Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Goal number 4: Respect humans

This one is pretty philosophical. Bear with me.

I believe that universal equality, respect, and worth is a critical next step in the development of our species. I also believe that the human desire to provide for one's self, spouse, and children before others is deeply fundamental and will never be completely supplanted by any system of values. This is why capitalism has been such a staggering engine of growth, for good or ill.

Humans. Picture credit: Manuel Jobi via Wikimedia Commons.

This leads inevitably to the question of how to reconcile those two things. If everyone is equal, how can I with good conscience treat myself and my children better? For me the answer lies in a somewhat contentious idea called "kin selection". I first heard about this idea in an episode of RadioLab where they discussed the idea as promoted by Richard Dawkins, although it goes all the way back to Charles Darwin. I'll admit that I've never actually read any Dawkins, and he often comes across to me in interviews and articles as too abrasive. I recommend this RadioLab even if you ordinarily can't stomach Dawkins because with Jad, Robert and Lynn as a buffer it's a bit easier to swallow.

My children and some nieces and nephews

Here's how the idea has come to rest in my mind. It is core to humans to want healthy, successful offspring. The next best thing is the children of siblings. Instinctively, we get good feelings from helping people who are close to us. But science and technology have done two wonderful things for us. For one, science has shown us that we are all cousins, to some degree or another. Go back far enough and, while we probably don't literally find a first mother and father of all of us, we all share some blood.  In my mind, every child on earth is a niece or nephew of greater or lesser magnitude.

And for two, technology has made the world an increasingly small place. I interact every day with people all around the world, talking about gardening and insect identification and webcomics and a hundred other things. Except when it becomes instrumental to the discussion, I seldom know from where they are writing, and I seldom need to know. Technology lets us see that we really aren't all that different. That the cultural lines in which we orient ourselves need not be based on blood or geography.

So why does this all matter to what I'm doing on my farm? Well, okay, maybe it's pretty obvious. We buy an awful lot of our goods from countries where humans don't get treated as well as they would be treated here in the US. We have access to cheap goods because other groups of people are consuming their human and environmental capital. I do believe that we couldn't be where we are today without some of that same exploitation. But I also think that we have the capability today to develop and demonstrate a way for the world's developing companies to skip over the human costs of ascending to their rightful place as prosperous partners in the leading edge of human health and well-being.

Today rural people in economically depressed parts of the world have access to mobile phones in staggering numbers. The laborious step of stringing copper cables into every home has been cut short. So too can we avoid each country in turn playing host to deplorable and exploitative factory conditions. China and India are ascending to power based on this kind of advantage. What will come next when they finally begin to protect their workers health and well-being in the way that currently developed nations do? The world is small; I really feel that we can build something amazing here at home that people all over the world will see it and take the best of it for themselves.

There is another reason to worry about respecting humans, right here at home. As I have hinted, I am a dedicated capitalist. I believe that people need the freedom to thrive without limits in order to live to their full potential. The world needs people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk to look up to. But a curious construct has emerged that does far more damage than individual wealthy people ever could: corporations. My father used to have a view in common with many fiscal conservatives, particularly in the 90s: "corporations are not some kind of creature with a mind of their own, corporations are controlled by their shareholders, and their shareholders are largely mutual funds and small investors with interests just like yours and mine." I believed this firmly well into my twenties, when eventually the evidence mounted to the point that I had to admit something else was happening and look closer. Was it true what some of my staunch liberal friends would say: that the boardrooms are stuffed full of heartless maniacal sociopaths?

Bill Gosper's Glider Gun in action. Image credit: Kieff via Wikimedia Commons.

Have you ever heard of cellular automata? This is a phenomena whereby (extremely oversimplified explanation alert!) a set of extremely simple rules can produce extremely complicated behaviors. The rules that create the animation above are based on four simple rules and a simple initial state.  Many writers and thnkers have theorized that higher functions like intelligence might emerge from complex structures like corporations. My explanation is quite simple. Many large corporations have become extremely complex machines of automata where two rules have emerged as the most highly important.

  • Maximize profit
  • Minimize risk
Almost all behavior of large corporations can be chalked up to one of these two rules. Which on their own are admirable rules. Maximum profit means maximum productivity. That's good for people. Minimal risk means that the people who depend on the corporation for their livelihood are more secure. This is why corporations are so successful, and have filled such a major role as drivers of growth.

The problem is that corporations have no kin. If kin are the driver of altruism, if corporations lack even the most fundamental human sense that children must be protected into adulthood, then corporations are themselves in fact sociopathic. And occasionally maniacal.

We need to develop and advance social and economic structures which put conscience back into our engines of productivity and growth. For me this means supporting people and groups who do the right thing. This means skipping the middle-man and working directly with the people who provide our services. This means not accepting lower prices when the real costs are hidden. This means sharing information, sharing food, sharing resources. It also means entering into my dealings with a high degree of respect for every person involved, regardless of whether I share their opinions, and regardless of whether I will have a chance to look them in the eye. Or even occupy the same hemisphere as them.

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