global trends, values, and ethics

Chapter 2

Our Future Values

There is something mesmerizing about watching a long line of dominos cascade at a constant clip, winding in all sorts of directions in the way that the NIC’s story was told. However, it can also be bewildering since despite the impressive breadth of this exercise, it is difficult to know what exactly one is to do after hearing this story. This, perhaps, is due to the fact that the most important considerations were hidden in the background. Trends are only important insofar as they affect the quality of our and our children’s future lives. Although the NIC accounts for individual empowerment, readers are left with only a glancing notion of what will happen to the future of human values. Any prediction that does not take values into consideration is normatively worthless.

With this in mind, I would like to further extrapolate from these trends and worlds the greater consequences they have on four particular values: individual liberty, distributive justice, cultural pluralism, and peace. Definitions of these terms should be simple and intuitive, even if academically debatable. Liberty refers to an individual’s positive and negative freedoms to pursue his or her desires without harming themselves or others and without external intrusion. Distributive justice refers to what we should owe to other people. Pluralism refers to cultural diversity and group identity.[9] Finally, peace is simply the absence of war. In “Governing the Globe: What is the Best We Can Do?” Michael Walzer offers a way to understand how these values will take different forms along a continuum of different theoretical worlds organized by the degree of unity of global governance. Although there may be many other values that we could consider, these are four values that all people would want to seek for themselves if not others. After all, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a legal document signed by every nation-state, enshrined these principles in its emphases on political, social, and economic rights. Indeed, specific interpretations of these values that different peoples will hold will vary as will the degree to which one value will be more important compared to another value for one culture compared to another. However, at some basic level, these four values are shared by all people. In this bare sense, I do not believe that these four values are as controversial as they might be interpreted.

In order to traverse the world ahead, we need some standards by which we can compare worlds and drive our future policies. My argument is not that there cannot be other values that we should consider such as poverty alleviation. However, such metrics may be more proximate than immediate. For example, economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, whose thinking is considered to have helped inspire the creation of the Millennium Development Goals, has challenged the idea of measuring human development merely through poverty alleviation.[10] Sen believed that the true measure of development rested in people’s liberty to exercise their own naturally endowed capabilities. Further, the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda included both peace and inequality (i.e., distributive justice) as crosscutting values to consider for the post-Millennium Development Goal agenda even while placing the eradication of poverty as its primary objective.[11] Thus, a consideration of these four values will likely lead to considerations of poverty in any case. Although there may be other values, I believe that these four values best capture what most people would agree to be worthy measurements.

Technology magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates, in his 2013 annual letter, appreciated this global focus on setting standards. He has called for a new focus on measurement in order to understand how much progress can be made to the human condition. Gates cites the example of the innovations that led to the creation of the steam engine presented as by William Rosen in The Most Powerful Idea in the World, “Without feedback from precise measurement, Rosen writes, invention is ‘doomed to be rare and erratic.’ With it, invention becomes ‘commonplace.’”[12] It is my hope that however general these four values may be, decision makers will be able to think about what policy innovations they could implement that would drive progress toward these goals as a matter of routine rather than randomness.

At this point, since I am assuming that these values are universal, I can also make another divergence from the NIC report itself. I will no longer simply focus on the values of an American citizen, but I will try to consider the values of an abstract person from any place in the world. If these trends are indeed global, they will have effects on every individual’s lives—not just American ones. Nor will I henceforth consider only policymakers in Washington, DC, but rather I will aim to speak to policymakers who make decisions at international and national levels as well as individuals, communities, and organizations vested in their own futures.

From a description of the trends in the previous chapter, we get an optimistic, but perhaps too general of a picture of the fortune of these values. I will first make a preliminary sketch of the future state of values in this chapter, and after developing this context, in the pages that follow I will then offer a more detailed assessment of our future values.

In more precise terms of individual liberty rather than empowerment in general (i.e., to be strong is not the same as being capable), people will be freer to pursue their preferences and freer from limitations of nature, societal conventions, and happenstance. Individual empowerment offers a bright future considering that, on the whole, individuals will be richer, healthier, and better fed; that women and men will be more equal; and that basic human senses will be able to be partially restored if lost or even augmented if intact.

Distributive justice will have a brighter future for the poor. The alleviation of poverty will become more realized than ever before in history. As the global middle class grows, the ills of inequality will have less relevance as basic needs are met. Absolute inequality may persist, but there are good chances that the less well off, as a group, will be better off than they have in history.

Peace will also have a promising future: both interstate and intrastate conflict will decline.[13] Wars between nations will not be likely between great powers. And violence within nations will become less prevalent. However, this is not to say that there will be no conflict. Growing tensions among new and old powers will persist as competition over a food, water, and energy nexus becomes more heated as climates shift ecologies.

Cultural pluralism will also thrive. As rising powers ascend, more cultures will have not only a say in world affairs, but also material influence in terms of economics and military capabilities. With this rise in aggregate power, comes the greater likelihood that these nations’ characters will persist and influence others. Further, as transnational networks form, new and old cultural identities will be able to proliferate.

I would suggest that such an appraisal predicts our future values in far too simple of a fashion. And I believe that the NIC was also skeptical of such hard determinism. This is why they created four alternative scenarios for us to understand to what extent our future selves and children will be able to realize these values. The features of these alternative worlds give us some idea of these limits and potentials. For instance, the Gini-Out-of-the-Bottle world shows us that inequality will have negative effects for the poor in terms of distributive justice (the worst off will not necessarily be better off), individual liberty (not all people will be empowered only the wealthy will be able to realize their full potential), and peace (inequality will lead to instability and conflict within and between nations). The new rising powers will increasingly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with older powers, but both international and domestic inequalities will prevail. The poor, conflict-ridden countries of today will have no improved future while only the emerging BRICs or perhaps also the Next Eleven will thrive. Also domestic inequalities will prevail within these rising powers’ borders as they have in today’s United States, the most unequal developed country in the world.

The Nonstate, Stalled Engines, and Fusion scenarios also have different permutations of the four values. I will not yet exhaustively detail here the different combinations of liberty, justice, peace, and pluralism that may present themselves. These worlds’ value-states will become evident as we proceed. Instead, we must answer more essential questions. Why would individual liberty be more prevalent in one world rather than another? What overarching cause might lead distributive justice to fail or succeed? What will texture a future peace? Why might cultural pluralism flourish as diverse nationalities rather than nonstate transnational networks of individuals? In essence, what might be a systematic way of understanding a variance of our future values? An answer to this fundamental question will allow us to determine what they can do to ensure the best future.

[9] Although in other contexts, the term pluralism may refer to many values, here, the term simply refers to disparate peoples.

[10] See Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

[11] High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development,” New York: United Nations, May 2013.

[12] Bill Gates, “Annual Letter from Bill Gates,” Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, January 2013.

[13] For a substantial yet accessible treatment on the explanation for why peace has become more prevalent see, Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).

Copyright © 2014 by Thong Nguyen

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Of All Possible Future Worlds: Global Trends, Values, and Ethics by Thong Nguyen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.