The New World
I’ll begin with a blunt statement: from a moral perspective, in just a few short years, our world has been transformed.
As a result of this transformation we now live in a new world: a world where ethical values have been hollowed out, where integrity, honesty and intelligence are devalued, a world where the overload of information, opinion and belief has left us disorientated and confused. This is the world epitomised by Donald Trump. It is the world of Brexit in the UK, of Putin in Russia, of Netanyahu in Israel and Bolsonaro in Brazil. In this new world – as Donald Trump, Netanyahu and Putin repeatedly warn us – we must not trust our judiciary, our civil servants or our elites. Teachers, journalists, academics and experts of all kinds are not to be taken at their word. Here, in this new world, we are no longer able to trust even each other. Take the briefest look at social media and you will see the truth of this. A war is underway. Our new world is one of conflict and distrust, of friction, outrage and fear.
This world has not of course sprung from nowhere, unannounced. Its origins are as clearly visible in the eras of Clinton and Blair as they are in those of Reagan and Thatcher: in the increasingly political use of our language; in the centralisation of power and wealth amongst an unaccountable elite.
Yet one name represents our new world more than any other – and even before I say that name you know precisely of whom I speak. The flag bearer of our new world is the President of the United States: the intensely hated and intensely loved, divisive Donald Trump.
In Praise Of President Trump
Despite what his critics say, President Donald John Trump is not wrong in his assessment of himself. By his own measure and morality he is the most successful US president there has ever been. Let us pause for a moment to consider his achievements.
- Beyond doubt Donald J Trump has created the strongest and most pervasive leadership brand ever encountered in the modern world. What distant and secluded land would you have to inhabit for him to be unknown to you? Who on Earth hasn’t heard of him? Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or any other of our home-grown UK populists are PR novices in comparison to President Trump. What a triumphant branding success!
- He has placed himself well and truly at the centre of world attention. The world’s media await his every tweet. With almost neurotic anxiety the world’s leaders ponder his every move. He has inserted himself into all our lives, on social media, on television, in the papers… even, it sometimes seems, into our thoughts. What celebrity, what brand leader, what president, even, could have hoped for more?
- He has wrong-footed his critics and opponents at every turn. Criticism on ethical grounds, on fiscal grounds, on the grounds of political procedure or presidential responsibility seem not to matter. Nothing sticks. And for those of his opponents who want to work with him, to compromise… They might as well seek compromises with a stone.
- He has achieved levels of polarisation, disruption and division greater than he could possibly have desired. He has created and exulted in crisis after crisis. Disruption gives rich pickings in the dog-eat-dog world in which he believes. The outcomes of Crisis A, Emergency B or Catastrophe C hardly matter so long as they don’t personally harm Donald Trump. The manufacturing of each crisis is its own success.
- He has undermined the checks and balances of governance, both within the United States and internationally. Neither he, nor the types of leader he admires (Putin, Kim Jong-un, Erdogan) believe in such checks or balances. They are an impediment and a nuisance – and best got rid of.
- He has increased the wealth of the corporations and the super-rich, himself and his family included.
- He has eased the path of big business in the United States, removing the regulations and controls hated by his billionaire allies and friends.
- He has reinforced the power of the political Right, giving them an edge in the highest US courts for generations to come.
- He has inspired a network of mimics – would-be oligarchs and plutocrats – all around the world.
- And, despite all the above not seeming to greatly benefit the average citizen of his country, and despite his inherited wealth, his privileged schooling and his focus on personal gain, he has convinced large numbers of voters that he is a man of the people – that he is working for them and fighting their corner.
I could go on. These are not the achievements of a failure. In fact, in the light of such successes, Barack Obama looks like the small change in Donald Trump’s pocket.
But there is a catch. The wins of Donald Trump do not easily translate into wins for ordinary Americans. In fact, from an ethical perspective, President Trump’s many successes are already delivering considerable harm.
The Impacts Of Donald
President Trump is not an inconsistent man. Though his opponents may claim otherwise, they are inspecting him at too small a scale. Close up, decision by decision, he seems unpredictable, unreliable and contradictory – but if we step back we can see that he lives by a clear and well-defined moral code. His morality, if we may call it that, is “What’s in it for me?” It’s the morality of “Winner takes all” and “Whatever it takes to get you what you want, that’s ok.” He makes no bones about this being his criteria of good conduct. And he applies it with rigor.
And here is another of Donald Trump’s great triumphs. His ethic of “I’m in it for Number One” has taken our world by storm. It has become the dominant meme of our television and social media, the dominant philosophy of our politics, our economy, our everyday working lives. The more traditional ethical codes have been swept aside. They are part of the old world, not the new.
Donald Trump’s tenacity and ability to follow through on this ethic (supported by his media allies, by the majority of US wealth-hoarders and by the religious right) has had a profound impact. It has legitimised:
- The demotion of truth
If self-interest is more important than truth, then why should truth matter? If truth doesn’t serve your interests, discard it. If a lie serves you better, use it. After all, winner takes all. This is core Trump morality: truth comes second; personal gain comes first.
- The relativity of truth
It is commonplace now to suggest that we all the owners and sole arbiters of the facts. “Facts are subjective,” we are told. “Everyone has their own facts.” And given the demotion of truth to the role of subservient bystander, it is not surprising that the world of truth and fact should seem this way… Truth has become whatever we assert is true in order to serve our own interests… so why should one person’s truth be any better than another’s?
- A tolerance of lies
If personal gain is everything, why wouldn’t you tell lies to achieve that gain? It’s a no-brainer. President Trump lies and gets away with it. More than that, President Trump lies and achieves adulation and wealth. And look at our elites – the rich, the educated and the powerful – they all tell lies… so why shouldn’t we?
- A polarization of opinion and the weaponisation of memes
The ascendancy of self-interest goes further. If self-interest is paramount, then why shouldn’t I believe in anything I want to believe in, in whatever suits me or appeases my whim, my inclination, my latest, basest appetites or instincts? And if truth is – in our new world – fundamentally irrelevant, then why not stick to my self-approving and self-interested opinions and beliefs no matter what? They don’t need defending in any intellectual sense since they are my truths. They become a form of territory. The old-fashioned version of truth has no bearing on the matter. I’ll defend my territory no matter what. And I’ll assert my territorial rights to my opinions over your territorial rights to yours by whatever means available. Facts are just tools to support a cognitive imperialism. Areas of contention (vaccination, taxation, Obamacare, Brexit) are just weaponised memes deployed for self-interested purposes. The truth? Who cares about that?
- An encouragement of distrust
In our new world, where our code is “Dog eat dog” and “Each for his own”, how can we possibly trust anybody? In fact – and this is on-message Trump – you shouldn’t trust anybody. They are out for themselves – and that’s how it should be. That’s how they succeed. And it’s how you should be, too. We are isolated individualists. This is a win or lose world. The only person you can trust is yourself.
- The hollowing out of morality
So the message is very simple. In fact, its simplicity is its attraction. You don’t have to think too long or hard about the impacts of what you do. You don’t have to worry too much about the further ramifications or longer term implications. Other people need to stand on their own two feet. Success and goodness are one and the same. Why worry about complicated things, like having integrity, like caring what happens to others? Just look after yourself. That’s the way the world works. It’s a dog eat dog world – and it’s best not to interfere with a dog while it eats. Look after yourself. All the other stuff is irrelevant.
- The neutering of integrity
So, in this simple and straightforward world where self-interest is king, integrity has become as irrelevant as truth. What does it even mean? Whatever gets me what I want goes. Idealists, communists and fantasists may hark on about integrity – but we live in the real world. Let’s focus on what matters. Let’s look out for ourselves.
- The politicization of language
Given all the above it becomes clear that to use words as a mechanism for meaningful communication, a sharing of understanding or a way of achieving intellectual agreement is a non-starter. Why go down that route? It’s arduous and slow and doesn’t serve self-interest. What does it matter if what we say is consistent or inconsistent, true or false, kind, unkind, moral or immoral – it only matters that it gets us what we want. Words are tools of manipulation. The language of our new world is the language of the bludgeon, the language of the bully, and, almost by definition, the language of propaganda. The super-successful President Trump (super-successful by his own measure, at least) reflects this use of language. He is a genius of manipulative verbiage, a super-producer of propaganda. And since propaganda is not a discussion, it means that aspiring to meaningful dialogue with Donald Trump is problematic. It’s a little like trying to speak Latin to a fish. Propaganda isn’t communication. Latin isn’t a language which a fish understands. The propaganda needs to be dealt with first, on its own terms, as propaganda. Talking can come later.
These impacts are not accidental. They are perfectly consistent with the ethic of self-interest. Their message is appealingly simple. Go for what you want. Do what you want to do. Use language how you like. Use truth if it suits you. If it doesn’t, don’t. Brazen dishonesty is honesty: it’s being honest about being dishonest. And being dishonest when it serves your interests is what any sensible person would do.
But just because these Impacts of Donald are coherent, consistent and attractively straightforward, this does not make them beneficial. In fact, the reverse is true.
How Societies Survive
In my book Intelligent Ethics I argue that a coherent ethical code is essential to the survival and flourishing of human civilisations. A shared moral code is both the glue that holds us together and the oil that allows the wheels of society to turn. But not any code of behaviour will do. The capitalism which has carried our world towards the greatest levels of prosperity humanity has ever known would never have been so successful if, right from the start, you couldn’t take a person for their word. It would never have worked if ruthlessness and vicious self-interest were the only factors at play. Other essential inputs were needed, like integrity, like honesty, like a determination to repay your debts – like a recognition of fairness in the making of a deal – codes of behaviour rooted in the religions and moralities of the day. And, for businesses to thrive throughout a whole nation or across the whole world, these other factors require universality. I don’t just need to know that I can trust you when you’re right here in my face; I need to know that I can trust you when you are four thousand miles away – and yet somehow connected to me by our cleverly constructed web of commerce and social interaction.
In the ethics of our new world, the world of Donald Trump, there are only two drivers of behaviour: self-interest and fear. Do whatever best serves your self-interest or do what you are forced to do by fear of repercussions or reprisals. But these two codes don’t give you the universality that a functioning morality needs – the type of functioning morality that any human society needs if it is to flourish or even merely survive. A morality capable of sustaining flourishing societies needs to be transferable. It can’t be based on just doing a thing because it suits you or me, here and now. It needs to be based on doing it because it is the right thing to do. Do it wherever you are, no matter what the immediate benefits or costs, no matter whether or not you are being watched. Do it because it’s your duty. That’s how moral people behave.
Pure selfishness cannot give you this universality, this transferability on which social cohesion depends. Even the selfishness of groups, clans, classes or nations won’t provide this. Nor will fear. We have seen again and again throughout history the fate of societies whose ethos has atrophied into one based on selfishness or fear. They are no longer with us – or, where they are, they are failing to thrive. In the main we now live in the most successful civilisation there has ever been: billions of humans working together to sustain the modern world. But this has only been possible because of shared systems of value inherited from the past. Value systems which our new world, the world of Donald Trump, the world of Netanyahu in Israel and Bolsonaro in Brazil, is pushing to one side. Our wonderfully successful civilisation is in danger of failing because it is losing the systems of value which allowed it to arise.
And other dangers, too, are coming to the fore: The overweening power of monopolistic corporations. The jaw-dropping centralisation of economic power and wealth. Technological disruption and the unregulated advances in genetic engineering and AI. The ransacking of the natural world and the appalling risks of climate change.
The ethos of our new world, the demotion of truth, the encouragement of distrust, the hollowing out of morality and the politicization of language cannot cope with these dangers – it is in fact sustaining and fuelling them.
Something else is needed. An ethos which can tackle both the dangers that we face and the incredible opportunities that await us.
In Intelligent Ethics I reimagine an ethics capable of addressing these encroaching opportunities and risks. I identify a source of moral authority which is simple and profound, which is easy to affirm and yet retains the features of universality, transferability and intelligence. But there is no need to agree with the source of moral authority which I identify – you may still agree with the core moral aims which I derive from it, moral aims which it appears to me are now essential to the survival and flourishing of the human world.
I illustrate these aims below:
The moral compass of Intelligent Ethics
The first two of these core moral aims – the nurturing of humans as individuals and the nurturing of humanity as a whole – are not unusual. They are common to many ethical systems of the present and the past. They are what allow us to trust one another. The moral person is not just looking out for themselves, they are looking out for the people around them, also. The moral person doesn’t just care about their own isolated community of neighbours and friends, they recognise that we are all in the same boat, all part of the same species, and that for a child to suffer on the other side of the world is as bad as for a child to suffer in our neighbour’s home.
The third moral aim of Intelligent Ethics is the nurturing of all life. This is an aim which it is essential for us to embrace if our biosphere is to be restored to good health, if we are to prevent life-threatening climate change. In asserting this aim, we assert that we must value not just the thriving of each other and of our species, but also the thriving of all the life around us, of the biological world upon which our civilisation and potentially the very survival of our species depends.
And the fourth? This is subsidiary to the first three. No matter the ambitions of our billionaires or our governments, they will never succeed in delivering sustainable life to other habitats or planets if we are unable to sustain life here on Earth… And yet the sharing of life with the solar system and the stars is not a trivial ambition. Imagine if we are able to renew our world, if we are able to create an Eden of justice and sustainability upon Earth. What then? Humans are not built to idle away their lives in Utopia, even if such a Utopia is achievable. Our species needs a project, and what greater project could there be, after we have resolved our issues at home, than the sharing of life with the bleak spaces beyond the boundaries of our world? Life gives meaning to a universe of dead matter. Why not take that meaning to places where none has been before?
A New Way Of Seeing
But asserting our commitment to humans, to humanity and to all life is not quite enough. We are still trapped in a world of propaganda, a world of manipulative language, of dishonesty and division. If we want our society to survive, if we are keen to reorganise it along ethical lines, then we need to learn how to see through the barrage of information, disinformation, fake news and spin. We must unshackle our minds. We must liberate the power of sight.
My second book, Ethical Intelligence, a companion to Intelligent Ethics, offers a number of techniques toward this end:
The seven disciplines of Ethical Intelligence
Or in more detail:
- Think first
Don’t wait until someone or something else – be it person, algorithm or machine – does your thinking for you.
- Embed your thinking in the moral context
Question the things that social media, your politicians, your elites and even your friends are encouraging you to agree with or do. How do they fit into what ‘doing good’ or ‘being a moral person’ means?
- Use the language of understanding
Adopt the language and the thought patterns of understanding. “My understanding is this…” “With the information I have so far it looks as if…” “Help me understand…”
Understanding encourages tolerance. It encourages true communication rather than the use of words to bludgeon or to bully. Together we can come to a mutual understanding. If we have disagreements we can reassess the basics of our understanding, the evidence on which it is based, and come to an improved understanding on which we both agree.
- Be ambitious in your thinking
Humanity has accomplished wonders – and we have only just begun. Why not create the beautiful, the astounding, the original? Why not turn our world around and make it work in brand new ways?
- Be honest
Value honesty in your words, in your thinking, in your self-awareness and in your actions. Value it also in the words and actions of others. A dishonest person cannot be moral. A person does not have integrity if they lie.
- Root your thinking in reality
Base your understanding on the evidence. The more closely your personal ‘map of the world’ meshes with reality, the more empowered you will be in owning your own life, in understanding what is influencing you, in controlling that influence and in contributing to an ethical world.
- Aim for ever greater understanding
It is in the nature of understanding that it can always improve. It is the nature of our universe that total, inflexible certainty about just about anything is almost certainly a mistake. Far better to be alert to new evidence and prepared to adapt and improve.
With these disciplines to assist us, and with our core moral aims to hand, we are now better prepared to deal with the transition that has overtaken our world.
The Restoration Of Trust
The demotion of truth in the world of Trump, in the world of Brexit, of Bolsonaro and of Netanyahu, depends upon truth’s usurpation by self-interest. But if we assert and affirm the moral context it becomes clear that self-interest alone cannot provide the weight or authority necessary to sustain our world. If societies are to work then we must apply a more sophisticated morality, a morality where other people matter, where truth cannot be whatever I choose it to be. My truth needs to be your truth also. It needs to be universal: to apply in your neck of the woods as well as mine. If we are to work together to sustain a complex and thriving society, one capable of delivering fulfilment and happiness, one capable of restoring the balance of nature, then the normalisation of dishonesty must be reversed. This is not even a moral statement: it is just common sense. Dishonesty undermines cohesion. Dishonesty damages our ability to work together to produce wonderful things, like science, like medicine, like wind turbines and solar power, like electric cars and the internet.
A flourishing society and a thriving civilisation needs a morality that hasn’t been hollowed out, it needs an ethics that is not a husk of what it is meant to be. It needs values that affirm integrity, intelligence, reliability, selflessness. And it needs a language which is not politicised, a language which resolves conflict rather than exacerbates it, a language of communication and understanding rather than one of propaganda, manipulation and control.
Repeatedly our politicians, our journalists, our administrations and elites ask, “What can we do to regain your trust? How can we restore your faith in us?”
There is a simple answer to this question.
You can trust a moral person.
You can trust a moral person because a moral person cares about you as well as about themselves. A moral person tells you the truth. A moral person does not seek wealth, power and prestige to the detriment of others. Their morality justifies your trust.
Honesty, morality and integrity, in our politicians, our journalists and also in ourselves, are the stepping stones to a world of trust. Not Trump’s world. Not Netanyahu’s world or Putin’s world or Erdogan’s world. Our world. Our new, ethical world.
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