Monday, December 9, 2013

Survival and empathy.

Where does business fit in our natural human instincts?

It must be one of the most intriguing questions that have faced humanity over the ages – what is the nature of humankind? Until we really get to understand ourselves, can we hope to understand all of the social, political, and economic constructs that we have created as a species and which ultimately are all informed by the answer?

In economics and business especially, it is important to have some sense of our basic nature and what drives behaviour. This in turn helps us to understand the very character of social interaction, transaction, purpose, and motives that account for the way things are, the way they should be, and the path of our destiny.

It is much more than an exercise in philosophical semantics. It could be one of the most important insights of all, because it is inconceivable that we could construct an order for our species that is in conflict with or deviates far from those basic attributes that make us human. Ultimately you can distil any debate or argument about anything to that essence –economic systems, political constructs, laws, and many more all end up in an assumption about the why; an assumption that many are ready to make simply because we have ourselves as reference and think we know who, what and why we are, and therefore also understand what others are or should be.

It’s a question that has occupied great minds over millennia: prophets, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, humanists and virtually every branch in the pursuit of knowledge. So I decided to revert to our helpful friend, Google. It was of little use and plunged me into confusion between instincts, reflexes, physiology, emotions and religion. Ultimately, it seems, to understand ourselves most of us fall back onto basic instincts to explain all behaviour and if you ask anyone to name these instincts you will seldom find any beyond that of survival.

That makes a lot of sense. Because from that one instinct we can link or extrapolate most if not all of our activity: including other instincts such as sex and procreation; reflexes such as fright and flight; emotions such as fear, anger and insecurity; physiological responses such as adrenalin and serotonin; and behaviour such as ambition, competiveness and control.

It’s only a small leap from there to make the same link for misbehaviours such as raw material self-interest, greed, envy, resentment, and acquisitiveness. At its core this encourages our understanding and facile acceptance of these behaviours as being part of “human nature” stopping short in condemnation and abhorrence only when these acts lead to outright crimes such as fraud, theft, or even robbery and murder. Then they become “anti-social” implying that they are not fitting for an evolved, civilised and enlightened being. In turn this implies that being part of a social construct is inherently in conflict with our natural individual selves.

But even a casual understanding of our basic selves will rebel at this narrow definition. It is obvious to all of us that we are social creatures, drawn to each other by nature, not evolvement or enlightenment and that we have another equally powerful instinct called empathy.

This instinct in humans is so powerful that it often overrides that of survival. I was reminded of this again by this video clip someone emailed me showing the extent to which people virtually routinely can place themselves at risk in saving another. In one of my first articles I argued that our basic instinct of empathy accounts for our majesty on earth, the most powerful of all creatures and custodians of the planet.

What deserves repeating is that evidence of this instinct can be found in our reflexive response to come to the aid of another in trouble; the fact that evidence has been uncovered of this instinct that accounted for the survival of a humanlike creature more than 200 000 years ago, and that scientists have identified the presence of mirror neurons in humans that far outnumber those found in other living creatures. More recently, scientists have determined that there is an area of the human brain (the anterior insular cortex) that accounts for empathy. Of course, as with any physical feature, these can differ from person to person and accounts for excessive empathetic behaviour in some, psychopathy in others, and many variations in between.

Where have we placed business and our economic behaviour? It is a trite cop-out to argue that it is both. Ultimately one will override the other either routinely or in a certain circumstance. It can be argued that we have placed business virtually exclusively in the survival context. It’s a natural thing to do because survival has always been seen as the basic motive behind behaviours such as storing, hoarding, acquisition and even barter and trading.

The basic instinct of survival and with it the self-interest motive is the most common assumption in explaining all business and economic behaviour, ultimately underpinning with highly sophisticated Nobel Prize winning Friedman logic the unassailable and near fanatical defence of the profit motive. Questioning that fundamental premise invites condemnation as an economic heretic, enemy of freedom and anti-capitalist.

It’s a legitimate question whether, under the mantle of the survival instinct, we have not too readily accepted dubious business behaviour such as poor customer service; that having a moral compass and ethics in business is seen as a “strategic” issue rather than its absence being seen as absolutely abhorrent behaviour; and that fraud, collusion, and corruption are seldom met with retribution reflecting deep disapproval and lasting outrage.

Yet I can think of no other institution that is more dependent on social goodwill than business. Indeed, within the rules of legitimate transaction, business is founded on the premise of being of service to another, without which it loses its right to exist. Tangible wealth creation itself is the outcome of that service, rooted in the principle that value depends on the contribution it makes to others.

It’s an intriguing question how different business would be, how company norms would change, how executives would be rewarded, how strategies would be adjusted and how accounting formats would be altered if our understanding of business would be informed by the instinct of empathy rather than survival.

Of course, for humanity the instincts of survival and empathy are mutually supporting. The more evolved we became the more empathy dictates survival.

Mandela: legacy and legend.

How different would the world have been without this one man?

The true mark of a human being is to ask the simple question: “what difference did this person make to my life?”

It is one ultimate tribute we can pay to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and it should be based on a response spontaneously from the heart and also on deep reflection; stripped of judgement on recent and current events; an assessment of a legacy uncontaminated by the actions of his successors; and a return to that critical time between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. For the South African nation it was a painful blend of despair and hope; of loss and gain; of doubt and trust. On the one hand for many there was a deep nostalgia for what we had known and on the other hopeful apprehension of what we could become.

We came from both sides of a structured apartness – villains once heroes, heroes once villains. We were brought together in lingering suspicion and tentative hope through a short and yet so long walk to freedom by a real and symbolic hero. Those steps inspired and united most of the citizens of a polecat country – from the warriors on both sides of the gulf to a vast middle that either voted or waited. All shared a dream of what they thought the country could become.

Mine is only a small modest reflection of many volumes of thoughts, tributes, eulogies and obituaries that will be written on the passing of this global icon. Its relevance is no doubt severely diluted. Its publication is an honour, and your reading of it even more so.

Among the countless awards, citations and accolades, “Tata” or “Madiba”, has as recently as 2012 been voted by Americans in a Gallup poll as the second most admired man in the world. He has also been listed as the 14th most admired person of the 20th century. It seems the American based Gallup research is the only one that is done regularly, and it’s a moot point whether the South African statesman would not be ranked higher in a global survey.

But it confirms that there are millions of people across the world who feel to a greater or lesser extent that Mandela has made a difference to their lives. He certainly made a huge difference to mine. And it was much more than the two brief encounters I had with him around the 90’s when he reflected that rare attribute that makes strangers feel as comfortable as if they were close friends.

By the mid 1980’s already, many of my generation of white South Africans, were haunted by a vague whisper from the past of Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech decades before. For me, and I imagine a good number of my white contemporaries, it led to a self-inquisition of “what the hell had we been thinking.” There are perhaps few of us left prepared even to concede that. Many, I imagine, have re-written their own histories to include some or other “struggle credential” – which inexplicably has become the ultimate test of character. In truth few were warriors on either side, but in that vast middle that either voted or waited.

And in that vote or referendum of 1992, Mandela’s influence played as much, if not more of a role than any other in persuading the majority of those franchised to end Apartheid that many of us were born into. His chronology has filled many books. I’m going to simply reflect briefly on that pivotal period of the late eighties – a period when Mandela’s presence changed the course of history and fear into hope.

The turbulent national unrest from 1984 completely detracted attention from the tentative talks between leaders on both sides, including an imprisoned Mandela. At the time I was privy to some, albeit a small amount of “restricted” information and the imminent release of Mandela was one of those. The mixed feelings and apprehension were reflected in a prediction by a very senior news commentator that Mandela’s release would spark civil war. This foreboding and resolve to crush the revolution was conveyed in P.W. Botha’s famous Rubicon speech in August 1985. But in turn the generally negative response to that speech was a clear sign that most wanted change – indeed were expecting it.

What finally swung the momentum towards ending the world as we knew it was financial sanctions that led to the South African debt standstill and the collapse of Communism towards the end of that decade. But most of all for me was Mandela’s rejection in 1985 of his release from prison before “my people are free”. In an instant he cemented his global status as martyr. Some may have interpreted that as an expedient stroke of political genius. I saw it simply as the act of a true statesman and servant to his people – the ultimate quality of a great leader.

This assessment was strengthened many times by his behaviour and performance after his release in 1990 which not only catapulted him into the position of most revered statesman in the world, but achieved a great calm in a country that he was to lead as its first black President.

In later years, there have been a number of detractions from his legacy. The things that he represented to a great many of us: self-sacrifice, honesty, integrity, and servitude to his people are shockingly absent amongst his successors. His silence apart from some muttering after his relinquishing office seems to have given those detractors some licence to sling mud his way.

I believe this to be terribly unfair. I know all too well the position one can reach in life when you say: “I have done, and I am done!”

Legend and legacy often go together. The legend will live for all time. Who knows, perhaps a revived legacy will follow.