Paul van Seters

Globus, Tias Business School, Tilburg University

April 2006

In recent years the Netherlands has witnessed a revival of the debate on values and norms. The main force behind this revival is Jan Peter Balkenende, who has been Prime Minister of the Netherlands since June 2002. Just a few months in office, Balkenende asked the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) to write a report on values and norms. The report was published in December 2003.


Balkenende, leader of the Christian Democratic Party since September 2001, is widely known for his communitarian sympathy. Yet his influence on the values-and-norms debate has hindered rather than helped to infuse this debate with a true communitarian spirit. This is also reflected in the report by the WRR. While the report presents a broader approach, and devotes considerable space to the liberalism–communitarianism dispute, its own blend of communitarian liberalism (or liberal communitarianism) does not help it to avoid a deficiency that is also typical of Balkenende’s perspective.


Balkenende and the WRR share an ethical perspective that looks at values and norms primarily within the geographic borders of national societies. But as we live in the age of globalization, such borders increasingly loose their significance. As a consequence, values and norms globalize as well. In this essay, several dimensions of the globalization of values and norms, or “moral globalization,” will be explored: content (by looking at the Earth Charter); practice (by looking at networks of INGOs like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and Jubilee 2000); and theory (by looking at recent academic literature such as Peter Singer’s One World: The Ethics of Globalization, Ikira Iriye’s Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World, Amitai Etzioni’s From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s A New World Order).

1.  A Dutch Debate


In September 2001, after a crisis in the top of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA, the main Christian Democratic political party in the Netherlands), the relatively unknown and inexperienced Jan Peter Balkenende was chosen as the new leader of the parliamentary party in the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament. Previously Balkenende had worked for the Scientific Institute of the CDA from 1984 to 1998, had been a part-time professor at the Free University in Amsterdam since 1993 (with a chair in Christian Social Thought), and had served as a Member of Parliament (Second Chamber) for the CDA since 1998. As the new parliamentary leader Balkenende in the media quickly developed the profile of a communitarian who was greatly concerned about values and norms: he used the label “communitarian” to describe his own position, frequently referred to the decline of values and norms in contemporary Dutch society, and pleaded for action to advance their restoration.


Balkenende was the natural choice to head the CDA-list for the general elections of May 2002. In the campaign for these elections he did remarkably well; he was one of the few to hold his ground against the rising star of Dutch politics, the populist Pim Fortuyn, who dominated this campaign with his newly formed party called List Pim Fortuyn (LPF). It is difficult to know for sure what has been the effect of the murder of Pim Fortuyn shortly before Election Day, but when the results were in CDA and LPF turned out to be the two big winners. During the formation period Balkenende could pocket his winnings, and in July 2002 he was sworn in as Prime Minister of a cabinet supported by CDA, LPF and the Dutch Liberal Party (VVD). Both the Strategic Accord underlying this coalition cabinet and the Declaration of Policy emphasized that the new government would take the theme of values and norms most seriously.


His own views on this subject Balkenende first systematically presented in a speech for the Christian-Social Congress on August 31, 2002. Politics, Balkenende said at that occasion, had to “recover a moral dimension.” The first task of any government is to “draw moral boundaries.” Because that task, over the past few years, had been neglected, society now increasingly looked like a “high-pressure cask with the tension rising.” And a government that “is not clear in the demarcation and protection of boundaries, undermines (…) society.” The consequences of this for Balkenende were clear: “People who behave purely as consumers of society. Parents who think that the government or the school has to take care of their children. Young people who profit from a policy of tolerance and cross the boundary all the time step by step. People who, deriving from other cultures, live in this country but who not really open themselves for our culture and our language.” Against this background Balkenende launched the idea of a special commission that would have to address these issues, based on the example of the Commission on Human Values that the Norwegian government had established in 1998. Such a commission could do “important work” to let values and norms “return in the center of the political and social arena.”


Balkenende’s speech got much attention in the Dutch media, but was also widely criticized. The plan for a special commission was quickly dropped, but the gist of the ideas presented at the Christian-Social Congress returned in a letter Balkenende sent to the Second Chamber a month later (October 4, 2002). In this letter the Prime Minister stated that his cabinet would follow three tracks regarding values and norms. First, “the debate would be further stimulated, visibly and through various methods”; citizens would be asked “what annoyed them most in their interaction with each other” and how they thought “that these annoyances could be removed.” Second, “cabinet ministers would investigate which concrete initiatives regarding values and norms they could take in their policy sector or which of the current initiatives they could highlight, broaden or strengthen.” The common denominator of these first two tracks according to Balkenende was the following: both tracks aim “especially in a practical sense at (…) the interaction citizens have with each other (‘decency, just do it’).”


The third track was to ask the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) for a report on values and norms. This idea had replaced the original plan for a special ethical commission Norwegian style. Although the first Balkenende-cabinet resigned shortly after October 4, 2002, the outgoing cabinet formally asked the WRR for a report through a letter of November 8, 2002. In this letter Balkenende repeated the two tracks of his letter to the Second Chamber. The third track he now specified as the need felt by his cabinet “to gain more insight into the underlying question about the fundamental values in our society.” That question was subdivided into three parts: “To begin with there is the question of the importance of common values for our society, respectively the question of which values in particular we have to think in that context.” In addition the WRR was asked to “deal with values in our society that are not generally shared respectively that are conflicting, whether connected to cultural differences or not, in relation to the question whether and to what extent the diversity of certain values must be deemed problematic from a social point of view.” Finally the WRR was asked “what implications all of this needed to have with respect to future public policy, like in the field of education, the field of the media, the field of citizenship training and integration etc.”


Obviously the first two tracks basically differ from the third track: the latter is much broader and more complex than the issue of common decency. Yet even this third track shows a certain narrowness or limitation. Balkenende explicitly related the three subquestions about the “fundamental values in our society” to essential social changes, and he mentioned three sociologically “relevant trends”: “individualization,” “demographic developments,” and “time-spending.” But these trends refer primarily to changes within the borders of a society, not to what happens beyond or across those borders and affects that society from outside. To the disappearance of those borders themselves, and how this affects the fundamental values of a society, these trends do not refer at all. The declining importance of boundaries of space and time that were once strictly adhered to, and the far-reaching effects this historical process has on modern societies, is generally known under the name of globalization. Globalization is indeed conspicuously absent from Balkenende’s ambitious ethical initiative.


This conclusion is not contradicted by the fact that Balkenende, in his letter to the WRR, explicitly asked to pay attention also to “discussions and studies abroad.” This suggestion rather illustrates Balkenende’s characteristic frame of mind, in which the decline and restoration of values and norms take place within the borders of national states or societies, and in which such nation-state societies can learn from each other’s experiences. But that is very different from looking at the question of values and norms in societies in which the most essential “trends” indicate that those borders blur, or even completely disappear.


In summary, Balkenende has played a leading part in the recent Dutch debate about values and norms, in which he has systematically emphasized two themes: (1) the central importance of the issue of “decency” (“decency, just do it”) and (2) the narrowing of the scope of the debate to what happens to societies within their national borders. What did the WRR do with the instruction handed to them by the Prime Minister?

2. Values, norms and behavior


Late in 2003 the WRR published its 300-page report entitled “Values, Norms and the Burden of Behavior” (in translation a Dutch play upon words is lost). The WRR justified the addition of “behavior” to “values and norms” by pointing out that it had felt the need to expand on the instruction in Balkenende’s letter to them of a year earlier. As formulated in the executive summary of the report: “The background [of the letter] was not just a feeling of insecurity about the communality of values and norms in our contemporary society. It was also about the fact that actual behavior often is not in accordance with these common values or with certain norms, legal or social. Annoyances about this are the basis of many discussions about values and norms.” For that reason the WRR in its report wanted to address two main themes: “(1) the issue of norm-violating behavior, decency of manners, and the not following of many, often ill-defined behavioral norms; and (2) the issue of the communality and diversity of values and how to deal with different systems of values and norms that are bound up with differences in culture.”


So the first main theme in the report had to do with connecting values and norms to behavior, to actual conduct. In this way Balkenende’s concern for “decency” was included by the WRR: the report referred to “annoyances” and “decent manners”; to “civility” and “politeness”; and to “accommodation and courtesy toward fellow citizens.” But the WRR’s interest in norm-violating behavior went much further than Balkenende’s decency-just-do-it. The WRR distinguished four types of norm-violating acts: unpleasant, improper, intolerable, and illegal acts. These diverging modes of norm-violating behavior were, of course, linked to diverging modes of responding. The WRR distinguished three such types: tolerate; discuss and confront; and forbid and uphold. Types of behavior and types of response were intertwined. This differentiated approach allowed the WRR to pay attention to much more than common decency, but also to address the question about the fundamental values of our society with more nuance.


The second main theme in the report concerned the problem of the communality and variety of values and norms. The WRR assumed that a (certain) communality of values and norms is a necessary condition for any society; at the same time it considered the (increasing) variety of values and norms to be characteristic for a modern society. Therefore a country like the Netherlands always has to aim for a combination of the two: communality and variety. As stated in the executive summary of the report: “A modern society faces the task to fuse the great amount of variety with sufficient unity and communality.” The WRR underlined the intrinsic relation between communality and variety: “The values of the democratic constitutional state and those of an open society form a common core that makes the variety of values possible and that even supports certain values substantively. At the same time, that core makes it possible to preserve sufficient consensus about the way in which value conflicts have to be settled.”


Some of the arguments for this inclusive position the WRR derived from the historical political-philosophical debate between liberals and communitarians. The report held that “communitarianism was searching, so to speak, for a middle course between liberalism and conservatism.” With respect to moral issues (e.g., family values, abortion, patriotism), conservatives advocated a strong state in order to redress the current decline of values and norms. Liberalism and communitarianism could be understood as separate criticisms of this conservative position. Liberals emphasized the neutrality of the state in moral affairs in order to preserve a zone of individual freedom against public interference. Communitarians emphasized the dependence of individuals on communities, also for their values, and this required not a strong state, but rather a strong social order. Strong communities could infuse the social order with strong moral values and norms.


For the WRR, the key idea here was the need to integrate the two perspectives. In the end, the report stated, “the highly charged differences between liberalism and communitarianism would not have to lead to radically opposed positions”:


"Both traditions have the highest respect for the democratic constitutional state as the indisputable foundation for the design of the good life, however much the ideas about this good life, and about the values to be respected therein, can diverge. In this way the democratic constitutional state offers the common point of departure for a plurality of different values. The constitutional state offers room for pluralism, represents itself important values too, like those that are laid down in human rights and different laws, and offers plenty opportunities to resolve countless, inevitable disputes about values and norms and about the concrete interpretations and realizations of these values and norms."


The dynamics of the communality and variety, of the unity and diversity, of values and norms distinguishes the position of the WRR from that of Balkenende. Unlike Balkenende, the WRR sees common values and norms in contemporary modern society not as the opposite of values and norms that are not commonly shared respectively that conflict; rather, both categories are in many ways interconnected, and together they constitute the system of values and norms typical for a modern multifarious society. The WRR first and foremost acknowledges the heterogeneity of the current Dutch system of values and norms. Compared to Balkenende’s one-dimensional communitarianism, the WRR advances a richer blend of communitarian liberalism or liberal communitarianism.


The WRR nonetheless shares certain shortcomings with Balkenende. To begin with, the WRR is remarkably silent about the sociological context (Balkenende’s social trends). “Internationalization” (not mentioned by Balkenende) and the “European Union” (ibidem) are referred to once or twice, but do not really figure in the analysis. The word “globalization” is completely absent from the report. Today’s values and norms may be radically heterogeneous, for the WRR too these values and norms seem to be part of a society that is enclosed by conventional national borders. That the increasing variety and plurality of values and norms in modern societies is related to the decline in importance, or even the total disappearance, of these borders—that message is not part of the WRR report.


To summarize our review of the values-and-norms debate so far, compared to Balkenende the WRR has raised the level of the debate, and has improved upon Balkenende’s contribution, in two important ways: (1) values and norms are relevant for all kinds of norm-violating behavior, not just for matters of common decency; (2) contemporary modern societies are characterized by systems not of homogeneous but of heterogeneous values and norms. With respect to a third point, however, the WRR stays close to Balkenende: values and norms are locked up within the borders of national states or societies. The idea of values and norms that move across those borders, and that interconnect societies and communities all over the world, is nowhere to be found in the report. In this respect the WRR merely extends Balkenende’s inward perspective.



Balkenende’s communitarianism only seems to have reinforced this short-sightedness. For the WRR, the communitarian tradition is open to certain liberal values, in particular those that are associated with the democratic constitutional state. But neither Balkenende nor the WRR seem to be aware of the communitarian aspects of the process of globalization, in particular the rise of a global community and the attendant globalization of values and norms. In the last section of this essay, we shall look at three distinct aspects or cases of this process of moral globalization.

3. Moral globalization


The first case concerns the Earth Charter, the ambitious “declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century.” The Earth Charter was initiated in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations, the Brundtland Commission. At the UN Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (the first Earth Summit), work on the Earth Charter got stuck in a preparatory stage. In 1994 Maurice Strong, Secretary General of the Rio Summit, and Mikhail Gorbachev, in his role of Chairman of the International Green Cross, with support from the Dutch government undertook a new initiative. As a result of this an Earth Charter Commission was established in 1997, with members representing all continents of the world. The Earth Charter Secretariat was accommodated by the Earth Council in Costa Rica. On June 29, 2000, the Earth Charter was officially launched during a meeting in the Peace Palace in The Hague.


The Charter purports to be “an authoritative synthesis of values, principles, and aspirations that are widely shared by growing numbers of men and women in all regions of the world.” The idea of the global nature of the enterprise is central: “[The Earth Charter] seeks to inspire in all peoples a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family and the larger living world.” In total the Earth Charter contains 16 norms (with in total 60 sub-norms), derived from the following 4 values: respect and care for the community of life; ecological integrity; social and economic justice; democracy, non-violence, and peace.


The launch in The Hague started a new phase in the life of the Earth Charter. Its mission is “to establish a sound ethical foundation for the emerging global society and to help build a sustainable world based on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.” More concretely, its goals at the moment are: to promote the dissemination and implementation of the Charter by civil society, business, and government; to encourage and support the educational use of the Charter in schools, universities, faith communities, and many other settings; and to seek endorsement of the Charter by the UN. But apart from its content, the Earth Charter reflects the globalization of values and norms especially because of the way in which it came about. The drafting of the Charter, it is claimed, “has involved the most open and participatory consultation process ever conducted in connection with an international document.” Hence it is not too farfetched to see the Earth Charter as the embodiment of the morality of the incipient global community.


The second case concerns the influence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs). According to estimates of the Union of International Associations in Brussels, there exist at the moment worldwide some 50.000 INGOs and some 20.000 transnational networks of INGOs. About 90% of this army of social organizations (and their networks) originated after 1970. The spectacular rise in the number of INGOs has contributed in significant ways to the dissemination of moral values and norms on a world scale. Take the example of the landmines. In the ’90s of the last century more than 1.000 INGOs were involved in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). ICBL is an advocacy coalition composed of human rights, mine clearance, humanitarian, children’s, veterans’, medical, development, arms control, religious, environmental, and women’s groups. In 1997 this campaign culminated in the signing of the Ottawa Convention (Convention on the Prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of antipersonnel mines and on their destruction, commonly referred to as the Mine Ban Treaty). In the same year ICBL and its coordinator, Jody Williams from Canada, received the Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile more than 150 countries have signed the Treaty. At the moment ICBL comprises more than 1.400 INGOs from some 90 countries.


Or take the INGOs that were involved in establishing the International Criminal Court. In 1995 Bill Pace, Director of the World Federalist Movement, and Christopher Hall, Legal Advisor of Amnesty International, created a new network of INGO’s, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC). The International Criminal Court came into being on July 17, 1998, in Rome when a huge majority of the 160 countries present approved the Statute of Rome. At that time CICC counted some 800 INGOs, 236 of which had one or more representatives in Rome. The CICC delegation was larger than that of any of the 160 countries. After ratification the International Criminal Court has opened its doors in The Hague on July 1, 2002. Today more than 2.000 INGOs participate in CICC.


Or take Jubilee 2000, the global campaign in the ’90s of the previous century to cancel the debt of the poorest countries. The campaign was initiated by retired diplomat Bill Peters and retired professor Martin Dent, both from the United Kingdom. In 1996 the campaign was officially launched, directed by Ann Pettifor and supported by a motley coalition of social organizations that soon developed into a global network of INGOs. In December 2000 the petition asking the rich countries to cancel the debt was signed by 24 million people from some 170 countries, the first global petition ever. At that moment the G7 had cancelled $110 billion of debt of a total of 20 countries. Meanwhile Jubilee 2000 was supported by autonomous groups in more than 65 countries. These groups after December 2000 have continued their own campaigns unwearyingly.


So the second case shows the instrumental role of transnational networks of INGOs—like ICBL, CICC and Jubilee 2000—in the promotion and dispersion of a truly global morality.


The third case has to do with theorizing about moral globalization. The philosopher Peter Singer in 2002 published a book tellingly entitled One World: The Ethics of Globalization. According to Singer, vested academic ethics is highly determined by the borders of national states and the central role of governments therein. Exploring four typical globalization themes (climate change; the role of the World Trade Organization; human rights and humanitarian intervention; and foreign aid), he discusses the ethical consequences of the fact that these national borders, and the state centrism they foster, increasingly blur and that all people on this planet increasingly share one and the same world. He argues that the new global society, which connects people across the globe and makes them interdependent, constitutes the material basis for a new ethic. That new ethic has to accommodate the interests of all persons that live on our planet; he claims that no previous ethic, much rhetoric notwithstanding, has succeeded in this. For that reason he advocates a moral philosophy that is based not upon national borders, but on the idea of one world. Hence Singer’s exercise in philosophy can be read as a theoretical reflection on the globalization of moraity.


In 2002 the historian Akira Iriye published a book entitled Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World. Iriye claims that the “global community” is not just an idea that has been around for a long time, but that in today’s world it has become a reality. He looks in great detail at the emergence, growth, and activities of international organizations—both governmental and nongovernmental—from the end of the 19th century to the present. As the standard academic literature on international relations deals mainly with interstate affairs (politics, war, diplomacy, etc.), he feels justified to focus on the creative role that international organizations have played in determining the shape of our modern world: “While states have been preoccupied with their own national interests, such as security and prestige, international organizations have been engaged in promoting cultural exchange, offering humanitarian assistance, extending developmental aid, protecting the environment, and championing human rights.” By making the world more interdependent and peaceful, he argues, international organizations have directly and importantly contributed to the evolution of the global community and global consciousness. Thus Iriye’s historical study adds substance to a theory of moral globalization.


More recently, in 2004, the sociologist Amitai Etzioni published a book entitled From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations. Opposed to both conservative and liberal ways of thinking, Etzioni in this book promotes a public philosophy which he describes as “an international form of communitarianism.” He discusses the global normative synthesis of core values that currently evolves out of multiple dialogues between Eastern and Western civilizations. According to him, this reflects a trend that he refers to as the emergence of a “transnational community” or “new global society.” Beyond this general trend toward a global normative synthesis, he sees a process enabling people from different regions of the world to achieve shared moral understandings on specific issues: “These issues range from values that drive the movement to ban land mines, to the quest to curb the warming of the Earth, the condemnation of child pornography, and the opposition to invading sovereign countries.” A key idea in this context is that of “moral dialogue.” In his definition, “[m]oral dialogues occur when a group of people engage in a process of sorting out the values that should guide their lives.” In the new global society, moral dialogues are no longer mainly intranational but increasingly transnational. So Etzioni’s new book provides a true communitarian perspective on the globalization of morality.


Also in 2004, the international law scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter published a book entitled A New World Order. Current public and academic discussions of globalization, Slaughter argues, have been preoccupied with two major shifts: from national to global and from government to governance. She claims a third shift is much more important: from the unitary state to the disaggregate state. The influence of traditional international organizations created by unitary sovereign states is waning. Substituting for these, a myriad of transnational networks of regulators, judges, and legislators—representing not their national state but their own regulatory agencies, ministries, courts, and legislatures—express the reality of the new decentralized or disaggregate state. Examples of such government networks are the Financial Stability Forum, International Competition Network, World Intellectual Property Organization, Parliamentarians for Global Action, Commission on Environmental Cooperation—to name a few. Against this background, her main thesis is that we not just should have a new world order, but that we already do have one. That is to say, her account of modern global governance is both strongly empirical and strongly normative. Clearly Slaughter’s new world order deals with important legal aspects of the theory of moral globalization.


These books by Singer, Iriye, Etzioni, and Slaughter offer an intellectual challenge and an urgent message. Perhaps it is not too ambitious to consider them as philosophical, historical, sociological, and legal building blocks for a grander theory of moral globalization, the same way in which one might see some of the content of global morality in initiatives like the Earth Charter, and some of its practices in the actions of transnational networks like the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, and Jubilee 2000.


Contribution of mr.dr. J.P. Balkende to the conference “Man in his entirety,” organized by the Foundation Christian-Social Congress, Doorn, August 31, 2002 (manuscript).


Letter of Balkenende to the Second Chamber of October 4, 2002, www.minaz.nl.


Letter of Balkenende to the WRR of November 8, 2002, www.minaz.nl.


WRR, Waarden, normen en de last van het gedrag (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003).




Michael Edwards, Civil Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004), p. 23.








Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).


Akira Iriye, Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).


Amitai Etzioni, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).


Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).


The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052