The fourth Taráz concerneth trustworthiness. Verily it is the door of security for all that dwell on earth and a token of glory on the part of the All-Merciful. He who partaketh thereof hath indeed partaken of the treasures of wealth and prosperity. Trustworthiness is the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people. In truth the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend upon it. All the domains of power, of grandeur and of wealth are illumined by its light.
(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 38)
In October I posted a sequence of three articles reviewing the thinking of two contrasting writers: Timothy Snyder, an historian with an interesting message about the Holocaust and World War II in his book The Black Earth, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and neuroscientist with an impassioned and well-documented plea for altruism in his book of the same name.
I felt that the sequence of posts failed to do justice to the depth and extent of Ricard’s case and am therefore revisiting the final few chapters of his book in an attempt to put that right. It’s only fair to add that his book covers so much ground that all I can convey of his wealth of detail is a faint impression.
Ricard radically questions the operational model of our acquisitive society. We are not homo economicus (page 564), ‘selfish agents’ out to promote ‘their own interests.’ We are potentially homo reciprocans with a desire to ‘cooperate’ and consider ‘the benefits to the community’ in what we do. He quotes Amartya Sen who wrote (page 565): ‘Taking universal selfishness as read may well be delusional, but to turn it into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.’
He first quotes (page 566) Milton Friedman’s purblind declaration that any other policy for corporate officials than maximising the dividends of stockholders would ‘undermine the very foundations of our free society.’ The word ‘free’ there is of course doubly ironic: those who pay the true price of our society are anything but free. Then he follows up with Frans de Waal’s damning analysis: ‘Every advanced nation has had major business scandals [over the last 10 years] and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of our society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.’
He argues the evidence strongly suggests that the kind of regulation libertarians fear is conducive to economic growth (page 571). Their fantasy of a ‘free market economy,’ far from being stable, leads to global crashes. He quotes the research of Thomas Picketty, which demonstrates that, even in-between crashes, none of the wealth realised by the elite trickles down to the less well off (page 572). And the unkindest cut of all came with 2008 crisis: bankers walked off with bonuses while others, lower down this disgraceful pecking order, lost their homes and/or their jobs (page 573). It is not without significance that, between 1998 and 2008, the financial sector spent 5 billion dollars lobbying politicians in the States (page 574).
Having painted a dark picture of the way our system has worked up till now – and believe me I have only picked out a tiny number of his main points in this summary – he moves onto possible solutions.
First of all, using the address of the economics professor, Dennis Snower, to the Global Economics Symposium in 2012, he homes in on (page 578) our need to take proper account of two issues.
One is ‘collective/public goods:’ these include democratic freedoms, the state of the environment, and natural resources.
The other is ‘poverty in the midst of plenty.’
There are major obstacles to addressing this effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):
. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.
Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):
. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.
We have been here before of course on this blog, in the consideration of Jeremy Rifkin’s solution to a similar dilemma. In his book The Empathic Civilisation, because he does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he chose what he calls ‘biosphere consciousness’ as the motivating factor (page 432):
A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .
For not dissimilar reasons perhaps in terms of persuading his readers, and obviously because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):
Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.
He goes on to argue for (page 583) an ‘economics of reciprocity,’ and quotes various examples, such as the Mondragon Corporation (pages 584-86) where ‘the members of the cooperative (on average 80%-85% of the total number of workers at each company) collectively own and manage the company.’ The best paid earn only six times more than the lowest paid compared to the 400 times more in some American companies. The founding of the company dates back to 1956, and it is still going strong.
Ricard also discusses the value of ‘socially responsible investing’ (SRI). He does not see such approaches as flawless, explaining (page 593) that some such investors, while avoiding tobacco and armaments, will still put our money into oil, gas or pharmaceuticals. He argues for developing this further (page 594) into ‘positive economy stock exchanges,’ and feels progress in this direction is being made by such ventures as the Social Stock Exchange in London, which finally opened in 2103.
We live in an economy (page 606) which, to quote Victor Lebrow, ‘needs things consumed, burned, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. Tim Kasser’s research has demonstrated that consumerism reduces life satisfaction and habitual materialists (page 607) lack compassion, are exploitative of others and often lack close friends.
A particularly interesting set of findings that Ricard quotes, given the importance attached to trustworthiness in the Bahá’í Faith, concerns Denmark, where levels of satisfaction with living conditions is high (page 611):
It is not one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but there is very little poverty and inequality. [The high level of reported satisfaction] can be explained, among other things, by the high level of trust that people feel towards each other, including toward strangers and institutions: people’s natural instinct is to think that a stranger is kind. This trust goes hand-in-hand with a very low level of corruption.
Ricard raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. However, there are interesting dynamics at work here, rather similar to the one I have explored already in terms of prejudice.
When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the problem Ricard says we are still facing in terms of responding to climate change.
To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all ever: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).
Ricard quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:
20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .
[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.
The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.
This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.
And that issue will be the focus of next Monday’s post.