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What Is Distinct About Our Era?

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Thought Leaders Michael Walzer, Jonathan Haidt, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Mary Robinson, Jonathan Sacks, Ian Bremmer, Joseph Nye, Kishore Mahbubani, Rebecca MacKinnon, Ethan Zuckerman, Louise Arbour, Andrew Nathan, Robert Kaplan, Brent Scowcroft, and Enrique Penalosa describe what's morally distinct today. DISCUSS >>



  • I was born into a world where the Nazis were ruling Germany and Stalin was ruling Russia. I don't think things can get much worse. We aren't living in anything close to the world we would like to live in, but political regimes of that size committed to mass murder don't at this moment exist in the world. So that is a small improvement in human life.

    Michael Walzer

  • In concert with this extraordinary advance in our knowledge, our communication, our global economic systems, and so on, there is an accelerating destruction of the natural environment and, with it, of irreplaceable natural resources. Climate change, as almost everybody should understand now, has catastrophic potential if allowed to continue. So we have a kind of death race going on for humanity.

    E. O. Wilson

  • Today's world is marked by a very profound paradox. On the one hand, the global economy is connected as a single system more profoundly than ever before, partly because of technological change, partly because of economic change. At the same time, though, you have a system that is still marked by tremendous fragmentation, not just socially, but also mentally and physically, in terms of how people live their lives. There's a real problem of tunnel vision, in many parts of that interconnected system.

    Gillian Tett

  • It does seem like the pace of technological change, the rate at which technology is coming into our lives and changing them and shaping them, has dramatically increased. The rate at which mobile telephony has expanded, particularly in the developing world seems to be distinct in the way technology is influencing our lives.

    Mary Ellen Iskenderian

  • The expansion of the moral circle to the point where people, while they may not care a great deal about what happens far away, care a little. That, to me, is kind of amazing and wonderful. At least when there are enormous natural disasters and genocides, many people around the world actually do care, do exert some influence on their leaders, and leaders feel some pressure to respond.

    Jonathan Haidt

  • Certainly the awareness or the ability to be aware of what's happening to other people in far-flung parts of the world in a way that really wasn't feasible in previous ages. One of the clearest implications of that greater awareness is more attention to some of the inequalities that have already existed.

    Pankaj Ghemawat

  • The term that I often use to describe the world I see today is "imaginary globalization," which is to say I think we have gotten very good at imagining how connected we are to the rest of the world. We're really aware that we're tied together, that we have mutual dependencies, that we're interacting with each other, but we don't know each other very well. Americans have become acutely aware of how intertwined we are with China. But most Americans haven't been to China. Most Americans don't have a very good picture of what China is like or looks like.

    Ethan Zuckerman

  • I think that the twenty-first century is the century of spiritual revolution. That spiritual revolution is different from the Industrial Revolution or informational revolution or bourgeois revolution. This spiritual revolution should be the revolution of coming to the basics of humanity. The basics are the five values of each and every human being: the value of life, the value of freedom, the value of trust or faith, of religion or morality, the value of property, and the value of human dignity.

    Mustafa Cerić

  • The rate of which information travels and the rate at which people can communicate now is so instantaneous. I think the moral implication of that is there's less responsibility and accountability for what people say and do.

    Victor D. Cha

  • Today we are living in a world that has much less of a single moral guidepost. As a consequence, we are in the world today losing some of our moral sensibilities. We are living in a world that is less ethical than the one that we have experienced in the aftermath of World War II.

    Ian Bremmer

  • The connectivity, the pace at which computer power and telecommunications are changing the way information flows, the speed at which it flows, the amount of information that's available, and its effect on public life. Volatility, I think, is one implication. You create volatility.

    Steve Coll

  • When I look out and travel around the world, what I see in many places is an increasing lack of central authority. For decades, we have been used to strong authoritarian states in the greater Middle East, from Morocco all the way to Pakistan. So we're going from strong authoritarian states that were suffocating in their repression to the loss of central authority. That creates more freedom.

    Robert D. Kaplan

  • Globalization, in a word. But disaggregated; this incredible interconnectedness of humanity now through electronic means but also through better transport; the sheer number of people; the fact of a kind of awareness of global issues. I think it makes it harder and harder for individual nation-states' governments to manage the world. It demands a new kind of politics to address political change.

    Carne Ross

  • The inequality between the haves and the have-nots and the rich and the poor. Some people get excessive access to resources whereas a big, big majority get denied. And then those who have such access they are economically and militarily and politically exceedingly powerful. And so those being oppressed feel bitterly hopeless.

    Emily Lau

  • I think many of the questions we face in the world do directly engage a transition from a world of states. We are seeing a whole set of issues, from climate change to pandemics. What do we owe human beings around the world, and what do human beings owe each other? I think it's a new era of international ethics.

    Anne-Marie Slaughter

  • We now have a growth and globalization model without a moral compass. We may have globalization, more interconnectedness, more trade. But what's the moral compass?

    Juan Somavia

  • The levels of violence have gotten much worse and the types of violence that people do to one another—the kidnappings, the beheadings, the acid throwing, the executions, the throat slitting, the indiscriminate shooting of students in universities. The violence is linked to a continued intolerance of minorities. This is something we inherited from the twentieth century, with the purges of Stalin, the Holocaust of Hitler, the killings of Mao of the Chinese people.

    Ahmed Rashid

  • What has changed in the world has been an enormous increase in the flow of information across societies. It has always been the case, I think, that people understood that they had moral obligations to people they knew about. Well, now you know about everybody. So, in a certain sense, this kind of information flow makes it essential that we in some sense take responsibility for everybody.

    Kwame Anthony Appiah

  • The emergence or the joining-in to the economic world over the recent decade and a half of a lot of people that really weren't part of it. I'm talking about China, I'm talking about India, and I'm talking about the former Soviet Union.

    Alan S. Blinder

  • The inequality between rich and poor has gotten much greater. In terms of how much of the remaining poverty and suffering is unavoidable, one would have to say that today pretty much all of it is avoidable.

    Thomas Pogge

  • What's unique about our current global situation is the immediacy with which we encounter people whose views of the world are radically different from ours. You have postmodern cultures and premodern cultures all connected, really, by this global web of communication. One very simple episode, through Google, through Facebook, through the social media, can set in motion a chain of consequences. One conflict, very localized, here, can go global, can go viral.

    Jonathan Sacks

  • In this new age of new technology of information, there is a lot that we have in our hands that can make our life easier. I think this is a revolution. I am very optimistic in the way that the new technology, when used in a good way, can transform in terms of health, in terms of education.

    Bineta Diop

  • I'd say the most important thing about this century, the twenty-first century, is that there is an uptick in the interdependence among people. What are the moral implications of that? I would say, particularly for people in the rich world, it increases people's responsibility to be aware of how what they do and what their policymakers do on a whole range of issues matters for a lot of people, millions and millions of people, who don't have much control.

    Nancy Birdsall

  • The new world, the twenty-first century, is about global communication and global citizenship. The problem is a global demand for institutions dealing with the problems, because it is no more an individual issue, it's a collective action issue. That's why the moral dilemma for the world is collective action.

    Luis Moreno-Ocampo

  • We live in an era where the idea of human rights is a relatively new thing. It really came into its existence as a modern idea in 1948, with the adoption of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At this moment in history we are at a time when the idea of human rights may survive and grow or it may fade out and have less vitality going forward.

    Andrew J. Nathan

  • We are living in one of the most exciting and interesting periods in history in pretty much every aspect of life. Whether it's politics, economics, demographic change, there are significant transformations occurring. The population of the world has skyrocketed. The number one and number two largest economies in the world, the United States and China, have very, very different models of political infrastructure.

    Dambisa Moyo

  • What's unique about our time and age is that we have sort of minimized values very often into prices and we forget that this is not the same thing. There are many values in our lives that simply do not have a price and they are important to us: friendship, ethics, love, aesthetics, clean air, being able to talk with people around you, proximity, feeling attached to the processes that are going around you, all the way to a nice-looking garden.

    Tomas Sedlacek

  • What I see is a historic mixing of people, caused by the explosion of communications and travel, which requires us now morally to deal with a diversity that we've never had to deal with before. It makes a lot of people fearful. The upside is, I think it's becoming increasingly clear that humanity shares a common destiny, that we're in this together.

    Peter Morales

  • In my view, we are living in the best of times ever in human history. In fact, not since human history began have so many people seen such a dramatic improvement in their standard of living as we are seeing today. When I grew up in Singapore, I grew up in a poor family in a poor country. Now I belong to a comfortable middle class in a very happily prosperous country like Singapore.

    Kishore Mahbubani

  • What is really unique about today is the way in which our reality is extending into the virtual. Increasingly, our physical lives and our digital lives are becoming intertwined. This is calling into question a whole lot of issues around power and sovereignty, and the ethics of the exercise of power and sovereignty, and the moral responsibility of the individual.

    Rebecca MacKinnon

  • We live in a time in which human nature is having to accommodate to a lot of new information. But morality is universal and timeless. It comes from the basic condition of being human, which is that we are immensely fragile beings. Yet we have such great hopes and dreams and ambitions. The human spirit is so much more immense than what any human lifespan can achieve.

    Rachel Kleinfeld

  • I think first and foremost, one would be the compression of space through globalization, trade, and infrastructure connections. There is just more instantaneous feedback loops to our behavior.

    Parag Khanna

  • When I look at the world from my personal passion, which is democracy and human rights, it is a little bit better world. When you look to the world 40 years ago, here were a bunch of the countries under the Soviet Union which are solid democracies now.

    Srdja Popovic

  • This is an age divided in two parts, Europe/North America becoming more and more secular, godless; Africa/Latin America/parts of Asia with a firm religious and church-oriented cultural life. That division between those countries that have passed through a process of secularization and those that are still in it seems to me to be the widest fracture in the world today.

    Jay Winter

  • We have come to a stronger sense than ever before of a common humanity. What has changed in the modern world, from 1759 until today, is that we can now see our fellow members of the common human moral universe and we cannot be so blind. We can see the suffering. I think that we have hardwired a sense of human sympathy and, to a certain degree, a sense of justice, a Golden Rule. That's the good news. The bad news is that we also seem to have hardwired in us a degree of tribalism.

    Michael W. Doyle

  • The world is at a unique moment in time because of the connectivity that we have. What many people can no longer claim is ignorance, especially those of us that do have easy access to technology, to the Internet, to information. We know not only that these problems exist, but there are endless options to do something.

    Jessica Jackley

  • Perhaps we have more information about our situation in the universe. We can really see how we all share a destiny—Chinese, Russians, Americans, Colombians.

    Enrique Penalosa

  • There are some qualities of the age we live in that uniquely impact morality. Increased "connectedness" or globalization is one of them. It is exemplified by the instantaneous nature of news and communication that most people on this planet can now access.

    David Shinn

  • What strikes me about the world today is that it's a world of 7 billion people who are more connected than ever before, and yet the divides are huge. We see growing inequality both within countries and between countries.

    Mary Robinson

  • I think what is morally distinct is our consciousness of the disconnect between our values, our aspirations, our capabilities, and our deliverables. We are still very conscious of how much we are falling short of our aspirations.

    Louise Arbour

  • I suppose we face, as we always have done, the challenge of how to sustain human life on the scale it is and at the level it is, on a planet where the pressure on resources is greater than it has ever been. It's a challenge about the balance between the numbers of people and the resources that are available to support their lives.

    David Cannadine

  • What's different about the world today is the extraordinary complexity. Today, with modern communications bringing so many different cultures together, with a whole new set of problems created by technologies and communications, there are many, many more choices that people have to make, and probably there is less of a clear moral hierarchy.

    Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

  • The world now is in the latter phases of what I would call the Westphalian nation-state system. That was a system made up of wholly independent entities who acknowledged allegiance to no higher order than themselves. I think that is now facing increased competition by what I would call the world of globalization, which deals with issues that transcend national borders. More and more of the things that countries, nations, governments want to do for their citizens can't be done nationally. They have to reach out to others.

    Brent Scowcroft

  • We still have tremendous capabilities of improving the human condition and also doing lots of harm to human beings. I think what has happened is that over the last 50 years we have advanced a great deal in terms of eliminating poverty in large parts of the world. Many countries that were poor 50 years ago are no longer poor.

    Fazle Hasan Abed

  • We are facing a challenge of values, what's right and what is wrong. But deep down, there is a move to change, and maybe because of the information and communications technology revolution, the communications revolution, some values are shared, but also there is great resistance, because the values are spreading so fast.

    Chan Heng Chee

  • People are much more aware of alternative views of morality. They may oppose them, they may find them puzzling, but they are aware that there's more than one way to view the world, that their own moralities can't be just accepted as being God-given and certain.

    Lawrence Freedman

  • We do not live any more in the age of modernity where reason, progress, and nation were the leading values. All these modern values have been shaken by the two World Wars and the more recent developments in economy, politics. and culture.

    Hans Küng

  • We have a class of problems where we have the capacity to destroy civilization, destroy ourselves, destroy the planet, because what we're doing right now, selfishly, is not good for us in the long term. I think morality is one of those things. For each one of us, it might be good to cheat a little bit now for our immediate selfish motivation, but at the cost of deteriorating something like the social good or public trust.

    Dan Ariely

  • From an ethical perspective, I think that it's the development of the means to communicate, while I'm not sure that we have more communication. We have so many means to communicate—it could be the Internet, it could be old and new technology, it could be mobile. What is very, very problematic is when you have too many means and less interpersonal relationships, you have ethical questions.

    Tariq Ramadan

  • The big factor for the world today is global communication, the rapidity and the reach of global communication and the fact that anybody, in effect, can post views electronically and have a global audience. We have a more direct picture of one another in the sense that we are aware of what other people are saying, but because of the relatively unmediated nature of this, we don't get much sense of the context of another person.

    Rowan Williams

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