A few days back I attended a guest lecture by Sandra Beach Lin on leadership and the gender gap. The questions asked at the Q&A session afterwards blew my mind. Not in a good way. One of the participants wanted to know what hypothetical world problem Mrs Beach Lin would solve if she could.
She was a bit confused, but responded with something vague about pay inequality.
The most obvious answer in my head was poverty. But upon thinking about it a little bit more I came to the realisation that money doesn’t really bring you happiness. So I thought about maximising everyone’s well-being. In the end – wouldn’t it be great if everyone was well-off – not just rich, or happy, or fulfilled, but wholesomely well-off? I thought that this nicely takes cares of problems such as food shortages and climate change, as it implicitly takes care of them.
But then it was pointed out to me that my maximisation problem faces a lot of constraints. Not simply resource constraints (which in my imaginary world would be taken care of). This is because one’s well-being could be defined as someone else’s harm. My friend’s response was that Hitler (a non-online example of Godwin’s Law) wanted to annihilate the Jewish people, whereas the Jewish people wanted everything but that. Similarly, IS (aka ISIS, ISIL, Da’ish) wants to get rid of the Yazidis (and other ethnic/religious groups).
The idea was then that the solution to fixing the world was making everyone care/respect other people on the planet as much as they care about their brother. This is meant to eliminate all wars, conflicts, inequality. My counter-argument was that in the long run this would bring us back to the caves. Because if I were to care about everyone on the planet, I would not be able to fulfil my basic needs:
– I wouldn’t eat because I would feel bad that not everyone has access to food. I would also not eat, as I would feel bad about the person who has to clean up crumbs on the floor which inevitably follow me wherever I go
– I wouldn’t be able to wear clothes worrying about sand-blasting, terrible conditions in clothing factories, waste being spilt into rivers
The conclusion was that we need to care about the people who we are in contact with as much as we care about our brothers or sisters. Quite clearly, we cannot care equally about everyone on the planet. But if everyone cares about the people around them, then everyone is cared for in one way or another. In that scenario a worker in a sand-blasting factory would be cared for by their boss, who would be cared for by the manager, who would be cared for by some other managers, who would eventually be cared for by the CEO. So sand-blasting would be eliminated, as going up the supply chain would be like going up the caring chain.
Once again, this is nothing revolutionary: do to others as you would have them do to you.