The Financial Express


Rational choice faces a 'morality moment'

| Updated: February 27, 2018 22:01:19

Rational choice faces a 'morality moment'

It almost became a classroom commandment: teach students how and why decision-making reflects rational preferences. Be they in business transactions, or the economic, political, or social market, humans carry the tendency to maximise their interests, whether that be profits, votes, or values. This view was reinforced by fending off the socialist/communist threat after World War II, so successfully so, in fact, that Francis Fukuyama even predicted an 'end of history' in the early 1990s because the other side of a dialectic exchange had vanished.

Everyone following related dynamics ever since will know, whether he/she likes it or not, when the liberal world became neo-liberal, rampant competitiveness undid the very fabric of relations: low-wage imports encroached upon social security safeguards in high-wage countries, the atmosphere coughed up pollutants; oceans turned toxic or exposed dead-zones; gaps between the various classes widened; and 'selfie' as well as cell-addiction described the dominant dynamics.

How rational behaviour exhausted itself was depicted in many ways: more countries seeking the industrial 'holy grail' than ever in human history, in turn, generating the deepest and widest populist sway in a century: from China pecking at the global leadership mantle, in turn, partly triggering the Brexit and Trump election victories with promises of closing many economic windows.

As the global stage became more unstable and unsustainable, reactionary and independent calls to salvage the planet also jammed the air-waves. In fits and starts a 'movement' emerged, on the one hand, exposing what Amol Mehra and Camille Gervais noted within the context of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davis last month, a business 'morality moment'; and, on the other, an independent 'me-too' campaign against the maximising/exploiting behaviour of adrenalised men, particularly in leadership ranks ("Business is having a 'morality moment': It could become a movement," www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/market-business-morality-moment-movement-ceo-icar/).

This business 'morality moment' has plenty to build upon, as Mehra and Gervais noted: circulating the "A social purpose" document that Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of the planet's largest asset manager, BlackRock, wrote, across the business community; inserting ESG (environmental, social, and governance) criteria into corporate financial operations, like Amazon and Microsoft rallying to support the 'Dreamers', whose immigration status is being revoked by President Donald J. Trump in the United States; Apple CEO Tim Cook propagating 'moral responsibility' through the hefty New York Times platform; and so forth.

Independent actions elsewhere feed this 'morality' bandwagon. Perhaps the most well-known environmental development of the century was the COP-21 Paris Agreement, itself withstanding the rejection of the world's largest economic actor, the United States, to still rally behind the climate-change protective campaign. Interestingly, the US exit pushed China not just into environmental limelight (an ironic development since Chinese low-wage production and metropolitan pollution contributed significantly to the accumulating environmental malaise globally), but also into a possible leadership role to protect the earth.

If COP-21 and the Paris Agreement made as much noise as it did, so too did the trans-border social revolution called the 'me-too'. Given their biological roles as care-givers and raising children, women wield the absolute veto power over the rational choice maximising imperative. This is not to say women do not pursue maximising goals, only that they can take a monumental break from that pursuit frequently, which is all the freedom one needs to invest, produce, and trade every now and then, as if to let the systems regenerate. Again, this is not to say such a withdrawal from rampant rational choices is beyond men: the likes of Jeff Bezos, Fink, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, among others, reveal how they can exert big-time constraints.

Behind these splashy examples lie an army of humanitarian and socially conscious individuals and agencies also feeding into that 'morality moment': they can be found in every person alleviating the monumental refugee surges worldwide, indicating not only how rationally-driven pursuits (like building pipelines and highways in Myanmar's Rakhine province, thus evicting indigenous residents), but also myriad of nameless supporters who have come to the rescue, not just for the Syrian refugees (Cate Blanchett comes to mind), but also Rohingyas (Jordan's Queen Alia).

Whether the victorious movement will ultimately represent rationally-driven neo-liberal, irrationally-pushed populism, or morally-anchored counterforce action forces will depend as much on the size of its ideological and material support-base, but also, critically, how its particular interests intertwine with lots of 'local' traditions across the globe. Without preserving what we have inherited in a globally positive way to distinguish from the populists seeking the same goal only locally, future trajectories will get increasingly harder to prescribe.

Perhaps the most daunting task will be to come to terms with social media, the widest no-cost platform in existence. It is also the playground and catalyst of the 'selfie' instrument of rational behaviour: a successful 'morality movement' catalysts must a compromise with the 'selfie' exponents at one of our most disjointed and turbulent times. The ultimate 'morality movement' test will be in the economic, social, and political markets, and will determine, for example, how far the women reforms in Saudi Arabia go, whether Britain can make it independent of the European Union, what kind of mileage the Trump movement manages, and, of course, if Silicon Valley will hit the pause technological button so we can digest the breathtaking new contraptions bombarding us every day. It will be a long, suspense-filled innings.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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