OF ALL POSSIBLE FUTURE WORLDS
global trends, values, and ethics




Dignity in a Diverse, Decentered, and Digital Age

September 2015


Imagine two worlds—one horrendous, the other hopeful, but both actual.

In one world, the color of your skin matters. After buying candy and juice from a convenience store in Miami Gardens, Florida, a boy in a hoodie, Trayvon Martin, can be shot dead in the chest by a community watchman with no justice from the courts. After selling cigarettes, in front of a beauty supply store in Staten Island, a man, Eric Garner, can have his last breath squeezed out of him by an arm of the law—by the arm of an officer charged to protect him—with impunity. And while attending Bible study in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, nine women and men can be mowed down by a young man of a different color with a handgun. In this world, your gender matters. In the Swat Valley of Pakistan, a girl, Malala Yousafzai, can be shot in the forehead by a man for blogging about wanting to go to school and the tyranny of the Taliban. In Chibok, Nigeria, a over 275 teenage girls can be kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram and then enslaved, sold, forced into marriage, and to this day not returned. Your beliefs also matter. Across the Middle East and North Africa, you can be beheaded or murdered if you do not believe in a faith in the way that the Islamic State sees fit. In Palmyra, Syria a people's cultural heritage and artifacts can be stolen, demolished, and sold by that same group. In Sousse, Tunisia, tourists can be gunned down on a beach while sunbathing and swimming. In Paris, cartoonists at a satirical magazine can be killed for offensively illustrating Muhammad. Your origin matters too. The number of displaced peoples is as historic high since World War II. For those escaping war, terrorism, and persecution from the Middle East and Asia, the ocean may become a grave. Few countries will open their borders, whether for Syrian refugees crowded on a boat floating across the Mediterranean Sea or for the Rohingya being pushed out of Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Adaman Sea. And if a Rohingyan woman, Shahidah Yunus, happens to escape, she may be sold into marriage as her only resort for survival. And in this world, your art matters. In China, a man, Ai Weiwei, can be imprisoned for his art, creation, and ideas critical of the human rights record of his government. Even who you love matters. In 72 countries, mostly across Asia and Africa, national laws criminalize homosexuality with penalties ranging from fines, imprisonment, and capital punishment. If dignity can be quickly defined, in part, as a respect for others who are different, it does not exist here in this world now.

In the other world, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other marks of difference still matter, but they matter in another sense. Differences are not condemned through discrimination; they are celebrated as diversity. It is through this respect of differences we see convergence. This world is the most peaceful and least violent in history. Billions are climbing out of poverty as a new global middle class is rising. The world is more connected through commerce and the Internet. Although this is not a post-racial world, we can see progress. In America, skin color is not a precondition to become president. The use of viral social media can raise consciousness of how race matters, of how black lives matter. Despite appeals for tradition, the Confederate flag, a symbol perceived by many as representative of a racist era that has not yet ended, can be lowered in the capitol of South Carolina out of respect for the lives of others. And though this is not a gender-equal world, we can conceive of the possibility of one's sex not getting in one's way of becoming president. We can also imagine how one need not aspire to become a politician to push forward rights. Bullets can backfire, as that young girl Malala can survive and rise to become a symbol of hope and dignity for women, girls, and children and peace. Other individuals can also be symbols. Although his own government will give him no due, Al Wei Wei’s art can garner widespread recognition and respect from other parts of the world, embodying free speech, creativity, and liberty. And the liberty to love and marry whomever one wants, no matter the gender, can be recognized by a court and a nation in law.

One could easily add more examples of horror and hope to each world, but given these two realities, we are ultimately confronted with the challenge of reconciliation. We are told by our parents, professors, and politicians that human rights are inalienable, that dignity is inherent. But if rights and dignity are respected in one world, then why not the other?

Complex, Contradictory, and Complicated Challenges

One might frame the challenges of reconciling these two worlds as complex, contradictory, and complicated. We might structure these modalities with some definitions. First, a complex world is one of many problems. Complexity is the accumulation of many simple, discrete concepts: A + B + C. In our context, they might best be ascribed to a logic of one world. In our horrendous world, we must find many solutions to our discrimination based on race, gender, state, and other differences. Second, contradiction is the absurdity of conflicting ideas: A and not A. Our two worlds, for example, are divided by the haves and the have nots as well as differences in law. Gay marriage is recognized in some countries, but not others. Women’s rights are respected in some countries, but not others. The great challenge here is reconciling these two realities and saving the meaning of human rights and dignity from the threat of absurdity and irrelevance of our conception of rights. Finally, complication implies a problem of difficulty. The difficulty arises from us having to cope with both problems of complexity and contradiction at the same time: (A + B + C ) + (not A + not B + not C). This modality might best be ascribed to a logic of many worlds. One might note that difficulty does not necessarily imply impossibility. We can remain hopeful in a world that is hard to cope with. This gives us one opportunity and one challenge. The opportunity is that we have a chance to understand and reconcile these complex and contradictory worlds. The challenge is that we must break down complex problems into simpler ones, and we must decide which contradictions are right or wrong. But how are we to choose which divisions and which decisions to make?

One could try to reconcile this dissonance of complexity, contradiction, and complication through logic. One logic might consider only one world, another logic might consider all possible worlds, including those infinite variations between the most hopeful and horrendous worlds, and finally we could consider a logic of the most probable worlds.

A One-World Logic

A one-world logic looks at one scenario, but not the other. In a limited logic of the hopeful world, one could hold to the necessity of rights and dignity a priori, refuse to read the headlines of the other world, and allow simple pleas to be sufficient as cause and course for right in the world. Yet this would have no impact on the other world we know to be real. An appeal to words, definitions, and laws alone would be trivial. Hope is not enough to make hell better. In the horrendous world, we know that there are wrongs because there exists some notion of right. Infringement, disregard, and outright breaches draw their very meaning from their opposition of this necessity of rights and dignity. In the best case, one can still hold on to the conceits of rights and dignity. This might drive us to ensure that this necessity becomes actual through speech, protest, legislation, and even war. The hard work and brute force of conviction might make this actual world better one day, eventually. The hopeful world has no problems, so it is not complex. Neither world recognizes the contradiction of the other. Both worlds are simple, not complicated. In short, a one-world logic would be insufficient for reconciliation because we know that both worlds exist, but are disconnected. This logic is too limited. It does not inform us of what features exist in both worlds that might help us in reconciliation.

A Logic of Many Possible Worlds

Another logic might help us go further to reconcile these two representations—one that goes beyond the logic of one world, toward many, considering our biases, limitations, and incapacities to foresee or know all. Such a logic can be found in Of All Possible Future Worlds: Global Trends, Values, and Ethics, which looks toward the year 2030 and at a range of trends and world-scenarios predicted by experts from civil society, academia, think tanks, and governments from across the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Some of the features of these worlds were similar; some were different. So we need some way to judge which scenarios are more desirable than others. Appealing toward our values is one intuitive way to measure the differences between these worlds, and by extension, the horrendous and hopeful present worlds illustrated above. For example, such values as liberty, justice, and peace may each exist in greater or lesser degrees in a multitude of worlds predicted by each agent. However, such variance can lead to an exponential number of predictions and policy recommendations. To simplify this, we could use logic, a possible world semantics that defines necessity as that which is true in all possible worlds. If one were to apply this logic, one would find that pluralism is one value that is true in all scenarios—both present and future. In both of the horrendous and hopeful worlds, the one necessity is that the future will be characterized as a world of many peoples. In our present, differences among peoples exist, but in one world they result in discrimination and in the other they are celebrated as diversity. Thus, in order to reconcile these worlds we must come to an understanding of why differences might be lead down one path or another.

This means of reconciliation, however, may be perceived as too simple—a truth so obvious, it sounds foolish to mention. And it may be too facile, too academic to assume that the ways of the world can neatly be modeled and reduced to the rigidity of a possible worlds logic. Finally, one might argue that other features of the world might prove relevant for reconciliation even if they are not necessary.

A Logic of Probable Worlds

One might then appeal to another logic, less restrictive but more explanatory: one that focuses on probability—truth in most possible worlds, but not all. My ascriptions of values in Of All Possible Future Worlds are not irrefutable. I claim no powers of mystical foresight. However, if assertions of necessity cannot be obtained through the application of possible worlds semantics—which may be too ideal, formal, and detached from the world as we experience it—perhaps the second-best we have is to look at probabilities. Hence, a weaker, though perhaps more useful, claim that diversity will increasingly be a common feature in most worlds can still guide us in our planning.

One could make sweeping, overly general, but useful corollaries about between mathematical and philosophical trends and truths over the past centuries. If twentieth century mathematics was defined by the determinism of derivation and calculus, building upon the algebra of the centuries before, and the next century may increasingly be defined by a focus on statistics and probability. So too in philosophy might we be moving away from the classic logic of modus ponens, modus tolens, and conditionals, holding true to the birth of modal logic in the twentieth century, and moving toward the Bayesian priors of probability.[1] An ethic might likewise be shaped by modern logic, yet still informed by past logic.

Given this logic, what then might be probable values that could reconcile the horrendous and hopeful worlds? One might look to answers of the past and say that power will be a value that will define our most probably futures. It has arguably served us as the guiding notion for world affairs in the past. At the very least it gives us some resolution: the strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must. The strong choose which problems to simplify and which propositions are right.

Yet should our approach toward the future be like that of the past? This appears to be a one-world logic where whomever has power gets to decide. When we look at trends rather than snapshots in time, we see that the nature of power is transforming and becoming more diffuse away from old states to emerging states (e.g., Brazil, Russia, India, and China and many other emerging economies), and away from states to non-state actors, including individuals (e.g., multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, terrorists, or individuals such as Julian Assange, Eric Snowden, Malaya, or a street vendor in Tunisia). Even if states will long continue to hold a monopoly of power, divisions and decisions will not be as neatly drawn as in the past when on hierarchy was in place and when one global hegemon or region ruled. There will be an increasing number of debates and potential conflicts that power alone will not be able to satisfy. Power may no longer be the only ordering principle: we need another principle that all people would agree to let cohere the world. Pluralism is another value that complicates the nature of power when no one group has a monopoly. It may also be a likely value we should expect to guide us in the future.

And while in this frame of thinking of norms under a normal distribution of a range of possible worlds, one might consider other probable features that we all will have to cope with. When considering all predictions by the US, EU, Russia, and NATO, the world will probably not only be more diverse, it will all be more decentered and digital. Diversity will come not only from the increasing number of individuals being born in the world, but also through the recognition and respect of other peoples that have existed all along in history. Decentralization will not only mean that other states will gain more relative power, but also that individuals will have more of a say in world affairs. And the digital offers us a new tool that will not only connect us, but also allow us to commit to one another and reveal a shared humanity like never before.

A Diverse, Decentered, and Digital Age

To simplify, we could synthesize these predicted 2030 worlds, and illustrate one scenario that incorporates all of these probable features of diversity, decentralization, and digitization. We might look to the theories of Hedley Bull and their purported realization in one future world as illustrated in Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions, edited by Freedom House President Mark P. Lagon and Georgetown professor Anthony Clark Arend.[2] Many of the trends and worlds predicted by the US, EU, Russia, and NATO overlapped with this one future. Instead of summarizing these worlds again, it will suffice to focus on Lagon and Arend’s illustration.

First, we can envision the proliferation and increased influence of transnational organizations such as the United Nations, multinational corporations, and non-governmental organizations. Second, we will see that there will be more regional integration and consolidation ranging from the European Union, African Union, North American Free Trade Agreement, NATO, Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, Mercosur, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Third, we might see the disintegration of states—pulled apart from above and below. One might look in the extreme today at territories lost control of in Syria and Iraq or at a plethora of states listed as fragile. Interstate conflict is at a historical low. A recent trend is the rise of intrastate conflict. But even more recent is the rise of private international violence, particularly from terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State (ISIS), Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and al-Qaeda. From the supranational perspective of some states such as China, Russia, North Korea, and even the United States, international legal norms potentially impinging on parts of their sovereignty such as the responsibility to protect, the International Criminal Court, drone strikes in another country’s borders, or hacking other government’s security databases. One might further look at trends towards urbanization and seeing some global cities exercising more influence over certain matters in world affairs on matters ranging from finance to culture. This is less a matter of a loss of sovereignty than it is of differentiation within states or decentralization at a subnational level. Finally, one might observe the rise of new technologies and the role that they play in unifying or at the very least connecting the world. The Internet and mobile phones will continue to play a role in opening lines of communication among peoples. The digital age might go even further than most of us imagine today.

In other debates about the digital future, for example, we may hear about the existential threat of artificial intelligence against humanity by organizations such as the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, the Future of Life Institute, Cambridge University’s Center for Study of Existential Risk, and Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute.[3] Such arguments can be found in works such as Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom.[4] Machines may reach a level of intelligence superior to ours, and algorithmically reach an understanding of humanity that even we do not now understand. In the past, debates about artificial intelligence centered on narrow and broad forms of intelligence. The latter imagines a level of general consciousness and autonomy rivaling our own. By most accounts, little progress has been made in this area today. However, most progress has been made with algorithms aimed at narrow forms of intelligence of simple tasks. Visual recognition in self-driving cars, Siri speech recognition in iPhones, and predictive recommendation engines for Netflix movies and shows are examples of machine learning implementations of neural network, naïve bayes, decision tree, and natural language processing algorithms. One could reasonably assume that computers can process calculations faster than humans, store in memory more bits of information than a brain, and that such successful algorithms can improve in the future. Under these assumptions, one might not only argue that general intelligence is possible if narrowly intelligent algorithms are programmed together, one might further conclude that super intelligence is probable.

Now, one could easily conceive of countervailing trends leading to worlds that are not nearly as diverse, decentered, and digital. Globalization might lead to homogenization of cultures, particularly with the rise of a global middle class. The state will remain the central actor in world politics as territories remain largely stable, and as rising powers exert more influence over the world. One might argue that in the next decades the US will remain the most central actor in terms of its political, military, economic, and cultural leadership. Alternatively, one might claim that a new actor, China, the home of one billion people, might become that central actor over the course of the century. A digital age may be less promising or fail to deliver on some new transcendent humanity. In our so-called connected world of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we may still choose our own self-interest or petty selfishness. Though we may be more connected, we may choose not to be any more committed to one another.

Yet this compulsion to imagine the contradictory, should not lead one only to think in binary black or white. Such simple-mindedness would lead us away from considering a range of possibilities and the weight of probabilities. Though there may be counter-examples of worlds elsewhere, we might do the best we can do and think primarily on what is likely or envisioned by most people from around the world: a future that is more diverse, decentered, and digital.

Beyond Logic: Daring for Dignity

There remains a great deal that we do not know about what will happen. Anyone that claims that they do have such clairvoyance most likely is wrong, guessing, or getting paid to make something up. Looking toward logic might seem to be the most reasonable path. Yet even logic has its limits. In epistemology, truth can come from two theories of knowledge: coherence or correspondence. Truth under the rubric of coherence is predicated on how concepts in a world stand in relation to one another. Truth depends on validity according to rules within a system. In our context, coherence is gained through logic, namely of many worlds. Necessary truth comes from what is supposed true in all possible worlds; probable truth from what is supposed true in most possible worlds. Truth under correspondence, on the other hand, depends on some relationship to fundamentalism or some assumed foundation. No logic can give us this foundation. So far we have only considered the world through a coherence view of knowledge, arbitrarily ignoring a correspondence view. We would continue to do so at our peril. Coherence is not the whole or only truth.

Underlying our future is a world without necessity, one where probability implies uncertainty. It is not clear whether difference of peoples will be met with discrimination or a celebration of diversity. It is not clear whether a decentered world order will lead to a new concert of peace and equity or more unstable and conflict-ridden with an increasing number of competing powers. And it is also not clear whether the digital will unite humanity through communication and connection or divide peoples between those who are connected and those who are not or even to the idiosyncratic whims of an individual. There’s so much we do not and cannot know. Ignorance, however, should be no excuse for inaction. Thus, we may have to go beyond logic and determine the future, insofar as we can, by defining what we desire and asking ourselves what would it mean to inspire the best of us in the ideal. A correspondence to truth may rest ultimately in what we choose to value fundamentally.

For example, in terms of a more digital future, some believe that our relationship with artificial intelligence, machines, and robots will lead to transhumanism—i.e., a trancendent humanity facilitated through technology—either through silicon implants or DNA-programmed augmentation or more simply through machines more conscious than us or outside of us. The worst threat may be in the form of autonomous weapons.[5] Others, who may still believe in the future advancement of technology, may reasonably deny that general artificial intelligence is possible. The task is too difficult. Human intelligence is too complex, contradictory, and complicated. While this emerging debate is one that will have to be investigated thoroughly in the coming years, I will not try to resolve it here. Instead, this debate helps shed light on what it means to be human. Behind all algorithms and programming lies logic, which is a core human faculty. Yet there is something funny about the notion that supremely rational robots can replicate or supplant humanity on logic alone. Stated cynically, humans can be arbitrary, dumb, and irrational. More positively, we have passions and emotions that drive us. We dream. We create. We give meaning. While it is conceivable that programmers could mimic such motivations by using random variable generators or giving more weighting to low probability events in say their random forest, naïve bayes, or neural network algorithms, it is less clear whether machines will be able to dream, desire, suffer, cry, laugh, be humiliated, or be inspired. Will imitation ever be enough to constitute what Alan Turing defined as intelligence or is intelligence more than imitation?[6] If we might wonder, as Thomas Nagel once questioned, what it is to be a bat, will machines wonder what it is like to be human?

This is all another way of asking if there are limits to the utility of logic. It seems to me that if we want to create intelligence like our own, we would need to program such passions and emotions. Further, to prevent an existential threat to humanity, we would need to program machines with some broader strategy to balance not only the negative sentiments such as sadness, fear, greed, hatred, jealousy, and capriciousness but also the incompatibility of other positive values, including liberty, equality, justice, peace, security, knowledge, and excitement.

The Danger of Ideology

We all want to navigate a life that we can comprehend. While we all ultimately live lives within a complex, contradictory, and complicated world, there is a perennial desire to live according to one simple idea, theory, or philosophy. The history of ideas shows us that many peoples have found a single answer. One might say that these answers were rooted in a one-world logic, not one of possible or probable worlds. An extension of a one-world logic is a world of single-mindedness, of one ideology. To these peoples their ideas were or are still the only answer. Yet these answers have all been different and when in confrontation with the ideologies of others, they have led to great conflict, violence, suffering, and the loss of human life. These ideologies range in giving oneself to the gods, their governments, or the good that only they know. The classic philosophical conservative Edmund Burke warned against the danger of violence and adherence to ideology centuries ago in his Reflections of the Revolution in France. And more recently, Isaiah Berlin, in the twilight of his life, warned of the danger of extreme ideology in leading to the atrocities and mass killings of the past. He suggested that there is a need to balance a variety of values. He argued that a respect for the diversity of ideas should be a prime consideration of the future.

The central values by which most men have lived, in a great many lands at a great many times—these values, almost if not entirely universal, are not always harmonious with each other. Some are, some are not. Men have always craved for liberty, security, equality, happiness, justice, knowledge, and so on. But complete liberty is not compatible with complete equality—if men were wholly free, the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. Perfect equality means that human liberties must be restrained so that the ablest and the most gifted are not permitted to advance beyond those who would inevitably lose if there were competition. Security, and indeed freedoms, cannot be preserved if freedom to subvert them is permitted. Indeed, not everyone seeks security or peace, otherwise some would not have sought glory in battle or in dangerous sports.

Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?[7]

In the end, Berlin, by the nature of his argument, offered no simple answer. Instead, he suggested methods: balancing, bargaining, and compromising. However, another method that we could use would be to look at all of these values through the broader framework of dignity. Dignity can be defined in a number of ways. It is an infinitely contestable concept. To find a definition of dignity, one might look toward the first words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights so find some definition. In the preamble, liberty, justice, peace, and pluralism are values that inhere the notion. However, one working definition that I will proceed with, borrowed from Lagon and Arend, considers dignity as double-sided: one must have agency or capacity to live one’s life as they see fit and others must respect and recognize this agency. This definition draws from theories of capacity by Amarya Sen and notions of respect developed by Immanuel Kant. Dignity, hence, is both the ideal of what we should give to ourselves and what we should give to others not like us. How can humanity realize dignity in a world that will be more diverse, decentered, and digital?

Global Ethics: Institutions and Individuals

In essence, in this question we are searching for a global ethic. All too often, ethics are reduced to simple assertions and mawkish sentiment, where right and wrong are reduced to good and bad. This tendency of reduction may be due to the default thinking of a one-world logic. A strategy of sentiment entails the spread of the message to many people in hopes that change will happen. Advocacy then employs the tactics of repetition and amplification. The same calls for values such as human rights, environmental protection, respect, and tolerance are made again and again, in memos, meetings, megaphones, and media. This is hard work, motivated by the brute force of conviction. The problem is that implementation—i.e., the work that may reconcile our horrendous and hopeful worlds—can be slow, lacking, or non-existent. Often times, there is the sense that advocate’s grimaced faces, table-pounding pleas, and tragic photos of victims have little effect. This is not to say that sentiments repeated and shouted aloud are of no value. Again, we need something to drive us beyond logic toward dignity. One might argue that it is only through such hard work that human rights advocacy can succeed: enduring to keep the flame lit low until a time comes when the conditions are right to ignite a great fire. The duty of dignity can seem not to pay off immediately, but the belief in right drives one to hope for deliverance. It drives us to dream.

Normative shifts through such a strategy, though, often move at a glacial pace. For those committed, there is a sense of urgency of action, an irritation at the notion of having to wait when we already know what is right. A more informed, deliberate ethics could expedite this process, giving us a more systematic strategy, combining logic and dignity. This would move us away from reducing matters of right and wrong to good and bad, away from a one-world logic. We start with some moral notion of dignity, but we must apply and confront this notion not only to a present world that is complex, contradictory, and complicated, but also to a future that will likely be more diverse, decentered, and digital.

In general, one might move from moral exhortation to more immediate implementation by framing ethics along two paths: institutions or individuals. Both are legitimate, both are lacking, but in tandem, both can rise us to a greater level of dignity than today. It would be a false choice to say that one or the other is more necessary or deserving of more focus. There are many valid ways that you might ethically approach the future. In Of All Possible Future Worlds, three ethics were presented, offering past ethical approaches, including utilitarianism, neo-Kantian liberalism, and Rawls’s Law of Peoples. These approaches can be reframed in terms of institutions and individuals.

Global Ethics Through Institutions

Our notion here of dignity is drawn from two concepts rooted respectively in the philosophies of Amartya Sen and Immanuel Kant: capacity of self and respect for others. These philosophies have been implemented at institutional levels. Here we can focus on one example at the global level. Sen’s writings on capacity helped lead to the development of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agenda of the United Nations over the last 15 years. The UN system’s successes—normative and practical—in humanitarian affairs, peacekeeping, and development are undeniable.

If one were to review how well the UN has delivered on the MDGs, one would note mixed, but mostly positive results.[8] The world has reduced extreme poverty by half, we are on the verge of meeting targets on malaria and tuberculosis, halving the proportion of people without access to better drinking water sources was met five years ahead of plans, by 2012 all developing regions achieved or were on the verge of achieving gender parity in primary education; political participation of women has continued to increase; and global partnerships in development assistance has rebounded about the 2008 global financial crisis to all-time highs. Yet the institution has also lagged in delivering on some of the goals. Global emissions of carbon dioxide have continued on an upward trend. Deforestation, water scarcity, and species extinction remain challenges. Progress over the last decade on eliminating hunger has slowed. One in four children under five years old experience chronic malnutrition. Preventable diseases make it difficult for more progress on child mortality and more work needs to be done to reduce maternal mortality. As the institution looks ahead at the next fifteen years and the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), member states will be charged with a broader agenda more reflective of our complex, contradictory, and complicated global challenges.[9] Dignity will continue to be the thread that ties together the agenda as the institution has focuses on poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, infrastructure, inequality, cities and settlements, consumption and production, climate change, the oceans, ecosystems, peace and justice, and partnerships.

Aside from goals on development and the need for institutional improvement, one might rightfully make calls to strengthen and reform the multilateral system and make them fit for the complex, contradictory, and complicated purposes of today rather than the power realities of the world in 1945. For instance, we might call to reform the Security Council, strengthen regional organizations and better coordinate their activities with the greater UN, and synchronize all of the UN bodies to deliver more efficiently as one system. We might further look at newer calls for in the near future in the review of the MDGs, the new SDGs, and the high-level panel reviews of peace operations, the Peacebuilding Commission, and Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, as well as the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit.

Abstractly, one of the challenges for global institutions such as the UN, is to balance a multitude of ideologies. In John Rawl’s Law of Peoples, tolerance is a pragmatic strategy to balance these potentially conflicting ideas of many peoples. At both the domestic level of democratic institutions and the global level of international institutions, we see built-in rules, procedures, and routines that in theory are meant to support such tolerance. This tolerance is granted not to all peoples, but to what Rawls called decent peoples. In our terms, these are peoples who respect the notion of dignity: they respect the capabilities of their own people and of others. Hence, a focus on dignity saves us from the notion of giving the devil his due. Moral monsters still exist these days even if their impact is not at the same level as the Hitlers, Stalins, Lenins, Maos, and Pol Pots of the not-too-distant past and of the Miloševićs and Bashirs of the recent past. Yet today’s villains of our horrendous present in ISIS, Boko Haram, human traffickers, and others start with a manner of thinking equally as dismissive of dignity as histories greatest villains. They hold to one idea, maximizing their own capacities without regard for the humanity of others. Their threat is real even if only potential and their current statistics on violence and death pale in comparison to those atrocities of the past. One challenge for institutions is to come to an understanding of how to deal with a devil who in some sense is, perversely, part us in seeking to pursue his or her own vision of humanity but who is also alien to ourselves in their disregard for the thoughts and lives of others. We all have ideologies. Evil in this sense is not some transcendent one of ghosts, spirits, and demons; rather it is a realistic one that is insidious because there is the potential for it to exist inside of all of us—you and me—if we do not respect the lives of others and put in place the conditions of laws, rules, and procedures that might lead us to be our own better selves. Today’s moral monsters dwell in an insidious silence of a moral blankness toward others who we judge are not like us. Institutions are built to prevent us from taking such a stance.

Through an emphasis on tolerance, cooperation, and coordination with other peoples, institutions can help lead us away from the dangers of solipsism, i.e., the notion that no other minds exist other than one’s own. Solipsism is the modality that leads to the perversion of ideology. This denial and disrespect of others’ minds is the mentality that has permitted not only past atrocities to occur, but also the low intensity discrimination that remains ubiquitous and hardly spoken of sincerely and publicly. Ignorance of others first manifests itself, seemingly innocuously, in the words of jokes, epithets, and slurs—as if someone like us cannot hear. It may also come in the form of otherness described by Hannah Arendt: people so different, they are not even worth acknowledgement. This delineation of difference can then escalate into discrimination and then to outright violence. Institutions, at their highest level, are designed to avoid such discrimination to treat all under law, rule, and right equally as some ideal citizen.

And yet, institutions can be abstractions far removed from a person’s everyday realities. They can fail us and demand improvement, and the change they make happens over years, decades, or even centuries. For example, the headlines make it clear that the UN has failed on a number of occasions. Past Security Council inaction in Srebrenica and Rwanda stand out as does present inaction in Syria. World Health Organization coordination failures to adequately respond to Ebola also sheds skepticism on the abilities of international institutions. One might also wonder if an overemphasis on institutions does not consider creatively enough the diversity, decentered, and digital changes that are on the horizon. Further, institutions often have a bureaucratic logic of their own separate from the ends they are supposed to deliver. This so-called iron law of oligarchy, where the interests of the rulers becomes separated from the ruled, might separate them from the threats that peoples outside of these offices experience from the one-minded ideologies of racism, sexism, nationalism, and religious zealots.

Global Ethics by Individuals

Instead of just looking toward a global ethic that implements dignity through institutions, we might also look toward the promise of individuals. My critique of ideologies should not be taken as an appeal to eliminate them, but rather, it is a call to balance and respect them. Again, we all have ideologies: I am not sure there is a way or if it would be preferable to get rid of them. We might then consider a positive aspect of solipsism: an individual mind thinking in a way that no one else can. This entails looking beyond dignitaries of institutions: heads of state, foreign ministers, high-level diplomats, and judges. Though they too play their own roles, we might look at one individual who embodied the notion of dignity perhaps more elegantly than anyone, one individual who dared to dream. Not a president or prime minister, but a preacher.

Just weeks before the end of his life, in front of county and municipal employees—janitors—gathered at the Memphis Sanitation Strike on March 18, 1968, Martin Luther King made an astute observation:

So often we overlook the worth and significance of those who are not in professional jobs, or those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity, and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this . . . All labor has dignity.

This is a calling for a global ethic where the dirty work of dignity is ultimately done by us individuals. An honest debate can be had over whether more impact can be had building institutions or supporting individuals. My inclination is to suggest that while both have impact, focusing on people may have more influence if only because institutions are instruments of our needs and desires. The custodians of institutions are ultimately us. Laws, conventions, rules, norms, and nations only continue if we—or a sufficient number of us—choose to make them go on. Institutions can only persist if they internalize their relevance within individuals.

In this context, another global ethic might be fit for purpose. In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer famously uses the example on the level of individuals: a drowning child in a pond. Most of us would choose to swim in and save the child if there is no apparent danger. The benefit of saving a life, i.e., respecting the dignity of another human being, outweighs the cost of inconvenience, i.e., limits to our own capacities. Singer extends this rationale to the global level and argued that development and humanitarian assistance should be priorities for people in nations that are well-off. This global ethic takes dignity as paramount, individuals as equal, and state boundaries as arbitrary. We live in two worlds. There are billions suffering—needlessly—across the world from conflict, poverty, disease, discrimination, inequality, corruption, and random chance. Yet there are still billions who live in peace, prosperity, health, mutual respect, equality, good governance and random chance. There is so much that those of us in the privileged world can do for others not only without degrading their good lives, but further by impinging a sense of meaning and purpose in their own lives, expanding an understanding of what our best capacities are while also respecting the capacities of others who have suffered from no fault of their own, but rather from arbitrary chance.

And it is that notion of chance, i.e., of probability and uncertainty, and knowing that there are many possible worlds where we could have ended up through no choice of our own that underpins the utilitarian ethic—and even the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. It is in this context that Singer asks what is the best we as individuals can do for others without making the costs too exorbitantly high for ourselves. We might frame this in the context of dignity. Now of course one should not go in the extreme and overemphasize one’s own capacities, forgetting to respect the capacities of others, and lock into the mentality of a savior complex, which maximizes our own egos. Disruption by Silicon Valley, causes by celebrities, and pleas by missionaries all have their proper place and role if well balanced, but they may not be well aligned to greater institutional or system-wide policies or even more problematically to the needs of most affected by the arbitrary. Our natural tendencies for personal glory should be balanced. On the other hand, we do not have to go to the other extreme and sacrifice ourselves to sentiment and sanctimony, and thereby limit our own capacities.

Effective altruism is a movement inspired in part by Singer’s work and the work of behavioral psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose pioneering research highlighted the failures of rationality and the folly of our own cognitive biases.[10] The movement asks, “Of all the possible ways to make a difference, how can I make the greatest difference?” As the name suggests, individuals should seek to make the most impact by evaluating evidence and reason together with empathy for others regardless of nationality, race, religion, or species. Its origins began in 2009, when Oxford philosopher Tony Ord created Giving What We Can, an organization focused on asking people to give 10 percent of their lifetime income to eradicate poverty. One of Singer’s former philosophy graduate students, Will Crouch, also helped launch the social movement. Rather than pursuing a career in the academy, Crouch entered the world of finance and banking, figuring that a high salary would afford him more opportunity to do more good through giving than through directly delivering aid as an development or through working through an international institution as a humanitarian worker. His organization 80,000 Hours helps individuals identify careers that would allow them to have a similar impact. Other powerful individuals, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, in their Giving Pledge campaign have also embraced the implementation of this global ethic, encouraging other wealthy people to dedicate a large share of their fortunes to philanthropy.

Yet one does not have to be a philosopher king or a billionaire or start one’s own nongovernmental organization to make a difference. In A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn draw from this utilitarian ethic of individual action, citing directly the work of Singer and the effective altruism movement.[11] They suggest that kindness and compassion are integral to our humanity and even hardwired into our neurophysiology. In the book Kristof and WuDunn posit,

We crave meaning and purpose in life, and one way to find it is to connect to a cause larger than ourselves. This book is about innovators who are using research, evidence-based strategies, and brilliant ideas of their own to prevent violence, improve health, boost education, and spread opportunity at home and around the world—and to suggest to the rest of us specific ways in which we too can make a difference in the world.[12]

In our context, that larger cause is in creating opportunities for others to realize their own capacity, for us and them to realize dignity. They offer story after story of how individuals can play some role.

One individual is Dr. Gary Slutkin. His Cure Violence program focuses on urban violence and draws from his experience treating cholera in refugee camps in Somalia and medical training in epidemiology. His insight was in conceptualizing gang violence as a virus. To stop the epidemic from spreading, Slutkin enlisted “violence interrupters,” who live in and are known by high-risk communities. Often they have been gang members or spent time in prison, but they have turned away from crime and seek to prevent potentially lethal conflicts through mediation techniques that prevent not only imminent violence but also the norms of violence. The US Department of Justice has found that the program has reduced shooting by as much as 28 percent in some areas and Sltukin estimates that for every dollar spent on his program, the public saves $15.77 in medical and legal costs.

Another individual is Rebecca Beckwith. Her story opens the book and in our context best represents how dignity might operate in a world that will become diverse, decentered, and digital. At eight years old, she pledged to raise $300 for by her ninth birthday for charity: water, an organization that drills wells in villages around the world lacking access to clean water. By her birthday she was only able to raise $220, and just weeks after, Beckwith was critically injured in a car accident. As her condition worsened and her fate would come to an end, others sought to do good in her name: they gave to her pledge. First her friends and family, then neighbors, and then strangers from around the world would give in small increments. Eventually, she raised $1,265,823 for charity: water, which was enough to provide water for 37,000 people. This is the story of how one little girl used the web to fundraise through a social network of individuals scattered across the world to create the opportunity for other individuals the simple ability to drink water.

Through this diverse and decentered orientation, individuals can do good from anywhere, not just those from the developed world. We might look to the students at the Restore Leadership Academy in Uganda, who give to The Mentoring Project in Portland, Oregon. In a reversal of the typical narrative, impoverished students in Africa raise money to help at-risk American students whose fathers are not there. This sympathy springs from these Ugandan children’s own experiences who themselves have lost fathers in the conflicts of their country. While the amount raised is small at $830, it is the principle and practice of doing what one can—whoever one is—that gives credibility to the notion that this global ethic is possible.

Realizing Dignity and Reconciling Our Horrendous and Hopeful World

I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, though long to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.[13]

So far I have illustrated many considerations: a world that is complex, contradictory, and complicated; the pursuit of dignity in a diverse, decentered, and digital future; and balancing ideologies within institutions and individuals through global ethics. My attempt is not to offer one clear theory to unify all of these notions. Rather, I am trying to offer a number of ways to look at the world, ourselves, and how we might approach the future. Though I may not be able to offer some clear answer to all questions, it may be useful to look at two examples of how all of these concepts are related to one another in a reimagination of our horrendous and hopeful worlds.

In America, consider the cases of Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin and racism in the context of law and order as judged by the courts and as enforced by the police. Public outrage occurred with extreme views holding that these institutions are corrupt, that racism pervades the system and the nation. Yet I think reasonable people could still hold that racism is real, but that courts and police do more good than evil. We do not need to eliminate these institutions, but we might look further to the individual judges and officers who make these institutions live or die. There are good and bad cops and judges. While I believe, or hope, that most are good, as a matter of policy, we have to focus on the bad individuals. We should promote racial-sensitivity education campaigns within courts and police stations. And we should remove those corrupt, racist individuals from the institutions that give them a disproportionate amount of power.

The work does not end at the police station. It begins with us. In our countries. In our communities. In our neighborhoods. In our homes. In our minds. Officers grow up in the same places we do, they have friends and family just like yours and mine, they attend the same schools, and they hear what we say in public and in their personal capacities, in private. We individuals have responsibilities to one another to police ourselves from harming others. This past year has been one of seemingly incessant stories of police brutality, negligence, incompetence, and racism. In the borough beside mine, in the Bronx, Eric Garner could not breath. Just miles from where my mom lives, near where I grew up in Hempstead, Texas, Sandra Bland was needlessly harassed by an officer, arrested, and died by hanging. One of the most horrifying aspects of these cases and others like it is that I am not that surprised: we’ve become inured. While I do think racial relations have gotten better since I’ve grown up, I do not remember a time when racial tensions have not existed, when a darker skin tone was not discriminated against, when some bad cops have exploited and overstepped their power. As a kid one hears fried chicken and watermelon jokes, his or her friends say them, then we may say them without consideration of the harm of the subjugation of and an offense against a race and the ignorance of the sameness in others. We then, in general, go on to separate ourselves into groups living in different neighborhoods, attending different schools, and befriending and marrying our own. If we are truly color-blind, why do such divisions persist? This all comes first from drawing arbitrary distinctions and difference, and then not realizing that a privileged status can unconsciously continue or facilitate discrimination.[14] It is in this sense that the devil is inside of us, even if we do not know it, not because a majority of us are shouting epithets and stirring lynchings like in the past: it is because we don’t fully respect the lives of others. Evil lies in our insidious ignorance.

Not all embrace the notion of luck egalitarianism, that from some theoretical perspective our stations in life are determined by random chance and that inequalities and the suffering of others is arbitrary and such injustices should be righted through redistribution, asceticism, and a denial of one’s own privilege. Some of us are selfish. Some of us are dumb or indifferent. Some of us are busy. Some of us only think about their own parochial circles of family, friends, and community. But I think one positive reaction over the last year has come from grassroots movements on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram stating that black lives matter and that we need to more closely evaluate our privilege in order to change the status quo. So-called slacktivism is starting a dialogue at the very least. To me this seems to be the right course of thinking and action. At the very least, it is one that is trying to start to realize a world of more dignity.

In a more global example, one might look at ISIS in the context of the Islamic faith and the institutional caliphate they are attempting to form. Most of the world finds reprehensible the group’s beheadings, kidnappings, the desecration cultural artifacts, and other acts of terrorism. And I think most reasonable people can see that ISIS’s constant cries of apostate represent only one extreme view of the faith. Our cause should not be to take apart mosques brick-by-brick or to crusade in a holy war against an entire religion. Instead we should target not only those individuals who splinter the religion from its own greater good and godliness for ISIS’s own violent and extreme political causes: we should also target those individuals who suffer under such rule. Today, ISIS is establishing institutions and gaining territory not through ideology and not just through fear, but also through socio-economics, politics, and the delivery of services that individuals’ states in Syria, Iraq, and other countries are not providing due to state fragility—and one might say, the rest of the world’s indifference or unwillingness to do more.[15] Revenues from stolen monies, black market oil sales, ransoms, and artifact sales allow ISIS members to give individuals within their enclaves reasons to support them: protection, stability, water, electricity, and food.[16] These are goods that all individuals deserve because they give us humans dignity.

So far our approach from the West has been a short-sighted, single-minded one focused on military means and focused on individuals, but in a peculiar way: killing ISIS leaders through military strikes often in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. The enemy is inhumane, so should his or her death. This is not to say that there are no legitimate reasons to kill: self-defense and protection of others are the chief reasons. An individual who beheads another man and threatens to continue is not someone deserving of life, or to absolute moral pacifists, such an individual should not rationally expect respect of life from his enemy. It is questionable whether such devils deserve any due.

However, the short-sightedness of the rest of the world, is that we do not look at the dignity of those individuals suffering at the hands of ISIS seriously. We take our own security as a means to act. It is our attempt to protect own capacities and threats against our own liberty that move us to act and restrains us from doing more for them. Our military policy serves as an instrument to the politics of a one-sided dignity: that which protects our own capacity, but does not respect the capacities of others not like us. If we were to reorient our policy to those individuals reluctantly supporting ISIS because no one else—their states or the rest of the world—will support them, our policy option set could be expanded. The rest of the world could take more seriously policies that could lead to an end to the civil war in Syria and a more stable government in Iraq, which helped create the vacuum for ISIS to confiscate territory. Such a policy could lead to the responsibility of leaders within the states of Syria and Iraq to protect and serve their own peoples. The rest of the world could also open their borders, raise their quotas, and be more hospitable to those individuals who are refugees. Half of the population of Syria is either internally displaced or refugees, contributing to the greatest number of displaced peoples in the world since World War II. It seems to me that we could save ourselves a lot of hassle and heartache if we were to treat people with more dignity and plan to do so in our thinking on politics and policy.

One might say that this all is much easier said than done. In this world, the Assad regime and rebels are both guilty of atrocities, no side has a clear monopoly of power, and there is no simple political resolution in sight. In this world, Iraq too is fractured along ethnic, religious, and historical cleavages that complicate governance. In this world, domestic constituencies will fear that refugees will consume state resources, distort local economies by taking jobs, and challenge sovereign notions of self-determination of peoples to choose their own culture. And in this world, global norms for other countries tenuously limit a state’s responsibilities to protect its own citizens and not others except in the extreme cases of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. It is perhaps our collective failure to recognize or better define the latter case—which is a failure to recognize the dignity of others—that prevents more action. The great tragedy of this world politics is believing that we can be better selves and do more for others, and yet be trapped in a mental modality that thinks it is impossible to do so because states and structures are deterministic; because institutions are forever fragile fraught with challenges of cooperation and coordination; because human nature is necessarily corrupt, incompetent, selfish, and lazy; and because the future is in some sense already forgone. In such a world, such logic leads to all features being determined and necessary, one cannot hope, dream, or wonder because one already knows. The world is far too complex, contradictory, and complicated for a single, small individual to do anything.

However, I might say this is the one-world logic of only a horrendous world. It is not the logic of another possible, more hopeful world. This view does not look at trends and trajectories leading to a range of possibilities and the promise of a future world that will probably be more diverse, decentered, and digital. It neither goes beyond one point in history, nor beyond logic. And it does not dare to dream of dignity as the driving principle of our future.

[1] See Tomasz Malisiewicz, “Deep Learning vs. Probabilistic Graphical Models vs. Logic,” Tombone’s Computer Vision Blog, April 8, 2015, available at www.computervisionblog.com/2015/04/deep-learning-vs-probabilistic.html.

[2] Mark P. Lagon and Anthony Clark Arend, eds., Human Dignity and the Future of Global Institutions (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2014).

[3] Visit these institutions respectively at www.intelligence.org, www.futureoflife.org, www.cser.org, www.fhi.ox.ac.uk.

[4] Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[5] Future of Life Institute, “Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter from AI and Robotics Researchers,” IJCAI 2015 Conference, July 28, 2015, available at http://futureoflife.org/AI/open_letter_autonomous_weapons.

[6] For a fuller discussion see Byron Reese, “Interview with Stephen Wolfram on AI and the Future,” July 27, 2015, available at www.gigaom.com/2015/07/27/interview-with-stephen-wolfram-on-ai-and-the-future.

[7] Isaiah Berlin, “A Message to the 21st Century,” The New York Review of Books, October 23, 2014.

[8] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015,” (New York 2015), available at www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/MDG%202015%20rev%20(July%201).pdf.

[9] United Nations, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development | Outcome Document for the UN Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” August 1, 2015, available at https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/7891Transforming%20Our%20World.pdf.

[10] Visit www.effectivealtruism.org.

[11] Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

[12] Ibid., pg. 9.

[13] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book 3, Chapter 15, (1859).

[14] See John Metta, “I, Racist,” July 6, 2015, available at https://thsppl.com/i-racist-538512462265?gi=3c7f97bf83a7.

[15] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015, available at www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980.

[16] Sarah Almukhtar, “ISIS Finances Are Strong,” The New York Times, May 19, 2015, available at www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/19/world/middleeast/isis-finances.html.

* D3.js visualization by Mike Bostock, "Connected Particles III," June 26, 2015, available at http://bl.ocks.org/mbostock/280d83080497c8c13152

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.