Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Suppression of Altruism

As explained in earlier entries, altruism is one of the most important human evolutionary adaptations. But administrations of governments, universities, and corporations have institutionalized the repression of altruism to a breathtaking extent. Very commonly, they are so hostile toward altruism that they make decisions that cost them dearly in profits and reputation. They create a fortress of secrecy within which the leaders demand absolute loyalty. Administrators restrict access, so that only one or a few persons can address them. It is not uncommon for altruistic employees, as soon as they have a good idea, to be swiftly suppressed by administrators as in a giant game of Whac-a-Mole. Sounds like the Dilbert world, but it is not imaginary—it is the world in which many of us live. The climate of intimidation and secrecy was one of the main reasons that illegal activities progressed within Enron to the point that it collapsed.

One result of the suppression of altruism in both public and private sectors is that self-correction becomes impossible. The illegal financial activities of Enron, and the deceptive economic practices of the top investment banks in the United States, were revealed only when they became so large that they could no longer be hidden. The worldwide financial “meltdown” began in the United States and the administration of President George W. Bush and major financial corporations are largely responsible for it. The current financial crisis has demonstrated, not for the first time, that corporate selfishness is a recipe for not only moral but financial chaos. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1937, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”

It is not the desire for profits that has caused the centuries-long decline in altruism and the current financial crisis. Every business that has ever existed has tried to make as much profit as possible. That’s what business is about. But when businesses existed within communities, they could not get away with dishonest practices, or if they did, their collapse was localized. But now that community businesses have become global corporations, dishonest and destructive practices can spread along the tendrils of administration and management and infect their offices all over the world. Rather than being accountable to their neighbors, they are accountable to no one but themselves. When this happens, we reward them. They declare themselves to be “TBTF,” or too big to fail; they demand, and receive, billions of dollars of government aid.

Meanwhile, the CEOs of the top financial corporations in the United States seem to be utterly oblivious to the resentment of millions of Americans. Many of these executives received millions of dollars of compensation even while their corporations were losing money and receiving government assistance. When the leaders of the top three American automakers first came to Washington, D.C. to ask for government assistance, they flew in corporate jets. They were genuinely surprised that Congressional leaders reacted in anger. These executives then drove to Washington in the smallest cars their companies manufactured (according to one cartoonist, these were the Ford Implorer, the Chevrolet Grovel, and the Chrysler Mendicant). Some CEOs paid back small amounts of their compensation, but their corporations quickly went back to paying them huge bonuses. Americans are angry.

Altruism requires fairness. The emotion that reinforces fairness is sometimes called “sweet revenge,” and sometimes goes by its German name Schadenfreude. Intelligent animals derive pleasure from seeing the humiliation, and sometimes even the suffering, of other animals who have gained their advantages unfairly. It has been observed in chimpanzees. On one occasion, two male chimps who observed another male chimp receiving special treats from human visitors escaped from their enclosure and attacked the man. The chimps chewed off most of the man’s face and buttocks, ripped off his foot, and bit off both of his testicles, before they were shot. I wonder how many Americans would like to see something like this happen to the CEOs who profit from their destruction of our economy.

A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.

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