In this week's episode of OnBeing, Krista Tippet hosts a conversation with Jonathan Haidt and Melvin Konner; the discussion is titled: "Capitalism and Moral Evolution." Haidt made his "mark' in the academic/philosophical world with his book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006). I found that book very provocative, as I did his subsequent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013). So I was really anticipating enjoying this interview. And I did . . . up to a point. As I listened to the three-way back-and-forth between Haidt, Tippet and Konner (who I'd not heard before), I became increasingly uneasy about some of the conclusions.
One of the main points, asserted early on in the conversation, was that there is a great similarity between Darwin's theory of evolution and the economic theory of capitalism. Neither a biologist nor an economist, the easiest way I could understand it was in the phrase associated with Darwin, "the survival of the fittest": members of the plant and animal kingdoms travel through a long process of adaptation to a particular environment, in a sense, by trial and error. The argument made by Haidt was that capitalism (or the workings of the market) functions in much the same way: what works (i.e., makes money) survives; that which doesn't fades away (anyone remember "New Coke"?).
One of Haidt's points is that capitalism -- one of the darling theories of the political right -- really functions to turn people into liberals. Not recalling his precise examples, he infers that capitalism may lead to exploitation of workers or the environment which then "fires up" a younger generation who take corrective action (usually championing more "liberal" causes: worker rights, environmentalism, etc.). I must admit that I found that a fairly interesting hypothesis. The longer I listened, however, and the more I thought about both Darwinian evolutionary theory, as well as the economic theory of capitalism, I realized that something -- from my point of view -- was missing.
Let me be clear, I am no foe of either theory; I see how both of them have functioned. The fundamental flaw (or, perhaps, "lack") in both, however, is similar. Both have, at their base, the sense of self-interest. The "survival of the fittest" assumes that the species "desires" to survive for its own sake, and will adapt itself to do so. The "market" will rule, because the investor will adapt the product in order to maximize return/profit (and that benefits the investor).
I know that there are folks who argue that there is only a material reason behind every human action, often making these from neuro-scientific evidence. Not being a scientist, I have little with which to rebut those claims. On the other hand, I do believe that humans can can rise above mere materiality. And in this conviction, I stand in concert with most religious traditions.
In a documentary the other night on PBS, Steven Hawking was using the help of some young adults to show how evolution could have occurred simply through the mixture of water, salt and amino acids. BUT, it took several drops of a solution containing bacteria to get anything going (and of course, the existence of bacteria wasn't questioned). But once the bacteria was added to the amino acid soup, all creation broke loose. And, so, I wonder what it would be like to insert "compassion" (a non-material, non-self-centered, impulse) into the petri dish of evolution and/or capitalism?
Might we evolve differently going forward? As we wind up this commencement season, that would be my prayer for those graduating, that they not be driven blindly by "evolutionary" selection, or the forces of the "market", but rather by a sense that everyone and everything is worthy of their care, that everyone and everything is worthy of being raised up. Simply because their hearts tell them that it is right and good so to do.