Monday, March 24, 2008

The ease of being moral all the time

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Easter as you might expect from me is a time of throwing up for me. I have been too busy to find a reason until day – I mean aside from being Easter that is. I truly need to write more to counter the nonsense that’s already on the market. Ross Gittins, Chief Economist for the Sydney Morning Herald clearly needed a holiday because he didn’t think much before he wrote this piece “Most of us are moral most of the time”.

The book “Moral Markets” is edited by neuro-economist Paul Zak “argues that most people behave ethically most of the time”. With assertions like that I just know I don’t need to read it to know his philosophical roots – ‘relativism’. See for a definition.

It should not surprise anyone why we are ‘moral’ most of the time. The first problem is that morality is defined to be something that actually contradicts your human nature. Morality correctly should be that which keeps you alive. A decision to walk in front of a car is immoral because your intent is contrary to your life. If you can see any value in it, like killing yourself would end the plague, I would question whether that is the right approach. I would suggest going into voluntary quarantine.

After taking care of our short term survival, we need to look at more abstract values like sustaining a productive life. These are higher up on our hierarchy of values. Productive effort is act doing something of value, which in part is offering something that has utility, but its also about offering it at a lower price than others. That paradigm of competition is what drives progress, as well as being a source of pride for both the producer and the consumer. We have to remember that by virtue of productive effort, most buyers are also proud, proud that they have the capacity to buy useful products, which is derivative value of being productive. Of course if you are able to buy values from others as a result of theft, others charity, you can derive no pride, in fact you are more likely to be evading some horrible guilt or self-loathing. This is the morality of a parasite that lives off the efforts of others. Of course we can empathise with them because they have a reason for being like they are, but by enabling them you are actually making them worse. The non-judgement of ‘relativism’ is just as enabling to such people. That’s not to say you should string them up from the yardarm or exhort value from them before they screw you, it just means that you should not enable or validate their actions, which in an abstract sense is immoral, even if it breaks no legal rule.

One of the rationalisations of immoral people is ‘Its not illegal’. I can think of a great many actions which are not illegal, but which are immoral, just as I can think of a lot of acts which are moral but are illegal. The moral dichotomy is evident enough between countries, where we see different standards of morality, such as the death penalty for smuggling drugs in Indonesia versus a few years in Western countries.

Gittins asserts based on his readings that “most economic exchange, whether with people you know or with strangers, relies on character values such as honesty, trust, reliability and fairness. And a set of shared values is essential to the functioning of modern economies”. That is true enough.

Zak asserts "Exchange is inherently other-regarding". I would argue that that need not be the case. Counterparties can differ in the level of consideration that a counter-party displays for their interest, whether before they make the purchase or after. The problem arises because they differ in their expectations. Those differences in expectations can reflect price opportunism, otherwise ignorance on the part of the buyer or seller, whether it’s because he is unaware of a cheaper distributor, or because the producer does not know a cheaper way of making the product or a technique to make it better quality, or designed with more features, etc.

It is true that “Both you and I must benefit if exchange is to occur”. I don’t see virtue in the exchange because it satisfies both parties, the virtue lies in satisfying the interests of the buyer. On this point Zak is rationalising to make makes suit is altruistic, utilitarian code. We are not so indifferent that we would “consider not only one's own needs but also the needs of another”. In this instance utilitarianism drops the ball (context). If we were really so generous to place others interests equal to our own, then we would spend as much time tending to their needs as ours. In reality we are tending to them only so far as they are a customer. Over time, as our productivity and success blooms, we have a tendency to be more generous, that we are able to invest more time in our customers, if not on the basis of our hierarchy of values, in deference to our children, who also compete for our working hours. Our values are not just a ‘simple ranking system’, they are contextual, or at least they should be. We cant rationalise our time and say ‘we will spend 3 hours a day with our child’. That would be an intrinsic assertion. Objectivity demands that we do whatever achieves the purpose. In the care of a child ‘quality’ achieves a great more and is appreciated a great deal more than ‘arbitrary’ time allocations’. I don’t have children, but I can see the appreciation in the eyes of people whom I give advice too. If you don’t have the respect of your children its not because you have not spent enough time with them, its because you offered no value to them, and it could have been performed in 5 minutes. It never ceases to amaze me how many parents seem to regard parenting as a prison sentence. They will say to me ‘oh wait until you do it’. But the reality is that they just didn’t identify the value(s) to convey to their child. The best evidence of their lack of preparation is the fact that they are left defending or reacting in incidences with their children. They don’t have a strategy for developing their child. On some level the child knows it because its implied in their interaction, just as it is in the parents. The parent can take pride in his efforts if he has educated himself. Sadly most parents don’t prepare themselves, or more often they just model the parenting style of their parents. There is a science to parenting, and they have not discovered it.

Just to highlight the value of reading nonsense, sometimes scientists give you their underlying concrete evidence which they have misinterpreted. Zak makes the point that “Neuro-scientific research has generally failed to support Immanuel Kant's notion that morality is learnt by rational deduction. When viewing immoral acts, nearly all humans have a visceral, emotional and rapid neural response”. I would support Kant (whom I have little regard for) is right on this, but as Zak highlights we also have a sense within us that knows the moral virtue or immorality of acts. Children don’t just have explicit knowledge of morality, they are able to implicitly integrate material as well. This can be considered peripheral knowledge, but it is supported by the behaviour modelled by parents. The reason children in a rebellious state break it is because it is peripheral knowledge and they are acting contrary to those parties to whom they have no consideration.

Yes children’s values can be shaped by social expectations, but should they. I would argue they shouldn’t, but the reality is that it takes time for a child to develop a sense of themselves, who they are and what they stand for. Leave it to a neuroscientist however to imply that this is innate knowledge. Quote "These moral emotions have been localised to evolutionarily old areas of the human brain", Zak says.

The great aspect about philosophy that is deduced from facts is that you actually know things before anti-intellectual scientists. Zak saids “Many moral decisions, including market decisions, have both cognitive and emotional components”. Anyone who knows Ayn Rand’s material could have told you this 30-40 years ago, yet neuroscientists with the power of brain scanners can only tell us know. In Ayn Rand’s words ‘an emotion is an automatic response to a thought’. In my own words, you have an emotional response in response to an incidence whose nature is dependent on your value system. Two people in the same situation with different value systems would have different emotional responses, whether is their metaphysical foundation or their intensity.

The authors does acknowledge the role of self-interest as a critical ingredient in what makes markets work according to Gittins, but what the author seemingly fails to understand is the context in which selfish (moral) decisions are made. There is no consideration of the hierarchy of values on his part. In that sense he has a typical narrow economist understanding of self-interest. I wanted to convey the enlightened concept of self interest with respect to parenting. This is my contribution to the topic of parenting. I’m not aware of Rand’s attitude to parenting – I have never seen writings by her on the subject, other than saying she did not want to have children because they would have distracted from her writing. I see that as a sign of the importance she placed on parenting, but the greater importance she placed on her writing.

The author asserts "pure, unbridled self-interest does not a market make". Unfortunately the author does not have an enlightened sense of the meaning of self interest as conveyed by Ayn Rand. I must confess that Ayn Rand never regarded empathy as a virtue, and I would have to pronounce that myself, though alot of modern writers would share it. But empathy is actually not an act of altruism, its not sympathy or charity, its detached understanding.

Getting to the core of this person’s error – “moral” values are those that concern our relations with others. He is inclined to think that morality is a social virtue. This is where a great many philosophers become unstrung as it leads them to accept ‘the common good’ as a package as virtue. Would anyone say that a human needs no ethical guidance on a deserted island. A relationship to other humans is just one of the relationships you have with yourself. I’m not talking about masturbation but I could be since its a voluntary action like a great many others. Morality pertains to all human action that sustains our lives, not just those decisions that pertain to human interaction. Ayn Rand made the point that ‘it is on a desert island that a man most needs a moral code of action since he cannot rely on other humans to support him (in the form of family or the welfare state)’.

Gittins asserts the “authors aren't suggesting that people in market economies never lie, cheat or steal. Their goal is to explain why people don't do so more often. Exchange in markets requires the solving of fundamental problems of co-operation and reliability. Our external institutions, such as the law, often intervene when individuals and firms lapse from a given standard, providing reinforcement of our value-based expectations”. On that point I can agree with the authors because capitalism is the moral system. What they don’t realise is that the ‘altruistic values in society are the elements that actually lead to crime, lying and cheating’, so there attempt to reconcile capitalism with altruism looks like folly, and gives humans no moral guidance at all.

It leads them to conclude “The law, and the constant threat of its enforcement, is critical in providing the predictability and stability needed for markets to work”. The implication is that a good law is one that achieves compliance through coercion. Are we to assume that state-sanctioned laws are thus beyond question. The authors would seem to be supporting the worst possible elements of statism, albeit under the auspices of what they would call capitalism, but what is really fascism since its upholds state values above the individual’s.

I congratulate the authors for rejecting the premise that ‘markets are amoral’. I find being moral the easiest task. The trick is identifying a rationale moral code. Ayn Rand gave me critical insights at the age of 19yo, but it didn't stop there.

Andrew Sheldon
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