Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.
MBA student and Skoll Scholar Pip Wheaton gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum sessions themed around morality and empathy.
When you bring together nearly one thousand people whose work focuses on the biggest social, price environmental, sildenafil economic and political issues of our time, it is brave to ask the question, “What moral dilemma are you currently grappling with?” But that is exactly how Bill Drayton, CEO of Ashoka, opened the session on Moral Stances and Decision Making. The honesty of the responses from the audience was not only humbling but indicative of the fierce compassion with which people in the room treat their work. As Bill put it, we are all wrestling with something, and we all feel responsible for the things we wrestle with. And that’s the most important part.
Some big, meaty questions came out: How do we make trade-offs between breadth and depth? Is it ok to profit from poor people? When do we exit and how do we do that well? How rich is too rich?
Panelist Josh Nesbit, CEO of Medic Mobile, captured the challenge perfectly: “We want to maximise on all fronts – but it’s not possible. When we can’t, we have to make a choice, otherwise the choice will be handed to us.” So how do we make these decisions? Kirk Hansen, Executive Director of the Markkula Centre for Applied Ethics presented his guide to “Common Sense Ethics”, a high level overview of five of the most significant strands of moral theory from Aristotle to the present day. His argument is that moral language enables leaders to better think about moral decisions. Safeena Husain, Executive Director of Educate Girls, shared a moral dilemma that she and her team had worked through in Rajasthan while addressing critical gender gap issues, pointing out that all of us grapple with this, “but we don’t have the language [of ethics] built in.”
The last time I was a student, I studied moral philosophy and grappled with the morally and politically required responses to climate change. I thought that if I could just apply the frameworks of the great philosophers, the same ones that Kirk Hansen so clearly presented to the audience, I would be able to work out what we should do and, like magic, the world could think its way out of this global existential threat. I spent a year becoming increasing frustrated as I realised that the different theories give rise to different answers. And increasingly, I found evidence that even when we do know the “right” thing to do, we don’t always do it because of our imperfect, very human rationality. It’s only years later that I realise what I was struggling to articulate then: if we don’t have empathy then we won’t be able to create meaningful, enduring, compassionate change.
Bill Drayton went to the heart of the issue for me: rules-based ethics don’t work anymore. The world is changing so quickly that the rules are outdated or simply do not exist for the types of situations we find ourselves in today. He argued that we need to update our tools for moral decision-making: empathy-based ethics is the answer.
Empathy is a theme that has surfaced often over the past two days: as Roger Martin and IDEO’s Tim Brown discussed innovation in their panel, Design for Action; in a wonderfully honest conversation about education that emerged over dinner between three people from three different continents; from Selena Leem – an 18-year-old from the Marshall Islands who implored us to act on climate change so that her people don’t lose their home.
In the increasingly complex world that we live in, and particularly in the work that we do, we are faced with unavoidable dilemmas. Going back to foundations of morality, particularly a morality based on empathy, allows us to make the best decisions.
Follow Pip: @PipWheaton