The previous chapters have shown that many of the technological problems of our society have become so distorted by political and psychological factors that there is a serious danger that the wrong decisions will be taken, imperilling our future. These matters are considered in more detail in this chapter, and connected moral decisions in Chapter 10. The possibility of a long-term improvement depends on education, and this is also considered in the present chapter.
During the last few centuries the world has become increasingly globalised. The financial systems and the markets for a wide range of goods are no longer limited to particular areas, countries or continents; they extend over the whole word. This has many advantages and disadvantages. It has raised the standard of living of millions of people, and provided food and manufactured goods to all countries much more efficiently and cheaply than ever before. There are also serious disadvantages: a financial crisis in one country affects many others, often causing acute distress. Flourishing industries are rendered unprofitable or even bankrupt overnight due to sudden changes in the exchange rate between countries. Globalisation has made millions of people worse off, as their jobs are lost and their lives become insecure. They feel powerless and in the grip of forces beyond their control. To prevent such disasters, international financial authorities have been created, but all too often they have been more concerned to safeguard the profits of the financiers than to address the worldwide problems of poverty and pollution. Battles are fought over the merits and disadvantages of government ownership versus privatisation. There are strong forces in favour of reform and if in future wise decisions are taken, gobalisation can still be a force for good (Stiglitz 2002).
The basic problem of the present time is that there are more and more people on the earth and they expect to enjoy the high standards of living made possible by technology, whereas the earth has insufficient resources to satisfy them. As a result of medical advances people, especially in the developed countries, are on the whole far healthier than at any time in the past. Indeed, most of us would not be alive at all without modern medicine. Infant mortality has been greatly reduced, killer diseases eliminated and the expectation of life greatly increased. Taken together, this has led to a rapid increase in world population, the plundering of the resources of the earth, pollution and destruction of the environment. In the poorer countries, where the population is increasing most rapidly, this leads to deforestation, desertification and a downward spiral of famine, disease and starvation. Many such countries lack the resources, the people with specialised knowledge and responsible leadership abilities to tackle this situation. Outside aid is suspected of neo-colonialism or economic imperialism and even when it is accepted it can easily be diverted into the private bank accounts of the leaders or the middlemen, and never reaches the poor people for whom it is intended. Thus the devoted effort of scientists, technologists, engineers and medical doctors to improve the lives of the people is frustrated by politics, greed and inefficiency.
We all like to believe that all our actions have the highest motives: we work to support our family, help others when they are in need and perhaps in our spare time undertake some charitable work for the good of mankind. This is indeed very often quite true, but sometimes other motives are at work, whether we realise them or not. To support our family we need money, and perhaps we obtain our money in somewhat questionable ways. If we are responsible for a factory, we may produce goods cheaply, so that they sell well, but we endanger our workers by neglecting safety standards and pay them the lowest possible wages. We may justify this by referring to our duty to the shareholders, but really the only thing we really care about is profit. If we are a journalist, we know that our stories will be published if they are full of sensation, sex and scandal. We invade people's private lives to extract stories, irrespective of the distress we cause. We may start our career intending to keep to the truth but gradually we are subjected to such pressures that we end up by being concerned mainly for what sells. We may give money to charity, but our motive is to draw attention away from our other activities and establish a reputation as a worthy citizen.
Mixed and hidden motives are so widespread that it is always necessary to look for them. Events can look quite different from different points of view (Pears 1998). The same applies on a local and national stage to politicians, captains of industry and indeed everyone with responsibilities beyond their own family.
It should be remarked that, as in many other sections of this book, the treatment is inevitably general, and deals mainly with ideas and not specific instances. As in all historical situations, the reality is infinitely complex. The situation differs from one country to another, from one university to another, and evolves with time.
The battle is between rhetoric and truth. We may recall the words of Newman: 'Quarry the granite rock with a razor, moor the vessel with a thread of silk, and then you may, with such delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason, contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man'.
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