Myths, rituals, languages, and other culturally determined behaviors that have been always been part of human existence are rightfully considered to be in some way rooted in our biology. Similarly, the many institutions (political, religious, military, and economic) with which humans are involved also reflect important aspects of our nature. Markets — the buying, selling, giving, loaning, or exchanging of goods and services (including humans) — existed thousands of years before the advent of a written language with its symbols for recording these market transactions. Indeed, some anthropologists believe that the need to record economic transactions for future reference was an important catalyst for the more recent origin of a written language.
The various economic systems developed for managing complex exchanges of material goods and services include the one we call capitalism. Generally, in a capitalist system, the means of production and distribution are owned privately and operated to produce a profit for its owners. As a natural result of this system there is a strong tendency for the wealth of a society to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Milton Friedman, a highly admired economic guru of the Twentieth Century, believed corporations should not be “socially conscious.” I believe by this he meant (at least in part) that it was not proper for a corporation (as an entity) to donate some of its profits to charity because which charities are selected should be the sole prerogative of each of the individual owners (stockholders) acting and choosing independently the charity (if any) he or she wishes to support. This makes some sense to me, although as one who seeks grants from Corporations to support non-profits in this area, I like seeing a little “social consciousness” of this sort.
However, there is another way of being “socially conscious.” This latter form of social consciousness requires empathy (i.e., having an awareness of, and caring about, the impact of one’s actions on others). In contrast, sociopathy is characterized by a lack of empathy and little regard for the impact of one’s actions on others. In current research into highly social organisms (including humans) individuals behaving in one or the other of these two modes are labeled cooperators or defectors, respectively. Having many more cooperators than defectors appears to be necessary for the evolutionary success of social organisms.
It seems to me that empathy is often lost in the hustle and bustle of corporate management. The short-term result of this empathic failure is often human misery of one sort or another (such as injury, environmental degradation, or loss of livelihood). A consequence of this latter result is often pressure for public action in the form of regulatory legislation - the bane of many capitalists. But without some regulation the economic benefits of capitalism can be significantly diminished over the longer term by what are termed the “externalities” of the operation, often experienced as increased health care costs and/or increased costs of doing business in the future. (Think of the costs of repairing the damage, both human and environmental, done in the Love Canal area by the unregulated disposal of toxins.)
Could it be that in this crowded world raw capitalism has outlived its usefulness and some new system may be needed which, while keeping many of the benefits of capitalism, generates much less human and environmental pathology than we are experiencing at present?
Questions and suggestions from readers are welcomed and will be responded to in future editions of this column. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.