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Values to Guide Economies


Opening Address of the Global Economic Symposium 2015

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Dennis J. Snower1

Opening Address


The overarching theme of the GES 2015 is "Values to Guide Economies."

Moral values are principles that induce people to cooperate. The world desperately needs more cooperation. For the more interconnected we become, economically and technologically, the more interconnected our problems become as well. Some of our most intractable problems are global in reach and unprecedented in form:

  • Natural upheavals: Climate change, biodiversity loss and depletion of critical resources threaten to make the world inhospitable.
  • Technological upheavals: Big Data and Smart Machines may replace much of the currently unskilled, blue-collar and routine white-collar work, and our technological capabilities may outrun our psychological adaptability.
  • Demographic and social upheavals: The massive increase in the world's human population - especially in poor and politically unstable countries - together with weapons proliferation and climate change, is beginning to create extraordinary waves of migration and social disruption.


These may all be called "problems without borders." They can be addressed only by trans-national and trans-cultural cooperation.

However we live in a world of national, cultural and religious borders, many of which are being drawn more sharply as time goes on. Religious and ethnic conflicts are on the increase. Rising inequality within and across countries is creating new borders of identity.

  • Can we find a common set of moral values across our many borders?
  • Can such universal values deliver the cooperation required by our problems without borders?


The Quest for Common Values

Among experts in relevant disciplines, there is broad agreement on the answers to these two questions.

Yes, we can find a common set of moral values by which most of the world's people feel bound. These values recognize the importance of love for our neighbor, care for the vulnerable, fairness in dealing with our equals, loyalty to the social groups offering us support, exercising power responsibly, resisting domination and preserving our liberty, promoting achievement and personal growth, and seeking mental, physical and spiritual health. Such values are the universals that appear among people around the world.

Regarding the second question - Can our universal values by themselves induce us to cooperate across borders? - the answer however appears to be No. The reason is that many of our values are in conflict with one another, and there is no agreement on which values are to be applied to which situations.

This becomes clear when we consider the sources of morality, meant to give legitimacy to our moral judgments and specify their application.

Four major sources of morality have been affirmed:

  1. Do what God or some moral authority enjoins you to do. This is the approach of some religions.
  2. Be a good person. This approach, virtue ethics, allows for multiple virtues, such as Christianity's Principal Seven Virtues or Buddhism's Eightfold Noble Path.
  3. Do what is right. This approach, such as Kant's categorical imperative, generates all our conceptions human rights, animal rights and environmental rights.
  4. Do what leads to the best consequences. For example, Bentham's utilitarianism enjoins us to maximize the utility of the society, defined as the arithmetic sum of all individuals' expected utilities. This approach dominates the discipline of economics and the policy advice that flows from it.

However, these sources have not been successful in creating uniformity in the application of our values. None of these approaches tells everyone unambiguously what to do in all circumstances. In the course of our daily lives, each of us follows multiple - often conflicting - moral directions: sometime we follow religious precepts, sometimes virtues; sometimes we do what we think is right, sometimes what will lead to good consequences. The conflicts among our principles, along with the resulting moral anguish, are a common human experience.

Dissonant Application Principles

Different people apply common moral values differently to different situations. It is easy to see why this is so. The function of morality is to regulate our social relationships. Different social relationships are regulated by different moral values. The relationship between mother and infant is often governed by the value of Care. The relationship among business partners tends to shaped by the value of Fairness. Soldiers to their commander by Loyalty. Bosses to their employees by Authority. Congregants to their revered figures by Sanctity. Insurgents to tyrants by Liberty.

Since the same broad types of social relationships are found in most societies - parent-child, buyer-seller, leader-follower, competitor-competitor, and so on - it is not surprising that we find striking similar basic moral values for people worldwide. But different people are embedded in different social relationships, and consequently they apply their moral values differently.

Conflict arises despite common values because people apply different values to their community members than to strangers and enemies. The inhabitants of warring countries are all benevolent to their own families; war occurs because they are not benevolent to one another. The revenge killer deals with his victim by applying the value of Reciprocal Fairness; while the victim's family pursues the value of Care.

This is why appeals to our conscience, our virtues, our sense of justice, and our understanding of consequences are so ineffective in overcoming our conflicts.

Breaking Down Our Social Boundaries

The implication of this argument is clear. To tackle our global problems, we must seek not universal values – which we already have – but the dismantling of our social borders. We must extend our social affiliations, in order to harmonize the application of our values.

Our social in-groups have something important in common: Within each group, we take each other’s perspectives into account alongside our own and, in the process, we are automatically induced to cooperate with them. The values of the group are appropriate to the group’s social relations, and these values are applied to people within, but not outside, the group.

Different social relationships lead to different interchangeabilities of perspective. Mothers take account of all their infants' physical and psychological needs. Sellers consider their buyer's relevant wants. Doctors attend to the health needs of their patients.

Of all the moral values available to us, there is one that entails the greatest interchangeability of perspectives and thus promotes the most encompassing, profound and flexible motive for cooperation among humans. It is the value of Care, since it involves promoting the wellbeing of others and alleviating their suffering - wellbeing and suffering in all respects, not just those limited to a particular aspect of social exchange.

Other moral values can be blunt instruments for achieving cooperation. For example, Fairness can lead to retaliation of hurt, Loyalty can lead to cooperation within socially dysfunctional groups, and so on. But these other moral values become a more reliable servant of the public interest once they are combined with the value of Care.

Atrocities become possible when there is no interchangeability of perspectives and, in particular, when there is no presumption of Care. To kill, soldiers are taught to dehumanize their enemies, enabling them to disconnect from their enemies’ perspectives and withhold Care. A similar disconnection took place between the Serbs and Croats when Yugoslavia dissolved, between the Hutus and the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, and so on. The Nazis did not lack moral values; they just did not apply them to the Jews, since they saw no aspect of the world through Jewish eyes.

In institutionalized contexts, no one actually kills people. Soldiers have killed Nips, Huns, terrs; gangs have killed kikes, wops, spics, honkies; Klansmen have killed niggers – but not people. In order for brutality to occur along sustained, systematic lines, perspectival disconnection appears essential. This is generally driven through disconnection narratives, such as Mein Kampf or war propaganda.

The broader and greater the interchangeability of perspectives, particularly through Care, the more willing we become to cooperate with one another.

Our Fateful Dilemma

But extending our circle of Care is difficult, since our evolutionary past has not adequately prepared us for this challenge. According to the philosopher and neuroscientist Joshua Greene, the experience in hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies prepared humans to deal with the "Me-Us" Problem, that is, the problem of controlling our self-interest in favor of our social groups. Accordingly, our moral values can be viewed as psychological adaptations enabling selfish individuals to enjoy the benefits of cooperation. What we are not prepared for, Greene argues, is the "Us-Them Problem," which involves cooperation with social groups that have now come into contact with one another through globalization and ICT technologies, but were separate from one another in our evolutionary past. Thus our evolved morality is suited for cooperation within social groups, but not across these groups.

Consequently we now face what may be called our "Fateful Dilemma." In response to the widening chaos in the Middle East, particularly Syria, millions of innocent civilians are fleeing from carnage and hopelessness. Once the relatively fortunate ones arrive within our borders, we have a fateful decision to make: to expel them as threatening aliens or welcome them as one of us. One cannot fail to be struck by the dramatic divergence of responses across EU member states.

The European Union arose from the postwar aspiration that Europe’s political and cultural rivalries must never again be allowed to drag the world into war; and that free trade, open borders, and support for all in need would create a haven of peace and prosperity. But the waves of refugees from outside Europe are testing the sustainability of this vision. There can be no doubt that the destiny of Europe is at stake. Europe's Fateful Dilemma regarding its refugees will be revisited in many other forms as other people are called to deal with today's natural, technological and demographic upheavals.

Is It Possible to Widen Our Circle of Care?

Is it possible for us to broaden the interchangeability of our perspectives and, in particular, extend our Circle of Care sufficiently to address our proliferating global problems?

We know that humans have the potential to perform such this feat. A major reason why the human species has been so successful in surviving and reproducing on our planet lies in our ability to cooperate with one another beyond the bounds of kinship. The ability to use language was necessary for this purpose but, by itself, explains only a fraction of our cooperative capabilities. Language enhances our ability to acquire reputations for being cooperative, inducing others to cooperate with us. But the maximum size of a group that relies on word of mouth to create trust is about 150 individuals. To establish larger groups, such as those cohering in large multi-national companies, nations, religions, and trading networks - communities that may comprise millions - we were required to create something that no other animal appears to have managed: collective narratives. Without collective narratives - intersubjective realities - there could be no broad-based identities; in fact, there could be no "companies," "nations," "religion," and the many social constructs required by trading networks, such as "money," "contracts," "prices," and so on.

We now require a new narrative that generates a common identity across current borders. Various attempts to find such a narrative have already been made, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Earth Charter, and so on. Contributions to the creation of motives, norms and attitudes favorable to a common human identity – through art, law, education, politics, institutional settings, personal transformation – are of greater importance than is generally appreciated.

Obviously it is neither feasible nor desirable to disassemble our existing identities for this purpose. All that is required is that we nourish a global identity, alongside our existing ones, that is just sufficient to address our global problems through interchangeable perspectives and the beginnings of Care. Then this could set in motion a virtuous cycle of values – including Care, Reciprocal Fairness, Authority and Loyalty – that shapes individual identities complementary to our global one.

Of course, not all aspects of our individual identities will survive the interplay with our global identity. All the divisive, hate-filled, dehumanizing aspects would need to fall by the wayside. Such active shaping of individual identity might be viewed with suspicion, as conflicting with our individual liberties. But people around the world are already familiar with the desirability of such social interventions in dealing with our "Me-Us problems." Now we just need to extend them to our "Us-Them problems."

Humanity has already managed feats of comprehensive Care before, as when it transformed slavery from an acceptable form of international business into a globally acknowledged evil. A major force driving this transformation was perspective-taking. Through books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, political activism, and media reports, people around the world gradually came to regard slaves as beings of ultimate intrinsic worth, eventually leading to the criminalization of slavery in country after country.

Over the past few decades we have witnessed an analogous revaluation of womanhood and, more recently, of homosexuality in many countries. Europe's refugee crisis should be viewed as a golden opportunity to initiate the educational, legal and cultural initiatives required for perspective-taking beyond our current national, cultural and religious borders.

Extending our Circle of Care – through encompassing narratives, social norms, education, laws and institutions – a is now our central challenge as human beings, made salient through the proliferation of our “problems without borders.” Rising to this challenge will be arduous since our moral instincts are more suited to addressing the “Me-Us problems” than the “Us-Them problems”. Despite international condemnation of slavery, the UN estimates that 27 to 30 million people are still caught in the slave trade industry today. Given our capacities for perspectival disconnection and for attributing people’s situational constraints to their dispositions, many people still do not consider the comprehensive extension of Care to be obviously desirable. Furthermore, caring relationships – particularly in the absence of fairness, reciprocity and means-end rationality – are notoriously vulnerable to free riding and exploitation, such as when computer hackers gain access to people’s email accounts and then request money from friends and difficult when levels of Care are in conflict, as when familial Care hurts the tribe, tribal Care hurts the nation, or national Care hurts the global public interest. Our aim as humans must be adjusting our social, economic and political relationships to bring our levels of Care into harmony with one another and then to seek an encompassing Circle of Care.

In closing, it is essential to emphasize that our circle of Care must be extended not merely to humanity, but to all living things. We must wake up to the terrifying misery we have imposed on most non-human animals. We do not recognize most of our domesticated animals as living beings with psychological and social needs, but use them instead as raw material resources, which can be mass-produced, with bodies engineered to suit our economic objectives. Wild animals are in decline around the world; many are victims of the well-documented, man-made, sixth mass extinction in our planet's history. This monstrous injustice arises not from animosity towards animals, much as the slave trade involved little animosity towards slaves. It is generated by our indifference. Only our capacity for compassion, driven an extension of our Circle of Care, can induce us to change our ways.

It is high time for the value of Care to guide our economies. May the GES 2015 contribute to this goal.

1 I am deeply indebted to Sean Cleary and David Snower for profound insights. My special thanks also go to Johanna Scholz and Christoph Schütt for their superb research assistance.