Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Economics of the Moral Compass

Why do some people consider it a profound moral wrong for government or individuals to legally recognize a gay or lesbian marriage while others feel, just as profoundly, that to deny the legal right and benefits of traditional marriage to a deeply-committed gay or lesbian couple is a violation of basic human rights, simple human decency, and a moral wrong? How is it that we can come to such diametrically opposed answers to so many of the same moral questions? When we describe something as being “morally wrong,” exactly who (or what) is being wronged? Is a path through the minefield of the deeply-held beliefs of our fellow human beings even possible? My intent is not to tell anyone what to think, but I do intend to present some ways of thinking about the problems and specific elements that must be part of whatever answers we may come to.
Two modern sciences are especially relevant in trying to answer the questions posed above, both of which have roots that arguably go back to the Ancient Greeks and, during the Enlightenment, were called moral philosophy and political economy. In hindsight, it is not a coincidence that the Scottish philosopher, Adam Smith, wrote the seminal works that essentially founded the disciplines that today we call moral psychology and economics, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776. Just how tightly intertwined moral issues are with economic issues in modern societies is easily seen in the annual battle over the federal budget in the U.S. where economic and budgetary priorities are often dictated by the moral/ethical priorities of differing constituencies or pressure groups. The issue of sex education in public schools is a good example; do we spend the money on "abstinence only" programs or do we spend it on programs that aim to prevent unwanted teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs. Where we, both individually and collectively, come down on that one is determined largely by our moral reasoning around human sexuality. I will get to such issues in time, but to make my point, I must first discuss a sub-field of both economics (a social science) and psychology (a behavioral science) that has only been around since the 1960s called behavioral economics.
Economists going back to Adam Smith assumed that economic actors–business owners, consumers, investors, etc.–were rational actors pursuing their individual aims in the objectively most efficient way possible. Subsequent generations of economists made this assumption explicit by defining "man" in a strictly economic context as an agent that seeks only to maximize his store of wealth by the most effective and rational means possible. As national economies grew and became ever more inter-connected throughout the 19th century, the amount of economic data available to economists grew by leaps and bounds. In parallel with this, advanced analytic mathematical techniques were developed that allowed the creation of mathematical models of economic systems where all actors–buyers, sellers, producers, suppliers, etc.–have the same information as the other parties and, in that context, act rationally in pursuit of their individual ends. The quality or robustness of any mathematical model of a system, whether of the gravitationally-bound Earth-Moon system, the climate, or an economy is judged by comparing the performance of the model against what has happened in the past, will happen in the future, in controlled experiments, or a combination of all of these. As economists in the first half of the 20th century applied ever more sophisticated models to the wealth of economic data available to them, the abstractions of human beings as rational actors grew increasingly untenable as their models often diverged from what it seems “economic actors” actually do in the real world.
Of the nations that fought on either side in World War II, not only was the United States the only one come out of it with their economy intact, but it flourished beyond anyone's most optimistic imaginings in the years and decades afterwards. In this economic boom, the number of roughly equivalent types of consumer goods, e.g. vacuums, toasters, televisions, radios, automobiles, etc., that people could choose from grew faster than consumers could keep up with. It was essential that manufacturers and retailers—and the advertising and marketing firms they retained—understood how consumers think and how best to pitch their products so consumers would choose theirs over the available alternatives. Over the last 50+ years, advertising and marketing firms have taken advantage of insights into human decision-making and cognition from the behavioral sciences.
One reason the rational actor model fails is that most of our decisions, even the big ones, like one’s college major or who to marry1, are the result of a heuristic process, such as common sense, rules of thumb, and educated guesses in which our emotions, rather than any sort of rational analysis. Usually, heuristic processes are not rationally coherent, but they do have the advantage of a much lower cognitive load—and are often the most emotionally palatable in that moment. In other cases, as shown in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 20002, the authors describe an experiment that sought to find out if customers’ choices of “free” beer samples in a college town brewpub were influenced by others in their party. In the first variation of the experiment (I’ll call it “A”), customers verbally indicated their choices within the hearing of others at the table. Then, after having a chance to taste their selection, they were presented with a card asking them what their selection was and what they thought of it. In the next variation (“B”), customers indicated their order on a card—essentially a secret ballot, then, just as in the first iteration, customers were asked to rate their enjoyment of their choice.
When the results of both variations of the experiment were tallied, researchers found that when everyone else at the table could hear their order, few, if any, chose the same beer as any of the others. However, in the “secret ballot” variation, there was a great deal more clustering of customers choices. When the scientists looked at customers’ post-tasting feedback, for round “A” they found that those whose orders were among the last to be taken were less enthusiastic with their “choice.” In round B, when each customer was unaware of what others ordered they had a much higher opinion of their choice. The researchers noted that these findings were exactly what one would expect to find when behaviors and choices are dominated by a need for uniquenessi, and in this context is called “Consumers' Need for Uniqueness (CNFU)”—and yes, in the world of consumer research it really is a “thing.”ii Our culture places a high value on individual uniqueness and independence of mind and in social situations—especially when we are hoping to impress others with our independence of mind—this need can often outweigh our own preferences.
Some critics have made the accusation that much of the recent research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences—and by extension, the researchers—is aiding and abetting in the cynical—I’ll be blunt—manipulation of consumer-citizensiii (i.e. us), especially in the application of such research to the field of marketing.iv While I personally do not subscribe to such conspiracy theories, researchers in social psychology and behavioral economics are often attached to universities’ schools of Management and/or Business, but I think Hanlon's razor3 more than adequately accounts for this. It is also worth mentioning that a substantial share of current research—and thus researchers—are focused on helping professionals of all kinds, as well as consumer-citizens, make better decisions by pointing out the blind spots, biases, and fallacies we are all prone to. Even though we are not the rational economic actors that economists since Adam Smith believed we are, all is not lost. Irrational we may be, but our irrationality is not random, it falls into discernible patterns that we as individuals can be aware of, and empowered by the revelations of behavioral economics—and with practice and self-discipline—we can learn to make better economic and financial decisions and choices.
Next time, as promised, we will segue to the field of moral psychology and see how our moral reasoning can go awry.

Works Cited

1. Ariely, D. ‘Ch. 1-The Truth about Relativity’ Predict. Irrational. p.10; (Harper: New York, NY, 2008).
2. Ariely, D. & Levav, J. ‘Sequential Choice in Group Settings: Taking the Road Less Traveled and Less Enjoyed’ J. Consum. Res. 27, p.279–290; (Dec. 2000). at <>23 Jun. 2017
3. ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ Wikipedia. (27 Apr. 2017). at <>27 Jun. 2017


i Individuals’ “need for uniqueness” is a well-validated aspect of human psychology (see: The scenario of a woman being distressed at the thought of showing up to a party in the same dress as someone else may be more than a mere comedic cliché.


iii Apparently, the hyphenated word “consumer–citizens” raises the hackles of some folks, but the reason I decided to go with it is that so often, the same biases, fallacies, and blind spots that affect our behavior as consumers are the same ones that influence our politics. A question that has arisen in the last 35 or so years that illustrates this commonality of the two spheres of modern life is: “Why so many working-class, less well-off folks vote Republican, against their own economic self-interest?”

iv See:, p.276-7

Initially started at, then look for Robert McChesney.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Moral Compass-Pt 2-Calibration


Before I start throwing around words like “moral” and “conscience” even more than I already have, I need to unpack what I mean—and just as importantly, do not mean—when I use them.

I often use “moral compass” and “conscience” interchangeably, but whichever term one favors, it is the entirely natural, materialistic, neurological and cognitive products of our evolutionary history as social animals. Like nearly every other natural trait, it is highly variable, with individuals falling somewhere along a spectrum of variation. That variability also makes it possible for the conscience/moral sense to be shaped by “nurture,” i.e. our culture and social environments—sometimes in positive ways, and at other times, not so much.i

It is quite likely that even before religion became “organized” some 12,000 years ago it figured out how to hijack an adherent’s moral sense and using the sense’s natural malleability to manipulate and control its adherents. The monotheistic faiths have since refined this manipulation into an art form. We see this today when the faithful go around condemning, for instance, what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms as immoral, and often for no other reason than the fears of the faithful that they may become collateral damage when God rains down fire and brimstone on the Godless. A good litmus test for what are and are not legitimate moral issues is whether they can be reduced to something like:

If we allow people to do X, or permit them to avoid doing Y, then God will be displeased and then “bad things” might happen and people might get hurt.”ii

Allowing fear, anger, anxiety, and distrust to dictate our actions is an abject capitulation to the darker side of human nature and an active repudiation of the highest moral and ethical aspirations of the human conscience, or in the words with which President Lincoln closed his First Inaugural Address: “...the better angels of our nature.”

My Moral Compass-Pt 2-Calibration

However much it may have felt like it when the 50 + percent of the Americans that cast their presidential ballots for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (me among them) woke up on November 9th, we were not the victims of a terrible transporter accident—à la Star Trek—suddenly stranded in a dystopian mirror universe where the Axis powers won WWII or something equally bonkers. When the electoral college met on December 19th, 2016, Clinton’s popular vote exceeded that of Donald Trump’s by 2.86 million—nonetheless, on January 20th, 2017 Donald J. Trump and his running mate, Michael (Mike) R. Pence, were sworn in as the 45th President and the 48th Vice President, respectively. Yes, it really happened, and it will be part of the new reality that we, and the rest of the planet, will need to deal with for perhaps generations to come. The cultural, political, religious, demographic, and economic forces that converged to enable Trump’s occupying the Oval Office go back at least decades, and some can be traced all the way to the Colonial era.

I had originally planned to make the argument that the vacuous depths to which our civil and political discourse would sink in the 2016 elections was presaged in no small degree by the Rush Limbaugh–Sandra Fluke controversy, but something happened in my own life over the Christmas holiday that I think is a far more powerful vignette to use in making my point than a re-hash of news items from over four years ago.

Since my unexpected return to Rapid City, South Dakota over 10 years ago (damn, has it been that long…?), I have accompanied my parents to Christmas Eve services at one of the two churches they attend. Fortunately, I have yet to burst into flame or have my head rotate through 360º as I entered. I love Christmas and I am not above being moved by the standard Christmas narrative, and like Linus Van Pelt, I can still quote from memory the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, verses 8-16. Then again, I am also moved to tears every time I read, and thanks to Sir Peter Jackson, watch, Sam carry Frodo those last agonizing steps to the summit of Mount Doom—demonstrating that the mere fact that one finds a narrative profoundly moving has no bearing at all on the historicity of the events described in the narrative. One of the most enjoyable Christmas Eve services I have been to was one that was structured around the historical back-stories of some of the best loved Christmas carols—and this quite naturally appealed to my inner history buff.

So it happened that on the evening of December 24th, 2016, I was at Christ Church in Rapid City, South Dakota—the same church where, several years before, I had so enjoyed learning things I did not know about some of my favorite carols. My mother has a very high opinion of the pastor, Richard Wells, whom she describes as being a “very learned man.” This year’s Christmas Eve message was titled “This Baby Changed the World.” The pastor opened by noting the variety of calendar systems around the world, many of which we now associate with one religious tradition or another. All of which is true—but, I am saddened to have to report that it was downhill from there. He related how the calendar used in republican Rome dated years from “the founding of the city”—which is certainly true, but when he began mocking pre-Imperial Rome for this, I had to wonder if this “learned man” has actually ever read I or II Kings (or the other “historical” books of the Old Testament) because they are chock-a-block with references to such-and-such an event having occurred “in the Nth year of the reign of king X.”iii

Next, adopting a conspiratorial tone, he teased his audience by promising to reveal the true motivations behind the reforms of the Roman calendar began by Julius Caesar and continued by his successors to sync the civil calendar of what was by then the Roman Empire to the seasons—which is why it later came to be called the Julian Calendar. According to Pastor Wells, the eminent practicality of having a calendar that accurately tracked the seasons, providing a much needed uniformity when keeping far-flung Roman Empire fed, was merely a smokescreen. As far as this “learned man” was concerned, the “real” reason for the Julian calendar reforms was that it was an elaborate plot by Satan himself to distract a fallen humanity from the advent of the incarnation of God on Earth™, Jesus of Nazareth®. Perhaps feeling he was on a roll, he then started mocking the current Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, and generally, any religion that was not his sort of Christianity. When recounting his visit to the Dalai Lama’s website, the “learned man” spoke in contemptuous, sarcastic tones of the emphasis in Tibetan Buddhism on virtues such as “compassion,” “understanding,” “forbearance,” “peace,” and “humility.” Dripping with sneering contempt, his voice rising to a crescendo, he spread his arms, exaggeratedly beseeching his flock to answer the question posed by what he took to be the current Dalai Lama’s essential message, “Can’t we all just get along?” Without giving the congregants time to digest his conspiratorial ravings, he answered his own rhetorical question with a resounding “No!

Back when I still considered myself a believer, I would have been surprised at this because (as I believed at the time) we are God’s children and so—saved or not—virtues like “compassion,” “understanding,” etc. were written in the hearts of all of humanity by God and that heeding the call of those virtues was a first step on the road to salvation, and as such should be encouraged. Instead, this “learned” man cranked the wheel and exited the moral high road, warning his audience that all this talk of “compassion,” “empathy,” and the relief of human suffering, etc. was in truth an elaborate trap set by Satan himself to lead Christians astray.iv A cold foreboding came over me when I realized that no nuanced exceptions were forthcoming. For the remainder of the service, the only thing preventing me from standing up and walking out was my love and affection for my mother and the desire not to see her shamed and embarrassed publicly.

Even when I was a serious, sincere Christian, I would have found anyone’s advocacy of such sentiments morally contemptible. In my teens, there came a point when I became aware of facts some might use to cast doubt on the truth of the Gospel, such as the fact that the law Code of Hammurabi long predates that of the Ten Commandments, or that the Golden Rule was known to ancient civilizations and cultures long before the first versions of it appeared in the Old Testament, let alone the New. The apologia I constructed to account for the universality of the human conscience, especially in cultures that predate Judaism and Christianity all those years ago, applies with no less moral force to what I heard on Christmas Eve 2016 than when this line of thought first occurred to me some 35 years ago and runs something like this:

The very fact that all human beings have an innate, universal response to, a longing for, things like mercy, justice, fairness—and are repelled by cruelty and the mistreatment and abuse of those unable to defend themselvesv—is precisely because we are all God’s creations, and while we are born as sinners, each one of us has a conscience, bestowed on us by God, that is no less a part of our humanity than is our sinful nature. Without an innate conscience to initially guide one towards the light of salvation, how could anyone ever recognize it when they found it? As Christians, we are called to be lights for Christ in this world, but if, as Christians, our words and conduct are abhorrent to the consciences’ of those we seek to “save,” then it is really we that are in need of being “saved.”

In writing the above, I adopted the voice of the Christian I once was, yet even as the atheist I am today, I would make essentially the same the argument—that irrespective of claims made regarding the relative merits of religious faiths or ethical, philosophic, and political systems—to the degree that they are contrary to the highest, most noble aspirations of the untainted, innate human conscience, they are an abomination.

There is a common thread, running through all of human history, from the Atlantic slave trade of the 15th through 19th centuries, the slaughter of indigenous populations by European colonists, the concentration camps and gas chambers of Nazi Germany, to the “ethnic cleansing” that plagued Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990’s. One of the first steps leading to these horrors—and many others not mentioned—is when one group becomes convinced that members of another group are somehow not human enough to be legitimate recipients of the proddings of one’s conscience.

In further essays in this series, we will examine some possible specifics of how this came about and what we might be able to do about it.

iThe ability of most primates (including us) to pick up an object with our opposable-thumb-equipped hand and throw it is an evolved biological trait, but doing it well—as in consistently hitting one’s target—is a skill that has to be learned. So while just about anyone will improve with practice, that does not mean we can all perform such a task well enough to make the majors. Likewise, it has long been accepted that the human ability to acquire and use (spoken or signed) language is a biological trait that has evolved. Additionally, evidence for the evolution of a number sense in humans—and other species—is rapidly growing.

Though our scientific understanding of how the human moral sense evolved is yet in its infancy, it is clearly tied to the sort of altruistic, pro-social behaviors seen in other social mammals from bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), African bush elephants, to dolphins.

As spoken languages became sufficiently sophisticated in our ancestors, our interactions with each other were able to become increasingly complex and nuanced. Just as rules of grammar and identifiable parts of speech—nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, etc. appeared and were eventually codified for each language—so too would rules for how to maintain the person-to-person and group-to-group relationships upon which our survival depended, appear.

iiI almost laughed out loud when I re-read this because it reminded me of that Mafia movie cliché: “Ya know, it’s a nice place ya got here. It’d be a real shame if sumthin’ happened to it, eh, Knuckles?”

Actually, the idea that organized religion shares aspects of organized-crime protection rackets kind of makes sense and as a quick Google search revealed, I’m not the first to see the similarity.

iiiSee, for example, 1 Kings 16:23: “In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned twelve years, six of them in Tirzah.” (NIV)

ivIn many ways, evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity is the most elaborate and widely-believed conspiracy theory ever cooked up by the human mind.

vYeah, what about those bits in the Bible about taking care of widows and orphans, eh?