CREDIT: Stephen Taylor.

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Ambassador David Shinn, who is currently an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. During his 37 years at the Department of State, he served as ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-99) and Burkina Faso (1987-90).

DEVIN STEWART: What is morally distinct about the age we live in? Is "connectedness" part of it?

DAVID SHINN: In the grand scheme of things, morality or a basic understanding of and acting on the basis of what is right and wrong has not changed very much over the centuries. There are, nevertheless, 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. Communication of incendiary developments too often quickly incites others to take negative responses. There is no time for a cooling-off period.

There are two other qualities that make the current age different from the past. There are more people inhabiting the planet than ever before, thus putting more pressure on scarce resources and driving more people into confined urban spaces. I would also argue that it is easier today for people, either as individuals or as part of an organized group, to inflict harm on ever larger numbers of innocents or perceived enemies.

DEVIN STEWART: Are things getting better or worse?

DAVID SHINN: The developments that I suggested above imply that the situation is getting worse. But this may be premature. The global population today is about 7 billion. The global population growth rate continues to fall and the world's population is projected to peak at about 9 billion in 2075 and then begin a slow decline. While 2 billion more people on this planet will add to the stress, it should not be catastrophic. The bigger question is whether more individuals and organized groups will take it upon themselves to cause harm to others. Over the next 10 to 15 years, I am pessimistic. Over the longer term, this negative trend may run its course.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there an emerging trend of "global consciousness" or "global awareness"?

DAVID SHINN: The short answer is yes, but this is misleading. For example, extremist Islamic jihadi groups probably believe that they are acting as part of a "global consciousness" because they are convinced everyone should be part of their cause. But most people do not accept the goals of the jihadis and in the view of this much larger majority, the jihadis clearly are not part of a "global consciousness."

The persistence of stronger ties to ethnic groups than larger national, not to mention global, entities also runs counter to "global consciousness."

On the other hand, growing awareness of and desire to mitigate global threats such as climate change and nuclear proliferation suggest there is a trend toward "global consciousness." Everything considered, I think the answer to this question is stuck in neutral.

DEVIN STEWART: What does moral leadership mean to you?

DAVID SHINN: To me moral leadership means a leader who follows a recognized program of moral and/or religious principles. I am somewhat troubled, however, by the term moral leadership. Too often it is used to support a particular political, economic, religious or social agenda. When this happens, it is often intolerant of other points of view and can actually be harmful to the wider society.

I think it is more useful to talk about ethical leadership than moral leadership. I applaud leaders who are moral. If they try, however, to impose their view of morality on those who disagree for religious or other reasons, they only worsen the situation.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you define global ethics?

DAVID SHINN: I see global ethics as a process rather than something that lends itself to a widely accepted definition. Some argue, for example, that global ethics is the necessary minimum of common values, standards, and basic attitudes that can be accepted by all religions and non-believers. This lowest common denominator approach is unhelpful. It really says nothing.

What is important is to keep the global ethics debate alive in as many arenas as possible so that an increasing circle of individuals and opinion leaders can increase their common agreement. Unfortunately, there will always be a minority of outliers who refuse to be brought into the circle and will have to be confronted with ostracism or worse by the overwhelming majority who can agree on acceptable behavior.

DEVIN STEWART: What issue or idea concerns you most? Where do you see future conflicts emanating?

DAVID SHINN: My most immediate concern is the poor treatment that majorities inflict on minority groups: ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural, regional, et cetera. Mistreatment of minorities has caused conflict throughout history and promises to continue to do so. I am especially troubled by religious intolerance. All organized religions teach peace and love of others. At the same time, all organized religions have fringe elements or at certain points in history act in a way that uses religion to conduct hatred and violence. This is inexcusable. In the foreseeable future, I believe ethnic and religious differences will continue to cause the majority of conflicts.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet? What is the common motif of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Is it "pluralism" or perhaps "responsibilities" and "accountability"?

DAVID SHINN: 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.

DEVIN STEWART: What should our priorities be, from a moral point of view? What should we do about it? What are the implications of this dilemma?

DAVID SHINN: The highest priority is to convince the leaders of all religious institutions that tolerance of dissenting views, so long as those views are not intended to harm others, must be at the heart of their agenda.

DEVIN STEWART: How can businesses, policymakers, or individuals respond? If we don't respond, what kind of future should we expect?

DAVID SHINN: The single most important action that can be taken is to increase the emphasis on ethics in all aspects of the global educational system beginning at the lower grades. At the beginning the message can be simple, such as treat all people with dignity unless they are dedicated to doing harm to others. The message can become more complex and sophisticated over time. The same effort must take place in all religious institutions. Business ethics need to be given higher priority in business schools and company training programs. Military establishments need to emphasize what is acceptable and unacceptable in war. Police departments need to spend more time teaching new recruits and retraining older ones about acceptable ways to maintain law and order. It is all about education.

DEVIN STEWART: Describe a brighter future and how we might get there. Can you make a prediction for the next 100 years?

DAVID SHINN: Every individual, organization and state needs to commit to making the planet a better place to live or, at a minimum, to do no harm to others. Clearly, there will not be 100 percent compliance. This goal may be too idealistic but even success on the margins could make a difference. It should be part of the educational effort mentioned above.

I am not comfortable making 100-year predictions.

DEVIN STEWART: What moral problems should organizations, universities, and individuals focus on?

DAVID SHINN: Identify realistic ways to reduce political marginalization, economic inequality, religious intolerance and discrimination while enhancing global economic development and grassroots political participation.

DEVIN STEWART: What issues are being ignored? What is possible but unlikely?

DAVID SHINN: Strictly speaking, I doubt that any issue is being ignored. Everything is being studied or discussed somewhere. Some issues properly should have a lower priority than others. I suspect that the truly major challenges are currently at the top of the list of concerns. The problem is that people, groups and states have limited time and resources to devote to ethical issues. Perforce they must pick and choose.

DEVIN STEWART: How can the world reach its potential and what are the structural roadblocks?

DAVID SHINN: In the immortal words of Walt Kelley's Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

DEVIN STEWART: Is world peace possible?

DAVID SHINN: I believe it is possible to avoid a global conflagration, but it is not possible to ensure peace globally. At any given time, I believe there will always be armed conflict in one or more location. On the other hand, some conflicts can be avoided or reduced in scope. This is probably the best that can be hoped for and it is worth the effort.

DEVIN STEWART: Who is ultimately accountable for the problems you have outlined?

DAVID SHINN: I return to Pogo. In the final analysis, each of us is responsible for solving or mitigating the problems I have outlined. States, international organizations, and especially religious and educational institutions, have a disproportionate responsibility, but it still comes back to the individual. Each individual must treat others as that person wishes others to treat him or her.