Altinay: A duty to humanity

Civics often refers to the constellation of rights and responsibility which emanates from citizenship, and that constellation is, by now, well rehearsed and familiar to many. Yet, can we talk about global civics?

The basic question asks us whether we have any responsibilities toward the more than 6 billion people with whom we share the earth, even if they happen not to be our compatriots. Intimately related, is whether we can assume any rights by the mere fact that we are humans living in 2009. We may well decide that we do not have any responsibilities towards non-compatriots, but this decision ought to be a conscious decision after due deliberation, and not an implicit default option. Given how interdependent our lives have become, we cannot go through life — or years of Yale education — without some sort of a concerted effort to address this central question.

In the last few years, we have seen how the actions of one country can affect another. We have seen how financial engineering in the United States can change growth and jobs at every corner of the world; how carbon dioxide emissions from China can end up determining crop yields and livelihoods on island nations such as Kiribati or the Maldives, Bangladesh and Vietnam; and how an epidemic in Vietnam or Mexico can determine the rhythm of our public life in the U.S. or Western Europe. And there is no reason to assume that interdependence will not continue or even accelerate in the near future.

But for such an environment to be manageable, we need a good compass — a set of guiding principles — to navigate the terrain.

Think of it like driving: Each day millions of people drive at speeds over 50 miles per hour in a ton of metal extremely close to others who are doing the same thing. A slight move of the steering wheel would wreak havoc, but we cruise carefree, because we have reasonable expectations about the behavior of other drivers. These expectations, which serve to mitigate the theoretical risks of driving, can exist because people follow a set of laws, habits and conventions.

In an increasingly interdependent culture, where countries are changing policies and dancing carefully around one another, we need a corresponding framework to put our mind at relative ease. Part of that reference framework has to be a global civics, a system of conscious responsibilities which we are ready to take on after due deliberation, and the corresponding rights that we are ready to claim.

We should ask ourselves what responsibilities toward other human beings we are personally ready to commit to. We should discuss our working answers with our classmates, our friends and loved ones both on campus and off, in formal events like Master’s Teas or during casual strolls through campus. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention I recently did some of that introspection when I carried out a thought experiment on The Huffington Post about what our welcome message to the 7 billionth person should be. If anyone would like to discuss that issue further, I am happy to oblige.

Given Yale’s vision to be the leading global university, this conversation needs start at Yale. There need to be multiple forums to engage in thoughtful and collegial deliberations on what global civics may involve. If we let four years of Yale education to transpire without developing our own working answers to these vital questions, we would be failing ourselves and the institution. Bill Gates expressed dissatisfaction with his education at Harvard, and asked how it was possible for him not to have learned the amount of misery in the world during his time at Harvard. We would not want future generations to tell us that Yale has failed to provide them with the forums and the tools to discuss and figure out what their responsibilities are towards other fellow human beings, and to develop the requisite normative compass to navigate the treacherous waters of global interdependence. Yale can lead the way by making an organizational, normative commitment to being the first university which ensures that all of its graduates have their own working answers to these seminal questions.

Hakan Altinay is a Yale World Fellow and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.