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Category Mistakes, Evolutionary Cognition, & the "Soul" of the Corporation - Shandean Postscripts to Politics, Philosophy, & Culture

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Category Mistakes, Evolutionary Cognition, & the "Soul" of the Corporation: On the Moral "(in)Capabilities" of Institutions and Why We Find it So Hard to Think About Them

After the New York Times revealed that the NSA is spying on the domestic population I toured some of the right-wing weblogs and discovered that many of them were accusing the NYT of being unpatriotic. On the left I heard a few people say that the New York Times was violating its public trust by withholding the story of domestic spying for more than a year. Both views represent the usual category mistake we make when discussing institutions.

Institutions, such as the New York Times, are corporate businesses and, as such, they are neither patriotic nor unpatriotic. Moral capabilities cannot be attributed to the institution itself. Only individuals act morally or immorally. What we can ask is: Are the goals that the institution is made to serve moral? Are those goals structured into the institution or can they be changed merely by adjusting the personnel of the institution? What are the moral responsibilities of the people inside and outside the institutions for what those institutions are structured to do and what they actually do? But even more importantly the questions are: - What interests or whose interests does the institution serve? How is the institution structured to serve those interests? Why does the institutions serve those interests and not others? How does the institution work with other institutions in society, etc.?

It may be possible to ask about the moral capabilities and the unpatriotic choices of the editors and writers of the New York Times. But to do so without taking into account the institutional goals and structures of business institutions such as the New York Times is to ignore reality. If the editors and writers worked against the institutional goals they would simply loose their jobs. Similar questions arise when people work within any institution. The individual person sometimes finds ways to maneuver and compromise with his own moral judgement while staying within an institution but this is not always an easy course, as all of us know who have worked for a big business corporation. The moral choices we are confronted with as employees and managers of corporate institutions confront us day in and day out, but for the most part we ignore them.

For example, why ask if General Electric (GE) or International Telegraph and Telephone (ITT) are patriotic? Let us suppose that we define "patriotism" in this case as conforming to the war interests of the U.S. during World War II. By any standards General Electric did not act in a way that served the war interests of the U.S. during either WWI or WWII. G.E. kept its interests in business profits in Nazi Germany and made sure that those business interests were preserved through out the war. But this is not because of any lack of patriotism. General Electric is an institution that is structured to make profit by any means allowed. If they can get away with funneling profits in and out of their German companies during WWII then they will do so. If the law office Sullivan & Cromwell can help companies that dealt with Nazi Germany, get off the hook, with future Secretary of State Dulles being the prime mover, then that is what they will do. They could get away with it and they did. Powerful lawyers could help them to facilitate their Nazi war profiteering and they did. Patriotism has nothing to do with it. The structure and purpose of the institution are all that matter. Profits were the main motivation in this case.

Would anyone ask if a corporate business institution is able to express love ... or capable of moral consideration, or human caring? Even to ask these questions is to understand the absurdity of such attributions. But that is partially because our everyday interactions with institutional entities have already taught us that they are incapable of such actions as the expression of "loving" or "caring." So why doesn't the same reasoning apply to specific attributes such as "morality" or "patriotism"? My guess is that our misattribution of such quality-attributes to institutions is mostly a trick of language and its interaction with other biological modules of abstract thinking in the mind/brain. We often conceive of institutions as 'entities' that themselves have a form of psychology. But we can only think of institutions as entities analogically. When we speak of institutions as exhibiting psychological or human attributes we are applying to those institutions a kind of metaphor, as if the institutions themselves were individuals. I think that this is partially because we are adapted by evolution to be very sensitive to interpersonal relations and social relations but not to abstract relations. We can see that an institution is not "loving" or "caring" because this particular human relation is very sensual and concrete. Loving and caring is associated with our kin and our sexual mates. On the other hand morality and patriotism are abstract attributes that seem to be properties themselves. They are properties that can seemingly be detached from the individual entity and applied to other entities as if they were some kind of Platonic ideals. Thus in the same way we talk of the "soul" of a human, we also talk about the "soul" of the machine or spirit of the corporation. Such terms as "patriotism" and "morality" take on "soul-like" attributes. [Note there are specialized philosophical terms for these properties of language but I have decided to leave them aside.]

We often make the same category mistakes when thinking and working with abstract processes and relations. For instance Carl Zimmer has written about Cheating on the Brain.

[O]ur ancestors lived in small bands... Living for so long in this arrangement, certain ways of thinking may have been favored by natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists believe that a lot of puzzling features of the human mind make sense if we keep our heritage in mind.

The classic example of these puzzles is known as the Wason Selection Task. People tend to do well on this task if it is presented in one way, and terribly if it is presented another way. You can try it out for yourself.

Version 1:

You are given four cards. Each card has a number on one side and a letter on the other. Indicate only the card or cards you need to turn over to see whether any of these cards violate the following rule: if a card has a D on one side, it has a 3 on the other side.

Version 2:

Now you're a bouncer at a bar. You must enforce the rule that if a person is drinking beer, then he must be over 21 years old. The four cards below each represent one customer in your bar. One side shows what the person is drinking, and the other side shows the drinker's age. Pick only the cards you definitely need to turn over to see if any of these people are breaking the law and need to be thrown out,

The answer to version one is D and 5. The answer to version two is beer and 17.

If you took these tests, chances are you bombed on version one and got version two right. Studies consistently show that in tests of the first sort, about 25% of people choose the right answer. But 65% of people get test number two right.

This is actually a very weird result. Both tests involve precisely the same logic: If P, then Q. Yet putting this statement in terms of social rules makes it far easier for people to solve than if it is purely descriptive.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California at Santa Barbara have argued that the difference reveals some of our evolutionary history. Small bands of hominids could only hold together if their members obeyed social rules. If people started cheating on one another--taking other people's gifts of food, for example, without giving gifts of their own--the band might well fall apart. Under these conditions, natural selection produced a cheating detection system in the brain. On the other hand, our hominid ancestors did not live or die based on their performance on abstract logic tests. Rather than being a general-purpose problem-solver, the human brain became adapted to solving the problems that our ancestors regularly faced in life.

I am not in complete agreement with Cosmides and Tooby, but my disagreements will have to wait for another time. I do think that the kind of mistakes when thinking about institutions are analogous but in reverse. We can only conceive of them as if they were part of our everyday life in a small village or hunter-gatherer society. One of the reasons we are so overwhelmed by such institutions is that we often think of them "in the abstract" as if they were embedded in the social relations of a small society. When we try to work with the institutions we often relate to them as if they were face-to-face societies. Modern institutions are products of abstract social and economic relations that we deal with as if they could be evaluated by the social thinking of a hunter-gatherer society. In other words it takes a cognitive leap to not deal with institutions as if they were human persons.

There is a another problem. We look at ourselves as "psychological" "entities". We have intentions, beliefs, goals, desires, etc. We deal with psychological entities as if they were 'responsible' for their actions. A human being can act "spontaneously" and "unexpectedly". When driving a car a human being usually stops at a red light, but sometimes they do not. A human being can be good or evil. A car is neither good or evil. We may in common language say that 'the car ran the red light' but in fact we mean that the person driving the car drove through the red light.

Institutions act from the point of view of those effected by them, as if they are "psychological" entities. So it is very hard for us to disentangle what we see as the actions of the institution from what we conceive of as the intentions of the institution. We could simply drop back a step and say that in the same way we blame the driver of a car for running a red light, we can blame those who make the decisions of the institution for what the institution does. But things are not so simple. We do not expect a car to fly like an airplane or sow a field with seeds like a plow. We do not blame the driver of the car for not being able to fly the car like an airplane or use the car as a plow. Institutions are "constructed" with purposes in mind and it is no use blaming those who run those institutions for not using them for purposes other than what they have been constructed for. There are moral choices that must be made from within institutions. There are also moral choices that we make when we structure the operations and purposes of those institutions but the institution itself is neither moral nor immoral.

But since we look at institutions as if they are "psychological" entities we also make some of the same mistakes that we make with ourselves. We think of ourselves dualistically, as physical bodies on the one hand and psychological selves on the other hand. Paul Bloom, in a recent Atlantic Monthly, article "Is God an Accident?" (also here) says of this situation that human beings are "natural born" dualists.

We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity—a mind or soul—are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them. (Paul Bloom)

When we mistakenly conceptualize the "working social relations" that we call a modern corporation (or any other institution) as a personal entity, we also make the mistake of attributing a "mind" to that institution. Thus we speak of General Motors or of the United States Government of being moral entities of some sort or another and of having intentions and goals, etc.. Then we make the triple mistake of conceptualizing the mind or soul that we mistakenly attribute to those institutions as being somehow separate from the social and economic relations that make up those institutions, as if the U.S.G. or I.B.M. also existed as a Platonic essence of some sort.

Albert Camus once said: "By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more."

Similarly the New York Times does not have a conscience. But neither does any other corporate entity and to think of the New York Times or of what it publishes as having something to do with moral choice is to misconceive the question of how the institution is run and for what reason. The New York Times is an institution which serves the interests of its owners and advertisers. Its main constituency is its advertisers. If the New York Times is committing what you consider an unpatriotic act or is not showing the whole truth, then you should blame the structure of the corporate guided market. The New York Times simply serves the interests of the institutions that provide it with profits. Many of those institutions are not satisfied with some aspects of the Bush Administration, while being very happy with other aspects of the regime. The New York Times is simply a supple institutional tool of power.

The exalted patron saint of capitalism, Adam Smith, realized this and it is one of the reasons why he was suspicious of powerful economic institutions such as joint stock companies. He believed that such institutions operated against the moral choice of the free individual. These institutions could not be moral and that was one of the dangers of such monopolies. Only individuals are moral agents, he believed but an individual inside an institution will serve the goals of the institution. So then the question becomes, are the goals of the institution moral? If the goals of the institution are immoral, then the institution itself must be changed. Such reflections were simply the common sense of the eighteenth century. But they are forgotten by people who describe themselves as conservatives today.

Personally, I am in favor of changing the kind of corporate institution that constitutes the mainstream media. At minimum business corporate entities should not be granted constitutional rights or the right of free speech. The media institutions should be restructured so that they are run democratically. The democratization of the media is a long-term goal. The powerful business institutions will not allow for such a transformation of the media. The New York Times is simply a representative servant of a section of these business institutions.

New York City
12 January 2006

This post has been carnivalized at Tangled Bank, see Tangled Bank #45 @ GreyThumb.

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Date:January 19th, 2006 02:41 pm (UTC)


Odd that you would publish a screed against considering corporations as moral entities, then end with "the powerful business interests will not allow" -- as if those were active agents rather than current conditions.

In any case, you miss a more fundamental point: The behavior of a corporation depends on factors at several levels -- both the institutional structure of the organization, and the individual characters of its leaders. Smaller corporations are dominated by the latter; in larger corporations, the structure takes precedence. But there's also a third factor, which is the political/legal environment.

Remember all those business scandals in the 80's and 90's? Those weren't caused by "institutional structure" -- they were caused because the greed of key "players" within the corporation was "enabled" by governmental lassitude. There were plenty of regulations and laws which could have prevented the problems, and several government agencies specifically tasked with enforcing those rules. But from the Reagan administration onward, those agencies were methodically hobbled by underfunding, staff cuts, and "deprioritization". Similarly, the current round of political scandals represents the fallout from ShrubCo's ongoing attempts to destroy any and all "competing power bases", defined as any group or person that attempts to limit their power, or restrain their actions. In all these cases, "institutional structure" was just part of the battleground. The real problem was failure of leadership in dealing with small problems, *before* they grew into big problems. Even in a corporate world, leadership is critically important....

Dave Harmon
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Date:January 19th, 2006 06:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Half-right...

Thank you for your comment. I replied to your post here.

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