Ethics and morality at the end of history

Strange, isn’t it, that the system supposedly representing the apex of human development — even the end of history — has no place for ethics or morality.

Perhaps this becomes inevitable when an ideology develops to the point where the economy is considered to be outside the environment. From that dubious — to put it overly modestly — vantage point, the journey to seeing the environment, and the natural resources and life it contains, as nothing more than a cow to be milked at will is not a long one. A forest counts as nothing unless it can be monetized, which often means knocking it down. Clean air? Clean water? Luxury items for those who can afford them, and thereby profits for those who can bottle it and create a market for them.

Photo by Alex Proimos

Photo by Alex Proimos

A thoughtful article in the May 2009 issue of Monthly Review caused me to think more about this. The authors of this article, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” written by Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, discuss the models used by mainstream economists, which vary only on the degree to which they discount future life. Yes, that is as cold-blooded as it sounds.

Neoclassical economists base their increasingly insane conclusions that global warming is no big deal and, at worse, will cause little economic damage, on the convenient, self-serving assumption that future generations will be wealthier and therefore it will be cheaper for our descendants to clean up our messes than it would be for us.

The authors write:

“Where they primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.” [page 9]

From that, orthodox economists slide down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value. Such a mentality is exemplified by Lawrence Summers’ infamous memo, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always though that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

Summers’ attitude, although usually not expressed in such a direct way, is not out of step with his profession. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors lay bare the ramifications of this type of thinking:

“[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the [global] economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … This economic ideology, of course, extends beyond just human life, such that all of the millions of species on earth are valued only to the extent they contribute to GDP. Thus, ethical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [page 10]

This is the irrationality and immorality that underlies industrialists’ and financiers’ drive to allow the “market” to make all social decisions. Markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers. They in turn, through their stranglehold on the world’s economic heights, are able to have decisive sway over governments, which are not disembodied entities somehow floating above society but rather are reflections of the relative strengths and weaknesses of social forces.

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

Even without “corporate personhood,” however, the relentless competition of capitalism would induce this behavior, and the winners of that competition are those most willing to crush all obstacles, human and environmental, while foisting the costs onto others.

Really, we can’t do better than this?

24 comments on “Ethics and morality at the end of history

  1. “Really, we can’t do better than this?”

    We could, but we won’t! Ethics and morality don’t line the pockets of the corporation’s shareholders, nor does it line the pockets of our bought and paid for congressional ‘representatives’. Ethics and morality are thrown away because greed rules the day!

    • Greed also rules because it is what drives corporate elite, and it their ideas, as the dominant class, that dominate society. As long as we have capitalism, greed will indeed rule the day.

  2. Tom Welsh says:

    Any human system must have rules, whether they are generally obeyed or not. The rules of capitalism are entirely distinct from those of religious or secular ethics. It always slays me when I hear a politician or a bishop wringing his hands at the lack of compassion or morality in business. They cannot be such fools as to believe that business has room for anything of the sort. The rules of business have to do with money, the factors of production, and maniuplating human beings to get value out of them.

    • If a capitalist didn’t extract more from their employees than what is paid in wages, they wouldn’t be a capitalist. Only a small number can ever be rich, because massive wealth is created by paying workers only a small percentage of what they produce, both for the capitalist who extracts it and the lucky few who inherit that extracted wealth without working.

  3. Climate change is already killing people in Kirabati:

    Sea levels are so high that people slosh around in knee deep water. Seawater and excrement are fouling the drinking water and children are dying of infectious diarrhea.

  4. Timothy says:

    Ideas are shaped by social consciousness, which in turn is shaped by the relation of the production. What is wrong and what is right, is up for the owner of the means of the production – currently, the capitalists – to decide.

    Destroying forests, injecting hazardous chemical for oil, or even causing extinction of a whole species are not “wrong” in the capitalists’ playbook, as long as it is profitable to do so.

    • Something long understood, if we care to pay attention.

      The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” — Karl Marx, The German Ideology, 1845.

  5. Jeff Nguyen says:

    The idea of corporations as “persons” is the ultimate use of semantics as legalistic tour de force. Language holds the keys to decoding the message of the dominant/power culture. Another reason why public education has long been on the radar of the corporate-capitalists. Your plainspoken essays help us decode these events even further.

  6. Alcuin says:

    I continually find it ever-so-interesting when those on the “Left” point fingers at corporations. Every action that every one of us takes every day supports capitalism. As Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Capitalism will be with us until each and every one of us looks inside and says to her or himself: “this is wrong – I refuse to do this any longer.” I just had a friend send me a series of pictures of people so self-involved with their cellphones that the existence of anyone else is irrelevant. Self-absorption and individualism, the core values of capitalism, were clearly captured in those photographs. My reaction was that the pictures were a clear demonstration of the amorality of capitalism. That process started way back in the 15th century and is now nearing its end in global ecocide.

    You don’t have to have a cell phone. Not yet, anyway. You don’t have to use Google. You don’t have to use oil irresponsibly. You don’t have to bank with Bank of America. We are not the victims of corporations. We willingly cooperate with corporations in the destruction of life on this planet, all while pointing the finger at alleged culprits. The Right is equally guilty, but they don’t think anything is wrong with what they do, either. When we on the Left grow up and accept responsibility for each of our actions, only then will I begin to believe that capitalism might finally wane. Until then, it is all smoke-and-mirrors and pontificating about who is right and who is wrong. We’re all wrong.

    Pointing fingers is a waste of time and has been the subject of many wise observations for thousands of years. But nothing ever seems to change, does it?

    • Those pictures of self-absorbed people are funny, at first, but then ultimately sad. They really do provide a picture of what capitalism does to us.

      I would disagree with your ending question. We are capable of change, and our present world will change. Either we do it, through ceasing our cooperation (as you correctly advocate) and through organizing, or the planet will force change through its natural healing processes once humanity has pushed the environment to the breaking point.

      Physical limits will make us stop if we don’t ourselves. Either way, this is the last century of capitalism.

  7. Chester says:

    imagination, it got us here and now we have imagined a tool into existence that we (individuals/groups/nations/homosaps) use to judge everything we do. Money. But money is nothing but a measurement of human belief, it has no connection to the planet and the laws that rule us except thru our imagination. Hence we will never even begin to address let alone resolve the assorted crisis we face until the monetary system collapses, which of course it is in the process of doing. Smart? no, human and of course we the sheeple have been intentionally misinformed and misdirected. this will not end well

    good essays

    • Thanks, Chester. More imagination will be required to get humanity out of its deepening impasse. The difficulty most people have in imaging anything different from the present capitalist world keeps a system that doesn’t work for most in place. All the more is it necessary those who can imagine a better world to create alternative models. If people see cooperatives that work, other ways of organizing enterprises that are better, the weaker the grip of modern capitalism on the minds of the people who know in their gut this isn’t working but can’t conceive of the world being different.

  8. Lenny says:

    The idea that capitalism is ruthless and has to be abolished has been around for centuries. It is hard to argue with this statement, but the real problem is that us, humans, we can’t create anything better because we are selfish, incompassionate, we love money and power and capitalism fully satisfies all our inner cravings. To change the society we live in we have to change ourselves, but this mission is clearly impossible, Humans aren’t that smart to build a better world, let’s face it, our intellect always yeilds to our desires and crevings. This is why this civilization is doomed because it is not that much about changing the world, but changing ourselves and we just can’t do it, our mentality has not much evolved since the Stone Age, we have developped technically not not spiritualy.

    If another civilization appears on the face of this earth once this one bites the dust it will maybe realize that technical progresss without spiritual development leads to extinction. Maybe they will realise that technical development has to be balanced with inner development of a human being. Maybe…..

    • Lenny, I certainly share your frustration with the current state of the world and the pervasiveness of human characteristics that keep capitalism (or any other system of exploitation and inequality) going. But two thoughts I would like to share. One, that humanity has changed dramatically and can continue to change. Two, that human beings are made up of a contradictory complex of characteristics.

      On the first, it was less than two centuries ago that slavery was not only taken for granted, it was widely seen as the natural order, sanctified in the Bible and essential to economic prosperity. Look at the changes in racial, gender, sexual-orientation and ethnic relations. A long way to go in those and other relations, but times change, especially as new generations come of age and see the world through different lens.

      On the second, all that you stated is true. But compassion and cooperation are equal components of humanity. True, these various characteristics are distributed unequally. But capitalism is a system that rewards greed, ruthlessness and lusts for power through a cult of individualism. Those characteristics thus come to the fore and those endowed with those characteristics grow strong. A different world, a socialist world where we all have a say in our political structures and in our workplace, where production is for human need instead of private profit so that we all have enough and nobody gets to dictate to others, would reward very different human characteristics.

      We may not get that world; we may destroy ourselves. We do seem hell-bent on it right now. If we give up and say it’s too hard to fight, then humanity is finished, far enough in the future so that I won’t be around but disaster will nonetheless come. Or we can organize now, on an international basis, to bring a better world into being, one in harmony with nature and the finite resources of Earth, and with humanity in harmony with itself.

      • Lenny says:

        Yes, I agree with you, the humanity has chnaged over the last two centuries, slavery has been abolished but let us ask ourselves why? Because we have discovered a better “slave” than a human being, a machine, powered by fossil fuel. However the exploatation of one human being by another has not dissapeared, it just incorporated the technological component into the paradigm and went on, disguised. We are still being exploited through an intricate financial system, I am sure you know more about it than I do and there is no point of developping this subject.

        Humans, unfortunately cannot create a system where everybody would be equal and free of abuse for several reasons:

        We are in fact “pack animals” – we always tend to organise hierarchically.
        Human society has always been organised hierarchically as our speies lack intellectual capacity to build a non-hierarchical structure, we simply, in computer lingo, don’t have enough “processing power” to absorb, process and generate much greater amounts of information to support a non-hierarchical system.

        We live on one planet that has artificially been divided into 183 or so countries and we are unable to realise that we are all human, live on the same planet, face the same problems. Our problems are global in nature, but because we are all separated by religious beleifs, color, race, access to education, resources etc we can’t unite to tack them on a global scale and this is unlikely to change, unfortunately. Our world is a huge pyramid of thousans and thousands of hierarchies. The mentality of an ordinary human cannot conceive a system which would be built differently.

        We are unable to control the number of our own species.

        Conclusion: the chaotic world we live in reflects the chaotic state of our conciousness. It is both the product of this conciousness and the machine that creates it.

        To change the world we have to change the conciousness of a human being, make him much more intelligent.

        In liew of developping our brains we as a society do exactly the opposite, we make smart conputers, which decrease our cognitive abilities. Our ability to memorize information has decrease since the advent of computers and search engines such as Google :((( This has been proven by multiple research. The multiplication table is becoming an enigma to many, without calculator we can’t even multiply 12 by 17 without putting a tremendous strain on the brain (well, most of us, some still can do it)..

        This is why I am clearly optimistic: this world will go and we shouldn’t perceive it as something terrible. The new civilisation which will spawn on the ruins of ours may be much better than us. There is hope after all,

        • On the one hand, Lenny, I can’t help but admire your long-term thinking, and your optimism over a very long term. On the other hand, I believe it is unlikely that a new civilization would arise from the ruins of ours. My reasoning is this: The ruin of this civilization would be accompanied by the using of up the world’s natural resources.

          A collapse into a new, global Dark Ages might not be reversible because the resources to rebuild a new civilization would not necessary exist and the world would likely be polluted beyond repair, save for the ability of the natural world to replenish itself, but that would be on timescales of thousands of years and perhaps would be incomplete because of humanity’s global destruction.

          Our only hope, then, is to find the will to change our current civilization. A tremendous task, as you rightly point out. And impossible without changes to our thinking and patterns of organization. But possible because we now live in a world where there is enough for everybody. The argument that systems of hierarchy arise from scarcity — which humanity has faced for virtually all of its history — seems to me to have much validity. But patterns of thinking have carried over from earlier times and will not easily be dislodged.

          • Lenny says:

            I know what you mean. When this civilization goes it will go with a loud bang that will destroy everything and most likely create inhuman conditions. I don’t think we will find a solution within the framework of this civilization, here I am on the pesssimistic side. But if a group of humans survives it will be forced to change. This is when people can change, only when they feel imminenent death. Right now we are not capable of even understanding in what state our world is. If you stop ten people randomly and ask them to assess the current situation most of them will sing the technology and science mantra, they assume that some genius will solve all the problems and everythiing will be OK. Here we deal with purely religious mentality, instead of God we worship technology, unable to understand the FACT that technical revolution has never solved a single problem without creating a dozen of others. We would be better off trying to resolve our problems by praying, a prayer is much more exologically friendly :))))))

            As I like to joke, there are two ways out of our crisis. A realistic one and a completely science-fictional one.

            Here is the relistic plan:
            An alien spacecraft lands on our planet and friendly extraterrestrials solve all of our problems.

            A completely science-fictional one:
            We will manage to do it ourselves.

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