The Elders

In my new book, Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, which will be out in September, I spend a fair amount of ink discussing a proposal by Norman Levitt, a mathematician at Rutgers. In Prometheus Bedeviled, his fascinating book about public perceptions of science, Levitt suggests that a scientific equivalent of the Federal Reserve Bank be established, to grant science a “social authority commensurate with its astonishing success in living up to its own ambitions.” Such an “extra-constitutional” branch of government, he argues, would empower our society to develop sound environmental policies motivated not by profit, nor by political or religious ideology, but by objective, expert opinion. Participating scientists would, of course, have to renounce political ambitions, limit their advisory role to their scientific fields of competence, and credibly distance their judgments from any financial or institutional self-interest. The goal is to develop greater freedom for scientific opinion by insulating it from both the anti-scientific and pseudoscientific prejudices of the majority and from the profit-motivated sponsorship and manipulation of corporations.

I take issue with many aspects of Levitt’s proposal in my book, but I also use it as a springboard for discussion of what I call “the lack of a vital center for ethical discussion and decision-making in our globalized world.” The issue is basically this: While we are all agog over what we can do, scientifically and technologically, there is hardly a coherent discussion about what we should do with our power. For example, I write, “we will soon have the capacity to extend the lifespan of human beings to 200 years or more . . ."
but should we? In a world in which thousands still die of highly preventable diseases every hour, should we permit the development of man-made evolutionary enhancements that will be available only to a privileged sector? What would be the cost to our species-consciousness, our empathy, our capacity for global cooperation?

Yes, we can design a house like the one Bill Gates made famous in his book, The Road Ahead — a computerized abode programmed to know the residents’ tastes and anticipate their desires — but should we? What forces of cultural evolution do we set in motion by having an utterly domesticated environment that serves us hand and foot? What, if anything, is lost to the imagination and the artistic impulse if we never have the experience of groping to find a light switch in a dark room?
Governments, corporations, universities, religious institutions, NGOs, mass media, the United Nations — all of these power centers are somehow too compromised or too inadequate to serve the leadership role I’m describing here. The various elite gatherings of world leaders that have formed over the past twenty years are also not trustworthy because they are in the hands of highly interested parties. But “surely,” I wrote in my book, “there must be effective ways to honor, organize and ensure the dispassionate service of diverse people who combine expertise and wisdom — Nobel Laureates come to mind as one highly respected pool of talent — in order to shape an objective world advisory board that could serve as a counterweight to the self-interested, unaccountable forces of political and economic power that currently dominate our planet.”

As I was indexing Waiting for God over the past two weeks, I learned that on Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday on July 18, 2007, exactly such an international advisory group was formed, called “The Elders.” The inaugural members include Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Anan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland. “This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken,” said Mandela, according to the International Herald Tribune. “Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”

“The Elders,” Jimmy Carter added, “won’t get involved in delivering bed nets for malaria prevention. The issue is to fill vacuums — to address major issues that aren’t being adequately addressed.”

Nu, I'd like to ask readers of this blog: Who should be asked to serve on this new council? What should be the requirements of “disinterestedness”? And do you think the Elders can help solve the classic, tragic conundrum of power: that those who seek it are usually unworthy of it? We’ve seen throughout history how it is most often the alpha gorillas of humanity, the “might-makes-right” types, who rise to leadership and abuse their power. Mostly they lack the character traits that make for truly creative and benevolent leadership; as Eric Fromm wrote in Escape from Freedom, “the lust for power is not rooted in strength but in weakness.” Can the Elders a difference?


Blogger Lao Qiao said...

Is it possible for the Elders to be disinterested? Nobel Prize winners Mandela, Carter, Tutu, and Anan did not sign the Open Letter by Nobel Prize winners published in the August 5th edition of The New York Times that called for the British University and College Union not to boycott Israeli educators. Apparently these Nobel laureates hate Israel more than they love freedom of speech.

Can one be involved in politics and be disinterested? I doubt it. All human beings have interests, and it is appropriate and useful for them to pursue the causes they feel just. Those who oppose freedom of speech should have the right to do so.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Ivanushka Groznyj said...

To suggest that not signing a particular letter condemning the possibility of a boycott of boycotting scholars from a particular state amounts to being preoccupied with hating that state is ignorant and myopic in the extreme. So callow and unnuanced a stance discredits itself on being heard.

12:09 PM  
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