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Ethics in the Future

President, Institute for Alternative Futures

Loud signals for change can be heard better by a younger generation which is more attuned to world cultures, climate change and the political potential beyond the clashing ideologies of Baby Boomers.

The Millennial Generation brings two ethical orientations that are markers for the shift coming to society at large. One is inclusiveness. The Millennials include multiple cultures and expect minorities to participate fully in their world. They have grown up with a more diverse set of peers and in a milieu where segregation and discrimination are illegitimate. The second ethic is holistic concerns that are global. Their expectation is that we can and will solve problems affecting the whole planet.

Recently, I spoke with a Virginia politician about ethics. He agreed that we can distinguish ethics from morals and recognize different ethical levels. Morals are universally understood as beliefs about right and wrong, while ethics are principled systems defining right and wrong behaviors in specific environments and cultures. Thus we have business ethics, medical ethics and legal ethics, and those who work in those cultures and willfully violate these ethics are unethical, if not immoral.

Yet those from different cultures are bound to different ethical systems, some of which are at a lower level of development. For example, this American politician knows it would not be right to influence a hiring decision so that his nephew could get a job. However, in a political system that operates at a lower stage of ethics, such as an environment where kinship cultures dominate, it would be seen as unethical not to help your nephew get that job.

Right now our politics are struggling to let a new ethical stage emerge. People defending a lower level of ethics are creating noise that we hear daily in our public discourse as conflicting ideologies striving to win points over the opposition. This competition is rooted in self-interest. The hallmark of competitive American politics is the lack of comity and emphasis on partisanship. In business, the competitive drive is to win at all costs, creating remarkable wealth for executives and terrible disparities for society. At the extreme we have ‘masters of the universe’ with very high compensation and low taxation with some going beyond the law. We have lobbyists who strive to bias laws and regulations to their business advantage without consideration of a larger public interest.

The competitive achievement ethic is not all bad. Yet it may have reached its limits and created the basis for a higher ethic. The higher ethic has been expressed in the private sector as corporate social responsibility, and is also evident in the remarkable growth in the number and power of NGOs. Politically, this ethic is expressed by the desire for bipartisan solutions. A growing number of young people see the growing problems—energy, economy, governance, transportation, health—that neither governments nor markets are solving. Their ethics are tuned to inclusiveness and holism. Their political engagement will favor those who speak for the collaborative ethic. Many leaders who will shape the public agenda with support from the Millennials are looking for complex solutions that capitalize on both competitive markets and effective governance through global collaboration. These are people who have achieved much through competition and now recognize it is not enough. Their education supports cognitive intelligence and their experience provides emotional intelligence. The combination creates collaborative intelligence to solve problems with and through networks as well as organizations.

The most hopeful future will be created by wise leaders in the public, private and NGO sectors. They have the potential to shape complex solutions that are based in the higher ethics of a greater good for all of us. Change does not come all at once. The major pieces of legislation on climate change and health care provide a lens through which we can observe the struggle between the ethical stages defining what is right in America now. An emphasis on competitive success, economic achievement and corporate prerogatives will mark the ethical stage that has long dominated our politics. This ethic will moderate legislation that seeks to sacrifice material wealth for collective health in both pieces of legislation. The ethic of collaboration for sustainability will work toward regulating markets and broadening interests so that all stakeholders realize health gains. Politics is the art of compromise. Both ethical positions will be represented, and which emerges as the larger force shaping the two pieces of legislation in Congress this year will help us anticipate when and how America will change over the next decade.