The Biopsychology of Cooperation Part Six

Other studies published in accounting journals have concluded that the threat
of prosecution significantly lowers the propensity for financial wrong doing,
suggesting that an effective regulatory regime helps to keep business people
honest. The obvious corollary is that deregulation would have the opposite
effect. It is also of interest that men appear to be less perturbed by the threat of
prosecution than women.
Much of the finger pointing during the current Global Financial Crisis has been
at the MBA courses offered by universities around the world. And the Harvard
Business School, as the world’s premiere business education institution, has
come in for particular attention. This is the institution where, as one
commentator points out, “currently 1,800 students are beavering away, trying
not to think too hard about the economic triumphs achieved by such notable
alumni as George W. Bush and Rick Wagoner, the chairman of General
Motors”.105 (General Motors went from being one of the largest car makers in
the world to declaring bankruptcy in 2009.) Another commentator, analyzing
the movements on Wall Street, discovered that the more Harvard graduates are
employed in any one year the worse U.S. markets perform.106
But the times are changing. Conscious of their reputation, Harvard business
students have taken matters into their own hands. Nearly 20% of the 2009
graduating class (one may ask why only 20%) have signed The MBA Oath, a
voluntary student-led pledge stating that the goal of a business manager is to
“serve the greater good”. It promises that Harvard MBAs will act responsibly,
ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the
expense of others.107 All students at the Columbia Business School must pledge
to an honour code: “As a lifelong member of the Columbia Business School
community, I adhere to the principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not
lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The code has been in place for about
three years and came about after discussions between students and faculty.
Business school academics say that what we are seeing is “a generational shift
away from viewing an MBA as simply an on-ramp to the road to riches”.108
What is Economic Truth?
It is worth asking why a demonstrably flawed economic theory has become the
only economic truth taught in universities around the world. Why have
alternative economic perspectives, such as those provided by schools of
political economy, for example, almost disappeared from universities?
In answering this question, we are obliged to recognize the contested nature of
academic knowledge. That which is learned at universities is not universal truth
but rather the outcome of a struggle to which many forces are brought to bear.
The development of economics as an academic discipline has been subject to
diverse and powerful influences, of which it is worth identifying three: the
struggle for power, the struggle for rationality and the struggle for distributive
1. The struggle for power: The dominance of neoliberalism in universities
has been due to the ability of its proponents to render the issue of power
and class struggle invisible. As in politics, a basic question in
economics must be power – who has economic power and how is it
obtained? Who does not have economic power and how is it lost?
Power is rendered invisible to economics students around the world in
order to hide the reality that neoclassical economics serves the interests
of a powerful social class. When class and class struggle are made
invisible, it allows teachers of economics to advance their subject
matter with the aura of a rationality beyond question.109
2. The struggle for rationality: Rationality in neoclassical theory is defined
in terms of efficiency. Free markets are rational because they are
claimed to be the most efficient at allocating scarce resources. The term
economic rationalism has its origins in this claim. Efficiency is no
doubt a worthy goal and certainly an inefficient system is open to attack
on moral as well as rational grounds. However the extent to which free
markets deliver efficiency is debatable, because of the problem of
external costs noted above. It is also of interest that neoclassical
economists have attempted to enhance their aura of rationality by
claiming the methodology of the physical sciences. To question
neoclassical theory requires an audacity comparable to questioning
Newton’s theory of gravity.110 Davies explores this issue in some detail
and finds neoliberalism guilty of scientific fraud.111
3. The struggle for distributive justice: Ethical outcomes are certainly of
concern to many economists, notwithstanding the insistence of
conservatives who argue that “real economics is not a morality tale”.112
At least two difficulties arise with neoliberal measures of well-being.
First, measures of economic well-being, such as growth in per capita
GDP, are averages which ignore inequalities in income distribution.
Second, economic well-being tends to be conflated with efficiency –
the assumption being that efficiency is a prerequisite for justice, so
achieving the former somehow achieves the latter.
Unfortunately for those who cherish a belief that universities should be the
creators, preservers and disseminators of enlightenment, university economics
in recent decades has been motivated mostly by a desire to preserve class
privilege and concerned little with distributive injustice.
To claim that neoclassical economics is objective in the same sense as physics
and chemistry is both nonsense and dishonest. Physical and economic laws are
not the same kind of laws. Economic laws describe the aggregate of human
behaviour in markets. Markets are systems created and managed by humans
and behaviour in them is mediated by money, another human artefact. Since
markets are essentially human creations, they come within the purview of
human consciousness. Their performance can be modified if humans desire it.
Physical laws describe the aggregate behaviour of inert atoms or bodies in
space. These behaviours, as exemplified by the law of gravitation, for example,
are not amenable to persuasion by human consciousness – at least not in the
present age. Not to see the difference is nonsense.
The dishonest aspect of the assertion is that its true purpose is to undermine the
fourth principle of egalitarianism – that economic circumstances are, by design
or neglect, a product of political processes and not of immutable universal
laws. To surrender to the supposed law of the market is to surrender to any
market result, even those which produce poverty and pollution. And this brings
us to a more compelling reason to recognize a distinction between the physical
sciences and economics. A theory of physics which gets the number of
fundamental particles wrong is unlikely to spawn poverty or threaten the
survival of the human race. A theory of economics which ignores the reality of
external costs, such as climate change, is a serious threat to the planet.113
The Renaissance of Cooperation
We turn now to a discussion of the cooperative principle. The argument is that
a society based on the principle of cooperation is possible given some
reasonable effort to put it into practice. Furthermore, the future development of
human civilization depends on our ability to establish such a society.
In the simplest of terms, a society consists of a collection of individuals and the
relationships between them. It is the relationships that make a society
something more than the sum of its individuals. To be of any practical use, a
social theory must offer an adequate account of both social relationships and
the individuals expected to participate in them.
Experience tells us that multiple factors help to maintain the cohesion of a
social group (some formal, some informal, some coercive, some heartfelt) and
likewise multiple factors encourage its disintegration. Obviously social
integrity depends on the balance of cohesive and fissiparous tendencies. It is
generally recognized that a predominance of self-interest over collective
interest is detrimental to social cohesion. Societies which embrace
neoliberalism are faced with increasing problems due to this defect. It is also
generally recognized that rewards and inner convictions are better ways to
preserve social cohesion than punishment. Fascist societies are relatively short
lived because they have little other than propaganda and punishment to
preserve an otherwise highly unstable social stratification.114 Sarkar cites “too
much self-interest in the individual members, the formation of groups for
economic or social advantages, and the lack of understanding of others” as the
principle reasons for the downfall of a society. “Instances of so many groups
and empires disappearing altogether are not rare in the little-known history of
this world.”115
The essential problem to be solved by all societies, and the problem addressed
in the remainder of this essay, is how to achieve a social cohesion which is
sustainable because it is consistent with the spectrum of human needs and
aspirations. The discussion is divided into seven sections, each of which
approaches the challenge of building a cooperative society from a different
perspective. Here is an overview of what is to come.
Section 1, What is Scientific?, argues that Western materialistic science, which
now dominates world culture, is in its present form partly a help and partly a
hindrance in building a cooperative society. This section makes the case for a
broader definition of science based on a synthesis of Western materialistic
science and Eastern spirituality.
Section 2, The Concept of Progress, links social progress to the pursuit of
happiness, but links the pursuit of happiness to the development of human
potential. Any kind of social or economic development, therefore, can only be
considered progress if it enhances the more subtle and more expansive
potentialities of human consciousness.
Section 3, The Theory of Cooperation, introduces the concept of social capital,
a term used to describe the network of relationships between people and
especially the moral and empathic component of those relationships. We also
introduce Neohumanism, that part of Sarkar’s social philosophy which links
cooperation to social progress.
Section 4, The Science of Cooperation, introduces the (Western) science and
sociology of cooperation. Surprisingly we find that humans have a genetic
predisposition for cooperation, which can be elicited given appropriate social
Section 5, The Ethics of Cooperation, explores the ethical dimension of
cooperation and affirms that a cooperative society is possible given the right
kind of individual and collective effort. We must also address the problem of
power, which has undone all attempts so far to establish a cooperative society.
Section 6, Egalitarianism, begins with the dilemma that egalitarian societies
can be shown to be happier and yet the imposition of material equality has
proved to be a disastrous failure. What is the appropriate degree of
egalitarianism required to encourage cooperation?
Section 7, The Future of Cooperation, looks to the growing importance of an
economy for the mind.
What is Scientific?
The reader may be wondering why a discussion of cooperation should begin
with the philosophy of science. Recall that Marx and Engels stamped
dialectical materialism with the authority of science and likewise neoliberalism
attempted to claim the authority of science, although neither of these attempts
stood up to close scrutiny. The label ‘scientific’ endows validity because the
discipline of science is both powerful and rational. When the discipline is
followed wisely, the knowledge so obtained reduces the element of surprise in
our dealings with the world (that is its power) and it provides a view of the
world that is both internally consistent and, more importantly, consistent with
human well-being (that is its rationality).
Science is motivated by questions and the question that motivates us here is:
what kind of social relationships serve to strengthen society and at the same
time promote the general happiness without encouraging selfishness?
Obviously the answer we are inviting is cooperative relationships. But
cooperation, like finding peace and love in our lives, is much easier to talk
about than to achieve. We need something more than a wish and a prayer in
order to build a society based on cooperation. We need the confidence and the
rationality that science provides.
In the previous two parts of this essay, we considered the Marxist and the
neoclassical views of the human being and we found them both wanting. The
fundamental defect of both is that they are reductionist – but for different
reasons. In the case of Marxism, the human being is reduced to a material
entity for ideological reasons, but the theory flounders when the intellectual,
aesthetic and spiritual human being begins to assert itself. In the case of
neoclassical economics, the human being is reduced to a behavioural parody,
because it supposedly facilitates a mathematical description of the narrow
world that interests economists. Clearly we require a theory of the human being
which avoids these problems.
From the Proutist perspective, a healthy society (and therefore a healthy
economic system) can only be built on a holistic understanding of the human
being, one which accepts humans as multi-dimensional, that is, as physical,
instinctual, sentimental, intellectual, social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual and so
on. Human beings have needs and aspirations in all the above dimensions of
life and each of them impinges one way or another on social cohesion and on
economic activity, which is why they must all somehow be acknowledged in
theory and in practice. This idea is fundamental to everything that follows.
However, we are faced with a difficulty. Western materialistic science is
founded on the assumption that only matter exists and therefore only matter
can be known. Due to this presumption (actually it is a dogma), Western
science can only ever seek to understand the more subtle aspects of human
beings, their sentimental, intellectual, social, moral and spiritual lives, as
epiphenomena of matter. The quandary is that we wish to embrace Western
science for its ability to improve our quality of life and to defeat dogma with
rationality. Yet constrained by its own dogma of materialism, Western science
is inadequate to explore the inner mental and spiritual worlds. Even the neurophilosopher
Patricia Churchland admits that, “We do our research as if
materialism is a proven fact, but of course it isn’t.”116 The philosopher Ken
Wilbur argues that the non-material worlds must be approached on their own
terms, that is, each of the dimensions of human existence is deserving of its
own science and methodology. In Eye to Eye, he gives an elegant account of
the three kinds of science required to deal with the physical, mental and
spiritual worlds, and he highlights the common features of the three
methodologies that justify their deserving to be acknowledged as scientific.117
Sarkar also embraces the Western scientific method but, not surprisingly,
rejects the dogma of materialism. As with much of his philosophy, Sarkar’s
approach is to find a synthesis of East and West.
The Asian countries, in spite of their long heritage of morality and
spirituality, have been subject to great humiliation during periods of
foreign invasion. While the higher knowledge of philosophy propagated
by the oriental sages and saints has been accepted as a unique
contribution to the store house of human culture and civilization, the
people of these lands could not resist the foreign invaders. The history of
all the Asian countries, a region of so many religions, has been dominated
by foreign powers for centuries together. This imbalance brought about
their material deprivation and political subjugation.
On the other hand, the West is completely obsessed with physical
development. It has made spectacular progress in the fields of politics,
economics, science, warfare, etc. In fact, it has made so much material
progress that it seems to be the sovereign master of the water, land and
air. But for all that, it is not socially content and miserably lacks spiritual
wealth. Unlike the East, in the West plenty of wealth has created a crisis.
Therefore, it is abundantly clear that no country can progress
harmoniously with only one-sided development.
Therefore, it behoves both the East and the West to accept a synthetic
ideology that stands for a happy synthesis between the two. Here, the
East can help the West spiritually, whereas the materialistic West can
extend its material help to the East. Both will be mutually benefited if
they accept this golden policy of give and take…
In the educational system of the East, there is the predominant element of
spirituality… So the people of the orient could not but be spiritual in their
thoughts and actions. Whereas there is, in the Western system of
education, a clear and unilateral emphasis on mundane knowledge. So to
build up an ideal human society in the future, the balanced emphasis on
the two is indispensable.118
There are many schools of Eastern philosophy of differing influence and
importance and it is as difficult to generalize about them as it is about the many
schools of Western philosophy. Some might be characterized as idealistic,
some materialistic, some dualistic, and so on. Sarkar places himself in the
highly influential tradition of Tantra,119 which might best be described as the
science of spirituality. Tantra earns the title of a science (as opposed to a
philosophy) because its methodology requires the practice of physical and
mental disciplines to gain access to the subtle experiences described by the
theory. Furthermore, like any good science, its body of theory and practice has
evolved over time. It is not bound by the semantics of ancient texts.
Our assertion is that, in order to build a society based on cooperation, we
desperately need science – but not a single science bound by the dogma of
materialism but multiple sciences each with a methodology appropriate to the
dimension of human experience it investigates. It must be admitted that not all
the sciences we require are equally developed. But this is not the point – we
cannot know everything in advance. We can, however, start with an immature
science and develop it into a mature science over time. It must also be reemphasized
that advocating the need for new methodologies to investigate the
inner mental and spiritual worlds is not a rejection of Western materialistic
science. Western science has already begun to investigate how and why people
cooperate – a good starting point to which we shall return shortly.
The Concept of Progress
The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human motivation. All social
theories must provide some account of it. In the case of Marxist theory,
happiness is implicit. Individuals find it in the solidarity of social struggle and
ultimately in the harmony of a classless society. In neoclassical theory,
happiness is explicit. Individuals pursue their own desires and the mechanism
of free choice in a free market delivers the greatest happiness to the greatest
number. Happiness is also explicit in Sarkar’s social theory. All humans pursue
happiness because it is human nature to do so. Typically, this search involves
the pursuit of fame, power and wealth. But these avenues lead to frustration
because human desires appear to know no bound – when one is satisfied
another appears in its place and the seeker finds only emptiness. In truth,
human desires are limitless. Therefore, says Sarkar, they can only be satisfied
by something that is itself limitless and herein lies the value of spiritual science
because only spiritual experience has this particular quality.120
So with respect to the pursuit of happiness, the science of spirituality promotes
two principles. The first concerns balance, the second wisdom. Given that
humans are multidimensional beings, their well-being and therefore happiness
depends upon maintaining a proper balance within and between all the
dimensions of their lives. Just as the physical body requires balanced nutrition
(pabula), so too the mind requires the right kinds of intellectual, cultural and
spiritual pabula. Sarkar makes a distinction between carbonic pabula which are
required to sustain the physical body and non-carbonic pabula required to
sustain the mind. (We need this unusual terminology because Sarkar uses it
subsequently to define an ethical principle.121)
The second principle stems from the observation that the many kinds of pabula
which humans pursue are not equivalent in their ability to satisfy. Pabula can
be arrayed on a spectrum from crude to subtle, defined by how easily
accessible they are to consciousness – sensory stimuli are easily accessible,
intellectual ideas range in difficulty and certain kinds of spiritual experience
are very difficult to grasp with ordinary consciousness. According to the
second principle, the different kinds of pabula sustain happiness in inverse
degree to their ease of attainment. Tasty food is necessary for happiness but it
fails to be enough once readily obtained. Conversely, spiritual experience can
be elusive but is found to offer sustained contentment in the long term. We
may understand wisdom as the ability to discriminate between the different
kinds of pabula.
Development and progress
The above two principles have ramifications for both the individual and the
collective pursuit of happiness. From the individual perspective, the pursuit of
happiness is a developmental journey. Humans are at first frustrated in their
search for happiness, because they search where it is easiest to do so. By
stages, however, they turn their attention in more subtle directions.
Psychologists identify a definite sequence of developmental stages in the
unfolding of the various potentialities of the human mind. The natural sequence
(and thus also the healthy sequence) is from the crude to the subtle and from
narrow concerns to expansive concerns. From baby, through infant and child to
adult, the intellect becomes by steps more subtle and more powerful.
Eventually the mind can span great physical and even metaphysical distances.
Likewise from baby to adult, a person gradually acquires the faculty of
empathy – the selfish concerns of the child give way to concern for the welfare
of others. And again, moral perceptivity begins with fearful obedience to rules
and grows to the appreciation of virtue. A happy life depends entirely on
making each of the many steps of this developmental journey, a journey which
continues for as long as one lives.
However the developmental journey is not without its struggle, because there is
a palpable tension between the developmental transitions in life and the
requirement to maintain balance. At each developmental stage, a person
gradually learns to achieve equilibrium but each inner impetus for further
unfolding of mind threatens the equilibrium that has been painstakingly
achieved. Indeed Sarkar defines life as a never-ending struggle “to restore an
unstable equilibrium”.122 Wilbur offers a comprehensive description of the
equilibrium-development tension in Eye to Eye.123
With regard to the collective pursuit of happiness, the same dynamics apply,
but on a longer time scale. There is the same tension between development and
equilibrium requiring the same struggle to restore an unstable equilibrium.
Societies and civilizations, by gradual degrees, move from the crude to the
subtle and from the selfish to the collective welfare. This movement becomes
the basis for Prout’s definition of progress. Note that by this definition, all
scientific and intellectual discoveries, all kinds of social and economic
achievement can only be considered progress to the extent that they encourage
the flow of life from crude to subtle – that they encourage the unfolding of the
more subtle potentialities of individual and collective life.
We are now in a position to understand the particular challenge confronting the
human race in the opening decades of the 21st century. We are taking another
small but collective step away from a pre-occupation with self-interest towards
a pre-occupation with the welfare of the planet as a whole. We cannot expect to
take such a step without some disruption and some letting go of the past, but by
making this step we are surely embracing a more dignified and more optimistic
The nature-nurture debate
Human development is from crude to subtle. Mind has an inner impulse to
unfold which is not dependent on, nor imposed by, the external environment.
In other words, mind has its own dynamic, its own nature. This understanding
has an immediate impact on our interpretation of the nature-nurture debate. In
essence we are saying that, in addition to their physical attributes, humans are
also intellectual, social, moral and spiritual, by nature. But nature in this view
is something more than the universe of atoms and molecules – it now includes
the universe of minds and consciousness. How a human being develops still
depends on choices made in the context of inborn and environmental factors
but now the inborn is not confined to genes and likewise environment includes
all the physical and metaphysical worlds into which human life penetrates. So
concerning the old debates of nature versus nurture and determinism versus
free will, Sarkar is clear that a useful social theory must accommodate both
sides of both arguments. It is not at all helpful to be dogmatic in these debates.
The assertion that the subtle aspirations of human beings are in part innate is
significant for a second reason. Socialists have traditionally preferred to argue
that all morality, all aesthetics, all spiritual yearning is imposed, for better or
for worse, by family and society. The utopian socialists relegated all
expressions of vice and virtue to the arena of nurture in order to reject the
conservative argument that working-class vice was innate. Marxists went
further and insisted that all human subtlety was derivative of socially imposed
material circumstances. Both views are inadequate because they try to squeeze
human reality into a very tiny mould. The reality is larger, more complex and
more subtle. A better approach surely is to expand one’s theory to embrace
reality, not to squeeze reality into the strictures of an outdated theory.
Economic progress
In the healthy developmental sequence, the human mind unfolds from a
predominance of crude to a predominance of subtle preoccupations. We have
already noted that this developmental sequence becomes the basis for Prout’s
definition of progress. Sarkar takes a highly significant step by linking the
trajectory of economic development to the unfolding of human mind. In the
first instance, humans are preoccupied with their physical existence, that is, to
provide themselves with the basic requirements of life, which Sarkar lists as
food, clothing, housing, health care and education. He describes an economy
which cannot meet the basic requirements as undeveloped. Once physical
requirements are satisfied, we find that more subtle intellectual, social and
artistic expressions quickly assert themselves. Serious social problems arise if
an economy is not reorganized to satisfy those aspirations. And finally, when a
widespread refinement of intellect and aesthetic expression awakens spiritual
interest, economic priorities change yet again. Of course these are not three
distinctly separate phases, but unless one recognizes human development as an
unfolding of more and more subtle aspirations, economic development will
stagnate and human aspirations will at some point become frustrated, with
potentially disastrous results. It also goes without saying that the economic
indicators used to measure collective welfare must periodically be adjusted to
accommodate changing aspirations.
Most communist countries were able to provide the basic material requirements
of life but stagnated because they were not able to take the next step. Capitalist
economies are able to satisfy some of the subtler aspirations of the middle class
by diverting relatively modest resources into education, the arts and the like.
However, their disregard for ecosystem relationships, social relationships and
ethics leads ultimately to the disintegration of the social fabric.
Ecosystem relationships in the context of a cooperative society are discussed in
another essay in this volume.124 In this essay, we are concerned only with
social relationships and ethics.
The Theory of Cooperation
Our concern in this section is to develop a theory of cooperation and social
cohesion. The key argument is that social cohesion depends on cooperation and
cooperation depends upon social relationships characterized by trust and
empathy. Social cohesion will therefore depend on the aggregate quality of
social relationships, which in Western social science has come to be described
as social capital. The term is used by way of analogy to other kinds of
economic capital, such as human capital and financial capital. Some resist the
term because it represents the further intrusion of economic thinking into the
social sciences, but it is widely accepted and therefore used here. Interest in
social capital arises because the concept is believed to be measureable (albeit
indirectly) and because research has shown that those measures correlate with
other important social and economic indicators.
Although Sarkar does not use the term as such, much of his Neohumanist
philosophy is concerned with the quality of social relationships.125 We begin
with the theory of social capital as understood by Western social science and
then introduce the contribution of Neohumanism.
Social capital
In Taking New Zealand Seriously – The Economics of Decency, Hazeldine
defines social capital as the “empathy and sympathy” in human relationships
and the “shared attitudes and goals” of a community.126 Putnam, a sociologist,
defines it as the “connections among individuals – social networks and the
norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them”.127 Social
capital is embodied in human relationships and in the social, educational and
cultural institutions which mould those relationships. The evidence suggests
that it is hugely important in explaining the differences in wealth and
productivity between nations. Government investment in activities which build
good social relationships and community, says Hazeldine, can be as productive
as business investment in new machinery and factories. This understanding
makes Margaret Thatcher’s repudiation of society in favour of individualism
look all the more ridiculous.
Many studies have attempted to measure social capital and thereby make
inferences about its correlation with other apparently unrelated social and
economic indices. Following the lead of Putnam, the social capital of a
community is often measured as the levels of trust and civic involvement of its
members. Trust is assessed by gathering information using carefully worded
questionnaires and civic engagement by measuring the average number of
church groups, unions, sports groups, schools groups, clubs and societies to
which people belong. One study,128 for example, has shown that the correlation
of income inequality with higher mortality rates (observed among the States of
the USA) can probably be explained by declining social capital. In other words,
income inequality occurs at the expense of social capital and declining social
capital has a deleterious effect on public health.
Hazeldine129 argues that New Zealand’s program of economic rationalism
(synonymous with neoliberalism in this essay), which began in 1984, is
gradually destroying the social trust and empathy upon which economic life
depends. In other words, New Zealand is living off the social capital
accumulated by previous generations and, as any economist will tell you,
drawing on an account without making deposits cannot last forever.
There are different kinds of social capital just as there are different kinds of
physical and human capital. Putnam makes an important distinction between
inclusive social connections and exclusive social connections. Ethnic
organizations, sectarian church groups and fashionable country clubs tend to be
exclusive even while their internal bonds are strong. Civil rights groups, youth
service groups and charitable organizations tend to be inclusive. From this
perspective, social capital can be both positive and problematic. However, in
the end, Putnam sees social capital as an essential force in society. He draws on
a vast array of data that reveals how Americans have become increasingly
disconnected from one another and how participation in sports, religious,
political and hobby groups is declining. He links the disintegration of social
capital to declining indices of individual and public health. On the optimistic
side, however, he demonstrates how regenerating broken social bonds can
improve those same indices.
Neohumanism is Sarkar’s reinterpretation of Humanism. It is well described as
a synthesis of the European humanist tradition with the Indian spiritual
tradition. It includes: an analysis of social sentiments as the basis for social
cohesion; the role of rationality in the struggle against dogmas; a commitment
to egalitarianism; and a commitment to spirituality as the basis for building a
healthy society.130 Various aspects of Neohumanism will appear in each of the
subsequent sections but we deal here with its analysis of social relationships.
Humanism was defined by the Greek philosopher Protagoras (5th Century
BCE) as the principle that humans are the measure of all things. Human
dignity takes precedence over the dictates of kings, queens, priests and tyrants.
It remains an excellent definition and European history can be interpreted as
the struggle to establish the humanist ideal in the face of determined opposition
from successive kings, queens, priests and would be tyrants. However, today
the humanist ideal appears to be inadequate in at least two respects. First, if
humans are the measure of all things, then what about animals and plants? Do
they only have value or meaning by reference to humans? Second, what can we
say about the future of humanity if we only have the past as a reference? A
vision of human potential is required if we are to approach the future with
confidence and optimism.
Neohumanism is Humanism infused with spirituality and extended to
encompass the plant and animal worlds. Elsewhere in this volume, Bussey
introduces Neohumansim as follows:
Neohumanism is a reinterpretation of Humanism proposed by P. R.
Sarkar. It takes the universal aspiration of Humanism, to reach beyond
the limitation of humanity and to strive for unity at the social level, and
suggests a universalism that includes all animate and inanimate existence.
Humanity is thus part of a great whole and our job is to increase the
radius of our heart’s love… Furthermore, the Cosmos, its matter and the
organic forms that populate it, are all taken to be conscious, thus human
isolation is broken down. We are never alone, as Sarkar insists. Rather we
are bound together in an infinite network of relationships that span
material, intellectual and spiritual realities.131
Lying at the core of Humanism is both an ethic and a sentiment. The ethic is
egalitarian – it asserts the essential equality of humans. The sentiment is an
experience of empathy or connectedness with those who come within the
humanist embrace. Put another way, Humanism is about cooperation. Both the
ethic and the sentiment of Humanism are required to sustain cooperation.
But a cursory examination of history obliges us to ask: who is included in the
humanist embrace? For the ancient Greeks, it did not extend to slaves or to
women. In 18th century England, it did not extend to slaves or to colonies. Put
another way, the cooperative ideal can be found on the inside of the humanist
embrace but it does not extend to the outside. The struggle of human history
has not been so much to establish some fixed Humanism but rather to extend
the radius of the circle of those included within the ideal. In Neohumanism,
Sarkar extends that circle to include animals and plants. Furthermore,
spirituality is required in order to ensure that the circle of Humanism is
extended to include more and more of the currently marginalized.
Sarkar’s analysis of social sentiments and their contribution to social cohesion
has some parallels to Putnam’s analysis of social capital. Like Putnam, he
makes a basic distinction between exclusive sentiments (for example,
nationalistic geo-sentiments or groupist socio-sentiments that bind a group but
then pit group against group) and all-inclusive sentiments. The Neohumanist
sentiment is the ideal because it excludes nothing – everything and everyone is
inside its cooperative embrace. Here then we have another perspective on
Sarkar’s definition of social progress – it is the ever-expanding circle of
Neohumanistic cooperation, made possible by the ever-increasing subtlety of
the human mind.
Much of Neohumanism is concerned with the use of rationality to defeat social
dogmas. Rationality is usually understood to mean the capacity for logical
reasoning undistorted by sentiment. Neohumanism however acknowledges
what neuro-biologists have learned from investigations of the brain – that
reason cannot be divorced from sentiment because the two are intertwined in
the brain. Rationality is not reason divorced from sentiment but reason
empowered by an all-inclusive Neohumanist sentiment.132 Logic alone can
never defeat the combination of dogmas and cheap sentiments offered by
communism and fascism. Even the great 20th century logician, Bertrand
Russell, came to the conclusion that the final argument against Nietzsche’s
fascist philosophy must be an appeal to human emotion.133
Grounding social capital in human sentiments and therefore in human neurophysiology
is an extremely important step because it opens up the apparently
intangible world of social capital to the rigour of (Western) scientific
investigation. We now turn to that science.
The Science of Cooperation
In this section we examine some of the scientific evidence that humans have a
predisposition to cooperation and in particular to economic cooperation. Some
of the evidence comes from a new and exciting field of research known as
neuro-economics. We then turn to those insights provided by sociological
Neuro-economics is the study of the neuro-physiological underpinnings of
economic decision making. The field is new and is providing unexpected
insights into human economic behaviour. Recall that classical economic theory
requires individuals to make complex calculations to maximize their personal
advantage or utility. Utility, however, is a strangely ambiguous concept. On the
one hand it is given a numerical value which implies the counting of
something, but on the other it is entirely abstract and not anchored to anything
in the real world that can be counted. The advent of neuro-physiology led to
the idea that utility was really a surrogate for some chemical currency inside
the brain, with most interest focused on serotonin molecules because these are
known to be responsible for the experience of pleasure.
It turns out that a wide range of molecules of emotion134 impinge on the mental
cost-benefit calculations that are supposed to take place inside the brain and
they have unexpected effects. For example, let us return to the ‘sharing
experiment’ described earlier, in which person A was asked to share a sum of
money with person B. Remember that these experiments demonstrated
behaviour inconsistent with neoclassical theory. People appear to put a high
value on fairness. In a follow on experiment, persons A and B were placed in
the same experimental scenario as before, but they were (unknowingly) given
an intranasal administration of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuro-peptide that plays
a key role in social attachment and affiliation in animals and causes a
substantial increase in trust in humans. In these experiments the effect of
oxytocin was to increase the amount of money that A gives B. The
experimenters concluded that “oxytocin may be part of the human physiology
that motivates cooperation”.135 It is of interest that oxytocin also appears to
play an important role in mental health – some of the signs of autism can be
alleviated by a nasal spray containing oxytocin.136
Oxytocin is not the only neuro-chemical to promote cooperation. Recent
observations of bonobo monkeys in the jungles of the Congo reveal fascinating
contrasts with chimpanzees.137 Bonobos are matriarchal and show little
aggression compared to the patriarchal chimps. Chimps respond to strangers
with aggression, while bonobos demonstrate curiosity. When under stress
chimp tribes degenerate into fighting, while bonobos respond to stress by
engaging in collective sexual activity. Scientists have concluded that bonobos
demonstrate higher levels of trust both with each other and with strangers. Of
most interest, however, from a neuro-economics point of view, is the ability of
the monkeys to perform a simple task requiring cooperation in retrieving some
bananas that are out of reach. Although both species are intelligent enough to
work out a solution (for example, by one climbing on the shoulders of the other
or by one holding a ladder for the other), the chimps fail because they cannot
trust one another. On the other hand, bonobos have no trouble cooperating to
retrieve the bananas.138
It turns out that these differences can largely be correlated with a single gene –
a so-called ‘social gene’ that acts via a neuro-peptide called vasopressin.
Bonobo monkeys have the social gene, chimpanzees do not. And of particular
interest – humans have the same vasopressin gene as bonobos. Recall that
social capital was defined in terms of trust and empathy and that these
behavioural traits oil the wheels of social and economic interaction by
encouraging cooperation between strangers. We now know that oxytocin and
vasopressin are the physiological underpinnings of trust and that they influence
levels of cooperation.
Managing social capital
We must immediately dispel any notion that trust, empathy and cooperation are
predominantly determined by genes. In Sarkar’s terminology, genes represent
potentialities. How those potentialities are expressed depends entirely on the
choices people make in the context of their genetic endowment and their social
environment. It is therefore extremely interesting to learn that measures of trust
vary greatly from country to country. In one survey,139 an aggregate measure of
trustworthiness ranged from a low 3% in Brazil to 65% in Norway. In a
ranking of some 42 countries, Australia came in eighth position just ahead of
India, Switzerland and the USA (see Figure 1 in Zak140). It is possible to
measure other social and economic indicators in the same countries and
determine how these correlate with trust. The data suggest that low aggregate
trust is correlated with low levels of investment and with poverty. Zak also
claims that governments can increase aggregate trust by adopting policies
which promote education, civil liberties and communication and which
decrease income inequality.
This conclusion is supported by a just published, ground-breaking book which
reviews 30 years of research into the adverse effect of income inequality on
almost all social indicators. The title says it all – Spirit Level: Why More Equal
Societies Almost Always Do Better.141 It does not matter if the average per
capita GDP (the de facto measure of well-being in neoclassical economics) is
very low or very high. It is the gap between rich and poor that is important.142
The effect appears to cross cultures because countries as diverse as Indonesia,
Vietnam, Finland and Japan all have better indicators than the UK and USA.
The rich in more equal countries are happier than the more rich in less equal
countries.143 The evidence obliges us to turn the trickle-down-effect on its head
– the rich enjoy a better life by increasing the income of the poor.144
The differences revealed, even between rich market democracies, are striking.
Almost every modern social and environmental problem – poor physical
health, mental illness, lack of community life, violence, drug abuse, obesity,
long working hours, school dropout rates, imprisonment, violence and teenage
pregnancies – is worse in a less equal society.145 As with the Zak study, trust
and cooperation are found to decline with increasing inequality and the authors
suggest that low trust is a critical factor because low trust induces high stress
and high stress leads to many of the other poor outcomes. Ultimately the Spirit
Level is an optimistic book because there is good news – it is easily within the
ability of governments to manage levels of inequality and therefore levels of
trust. Many of the other social problems respond accordingly, without requiring
the expensive remedial programs that attempt to correct the negative effects of
high inequality. To this extent, the early socialists and George Orwell had an
accurate intuition – reducing inequality helps to solve many apparently difficult
social problems.
In the end much of this is common sense, but somehow it has been ignored by
governments around the world bent on promoting the neoliberal agenda. In
particular, it is worth noting the negative consequences of deregulating
markets. Neoliberals claim that regulation warps the efficiency advantages of a
truely free market. However the efficiency of a market is also dependent on
trust among its participants. Deregulation combined with a lack of trader ethics
eventually destroys a market because dishonest behaviour begins to dominate.
This is illustrated by an interesting experiment with a group of chimpanzees. 146
The object was to determine if chimpanzees could learn to trade using money.
Chimps in the wild trade services with one another but not, as in this
experiment, goods for goods with money as an intermediary. The results
demonstrated that the animals could learn to trade using simple tokens as a
currency convertible into snacks – but only as long as a human referee
remained to keep the trading honest. In the absence of human supervision,
trades started going sour because the chimps did not always return tokens
proffered by their peers. “Lack of trust”, trouble communicating and difficulty
with mental scorekeeping were three explanations suggested for the breakdown
in chimp trade. A human parallel that one might draw from this experiment is
that a market can be made to function adequately even if the participants have
poor ethics, as long as it is well regulated. It would be interesting to repeat the
same experiment with bonobos.
Contemporary economic theory places much stress on free market competition
to achieve efficiency. Justification for the role of competition comes from
biological theories of evolution which stress survival of the fittest under
competition. We now know much more about our closest primate cousins and
have discovered that competition is only half the story. Some primates have a
sense of fair play and an innate capacity for cooperative behaviour. The
evidence points to humans also having a genetic and physiological
predisposition to cooperation and, given the will, businesses and governments
can foster that predisposition to promote a cooperative economy. Far from
being weaknesses, trust and cooperation are economic strengths.
The more we understand human cooperation and how to
strengthen cooperation, honesty and trust, the more economically
successful our society becomes.147
The Ethics of Cooperation
The essence of the utopian argument (and of its naivety) is that a better society
can be created without sustained individual and collective effort. It contrasts
starkly with the pessimistic argument currently pervading crisis-ridden
capitalist societies which asserts that, no matter how humans struggle to create
a better society, they will always be brought down by greed and selfishness.
Both arguments are dangerous, the former because it does not accord with
reality, the latter because it engenders hopelessness. Any vision of a
cooperative society must avoid both these traps. Human beings have many
potentialities from crude to subtle, from selfish to altruistic. Social progress
depends on tipping the balance in favour of the subtle and the altruistic. It is
therefore of paramount importance to understand the science behind all these
potentialities and to encourage the subtle and restrain the crude.
We have seen that a cooperative society must be built on trust and empathy
because these are required to sustain cooperative relationships. It is extremely
difficult to establish trust and empathy in a culture which actively encourages
self-interest and large inequalities of wealth. On the other hand, a cooperative
society can be built where there is some rational effort both by individuals to
deal with personal selfishness and by society as a whole to promote social
equality. To the extent that traditional socialists turn their backs on individual
morality and conservatives refuse to acknowledge egalitarian struggle, the
more difficult it becomes to establish a cooperative society. In this section we
deal with ethical struggle and in the next with the egalitarian struggle.
Sarkar promotes two complementary ethical systems, cardinal human values
and Neo-ethics. They are discussed in turn.
Cardinal human principles
Sarkar places much importance on a high standard of morality in individual
and collective life. Cooperative businesses require not just honest directors and
managers but also a state administration that is run by honest public servants
and politicians.148 In other words, morality is the sine qua non of a cooperative
society. A commonly accepted set of moral principles is required but here we
come up against an obstacle. Conservatives are inclined to seek moral guidance
from religious scripture and, in the worst case, impose dogmas which repel the
rational mind. Traditional socialists, not wishing to submit to religious dogma,
tend to reject all moral principles as relative. So what kind of moral code is
required to sustain a cooperative society and how can one promote it? Sarkar
argues for the concept of cardinal human values, values that go beyond any
one culture or religion.
It is interesting to note the emergence of various international courts of law,
driven by a gradual recognition that cardinal human values must take priority
over local culture and custom. True, only the worst violations, such as crimes
against humanity, reach the international courts today and admittedly often for
political reasons, but nevertheless the gradual emergence of an internationally
accepted set of moral values is of tremendous importance. Acts of violence,
deception and theft perpetrated on innocent people cannot be justified in the
national interest. By logical extension to individuals, acts of violence,
deception and theft for personal gain are also morally reprehensible. Most
cultures around the world accept these as moral principles – indeed it is hard to
imagine a sustainable society without them.

Posted in Economic and Human Rights