since those concerning market economy and democracy have proved to be insufficient. The real challenge is therefore to be able to identify which of the principles and values already existing in today’s civilizations are appropriate for this purpose. In this sense, China could play a fundamental role. Understanding the identity of this country, which is ambiguous and complicated in the eyes of the outside world, could be the key to create a dialogue among civilizations and succeed in achieving sustainability beyond today’s mentality. In order to do so, it is first essential to grasp the ways and values of Confucianism, which shape the ideological structure of this country.



It is on this particular point that the debate between the two scholars opened. On the one hand, Maffettone believed that the principles of Confucianism, which are shared by different cultures, are at the same time only one of the ways to achieve a common global goal. On the other hand, Wang argued that Confucianism is not a strategy, but it is the goals itself, the organizing system according to which the good and the bad, black and white, can coexist. This debate highlighted the complex nature of this case and a single consensus to the issue is yet to be reached.



Report written by Chiara Cattaneo


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