Beyond the Precipice With a 21st Century Theory of Moral Sentiments

In his latest book The Ages of Globalization (which I will get around to reading and reviewing as soon as I can) Jeffrey Sachs argues that we have reached the 21st Century with “Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technology”, reports Edward Luce of the Financial Times.

In a similar vein Toby Ord, A Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, argues “In the twentieth century, we developed the means to destroy ourselves-without developing the moral framework to ensure we won’t”, in His recently published book “The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity.” I am currently reading this book and will review it soon.

The sentiments expressed by both Sachs and Ord are ones I share. Morals are the principles or rules of right conduct, or the distinction between right and wrong — ethics. We are said to have moral attitudes and opinions — expressions conveying truths or counsel regarding right and wrong conduct. They are said to be founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct, rather than on laws, norms, or customs. And we are said to be moral beings if we conform to the ‘rules’ of right conduct, accepting our moral obligations.

Morals are closely related to what we value, our sense of worth i.e. our values. And we should remember that they are dynamic — they change and evolve. But as Sachs and Ord rightly suggest they seem to always lag behind other changes. We seem to be always playing catch-up.

The importance of morals is clear to most people. They guide our behaviour in ways that others find acceptable or unacceptable, and they lead to social cohesion or the absence of it. That is true in relation to the way we behave, as both individuals and groups, towards others. They are often expressed in our sentiments — our attitudes toward others, how we regard them, our opinions of them.

In my view, the reason we seem to lack the moral framework to avoid destroying ourselves is the absence of widespread serious discussion about these issues.

Within wider society we rarely witness sensible discussion about morals. We do not question, critique, or even consider the philosophies we live by. We do not seek the truths, try, and understand the principles, deepen our knowledge, or question our conduct as a matter of course. We leave that to the professors, politicians, the media, the intelligentsia and professionals — the ‘experts’ many now seem to love to hate. Generally speaking, we have abdicated those responsibilities, so we can criticise them and not be accountable ourselves.

At one extreme, if this continues we risk destroying ourselves as Ord makes clear. Few people realise how close we have already been to annihilating the human race and life on earth by the use of nuclear weapons. But for the last-minute decision of one Russian captain during the Cuban Missile Crisis it is very likely we would have already triggered the apocalypse. Despite being this close, we have yet to learn the lessons.

The ancient philosophers considered the issues or morals deeply and had great influence on their societies. Many leaders of that time were philosophers. Today our leaders are more likely to be populists than philosophers. The vast majority of our leaders offer no moral leadership. They are incapable of doing so. The blame for that does not rest with them, but with us.

This is not a sustainable situation. We must develop a moral framework to ensure we do not destroy ourselves. But how do we do this?

The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith was published in 1759. Given how much has changed in 261 years I suggest we need to create a Twenty First Century Theory of Moral Sentiments, to provide us with the moral framework needed to avoid an apocalypse. But it should not only help us avert disaster. It should also help guide us in pursuit of the full potential of all humanity — to achieve human flourishing and wellbeing.

With this in mind I am currently working on the first draft of the design for a large-scale, long-term, global, and open inquiry to create the Twenty First Century Theory of Moral Sentiments. It will be one of three interrelated inquiries facilitated by the Enlightened Enterprise Academy. Visit the website for more details and subscribe for our newsletter to get further updates.

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Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett

Advocating the purpose of all enterprise should be contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.