Moral Imagination and the Fate of the World

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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).

Flatline.JPGThere are several reasons I think the word "moral" is appropriate here, but for now I'll just mention one. I'm a utilitarian, more or less, which means I believe that, all other things being equal, that which increases overall human welfare is morally good. And what I'm calling moral imagination tends to increase human welfare.

That's because when two parties see things from each other's perspective, it's easier for them to successfully play non-zero-sum games--that is, games that don't necessarily have a win-lose outcome, but can have win-win or lose-lose outcomes, depending on how they're played. And the more successfully non-zero-sum games are played--the more win-win outcomes there are--the more human welfare will increase.

The Eurozone crisis is a good example of a non-zero-sum game. The various members of the union are to a large extent in the same boat: their future fortunes are to some degree positively correlated, and you can imagine scenarios where they all win and scenarios where they all lose.

Of course, the Eurozone crisis is far from the only non-zero-sum game in the headlines. There's Israel-Palestine, Iran-and-the-West, etc. In all such cases you can imagine outcomes that would be bad for both sides, and you can imagine alternatives that would be much better for both sides. And the latter, the win-win outcomes, are, I contend, easier to reach if moral imagination is exercised robustly.

But again--and this is the good news--that doesn't mean we need to see a lot of deep interethnic or international bonding. It isn't necessary for Israelis and Palestinians to get misty-eyed when they imagine each other's suffering (though that might help). What's necessary is that they understand the naturalness and reasonableness of, say, the Palestinian quest for dignity on the one hand, or Israeli fears about security on the other. They just need to understand, intellectually, that if they were in the shoes of that person on the other side of the fence, they would see the world much as the person does, and would behave accordingly, however jarring some of this behavior might seem to an outsider. I'm not saying this is easy, or that it involves no emotional work. But it's easier than loving someone you've thought of as an enemy for decades.

Ctrl-Alt-Delete.JPG[Tangential footnote you can skip if you're just dying to get to the next non-tangential paragraph: To say that something is a non-zero-sum game isn't to say there are no zero-sum dynamics. There are various deals between, say, Germany and Greece that are win-win in the sense of being better for both parties than no deal at all. And, among these win-win deals, some are better for Germany than others, and some are better for Greece than others. This is why bargaining happens in non-zero-sum games.]

I actually gave a little talk about this moral imagination thing at the Kearney retreat. And I can't say that lots of CEOs responded by vowing to give away all their possessions and devote their lives to mending dangerous social fault lines.

Still, it was heartening to see how often, in the course of the retreat, these CEOs wound up discussing subjects that went beyond just making money, and involved things like resource scarcity, climate change, etc. You see this kind of thing at Davos, too, and I don't think it's all window dressing (even if some of it is). I think it reflects an understanding by some capitalists that it's harder to make money when the world is going to hell. To put it in slightly overdramatized terms: they're perceiving a kind of positive correlation between--which is to say a non-zero-sum relationship between--their bottom line and the fate of humankind.

I may be projecting here. After all, if capitalists see that they have a stake in humanity's future, and if I'm right that a healthy future depends on the expansion of moral imagination, then capitalists might eventually put major resources in the service of this goal. Then my hobby horse--moral imagination--will be off to the races!

But even if I'm overstating the extent to which capitalists see, or will ever see, the connection between moral progress and their bottom lines, at least (IMHO) the connection is there. And I'd rather live in a world in which enlightened self-interest could in theory bring salvation than a world in which even that isn't enough.

[Note: I'll be on vacation--and in fact totally off the grid--until Thursday, Aug. 30. So I won't be reading any comments before then, but I hope to have plenty to read when I get back.]
[Photo credits: Screenshots from video presentation by A.T. Kearney.]

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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