Capitalism Can Leak Empathy and Wealth

Natural Justice, Fair Play, and Empathy in Nature

Injecting moral values into capitalism is not an easy task. Capitalism is a wealth-driven, competitive system in which there are no built-in internal mechanisms for requiring responsible behaviour with regard to people other than the capitalists themselves.

A sense of natural justice is deep seated in our evolutionary past. We are not the only animals that understand what’s fair and what’s not fair. Nor are we alone in having empathy for each other. Experiments with a wide range of animals including primates, parrots, crows, elephants, whales, wolves, rats and others suggest that these feelings of justice and empathy we have are very instinctive. If you have ever played a game with your dog, you can see that he trusts you to play by the rules — and yes dogs understand the rules of a game and of interrelationships. But some dogs play by the rules and others know how and when to break the rules to their own advantage, so cheating is not unique to humans either. What dogs do when another dog cheats? They refuse to play with the cheater. And it takes quite a while for the cheater to be trusted again.

In an ecological setting, these same animals are subject to the selective forces of the environment to choose between those that fit in well and those that do not. These same animals compete both with each other and with other species for food, space, cover, and many other aspects of life. Consider the implications of a sense of fairness, empathy, and justice operating in a highly competitive and selective environment. These responses among the animals in the ecosystem are present and operating their entire lives. This means that the ecosystem as we see it and seek to understand it has at some level built in justice, fair play, and empathy. How does that square with “survival of the fittest?” or “red in tooth and claw?”

Apparently it fits in just fine. For the most part the just, fair, and empathetic responses of animals other than humans tend to be restricted to their own species. There are some really interesting exceptions that have been observed. For example a lioness that was expelled from her pride was discovered nurturing a baby gazelle. She ultimately lost it to a male lion who ate it. So she found another one to nurture. She did this five more times. Of course it was misguided because she could not feed the babies, but she seemed to show real emotional distress when the babies were lost or died.

Natural Justice, Fair Play, and Empathy in Capitalism

In capitalism, the same principles apply. It is a system of competition characterized by “survival of the fittest.” For wealth to be exchanged among the capitalists in a capitalistic corporation, a sense of trust, justice and fair play underpins the relationship amongst the capitalists. Each capitalist knows the rules (set out in contracts), but each capitalist knows that not all people play by the rules and will cheat. So there are consequences for the cheater if he or she is caught. So within the capitalist system, competition, “survival of the fittest,” are all mixed up together with justice, fair play, and empathy just as they are in an ecological system. There is no need to tease justice, fair play, and empathy out thinking they are unique characteristics of humans. Furthermore, given the human-based nature of economics, the behaviour at the system level will be parallel to ecological behaviour at the system level.

Slaves, Serfs, Worker Castes, and Employees

What about at the individual level, is there a qualitative difference between what animals in an ecological system do on an individual level to what we see in humans on an individual level. Not really. There are quantitative differences of course. Humans have demonstrably more interest in empathy and compassion than is displayed in other animals. Humans also cheat more adeptly than other animals, but the sense of outrage at being cheated is not observably different between humans and chimps for example.

Both bees and ants maintain high social order with intricate decision-making strategies. In both cases there are caste differences amongst the individuals of a bee hive or ants colony. These caste differences have been entrenched in the genetic structure of the individuals. A worker bee cannot become some other kind of bee. A guard ant cannot become a worker ant (although in some instances they will assist workers). Worker ants remain ants of the same species as the warrior ants, of course, but can be over 100 times different in size, so they can look very different. Workers are cheaper to feed and house than warrior ants, so when an ant colony is out foraging, the workers are the first ones in line. They suffer the first losses if the colony is attacked. If a bridge is needed to cross an obstruction, they will self-sacrifice. So there are many more workers than the elite warriors or drones.

Some species of ants keep slaves. The slaves are of a different species than the slavemaker ants. In a few specialized cases the slavemaker ants are so dependent on the slaves, that cannot even feed themselves without slave assistance. If the slave ants have been captured by force, they are kept in place by guard ants so they will not escape (and they do try to escape). In at least one species of ant that is taken as slaves, the species has evolved a technique to limit the slave-taking ability of the slavemakers. The captured slaves, who are also used to care for the babies of all the ants, slave babies and slavemaker babies, have evolved a technique to kill the baby ants that are destined to become warrior slavemaking ants. This reduces the strength of the slavemaking forces used to capture slaves. It doesn’t stop the slavemaking but it slows it down.

Some human societies have caste systems, similar to ants. People are born into a given caste and have little chance of moving from one caste to another. Unlike ants, however, people are not as highly evolved in their caste systems so there is no genetic difference between a person born into a worker caste and a person born into a high order caste. To make the distinction, in most societies that have fixed caste systems, people are branded in some way when they are young so there is an easy way to distinguish the castes. This is less dramatic than the ants, but does a similar job of defining one group as of less importance than another group in terms of their individual worth to society. These worker castes are given tasks that routinely reduce their life spans. Humans also keep slaves, just like ants. Human slavemakers and slaves, however are not necessarily genetically different one from each other. In a few instances, human slaves have been visibly different by virtue of where they were captured, but not uniformly. Today’s slaves can be of any race being held as slaves to any race. Slaves like caste groups are usually branded in some way so they can easily be separated as slaves.

The Human Effect

Finally, capitalistic systems view entrepreneurs and capitalists as inside the capitalist system, and everyone else as outside of the system. In the many examples through the last several hundred years of capitalist history, unfettered capitalism delivers national wealth that is concentrated in the capitalists and surviving entrepreneurs. Anyone outside the capitalist elite was most likely very poor, starving, weak, and sick. When the conditions for the unemployed or over-exploited got too bad, some would attempt to set up illicit quasi-capitalist systems (gangs) to parasitize the capitalist wealth. Others revolted. Often the revolts failed and workers, serfs, or slaves were killed.

It is here that we can see a difference between human economic systems and biological ecological systems — specifically where biology and economics become inextricably the same system by virtue of the fact that people are both inside the economic system of capitalism and outside it. People are both an expendable labour resource and at the same time different people are also capitalists sharing wealth.

Here’s where the ideas of natural justice, fair play, and empathy have an important impact on economies where people can be over-exploited or held as slaves. Unlike animal systems where the slaves are a different species, and where workers are so different from the elite castes that misidentification would be impossible, amongst humans it is all the same species and the visible differences amongst the castes or between slaves and non-slaves are not very great, so misidentification would be relatively easy. Or to put it another way the more similar everybody inside and outside the system looks, the more likely it is that feelings of empathy will develop for the plight of the slave or servant, even if you are a capitalist. The greater the degree of similarity the greater is the likelihood that the capitalist system will leak justice, fair-play, and empathy. Depending on the degree of leakiness, people outside the system will be treated in a more humane or a less humane manner if they are employed as labour. Another example of the capitalist system leaking empathetic feelings is when a very rich capitalist late in life demonstrates a degree of altruism (sometimes selfishly based in tax-sheltering foundations) toward people who are not themselves capitalists and who are poor or unable to help themselves for some reason. The feelings that leak outward from capitalism carry wealth with them. So to a degree, the wealth that should stay within a strictly capitalistic system, leaks out.

I have described how in more complex ecosystems with an extensive organic matrix there is an elaborate system of relationships and the predominance is for k-selected species where the species tend to live long lives, protect and nurture their young imparting skills as they grow up. Communication of impending danger amongst the animals in complex jungle and coral reef environments is a shared responsibility among the animals. Many animals can recognize the meaning of the warning calls of other species as well as their own. As soon as a warning call is issued, other individuals of a variety of species immediately repeat the warning in their own language before they actually see the danger. These early warning signals are community-based warnings that reduce the effectiveness of predators. In some instances, monkeys will attempt to punish and chase off predators by pelting them with branches and fruit broken off the trees, or by throwing feces at them. If a predator is successful, the victim often makes a very loud noise which also serves to warn and cause empathetic fear in the listeners. In the water, a fish that has been injured by a predator gives off a warning substance called schrekstoff, a chemical alarm that is quickly picked up by other fish.

There are similarities with humans in economic systems where there is a relatively sophisticated economic infrastructure to enhance distribution and communication. The more effective the communication system, the more intense is the repetition of the warnings and the more intense is the response by other people, regardless of their standing inside or outside the capitalist economic system. In recent years since the widespread adoption of the Internet and the development of easily transportable communication devices such as cell phones that are linked to the Internet, communication is now global. The warning signals carry with them a call for empathetic responses. The warnings can mobilize attack responses as well — just as is the case with large herd animals like musk ox or buffalo facing a predator in an ecological setting. In what may be a uniquely human inventions, the power of the communication of warnings can be used to punish the offender. Direct punishment is now seen in people using social media to “shame” others. Because of a human tendency to believe accusations over protestations of innocence, more and more punishments are handed out over the Internet in a manner similar to a group of monkeys pelting a predator, or a herd of musk ox daring a wolf to come closer. Another recent example of the people both inside and outside the capitalist system exerting indirect punishment was when a radio broadcaster maliciously slandered a young woman for three days. The broadcaster was immune to direct criticism, so using social media, literally tens of thousands of people threatened to boycott the services and sales of any corporation that advertised to support the broadcaster. The result was considerable damage to the broadcast station and to the broadcaster himself.

Enhancing the Human Effect

One possible conclusion is that although capitalism by itself has no inherent mechanism to protect people from being over-exploited or to offer a safety net to those without the ability to earn a living, the fact that it operates with people, not robots or automatons is important. The greater the degree of complexity in the system, enhanced by infrastructures that are available to enhance communication and distribution, the more likely it is that people both inside and outside the system will bring feelings of natural justice to bear on the behaviour of corporations. Currently the infrastructures are not well developed in econosystems and the number of r-selected lucrespecies (needing many low paid employees or machines) is still quite high. Over time, assuming humans survive and flourish over the next few thousands of years, it is most likely that the infrastructure will be well-developed and the tendency will be for smaller diverse corporations with few employees and mostly internal entrepreneurs or capitalists operating in linked strategic alliances and dependencies. Competition amongst the corporation will be intense for limited resources, but the concentration of wealth in large corporations will be primarily limited to primary production with an emphasis on infrastructure that enhances distribution and communication.

It is the push and pull of economic forces both within and outside the system, that leads to modifying the capitalist system to have external safety nets for people outside the capitalist envelope. It is not because anyone designed a system to make that happen. If it were not for the natural sense of justice, fair play, and empathy, that we inherited from our animal ancestors, capitalism would be a much more ruthless system even than it is right now.

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