global trends, values, and ethics



“It will all be fine,” Candide replied. “The sea of this new world is already better than any of the seas of Europe. This sea is calmer, and the winds more constant. It is certainly this new world that is the best of all possible worlds.”

—Voltaire, Candide, or, Optimism

What will our future world be like in the next fifteen to twenty years? At the end of 2012, the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) released "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds," the fifth installment of a series that aims to provide a framework for thinking about future policy planning. It describes the megatrends, game-changers, and four potential worlds that we will likely face.[1] Such accounts raise a fundamental question: how do you tell a story that has not yet happened? Anyone can make up a story, but the worth of forecasting should lay less in surface lessons and assertions than it should in how analysts are able to tell a credible story that will allow policymakers to make decisions about the future today.

I suggest that trends should only be important insofar as they affect our values and that such stories should be viewed more critically due to their limited consideration of ethics. My concern is less about the reports themselves, whose findings are approximations of the thoughts of individuals in civil society, academia, businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and states existing in the world today. Rather, the content of the future world and the texture of our values themselves are the most important considerations for individuals, communities, organizations, and states to think about when choosing—to the extent that we can—what should be the quality of our future lives and livelihoods.

Global Trends 2030

The NIC as well as other organizations in the European Union (EU), Russia, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have conducted such reports about global trends and the future world of 2030.[2] Policy planners in the US foresaw a series of individual-, society-, state-, and global-level megatrends. The empowerment of the individual at a scale never before experienced will be the most prominent trend of the future. Technological innovations in information, automation, manufacturing, resource management, and health will be the primary causes of this megatrend. The second megatrend will be demographic shifts of a growing global middle class, increased urbanization, more migration, and aging populations across societies. As the world’s population reaches over 8 billion people, a third megatrend will challenge societies to face stresses on the availability of food, water, and energy. The final US-envisioned megatrend will be the diffusion of power between states (e.g., a relative decline of the West and a more powerful China and India) as well as the changing nature of power (i.e., soft power will be more important than military power, and individuals and regional governments will have more of a direct influence in world politics).

EU forecasters foresaw many of these same megatrends, however, the character of these trends took on a more ambitious tone. People across the globe will be more educated, healthier, more equal in terms of gender, and in general they will enjoy more human rights. Individuals will be more empowered through the recognition of multiple nonconflicting identities at local, national, regional, and global levels. Thus, individuals will be empowered in such a way that they will not only pursue their own self-interested ends, but they will also become global citizens who will be able to share the values of an interconnected community wherein governance within states and of the globe will become more democratic.

Experts in Russia also saw the world as becoming more democratic than today but less democratic, individually-driven, and egalitarian than either of its US and EU counterparts. The nature of power will not change as foreseen by the American planners, and states will be the main actors overseeing a hierarchical world still led by the US, but influenced more in rank order first by the EU and China, second by Russia, and finally by Brazil, India, and today’s other rising middle powers.

NATO policy planners also saw the nature of power as constant and predicted that states would remain the main source of power. However, NATO focused on trends that were much more conflict-ridden than the other reports. Although some individuals may be empowered, they will represent threats to the state in the form of hackers, terrorists, and criminals. The greatest structural changes in the future will relate to more friction between people, states, regions, ideologies, and worldviews; increasing integration of economies for some parts of developed and middle-income countries, but not the poorest developing countries; and more asymmetry among states, leading to more inequality and conflicts between rich and poor countries and between the poor themselves. Unlike the EU vision, humanity will not achieve one shared, cooperative, and global community.

Possible Worlds

Based on each report’s trends, policy planners illustrated a number of possible worlds that could likely exist. The US presented four alternative worlds, the EU and Russia, one each; and NATO sketched out four possibilities. When we account for all of the possible worlds that might likely derived from these trends, we have a total of ten distinct future worlds. How could this be so? We all live on the same planet now, we have similar access to information, and in the future, we will all live in one world—not several.

That one prediction is right and the others are wrong would be far too simple of an answer. My effort is not aimed at making straw men of these reports—they are too intelligent, systematic, and fascinating to be dismissed. Rather, my goal is to evaluate each of their visions of trends and futures in order to cull insights toward a better understanding of what future world is to come. When policymakers ham-fistedly wield their pens without due consideration of all possibilities—however politically unpalatable, counter-intuitive, or outlandish—we run the risk of living in a suboptimal world ranging from inconvenience at best and suffering at worst. Such negligence is not only a lack of imagination: it is a failure in critical thinking. Our future lives and livelihoods are at stake. An evaluation of these worlds is needed.

Our Future Values

In order to understand how these ten worlds stand against one another, we need some unifying goal beyond the trends themselves so that we may have some metric for comparison that would allow us to judge which worlds are more preferable than others. Thus, I suggest that the achievement of our values should be how we measure progress toward one world over another. In particular, I will focus on four universal values: individual liberty, distributive justice, cultural pluralism, and peace. 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. Finally, peace is simply the absence of war. Although there may be other values we could choose and their definitions are debatable, these values are basic ones that to some degree have been accepted by all peoples in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, the reports, at best, only tangentially focus on these values, and their future state is not readily apparent in each of these worlds. This is not an attack on the reports, rather, this is an imperative for decision makers. Hence, we need some systematic way of extracting meaning from the given trends and worlds. In Michael Walzer’s "Governing the Globe: What is the Best We Can Do?," the political theorist offers us such a way to conceptualize how these values might take different forms along a continuum of different archetypical worlds arranged by the unity of global political order.[3] The degree of division of global governance determines the types of global order, ranging from international anarchy at one extreme to a unified global state at the other end. Seven idealized worlds are established wherein our four values take different forms in each, at times complementing and at other times conflicting with one another.

I will illustrate how all ten of the worlds envisioned by the US, EU, Russia, and NATO fall within these archetypical categories suggested by Walzer. The reports derived different trends and worlds due to selection biases, i.e., the exclusion of meaningful considerations that might lead to inaccurate predictions about the future. I focus on three types of biases: traditional, methodological, and temporal. Each of the studies can be characterized with these biases. By exposing the biases of each of these worlds, we can have a better grasp of the range of possible future worlds. By categorizing the particular worlds envisioned in the reports under a formal conceptualization of types of worlds, we can then determine what our future values will look like in each world scenario. This will not only inform individuals, communities, organizations, and states of what worlds may come, but it will also help them decide what world they should work toward.

Toward a Logic of One World

Given the infinite number of futures that may happen, I attempt to simplify the thinking involved, and work toward a logic of one world, detailing what aspects will be necessary and possible. I use modal logic and possibles world semantics developed by analytic philosopher Saul Kripke to gain simple, but rigorous definitions of possibility, impossibility, and necessity. These concepts will allow us to more formally appreciate how selection biases may shape our worlds, but more importantly, these three ideas will help us clarify not only the values that will exist in kind, but also the texture of the values themselves across all worlds.

The definition of a possible world is more than simply saying that a world could happen. A world may be possible by definition if and only if it is not necessarily false. Since we cannot prove the nonexistence of the set of ten worlds, they may all be possible. Further, we will assume that other worlds not in this set are impossible considering the trajectory of trends given in each report. Selection bias of trends thus plays a major role in determining what is possible and impossible. Finally, given this set of ten worlds, necessity by definition is what is true in all possible worlds. When the worlds are evaluated, it is only the value of pluralism that is necessary across worlds for all people, whereas liberty, justice, and peace are merely possible.

One World, Many Ethics

After illustrating a logic of one world, I finally discuss global ethics, i.e., the means of achieving our future values. Policy is the implementation of ethics, ultimately responding to the question of what should be done.

A logic of one world forces us to focus on the value of pluralism. This is in contrast to the values generally emphasized in the US, EU, and NATO reports. The US saw the empowerment of the individual and the promotion of liberty as the driving the impetus of the future. The EU report focused on social justice as the primary outcome of global trends. And the NATO report used peace as the primary metric to predict the future. However, no report took pluralism as a starting point. Far from resigning from our pursuit of liberty, justice, and peace, a focus on the necessity of many people will allow us to optimize all of our values. Each of the worlds presents its own set of ethical challenges.

I suggest ways in which we may be able to optimize our values by illustrating three global ethics as framed by political theorist Michael W. Doyle: (1) one world, one people, (2) one world, two peoples, and (3) one world, many peoples. I will illustrate the arguments of ethicists ranging from social-contractarian and utilitarian cosmopolitans, to liberal democrats, and to Law of Peoples Rawlsians. This focus on pluralism will allow us to explain why some worlds are more desirable, why some worlds might emerge, and how we might arrive at better worlds. The principles, prudence, and pragmatism of these respective ethics can help us work toward the best of all possible worlds.

[1] National Intelligence Council (NIC), “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, December 2012, available at www.dni.gov/files/documents/GlobalTrends_2030.pdf .

[2] See Annex for summaries of the global trends 2030 reports by the US, EU, Russia, and NATO. For more detailed discussions of the reports see Chapter 1 for the US report and Chapter 5 for the reports by the EU, Russia, and NATO.

[3] Michael Walzer, “Governing the Globe: What is the Best We Can Do?,” Dissent (Fall 2000).

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Nguyen

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