Friday, February 26, 2010

Equalities R Us

A recent article at sciencedaily discusses an interesting discovery from human brain research illustrating a seemingly hard-wired aversion to income inequality (hat tip Naked Capitalism).

“In this study, we’re starting to get an idea of where this inequality aversion comes from,” he says. “It’s not just the application of a social rule or convention; there’s really something about the basic processing of rewards in the brain that reflects these considerations.”

As someone who believes we culturally misunderstand competition and cooperation, that both concepts need to be re-addressed and re-analysed, and who agrees strongly with the main thrust of “The Spirit Level,” a work packed with statistics proving what recent brain research seems to be confirming, I am nothing but encouraged to see such research yielding these types of results.

But, is it not possible that the brain lighting up in the way described in the experiments, is a consequence of social convention’s influence on biological wiring? Isn’t the brain’s wiring organized mainly by the process of socialization we all go through? A perhaps suitable analogy for what the brain is not is a cup unchanged by the information poured into it. I do not believe in Locke’s tabula rasa, far from it, but do believe that our wiring, that is, the way our biology takes shape as we grow from baby to adult, is shaped by our environment to a powerful degree. An oft used analogy I like is the baby in the box, kept alive magically in the dark for say ten years, unexposed to light and sound. With zero environmental influence, a human cannot become what its biology would become with the right environment stimulants working upon it.

Of course we must consider the chicken and egg aspect of this too. How would humans come up with the idea that fairness is morally good unless something in their nature nudged them towards this? This sensitivity to equality could well be an organic outgrowth of the human social animal. But even here, unless the brain of every human on the planet reacts to income inequality the same way (and here I’m assuming brains shaped by the Lloyd Blankfein mould would not), environmental variables such as a culture of greed for monetary wealth could perhaps “switch off” this sensibility. It would be interesting to know how widespread and uniform such reactions are.

So, knowing where wiring ends and environment begins – to fixate for the purposes of this short discussion on what is ultimately an unsatisfying boundary line – is not easy, and will occupy human effort for some time to come. I find that very exciting.

Camerer, too, found the results thought provoking. “We economists have a widespread view that most people are basically self-interested, and won’t try to help other people,” he says. “But if that were true, you wouldn’t see these sort of reactions to other people getting money.”


Martin said...

I'm also soothed that these revelations are becoming more frequent. Perhaps the end to the madness is near after all. For some reason I envision this predilection for equality as something extending even further back, again past the door into the intangible spirit world. Or perhaps we are talking about the same thing after all. I imagine it as a remembrance of the space we came from before we were born. That space that produced not just us, but everything we are able to experience around us, both now and what we may uncover in the future. Yet a space where all, as yet without definition, is equal.

I think Lord Bankfein has simply forgotten this memory, since no one around him who he considered as a valuable influence in his formative years had remembered their's. Just as all the anti-heroes of history had forgotten their's.

I see this image as helping perhaps to also understand greed. Where we came from , in my imaginations, is the same as where we are going. It completes a giant circle. It's a beautifully simple picture. But if you never choose to contemplate this, whenever the event of death explodes into your happy-go-lucky life, you are presented with what looks like an abyss. "Surely only the losers fall into the abyss, certainly not to we." I think this missing acceptance of our mortality produces an intense desire for escape. We need something to divert our attention. How can we satisfy the desire for escape? By taking more of that which we do not need to live. I can't breathe more air than I need, I can't drink more water than I need. But I certainly can eat more food than I need. Or drink more beer than I need. Ah, and then the bliss of a blanked mind.

Toby said...

The email conversation I'm holding with John Ringland is challenging me deeply on the things you describe. Here are a couple of excerpts:

"Every "thing" is patterns of information flowing through patterns of information. Everything else that is believed to exist only seems to exist because we have historically operated through a naïve realist doctrinal framework and thereby mistaken our sensory experiences as being external 'physical' objects in some world that is imagined to exist outside the mind. So to answer your question further, matter is a concept by which we have sought to comprehend our sensory experiences, albeit within a rather confused doctrinal framework. Within this belief system we hypothesise the existence of physical organisms and physical substances that are consumed by those imagined physical organisms. Thus matter is a mythical substance that doesn't actually exist and food is a specific type of that mythical substance."

And he quotes from Daoism:

"The sage follows the path of non-action that leaves nothing undone".

I remain quite firmly rooted in the human perspective of action, inaction and suffering, the humdrum questions of fairness and resource distribution and what to do about that suffering, but his presentation of a systems approach to seeing Universe and Multiverse is refreshing, humbling and important. There is only spirit.

We are a story Universe is performing through us to learn about itself. It has no ending and is unstoppable. Not that I want to stop it of course, but we ought not worry. There is only spirit, or energy, or patterns in patterns ...

dissention said...

What do you think about my ideas

Toby said...

Hi dissention,

I came across a similar idea during my short stay at, from this article:

Here the bare bones of the proposal:

"I suggest an initial 1 year program of $1000 per month checks to every American over 18 with a SS number. This would pump about $2.5 trillion per year, with most of it going to Main St as most people with SS numbers live on Main St. If the program generates good results it could be continued."

The problem I have with this sort of idea, while agreeing with the thinking that leads to it, is that it operates in the existing paradigm a little too much. It values "productivity" over "laziness" and segregates society into groups along those lines. It also assumes money is irreplaceable. Furthermore it assumes idle consumption is the be all and end all of human existence. There is more to us than that.

Though I understand how far out and whacky the idea of a resource-based economy is, how riddled with difficulties it is, it is the only solution I am aware of that takes the challenges you correctly identify and forges from them a very new path to follow, one which transcends the divisions your proposal, and others like it, would entail. However, at times like this, when the old assumptions are crumbling, we all need to be thinking fresh and dangerous-seeming ideas. I congratulate you for that, and thanks for stopping by!