Home > Papers > The theory and practice of ethics: Fourth and final group of papers for the conference and notice of an additional paper

The theory and practice of ethics: Fourth and final group of papers for the conference and notice of an additional paper

Here is the fourth group of papers for the conference. In addition, please note that an additional paper (which was previously accepted but was finalised unavoidably late) will shortly be added to group 2 ‘Should Economics have an Ethical Content?’

The theory and practice of ethics

Wendy Olsen The Ethics of the Economics of Working Time of Couples: Theory and Applied Statistical Methods.

Irene Sotiropoulou Short Stories of Dependency 2.0 – Ethics in Economics Research Three years later

John F. Tomer Brain Physiology, Egoistic and Empathic Motivation, and Brain Plasticity: Toward a More Human Economics

  1. Karey
    March 14, 2012 at 2:26 am

    In group 2 I posted a comment on Offer’s paper suggesting that Tomer’s paper here had implications for Offer’s claim that:

    Offner claims that we need an ‘external signal’ or ‘gift’ (p12) to ‘authenticate other people’s approbation … [as we] do not have access to their hearts. But we [do] have access to our own’ (p11).

    See group 2 for the full comment.

  2. March 25, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    World Economics Association – 2012 Ethics Conference – Comments on Fourth Group of Papers
    by Frederic B. Jennings Jr., Center for Ecological Economic and Ethical Education (CEEEE), U.S.A.

    Most of my comments will be directed to John Tomer’s interesting paper, but I’ll try to say something about the others as well. I’d have hoped to see more commentaries on this fourth group by now… – FBJ

    Wendy Olsen: I found it hard to connect with this “paper” (which is more a sketch of work in progress). I’m glad that someone is working on these issues from a pluralistic perspective, figuring out how one can proceed more sensibly than within the confines of standard theoretical models and assumptions. A proper bibliography of the references cited in the text would help. I found Table 1 quite informative as well…

    Irene Sotiropoulou: In the spirit of Michael Polanyi’s (1958) Personal Knowledge, I found this paper of interest. As a self-conscious record of the interview process and its (actual and potential) ethical baggage, it is impressive to see how many issues come up when researchers really think about their real impact on their results. Ethical questions and tradeoffs seem to rear their heads at every turn. There’s nothing much here on the specific nature of the research project undertaken, other than generally broad brush strokes. Yet, as they say, ‘God lives in the details,’ so it might be nice to understand the specific questions better.

    But as a ‘reflexive’ analysis, where: “By the term ‘reflexivity’ I understand that the research is an ongoing process of mutual learning and ‘teaching/informing/exploring’ between the researcher and the research participants, as well as the other humans involved…” I thought the paper offered a valuable look into a process that is often ignored or glossed over by a pretense of ‘value free science.’ It is well referenced.

    John Tomer: John, I really liked your paper! It has long been obvious to me that there is a balance that is ignored in neoclassical theory between self- and other-directed intentions and behavior in human beings, but it is really nice to see some scientific confirmation of this belief. Good for you to draw it out so well and share it with the rest of us. I did something similar (Jennings 2010), but with a quite different focus.

    The standard assumption is that ‘preferences’ are ‘given’ (namely, are ‘data’) that are exogenously stable; the notion of “brain plasticity” opens a door to introducing the learning process into economics at its very foundations. As Tomer puts it, “human development … involves growth in a variety of human mental capacities including empathy. The human development process may also raise the individual’s and society’s capacity for striking a desirable balance between ego and empathy.” It certainly seems to me that the horizonal lengthening/broadening process, among many other things, involves maturation and personal growth (in the psychological sense, such as found in Maslow, Carl Rogers, etc.), which in turn includes the slow emergence of ‘conscience’ in the sense of a broader internalization of (what we would otherwise deem as) (social and ecological) ‘externalities’ into decisions. This is one of the reasons that competition is keeping us immature through its exclusive focus on material goods and money as goals…

    Tomer’s discussion of the “triune brain” is informative here, where (1) the reptilian brain is focused on “self-preservation or self-interest”; (2) the paleomammalian complex or limbic system “is oriented to caring, other interest, and empathy”; and (3) the neomammalian complex or neocortex “allows humans to make behavioral adaptations to complex circumstances.” The implication I draw from this distinction is that the standard theories in economics solely consider the most primitive motive of all, that of ‘reptilian’ self-interest, while ignoring (at least for the most part) the motive for caring and empathy as well as our adaptability. In terms of maturation, that means that orthodox theory only acknowledges humans at our most primitive level, and since ‘we are what we eat’ – or, at least, ‘we become what we think’ in so many ways through its reinforcement in the ‘economics of attention’ – that view is serving to maintain us in this primitive state! This is not the reason I argue that competition is keeping us immature (because it stifles complementary goods such as learning and information), but it points to exactly the same conclusions.

    I like Cory’s functional extension of MacLean’s tripartite distinction, where the neocortex works to keep the other two brains (self-interest and empathy) in balance, as a means to reduce stress between them. As Tomer explains (from Cory): “If the balancing is relatively successful, the outcome will be in the dynamic balance range which is associated with compromise, fairness, justice, and respect for self and others, a relative equality of ego and empathy” such that “dynamic balanced behavior creates feelings of mutuality, shared respect, and a relative absence of tension” and “is associated with reciprocity.” I find this claim very resonant with what I wrote about positive emotions and regular heart rhythms in Jennings (2010).

    Tomer then goes on to contrast this view of the brain (I don’t much like acronyms) with that in standard economic theory, showing how much more realistic it is. One of his comments, within this model, is on what we call ‘rationality’: “Rationality here … involves doing well for self and doing well by others.” This sounds to me like a basic endorsement of complementarity in human relations, where there is no conflict but rather a concert of interests shared by everyone. That is surely true of all higher-order needs.

    Tomer offers some meaningful insights on “brain plasticity” as well. “Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment,” in contrast with “[t]he conventional wisdom of an unchanging brain anatomy after childhood” that is called “localization.” The most current research “supports brain plasticity and rejects localization.” Furthermore – and very interestingly – in accord with the findings of the positive psychology movement (as reported in Jennings 2010): “Brain scientists also find that being the recipient of prosocial behavior fosters positive brain change and that being the recipient of antisocial behavior contributes to harmful brain change.” In addition, damage due to “uncaring behavior is reversible” with “sufficient social support,” thus showing that humans can change their brains with better behavior. One aspect of this sort of adaptation appears in the process of “character development,” which “has three components: self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence. When all three character components are simultaneously at high levels, that has been found to be related to the healthiest mental functioning,” and the reverse for low levels of same…

    Tomer goes on to address and describe empathy, where “we humans have an empathetic nature by virtue of the old mammalian parts of our brains.” Some of the research suggests that “there is evidence that individual differences in empathy are a good predictor of whether or not a person is high or low in selfishness and whether or not he/she is engaged in prosocial behavior.” Furthermore, our experiences seem to influence our capacity for empathy “by altering brain chemistry and structure. For example, positive and caring experiences strengthen neural circuits associated with positive emotions and bonding, and this happens in the presence of dopamine and oxytocin. … The upshot is that our experience along with our long evolutionary inheritance jointly determine our very important capacity for empathy.” I had a whole discussion of the phenomenon of ‘mirror neurons’ (Jennings 2010) saying much the same thing.

    Tomer then goes on to extend these views and discuss their economic relevance, through a distinction of the “hard” and “soft” parts of the brain, where the hard brain “has a large role to play in governing our relatively automatic or instinctive behavior. The soft brain, on the other hand, is … associated with … the neocortex and is … concerned with intentional decision making, planning, and problem solving in response to external situations.” What is important to realize, according to Tomer, is that: “When people, intentionally or not, grow mentally, becoming more competent to handle life situations, their brain’s neural pathways develop” in terms of “emotional intelligence” (which sounds a lot like what I would call ‘horizonal lengthening/broadening’ here)… And improving one’s understanding of this whole maturation process suggests, however uncomfortable this implication might be for us, that the whole emphasis of economics on reptilian motivations is keeping us all personally and socially immature and in a primitive mode of thought and behavior. Worse, if (what I call) ‘interhorizonal complementarity’ is the case, then immature behaviors spread and displace more mature behaviors, keeping horizons shorter than otherwise.

    Tomer sounds like he’s making the same case some of us were living out in the ‘hippie life-style’ of forty years ago, though he dresses it up for respectability as “an investment in personal capital” (Really, John!):

    “Arguably, when an individual invests in intangible capital such as personal capital, this might contribute to the quality of the individual’s empathy, improve his ego/empathy balance, and thereby improve the socio-economy’s economic performance. When many people have greater empathy and a better ego/empathy balance, there will be more reciprocal behavior, enabling increased market economic activity. This is likely to lead not only to increased economic growth and development in poor, backward economies, but greater realization of the economic potential of advanced socio-economies.”

    I’m sorry, John, but this statement is such a jumble of both ‘enlightened’ and ‘unreconstructed’ economic criteria that I started to chuckle halfway through (and I think you’d chuckle with me). Why not just say that ‘personal growth’ (like the ‘horizonal growth’ that it is) will benefit us all, and we will likely care more about and for each other as we mature? And that will lead to a happier and healthier social milieu? Why do we need to tangle it up with terminology suggesting that we can then produce ‘more stuff’ too, especially as we’ll likely not even want that if we’re really maturing into a new state of consciousness and therewith evolving a more enlightened (social and ecological) conscience? I’m reminded of Boulding’s (1962, p. 136) comment that capital is not just composed of things, but also of beliefs and memories:

    “We must bear in mind here that the capital stock consists not only of physical objects like furniture, but also of the furniture of our minds and the state of our bodies. Thus the acquisition of memories, the learning of information or skills, and the inclusion of pleasant states of mind is as much capital formation as the building of a dam.”

    Tomer understands the implications of this view of the brain, that: “If economics were to incorporate empathy as a fundamental motivation, …that would make it possible to conceive of creating … a better society in which good human relations, win-win relations, predominate, i.e., a more humane society.” Indeed. This is the very meaning of generalized complementarity in economics, in spite of the fact that Kaldor (1972, 1975) didn’t point toward this conclusion explicitly. But Kaldor was talking about material goods and their production technology and the case for increasing returns as implying complementarity as our most general form of relation in that specific context. The problem is that, with increasing returns, none of the orthodox static equilibrium models close: ‘convexity’ can’t be assumed. It matters, because the institutional implications of complementarity are the inverse of those for rivalrous/substitutive venues.

    In networks of interdependent transactions, substitution and complementarity are inextricably intertwined, demanding another resolution not based on these static interdependencies, since we are confronted herein with problem of institutional choice that is irresolvable on these static grounds. This is where ‘horizon effects’ sweep in to address the matter in a quite different way. Given ‘interhorizonal complementarity’ – namely, that ‘private’ horizon effects radiate outward to influence others, shifting their planning horizons generally in the same way, so their ‘private’ and ‘social’ effects are the same – then it follows that our relations of interdependence are horizonal, namely, that the balance of substitution and complementarity in any economic context always shifts with horizon effects: longer/broader horizons augment the weight and importance of complementarity, while shorter horizons move this balance in favor of substitution.

    If so, then the emphasis of economic analysis should be focused on these ‘horizon effects’ and how our planning horizons shall respond to economic policy or regulatory change. This is not a question that we economists have even asked, much less addressed or have any insight toward, and this ignorance has accordingly blinded us to the most serious sweeping failures of competition in creating a myopic culture.

    Tomer’s economic case for ‘The Hippie Life’ I find convincing. “To realize its economic potential, a socio-economy must make substantial investments in the types of intangible capital necessary to raise its empathetic capacity and its capacity for achieving ego/empathy balance.” Legalize pot (just for economic growth and development, of course!)? But maybe a better prescription here is the horizonal case for shifting away from our rapaciously egocentric competitive incentive structures in favor of cooperation and the sorts of behavior rewarded thereby. Under rivalrous systems, the economic ‘selection’ process (and I’m not deeming it a ‘natural selection’ process in any sense) singles out the most aggressive, feral and predatory behavior for reinforcing gains, while ‘nice guys/gals finish last’ as ‘suckers’ (born every minute)! In a cooperative venue, this sort of divisive behavior is simply not tolerated, much less condoned or enriched through rewards for rapacious self-interest. Trust, so also reciprocity, are too fragile for that.


    Boulding, Kenneth E. 1962, ‘Some Questions on the Measurement and Evaluation of Organization,’ in Harland Cleveland and Harold D. Lasswell, eds., Ethics and Bigness: Scientific, Academic, Religious, Political, and Military, Harper and Brothers, New York, pp. 385-95; reprinted in Boulding’s Beyond Economics: Essays on Society, Religion and Ethics, University of Michigan Press (1968), Ann Arbor, pp. 131-40.

    Jennings, Frederic B. Jr. 2010, ‘The Economic Cultures of Fear and Love,’ presented at the ASE World Congress, Montreal, Canada, June.

    Kaldor, Nicholas 1972, “The Irrelevance of Equilibrium Economics,” Economic Journal, Vol. 82, pp. 1237-55.
    _____ 1975, ‘What Is Wrong With Economic Theory’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 89, No. 3, pp. 347-57.

    Polanyi, Michael 1958, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1962 ed.)

  3. staveren
    April 3, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I have a brief comment on John Tomer’s paper. I do like his analysis of the plasticity of the brain. But its connection to economic theory I find too limited. He now replaces a monistic behavioral assumption with a dualistic behavioral assumption. This is binary thinking and does not get us very far. Behavioral economics, experimental economics, feminist economics, developmnet economics, and cultural economics, to mention a few areas, have demonstrated that economic actors act from a variety of motives, not one, nor just two. The literature indicates that people tend to act out of various combinatins of ratio and emotion (intuition); strong reciprocity (costly punishing), or as Seligman has recently defined: PERMA (possitive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement, to which I want ot add security, hence PERMAS). Moreover, Tomer’s review of literature on brain plasticity contradicts his limited theoretical proposal of a dualist motivational structure. In conclusion, I want to challenge the author to use the neurological litature in a far more open way to come up with better alternatives to REM…

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