Morality (in) Play

An Interview with Eden Collinsworth

There seems little doubt that tech has changed the way morality operates in the modern world. Few people have paid as close attention to this subject as the social critic and publishing maven Eden Collinsworth. Collinsworth spent years observing morality in a close, pragmatic way here, in Europe, and in Asia, and wrote a brilliant book about it: Behaving Badly. We spoke to her about the seismic shifts in our understanding of right and wrong — and how this will play into our global contest with China.

Octavian Report: When did you really begin to notice macro shifts in morality and in ethics and behavior?

Eden Collinsworth: It was after I moved to Beijing, to write a book — for Chinese consumption — on Western behavior. That's really when I began to think whether or not my own moral sense of right and wrong and my values were at all germane anymore in my own country. That is why I wanted to investigate morality the way I did. That's how I started to write my latest book, Behaving Badly. 

OR: In your book, you use a three-pronged taxonomy to discuss these issues — politics, business, and sex. How did you arrive at those divisions?

Collinsworth: It was really the only way that I could organize my thoughts. I wanted to construct the chapters such that I would be interviewing people under these three big umbrellas. Inevitably, people's stories are far more interesting and unbelievable than one could imagine. I'm not a social scientist, I'm not an ethicist. I was interested actually in speaking to other people and understanding their moral choices.

That was another reason why I needed these silos. I made concerted efforts to interview people whose stories were almost counterintuitive to the subject. For example, when I was investigating a provocative question — are women biochemically more suited to be more moral than men because they are equipped to give birth and nurture young? — I made a point of actually interviewing a woman who was operating very much in a man's environment. I'm fairly sure she was a professional assassin. She was hired on an ad hoc basis to come in and deal with situations that would require the probable killing of somebody or the rescue of somebody else. I made a point with each of these subtopics to seek out somebody who had a story that would address that issue in a surprising way.

That said, frankly, one needs only to look at the younger generation to understand how morality has shifted or reshaped itself. I have a son who's now in his late 20's. His morals have not necessarily been instilled by me as much as they've been shaped by these profound changes in his lifetime, primarily in technology. My moral values were instilled to a large degree by my parents, and they were operating from a kind of rule book in terms of what was right and wrong. My son has a far more relative view of morality and in fact, he does extremely well in China as a result — he's a China analyst, he speaks the language. I would march in with my extremely black-and-white attitude, he had a far more flexible understanding that in that country, in that culture, they were operating in a gray area.

OR: How does China’s culture get projected into the political and business worlds?

Collinsworth:  To ground it in the day-to-day operational reality of China, from an economic perspective, China appears to be operating with some form of Western capitalism. In fact, it is not. It has hallmarks of capitalism but it’s a combination of many things.

Despite promises by politicians to protect national borders, global markets will continue to shape the world. It's important to understand who's holding the checkbook these days. In the 1920’s, it was British firms that held some 40 percent of the global stock of foreign direct investment. In the 1960’s, America had assumed that role. China will certainly be next. It's the world’s largest nation, its economy has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and it's got state-sanctioned banks that supply over half the world's liquidity.

They are taking care of themselves while the U.S. has retreated from the world stage. China is doing a variety of things. It's engaging, it's learning, it's adapting — and along the way, it's developing more confidence at the negotiating table.

Americans are slightly myopic. Most Americans do not have a passport. Most Americans have not left the country — and the fact is that the world has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. There was an assumption that China would become more like us as it was gravitating towards some form of capitalism. China will not be more like us, it has no interest in being more like us. We can wag our finger at them on human rights issues but they will continue to move forward.

I think it's incredibly naïve to assume somehow that is not going to have far-reaching consequences. I don't think they're out to conquer the world, I think that they have their own issues and problems and challenges. They have to feed billions of people. They're now literally growing food in Africa to import it back to China. They want to be respected, most especially in Asia. They have methodically bought into iconic Western companies, with particular focus on commodities.

In the U.K., which is where I'm living now, they own a piece of Heathrow Airport, as well as Thames Water, which is the big water company. In Greece, they own the largest port. They own just as many iconic companies in America. If you look at the map and you connect all these dots, it's both impressive and formidable. I think it's small-minded for America at this point not to understand the situation.

OR: How does Chinese morality look at the world differently from the West?

Collinsworth:  There is no home-grown religion. There's Buddhism, an import from India. There is Daoism, which is more a spiritual philosophy than it is a religion. And there are the tenets of Confucian thought. Keep in mind, that was around for hundreds of years before Christ was born. They are really rooted in the fundamental belief that there is a hierarchy, that educated leaders become good leaders and that then makes for good people.

If you look at the political system, it's very methodical. In order to move up the ranks, politically, they send you off to the poorest provinces. If you look at somebody like President Xi, he's definitely put in his time. He's pitted against Donald Trump who has come off of a reality television show and been a real-estate mogul without any previous experience. If I had to put my money on anybody, frankly, I would know who to choose — especially in a trade war.