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Notes politics

Chapter 16: Justice (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Today, it is difficult to know what consequences your actions have and whether you are causing harm to the world. In primitive times, it was easy to understand the repercussions of your actions, you knew where everything came from and you understood how your behavior affected others. But this is no longer the case. The system is built in such a way where those who make no effort to learn the truth can remain blissfully ignorant, and those who try to discover the truth will find it very difficult to do so.

If you were someone who had high moral standards, it is hard to avoid stealing when the global economic system steals on your behalf. If you invest money in shares of a big company that gives you a yearly profit of 5 percent, you may think that you are not harming anyone. But this company may be making its profit because it does not pay for externalities. It dumps toxic waste in rivers and does not get held accountable because it hires lawyers and lobbyists to keep it out of trouble. Could this corporation be accused of stealing a river? And what about you? Are you culpable for helping it?

The greatest crimes in modern history resulted not just from hatred and greed, but even more so from ignorance and indifference. Charming English ladies financed the Atlantic slave trade by buying shares and bonds in the London stock exchange, without ever setting foot in either Africa or the Caribbean.

There are four methods people employ to understand these large moral issues. The first is to downsize it: to think of the Syrian civil war as happening between two foragers, one good and one bad. They disregard the historical context for a straightforward plot.

The second is to focus on a touching human story. This is when statistics are not considered important, but one story of a child can change your moral viewpoint and give you a false sense of certitude in your conviction.

The third is to create conspiracy theories. Understanding how the world economy works and whether it is good or bad is too complicated, it is easier to imagine that a small number of billionaires are pulling the strings, that they push for wars to become wealthier. But this is baseless, the world is too complicated. No one can pull the strings effectively in such a world.

These three methods attempt to deny the true complexity of the world. The fourth method is to create a dogma, to trust an institution or leader and become followers. Religious and ideological dogmas are attractive because they solve the problem of complexity.

What is the solution? Should we trust the individualist approach and hope that individual voters lead society to a better place? Liberal dogma would dictate that we should. The alternative would be to reject this approach in favor of a more communal approach and attempt to solve the world’s problems collectively instead of relying on ignorant individuals. But this would lead to groupthink, an outcome that may be worse than ignorant individuals. Further, while societies in the past could have thought together about local issues, it is more difficult for them to do so successfully today. We suffer from more global problems, and we don’t have a global community. No group, whether the Americans or Chinese constitute the global community.

What then should we do? Must we accept that we have entered a post-truth world bereft of truth and justice?

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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