Thursday, December 28, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 15a

“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” - David Graeber

There was a study of businesses that went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The study showed that five years later, the companies that gave a good deal to their employees, such as profit sharing and human resources survived better than companies that treated their employees as expendable. You would think that if the practices of companies that survive end up spreading, then doing well by employees would simply spread on its own merits. But that’s not what happened. This is because there is a narrative that has become common which emphasises the negative facets of human behaviour.

We unconsciously and automatically learn motivations, preferences, and values from the surrounding culture and these learnings guide our actions. Once we get in the habit of thinking of ourselves in a particular way, we tend to interpret all the evidence we encounter to fit our preconceptions and assumptions. Almost two generations of human beings have been educated to think in terms of universal selfishness. “What’s in it for him/her/us?” is the question we have trained ourselves to ask first. We have convinced ourselves that we are best off designing systems as though we are selfish creatures. 

It seems like it’s always the jerks that are more successful than the “nice guys” in all areas of business, entertainment, and other fields. But being a jerk, or a narcissist is not the personality trait that makes for great success. It should also be remembered that there are a lot of jerks, narcissists and foul-mouthed people who are unsuccessful. There are a lot of very effective, successful people who have none of those maladies. If we want to avoid aggressive, self-centred behaviour, we need to avoid pushing the wrong psychological buttons. 

Most people have heard about placebos in the context of testing new medicines. Depending on a person’s beliefs, desires, and prior experiences, taking a placebo or experiencing any “sham” medical procedure including fake surgery can activate biological pathways in the body making the sham treatment work. However, the action and effectiveness of a placebo often depends entirely on how much faith a patient puts in a particular placebo or medical treatment. The more you believe it will work, the more it may actually work. 

Similarity, culture plays an important role in setting our beliefs and expectations which influence how we behave nd how we expect others to behave towards us. We should add positive emotions like empathy, joy, happiness, gratitude, euphoria, and hope among the cultural cues that are sent out. Hamlet said, 'Assume a virtue, if you have it not.' By 'assume a virtue', Hamlet does not mean 'pretend' but the very opposite: to pretend is to show. What he means is, ‘Adopt a virtue’ and act upon it, order your behaviour by it. It results in what is called the Pygmalion Effect - the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behaviour comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 In Cervantes’  novel Don Quixote, there is a tale about two good friends,  Lothario and Anselmo, who discuss the virtues of Anselmo’s wife, Camila. Despite having a wonderful marriage, Anselmo insists that his friend help him “prove” his wife’s chastity and virtue by attempting to seduce her. He says, ‘I can never value one who owes her virtue to lack of opportunity, rather than to a vigorous denial of an aggressive and persistent lover.’A shocked Lothario wisely points out how ridiculous this is, and tells Anselmo to be content. Anselmo insists further and finally convinces Lothario to help him. 

Anselmo then takes an out-of-town business trip in order to provide the opportunity for the plan. Lothario is initially hesitant but eventually falls in love with Camila. Camila is confused and frustrated with Lothario’s advances and tries her hardest to refuse them and convince her husband not to leave her alone with Lothario. However Anselmo doesn’t listen and  she eventually succumbs to Lothario’s advances. They lie to Anselmo and carry on an affair. Finally he wises up and Lothario and Camila are forced to flee together. All come to a bad end, in true Shakespearean fashion.

The three main characters seem to each have a “fatal flaw.” Anselmo, of course, is “recklessly curious” – never satisfied with the good in front of him, but discontented with no reason. It was his plan that started the downward spiral of the story. Lothario starts out with words of wisdom to his friend and attempts to flee the temptation before him. He does not trust his instincts. He does not flee the temptation as he should.  The story illustrates the fact that our thoughts result in actions in the real world that make our thoughts come true. The story is a metaphor that illustrates the fact that  if we view human nature through a negative lens, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Over the past couple of decades, scientists of many disciplines are uncovering the deep roots of human goodness. This research reveals that the good in us is just as intrinsic to our species as the bad. Empathy, gratitude, compassion, altruism, fairness, trust, and cooperation, once thought to be aberrations from the tooth-and-claw natural order of things, are now being revealed as core features of primate evolution. 

Lots of experimental work has shown that people actually cooperate more than is predicted by commonly held conceptions. In experiments about cooperative behaviour, there is admittedly a large minority of people — about 30% — who behave as though they are selfish. However, 50% consistently behave cooperatively. The remaining 20% are unpredictable, sometimes choosing to cooperate and other times refusing to do so. In no society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

In one experiment, for the same game, half the players were told that they were playing the Community Game and the other half were told that they were playing the Wall Street Game. The two groups were identical in all other respects. Yet, in the Community Game group, 70% started out playing cooperatively and continued to do so throughout the experiment. In the Wall Street Game group, the proportions were reversed: 70% of the players didn’t cooperate with one another. Thirty percent started out playing cooperatively but stopped when the others didn’t respond.

Thus just changing the framing of the games influenced 40% of the sample. The players who thought they were acting in a context that rewarded self-interest behaved in a manner consistent with that expectation; participants who felt they were in a situation that demanded a prosocial attitude conformed to that scenario. In fact, we are willing to pay a penalty for an opportunity to punish people who appear to be breaking implicit rules of fairness in economic transactions.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 14b

We are like residents of Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel — an infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters. It therefore contains somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges's librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense. The story is a metaphor for a problem we face:  the paradox of abundance - quantity dulls us and reduces the quality of our engagement. 

In Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, I came across the concept of the adiaphorization of human behaviour. Adiaphoron in Greek means an unimportant thing (pl. adiaphora). Bauman uses it not in the sense of ‘unimportant’ but as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘indifferent’. He means an ability not to react, or, to react as if something were happening not to people but to natural physical objects, to things, or to non-humans. 

We live in an era of sound-bites, not thoughts. A ‘hurried life’ means that we don’t have the chance to ponder over an event and retain it in our memory. Things turn into a routine that  do not turn anybody on – one needs to become a star or a victim to gain any sort of attention from one’s society. Only a celebrity and a famous victim can expect to be noticed by a society overstuffed with sensational, valueless information. Celebrity and stardom means success that leaves the masses with the illusion that they are not too far from it and can reach it. 

When you constantly see crashing planes in the movies, you start looking at them as fictions that can never happen to you in real life. The routinization of violence and killing during war makes people stop responding to war’s horrors. Incessant political scandals similarly diminish or entirely take away people’s social and political sensitivity. This process suppresses the human power to feel sympathy. Bowman  considers the adiaphorization of behaviour to be one of the most sensitive problems of our time with the markets playing a key role in the process. 

When a catastrophe occurs, people at hand are shocked into helpfulness. We rush to help victims of catastrophe but return to the normal routine once a cheque has been mailed. The fast pace of life means that ‘compassion fatigue’ will set in, waiting for another shock to break it, again for only a brief moment.  This means that the horror of the one-off earthquake or flood stands a much better chance of spurring us into action than slowly yet relentlessly rising inequality of income and life chances.

Bowman uses the idea of painkillers as a metaphor to illuminate the problem. Painkillers are used as a temporary measure for the duration of surgery or of a particularly painful organic disorder. It is never meant to make the organism permanently pain-free. Medical professionals would consider such a condition dangerous. If pain did not send a warning in time that something was wrong, the patients would postpone the search for a remedy until their condition became untreatable. Still, the thought of being permanently free of pain  seems to most people a good idea.

This example from physiology gives an important message: freedom from pain is a mixed blessing. It prevents discomfort, and for a short time cuts down potentially severe suffering, but it may well prove a trap. Pain is a corrective, guiding force. When we are acting foolishly and  stray into illness, alienation, loneliness, or despair, it is good to feel anguished. Moral pain serves as a reminder that something is wrong with our way of living. 

Historian Milton Mayer recounts in his seminal book on Hitler’s rise to power, They Thought They Were Free: Germany 1933-45, how easily we can slip into barbarism. Mayer's book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45. They had been members of the Nazi party. Mayer wanted to discover how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists.

The full range of coercive power and brutality of the Nazis did not become clear at one stroke. People got accustomed to it, in small steps. Most of his informants remembered the Hitler years as the time of their life. They passed examinations, got a job, got promotions, got married. And the political meetings had been exciting. There were always more of them. “There was so much going on.” Consumed by the ‘virus of adiaphorization’, society was increasingly becoming insensitive. Mayer quotes one German:

Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism  . . . kept us so busy with continuous changes and 'crises' and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the 'national enemies', without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.