Tag Archives: selfishness

The Intriguing Question

Ultimately, all societies must debate and answer a fundamental question: how should humans live together? What should–and shouldn’t– governments do? What are governments for?

Yesterday, I marveled at the bilge being produced–and consumed–by the GOP. The ability to peddle and sell it comes back to the growing differences among Americans when they answer that foundational question. Michael Flynn thinks government should impose religious conformity; a number of Republican officeholders think government should favor White Christian heterosexual males ,and they all appear to believe government has an obligation to abet GOP lawbreakers.

The current mess that those prejudices have made of American governance is one thing. A more existential issue is whether the various countries on planet Earth can come together to avert the worst consequences of climate change. According to a fascinating research paper from Yale, it turns out that the answer to that (seemingly unrelated) question also comes back to the philosophical one: what do citizens of a country think an ideal society should look like? What–and how much– do they want their governments to do?

The researchers concluded that the answer to that question is in the process of change. Here’s the lede to their report (I’ve omitted the citations.)

Individuals’ attitudes toward climate change risks and solutions are shaped by personal and social factors other than knowledge of climate change alone. One such factor is differing cultural worldviews, or values regarding how society should be structured and the role of government in addressing problems.

Two important types of cultural worldviews are egalitarianism and individualism. People with a more egalitarian worldview tend to believe that society should promote equality, social justice, participatory democracy, and diversity, and are generally more concerned about environmental hazards including climate change. They also tend to favor government actions to solve societal problems, including increased environmental regulations. In contrast, people with a more individualistic worldview are more likely to believe that society should promote individual liberty, autonomy, and opportunity. They tend to be less concerned about environmental hazards and favor greater freedom for industry. As a result, they generally oppose government intervention and environmental regulations.

Our Climate Change in the American Mind surveys have repeatedly included questions over the past 12 years that measure these worldviews among the American public. Here we report on how several key measures of these worldviews have changed among registered voters over time.

Not surprisingly, the study found that Democrats and Republicans these days have very different cultural world-views, with Democrats tending to be more egalitarian and Republicans tending to be more individualistic. The researchers report that, while their data suggests that Democrats have become more egalitarian since 2008– Republicans have remained “highly individualistic.”

Democrats are more likely to support social programs, to be concerned about the wealth gap (both domestically and between rich and poor countries), and to support various government regulations. Large majorities of Democrats think that discrimination against minorities is a very serious problem, while only 4 in 10 Republicans agree.

The Yale researchers were focused on the consequences of those very different world-views on government efforts to combat climate change, and that concern is certainly appropriate. However, I was intrigued by other questions raised by the research.

The most obvious of those questions is: what happens when political identity reflects an individual’s moral commitments? As a number of political scientists have noted, the days when both parties sought votes from the moderate middle and thus erected bigger “tents”–the days when there were a number of philosophical overlaps– are long gone. Political identity has taken on the aspects–and fervor– of religion. You can compromise on tax rates when the issue is how to raise revenue without stifling economic growth; that compromise is out of reach when one party sees taxation through a social justice lens and the other sees it as theft.

Less obvious–and arguably more consequential–is a question of language, of definition of terms. I consider myself a strong proponent of individualism and individual rights, but I see those rights in the context of America’s constitutional system. I find myself increasingly appalled by positions asserted by self-described “defenders of individual rights”: the “right” to refuse vaccination (really, the right to endanger others); the “right” to access public services without paying one’s fair share/dues; the “right” to ignore laws with which one disagrees, or that are seen as an inconvenience; the “right” to deny other Americans their equal rights….

We need to draw a line between the actual human rights that a free society must respect, and selfishness masquerading as individualism.

 

Testosterone And Government

Okay, today’s post is a bit “off the wall,” so indulge me…

 I was fascinated to read the results of a recent study linking testosterone to aggressive behavior and selfishness. The results confirmed previous research findings  that associated selfishness with testosterone. Evidently, testosterone acts to decrease activity in the brain’s temporoparietal junction, which is a region associated with generosity, and “reduces consideration of the needs and desires of others, which leads to more selfish behaviors.” 

The more testosterone, the greater these effects.

The researchers are careful to note that their findings don’t necessarily suggest testosterone inherently makes people selfish, but that testosterone “reduced concern for the profits of others.”

While this study only looked at healthy, young adult males — and thus may or may not apply to other ages and genders — it does add to the pile of studies suggesting increased testosterone can lead to decreased consideration for the needs of others. What this study also reveals are the neural mechanisms by which that happens.

These results encouraged me to consider a number of (highly speculative) theories.

In early human history, men who produced ample amounts of testosterone were undoubtedly advantaged–their aggressiveness would have paid off in the hunt, and more successful hunters would be advantaged in the competition for the most attractive and fertile women.

Early men were thus socially dominant, and that male dominance continued–undoubtedly assisted by high levels of testosterone that gave business “movers and shakers” an aggressive edge, and contributed to the high status enjoyed by warriors of various types.

Women, of course, were disadvantaged for eons by our fertility; without the ability to control our reproduction, women have been relegated to a homemaking role and hampered in efforts to enter the workforce.

These roles were cemented into society through the various cultural influences that accepted them as givens: religions that preached about women’s submission, social mores that stressed expected aspects of femininity and masculinity.

That all began to change with the invention of reliable birth control and the development of economies that no longer rely on workers’ brute strength. When the value of an individual to the workforce depends primarily upon intellect and the ability to work well with others, enhanced aggressiveness and “decreased consideration for the needs of others” are no longer assets.

The metrics by which we evaluate the competence of government are also undergoing change. Those of us who believe that good governance requires compassion and unifying social policies look longingly at the Jacinda Arderns and Angela Merkels of the world, and view blustering bullies like Vladimir Putin, Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump as unfortunate–and dangerous– throwbacks.

Perhaps–on balance– women are better equipped to govern the world we currently inhabit.

That said, these speculations are obviously far too broad-brush. There are plenty of belligerent and selfish women and I encounter increasing numbers of thoughtful, caring men. Furthermore, testosterone is only one small element of nature in the still-hazy relationship between nature and nurture. 

Still, it is interesting to step back and view the arc of history and social change through a biological lens–and to consider whether the development of methods to balance people’s hormones would lead to world peace or, in the alternative, to an unintended dystopia…

My Country ‘Tis of Thee….

If you are looking for an uplifting, “ain’t we great” post appropriate to the 4th of July, you probably need to stop reading now.

I began my reading this morning with Kurt Anderson’s Op Ed in the New York Times, on the downside of liberty. Anderson revisited the historic American tension between individualism and community, and concluded–in concert with many other contemporary observers–that Americans have confused a robust defense of individual rights with a wholesale abandonment of our civic obligations to the wider community. He argues that we have lost the ability to distinguish between individual rights and self-interested greed.

Anderson points to a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to the recent weather, I have been pondering a structural one.

As anyone who isn’t spending time in the arctic knows, we’ve been having an unprecedented heat wave. Much of the nation has also been battered by ferocious storms, and television news has been featuring visible evidence of the damage–especially shots of the downed power lines responsible for a massive loss of electricity. As of last night’s newscast, more than a million homes remained without power. Elderly people and children, especially, are at risk without air conditioning.

My question is simple: why don’t we bury our power lines? My answer is equally simple: because we have a political/economic structure that privileges short-term savings over long-term quality–a structure that rewards those who are penny-wise and pound foolish.

It costs more up front to bury our utilities. It’s cheaper–initially– to string lines. But not only does burying those lines improve the appearance of our cities and towns, it is much cheaper in the long run. It doesn’t take extraordinary storms to down the lines; more predictable weather also takes a toll. Over a period of years, utilities will more than save the extra dollars spent to bury the lines and consumers will enjoy more dependable service.

This same “penny wise, pound foolish” mind-set permeates our public services. Go to Europe (yes, I know, it is heresy to suggest that other countries might do some things better than we do) and walk on granite pavements that have lasted longer than most of our cities. Expensive to build, much less expensive to maintain and replace. Look at the current rush to sell off public assets–Toll Roads, parking meters, even the City-County Building–rather than spend what is necessary to maintain those assets for future generations.

In business, the triumph of the shareholder and manager over the entrepreneur-owner has meant that the next quarter’s bottom line is privileged over the long-term best interests of the enterprise. It’s more important to return an extra twenty cents per share now than to invest in improvements that will benefit the business ten years hence. In politics, it has always been the case that “long term” means “until the next election.” So we have the ridiculous spectacle of the State of Indiana returning $100 to each taxpayer rather than applying those funds to necessary improvements in education or infrastructure that won’t yield such immediate gratification.

Maybe it’s fitting that we have fireworks on the 4th of July. Children love fireworks, and we seem to have become a nation of children.