Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one? It’s temping to think that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what others may need. But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline…
But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness. Piff and his colleagues suspect that the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Another reason has to do with our attitudes towards greed. Like Gordon Gekko, upper-class people may be more likely to endorse the idea that “greed is good.” Piff and his colleagues found that wealthier people are more likely to agree with statements that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible. These attitudes ended up predicting participants’ likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior.
Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications. Those who hold most of the power in this country, political and otherwise, tend to come from privileged backgrounds. If social class influences how much we care about others, then the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor. They may also be the most likely to engage in unethical behavior. Keltner and Piff recentlyspeculated in the New York Times about how their research helps explain why Goldman Sachs and other high-powered financial corporations are breeding grounds for greedy behavior. Although greed is a universal human emotion, it may have the strongest pull over those of who already have the most.
The three words Buchheit came up with would become the most well-known corporate values statement in the world, a central pillar in how we all think of Google—and, more importantly, how Google thinks of itself. The phrase is concise, unforgettable, and it seems to stake out novel moral ground for a corporation. Don’t Be Evil. How could anyone argue with that?
But Don’t Be Evil is a terrible way to go about marketing and running a company as dynamic as Google, and it’s long past time that the search company abandoned the idea as a way to define itself. One problem with Don’t Be Evil is that it’s uselessly vague. “Evil” is in the eye of the beholder—when you earn a userbase as large and devoted as Google’s, everything you do is bound to be considered evil by someone. Even worse, DBE is a negative formulation—it doesn’t tell Googlers what they should do, just what they shouldn’t. If “core values” are meant to serve any purpose at all, they’re to let executives and employees know the parameters of acceptable actions on the way toward fulfilling their corporate goals. Considered this way, Don’t Be Evil is worse than useless: It allows the company to commit pretty much any action short of mass genocide and still insist it’s acting for the greater good
[The central idea of the book is that religion supplies lots of useful and supportive structures that atheists have rejected along with the supernatural. Can you expand on that?]
I think the origins of religion are essentially to do with the challenges of living in a community and the challenges of bad stuff happening to us, of which the ultimate is death. Religions are rooted in these needs. They are an attempt to control ourselves, heal ourselves and console ourselves. Some of these manoeuvres are accessible to non-believers and some are not. Belief in the afterlife is simply not there for a non-believer. However, the communal rituals might be utterly accessible to non-believers, and rely in no part on anything supernatural. There are some that can be incorporated into secular life without too much difficulty.
[What kind of rituals do you mean?]
I suggest various fanciful and not so fanciful interventions. How do you bind a community? It’s very simple - you need a host. You need someone who introduces people to each other. The modern world is full of gatherings, but they’re not hosted so they remain anonymous. You go to a concert but don’t interact with anyone. You go to the pub, but you don’t talk to anyone apart from the mates that you walked in with.
I also look at morality and the need that religions feel to remind people to be good and kind. This is seen as a bit suspicious by secular society. But we are weak-willed. We have aspirations to goodness but just don’t manage it. So it seems important to have reminders of these aspirations.
Alain de Botton
By Chris Hedges
The war in Afghanistan—where the enemy is elusive and rarely seen, where the cultural and linguistic disconnect makes every trip outside the wire a visit to hostile territory, where it is clear that you are losing despite the vast industrial killing machine at your disposal—feeds the culture of atrocity. The fear and stress, the anger and hatred, reduce all Afghans to the enemy, and this includes women, children and the elderly. Civilians and combatants merge into one detested nameless, faceless mass. The psychological leap to murder is short. And murder happens every day in Afghanistan. It happens in drone strikes, artillery bombardments, airstrikes, missile attacks and the withering suppressing fire unleashed in villages from belt-fed machine guns.
Military attacks like these in civilian areas make discussions of human rights an absurdity. Robert Bales, a U.S. Army staff sergeant who allegedly killed 16 civilians in two Afghan villages, including nine children, is not an anomaly. To decry the butchery of this case and to defend the wars of occupation we wage is to know nothing about combat. We kill children nearly every day in Afghanistan. We do not usually kill them outside the structure of a military unit. If an American soldier had killed or wounded scores of civilians after the ignition of an improvised explosive device against his convoy, it would not have made the news. Units do not stick around to count their “collateral damage.” But the Afghans know. They hate us for the murderous rampages. They hate us for our hypocrisy.
The scale of our state-sponsored murder is masked from public view. Reporters who travel with military units and become psychologically part of the team spin out what the public and their military handlers want, mythic tales of heroism and valor. War is seen only through the lens of the occupiers. It is defended as a national virtue. This myth allows us to make sense of mayhem and death. It justifies what is usually nothing more than gross human cruelty, brutality and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters. It disguises our powerlessness. It hides from view the impotence and ordinariness of our leaders. But in turning history into myth we transform random events into a sequence of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march to nobility. But it is a lie. And it is a lie that combat veterans carry within them. It is why so many commit suicide.
If you took the greed out of Wall Street all you’d have left is pavement. The problem is endemic abuse of power and trust. When bubbles are forming, all but the most sophisticated investors can be easily duped into thinking they’ll get rich by putting their money into the hands of brand-named investment bankers. Moreover, finance has become so complex that investors don’t even know when they’re being taken for a ride, and so can’t possibly hold a brand-name bank responsible for their losses – or for gains that are a fraction of what they might otherwise have been.
That’s why we have regulations. After millions of investors lost everything in 1929, the federal government stepped into the breach with the Securities Acts of 1933 and 1934 and the Banking Act of 1933, sponsored by Senator Carter Glass and Representative Henry Steagall. But starting in the 1970s and 1980s, Wall Street made sure these and the regulations issued under them were steadily watered down – which contributed to the junk-bond and insider trading scandals of the 1980s, the dot-com scams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Wall-Street enablers of Enron and other corporate looters, and the wild excesses that led to the crash of 2008.
Wall Street’s shenanigans have convinced a large portion of America that the economic game is rigged. Yet capitalism depends on trust. Without trust, people avoid even sensible economic risks. They think that if the big guys cheat in big ways, they might as well begin cheating in small ways. And when they think the game is rigged, they’re easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas.
The commons is a key piece of building a sustainable, healthy and fair society. At the Story of Stuff Project, we’re concerned about the hyper-individualization and consumer-mania that has taken over our society. It’s a problem because we’re consuming more resources than the planet can produce each year and creating more waste than it can assimilate. The Global Footprint Network says we’re using 1.5 planets worth of resources a year. Basic physics dictates that we simply can’t keep consuming at this rate. In addition to depleting the very planet on which life depends, our consumer culture isn’t making us happy. We’re working longer hours than in just about any other industrialized country, we’re constantly stressed, tired and burdened by debt. It’s no coincidence that rates of social isolation, loneliness and depression are also on the rise. A thriving commons helps on all these fronts.
Shared things means we use less resources overall; that we can slow down the frenzied work-watch-spend treadmill; and that we’re investing in community rather than clutter and consumer debt. For example, my town has a Tool Lending Library as part of the public library system. Rather than every household needing to own a power drill and jackhammer, we can just borrow them for the few times a year we need them. This could be extended to include all sorts of things. Shared public resources means less resources consumed overall, less waste generated, less money spent and more time chatting with our neighbors – building community.
Those who purchase ethically believe that they are more ethical than those who don’t. Ethical consumption is an act of acute narcissism. It’s all about casting a positive light on one’s self.
By viewing the acquisition and consumption of food as an ethical and moral act, we diminish the fundamental pleasure that eating food provides us. By attaching social worth and political meaning to what we eat, and hoping that consumption can make the world a better place, we will not only fail to improve the world, but in the process lose the essential fact that eating should be about enjoyment.
Eating should be seen as pleasure and not penance; something that brings happiness and joy rather than anxiety.
Maybe, as the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested, the rich really are different. They’re more likely to behave badly, according to seven experiments that weighed the ethics of hundreds of people.
The “upper class,” as defined by the study, were more likely to break the law while driving, take candy from children, lie in negotiation, cheat to increase their odds of winning a prize and endorse unethical behavior at work, researchers reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Taken together, the experiments suggest at least some wealthier people “perceive greed as positive and beneficial,” probably as a result of education, personal independence and the resources they have to deal with potentially negative consequences, the authors wrote.
More generally, is any way of making money acceptable as long as it is both profitable and legal?
There is an interesting irony here. Those who would favor this narrow definition of corporate responsibility are typically very skeptical of governments. Yet, in their worldview, it is the government that decides the limits of what a company should do.
If an activity is legal, no matter how unsavory or unscrupulous it might be, then corporations aren’t merely allowed to pursue it, it is their corporate responsibility to do so.
As a matter of logic, if the only standard you are willing to live by is the letter of the law, then you should expect that the letter of the law will become increasingly specific.
Is it true that the Bible teaches peace and the Koran war? Only if you approach the books selectively, taking the gentlest of Jesus’ teachings and setting them against the harshest of Muhammad’s.
Philip Jenkins’s challenging new book Laying Down the Sword shows that the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but also to genocide. He argues that Christians and Jews should struggle to make sense of these violent texts as a central element of their tradition, rather than hurry past them or ignore them altogether.
The most painful passages come in the books of Joshua and Judges, which Jenkins describes as an “orgy of militarism, enslavement, and race war.” The Israelites, emerging from the desert after their escape from Egypt, attack Canaanite cities, whose people are described by the biblical narrator as very wicked. God commands the Israelites to exterminate the inhabitants—men, women, children, and animals alike, until nothing is left alive. Likewise in the Book of Samuel, King Saul eventually loses God’s favor not for his bloodthirstiness in war but for his restraint—he fails to annihilate his enemies. The prophet Samuel denounces him for sparing some of the Amalekites, takes up a sword, and personally hacks the captive King Agag to pieces. To make matters worse, says Jenkins, God sometimes deliberately “hardens the hearts” of other peoples, using them to chastise the sinful Hebrews. Then He raises up Judges, righteous Israelites, to smite and destroy them in turn. It’s almost as if He wanted the highest possible body count.
Jenkins offers a useful thought experiment, asking readers to view these stories through the eyes of the Canaanites themselves. To them, the Israelites would seem as terrifying as the Janjaweed militia of Darfur in our own day, or as the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, whose leader, Joseph Kony, has justified the mass torture and killing of men, women, and children in God’s name.
For centuries Jews and Christians have struggled to come to terms with these stories. One option was always to take them at face value and act accordingly. Crusaders in the Middle Ages, militant Christians on both sides during the wars of religion that followed the Reformation, and extremist Zionists in Israel today have taken the stories as evidence that killing your enemy without mercy is exactly what God wants. Sometimes, in their view, we must accept that God’s purposes are inscrutable but nevertheless just and righteous.
Similarly, the genocidal passages settled the consciences of European empire-builders between 1500 and 1900. They attributed “Canaanite” wickedness to their American, African, and Asian enemies, then exterminated them, noting that in doing so they had emulated God’s chosen conqueror, Joshua. One of the difficulties of becoming Christian for Native Americans and Africans since then has been God’s apparent willingness to victimize people like themselves en masse.
Not until the Enlightenment did significant numbers of European intellectuals begin to use the genocidal passages to argue against religion itself. Some, like Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and a hero of the American Revolution, regarded the God disclosed by these passages as so morally inferior that no civilized people should accept him. In The Age of Reasonhe described the Old Testament as “a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” Paine became a radiant figure for skeptics through the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent heirs include our own era’s leading atheists, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
Whether you succeed at work may depend on many factors—intelligence, empathy, self-control, talent and persistence, to name a few. But one determinant may outweigh many of these: how you perceive those around you. New research suggests that your own ability to get things done—not to mention your success in non-work relationships—is highly correlated with how you see others. Are your coworkers capable and kind, or are they, dare I say, incompetent jerks?
It turns out that such opinions are tied to a key component of achievement called psychological capital, a mixture of efficacy (self-confidence), resilience (you believe you can bounce back from setbacks), hope (you believe you can achieve your goals) and optimism (you expect good things to happen in the future). As a concept, psychological capital reflects our capacity to overcome obstacles and push ourselves to pursue our ambitions. Not surprisingly, scoring high on this measure is linked to markers of success: being promoted, winning awards, popularity with peers, stability of marriage and even longevity.
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