I had a reasonably long chat with one of my teachers, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi (Geshela for short), today about economics in general and neuroeconomics and behavioral economics in particular. We talked about the general unsustainability of the current system built on its assumptions about self-interest and the invisible hand (or at least the common understanding of Smith’s quote about it.) Clearly reform can’t come from the top, since it’s in the top’s best interest for things to remain as is. So change needs to come from the bottom up, which is why movements like Occupy are hopeful. Even if the implementation and results have been somewhat questionable, at least the awareness is there. Geshela was also suggesting that I get back into econ once I’ve seen through my endeavors in religious studies by bringing Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving-kindness into the field. With the growing fields of neuroeconomics, behavioral economics, and a growing interest in Eastern contemplative traditions, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the discipline could move in a more positive direction. I think it’s something I’ll need to consider; maybe take a look at my credits and see what a minor would entail. Even if I don’t do that, at least I can further develop my knowledge in a constellation of religion, psychology, economics and anthropology. Economics has so much potential to help people and I think I lost sight of that somewhere along the way, which definitely made things seem far bleaker than they need to be.
Our recent readings have been getting at a lot of these ideas as well. One of them in particular, Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner, discusses the growth of rational choice theory and its image of Homo sapiens as Homo economicus, defined by his two primary traits:
1) Selfish and always acting to maximize self-interest
2) Treats competition as the natural and normative state of affairs in which kindness and altruism are either a cultural convention or a deceptive form of self-interest.
As I talked about in my last post, these ideas paint a very depressing picture of man, as bleak as that of one possessing original sin. These conclusions are rooted in evolutionary theory since they presumably promote the survival of those that possess them. But history has also shown innumerable examples in which man acts against these principles in favor of acting altruistically. Furthermore, neuroeconomics is making it increasingly obvious that, while a baseline of wealth is necessary to achieve happiness, there is no correlation between wealth and happiness beyond that point. So clearly something else is at work.
Keltner’s piece then turns to a discussion of emotion and Paul Ekman’s work (building on Darwin’s) in proving that a biological facet of emotion-the movement of facial muscles- is universal. This manner of expressing emotion is crucial since our other primary method, language, is deeply flawed. In addition to being able to fake emotion via language, emotions must also be filtered through the specific meaning of spoken words, distorting and normalizing one’s emotional experience. Considering that most meaningful human engagements hinge on establishing long-term commitments, ambiguity of emotions can be dangerous to our very survival. This commitment problem has two facets:
1) We must usually put aside self-interest in the service of long-term commitments.
2) We must reliably identify who is committed to us.
This is where emotions are key. The very nature, as seeming to strike us at our very core, can override complex calculations of self-interest. Moreover, although, of the 43 facial muscles, most can be moved voluntarily, there are a set that 85% of people find impossible to move voluntarily, meaning that they are unable to fake many emotions. While emotions may feel irrational from the individual’s point of view, they are vital to establishing the long-term commitments that contribute to our survival. From this view, moral judgements rely not only on reason, but on our visceral emotional response as well. Emotions serve as guide to our moral reasoning, particularly in face-to-face interactions. By treating Homo sapiens as Homo economicus, then, economics not only ignores how people act in markets, but also appears to be vastly misjudges man’s motivations and intentions.
This circles back to my noting in the last post about man originally living in small tribes of 50-75 members. By means of our early environment of evolutionary adaptedness, we became creatures that thrived through altruism and care-giving behavior (even to non-kin.) These humans lived almost entirely face-to-face, as well, suggesting that faking such emotions would be near impossible. Add in the introduction of language and the ability to spread information rapidly across time and space, and we’re faced with a situation in which selfishness might as well be a death sentence. By contrast, the spread of positive emotions (love, compassion,etc.) formed a foundation for ethical guidelines and bound individuals into groups.
It seems to be that this isn’t merely a case of self-interest happening to align with collective interest as I suggested earlier. I think that’s taking a modern cynical perspective by assuming that early man only acted well to the group because he consciously knew it would benefit himself. As creatures with higher cognitive faculties than any other animal, our basic empathetic and altruistic instincts toward close relatives that are also found in other animals (kin selection theory) have the capacity to be expanded beyond our inner circle. Given science’s recent discovers on the ways in which compassion (an active desire to alleviate others’ suffering) provides us with physiological and psychological benefits, whereas stress eats away at our well-being, the evolutionary perspective seems to support that we are naturally driven towards pro-social behavior. This is not to deny the existence of war-like behavior or horrible practices such as infanticide; it’s just to say that, as naturally social creatures, it makes sense that we would have evolved to be inclined towards acting well towards each other. This need for positive social interaction and affiliation may even override our survival instinct in some cases as displayed by people who commit suicide due to feelings of loneliness and abandonment.
Our currently troubled state as a species, then, seems less an actual inherent flaw in our nature than what we repeatedly assume to be one. From Hobbs to Ayn Rand and Machiavelli, Western thought is dominated by pessimism of the human condition. As we come to believe this, people find justification for their anti-social actions, proving the initial point and perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So getting back to how we might fix this, the answer doesn’t seem to lie in policy, which only covers up a deeper problem, but in a fundamental shift of global consciousness. A large task to be sure, but certainly doable considering the initial perspectival shift that got us here in the first place. Our innate drive to compassion needs to be recognized and fostered in childhood, giving education an indescribably important role in the survival of our species. Thankfully, within the past decade, a large amount of research on developing secular compassion training practices have emerged (many of which are pioneered by my teachers on this program, Brendan Ozawa-de-Silva and Geshe Tenzin Lobsang Negi. Again, such a remarkable privilege to be here.) In this usage, secular doesn’t suggest anti-religious but rather a lack of partiality towards any particular religious sect. For any mindfulness-based compassion-generating technique to be widespread and effective it must exist within this domain of the secular in order to avoid the pitfalls of the biomedical and religious paradigms in which contemplative techniques have previously been explored. The biomedical sphere has been concerned solely with the physiological benefits of meditation and uses the practice as a treatment for developed ‘illnesses’ rather than as a preventative technique for improving already ‘healthy’ humans. While the religious paradigm has addressed both of those issues, it is burdened by innumerable connotations and historical associations that limit its cross-cultural applicability.
These practices aim at affecting a transformation of the individual’s subjective perspective of the world and one’s relation to it. This perspectival shift can be founded on the idea of embodied cognitive logic, which suggests that, just as humans have evolved to have many physical commonalities, we have many psychological commonalities as well, enabling secular mindfulness techniques to cross-culturally tap into our shared internal complex of causal relationships between cognition, affect and body functions: our shared moral calculus. This view does not discard all notions of cultural relativism, but simply points at places in which commonalities exist, as in the importance of pro-social emotions such as compassion. One specific form of this type of practice that has been developed by Geshela is Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT), which follows an 8-step progression to cultivate compassion (the following is drawn from Brendan Ozawa-de-Silva’s piece, “An Education of Heart and Mind: Practical and Theoretical Issues in Teaching Cognitive-Based Compassion Training to Children.”):
1) Develop attention and stability of mind
2) Cultivate insight into the nature of mental experience as being fleeting and deeply affecting our mental and physical states
3) Cultivate self-compassion
4) Develop equanimity founded on the understanding that we all desire happiness and to be free from suffering
5) Develop appreciation and gratitude for others founded largely on the realization of our interrelatedness
6) Develop affection and empathy
7) Realize wishing and aspirational compassion
8) Realize active compassion for others
These practices have recently been applied to elementary school students, as well as those in foster homes, with extraordinary results. While these changes in perspective may initially only act on the individual, if the technique is given the opportunity to expand there is bound to be a gradual societal shift of consciousness. It may appear to many that this type of shift is unnecessary given the tremendous material prosperity Western civilization has generated over its lifetime, suggesting what many feel is a superior way of life. However, in this regard our society seems to be like a failed flying machine. One may launch the machine off of a tall cliff and glide for a long time, believing things to be going wonderfully, all the while not realizing that the ground is getting ever closer as the machine plummets to earth. We may have been gliding for what seems to be quite a long time, but in the entire history of man’s existence this doomed flight is really quite brief. It seems that people must come around to this realization before any sort of change can come about. Hopefully the impetus for this epiphany comes before it’s too late.