Moral Imagination and the Fate of the World

I don't remember many times--or, really, any times--when the global economy seemed as precarious as it seems now. So it was with great interest that, earlier this summer, I sat down to see an unveiling of the world's possible economic futures.

This was in Istanbul, where I was attending the consulting firm A.T. Kearney's annual CEO retreat, which in spirit and purpose is kind of like the World Economic Forum in Davos, except much smaller and more intimate. (No, I'm not a CEO; I was on the "faculty," which means--full disclosure--that I got an honorarium.) Erik Peterson of Kearney was unveiling the results of a "scenario planning" exercise, charting out four possible scenarios and explaining what variables they depend on.

TopGear.JPG It reminded me of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," when the ghost of Christmas future visits Scrooge and makes it clear that which future unfolds will depend on the moral fiber of the central character. Except in this case the central character was, instead of Scrooge, all of humanity. I don't mean that Peterson said the economic salvation of the planet depends on humanity's moral character. That's my take, reading between the lines. But I think my take is defensible. Here goes.

When Peterson laid out four possible future scenarios--ranging from "Terminus" (the apocalypse, more or less) to "Top Gear" (capitalist nirvana)--it struck me that one of the key determining variables was whether policymakers get their act together. In the Top-Gear scenario economic leaders the world around coordinate their policies, and in Terminus they can't even make good policy at the national level, much less coordinate it with other nations.

Now here's the thing about policy makers: they have in recent decades become less and less autonomous. Thanks largely to new information technologies, they're more constrained by public opinion, by immediate and powerful popular feedback. And I contend that whether they are "allowed" by their constituencies to pursue wise policies will depend on their constituencies' moral character in a certain specific sense.

Consider the European currency crisis. Suppose you transformed the German and Greek prime ministers--and for that matter all the other leaders in the Eurozone--into autocrats, giving them complete control over their nations' policies, leaving them fearless of public disapproval. If you put all these dictators in a room, they could probably work out a long-term solution to the Euro crisis that would serve the interests of all their nations.

Terminjs.JPG Sure, it might annoy Angela Merkel that Germany has to essentially forgive some debt owed by Greece, a country that she probably considers to have made the bed it's lying in. And, sure, whatever conditions Germany attached to the forgiveness might chafe on the Greek Prime Minister. But both would realize that to a large extent they're in the same boat, so doing this deal, however sub-optimal it might seem to both, is better than doing no deal at all. So finally we might see something we haven't seen so far--a long-term solution rather than a series of stopgap measures.

However, Europe's leaders aren't autocrats, so they have to make policy with popular reaction in mind. And there are lots of people in both countries who are inclined to focus less on the "we're in the same boat" part than on the "they're the problem and we're not" part. And (with the assistance of politicians eager to exploit this attitude) they are able to conjur up some unflattering images of people on the other side of this us/them divide. I was in Greece this summer, and a Greek cab driver told me that German leaders want to be a kind of "mafia" that runs Europe.

I don't have a detailed plan for how you would change popular opinion in a way that gave more leeway to national leaders. But it would definitely involve making people better at putting themselves in the shoes of people in other nations--Greeks imagining that they're Germans, Germans imagining that they're Greeks.

I'm not talking about empathy as that word is commonly understood. You don't reach reasonable compromises with people because you feel their pain. You reach reasonable compromises because you recognize what would seem reasonable if you were in their shoes.

For example: If you're German you might realize that if you were in a country with astronomical unemployment, it wouldn't seem reasonable to commit yourself to endlessly austere fiscal policies that are manifestly making things worse. And if you're Greek you might realize that if you were in Germany's shoes, and were about to forgive a large amount of debt (or at least do something that, one way or another, is tantamount to that), you'd probably want something significant in the way of long-term commitments. That's only human nature, and, even if the impulse needs tempering in this case, exhibiting it isn't a sign that you want to be a "mafia" that runs Europe.

I call this particular form of perspective taking--seeing things as they're seen from the perspective of someone in circumstances very different from your own, particularly someone on the other side of some cultural, national, or ethnic divide--"moral imagination." (That term has been defined various other ways by various other people, though no definition seems to have stuck).

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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