Thought Leaders Forum: What Is Distinct About Our Era?

Thought Leaders Michael Walzer, Jonathan Haidt, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Mary Robinson, Jonathan Sacks, Ian Bremmer, Joseph Nye, Kishore Mahbubani, Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, Louise Arbour, Andrew Nathan, Robert Kaplan, Brent Scowcroft, and Enrique Penalosa describe what's morally distinct about our era.

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Comment by Ted Howard on May 31, 2015 at 9:39pm

Penalosa says "we are all passengers on spaceship earth and all share a destiny". Kind of, yes. And it is much more complex than that. We have the ability to support a flowering of diversity, abundance and cooperation that spreads far beyond this planet; but most of our social and cultural systems (including most of our ethical principals) are firmly based in a context of scarcity, that was indeed common in our past, but with automation need not be with us in the future. Will enough people be able to see that to prevent our self destruction? I am cautiously optimistic.

Comment by Ted Howard on May 31, 2015 at 9:38pm

Walzer says "Can't get worse than Hitler and Stalin" to which I respond do you want to make a bet?
Haidt say we have seen the "end of threat of nuclear war and the threat of global domination by force" to which I respond - No. I don't see that at all! The nuclear weapons are still there, they are proliferating. This risk has not gone away. At one level the risk has reduced somewhat, and at other levels it continues to increase.
Appiah says it is about the "flow of information" and I say yes - but still to easy to stop. Our information systems are too centralised, too easily censored and controlled, too easily distorted.
Robinson says "more connected yet growing divides", to which I say yes, that is a major threat!!! Not everyone can have private helicopters, fast cars, submarines, mega-yachts; and we can ensure that everyone has safe housing, clean water, healthy food, communications, freedom of travel, access to education, etc. Deliver the basics to all, and everything else will sort itself out.
Sacks says it is about "the immediacy with which we encounter people with radically different world views", which is true, and in logic must get more so. If freedom means anything, it means the freedom to explore the infinite realms of the possible, the knowable (in the probabilistic sense of knowledge, not the absolute sense). If all people have such freedom, then by definition diversity will increase, and keep on increasing. Get used to it. Develop a tolerance for diversity, a love of diversity.
Bremmer says "much less of a single moral guidepost", and an "inability to agree ethics internationally leads to lowest common denominator". It certainly can do, certainly does in an adversarial environment. In a cooperative environment these things can be transcended.
Nye says "extraordinary complexity", oh yes, and you "aint seen nothin' yet"!
Mahbubani says "best of times, greatest improvement in standards of living" which has some truth, and is not universally or equally true. Many are now going backwards, as the economic system responds to abundance with "austerity", as a kind of self defence mechanism to retain sufficient scarcity to keep the system working.
MacKinnon says "reality is becoming more virtual" the two are intertwined, yes. And it is hard to beat the refresh rate on reality.
Zuckerman says "imaginary globalisation, reality not necessarily so" - agreed.
Arbor says "consciousness of the disconnect between our values, our aspirations and our capabilities, and our deliverables. Very conscious of falling short." This has to do with the incentive structures in the systems we have adopted. We need to stop using markets as our prime valuation tool, and create systems which deliver genuine abundance to all of all essentials, and then actively facilitate cooperation and consensus in all spheres of activity.
Nathan says a "critical time for human rights". Which I respond "kind of". More of a critical time for depth of thought. If people remain wedded to the systems of our cultural past, rather than exploring the new systemic territory available to us, then the results are unlikely to be pretty.
Kaplan says "Increasing lack of central authority". To which I respond, that is not a problem, it is a trend that needs to increase. It needs to be coupled with growing tolerance of diversity, empowerment of individuals, and a universal respect for sapient life and the systems which make it possible.
Scowcroft says "most of world history, the bulk of the world's population didn't engage in the political process. They lived small locally ordered lives. Now people can see it doesn't have to be that way." Agreed!!! Question then becomes, how do we adapt our systems which evolved in that prior age to actually encourage and support this new diversity.

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