Most current subjugatory ethical strands have been popularized via economics. Economic discourses not only carry implicit positions and assumptions about the economy, but also about humanity, the environment and other matters that affect us. Similarly, economic outcomes affect not only the economic sphere but also have an impact on human behaviour, the environment, and other non-economic realms.
Economics and economists enjoy high prominence around the world, and the predominant version of economics supports the interests, values and ideologies of the already powerful and those who aspire to power.
This economics has not only been financed by the powerful, but has also been strengthened by other academic disciplines that have adopted its basic approaches and ethics. Its ethical tenets have also been popularised through media, books, music and other forms of cultural expression. For instance, a number of popular books on ‘freakonomics’ describe how people supposedly behave as calculating egoists in a range of contexts.
For example, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, shows how teachers in the public school system in Chicago cheat by passing more students than they should, since this is how their performance is judged.
The predominant version of economics supports the interests, values and ideologies of the already powerful and those who aspire to power
By providing many similar examples, the authors conclude that people are driven by selfish incentives. ‘Freakonomics’ does not consider that this type of selfishness is context-specific, and that other types of ‘selfishness’ could be generated in other contexts and systems. In the end, especially since neoliberalism assumed dominance in the 1980s, pretty much everyone spoke this type of economic language, based on the same underlying ethics.
One of its central ideas is that the economy comprises a collection of rational and selfish individuals, devoted to the maximization of utility and minimization of disutility, both of which are usually defined in material terms. Adam Smith’s well-known passage has been exploited extensively to represent this position: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’.
However, economists and others tend to overlook Smith’s second, and equally important book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he suggests a far more complex human character: ‘How Selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in this nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it’.
It is not empirically true that human beings are ‘rational’, especially if this is defined as making calculated selfish choices. Since rationality has a positive connotation, it becomes a prescription rather than a description of reality, but can be defined in various ways – driven by beliefs, habits, mood-swings, and unselfish behaviour – all of which have the perceived objective of maximizing one’s own and perhaps others’ utility.
For instance, you may do things that will make your friend happy, even at the expense of your personal discomfort, but your friend’s happiness may outweigh your discomfort in ways that also make you happy. But it is not easy to be ‘rational’ when our mindsets and preferences are continuously manipulated and distorted through information flows that manufacture illusions and trends.
Another assumption underlying this economics is that of individual choice. Individuals and their economic circumstances are regarded as the outcomes of their personal choices, and social inequalities are simply the aggregated outcomes of such choices.
Individuals and their economic circumstances are regarded as the outcomes of their personal choic [but] in reality, choice is always dependent upon the available alternatives, which vary greatly among different groups and individuals.
In reality, choice is always dependent upon the available alternatives, which vary greatly among different groups and individuals. People may also ‘choose’ to behave in certain ways in order to make their reality more bearable.
For instance, a non-white person in a white-dominated society may adapt to the prevailing language, norms and dress code in order to secure a decent, or even successful, living. Or an economist who does not truly share the mainstream ethical tenets and research approaches, nevertheless internalizes them in order ‘to make it’ in the profession. In both cases, the status quo of power imbalances is maintained.
Competition is another essential ingredient in mainstream economics. According to this view, consumers get the best quality and lowest prices when firms compete. In competing to stay in business and make profit, firms must produce the best possible products that are also priced competitively.
In reality, markets involve powerful, manipulative and colluding corporations, where ‘competition’ is also based on large corporate power imbalances. By extension, individuals, workers, public officials and even countries are encouraged to compete in their own self-interest.
For instance, countries compete to attract foreign investment in ways that essentially give transnational corporations a green light to exploit natural resources, workers, and public administration, for instance by relaxing legal and tax requirements. In the name of protecting national interests, powerful nations subsidize their agricultural production – which, for example, makes it cheaper for West African countries to import rice than to produce, although that region is highly suited to rice production – while at the same time promoting ‘free’ trade policies through the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Finally, mainstream ethics has built-in biases towards maintaining the status quo. This is most evident in the Pareto criterion, which forms the basis for all judgements on socioeconomic outcomes in mainstream economics.
In this view, a change is positive only when it makes some people better off without making anyone else worse off. This means that no-one’s utility should be sacrificed in the name of a given goal.
In the real world, changes usually harm and benefit different individuals and groups. But the subtle prescription here is to leave things as they are.
More recently, the compensation principle holds that it may be acceptable to violate the Pareto criterion if the total gains for the winners are large enough to compensate all the losers and still leave some gains to spare.
In reality, the likelihood of compensation or redistribution from winners to losers has proven minimal at best. It is extremely rare, for instance, that large extractive corporations compensate for the environmental degradation, health hazards to which workers are exposed, or lives lost as a result of their activities.
Overall, dominant economics prescribes, in very subtle ways, destructive and subjugatory human behaviour – constantly exploiting humanity’s weaker ethical characteristics. Let us now see how this colonization of the mind is regenerated.
Regenerating Subjugatory or Emancipatory Ethics
The gap between theory and reality is essential to our concept of mainstream (subjugatory) ethics as power. The more we internalize its theoretical assumptions, the more this gap closes. Indeed, empirical studies find that when people act as if a theory is true, the more it becomes true.
Three channels through which theories become normalized (or ‘performatitive’) are institutional design, social norms language.
Institutional design involves situations in which people’s tasks and responsibilities are pre-arranged to reinforce the prevailing order.
For instance, in a quasi-elite working environment, since the implicit expectation is that a draft research paper should not challenge the status quo, the drafter either meets this expectation, or risks disciplinary measures. This kind of behaviour becomes a reality and norm without anyone taking an explicit decision – and hence the number and size of elephants in the room increases over time.
The second channel involves situations when theories become accepted truths and norms. People feel obliged to act according to norms, because acting differently is perceived as violating descriptive and prescriptive norms.
Research shows that when people believe in the norm of selfishness, they tend to conceal a different norm, for instance by avoiding taking up a cause. By the same token, if you expect someone to behave in a selfish, competitive, conservative fashion, and impose their power, it is easy to act in a more guarded, less pleasant, and perhaps even harmful way, so that the end result will mirror the perceptions.
For instance, managers who adopt such worldviews may pit people and organizational units against one another in the belief that competition among self-interested agents produces optimal solutions. In this way, people tend to act accordingly.
The third channel, language, implies how we talk about certain norms. Language influences perspectives, circumstances, decisions, actions, values, and so on. It reproduces and validates the terminology we use to describe perceived reality – the way we talk about reality re-constructs it.
A research experiment highlighted this in a concrete manner. Two groups were asked to play exactly the same game, which had two different names. Mutual cooperation was the general norm when the game was called The Community Game, while competition was the general norm when it was called The Wall Street Game.
Through such repetitive outcomes… our fellow human beings, leaders, organizations, and societies become increasingly trapped in unproductive and harmful cycles of behaviour.
Through such repetitive outcomes in each of the three channels we are helping to realize the theory, idea and ethical position: our fellow human beings, leaders, organizations, and societies become increasingly trapped in unproductive and harmful cycles of behaviour.
At some point, very few people consider defying the accepted norms, so that it becomes increasingly difficult to reinforce alternative behavioural pathways. This also suggests that systemic (r)evolutions are increasingly difficult to imagine, since subjugatory and submissive cognitive frameworks take a greater hold and alternatives fade away.
This process is probably part of the pessimism we are observing today. But this is exactly what totalitarians want us to feel, since it leads to passivity.
Tapping into our inherent ethical tenets
Instead, we have to recognize anecdotal and research evidence exhibiting our beautiful inherent, but often latent, ethical tenets. They include non-selfish, cooperative, progressive, collective, anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-elitist characteristics – attitudes based on regard for equality.
In fact, for more than 90% of our history, when we were hunter-gatherers, the human species was characterized by cooperation and equality. Today’s economic inequality dates back to several thousands of years but in evolutionary time it is relatively short.
Inequalities and associated competitiveness became entrenched when we began to accumulate surplus food and goods. In times of unequal resources, those surpluses were contested. It should also be noted that inequality between ethnic groups become significant only about 150–200 years ago, following the Industrial Revolution.
An increasing number of research papers… suggests that …our real behaviour is characterized by cooperation and ‘strong reciprocity’.
An increasing number of research papers (in economics, perhaps best represented by the works of Samuel Bowles Herbert Gintis) suggests that we still possess constructive traits. Our real behaviour seems to be characterized by cooperation and ‘strong reciprocity’.
For instance, research experiments show that individuals often contribute voluntarily to collective goods as long as they believe the majority are willing to do the same. To solve collective-action problems, we often promote trust as an alternative to costly incentive schemes.
Explicit penalties and subsidies are seen to worsen rather than solve collective-action problems because they are based on doubting other citizens’ willingness to contribute voluntarily to the common good.
These research results confirm that we are still as much a cooperative as a competitive species.
We are complex, as our behaviour may be moved by self-interest, cooperation, patriotism, class solidarity, altruism, justice, honesty, ideology, duty, vicariousness, friendship, love, pursuit of beauty, curiosity, or something entirely different.
We are also easily swayed by instinct and emotion, as we may make different decisions at different times in reaction to the same scenario.
We seem to overreact to new information and under-react to existing information.
We tend to operate with an intuitive, shortcut system of thinking, which results in poor logical reasoning, while we are over-confident in our own ‘rationality’.
But mainstream economics has not only provided the intellectual backbone to a world economy in which severe economic imbalances are regenerated, but has also promoted an increasingly elite-oriented and subjugated humanity.
These imbalances have, in turn, sustained severe power imbalances, mainly through poverty, economic inequality, loss of democracy, and social polarization. The three subjugatory channels (economy, ethics and power) have created societies that, in a vicious cycle of development, veer towards plutocracy, totalitarianism, and even fascism.
But there are plenty of alternative pathways, not only for economics, politics, but also for ethics. Let us now take a look at them.