The Tension Between the Global and the Local

This issue seems to me to be a central conflict in modernity, or maybe a central conflict since cities have become a thing. How do our ambitions for acheivement as individuals resolve with our need to be connected with the people and places we grew up with?
Do you think this is a struggle for people in Taipei? What have been some of the things people think about this problem? What are some of the solutions people have found, and what have we had trouble solving?
Do you think this issue has been exacerbated or simplified by technological innovation, like with cellphones and computers and the internet?

Can I do that and be a scientist too?
I’m a scientist at UC Berkeley—a card-carrying true believer in liberal Enlightenment values. Imagine that I meet a bright young woman in a small town in Wisconsin or Alabama, and that I want to persuade her to become a scientist like me. “Listen, science is really great!,” I say. “We scientists care about truth and reason and human flourishing. We include people from every country and culture. And our values have transformed the world. For thousands of years before the Enlightenment, the speed limit was the pace of a fast horse, and children died all the time. Now ideas move at the speed of light, and a child’s death is an unthinkable tragedy. Democracy has eclipsed tyranny, prosperity has outpaced poverty, medicine has routed illness, individual liberation has uprooted social convention. Come join us!”

The young woman replies, “That sounds fantastic! But there’s just one thing. I love this town. I have a boyfriend who also wants to be a scientist, and I’d like to get married and have a bunch of kids here soon. My parents are looking forward so much to being grandparents, and my own grandparents need me to look after them. My family and friends are all nearby, and I’d like my kids to live in my community and take part in the same traditions I grew up with. Can I do that and be a scientist too?”

The honest answer? “If you join us, the chances are very slim that you’ll end up living in your hometown. You’ll move around from place to place unpredictably, from college to graduate school to postdoc research to professorship, until you’re 40 or so. You’ll be separated from your partner for long stretches of time. You’ll have to wait to have kids, and you may not have them at all. If you do, they almost certainly won’t be able to grow up with their grandparents. But there’s always Skype.”

This dialogue isn’t just hypothetical. Colleagues in the Midwest and the South describe exactly this kind of conversation, and I’ve had similar talks even in cosmopolitan Berkeley. And this discussion doesn’t apply only to scientists. People in many walks of life, across the country and around the world, are having this conversation. It expresses the tension between the global and the local, modernity and tradition, professional opportunity and family ties, the people who leave the place where they grew up and the people who stay.

Commitment Mechanisms
Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism.

From infancy, human beings develop specific attachments to particular people and places around them, and those connections underpin commitment, care, trust, and love. In the language of neuroscience you might call this the “oxytocin axis,” though it’s far too complex to be reduced to a single chemical. In most mammals, a “tend and befriend” brain system—which involves the neurotransmitter oxytocin, among others—plays an important role in the bonding between mothers and babies. In humans, with our distinctive capacity for cooperation, this system of attachment has been expanded to apply to a much broader range of relationships, from pair-bonded partners to friends and collaborators.
You might think these bonds reflect the fact that people are similar or have the same interests. In fact, the economist Robert Frank and the philosopher Kim Sterelny have proposed exactly the opposite view. The feelings that go with attachment—such as love, trust, and loyalty—allow people who have different capacities and clashing short-term interests to cooperate in a way that benefits everyone in the long run. Parents versus children, wives versus husbands, hunters versus gatherers—all of these relationships inevitably involve tension and conflict. Rationality and contractual negotiation alone can’t resolve the differences that arise. If individuals all just pursue their own interests, even in coordination with others, they may end up worse off. But emotions can help. Sterelny argues that attachments act as “commitment mechanisms.” They ensure that partners won’t just walk out of an argument or renege on an agreement when it becomes inconvenient.

Genuinely Conflicting Goods
philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin, sobered by the 20th century’s failed utopias, have argued for a more modest liberal pluralism that makes room for multiple, genuinely conflicting goods. Family and work, solidarity and autonomy, tradition and innovation are really valuable, and really in tension, in both the lives of individuals and the life of a nation. One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values. Family policy is a good example. People on both sides of the political and cultural divides in the U.S. are in rare agreement that programs like family leave and preschool deserve more support
Pursuit of Happiness or State as Greater Family?
For the Enlightenment philosophers, the great problem of politics was how to combine the desires and goals of thousands of autonomous individuals—how to coordinate the pursuit of happiness. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi identified another conundrum: how to expand the mutual commitment and trust that define a family to the very different scale of a state.