A Conversation Between Evelyn Chow and Howard Gardner: Challenges to Common Spaces and the Common Good
In the exchange below, the Good Project’s Howard Gardner and former Harvard student Evelyn Chow discuss the creation of common spaces for the examination of ethics at work and what barriers may impede that type of communication.
Evelyn: You have written before about the need to establish common spaces where individuals can discuss the ethical dimensions of their work. I believe that establishing a common space is predicated on open lines of communication between members of the commons.
And so I wonder: what are the limitations of the commons if communication is restricted in some structural or possibly insuperable way? This restriction could come in the form of regulation (e.g. a public market participant can only talk to bankers through highly controlled channels); hierarchy (e.g. an organization where those of different levels may rarely convene); cultural differences; and probably other factors as well.
Howard: You raise a good question about barriers to the construction of common spaces. I have written a bit about this—for example, in Daedalus, in my article “Reestablishing the Commons for the Common Good.” It’s a difficult challenge to construct a shared space for discussion that is viable across the board—one complicating factor is that an online forum is far from ideal. Instead, it’s preferable to have a face-to-face community and communication between people in person. Of course, when there is hierarchy in place, secrecy, and/or an ingroup/outgroup mentality, this may be impossible.
Evelyn: I also wonder about the role of trust and flatness in constructing a commons, especially in standard “professional” settings.
I have come to appreciate select aspects of hierarchy—these may enable the ethical worker to excel in his or her role, free from some of the concerns that might trouble others higher or lower in the organization. Maybe there could be a Wormhole Theory of corporate culture—the ability to collapse space, time, power, and wealth when confronting issues of common importance, but still operate in different galaxies for the most part, where the citizens of each are more relaxed in their respective atmospheres.
Howard: It’s easier to behave ethically when you remain in your own wormhole—or, to use a metaphor I like, remain in your own foxhole. When you are young and new, this is probably the best pattern. But as you gain in knowledge, influence, and power, you become more of a trustee—and that role requires that you examine operations in their totality, not just from your own vantage point, and that, when necessary, you blow your whistle loudly.
Evelyn: I think that this conundrum may also occur at a national, even a global level.
Recently, I read an interview with Mohamed El-Erian, the former CEO of PIMCO, on China. El-Erian noted that China is facing a situation almost unknown to any governing body in history: a major global superpower with significant influence on global growth and markets that itself is still a developing economy. He argued that it would be in China’s own best interest to devalue their currency as much as possible to stimulate domestic growth. Yet, its induction last year into the IMF’s select group of reserve currencies, a mark of its systemic importance, precludes the Chinese government from doing so without introducing significant global volatility. This situation presents an interesting test of the boundaries of neighborly morality/the ethics of roles.
Howard: Thanks, Evelyn, for your astute comments and for broadening a contrast that was originally developed with respect to the professions, to a much larger stage—that of the world economy.