Sunday, December 21, 2008

Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring

Published on Thursday, December 18, 2008 by
Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring
by Gary Olson
In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that "The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology." One hopes so. The financial system's collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.

For the last few years I've been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another's shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it's compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni's superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.

However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public's appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain intrepretations of human nature have functioned to override empathic responses. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal "You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions."

We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society's prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci's writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as "common sense." It isn't that individual deviations don't occur within the interstices of society but generally they don't threaten elite control.

If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.

Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.

Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.

Of course there are also predatory and cruel urges within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of "natural" hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that "No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence." Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact:


HumanProject said...

My own comments on Gary Olson's piece:

Many businesses squeeze extra effort out of their employees by capitalizing (ha ha) on evolutionarily-wired human social motivation -- the human need to do one's job well so as not to lose face in front of other employees; urging employees to care about each other, so that one employee will stay late to help another, or the whole group will put in a massive effort supposedly for group goals -- but then at the top; the managers adhere to "strictly business" principles of the bottom-line, and someone can be fired simply because their contribution is no longer remunerative. In hunter-gatherer world, their place should have been secure because of past-efforts directed towards workers at their level -- there was no "top management".

Dan said...

Can you rescind someone's PhD for misuse of science? Or perhaps restrict them to labeling themselves as experts to areas in which the PhD was actually earned? What is a PhD in, I assume, Poli Sci, doing applying "technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology" to today's oh-so-fashionable debate, anyway? Plus, the quoted phrase should raise red flags, if not hackles, for anyone who's even taken Neurosci 101. Of course, this is quickly followed by the charlatan's ruse of making it beyond scope, but implying, trust me, it's rock solid. Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom that follows this pattern.

Some pretty obvious observations: it's not the first "financial system collapse" and it won't be the last. Capitalism, in its various forms, has progressed through a lot of these "collapses." It's not quite a collapse, either. Money still has value -- I say a financial system collapse is when paper money becomes worthless and you have to go back to non-financial instruments to get food you didn't grow yourself. See Zimbabwe for an almost complete collapse. Sure, the stock market is down, people have lost some money there, but how much? The Dow Jones is back to 2003 levels and is still double from 1995!!! A little early for grand prognostications of the end of greed.

"State capitalist economy" and "neoliberal ideology", what's that, a little red meat to make the argument tasty? More like red herrings. Meaningless in the neuroscientific context, and not related to each other. Plenty of liberals of the non-neo type, and conservatives who are not neoliberals all subscribe to capitalist ideals. And "state capitalist" is an oxymoron in most of those people's minds.

I really like the part of capitalists maintaining domination through, partly, religion. Christ as capitalist! Where do I get the t-shirt?

Since when are "predatory and cruel urges within our nature" one and the same? Have we all turned into herbivores? And that "vicious system of "natural" hyper-individualism", well, that gave us Mozart, Van Gogh, Picasso, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, etc. I think I'd rather keep it.

The Margaret Jacobs quote is nice indeed, it captures my optimism that one day it will be difficult for purveyors of this type of thinking to have a justified existence. A lot of hard work needs to be done before the MNS spells doom to capitalism. After all, the people involved in capitalism have those neurons too.

Isn't it so much more elegant (and thus closer to the truth) to come up with an interpretation of the human mind as a complex dance between a number of neural systems that allows the rise of multiple ways people interact with each other. The greatest philanthropic foundations have capitalist roots, for example. Is that a coincidence, or the sign of a self-balancing system among the different impulses we have?

HumanProject said...

You make a number of good points, and I especially appreciate the your eloquence and common sense of your final paragraph.

It does seem that Olsen's writing will fall most graciously on the ears of those who already agree with him, and that is too bad, because he also has some good points (in my opinion).

But to cut right to the heart of what he is saying: do you (or do other readers) have thoughts about how a pro-capitalist would respond to the quote by primatologist De Waal,

""You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions."

Dan said...

I think De Waal's quote is meaningless: you can replace "capitalist" with pretty much any other -ism and it makes just as much sense. The word that makes it work is "extreme" not "capitalist." Try it: Fascist? Republican? Jihaddist? Communist?

It's a nice propagandist trick, "WMD", "Axis of Evil", "baby killers", they all work the same way: take your own agenda, move it to the extreme, then flip it to the opposite and accuse your opponent of subscribing to it. All of a sudden you seem like the better option!

HumanProject said...

Hi Dan.

Let's call it the extreme test.

""You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme Republican positions"

Yup. Makes sense.

"You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme communist positions"

Hm, that one doesn't lead to anything that makes sense because it is unclear what an "extreme communist position" is. Like, the labor camps in Stalinist Russia or other aspects of his totalitarian dictatorship? But the communists I know consider those labor campus etc. a byproduct of a totalitarian dictatorship, not a communist position, extreme or otherwise.

Let's try another one:

"You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme liberal positions"

Hm, doesn't really work (to my ear).

I think Dan's "extreme" test is interesting and provocative, but the fact that it coheres better for some isms than others suggests that the other words in De Waal's quote are doing some of the semantic work, not just "extreme."

Dan, on a related topic, what do you think about U.S. bank CEOs receiving million-dollar bonuses even though their banks failed and tanked the world economy?

Dan said...

Aah, you make me work for my arguments :-)

The "extreme" test seems to work for ideologies that are in opposition to other ideologies. For communism, for example, if extreme communism advocates the eradication of some other belief, re-education (camps?), then the quote applies. If it is the utopian benign form of universal egalitarianism that I was indoctrinated into as a Young Pioneer, well, then, no need to really do anything -- it should obviously be the system to follow, no need to indocrinate anyone to follow. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

I tried liberalism too and it didn't work, so I left it out. I had hoped for a more general dismissal of the quote, since I really see no value in it as stated. Liberalism perhaps has empathy as a defining feature, which is why it doesn't work. Perhaps communism does, too, but if it has an extremist position that was not reflected in any of the 20th century implementations, I'm not sure what it is.

Some of capitalism's extreme positions are quite benign, as well, if you consider Ayn Rand's meritocratic utopia. Interestingly, no one had to indocrinate empathy out of the protagonists, they self-selected on the basis that they had no empathy. So another way the quote doesn't work.

The banker compensation issue is a bit of an emergent property, rather than, as popularly imagined, a charlatan's reward. You can ask many of these "do they deserve it" questions: why should humans have all the advantages of language, opposable thumbs, and hair stylists, while the rest of the apes and monkeys barely survive in the jungle? Do we really need hair stylists? Too glib perhaps? OK, then why should East Coast intellectuals have such wonderful lives when Sudanese families are going through such horrors? How does the ratio of the bank CEO compensation relative to the average bank employee's measure against the ratio of the average university professor salary to the average Sudanese refugee income?

The high salaries result from the huge returns that a small incremental ability to manage a bank can create. When your bank has $10 billion in deposits, and the rules allow you borrow 20 times that, adding 0.1% in annual returns on $200 billion means an extra profit of $200 million. If someone comes up with an idea that creates that 0.1% increment you can say, OK, I won't pay them more than $100,000 because it's just obscene. But then they'll move to your competitor, who's happy to buy that knowledge for $10 million, in order to make $200 million. After a while there are a lot of these people commanding these salaries because there is a lot of money looking for incremental returns. If you don't pay the bankers, they go and form hedge funds and keep the whole $200 million, not just the $10 million.

This guy John Paulson made over $3 billion dollars last year, running his own money. Wouldn't it have been preferable if he had made this money for a nice foundation, like the Harvard Endowment, which could have paid him $100 million for the effort? No? OK, he keeps it all (including the risk of losing it). Yes? That's how you justify the bank CEO's salaries. Different people have answered the question differently. Enough have said, yes, and paid out those salaries. Denying them, after the fact, the results of the fortuitous choices they made, or the luck they were handed, as the world falls apart around all of us, sounds very much like the Planet of the Apes plot.

tothewire said...

I enjoyed the comments almost as much as I did the post. Concise and well written.

Dan said...

From a cogsci point of view, the lack of empathy is one of the defining traits of psychopathy. An interesting overview in the New Yorker (Nov 10 2008) points to a book by one of the leading researchers, Robert Hare, "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work." The idea is that the traits that make a psychopath also make a corporate leader: ruthlessness, lack of social conscience, and single-minded devotion to success. Specific neurological findings are starting to emerge (paralimbic system dysfunctions). One percent of the population may be afflicted.

Now the question changes from whether capitalism is geared toward giving psychopaths an advantage, or whether psychopaths would be successful in any social context. Perhaps it's just that, living in a capitalist system, we see the psychopaths succeed and think it's capitalism that's bad, when in fact these same people would be successful and socially destructive in any alternative and capitalism is just fine. For example Soviet Communism: great idea until the psychopaths took over. Same with various forms of autocracy: good kings can really make the people's lives good, psychopathic kings not so much.

HumanProject said...

I've been meaning to thank you for your prior comment. Your explanation, "The high salaries result from the huge returns that a small incremental ability to manage a bank can create" makes a lot of sense --it would be helpful if this were discussed more often -- that the reason for CEO salaries is the huge concentration of money, plus some other assumptions that you describe.

So your explanation is at least technically comprehensible even if one still feels it doesn't make moral sense (and I agree the other salary inequities you mention also make dubious moral sense).

So one more banker question: I've heard (but I don't have time to really chase things down) that the CEO of the *failing* banks -- the one's that made no money for the banks and investors -- still got huge bonuses. So you can't say that their huge bonuses were a percent of the money that is due to the fact that they had a great idea that created that 0.1% increment in profit.

(Re: your last comment, let me get to that, very interesting)

Dan said...

So now it looks like this somewhat socialist capitalist system we find ourselves in is self-correcting: the CEOs and other top executives of many of the investment banks are not taking bonuses for 2008 (it's bonus season on Wall Street, which is why the current obsession). JP Morgan announced their results for 2008, they made $5.6 billion profit. Yet their CEO, Jamie Dimon, feels that's not good enough to take a bonus. Bank of America, also profitable, is not giving its long-time CEO a bonus. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, all are giving no bonuses to their CEOs.

Maybe we're not in a pure capitalist system after all, and there's not as much need for a radical change as your friendly next-door anarchist would like you to think :-)