Ethics, wealth, privilege – pulling it all together

Looking back at this morning’s post, it may have seemed a bit atypical for me to highlight a study that has nothing to do with politics, religion, racism, or any of the other usual suspects for this blog. In the early days of the Manifesto I realized that it was important to have a focus – in order to build a ‘brand’ one must be associated with an idea (or even a handful). Over the past couple of years this ‘focus’ has been rather malleable – shifting as my own personal interests do. However, insofar as this blog is an attempt to unify my own thoughts and ideas and provide myself (and you) with some insight into how my thought process works when synthesizing new information.

When I first read the fact that there was a study that demonstrates that rich people are jerks, I was prepared to laugh it off as just one of those interesting, quirky psychological discoveries. But as the days passed, I realized that there was quite a bit more depth to it. Many of you (hopefully) remember my series on System Justification Theory where we explored the theoretical underpinnings of why people who are relatively lower status may embrace behaviours and attitudes that work to the advantage of the outgroup rather than selfishly. Since we are talking about power and status, there is an opportunity to explore the extent to which greed increases someone’s system justifying behaviour. Are low-status people who have positive attitudes about greed approve when high-status people subvert the rules? Are they more motivated to excuse unethical behaviour by those in power? If such a correlation exists, could it possibly explain why someone like Newt Gingrich still has political support among evangelicals despite his rampant infidelity?

Does this overlap between greed and SJT explain perhaps the backlash against the #Occupy movement – why Romney’s characterization of the justifiable anger against the excesses of the financial elite as ‘jealousy’ resonates with voters who are getting screwed by the same elites? How does this potential psychological phenomenon affect the way people interpret news like this:

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.


One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

What implications would understanding a climate of greed and the ethical lassitude that accompanies it have when we add system justifying into the mix? If we can find ways to convince people that greed isn’t good (contra Gordon Gekko), will we see an adjustment in the amount of support for social programs that level the playing field? Will politicians who adopt an ‘investment’ model rather than a ‘free market’ model gain more traction?

Many of you may have read this resignation letter from a (former) Goldman Sachs executive:

Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.


When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

How does this reaction to corporate greed connect to Goldman’s unethical practices (as detailed in the letter)? Is it always the case that the extremely wealthy will become avariciously unethical, or is it greed that separates a Lloyd Blankfein from a Warren Buffett? Many praised Greg Smith (the letter’s author) for showing a level of morality that one does not commonly see among the very rich. Is that ‘morality’ borne of an organically superior sense of right and wrong, or simply a less favourable view of greed?

System justification produces unfavourable attitudes that fall along racial and gender lines, and operates implicitly (subconsciously). If greed is mixed in to the system justifying process, does that contribute to the atmosphere that results in fewer women and minorities being promoted to executive positions? Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed? Would encouraging people to think of greed unfavourably create a more demographically balanced environment? Can this help to explain why economically ‘left’ groups tend to be more inclusive of minorities than economically ‘right’ ones?

Finally, how do we moderate approval of greed? Does merely exposing greed make people think unfavourably of it, or do we have to focus our attention on the downsides? How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is there a way to encourage innovation and discovery without having to accept the phenomenon of people pulling each other down rather than pulling themselves up? Do we as skeptics have a role to play in unpacking the subconscious baggage of greed, or is that a job for educators and public figures? Is greed biological or sociological – do we see parallel behaviours in animal species?

These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. However, the more I look around, the more I see that things are connected.

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  1. ash says

    Great Questions. I’ll add that one good way to think about greed is to repalce the word “greed” with “hoarding”. Hoarding seems to have more primal implications and that may make it easier to negotiate as an Idea. Hoarding is about “not sharing” whereas “greed” implies an insatiable urge for more stuff. It doesn’t implicitly “not” want others to have stuff. Also hoarding applies to presumably shared resources being allocated unfairly. Dividing the world into minorities and denegrating them helps to justify hoarding. And the feeling of superiority may actually be a sort of defense mechanism, a kind of self hypnosis of denial that allows you to continue this kind of sociopathic behavior.

  2. says

    Ok. Here is how I think it pulls altogether in my head and keep in mind I am speaking very off the cuff here with out a huge amount of insight.

    I have mentioned in some places before that I have a greater than average amount of empathy. Actually my empathy response is so strong, I have to be constantly aware of it not to let it get the best of me from time to time.

    My husband Jarreg, is in the process of reading Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, which from what I have gathered explores heavily the history of violence up to the present. One idea that Pinker puts forth (forgive me if I get details a little off) surrounds the fact that there was a sharp decline in violence with the invention of the printing press. We could argue a that the decline was that people spent all their time reading and far less time fighting as it is simply a correlation but Pinker argues that the causal relation is something far more hopeful. With supporting evidence beyond the one simple correlation, Pinker attempts to show that the decline in violence was more a result of the ability of people to begin feeling empathy for others on a grander scale than previously possible.

    Essentially that increasing literacy rates and available literature provided vicarious interactions with people outside your personal group. It was the beginning of what we now call globalization. Pinker then goes on to show how violence has steadily declined since that time globalization increases as well. Once again, I have not read the book but from what I understand Pinker has stayed true to form with meticulous research in this book. I doubt his conclusions are way off base.

    It makes sense when we know that simple exposure to LGBTQ people, or people from other cultures (so long as the exposure is a positive one) is enough to increase positive attitudes toward that subset. Literacy at that time was the most efficient method of simple exposure available. Now we have the internet. It becomes increasingly more difficult to see people different from ourselves as less than human. We learn about our commonality and we feel empathy.

    It connects in my head with my comments and my musings on privilege before. Privilege is like blinders that direct us into seeing through certain slits of empathy. If we have been privileged enough we have no reason to look outside those little slits to try and expand our viewing area. Sometimes still we end up exposed to something outside our privilege when it decides to walk into our viewing area. That exposure opens our blinds just a little and we find ourselves capable of feeling enough empathy outside our blinded area we actually start to open up our blinders more. We start to empathize with not only the one person dancing in front of us but those ze identifies with. We actually can completely remove a piece of the blinders and open up our viewing area significantly. If we manage to to do that, we then find ourselves where new people step into our line of sight and the cycle continues.

    But it always starts with the first step, exposure. Exposure is the hardest step though because I sometimes see privilege as its own entity fighting for its own survival. In that sense privilege inherently seems to know that mere exposure is enough to begin a cycle that could ultimately lead to its death. It is the driving force behind bills like “don’t say gay” and the segregation of schools and even the anger arising at a billboard that simply says “Atheist.” Perhaps privilege is not an aware entity but simply a fear of exposure causing entity that makes it seem like it has its own cognition. (which is more likely the case)

    I am not sure, but I feel these ropes weaving themselves into a tapestry in my head how much they connect to each other. Feel free to shred the connections I have made and make me look at them in a better light.

    I am always willing to learn.

  3. machintelligence says

    It may be that the phrase “poor but honest” is not quite accurate.
    Poor because they are honest is more to the point.

  4. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    In capitalism the object is to maximize profits. Goldman Sachs takes this idea to heart. However they forget that their clients are becoming aware that GS is maximizing profits at the expense of these clients. GS was recently fined by the SEC for betting against their clients. According to Smith’s letter, the lesson of the fine was not learned by GS upper management.

  5. mynameischeese says

    “Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed?”

    This. And the fact that people think of “roles” as being ordained by god and feel resentment when they see someone who doesn’t know their “place.”

    “How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness?”

    I think a lot of times, extreme greed tends to stifle healthy competition, like when the best company monopolises a segmant of the market and then buys out or undercuts smaller companies that come out with anything better, thus leading to a slump wherin the former best become mediocre.

  6. prtsimmons says

    Good questions about greed. I thought this morning’s post was very clearly relevant to your other ‘typical’ posts about race, gender, politics, etc. The economics of greed and capitalism are so intertwined with issues of privilege that I am surprised when our economic system (and the values of the capitalist system) is not addressed in a discussion of race, gender, minority rights, etc. As another eastern Canadian transplant in BC (I’m from Newfoundland by way of Ontario), I was pretty shocked by some of the attitudes towards the First Nations population in BC. A lot of this racism manifests itself as criticism of Native attitudes towards work and wealth. There is an implicit assumption that people who do well economically deserve it, and the corollary of that belief is that poor people are probably poor because of their actions. The attitude that “these Indians obviously won’t help themselves, why should I?” is used to justify a lack of deeper analysis into the structural obstacles to social mobility. The free market myth of the self-made man (or woman) relates to the ‘greed is good’ ethos that seems to be the guiding principle of the rich and super-rich. I think your post this morning (and the study it is based on) provides quite a bit of insight into society’s attitudes to its poorest members (in BC, that means First Nations). The greed ethos and structural racism are definitely connected.

  7. Jeroen Metselaar says

    “If I like chocolate it won’t surprise you that I have a few chocolates in my fridge, but if you find out I’ve got 16 warehouses full of chocolate, you’d think I was insane. All these rich guys are insane, obsessive compulsive twits obsessed with money–money is all they think about–they’re all nuts.”

    John Cleese

  8. Mark says

    I have yet to read Steven Pinkers book but have a synopsis from someone who has. I’ve also seen his presentation of position on youtube. I agree with much of what Mr. Pinker says although I disagree with his overall premise that violence is at an all time low. I think we are living in the most violent period in human history ever.

    Fifteen million people die every year from starvation and lack of clean drinking water. Indifference to avoidible death is as much violence as a bullet to the back of the head. America is the dominant empire today as we leapfrogged Britian at the end of WWII.

    With about 800 military bases around the planet, insurrections that disrupt the flow of capital to America are held in check. Periodic wars initiated by the US are necessary just so everybody understands others natural resources are American interests. It’s also important to test new technology in the field of battle to keep the high tech military industrial complex fine tuned. You know, keep the sword sharp.

    With the advent of nuclear weapons, humanity gained the ability to self destruct at any moment. Just doesn’t seem likely the highly intelligent human race would do that though. Unless maybe Israel and the Koch brothers and McCain and all the biblical literalists decide to bomb a more or less fuctioning nuclear site in Iran in an attempt to sway the US election this Nov.

    15 million deaths from starvation every year boils down to about 2 1/2 holocausts a year every year. Then there is that other problem of obesity here in the land of milk and honey.

  9. says

    You illustrate exactly why I like Pinker’s approach to the subject. Instead of relying on anecdotes and folk wisdom informed by popular media and nostalgia for mythical golden ages of yore, Pinker relies on data. He draws his data from the best that history, ethnography and anthropology have to offer. The data support his positions quite well. I have no doubt people will argue with his interpretations of why violence has declined. That it has declined is unambiguous, however. The facts bear him out on that. I can only suggest that you read it for yourself.

  10. Mark says

    I’ll read it when I get back from the Reason Rally. I wonder how 15 million annual avoidable deaths filter through those 700 some pages of data. Hope he isn’t an apologist for the dead end street of free market economics.

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