Socio-economic karma?

By | October 13, 2013

[Updated 11/22/13] Today’s post is not precisely the long-awaited completion of the series on causality, but it is not unrelated in a way. Causality, as we noted, is a very complex idea in which the relationships between causes and effects may be short and immediate, or long and drawn out. In the longest view, karma will out – that is, the consequences of one’s behavior will always be felt, perhaps even generations later.

A recent BigThink blog post entitled “The Cheater’s High: Why it Feels Good to be Unethical” [] reports on some recent research finding that under certain circumstances, “cheating” can produce positive feelings for individuals. The authors of the study dutifully mumbled into their cappuccinos and declined to offer a clear explanation of this finding. To my mind, as I expressed in my own comments therein, the explanation is quite simple – successful cheating asserts your individuality against a system that you know is rigged against you. There is a sense of having recovered something of yours from a world carefully designed and operated to strip everything from you bit by bit. The larger and more complex the system you live in, the faster the stripping proceeds, and the more certain it is that the rules will be against you, and that in the distribution of costs and benefits, you will pay more of the costs and receive less of the benefits than those who make up and implement the rules. Under these conditions, cheating becomes simply a rational response – the only way to recover a measure of individual control.

In small rural communities where the rules are simple and everyone knows everyone else, cheating is less likely. While the pot is smaller, it’s visible to all, and the basis for the distribution of costs and benefits generally approximates the consensus of the individuals involved in the community. I’m not trying to idealize rural life; there are individuals who feel aggrieved and individuals who are treated unfairly there as in bigger systems. But one is probably less likely to experience the slow steady erosion of personhood, manifesting as a sense of being ground away bit by bit to feed nameless groups and individuals who live off the system itself rather than off their contributions to it.

Even those of us who know on an intellectual level that we are net winners in the system because of factors quite unrelated to our contributions to it – race, gender, intelligence, social position, luck, etc. – are on occasion prone to this sense of alienation, mostly because we know that we don’t make the rules and have no way of effectively participating in their change or even their implementation.

One might even attempt a quantification of the satisfaction that an alienated person might achieve by getting something back from the system and thus asserting one’s individuality. Let me suggest that the smallest unit of such satisfaction might be that derived from picking up a lost penny from the street – let’s denominate this as one “streetpenny”. It’s then a matter of empirical research to determine how many streetpennies might be derived from various acts such as getting an extra dollar in change, submitting a padded expense report, learning the answers to a test in advance, getting a more-than-expected income tax refund, or successfully robbing a bank. One could then relate receipt of streetpennies to a whole range of demographic and interpersonal variables. One might even hypothesize that the streetpenny is the basic unit with which to measure social disruption and alienation. How many streetpennies are required to achieve a sense of balance between you and the system? I believe that there is room for a whole new discipline, aimed at quantifying the point at which perceived unfairness in the system becomes intolerable.

In earlier times, even without benefit of information technology, peasants and urban proletarians had little difficulty observing the privileges and unearned increments flowing to the aristocrats and oligarchs and eventually understanding the degree of their oppression. And we know how well that turned out; just ask Robespierre. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it appeared that the middle class in this country and in Europe  had been successfully pacified with an economy that shared a relatively larger part of the pie with them, while the lower class was likewise mollified with consumer goods and even a degree of social mobility. However, starting in the 1980s the elites began to once again assert their privileges by appropriating an ever-increasing share of the pie and opening a wide social gap, thus effectively proletarianizing much of the former middle class. However, we know that the wider this gap and the longer it persists, the greater the chance that the eventual social adjustment will feature heads on pikes rather than cars in driveways and washing machines in garages.

It’s hardly an expression of “class warfare” to notice the exponentially increasing social and economic inequality in the first and second worlds, to the point that it may soon resemble the feudal distributions of the third and fourth worlds. But it does not appear that the elites have any interest in returning to a more equitable society where the allocation of costs and benefits has a more rational connection to contributions. To support their position, elites seem to have developed a twisted kind of morality that entitles them to appropriate more and more of the benefits while pressuring the vast majority into paying more and more of the costs. And there is no shortage of lackeys who for an extra pittance will urge this perverse morality on their fellows by characterizing as “class envy” any justified attention to unjustified inequality.

Returning Ouroboros-like to where we started, it is clear from history that promotion of ever greater degrees of social inequality eventually creates its own ruin. Indeed, in our times of increased information circulation and shorter and shorter Ouroboroses, this karmic result may occur sooner and more roughly than it might have in earlier times of greater social stability. It’s hard to see how the current set of socioeconomic trends leads to anything but nightmare scenarios. I haven’t yet begun serious Doomsday Prepping, but maybe it’s time to consider it.

  • Leslie Stewart

    Acquiring streetpennies is usually accompanied for me by fear of being discovered, guilt at possible taking something that isn’t mine (or rather, that belongs to someone else), etc — since I am apparently quite repressed (and/or extremely well socialized?) On the other hand, I have a great sense of satisfaction when I force the system to do what it was intended to do or should have been intended to do, namely play fair and provide justice for me and for others. So rather than cheat (cheap thrills at a psychological price) I crusade (rare victories create a lasting high).

    • DrEvel1

      I see the distinction you are drawing. However, I think that rather than a difference in kind, what you are actually identifying is a difference in degree along a single continuum. I doubt that in a single streetpenny situation, you agonize seriously about how to return the penny to its rightful owner. You may choose to pass up picking it up on the hope that the owner will return to retrieve it, but I would argue that then you are deriving at least a streetpenny’s worth of satisfaction from the situation.

      “Forcing a system…to provide justice” may be of a higher moral order than using purloined answers to pass a test, but functionally they amount to the same thing – extracting a result from a system that would not normally provide it to you. In fact, the student taking the test might well argue that he’s justified because of the sheer immorality of the current high-stakes testing system, and I’d be inclined to accept the argument. The most successful parts of my own career have been built around circumventing organizational rules to achieve long-term benefits for the organization – probably roughly on the same morality level as what you describe, but with a personal payoff in a coin so much like a streetpenny that I couldn’t detect an affective difference.

      One might argue that one’s sense of morality serves to increase or decrease the personal value attributed to a given amount of streetpennies. If the act by which you gain them seems to you to be intrinsically illicit, then you will see their value reduced; if the act is justified by some higher moral goal, then their value will be increased. Admittedly, that does complicate the use of the streetpenny as a unit of measurement, but I’m not sure it invalidates it theoretically.