Beyond Business-Class Morality

Way back when I started my first blog, as an undergrad, I did a series based around a number of TED talks.

The one I used for the punchline was by the author and philosopher Robert Wright, and his punchline was that our world was moving — inexorably, it seemed — toward a sort of business-class morality: it’s hard to hate the people you’re jet-setting with, no matter where you’re coming from, headed to, or choosing to eat/drink/wear/believe along the way.

Back in 2008–09 (before my prefrontal cortex had really firmed up), that seemed pretty reasonable.

Fast-forward a dozen years, and business-class morality seems a pretty flimsy teleology indeed: everyone “knows” that the left-out and left-behinds are having their revenge, globalization is over, and we’re on the verge of the next Cold War.


There is always a “but.” And in this case, it’s this: in spite of all the decoupling, deglobalizing, and denying, it’s never been clearer that we’re all traveling on spaceship earth.

First class, business class, or “economy” class — it doesn’t matter. To paraphrase one of my grandmother’s favorite jokes, it turns out that all parts of this plane are headed for the same destination.

Where does that look like it’s going to be? Where do we want it to be? And how are we going to learn to put up with the other people strapped in for this crazy ride?

Business-class morality — “I don’t care who you pray to as long as we’re all serving in the temple of money” — won’t cut it. It’s going to take a new level of social and planetary and — yes — economic empathy. Some of that might come from direct experience, but a lot of it’s going to have to come from the ever-less-difficult effort of imagining that if our cities, countries, and planet keep going this way, nobody’s going to like where we land.

I don’t know when we’ll board planes again. But some none-too-fanciful flights of empathetic imagination between now and then might be the best investment this species ever makes.