Morality (in) Play

An Interview with Eden Collinsworth

Their idea of deference is incredibly important. The idea of saving face is an important commodity that, again, is ignored or misunderstood by the West. That's one of the reasons why they rarely say no — they just don't do it. Especially in business. When you're negotiating, you look, as a Westerner, for these very cleanly defined iterations of a negotiation or an agreement. You find none. Even at the signing of a contract, there's the belief this is an invitation to continue of a dialogue.

Deference to elders is hugely important. Indeed, Xi’s government is concerned that for the younger generation this is becoming less important — so they literally mandated it institutionally and created extra-long weekends so you can come home and visit your parents.

This is a one-party system. It’s now got a president for life who has a great deal of power that he's consolidated. They are an economic force. I don't know whether there is going to be a moral shift in terms of their footprint, so to speak, but certainly they're going to be in charge of a variety of things, including financial opportunities. So I think it’s important for the West to understand that they're coming at it from a very different perspective.

OR: Do you think that contemporary China has a different view of individual rights?

Collinsworth: Yes. There's no doubt in my mind that they value individual rights far less than the West. There's no doubt that there's less emphasis placed on the individual in every sense of the word and that was for me, very, very sobering when I moved to Beijing.

On the other hand, China has brought more people out of abject poverty than any other country in the world. I don't doubt for a moment that the Communist Party is absolutely genuine in its belief that this is what is needed to continue to move that nation forward. I admire that. I can't say that I admire their policies on human rights. Obviously, this is a big challenge — China is a formidable part of the world now.

OR: Pivoting westward — can you pinpoint moments when you began to see shifts in moral thinking?

Collinsworth:  There are a couple of things going on. As I've said, I think the big driver is technology and so when I was writing this book, I interviewed this remarkable woman — a neuroscientist. She is focused on studies that have to do with the frontal lobes of the brain, which apparently have evolved the most in terms of the history of human beings. That part of the brain has to do with putting things in perspective, being able to plan, organizing your thoughts, moderating your behavior. If there is a skill to develop empathy, it's coming from that area of the brain.

Her scientific conclusion, and it has nothing to do with passing judgment, is that when you interact with another human being and it's face to face, a variety of things are happening. You're watching their facial expressions, their body language, you're listening to the tonality of their voice. All of that then allows you to gauge how you're going to interact or respond.

Eliminating that via technology — social media, etc. — undermines your ability to develop something that's imperative in terms of one's morality: empathy. That could possibly explain why these discussions online ratchet very quickly to anger.

In the U.K., the average time spent in front of a screen is nine hours a day. In another several years, there will be a generation that is in front of a screen more than it's away from a screen, whether it's a tablet, a phone, or a computer. I think that that absolutely impacts your moral compass — you just don't have as many reference points as you would if you had the kind of practice of interacting with people.

I also think that the political environment now has normalized to a degree a less civil dialogue. I don't know whether it will come back or whether this is it. Morality doesn't necessarily go away; it simply shifts to something else.

The idea of reality is now not as important as it used to be, apparently. Consider the Russian ambassador to the U.K. insisting that this poisoning of two Russians didn't happen — or if it did happen, it was the U.K. that was responsible.

This is beyond Kafka. I worry about that.

OR: Do you think our morality is moribund or simply undergoing a seismic change?

Collinsworth: I'm hoping it's the latter. I'm all for the middle ground; I think that things swing to the extremes and would like to think that they find their way back to the center. You've seen that in France. I'm hoping it works out with Macron. He is definitely the result of a swing back from the extremes.

We've lost our footing and we'll regain it. I do think that technology will hurtle ahead; the debate on the other side is behind the reality of the fact that things are changing. You see this not only with this generation on the screen. One of the people that I've interviewed for this book was insisting that we must start to actually program morality into robots (which I thought was not really that illogical).

OR: Are we in America living now — hopefully not permanently — in a post-truth world? Are moral shifts connected to epistemological ones?

Collinsworth: I'm sure they're connected. I think that the difference between many countries and America — and I'm very much aware of this, having lived outside of America for as long as I have — is the fact that America has a free press, and that is absolutely crucial. Quite honestly, I think that the press, for whatever reason, didn't do their job during the most recent American presidential primary. I think they could have flushed out some part of the Trump mentality early on.