His opening Gandhi joke addressed the softly-spoken, bespectacled elephant in the room; it was hard not to make comparisons between Professor Subramanian Rangan and India’s great statesman as he took to the Amphitheatre stage on Friday. Professor Rangan’s session on Business and Societal Progress has been one of those which has most inspired and engaged the students, and very few could leave the session without feeling its effects. The day focused on the role of businesses in modern society, on the power of corporations to match performance with progress, and the responsibility incumbent on the individual to enact these positive changes. Professor Rangan is a graduate of MIT and Harvard, a renowned political and business thinker, sits on councils of the World Economic Forum, and has written a number of lauded papers and books. But he is also a very human role model, and spoke passionately about the need to balance public contribution with time for personal goals, with family, friends, and fun. The students were enraptured by his famously absorbing manner, and shared in a wide-reaching and compelling discussion about capitalism, prosperity, and the currency of happiness. I caught up with participants Delfina Moresco and Wenbin Yeung, who shared their thoughts about the day.
Thanks for taking the time to meet me. I was hoping you could begin by introducing yourselves briefly, and on the back of Erin’s talk yesterday, perhaps give a few thoughts on how your perception of the other’s cultural background might play into how they think about some of the issues that Subi talked about.
Delfina: I was born in Chile, and we moved around a lot, but our extended family all live in Argentina, we speak Argentinian Spanish at home and we try hard to keep that culture alive. We’ve spent the last five years in Australia, though I’ve just spent the last two months in Argentina to get more in touch with that!
Wenbin: Well I’ve been born and raised in Singapore and spent all 17 years of my life there. I think perhaps unlike Singapore, your culture is very much one of friendliness, and you’re much more likely to talk to people, be open and discuss. Sometimes I’ve heard of stories of Australia having problems with racism, especially in the interior, and I think that obviously is a huge barrier to progress.
Delfina: I think that in Singapore maybe there’s more of a mentality to follow the rules engraved into the system, so from my Argentinian background – a place where there’s a lot of discord and people are more prone to breaking the rules – that’s something to be aware of. Perhaps those from Singapore might be more closed and reserved, but also a lot more community-focused than in other countries, and I have a perception that things aren’t done so individualistically and are more for the good of the family and for others, and people look after their families and grandparents more.
Now the first part of Subi’s lecture was a discussion on three key questions about work, about society and about who designs the future. Delfina, do you think the day’s course might have changed your opinion on this and on other big questions?
Delfina: I’ve actually been reading quite a bit about political philosophy, and always bugging my family with big questions and playing devil’s advocate at the dinner table. After spending today with Subi and discussing with our groups, I think I understand more how all of the issues we see today link together. I also really took on the idea of how morality can be much more important than just competence: before now I’d thought that a lot of the problems we have should be solved with good governance and good policy, a kind of external influence. I think I understand now how important it is to develop a good moral sense in every individual, and engage in philosophy internally, first. I think we need a lot more education about living and acting morally.
So who gets to teach these morals? How do we decide as a society what should be taught?
Delfina: I think we do have a set of natural morals as humans, some driven by fear and the need for safety and security, but also desires for freedom and happiness. I think we should try and gather moral experts, and use their experience and expertise alongside experience and consensus to develop a moral framework we can teach – it looks as though Subi has managed to begin this process already. It will also take some research into how we can teach morals, and maybe we’ll have to rely on experiments with communities if we can. I think the biggest obstacle besides this lack of moral education, though, is that there are a lot of people in positions of power with bad morals, and breaking this cycle will be really hard.
Wenbin, do you think, then, that we might be on the verge of a Moral Revolution?
Wenbin: So legend has it that Confucius was once offered a choice: if you could choose between everyone having wisdom and everyone having money, which would you desire? Confucius said that he’d give them money. Why? Because with money, people can build homes, people have the basic necessities to live. Only then, once they have that, can they start thinking about morals. So I think it’s difficult – we can look at Maslow’s law [commonly referred to as the hierarchy of needs] and a pyramid of humans’ basic necessities, moving from shelter and food, to security, emotional needs and then finally self-actualisation, which I think also includes a kind of moral maturity. The problem is that we are so fortunate, because we have some level of financial security to allow us to experience such opportunities and make choices, but so many people in the world don’t have that opportunity. So I do think the number of people who are becoming aware of these moral issues and the need for them is increasing in society, but at the same time, there will always be a number of toxic people that inhibit us from reaching that.
So do you think that because of this priority of needs, people in developing countries can’t receive this kind of moral education, or it’s not a priority? Is moral philosophy is reserved for people that have the time and money to do so comfortably?
Wenbin: No, I don’t think it is just for developed countries. Moral values are something that are very hard to see and define, and even harder to govern. Moral values don’t have to start with governmental laws, and that’s why empowering each and every one of us is so important. Even in developed countries, people lack moral values. So no, I don’t think morals are only something left for developed countries to indulge in, but the thing is that we as a society have to spread the information and make it known. We have to get the message across even in developing countries that to actually make a better world for everyone, it’s not just building competence, and we need a moral education too. Human needs and desires will always follow you however rich you are, but if you can be at peace with yourself, and have good morals, then you can be truly happy.
So finally, what place do you think work will have in your life; what place do you think that work will have in society? How might those thoughts have changed over the programme? And are you and your generation nervous about the future?
Wenbin: My real dream is to be a professional tennis player, but also as of recently I feel that I want to use my influence as a player to hopefully influence people around the world to have good moral values instead of aiming just for results. Before I got here I did have this goal, but Subi has definitely strengthened my desire and reinforced the importance of keeping my personal and family life in perspective. To answer your last question the future, I’m of course nervous from a personal perspective of not being able to reach that level as an athlete. Nonetheless, what scares me the most is just how big the future is, and not knowing where you will end up. I think that our generation, and especially my friends in Singapore, are afraid to get away from the norms, and sometimes to change the world we’ll have to move outside what is expected and what our influencers expect from us. But it’s not just a one day process, it has to go on for a long time, but I have to tell myself that if it’s something I really like I should just go for it!
Delfina: I think I’ve always known I wanted to be an influential person – as a kid I wanted to be famous, but I think in the last few months I’ve actually been retracting a lot of that. In my psychology class, we looked at this study into happiness that took 7 years of huge meta-analysis across a long timeline and many countries, and a lot of people said it was futile and could never come up with one single answer given how different all the results had been. The results showed that what really makes people happy the most is finding what they’re good at and using that to better the world. That really stuck in my head, and even though I thought it seems selfish to help the world through achieving my happiness, it’s a win-win situation and helps motivate me to do better. I’ve tried since to think in that style, and whatever I do I want to find what I’m good at and use that in any way possible. For Subi, he wanted at one point to be in the military, another time to be in the UN, but he found that his best outcome and the way he could help most was to teach and develop these new programmes. I think as I grow up I’m starting to re-evaluate how important family and my own time is, and I’m setting it as my goal to have that time, too. I think everyone has a different balance, but I want to find a balance that means I can help the world without harming the people around me.
In terms of what I’m scared about, I think that the rate at which technology is changing is overwhelming, and I can’t fully grasp that concept and, say, the amount of data that is being produced. I think there’s also a huge lack of trust, and it [technology] is skyrocketing to the point where I’m scared it’ll get out of control. Another thing about our generation is I think that we’ve been a bit spoon-fed, compared to, say our parents’ generation. One way you could look at it is that it doesn’t toughen us up and give us the values that we need, but on the other hand that kind of thinking led to the generations above us to act in the ways they did, which haven’t all been good. I’m kind of worried about that because a lot of people are relying on external factor to boost them up, but maybe it can be a good thing, too.
Just linking to our discussion about the ‘hierarchy of needs’, then, one could suggest that if a large number of these older generation felt like they’d had to work very individually to survive in the world and achieve their successes alone, maybe they didn’t feel like they were in a position to prioritise moral choices. Do you think that the ‘spoon-feeding’ for which young people may be criticised may have even allow us to make better moral choices as a generation?
Dede: Maybe it could. What I’m thinking, though, is that while our generation could the ‘the generation’ to do this it might be that it’s now gone too far to the other end of the scale. We can only hope for the best, work towards it, and learn from mistakes in the past. It’s important to remember that money isn’t everything, but we can’t avoid the fact it does help a lot in being able to shape your morals. Money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness, but equally, morals don’t necessarily bring you food on the table. Ideally we could create a world where those things, food and water, are provided so that we can develop moral values, but I can’t quite see that happening in the short term yet.
With that, the pair returned to their bubbling groups of newly formed friends. I’m left with an impression of, yes, some concern about the future, but a sense of real caring and a determination, building on Subi’s lessons, to marry their potential with a cause, and to achieve a happy personal life whilst offering their contribution to the new society to come.
~ Benjamin Lavelle