Eight essays of dangerous ideas

A summary of the essays in Foreign Policy:

“Great ideas often receive violent opposition from mediocre minds” noted Albert Einstein. Ideas can be good things, but sometimes, as in Einstein’s case, good ideas can lead to the creation of destructive power. Ideas are benign things, but some ideas once applied can result in serious consequences.

Atomic weapons were developed some 60 years ago, and their development has lead to the possibility of humankind having an ability to destroy itself. But looking to the future, what ideas may effect us in the coming years, what developments that are now being made will pose a threat to the future of humanity?

The latest edition of the US periodical, Foreign Policy, features eight essays by some of the top political and scientific thinkers today. The magazine, funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International peace, asked what ideas, if they were embraced, might pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity in the future. The writers provide a range of answers, some more surprising and obscure than others.

Robert Wright, visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values and Seymour Milstein senior fellow at the New America Foundation, believes that any moral crusade on ‘evil’, or the concept of ‘evil’, maybe a significant threat in coming years. Writing from an ethical perspective he believes that George Bush’s vow to “rid the world of evil”, and declaring Iran, Iraq, North Korea and others as part of an “axis of evil”, are dangerous ideas.

In taking this idea to task, Wright asks pointed questions into the over-simplification of evil into a black and white scenario. The world is just not that simple. If, he says, you believe all terrorists to be evil, then you’ll be less inclined to fret about the civil liberties of suspected terrorists, or treating accused or even convicted terrorists decently in prison. And merely calling Iraq, Iran or North Korea “evil” says nothing about the entirely different situations in those countries. What if these policies actually increase the number of terrorists as Muslims at home and abroad feel persecuted?

Wright believes he may have a remedy – accept that evil is something at work in all of us. If this is the case then the world does not look like the Lord of the Rings, where the bad guys are hideously ugly for the sake of easy identification but is instead more ambiguous, that evil is something human and just about anybody can play host to it.

Paul Davies, professor of natural philosophy at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney, has a different take on the future. He believes that some of the more dangerous ideas come from who we are, our genetics, psychology and our own free will.

The belief that we can decide our own fate, and that we are the authors of our own destiny is, he believes, something that is being thrown into doubt by an ever increasing amount of scientific data.

Modern genetics has undermined the belief that we are born with freedom to shape our destinies – evolutionary psychologists root personal qualities like altruism or aggression in our genes. Biologists like Richard Dawkins believes we are essentially slaves to the will of our genes. So too with memetics, the mental equivalent of genes – beliefs, ideas, fashions are essentially memes, and we are merely the vehicles for passing these on to other people.

And how does Davies belief these ideas can be dangerous? There is, he says, an acute risk that these ideas will be oversimplified and used to justify and anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict or even genocide. If you thought eugenics was bad, imagine a world where people do not believe in free will.

Samantha Power, lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is fervent in her views on the idea of the future of international peace and security. Her view is that the United Nations, since its foundation, has been continuously eroded in its power, and any further erosion set a dangerous path for the future.

Unless, she believes, the UN is reformed to more accurately reflect the present, we will see it fall into disrepair, much as happened to the previous League of Nations. The Permanent membership of the Second World War victors is anachronistic – and only reflects the views of 29 per cent of the world’s population, and entirely excludes the Muslim world. A hobbled together UN, as it presently stands, cannot face the 21st century’s deadly transnational challenges, and without a strong and reformed UN, we will endanger the peace and stability of the world.

Eric J. Hobsbawm, emeritus professor of economic and social history at Birkbeck, University of London, is scathing in his views about current efforts, such as those underway in Iraq and Afghanistan, to spread democracy throughout the world.

The idea of powerful states spreading democracy is something rather trendy at the moment. It believes that spreading standardised Western democracy and believe that it will succeed everywhere, remedy transnational dilemmas and bring peace is simply foolish.

It is not only dangerous and foolhardy to attempt it on other states, but also dangerous for the states attempting it. He believes that electoral democracy and representative assemblies really had little do with decisions to invade Iraq, it was instead decided by small groups of people in private – a dangerous precedent for Western democracies.

Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has something of a science-fiction type scenario facing us in the future.

‘Transhumanism’ or humans that have been genetically altered, or altered using technology such as microchips could create huge problems for humanity in the future. As technology develops we will increasingly use biotechnology to make ourselves stronger, smarter, less prone to violence and maybe even live longer.

But what happens when bit by bit, a group of humans become less and less ‘human’ through the use of technology? Will the phrase “all men are created equal” still be valid? It is a dangerous prospect, since modifying what is a very complex animal can have unforeseen consequences. All kinds of ethical dilemmas will come to pass should some humans decide to ‘improve’ themselves, essentially giving rise to a whole new set of racial and social problems.

Fukuyama urges caution, prescribing humility in the face of the awesome possibilities science is giving us.

Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freud distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago – and her thoughts on future dangers center on religious intolerance.

She cites various recent examples such as the killing of several hundred Muslims in India in 2002, or a worrying rise in anti-semitic attacks in Europe. These are symptoms of something that could become an immense problem in the future. Religion, she says, helps people to cope with loss and fear of death, it teaches moral principles and motivated people to abide by them. But because religions are such powerful sources of morality and community then can often manifest themselves by imposing hierarchy and indeed oppression. Clinging onto a religion one believes to be the right one, inevitably could lead to conflict, as it has in the past.

As a remedy, Nussbaum suggests greater emphasis on using rhetoric to support pluralism and toleration, much as Martin Luther King used it to help people imagine equality and see difference as a source of richness rather than fear. Our leaders must have greater respect for the plurality of religions, or a path to religious intolerance could lead to a dangerous future.

Alice M. Rivlin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting professor at Georgetown University. She was director of the Office of Management in the first Clinton administration and vice chair of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors from 1996 to 1999.

Her warning: the US needs a tighter fiscal policy, or the consequences could be devastating to the world economy. Currently the US national debt is at record levels, and the US still believes that the ordinary rules of global finance don’t apply to them.

The current problem is much worse now than it was under Reagan, who, like Bush Jnr, lowered taxes to stimulate growth while increasing public spending. Now the US is two decades closer to the baby boom generation, those born after WW2, retiring. Their retirement will cost a huge amount of money, and couple with this the US has gone from being the world’s largest creditor to the largest debtor, with a substantial portion of debt being held by Asian and European central banks.

It will be Americans that will have to pay for this debt with higher interested rates and slower growth – and this means slower growth for the rest of the world. In a worse case scenario the dollar would plunge with a migration of capital out of the US, which in turn would devastate developing countries. The fiscal policies of the next administration in the US will have huge consequences for the future.

Fareed Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International and author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. The idea that worries him the most for the future is the idea of anti-Americanism.

The rise of anti-Americanism, he says, really took hold after the election of Bush in 2000. In that year, 75 per cent of Indonesians considered themselves to be pro-American. Now the figure is 80 per cent anti-American.

Increasingly anti-Americanism is becoming the way people think about their position in the world. But if anti-Americanism continues to grow and fester it could be an idea that is dangerous for humanity.

So ideas that trouble the minds of some of the world’s greatest thinkers cover a wide range of interests and viewpoints – but one thing is certain, there are many more dangerous ideas on the way, some of which we haven’t even imagined yet.