Thursday, March 23, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 6a

 “It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power.” - The Dalai Lama 

Free will is the capacity for agents to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. Experiments seem to suggest that humans don’t have free will. For eg. suppose a scientist asks a subject to choose a random moment to move a finger and measures the build-up of an electrical signal called the readiness potential. The readiness potential reliably preceded the physical action. It is found that the unconscious brain activity of the readiness potential leading up to subjects' movements began approximately half a second before the subject was aware of a conscious intention to move.

This suggests to some that unconsciously the brain has made the decision before the conscious mental act to do so. Some believe the implication is that free will was not involved in the decision and is an illusion. One of the most heated debates in biology is that of "nature versus nurture", concerning the relative importance of genetics and biology as compared to culture and environment in human behavior. The view of many researchers is that many human behaviours can be explained in terms of human brains, genes, and evolutionary histories. This point of view raises the fear that such attribution makes it impossible to hold others responsible for their actions. 

The chorus of neuroscientists saying, point blank, that free will is an illusion is echoed by psychologists and physicists. Could so many brilliant scientists be wrong?  The philosopher Dan Dennett says in Intuition Pumps and other tools for Thinking that the scientists have typically been making a rookie mistake: confusing the actual scientific image with what we might call the folk ideology of the scientific image. For example, when scientists say that a solid is mostly empty space, they are factually correct but that doesn’t mean that the folk image of a solid, which reflects lived experience, is wrong.

Dennett says that he agrees with the scientists' view that the sort of free will that they are talking about is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean that free will is an illusion in any morally important sense. But, 'some of the scientists who now declare that science has shown that free will is an illusion go on to say that this “discovery” matters, in a morally important sense. They think it has major implications for morality and the law: nobody is ever really responsible, for instance, so nobody ever deserves to be either punished or praised. They are making the mistake people make when they say that nothing is ever solid, not really.'

He devices a thought experiment to make his point. It has been shown that deep brain stimulation by implanted electrodes is showing striking effects in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Imagine that a brilliant neurosurgeon said to a patient on whom she had just performed an implantation that the device controls his every decision, thanks to a master control system, which maintains radio contact with his microchip twenty-four hours a day i.e. 'I’ve disabled your conscious will; your sense of free will henceforth will be an illusion.'

'In fact she had done no such thing; this was simply a lie she decided to tell her patient to see what would happen. It worked; the poor fellow went out into the world convinced that he was not a responsible agent, but rather a mere puppet, and his behaviour began to show it: he became irresponsible, aggressive, and negligent, indulging his worst whims until he got caught and put on trial. Testifying in his own defence, he passionately protested his non-responsibility because of the implant in his brain. The neuroscientist, when called to testify, admitted what she had said, and added, “But I was just messing with his head — a practical joke, that’s all. I never thought he’d believe me!”'

What happened in the trial is irrelevant. The fact is that her ill-considered assertion robbed  him of his integrity and crippled his power to make decisions. In fact, her false “debriefing” of her patient actually accomplished non-surgically much of what she claimed to accomplish surgically: she disabled him. Dennett writes:

. . . the neuroscientists currently filling the media with talk about how their science shows that free will is an illusion are risking mass-production of the same harm to all the people who take them at their word. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers need to take seriously their moral obligation to think through the presuppositions and implications of their public pronouncements on these issues with the same care that is demanded of people who hold forth on global warming or impending asteroid strikes. . . What would it be . . . [to] have scientists “discovered” that nobody is, or could be, wired right for moral responsibility?

The influence of what some call neurolaw is growing. In those cases, neuroscientific evidence has been admitted to show everything from head trauma to the tendency of violent video games to make children behave aggressively. Lawyers routinely order scans of convicted defendants' brains and argue that a neurological impairment prevented them from controlling themselves. Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania calls this “brain overclaim syndrome” and says, ‘The only thing different about neuroscience is that we have prettier pictures and it appears more scientific.’

He says that if adolescent brains caused all adolescent behaviour, “we would expect the rates of homicide to be the same for 16- and 17-year-olds everywhere in the world — their brains are alike — but in fact, the homicide rates of Danish and Finnish youths are very different than American youths.” Morse agrees that our brains bring about our behaviour and says “So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible. Since all behaviour is caused, this would mean all behaviour has to be excused.” . . . “Some people are angry because they had bad mommies and daddies and others because their amygdalas are mucked up. The question is: When should anger be an excusing condition?”

To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. And since all behaviour is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behaviour could potentially be excused? Popular writers prefer to simplify things by describing lives either in Hobbesian terms or by stressing their friendly side, but in fact it’s never one or the other. Which nature dominates depends on the socialisation process in the society. Trust no one who says “it is human nature to do [any single thing].”

Friday, March 10, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5e

The incentive structure in banks is often unethical, rewarding employees for steering customers to financial products that aren’t in their best interest. Many times, behaviour might seem over the top, but we often take comfort when our actions fall in line with the social norms of those around us. In The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely quotes a letter that he received from a young consultant:

I graduated a few years ago with a BA degree in Economics from a prestigious college and have been working at an economic consulting firm, which provides services to law firms. The reason I decided to contact you is that I have been observing and participating in a very well documented phenomenon of overstating billable hours by economic consultants. To avoid sugar coating it, let’s call it cheating. 

From the most senior people all the way to the lowest analyst, the incentive structure for consultants encourages cheating: no one checks to see how much we bill for a given task; there are no clear guidelines as to what is acceptable; and if we have the lowest billability among fellow analysts, we are the most likely to get axed. These factors create the perfect environment for rampant cheating.

The lawyers themselves get a hefty cut of every hour we bill, so they don’t mind if we take longer to finish a project. While lawyers do have some incentive to keep costs down to avoid enraging clients, many of the analyses we perform are very difficult to evaluate. 

Lawyers know this and seem to use it to their advantage. In effect, we are cheating on their behalf; we get to keep our jobs and they get to keep an additional profit.  Here are some specific examples of how cheating is carried out in my company:

  • A deadline was fast approaching and we were working extremely long hours. Budget didn’t seem to be an issue and when I asked how much of my day I should bill, my boss (a midlevel project manager) told me to take the total amount of time I was in the office and subtract two hours, one for lunch and one for dinner. I said that I had taken a number of other breaks while the server was running my programs and she said I could count that as a mental health break that would promote higher productivity later.
  • A good friend of mine in the office adamantly refused to overbill and consequently had an overall billing rate that was about 20 percent lower than the average. I admire his honesty, but when it was time to lay people off, he was the first to go. What kind of message does that send to the rest of us?
  • One person bills every hour he is monitoring his email for a project, whether or not he receives any work to do. He is “on-call,” he says.
  • Another guy often works from home and seems to bill a lot, but when he is in the office he never seems to have any work to do.

These kinds of examples go on and on. There is no doubt that I am complicit in this behavior, but seeing it more clearly makes me want to fix the problems. Do you have any advice? What would you do in my situation?

Sincerely yours,


Unfortunately, the problems noted in the letter are commonplace. One tends not to notice them because they are an accepted part of 'business as usual'. The people think of themselves as highly moral people because their actions are relatively small and, most important, several steps removed from my pocket.  Biased incentives can—and do—lead even the most upstanding professionals astray. When the rules are somewhat open to interpretation, when there are grey areas, people are tempted to cheat and most people cheat by small amounts. 

A common example of an area where people easily tempted into indulging in unethical behaviour is accounting. It has a vaguely titled body of suggestions — known as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) — that accountants are supposed to follow. These guidelines are so general that there’s considerable variation in how accountants can interpret financial statements. (And often there are financial incentives to “bend” the guidelines to some degree.) 

For instance, one of the rules, “the principle of sincerity,” states that the accountant’s report should reflect the company’s financial status “in good faith.” What does it mean? Toward whom is this good faith directed? The people who run the company? Those who would like the books to look impressive and profitable (which would increase their bonuses and compensation)? Or should it be directed toward the people who have invested in the company? Or is it about those who want a clear idea of the company’s financial condition?

The behaviours mentioned in the letter are the the result of the negative view of human nature that is widely held. When a communal ethos has been replaced by a view of humanity as competing individuals, the result is indeed the survival of the fittest. This view regards people as basically thieves and shirkers who need to be constantly monitored in order to keep them in line. This results in proliferation of contracts, rules, and regulations. A paradox of the individualist ideology is that it invariably results in an excess of interference.   

The moral degeneration in modern life is illustrated by the statement by the economist John Maynard Keynes that “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” (It is fantastic to assume that after a century of internalizing this norm, society will magically revert to one populated by do-gooders.) The Western political tradition relies upon external rather than internal restraints and on institutional rather than self-imposed ethical limits to control those who are in power. 

This has given rise to different types of ethics in different fields: bioethics, media ethics, medical ethics, contract ethics, care ethics, etc. As a result of this proliferation, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy has sprung up from which no one can escape, and codes and regulations are running rampant. The frustrations we experience from a host of petty regulations cause us to focus more on observing the rules and lose sight of the true significance of ethics. 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5d

Ethical blindness describes the risk that over time and under the pressure of their context, individuals lose the ability to see that what they do is wrong. It is important because it is the driving force behind big scandals. We all know why bad people do bad things. However, we will never understand large scale systematic and systemic cases of immoral and illegal behaviour if we do not understand why and under what conditions good people are vulnerable to such behaviour. The fascinating question is, why you and me, under certain circumstances, would have done what managers did at Volkswagen, Boeing, Purdue or Wells Fargo.

The various cases of corporate fraud - Enron, Worldcom, the 2008 financial crisis, etc. - leads to a fundamental question: Is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem? If the problem is not confined to a few outliers, that would mean that anyone could behave dishonestly at work and at home — you and I included. This is the problem that Dan Ariely seeks an answer to in The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. He shows that the rational cost-benefit forces that are presumed to drive dishonest behavior often do not, and the irrational forces that we think don’t matter often do. 

In rational economics, the prevailing notion of cheating comes from the economist Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate who suggested that people commit crimes based on a rational analysis of each situation. He  noted that in weighing the costs versus the benefits, there was no place for consideration of right or wrong; it was simply about the comparison of possible positive and negative outcomes.  According to this model, we all seek our own advantage as we make our way through the world. Whether we do this by robbing banks or writing books is inconsequential to our rational calculations of costs and benefits.  

In The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely writes that if this theory is correct, then the response should be to a) increase the probability of being caught (through hiring more police officers and installing more surveillance cameras, for example); b) increase the magnitude of punishment for people who get caught (for example, by imposing steeper prison sentences and fines). This is the model that is generally followed and accepted by policy-makers and the public. 

Ariely’s experiments suggest that we don’t cheat and steal as much as we would if we were perfectly rational and acted only in our own self-interest. Cheating is not necessarily due to one guy doing a cost-benefit analysis and stealing a lot of money. Instead, it is more often an outcome of many people who quietly justify taking a little bit of cash or a little bit of merchandise over and over. Essentially, we cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals.

Our behaviour is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honourable people. We want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and feel good about ourselves (psychologists call this ego motivation). On the other hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money as possible (this is the standard financial motivation). Clearly these two motivations are in conflict. How can we secure the benefits of cheating and at the same time still view ourselves as honest, wonderful people?

This is where our amazing cognitive flexibility comes into play. Thanks to this human skill, as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvellous human beings. This balancing act is the process of rationalisation, and it is the basis of what he calls the “fudge factor theory.” All of us continuously try to identify the line where we can benefit from dishonesty without damaging our own self-image. The question is: where is the line?

The fudge factor suggests that if we want to take a bite out of crime, we need to find a way to change the way in which we are able to rationalise our actions. When our ability to rationalise our selfish desires increases, so does our fudge factor, making us more comfortable with our own misbehaviour and cheating. The other side is true as well; when our ability to rationalise our actions is reduced, our fudge factor shrinks, making us less comfortable with misbehaving and cheating. There are various environmental forces that increase and decrease honesty in our daily lives, including conflicts of interest, counterfeits, pledges, and simply being tired.

If we increased the psychological distance between a dishonest act and its consequences, the fudge factor would increase and our participants would cheat more.  People are more apt to be dishonest in the presence of non-monetary objects than actual money — you are more likely to take paper or pencil from the office than money from the petty cash box. When you take money, you can't help but think you're stealing. When you take a pencil, there's all kinds of stories you can tell yourself. You can say this is something everybody does. Or, if I take a pencil home, it's actually good for work because I can work more. 

The situation changes our ability to rationalise. When rationalisation increases -- for example, when we say things like everybody does it; or when we say we are doing it for a good cause -- we cheat to a higher degree. Non-monetary exchanges allow people greater psychological latitude to cheat – leading to crimes that go well beyond pilfered pens to backdated stock options, falsified financial reports, and crony deals. Ariely writes:

From all the research I have done over the years, the idea that worries me the most is that the more cashless our society becomes, the more our moral compass slips. If being just one step removed from money can increase cheating to such degree, just imagine what can happen as we become an increasingly cashless society. 

Could it be that stealing a credit card number is much less difficult from a moral perspective than stealing cash from someone’s wallet? Of course, digital money (such as a debit or credit card) has many advantages, but it might also separate us from the reality of our actions to some degree.

If being one step removed from money liberates people from their moral shackles, what will happen as more and more banking is done online? What will happen to our personal and social morality as financial products become more obscure and less recognisably related to money (think, for example, about stock options, derivatives, and credit default swaps)?'

Again the idea is that once we get distanced from money it is easier for us to feel that we are honest but nevertheless be dishonest. Moreover, you aren’t dealing with real cash; you are only playing with numbers that are many steps removed from cash. Their abstractness allows you to view your actions more as a game, and not as something that actually affects people’s homes, livelihoods, and retirement accounts. As Auden said in Letter to Lord Byron, ‘Today, thank God, we’ve got no snobbish feeling /Against the more efficient modes of stealing.’

The creation on Wall Street of mortgage-backed securities made it harder to be a good person. When being not such a nice guy suddenly gets more profitable, it becomes harder to resist temptation.  People didn’t get greedier, but the gains from dishonesty rose, so we got more dishonesty. And when you're surrounded by all these people who think the same way, it's very hard to think differently. Every time you reward someone’s dishonesty you are encouraging others to do the same.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5c

Although the benefits of cooperation are shared equally among all members of the group, the costs are borne privately by each cooperator. The tension between “public goods—private costs” results in what is sometimes known as the Cooperator’s Dilemma. It turns out that a group consisting entirely of rational agents motivated solely by greed and fear is incapable of cooperation. But it is cooperation that underlies the ability of human groups - whether economic organizations, firms and corporations, or political organizations, such as states. 

In the years since  the publication of The Selfish Gene, lots of work has been done exploring  human-specific mechanisms for fostering cooperation. For eg., take the idea of open-ended play. Two individuals play the Prisoner’s Dilemma, knowing that after a single round, they’ll never meet again. Rationality decrees that you defect. What about two rounds? It requires noncooperation for the same reasons the single-round game does - the game defaults to a single-round game where the rational strategy is to defect. 

Three rounds? The same. In other words, playing for a known number of rounds biases against cooperation, and the more rational the players, the more they foresee this. Cooperation flourishes when games have an uncertain number of rounds. This produces the shadow of the future, where retribution is possible. Here our reputations precede us and produce a sense of obligation and reciprocity. The Nobel Prize–winning economist Kenneth Arrow has concluded, 'Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust, certainly any transaction conducted over a period of time.' 

A gene-centric theory is unable to explain such obvious features of human social life as morality, sympathy, and generosity. As the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson explains in Does Altruism Exist?, “. . . group-level functional organization evolves primarily by natural selection between groups.” Groups have multiple-round games and the means to spread news of someone being a jerk. On the other hand, when rational calculations enter into the equation, they tend to undermine ultrasociality. We know them as “nepotism” and “cronyism.”

In Evolution for Everyone, David Sloan Wilson writes that an animal breeder at Purdue University, William Muir, tried to figure out how to make chickens produce the most eggs. He bred two groups of chickens. In both cases, he housed the hens in cages,  which is standard practice in the poultry industry. In the first method he did what the 'rank and yank' system does - he picked the hardest working, most productive hen within each cage to breed the next generation of hens and put all of those in one group. The second method involved selecting the most productive cages and using all the hens from those cages to breed the next generation of hens. 

Thus same trait (egg productivity) is selected in both cases although in the second group, the whole cage is selected when even the best cage might have some individual duds. The first method caused egg productivity to perversely decline, even though the most productive hens were chosen each and every generation. The second method caused egg productivity to increase 160 percent in six generations.

The first method favoured the nastiest hens who achieved their productivity by suppressing the productivity of other hens. After six generations, Muir had produced a nation of psychopaths, who plucked and murdered each other in their incessant attacks. No wonder egg productivity plummeted! In the second approach, he selected the most productive groups and because they were already a group that worked well together, they included peaceful and cooperative hens.

Why was each superstar the prime egg producing champion in her original group? Because she would aggressively peck subordinates enough to stress them into reduced fertility. Put all these mean champions together, and a group of subordinated chickens, who are now in peace, will outproduce them. This is the circumstance of a genetically influenced trait that, while adaptive on an individual level, emerges as maladaptive when shared by a group. Thie “rank and yank” system is a recipe for disruptive self-serving behaviors. 

Even the smartest person can be misled by a false view of human nature. In the long term, the success of the individual is  inextricably bound up with the success of the group. Reciprocity is made up of a series of acts each of which is short-run altruistic (benefiting others at a cost to the altruist), but which together typically make every participant better off. The loss of the capacity to feel guilty and the consequent loss of a sense of responsibility may be the biggest problems facing the world today. 

Economists have recently discovered that trusting communities, other things being equal, have a measurable economic advantage. This is probably because when individuals cooperate, what economists term “transaction costs” — the costs of the everyday business of life, as well as the costs of commercial transactions — are reduced. Moreover, students of public health find that life expectancy itself is enhanced in more trustful communities. Honesty and trust smoothen the inevitable frictions of social life.

Putting all one's faith in a legal system, complete with courts and law enforcement provides only a partial solution. If we needed legal advice and a police presence to formulate and enforce the simplest agreement,  escalating transaction costs would prevent much mutually beneficial cooperation. As Diego Gambetta, a student of trust (and of the Mafia), points out, “Societies which rely heavily on the use of force are likely to be less efficient, more costly, and more unpleasant than those where trust is maintained by other means.” In Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam writes:

. . . social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy, and where they are subject to repeated interactions with fellow citizens, everyday business and social transactions are less costly. There is no need to spend time and money making sure that others will uphold their end of the arrangement or penalizing them if they don’t. Economists such as Oliver Williamson and political scientists such as Elinor Ostrom have demonstrated how social capital translates into financial capital and resource wealth for businesses and self-governing units. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5b

Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby begins with the observation, "‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.‘ Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’" But most rich and successful people don’t heed that advice. As E. B. White said, 'Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self- made men.' I saw a book titled ‘If you are so smart, why aren’t you rich?’ The immediate response that occurred to me was, ‘If you are so rich, why aren’t you smart?’

The thought patterns of humans living their day-to-day existence are continually affected by what goes on around them, and the consequent actions they take are continually affecting whatever is around them. A common rhetoric these days among the privileged is the myth of meritocracy. It is the idea that those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them. Successful people don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. The economist Paul Samuelson once said, “Never underestimate the willingness of a man to believe flattering things about himself.”

How important is luck? People who amass great fortunes are almost always extremely talented and hardworking. But, countless others have those same qualities yet never earn much. In recent years, social scientists have discovered that chance events play a much larger role in important life outcomes than most people once imagined. When successful people are oblivious to their own advantages they are often similarly oblivious to other people’s disadvantages. The result is a lack of empathy toward those who are struggling making them reluctant to support the kinds of public investments without which everyone becomes less likely to succeed.

For Darwin it was impossible to reconcile the cruelty of nature with a loving God. Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene doesn’t present a cheery view of nature either with its focus on the instrumental role genes play in the evolution of life. Are you counting on nature to make the world a better place? It is impossible, they thought. The problem here is with pushing the analogy between nature, genes and cultural elements too far. Folk ideas of Darwinian evolution and The Selfish Gene have given the idea of meritocracy the status of a natural law. So much so that Margaret Thatcher once said that poverty is a ‘personality defect’. 

The term meritocracy was coined in 1958 by the British sociologist Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy.  He argued that encouraging successful people to self-aggrandizingly attribute their success solely to their own efforts and abilities would actually make things worse, on balance. In a 2001 article, he noted that although it makes good sense to appoint people to jobs on their merit, “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

Some think success is all about “choices” and “personal responsibility.” Yes, those are real, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Luck acts in subtle ways, causing many of those same people to resist explanations that invoke luck. Your genes and your environment largely determine how smart you are.  How does it make sense for you to claim moral credit for them? You didn’t choose your parents, nor did you have much control over the environment in which you were raised. 

The birth order among siblings, which is as close to a pure chance result as any we can imagine, often plays a decisive role. There is also the scientific finding that your development depends on your grandmother's nutrition. And, of course, plenty of accidents determine where you have reached in life. People with a lot of talent and an inclination to work hard are extremely fortunate. As George Elliot writes in Middlemarch, ‘. . .  chance has an empire which reduces choice to a fool's illusion’.

Those who insist that luck played no role in their own success are almost surely claiming more than their due. Meritocracy would require equality in conditions to access work or career which simply does not exist. Measures of merit are hard to disentangle from economic advantage. In 'What About Me?',  Paul Verhaeghe writes, 'The principle of a capitalist meritocracy founders on the inheritance of wealth: those who inherit capital stay at the top of the ladder; those who inherit debt remain at the bottom.' 

There are traces of meritocratic principles in most philosophical systems. What all these traditional systems have in common, though, is the notion that the merit relevant to governing include moral and civic virtue. For the past few decades, new technologies and market institutions have been providing growing leverage for the talents of the ablest individuals. This has resulted in the spread and intensification of what the economists Philip Cook and Robert Frank have called winner-take-all markets. This means that we are looking at a future in which chance events will become still more important. 

The meritocratic ideal is emphasised becase we tend to overestimate the effect of a brilliant individual on a team's success, and to underestimate the importance of the collective effort. The more we think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, the harder it is to learn gratitude and humility, sentiments that enable us to care for the common good. Among the winners, it generates hubris; among the losers, humiliation and resentment. The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality. 

Emphasing the importance of luck isn’t the same as saying that most winners win only because they’re lucky. In highly competitive arenas, most would not have even been realistic contenders had they not been both extremely able and hardworking. Society as a whole can mould those environments in significant ways. We are thus the lucky beneficiaries of decades of investment by those who came before us. In a speech to Princeton graduates in 2012, Michael Lewis says:

In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

In a social context, the consequences are worrying. The middle class is disappearing, making way for a small group at the top and a large underclass at the bottom. The top group looks down on the underclass, believing that the latter only has itself to blame if it ends up in the gutter. Its ‘fault’ lies in a lack of effort and talent. But the underclass feel powerless to remedy their situation. It doesn’t take much for feelings of humiliation and despair to be transformed into violence.

Just as in the 19th century, people conveniently tend to forget the important role that pure chance plays, as well as the social effects of ethnicity, caste, class, age, ill-health, adversity, and gender. A paper reality is being created that has less and less to do with actual reality. The reward structure common in entertainment and sports - where thousands compete for a handful of big prizes at the top - has now become common in other sectors of the economy. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5a

"In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And, if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you." – Warren Buffett

Brainy people can sustain an astonishing degree of emotional and cognitive detachment from reality as shown in, for example,  Empire of Pain. The political and business elite, whether capitalist or communist, has a fierce vested interest in all of us swallowing their stories, even better if it’s supposedly confirmed by ‘science’ and ‘data’. This makes it important to be suspicious of statistics. The same data can be used to support very different views. The main illusion produced by all these figures is that they represent ‘reality’. In the majority of cases, however, they are creating a certain image of reality. 

Darwin and Dawkins seem to have little connection with us as individuals. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous illusion. Take the shocking example of the Enron approach to personnel policy. By all accounts (including his own) Jeff Skilling, its CEO, was a very clever guy, even brilliant. “I am fucking smart,” he told an admissions officer at Harvard Business School. When somebody talks like that, you can be quite sure he will do some dumb things. It was Skilling’s vision and management philosophy that turned what could have been a simple bankruptcy into an epic of corporate greed, fraud, and corruption. 

According to a Businessweek interview, “there was never any question who was in charge. It was Jeff.” His favorite book? The Selfish Gene. (Apparently, Dawkins was horrified to learn that this book inspired Skilling.) Officially, the system that Skilling imposed on Enron was known as the PRC, or Performance Review Committee. But the employees called it “Rank and Yank.” Every year Skilling recruited hundreds of new MBAs from the best business schools, and then fired those whose performance ranked in the lowest 10 percent. Top performers, on the other hand, were lavishly rewarded. 

Skilling thought that the system was great. He told one reporter, “The performance evaluation was the most important thing for forging a new strategy and culture at Enron — it is the glue that holds the company together.” Skilling couldn’t have been more wrong. Enron “was as competitive internally as it was externally.” Traders who needed to go to the bathroom shut down and locked their computers because they were afraid that a colleague (in other words, a competitor) sitting at the next desk, would steal their ideas. 

For all his smartness, Skilling did not realize that humans actually have a natural inclination to work for the mutual benefit of an organization. People like to cooperate and collaborate, and they often work more productively when they have shared goals. Take all of that away and you create a company that will destroy itself. Employees began to focus solely on their own performance at the expense of the firm's overall performance and Enron became a miserable place to work. 

The individual performances of its staff members were continually monitored and contrasted. On the basis of the results, one-fifth of its employees were sacked each year, but not before they had first been publicly humiliated by having their name, photo, and failure posted on the company website. It wasn’t long before total paranoia reigned and almost everyone was falsifying their figures. Skilling completely destroyed any willingness among his employees to cooperate — not with each other, not with their bosses, not with the company itself. And after that, collapse was inevitable.

But that failure is not the end of the story. Although the system that Skilling set up at Enron was an extreme example, the Enron model is still in wide use. This Rank-and-Yank scheme has become general practice at American companies, including such behemoths as Microsoft and General Electric (where it was pioneered by Jack Welch). Rank and yank can go by a few different names - Set distribution, forced ranking, vitality curve, and rank and yank are all alternative ways of saying the same thing - ranking employees by performance and getting rid of the ones at the bottom.

The belief in the brilliant individual, and the corresponding disparagement of team effort underpins the Rank-and-Yank system. According to a 2012 estimate, 60 percent of Fortune 500 firms use what is essentially the Rank-and- Yank system (although giving it more politically correct names). The fall of Enron was just a warning signal. One wonders, in how many other companies has internal cooperation been undermined to the point where they are about to become new Enron's?

HR managers at multinationals are expected to apply the 20/70/10 rule. Twenty out of every hundred employees are the high flyers, seventy provide the critical mass, and ten should be given the boot, even if sufficient profit and growth has been achieved. Googling the search terms ‘Rank and Yank’ and ‘20/70/10 rule’ throws up hundreds of hits of company documents praising this approach, invariably referring to Spencer’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’. 

The Selfish Gene is, in many ways, a brilliant book. Yet it fails utterly to explain one thing: the evolution of cooperation in human beings. The main idea of The Selfish Gene readily lends itself to abuse by the 'best and brightest' of the world. Selfish people are naturally attracted to theories that say that the human is a selfish beast, that’s the way things are. And I, being the smartest guy around, always knows the best. They find such theories liberating, giving them carte blanche to be selfish and greedy and feel good about it. Peter Turchin says in Ultrasociety:

I am reasonably certain that Richard Dawkins is, and George Williams and Herbert Spencer were, decent human beings, at least to a fair approximation. It is, at any rate, hard to imagine them perpetrating corporate fraud on the massive scale of Jeff Skilling. Nevertheless, their flawed understanding of human nature not only gave them pessimistic views of our capacity for morality, altruism, and cooperation. Worse still, policy prescriptions on how to increase cooperation, trust, and social justice will not achieve the desired results so long as they rest on these views.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 4d

“Why not go back to God’s drawing board and design better Sapiens? The abilities, needs and desires of Homo sapiens have a genetic basis. And the sapiens genome is no more complex than that of voles and mice.“ says Yuval Noah Harari. Many people are mesmerized by technology and think that there is a technological solution to everything. 'Designing better sapiens' is not just a matter of tinkering with the genes. The environment in which our genes are acting makes all the difference to how we turn out. 

Many people’s understanding of the relation between genes and characters is based on the tiny minority of monogenic diseases. The popular view is that the person you see is largely the sum of the effects of his or her genes plus a little social-educational gloss. For the foreseeable future, predicting what a collection of interacting genes will produce in a certain set of circumstances is not going to be possible. Very often a change in a single gene does not have a consistent effect on the trait that it influences. 

For example, low activity of the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is linked to aggressive behavior and violent offenses. But not everyone with low MAO-A activity is violent, nor is everyone with high MAO-A activity nonviolent. People who grow up in extremely abusive environments often become aggressive or violent, no matter what their genes. Having high MAO-A activity can protect you from this fate, but it is not a given. On the contrary, when children are raised in loving and supportive environments, even those with low MAO-A activity very often thrive.

Constand and Abraham Viljoen were two identical twin brothers who ended up on opposing sides of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Born on 28 October 1933, they were inseparable as boys.  The brothers attended the same schools and were in the same classes. They listened to the same teachers and the same propaganda about the superiority of the white race. In 1951, when Abraham decided to study theology, Constand opted for a career in the army. 

Army life suited Constand, and it became like a second family. While Abraham pored over his books and befriended students from all over the world,  Constand jumped out of helicopters and fought in wars. Year by year, the brothers drifted further apart. Abraham began to realize that the apartheid he’d grown up with was a criminal system and contradicted everything the Bible taught. When he returned after years of studying abroad, many South Africans considered Abraham a deserter. Constand, meanwhile, grew to be one of South Africa’s most beloved soldiers. At the pinnacle of his career, he became chief of the South African Defense Force. In time, the Viljoen brothers stopped speaking altogether. 

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, became a free man. Finally, there was hope for peace and reconciliation between black and white South Africans. Four years later, on 26 April 1994, the first elections were held for all South Africans. Two weeks later, on 10 May, Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president. What is less well known is that the inauguration almost did not happen. In the four years between Mandela’s release and his election as president, the country came to the brink of civil war. 

Constand became the leader of a new coalition calling itself the Afrikaner Volksfront. This group consisted of armed Africaners who were fearful of losing their privileges if Mandela won and was mobilising for war. Constand’s brother Abraham felt a deep sense of foreboding and realized that he needed to act. He knew that he was the only person in the whole of SA who could change his brother’s mind even though they had not talked for 40 years. 

He persuaded Constand to meet Mandela and the meeting took place in Johannesburg on 12 August 1993. Each time Constand shook Mandela’s hand, his admiration grew for the man he once considered a terrorist. That first meeting opened four months of secret talks between Constand and Mandela which few history books mention today. Yet this was a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa. In the end, the former general was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.  

The story of the Viljoen brothers is a textbook case of two people with same genes but exposed to different environments resulting in totally different characters. Virtually every behavioral effect of genes concerns the average of what’s being measured. It is possible to make statistical predictions at the level of groups but not about particular individuals within that group. The action of genes is completely intertwined with the environment in which they function; in a sense, it is pointless to even discuss what gene X does, and we should consider instead only what gene X does in environment Y.

It is fallacious to think of ourselves as merely the product of genes we inherited from our parents and see the future as nothing more than carrying those genes forward. It leads us to overvalue our ambiguous knowledge of how genes work and disregard other factors that shape our lives, factors that could be reshaped to improve the world around. Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst:

 If you had to boil this book down to a single phrase, it would be “It’s complicated.” Nothing seems to cause anything; instead everything just modulates something else. Scientists keep saying, “We used to think X, but now we realize that . . .” Fixing one thing often messes up ten more, as the law of unintended consequences reigns. On any big, important issue it seems like 51 percent of the scientific studies conclude one thing, and 49 percent conclude the opposite. . .