Don’t CEO’s Care About Their Grandchildren?


Posted at 3 Quarks Daily

Reading about corporate greed and depredation over the past few years, I keep getting stuck on the same question: Don’t these people have grandchildren? (I wrote on this topic almost ten years ago.)

How can corporate decision-makers spend their days actively working to destroy the environment, pollute the water, kill off the animals, melt the glaciers, and incinerate the biosphere? Even if what they care about the most is making more money no matter how much money they already have, don’t they care at all about the world they’re leaving for their kids?

I’ve arrived at a theory. But first I need to back up a few steps.

Readers of 3QD may be familiar with the brain fungus that causes “zombie ants” to leave the safety of the forest floor and climb up the stalks of plants to die. Or the parasite that causes mice to lose their fear of cats. In both cases, the parasite has evolved to hijack the brain of the host and cause it to behave in ways that are suicidal to the host but beneficial to the parasite. The behaviors the parasite causes are often exquisitely complex and particular. It seems impossible that something as primitive as a fungus could be the explanation. But evolution has come up with lots of similar strategies. She is very clever. She doesn’t have a sense of fair play or sportsmanship. If a behavior increases the chances of getting the genes of one generation reproduced in the next, it succeeds. Nothing else matters. And she has lots and lots of time to experiment.

So that’s the first idea we need – the fungus that hijacks the brain of one species to improve the reproductive success of another.

Then we need the idea of cultural evolution. Human beings don’t have to wait for genetic evolution. We have evolved the ability to get information from one generation to the next without having to wait for it first to be encoded in the DNA. We don’t have to start from scratch with each generation, and we don’t have to proceed by trial and error. We have culture, language, and traditional practices.

In the modern world, I don’t have to know how anything works. I don’t have to know how cars or computers work, for example, or how to build them. It’s enough for me to know how to drive and how to type. As long as somewhere in my culture there are people who know how cars and computers work and how to build them, I can off-load that responsibility to them and spend my time on other things.

One more idea and we will be ready for my theory. That’s the idea of a meme. A meme is to cultural evolution what a gene is to the biological kind. It’s the unit of transfer, the basic building block. Cooking is a meme. When the idea of cooking enters into a culture, lots of things change. People live longer because cooking releases more nutritional value from food. People get bigger and stronger. Their teeth get smaller. Jaw muscles get weaker and on and on.

The corporation is a meme. It is a legal invention, a legal fiction, if you like. Corporations don’t exist in the way that tables and chairs exist. They don’t have weight or take up space. They have no natural life span. Some of them are much older and vastly richer than any person. They can own property, enter into contracts, sue and be sued. And, since the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United and related cases, they can donate unlimited amounts of money to the political causes of their choice.

I quote here from The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs, by David Runciman:

The 18th century jurist Edward Thurlow famously complained: ‘Corporations have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned; they therefore do as they like.’ Sentient beings with bodies and souls disappear inside the group once it has acquired its own identity. They can shrug their shoulders as the victims of the group’s decisions come looking for justice. Meanwhile, the group has no shoulders to shrug.

Mitt Romney famously said, “Corporations are people, my friend.” But he was profoundly wrong. They are not people. Corporations are a brain fungus. They act to benefit themselves. And they hijack the brains of the people who work for them and cause them to do things no sane person would do.

That’s the answer to my question. Corporations can act the way they do because they don’t have grandchildren. The people who make corporate decisions to poison the earth do so because their brains have been hijacked by the virus. Partly this is accomplished with simple bribery. Corporate CEOs are awarded vast salaries and ridiculous compensation packages in order to blind them to their human responsibilities. But that alone is not sufficient. The brain fungus also works at a more subtle level. It convinces the corporate decision maker that he is part of a larger system, and that it is the system that is responsible for ethics. In this view, he (it is almost inevitably a he) doesn’t have to know anything about the ethics and morality of his decisions. He can offload that responsibility. His job is to increase shareholder value. It is the job of the political system, the law, or the market to impose restraints. The mechanism is a little fuzzy, but what’s important is that there is a division of labor. “You just concentrate on producing revenue,” the fungus whispers to the CEO. “Other parts of the system will worry about protecting the biosphere.”

This is a corollary to Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum. It is easy to get a man to believe something when his stock options depend on his believing it.

Lawyers are embedded in a system with a similar architecture. This is the adversarial system I discussed in an earlier 3QD post. Under the adversarial system a lawyer’s duty is to his client. If the client is a greedhead scumbag, well, he’s a greedhead scumbag. The lawyer’s duty doesn’t change. His job is to provide zealous advocacy. The job of seeing to it that the scumbag gets what’s coming to him is off-loaded to the larger system. I don’t think that’s a good idea in the legal context, and I don’t think it’s a good idea in the context of the corporation.

Quoting from Runciman again:

How, for example could multinational oil corporations have spent years suppressing and distorting the evidence that fossil fuels were responsible for dangerous levels of climate change? We might choose to believe that the people working for these companies are especially bad, reckless, irresponsible, selfish. But they are not: they are, on the whole, just people like the rest of us. It is the corporation that chose to pursue this path and the people involved, because they are like the rest of us, followed, because following a corporate decision is the path of least resistance. It is more than likely that many of the people involved knew that what they were doing was wrong. But the corporation didn’t because the corporation isn’t sentient.

This suggests there may be a sliver of hope. We all have multiple roles. In his corporate role, the CEO of a fracking concern is a zombie host mindlessly obeying the dictates of a parasitic brain fungus. But he has other roles. He is also a human being and, likely, a grandfather. The planet might have a future if something or someone could shake him from his zombie trance and remind him of that. It is not sufficient to leave the future of the world to the workings of the political system, the law or the market. The responsibility to act morally cannot be off-loaded. Wake up and think of your grandchildren!

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5 thoughts on “Don’t CEO’s Care About Their Grandchildren?

  1. I will write something cold, yet pragmatic, in support of my view(s) on Contextual Reality.
    CEOs have a different main course on their plate. Generally speaking, their menu was different, from the get. They operate as entrepreneurs, not care-givers and nurturers. The grandkids are to be raised by “the kids”….the CEO has more important fish to fry. Therefore, Interests, motives and preferences (IMPs) are, by necessity and responsibility, far different to seeing to family obligations. Moreover, the obligations of entrepreneurship subsume love-of-family, and, a successful business-person has no time for distractions. This is not new, nor am I making it up. That is the straight of things, near as I can tell.

  2. Thank you for your reply to my comment Paul van Pelt. I don’t think that humans ‘invented’ anthropomorphism, it’s creation is a consequence of our being created with consciousness and curiosity, since what curiosity may be interested in far exceeds our knowledge and even, as yet, our ability to know, we have created other entities we used to call Gods to account for and control the things that are, ‘as yet’ beyond our grasp. I say ‘as yet’ because as Modern Man we now look to Science too unravel the mysteries we can recognize but, but again ‘as yet’ cannot explain, since what possibly could be known is vast beyond our comprehension.

    We seek answers, Science, at this time in History, is charged with finding them, give them time, the task is arduous but little by little they will reveal truths that will amaze us.

    A comment on Barry Hoffman’s Post, I wrote this before I read Paul Van Pelt’s comments, but I think we don’t diverge too much on this either.

    First what behavior does the word “Greedy” really describe? The “Greedy person” displays an uncontrolled seemingly insatiable urge for more and this urge is coupled with their inability to feel secure or ‘satisfied’ another metaphor for the emotion the word “secure”evokes , for surely we feel secure when we are satisfied?

    I think (Greed) is expression of instinct unchained from Nature’s Natural limits, in our specie’s early stages, Humans, like many other creatures, instinctively saved things in the ‘Good Times’ for the inevitable Rainy Days, there was no value in taking more than you could use, it was a lot of work to get it and what you didn’t take would be waiting for you next year, with the invention of Money and money becoming the Talisman for the things we need and desire, and since Money doesn’t spoil, their was no limit to how much you should accumulate and no contentment or satiation no matter how much you accumulated! Someone has often told me that there had never been a perfect time in history, I have no doubt that is true, perfection seems to be beyond our grasp, we humans cannot reach that far but we have to try! What purpose could life possibly have if we didn’t want to try.

    Barry Goldman asks; How can corporate decision-makers spend their days actively working to destroy the environment, pollute the water, kill off the animals, melt the glaciers, and incinerate the biosphere? Even if what they care about the most is making more money no matter how much money they already have, don’t they care at all about the world they’re leaving for their kids?

    Corporate decision makers aren’t trying to destroy the World Barry, they are simply chasing the carrot dangling before their eyes as they look for the satiation the species lost in it’s childhood, they aren’t particularly bad or good people, just people playing the roles they find themselves in at this time in history! We are all on stage playing the roles that fate has handed us at this time in history!, and there is no escape! Without the Modern World to sustain us we will probably all die early and unpleasant deaths, this doesn’t mean that nothing should change, and things are changing, there are no more rivers on fire, no more love canal disasters, it means that we should not look to hysteria for the answers!

    Change is inexorable and is perceived as accelerating, as time passes the rate of change increases and we Humans have to adapt our behavior to the changes, adapt or Die, is the adage used to describe it, and every-man alive today is the offspring of successful adapters.

  3. Perhaps the long-term destructive behavior of CEO’s (and other decision makers) has more to do with the accepted mores and sensibilities of the society they live in than their individual morality.

    If ‘we’ have created a system that accepts destruction in order to have material comforts and technical progress, then it follows that we will have decision makers who will do just that.

    Modern industrial society is linear in its thinking. It always requires more, which means
    that this “more” requires ever more natural resources to power it. The concept of ever- repeating, circular cycles is alien to its thought. (because circular repetition implies little, if any, progress)

    I fear that in order to have CEO’s with long-term thinking values requires a revolution in the paradigms of modern society itself. A revolution that would change our sense of our narrative itself. What author William Ophuls refers to as our metaphors that shape everything fundamental to our thinking.
    That would take many generations and a catalyst to create such a profound change.

  4. I agree that in order to survive and flourish we definitely need “a revolution in the paradigms of modern society itself.”

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