The ethical implications of inequality
Via Matt Y., reporting on research that should have broad ramifications for how we organize society, but will probably just be ignored. Researchers at UC Berkley conducted a series of experiments that found that the more wealth and privilege people have, the more unethical they are. And it’s not because selfish people get ahead faster (which wouldn’t do anything to explain the effect of inherited wealth and privilege). Researchers devised experiments that showed that the reason is environment and not base personality. I want to quote from some of their conclusions:
“This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead,” said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work. “I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies. This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal.”
According to Piff, unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society. It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.
They controlled for political persuasion, so this isn’t a partisan sort of thing, though the screeching teabaggers in comments, as you can imagine, disagree.
Implications of this:
1) Inequality is bad for society. It’s kind of comical how societies realize over and again that power corrupts, and then they promptly forget that lesson. I’m not going full commie here. I accept that there’s probably always going to be some economic inequality in our society. The question is, “How much?” Right now, the gap between rich and not-rich is ridiculously high, and I think we’re seeing the the effects of this. Our society is coarse and unsympathetic. We have an entire political party now that’s taken to cheering at the thought of their fellow citizens dying from lack of health insurance. Heightened inequality probably has a big impact on this. The very wealthy have lost a lot of basic empathy, and their attitudes percolate out through mass media (which they own), infecting us all. Significantly reducing the gap between the rich and everyone could go a long way towards reintroducing empathy back into our political discourse.
2) The rich shouldn’t be the moral arbiters of society. There’s a strange tendency in the Beltway media to assume that viciousness in politics originates with the working class, and that the rich are above anti-choice sadism, racist assholery, and homophobic nonsense. Part of that is that the very narrow demographic of professional urban people in the upper middle class influences their idea that privileged people are liberal, but if you take a snapshot of the country on the whole, that theory tends to fall apart. Anyone who looks at the giant gap in fund-raising for liberal and conservative non-profits could tell you that the money is on the right. Duh.
But the larger point is that the false assumption that the rich are better than ordinary people keeps us from interrogating how it is that the more power our leaders have, the more likely they are to be really rich. Not like upper middle class privileged, but straight up millionaire rich. Since we have scientific evidence that extreme wealth reduces empathy, this should concern us all. We want ethical people in government, and ethical people tend to come from the ranks of the ordinary more than the wealthy.
3) The personal is political. One interesting thing about this research is it showed unethical behavior in the realm of the personal: The employer making decisions for employees, behavior in traffic, taking candy from children. (Yes, that was literally an experiment.) This has interesting implications, as Mitt Romney’s dog can tell you. Any feminist could tell you that power corrupts on a large scale, but also within the small world of the home, which is why we point to high levels of domestic violence and rape as evidence of how ugly giving men so much personal power over women can get. Pushing for more equality is probably good for our politics, but where the impact could really be felt is in the day to day interactions between people. Already we’re seeing a decline in hate crimes and violence against women because of growing equality between the races and between men and women. Imagine if we applied that same logic to class.