The Microsoft lawyer is choking back tears. The CEO of a multinational food company is pacing about in mourner’s clothes. The dean of a business school is assessing the harm he has caused to a lawyer from Tanzania, whose daughter he has murdered.
Into this mess strides the sheriff of the new world order: Martha Craven Nussbaum. At 55, she is America’s foremost philosopher, a title retired since Ralph Waldo Emerson died in 1882. Nussbaum is halfway into a weeklong seminar whose purpose is to teach business leaders how to think about “Core Values for a Global Society.” The class’s immediate assignment: to stage The Trojan Women, the ancient Greek play whose main character, Hecuba, the queen, finds her homeland conquered in war by the Greek army. Think of it as an encounter with terrorists. All of the things that define Hecuba — her title, her freedom, her luxuries, even her children — are gone in an instant. Who is she, deep down, minus every shred of her title and her identity? And here’s a question for the class — and the rest of us — to ponder: Is there any part of us that is safe from the whims of fate?
The timing of this production is almost scary: It is mid-August — one year ago. Twelve leaders from various backgrounds attend an executive seminar sponsored by the Aspen Institute, where they’re learning about the human core that unites people. The idea is for them to act out destruction and evil to get a sense of its reality, its costs, and, strangely, its opportunities. Just three weeks later, on September 11, this fiction will collide with reality. Three weeks later, we will know Hecuba better than her own neighbors did. Three weeks later, we will be wrestling with the new questions that confront a world that has suddenly changed its shape: Is there a global set of values that inform us all? Are we all part of a shrinking world where we can count on our commonalities to keep the whole ball of wax in one piece? Or has the world suddenly lost its commonalities and its common sense? Is it a stranger, more disconnected place?
“The Greeks show us how in agony we learn wisdom: The fullness of life is in the hazards of life,” Nussbaum tells her students. “A safe life is not worth living.” After September 11, it’s said, the world that was getting smaller suddenly got larger. Now it’s impossible to buy the world a Coke — or even to know for sure what the stranger next to you is thinking. American values, marked by American commerce, hardly seem to offer a single global standard. In fact, defining “core values” seems a distinctly unfashionable inquiry now that diversity and local interests have donned a dangerous face.
It may also be that the search for core values constitutes our last, best hope of sanity. For five days, these 12 leaders who could have been dipping their toes in the sand are instead studying how leadership can take global aim. They have come together with the belief that business deserves the credit for many of the glories of the world — but that it also must lay equal claim to its messes.
These students believe that the mission of shaping the world’s future is too important to be left to politicians. It is their task to discover a definition of the good life — one on which all societies can agree. And to search for that answer is to ask a harder question: If we can’t agree, is survival in this powder-keg world possible?
“If you really push people,” says Nussbaum, speaking to the class, “they’ll agree that virtue is more important than money. What virtue means to people whose interests are as different as women from men, young from old, rich from poor — that is what we’re trying to understand.”
Hecuba, it turns out, holds a key. “A condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something that you couldn’t prevent,” says Nussbaum. “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, things that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: It is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed. Trust is based on being more like a plant than like a jewel — something fragile but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.”
At the heart of the inquiry into values is a quest for a working definition of leadership — which, it begins to emerge in the class discussion, is the unique gift of philosophy. Reading great works of philosophy, Nussbaum says, develops an important — and often overlooked — element of yourself: These stories make demands on us to be internal critics. “If we made this demand on ourselves more readily, we’d make it on our public figures,” she explains. “We would insist that they play the role of gadfly within the system.”
Leaders have been wrestling with core values since the Greeks invented the idea of the good life as something that only organizations can provide. Rational thought, they argued, can settle any dispute. After all, everyone is human, so, of course, everyone wants the same things.
But that was only true as long as “everyone” was a free Greek citizen. History reveals a long and troubled conflict about core values. Christianity dominated much of Europe and beyond in the early Middle Ages, but by 715, nascent Islam had taken hold of areas south and east of the Mediterranean, and even most of Spain. With little warning, the world order had changed. And the new challenger carried an entirely different sense of how things did — or should — work. In the back-and-forth of conflict, core values were unheard of. Beliefs and values not only conflicted, they also called for battle. Looked at one way, history is the story of people who seem happier to be defined by their differences than to be joined by what they share.
In fact, on the next to last day of the seminar, the differences erupt into the open. Fatma A. Karume, a lawyer from Tanzania, is sick of white, Western people telling her — “telling Africa” — what to do. She speaks with the voice of the Muslim world that wants an end to the American Empire and globalization. Tom Swartele, the CEO of North American operations for Bongrain SA, the multinational food conglomerate, is the beneficiary of cultural dissension. Growing up in Belgium, Swartele initially spoke only Dutch. But in a country where Flemmish and French cultures compete, he became fluent in both languages — which ultimately has brought him more opportunities. His wealth and stature are a result.
Nussbaum has been waiting for this melee, for the moment when the class would display the kind of chaos that’s loose in the world. She then asks the key question: “What would a moral global system look like? A United States of the World? How does one get there? How is one to think?”
Her answer: the “capabilities approach,” a set of universal values that includes the right to life, the right to bodily health and integrity, the right to participate in political affairs, and the right to hold property. “We reasonably disagree about many matters,” Nussbaum says. “That is why freedom of religion and freedom of speech and association are so very important. Each person ought to search for the meaning of life in his or her own way, using the resources of whatever religious or philosophical tradition he or she likes. For political purposes, we can also agree to endorse a common core of basic principles of justice. But I do not think that political philosophers should be in the business of recommending a fully comprehensive account of the human good, because that would suggest disrespect for religion.”
In the end, Nussbaum says, people risk their lives for justice every day. Justice is a form of love — and that is the emotion at the core of all values. “We have to love people and things outside our own will,” she says, “and this means that we have to have fear, hope, and grief.”
As we approach the one-year mark of America’s greatest modern tragedy, it’s worth remembering Nussbaum’s admonition: “We begin our lives … loving our parents, fearing their departure, angry at our inability to command fully the things that we need. In these weaknesses we find the strength of our relation to the world” — and to each other.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer. Find a catalog of her columns, click here.