T. S. Eliot’s ‘Is That All There Is?’

In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T. S. Eliot wrote:

Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?

Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.

Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.

Note: As quoted by Edward Mendelson while reviewing Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot and a collected edition of Eliot’s poems.

Martin Shkreli Will Have The Last Laugh

‘We’ hate Martin Shkreli. What’s not to hate? He is rich; he gets rich off the misfortunes of others; he buys pop culture icons, treating them like trophies for decorating his den; he postures on video streams as he talks back to those we think can’t be out-talked; he talks smack on his Twitter feed and slathers smarm all over his grinning mug when he goes to Capitol Hill, pompously invoking the Fifth Amendment. Shkreli looks like those familiar assholes at bars, clubs, sports stadiums the world over. You know them well: an extravagant hybrid of the frat boy, the corporate weasel, the jock. He snorts coke off glass tables; he hires hookers; he rides in limos and drinks champagne. Yes, we know the type.

Shkreli isn’t an individual. He is an instance of a type. And he’s acting true to type. It’s all too easy in our social media bubbles to imagine that Shkreli is universally despised or reviled; but he isn’t. Folks like Shkreli aren’t despised that much. They have the wealth, the power,  and the fancy attorney plus accountant crew that every successful person requires. Far more importantly, they  have approval and support. They don’t just have the approval of those who benefit from their monies and who pick up the few scraps tossed their way if they wait attentively and fawningly around the felt-lined tables that Shkreli and his mates dine at. Shkreli works in a world in which the strategies of business lie beyond moral evaluation, where a system exists in order to be worked over, and compromised with. Shkreli’s Twitter account shows much admiration being sent his way; he is after all, an outsider–the son of Albanian immigrants!–who rose to the top, by making the system work for him. The zone he operates in is a morality-free one; it knows little of the table of values that dictates Shkreli assuage our moral sensibilities.

Shkreli wins every time not because he has the money and can buy his way out of any jam he might find himself in; he wins because he faces very little social disapproval of his actions; because he undergoes no systemic pressure to change his actions; because those who would castigate him–like Congress–do little to reign in the culture he represents. Shkreli’s smirk is not just one of bemused condescension,  it is also one of puzzlement; he was told greed is good; that unlimited acquisition was the only foundational principle required to begin acting; that praise would flow his way when he acted so. He has done so, and he is puzzled that a tiny bunch of party poopers want to rain on his parade now.

Shkreli keeps on smirking because he knows no matter how much flak he catches on a few Facebook pages, Twitter timelines, and clickbait websites, he’ll have a lot of friends and admirers left over. And isn’t that all that matters, that more like us than don’t? That he who dies with the most toys, wins?

Are There No Ethically Uncompromised Lunches In The Universe?

Once upon a time a farmer told his neighbors that they could use his land for ‘free’–as a kind of community recreational space. His neighbors were told they could set up little stalls. where they could play music, show off their handicrafts, display family photo albums, and of course, walk over to their friends’ spaces and chat with them. A large sign in small print that hung outside the entrance to the field informed the farmer’s neighbors how they should behave when they were on the premises. Most families stopped briefly to read the sign but intimidated by the number of the words on the sign, and the twisted prose, which appeared to have been composed by committee, they moved on, trusting their neighbor to do well by them.

The community meeting and recreational space soon bloomed; the number of stalls grew rapidly. The local residents got to know each other much better and many enjoyed the opportunity to inspect the personal details of their neighbors’ homes and lives. Indeed, a visit to the ‘meeting space’ became an integral part of most people’s routines; stop in for a bit, ‘check in,’ say hi to a few folk, show off your new baby, brag about your car, your vacation, and so on.

The local folk often wondered why the farmer had been so ‘generous.’ What was he getting in exchange for this ‘gift’? Cynics talked about the impossibility of free lunches, and sure enough, it was becoming clear there wasn’t one to be had in this ‘community space.’ For the benevolent farmer was indeed exacting a price of sorts.

The farmer had many business associates who wanted to sell the locals their goods–fertilizer for their fields, goods that could be gifted to their children on their birthdays, clothes to be worn at their weddings, and so on. To find out what the locals’ tastes were would have required conducting expensive, tedious market surveys; the farmer’s business associates would have had to go from door to door, asking people to fill out forms. But in this space, the farmers neighbors happily gave this information away without being asked. And the reason this information was ‘given away’ was that it was ‘being taken’ as well.

Hidden cameras and microphones recorded their comings and goings and sundry activities: who they met, what they ate at their friends’ stalls, and indeed, what they ate at home, because the locals proudly showed photos of their food at their stalls (you could build some walls around your stall but most people, finding the construction of these to be too onerous, just went in for a wall-less design), what clothes they wore, who their ‘best friends’ were, who they talked to for medical advice, who they asked for help when the going was tough, what kind of music they listened to (and played for their neighbors by way of demonstration.)

When news of the hidden cameras and microphones broke, some of the locals were irate. They didn’t like the idea of being ‘spied on’ and worried that the local potentate, always eager to exert his control over the land just a little more efficiently, would find this sort of information very useful. Yet others thought that the local robber barons, who controlled the potentate in any case, would grow more powerful as a result of knowing so much about them. And some complained that the hidden microphones sometimes reported their conversations and displays to the farmer, who cracked down on them if he didn’t like what they said or what they showed off.

But others hushed their concerns, using that ancient piece of wisdom, which the robber barons themselves had promulgated: How can you look a ‘free’ gift horse in the mouth? You got to use this space for ‘free,’ didn’t you? When the locals said that they hadn’t signed on for this surveillance, yet others told them to read the sign on the entrance carefully, and if they didn’t like it, to leave, and to take their stalls with them. So some did even as they said the sign on the entrance was vague and unspecific. Yet others, finding that the space had become an indispensable arena for communication for matters pertaining to the local village and shire, stayed on.

But many continued to ask themselves: Was it a fair ‘deal’? Indeed, was it a deal at all? Had the farmer really behaved like a neighbor in spying on his neighbors after he had invited them to use his land for ‘free’? Did the non-existence of free lunches in the universe entail that those lunches had to be ethically compromised too?

Jonathan Baron’s ‘Against Bioethics’

I’ve been reading and discussing Jonathan Baron‘s Against Bioethics (MIT Press, 2006) this semester – with the Faculty Discussion Group at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities at Brooklyn College. Roughly, Baron’s thesis is that utility-based decision-theoretic analysis would improve the quality and outcomes of decision making in the medical sphere, which is currently bogged down in a morass of poorly understood and specified deontological principles, biases and heuristics.

My disagreements with Baron are extensive, even as ironically, I agree with him that some kind of utilitarian decision analysis might often be useful in some domains of medical decision making. I often find myself experiencing what Baron would very likely dismiss as the ‘yuck factor’ – a cluster of heuristics and biases that make it so that I find certain courses of actions offensive or problematic, even when there appear to be apparently very good consequentialist or utilitarian arguments for them. I agree that the ‘yuck factor’ is often not a useful guide to action and can lead to problematic beliefs – such as homophobia for instance. Still, I wouldn’t know how else to characterize my opposition to organ sales (a topic on which I have written before, here, on this blog, where I worried about whether these would encourage the poorest to sell their organs at very low prices), or to using subjects in poor countries for drug trials.

Here, the objections are familiar: both practices are forms of exploitation; they capitalize on the weak–economic and otherwise–situation of those exploited under the guise of providing them a better life. The responses to these are familiar too; ultimately, what we get is the following:

From a utilitarian perspective, the behavior of the researchers…is still better than not doing the study at all or doing it in a rich country, but perhaps not as good as possible. [Or in the case of organ sales, we get better outcomes with organ markets than we do in a situation with no organ markets.]

If this argument–that the ostensible exploiters are making a bad situation better, not worse, by their ‘exploitative’ behavior–sounds familiar, it should. Because it is the same one used to excuse the use of sweatshops in places such as Bangladesh, which every once in a while kill hundreds of their workers. It should also be familiar because the dichotomy presented in it is an old one: either the exploitative action is taken, or the status quo of poverty–pernicious in all its forms–persists. Perhaps the disruption of the status quo is deadly, but that price comes out in the wash for we have better outcomes in the final reckoning, provided the correct option is chosen.

While the acceptance of the terms of the dichotomy is interesting what is perhaps even more so is the uncritical acceptance of, in the case of pharmaceutical industry, a very particular corporate axiom: if observing the boundaries noted by a particular ethical injunction is likely to effect profit margins adversely (note: not doing away with them entirely) then so much the worse for the ethical injunction.  The deployment of these arguments in the case of drug testing shows how well-entrenched this principle has become.

Incubating Corporate Wrongdoers: Catch ’em Young

Luigi Zingales asks, ‘Do Business Schools Incubate Criminals?,’ in response to news that continues the depressing ticker-tape of scandal emanating from our financial and business communities, wonders how so many business executives show little ethical sensibility given that business schools offer instruction in ethics, suggests the classes offered are flawed, and eventually prescribes that:

[E]thics should become an integral part of the so- called core classes — such as accounting, corporate finance, macroeconomics and microeconomics — that tend to be taught by the most respected professors. These teachers should make their students aware of the reputational (and often legal) costs of violating ethical norms in real business settings, as well as the broader social downsides of acting solely in one’s individual best interest.

Zingales’ critique and diagnosis is largely fair. There is a larger problem though, one that is not so easily amenable to solutions such as offering instruction in ethics in core business school classes: these lessons might arrive too late. The indoctrination of students–our fellow citizens–into the idea that business is a morality-free zone begins early; it is a notion that permeates our culture quite  comprehensively, leading to a student populace that is more often than not, puzzled by the idea that ethics and morality have anything to do with the business of making money. The shading of activities then, that, while not illegal, might be immoral or at least not the most socially responsible, into actions that are clearly criminal, takes place quite smoothly in such a context.

Here is the most common response I get–in various classes I have taught over the years where the question of corporate or business ethics has come up–when attempting to mount a morally-inflected critique of a corporation’s actions–on any ground–privacy violations, monopolistic behavior for instance–that are not clearly criminal:

 I don’t get it. It’s a business; it’s supposed to make money. What do you want them to do? Go out of business?

The rough argument goes like this: A corporation’s raison d’être is to make money for its shareholders.  That, and that alone, is what its managers and employees should be concerned with. Anything else is a distraction, an abdication of the responsibility that they bear to the shareholders–folks that float the business’ boat. If the market indicates–by whatever signal it chooses–to the corporation that its practices are counterproductive to that end, then the corporation may adjust its behavior. But the idea that an action should be taken because its primary end is to meet some vaguely defined individual or social goal is deeply inimical to a business and indeed, may even be counterproductive to the ethical or social end desired. Better then, to let the market speak. Roughly.

The problem with this view, as all too many have pointed out, is that it is a remarkably impoverished portrait of the relationship of a business to society: it is acutely non-ecological. (This lack of an ecological perspective is what Zingales is trying to address in his prescription above.) Because there is so much reliance on the oracular pronouncements of The Market[tm]–‘It will let you know when something is wrong’–it makes all too easy, the utter refusal to even try to cock an ear and listen to anything else.

An average business student, by the time he arrives at business school, has already been subjected to far too many years of a discourse opposed to Zingales’ prescription. This is not to say that the idea is wrong-headed; it is just that–to fool around with clichés for a bit–the horse has bolted, the bird has flown the coop.