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Posts tagged ‘Adam Smith’

Why I’m Optimistic About The Future

The history of Earth is a rocky and lifeless story. The first signs of life emerged about a billion years after our planet’s creation. They weren’t much either; mostly single-celled organisms that resembled today’s bacteria. Land animals emerged out of the oceans as recent as 500 million years ago, and the genus homo came onto the scene a mere 2.5 million years ago. Complex life on Earth is the new kid on the block; natural selection spent most of its time keeping species the same, not changing them.

We humans are a different story. 200,000 years ago a few tens of thousands of us dotted the African plains. But then something happened. We spread across the globe creating cities and villages along the way. Language evolved, and with it culture and societies. We began living longer and healthier and our population skyrocketed as a result.

What’s peculiar about the rise of humans is that biologically speaking, nothing changed; the same genes that constituted our hunter-gatherer ancestors constitute us. But somewhere along the line a small change led to profound differences in our behavior within a short period of time. Whereas homo erectus and the Neanderthals spent hundreds of thousands of years making the same tools over and over again, we were able to understand and organize the world better.

Whatever the genetic change was, we eventually gained the ability to learn from others. This was hugely important. Anthropologists call this cultural or social learning, and it not only describes our tendency to copy and imitate by watching others, it highlights our unique ability to realize the best from a number of alternatives and attempt to improve on it. Many animals can learn, but only humans can learn and improve. As evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel explains, “even if there were a chimpanzee-Einstein, its ideas would almost certainly die with it, because others would be no more likely to copy it than a chimpanzee-dunce.”

What’s more is our ability to put ourselves inside the minds of others – what philosophers term a theory of mind. It helps us assign reason, purpose and intentionality to objects and people, which moreover allows us to understand things as being part of a bigger picture. Without a theory of mind we would probably still be using the same tools as we did 200,000 years ago.

In addition, theory of mind gives rise to emotions like empathy and sympathy, which give us the capacity to cooperate with people and groups outside of our kin. Virtually all members of the subfamily homininae (beside bonobos) including chimps, gorillas and orangutans do not exhibit this type of behavior. To borrow a thought experiment from the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, imagine if you were on a 747 filled with chimps and a baby started to cry. In Hrdy’s words: “any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all their fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed.” Recent psychological research is confirming that our species ability to cooperate is partially innate. As bleak as our current headlines are, it appears we humans are wired with at least a minimal ability to get along with each other and have a sense of justice. We’re not perfect, but no chimp would donate to charity and certainly not group of chimps could set up a charity.

This is important for many reasons. The most obvious is that economics is impossible without the means to cooperate with strangers. This is why, according to Matt Ridley, one of the key developments in our species history took place when we “started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence… [we] started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals; to share, swap, barter and trade.” The effect of trade was specialization, which gave rise to innovation, which in turn improved technologies and so on and so on. Well before Smith hypothesized the invisible hand and Ricardo thought about how England and Portugal could efficiently trade wine we had already begun to understand that communities were better off when their members honed their skills, pursued their self-interest and traded with other communities.

This is a simplified and incomplete story but you get the idea: humans flourished because they were able to learn from and cooperate with each other. It’s unclear what happened biologically, but the consequences were obviously vast.

What’s interesting is that the same cognitive mechanisms that allowed our species to prosper in the African savannah are the same cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for globalization in the 21st century. However, in place of face-to-face interactions is communication over the web.

In a 2010 Ted lecture Chris Anderson addressed this point by exploring how web video powers global innovation. He explained the following:

A while after Ted Talks started taking off we noticed that speakers were starting to spend a lot more time in preparation… [the previous speakers raised] the bar for the next generation of speakers… it’s not as if [speakers] ended their talks saying ‘step your game up,’ but they might as well have… you have these cycles of improvement apparently driven by people watching web videos.

Anderson terms this phenomenon “crowd accelerated innovation,” and uses it to explain not just how Ted Talks are improving in quality, but how everything is. He is making the same general point as Pagel and Ridley: humans learn and innovate by watching and stealing ideas from others. But what’s unique about Anderson’s point is that it’s describing how the Internet is facilitating this ability. And the exciting part is that people will learn and imitate even faster with YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Books and many more online services that focus on the distribution of content. As Anderson says, “this is the technology that is going to allow the rest of the world’s talents to be shared digitally, thereby launching a whole new cycle of… innovation.”

Whereas a famine could have easily wiped out the only community that knew how to harvest a certain crop, build a certain type of boat or make a certain type of tool – what anthropologist call random drift – the Internet not only ensues our collective knowledge, it makes it widely accessible, something the printing press wasn’t able to achieve to the same degree. This is why I’m optimistic about the future: the Internet will only accelerate our ability and desire to improve upon the ideas of others.

Ted lectures over the years give us plenty of concrete examples to be hopeful about: Hans Rosling illustrated the global rise in GDP and decrease in poverty over the last several decades; Steven Pinker demonstrated the drastic decline in violence; Ridley and Pagel spoke about the benefits of cultural and economic cooperation; and most recently, Peter Diamondis argued that we will be able to solve a lot of the problems that darken our vision of the future. And because all this research is coming to us via the web the next round of ideas will be even better. More importantly, it will inspire a generation of young Internet users who are looking to change the world for the better.

Morality & The Individual: The Role of the Passions in Moral Dilemmas

I never liked moral philosophy, it was strangely passionless. Philosophers spent careers searching for moral truths as if they were hidden on some cosmic shelf next to the transitive property of equality while ignoring the central and obvious fact that morality has to do with the subject and her emotions. Philosophers treated it as a separate entity, something that we can have or lose. But morality is about people, and what role you, the individual, play, matters.

Consider Joshua Greene’s take on the famous trolley problem, an old chestnut from moral philosophy. Most have heard the first version: A trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the tracks, its breaks are failing and nothing can stop it. Ahead is a fork in the tracks. If nothing is done, the trolley will kill five maintenance workers. You have the opportunity to flick a switch and divert the trolley onto another track where it will only kill one maintenance worker. Do you pull the switch? About 95 percent say yes.

Here’s Greene’s scenario: You are standing on a footbridge that overlooks the tracks. Again, a trolley is hurling uncontrollably down the track and will kill five maintenance workers if nothing is done. A fat man stands next to you. If you push him over onto the tracks he will stop the trolley and save the lives of the five maintenance workers. Doing this will also kill the fat man. Do you push him onto the tracks? Greene found that almost nobody say yes.

There are two points to Greene’s hypothetical. The first is that we treat moral dilemmas differently depending on how directly involved we are. When we push the fat man, it feels like we killed him. But we don’t feel like we killed the one maintenance worker when we flick the switch. The second is that we don’t understand moral dilemmas rationally. If we did, we would have no problem saying that we should flick the switch and push the fat man because both result in the same amount of lives saved; we’re not utilitarians.

Greene’s hypothetical doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination these days. Just think about unmanned drones, which have killed scores of people since the United States Military began using them in the mid 90s. Killing someone with a Predator somehow seems easier than killing someone with a gun at point-blank in the same way that killing someone by flicking a switch to divert the trolley is easier than pushing the fat man. In both cases the more removed we are from our actions the less conscience-heavy their consequences are. Predators also force utilitarian questions: what if a solider was killed trying to accomplish a mission a drone could have accomplished?

Adam Smith (along with his fellow Scot David Hume) recognized these moral issues a few centuries ago in his less celebrated but equally insightful The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when he proposed the following: How would the average European feel if he discovered that the entire Chinese empire was swallowed by an earthquake? Sad and sorrowful, but he would nonetheless go on with his work and sleep soundly. But what if he was told that he will lose his little finger the next morning? He wouldn’t sleep a second. And, moreover as Smith wonders, how willing would the man be to trade his finger for all of China?

Smith’s point is that empathy depends on distance. We want to think we are morally sound, but the more accurate picture is that we care more about people close to us, and especially ourselves. Again, we don’t need to travel into our imaginations to understand what Smith was driving at. Just think about disasters of the last decade: Hurricane Katrina; the Tsunami of 2004; Earthquakes in China, Japan and Haiti. Unless you are from New Orléans, have close family from southeast Asia or best friends from central China, Japan and Port-au-Prince, it’s likely that these disasters didn’t boggle your conscience too much; you watched Anderson Cooper do his reporting, gave a few dollars to the Red Cross and showed up for work Monday morning.

On other hand, the most tragic events of the last decade (for those not immediately involved in these horrible disasters), probably only involved one or a few people, the death of a loved one for example. One psychologist who understands our tendency to be affected more by what is apparent – as opposed to what is difficult to imagine – is Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. Slovic devised a simple yet clever experiment to illustrate this. He created two groups and asked each how much they would be willing to donate to various charitable causes. Here was the catch: the first group saw a photo of a starving Malawian child while the second read a series of statistics about starvation in Africa. He found that the group that saw the photo of the Malawian girl donated, on average, two dollars and fifty cents. The statistics group, on the other hand, donated about 50 percent lower on average. Riding the same wavelength as Smith, Slovic’s study suggests that empathy increases the closer victim is (either physically or virtually).

What does all this say about morality? That the philosophers had it backwards; our moral deliberations depend on the passions. This point has been made several times in both academia and the popular literature, but it is worth repeating because people will screw up understanding moral rights from wrongs as long as they think of moral truths as immaterial nuggets buried deep in a mountain waiting to be mined. We can use science – cognitive science namely – to understand where our moral intuitions come from to better understand what we ought to value and how we ought to act.

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