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The Greatest Ethical Challenges?

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Thought Leaders Ian Bremmer, Carne Ross, Dambisa Moyo, Michael Walzer, Rachel Kleinfeld, Ethan Zuckerman, Kishore Mahbubani, Dan Ariely, Thomas Pogge, and Michael Doyle describe humanity's greatest ethical challenges. DISCUSS >>



  • The biggest task today, I think, is global poverty. Raw capitalism in its abridged form really tends to lead to a concentration of capital. Capital is a magnet to other capital and those who have will have even more, and those who do not, even that little of what they have will be taken away from them.

    Tomas Sedlacek

  • I think inequality, which is both caused by human greed but which also has all kinds of other deep structural causes; our unwillingness to control the environmental damage we're doing to the world we inhabit; and our inability to deal with religious craziness.

    Michael Walzer

  • It is almost becoming cliché for us to be talking about 52 percent of the world's population is underutilized. The data is just pouring in at an untold rate about if you can close the economic equality gap between men and women, the benefits that redound in every other aspect of the society are so palpable. While I hesitate to say it's the largest ethical question that we are facing, that is, in part, because it does seem like one that is relatively simple to address.

    Mary Ellen Iskenderian

  • Ultimately, if we're going to reach our potential, if we're going to live in decent civilized societies that don't go to war, it's going to be because we have crossed the demographic transition and the political transition, where the whole world has effective political institutions, the whole world has democratic capitalism, and not crony capitalism.

    Jonathan Haidt

  • The greatest ethical challenge facing the world today is understanding our range of impact, and therefore our range of responsibility. In some ways, the challenge of a connected world is that we're starting to understand the ripples and impacts of every decision that we're having.

    Ethan Zuckerman

  • There are four challenges for us that are over our heads. These challenges I would describe as four roads: from might to right, from slavery to freedom, from mythology to science, and from theory of state to democracy of state. I am afraid that these four very important achievements of this civilization are now challenged. I am afraid that right is almost losing its power to might, that science is losing its power to mythology, that freedom is losing its momentum to slavery, and that even democracy is somehow becoming a frustration for many.

    Mustafa Cerić

  • The greatest ethical challenge that the planet has is distribution of scarce resources. That means across countries, that means within countries.

    Ian Bremmer

  • Poverty and inequality, the gap between those who have benefited from globalization and industrialization, and those who have not.

    Steve Coll

  • The biggest challenge we face today is that there's more than one challenge. Each of them makes unadulterated claims upon our activity, commitment, resources, attention. If there were just one, we would live in an easier world. But we don't.

    Michael W. Doyle

  • The biggest ethical question in international affairs is how great distant powers can operate so as to reduce suffering that is in turn caused by weakening central order in societies throughout the former colonial world.

    Robert D. Kaplan

  • The biggest challenge we are facing now is the crisis in capitalism and representative democracy. We have an economic model that is not working. It is producing success in only a very narrowly defined way, of economic growth. That growth has not been fairly distributed. It is causing great damage to the planet.

    Carne Ross

  • For me, the most important problem is human trafficking. It's everywhere. It's not about just Asia or Cambodia or Vietnam. Trafficking, for me, is so important because it's about humans, it's about the people, it's about the women.

    Somaly Mam

  • The alleviation of poverty or, more generally, the reduction of inequality. In the United States, for more than 30 years now, with a few little breaks, we have been moving towards a more unequal society. That's point one: the level of disparities. Point two, which may be more important, is that these disparities are growing. The third aspect, which I find also very troubling, is that what used to be true about intergenerational mobility is not true anymore.

    Alan S. Blinder

  • In my mind, the biggest moral challenge we have has to do with global warming. This is a really complex question. It's a question about now versus later. It's a question about collaboration between different nations. It's a question where we individually cannot do very much, but the collective action is incredibly important.

    Dan Ariely

  • It's our ecology, climate change and resource depletion in particular, it's the poverty problem, which drives overpopulation, and then it is various security problems that have to do with advanced technology. We have to bring these under control and try to create governance institutions that will banish these problems.

    Thomas Pogge

  • There are huge ethical tensions—number one, this idea that you can have markets without morals. You have a situation today where global corporations find it quite easy to locate production in one part of the world, distribution in another part of the world, and pay taxes in a third part of the world. All of these are creating huge problems of the responsibility of corporations to local communities.

    Jonathan Sacks

  • I think, wherever you are, you need to see the status of women improve, and the conditions in society as well. I am a Muslim and I understand the Quran. But if you look at what the fundamentalists will tell you about the Quran, I think it is a misinterpretation. So the challenge is to open the minds of the people and also to say that tradition should not mean, or even religion doesn't mean, alienating your people.

    Bineta Diop

  • I'd say two things concern me. One is that the progress, what I would call the huge successes of development, have left out still maybe half a billion people, maybe a billion people. We have a group of states that are called in the development community fragile states or failing states or weak states. The second thing that worries me is climate change.

    Nancy Birdsall

  • We face the disparate impact on the world's people of everything that is done—whether it's climate change, whether it's the way the world economic system works—that you have people living in poverty with short life expectancies, with a heavy disease burden, suffering disproportionately from the impact of climate change. I think this whole question of the fairness of distribution is a big ethical problem that touches on many of the policy decisions that we have to participate in.

    Andrew J. Nathan

  • My greatest concern right now is our ability to continue to deliver economic growth in a sustainable way. It's about continuing to put a meaningful dent in poverty. Issues around income inequality, concerns about resource constraints and scarcity, and how these things may play out in terms of our ability to continue to deliver economic performance and improvement in people's livelihoods.

    Dambisa Moyo

  • There are corporations in this world that are bigger than most governments, and they are very powerful and they run the world.

    Syd Mead

  • We actually, for the first time, live in an era when everyone can have a decent and good life. We can pull that off. We have the know-how to do that. But we have not produced the kind of moral understanding that leads to the kinds of political systems and public sphere that allow that to happen.

    Peter Morales

  • It is amazing that more than 2 billion people do not have access to electricity. It's Africa, it's India, some parts of Latin America. All people equally, let's say, have a right to have a very healthy and comfortable life. Access to energy, access to electricity, is a very important part of the issue—or a solution or a program—that we have to tackle.

    Nobuo Tanaka

  • The number one ethical priority we should make today is to get everyone to be aware that we live in a small global community. When you live in a small global community, we should be aware of the impact of our actions on the rest of the people living in the same global community.

    Kishore Mahbubani

  • How do you achieve accountable governance that also protects rights of minorities of global digital spaces, where you have all kinds of groups trying to use the technology to achieve their goals in different ways, and to manipulate it sometimes? How do we ensure that as this globally networked system evolves, it's kind of grounded in a global system of ethics, of human rights norms, of justice that can conserve the rights and interests of everybody on the network, everybody who is using the technology, not just the most powerful or the most connected?

    Rebecca MacKinnon

  • I would love to see the expansion of human empowerment, of human flourishing. I think one of the greatest injustices of our time is that while people are born with ability and values and equality at birth, the distribution of ability to get things done in the world, of education, poverty, war, conflict, movements because of refugee activity—all of that is extremely unequally distributed, fundamentally unjust.

    Rachel Kleinfeld

  • The greatest ethical challenge facing the planet in the long term is the need for individuals, organizations, and states to protect the global environment. A growing population, at least until 2075 barring some catastrophic event, and diminishing resources is a formula for a very bad outcome that will impact everyone on this planet.

    David Shinn

  • I think it is to move away from cycles of geopolitical hierarchy and presumed superiority, or the right of any one nation or empire to be the dominant power in a given era or time, to move away to a completely different psychology around global systems and structures. I think that is really the supreme challenge, because when you switch that frame, I think it opens up the door to completely different kinds of thinking around how we do global governance.

    Parag Khanna

  • Issue number one for me is democracy. The world is moving towards the right direction when it comes to the numbers. More and more people are free, more and more countries are free every year. But there is so much work to be done. We need to understand the basic mechanism for democracy is people power. So democracy is not something imposed from upside-down; this is something coming from downside-up.

    Srdja Popovic

  • I think the biggest ethical question, period, is how we really see ourselves and how we see each other. If you really believe in human potential in yourself and in others, I think the moving around of resources and the creation of new technologies and innovation—everything takes care of itself and will be directed in the right manner.

    Jessica Jackley

  • The great challenge is to learn how to live better. The least we can do is to achieve a situation where every child that is born is wished for—hugged, loved, desired.

    Enrique Penalosa

  • For me the greatest human rights challenge, and therefore ethical challenge, is the injustice of the fact that weather shocks and severe climate change are affecting the poorest who are least responsible. But there is another kind of justice, and that is intergenerational justice. For the first time in human history, the activity of human beings is causing a danger to Earth itself and to the future of the human species and other species.

    Mary Robinson

  • I believe that we have achieved very high levels of universal norms enunciation, in legal instruments, in our literature. I think the normative environment is very impressive. The disconnect is between the norms and their enforcement.

    Louise Arbour

  • Climate change is something which is long term and certainly affects how we treat the planet for our progeny, although it is less immediate than future-oriented.

    Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

  • For most of world history, the bulk of the world's population didn't engage in the political process at all. They lived their own little lives. They lived just like their parents lived. They thought their children would live just like they did. That was the order of things. Now, with modern communications—cell phones, TV, everything—they look out and they look at TV and they say, "It doesn't have to be that way." I think this has given rise to an upwelling of a demand for what I would call dignity.

    Brent Scowcroft

  • We've gone back to global rivalries, great power rivalries, and what has emerged, which is very disturbing, is, in fact, inter-ethnic conflict and what I see also as a bit of a civilization conflict and clashes between the Muslim world and the Western world.

    Chan Heng Chee

  • Clearly there is a set of problems by which the world is beset—poverty would obviously be one, a lack of education would be another, malnutrition, illness would be another, global warming would be another—which are not confined to individual nations and which require treatment on a scale which transcends the limitations of national politics and national sovereignty.

    David Cannadine

  • The point about politics and ethics is always one of choice. If morality were easy and showed a clear way forward, then we wouldn't have so many problems. But often you're posing one morality against another. So I don't think there's a single ethical issue that dominates all. I think what you need are ways of interspersing ethics with political analysis.

    Lawrence Freedman

  • I think gender equality is so important for human well-being that patriarchy needs to be defeated in most countries. Patriarchy is so entrenched in most countries that probably it will take many more lifetimes to completely defeat it. It certainly has taken my lifetime to try and defeat it.

    Fazle Hasan Abed

  • The greatest challenge is the current rapid accumulation of global crises. We live in a time where several fundamental crises are influencing and reinforcing one another. We are seeing the emergence of climate crises and energy crises, financial crises and economic crises, debt crises and national crises.

    Hans Küng

  • Empathy is one of the great ethical priorities of the day, and it is part of the recognition that our humanity is something we share, a sense that the problems that the human race faces cannot be resolved by one person, one group, one nation, one religion alone, understanding that we share the same vulnerability, that it is not a world in which the strong can pretend that they don't share the problems of the weak.

    Rowan Williams

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