Meme systems and category mistakes

This is the second part of a series of articles which will make up an examination of the morality of behaviour of groups, corporations and governments.
Disclaimer This article buys into a lot of the same territory as the film “The Corporation”, but hopefully in a way which is a little less simplistic. It was a fantastic, thought provoking film, but I think for the sake of making its point it engaged in the sort of “category mistake” I talk about below, even though I broadly agree with most of its conclusions.

The Morality of Groups 2: Meme Systems and Category Mistakes

By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.
– Albert Camus

Although it’s so commonly done that it has become a part of our thinking, it is entirely meaningless to talk about the morality of a group, corporation or government. As Jerry Monaco explains very clearly, this is a category mistake: treating an organisation as if it has thoughts, feelings, self awareness and the capacity for moral choices. A leader, chief executive, or president may enact policies which are moral or immoral, or for that matter wise, thoughtless, caring, or cruel. An employee who carries out these orders may be acting in a moral or immoral way – and in fact I can (just about) imagine situations where it may be moral for an employee to carry out an action which it was immoral of his leader to order. A tribe, corporation, or government, however, neither thinks nor acts – although others may choose to decide or act on behalf of that institution. Jerry Monaco says:

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

Actually I think there’s more to it than this because the group forms a complex system, comprised of its internal (tribal, corporate, or national) culture, of human needs and strategies within the group, and of the rules by which the group operates in terms of the larger culture. In the case of a tribe this larger culture (“ecosystem”) is the survival necessities of the environment and the politics of other tribes. For a corporation it is the stockmarket, government regulation, and competition with other companies. For governments the ecosystem is the flow of trade, international politics, and so on. So although such a system is nowhere near as complex as even a simple living creature, it does respond to stimuli in ways which depend on its nature rather just the personalities and decisions of the people who make it up. One way to think about that is that if a manager, tribal elder, or government minister did not make decisions which fitted within the range of expectations of the group, then that person would be replaced or discredited and the organisation would continue in the direction it had chosen.

While groups are perhaps nearly complex enough to be organisms, not just be analogous to organisms, they do not evolve in the same way. Their genetic material, the memes which act on their component cells (humans) to produce the group’s nature and behaviour, is fairly freely exchanged with that of any other group with which a group comes into contact. What’s more because the component cells have a certain level of awareness of the group’s functioning and behaviour, and to some extent share in the success or failure of the group, there is the possibility of Lamarkian alteration of the genotype. Marius, for example, studied Roman army of the Punic wars and remodelled it, creating the vastly more successful Roman army of the late Republic and early Empire.

Let’s be clear: strictly speaking, a corporation does not want to take over rivals, expand its business into new markets, and increase its share price, any more than a tree wants to grow new leaves and roots in spring. Jerry Monaco is correct in calling this a category mistake. In fact it is the CEO and the shareholders who may want these things. However the CEO, shareholders, regulatory environment, and company history and internal and external culture have created a series of practices, beliefs, and rules (a meme-system) which as a matter of its design will act in a certain way. It will drive its competitors out of business, lobby politicians for favourable trading conditions, develop new products, and so on in order to take over rivals, expand its business, and increase share price. In fact it wants to do these things in exactly the same way as a tree wants to grow in spring time. That is to say there’s no emotion or volition involved because it is no more a moral agent than a tree is a moral agent – but both the corporation and the tree act in certain ways because that is the nature of their form, their design. The corporation which did not act in this way was the one which, early in its existence, was swallowed by a competitor or reconfigured by its shareholders or an ambitious CEO.

In the same way a tribal group, as discussed in part one of this series, tends to have an internal culture which has as some of its characteristics grandiose tribal self-image, tribal shadow, group polarisation, and group think. This is because this type of internal culture has evolved (in the sense of evolve I’m using above) as a successful mechanism to keep tribes strong and in control of resources. Note that it’s more correct to say that these memes of internal culture have evolved successfully rather than to say that the tribes carrying them have evolved successfully. Just as with biological genes it is the success of the gene in propagating itself which matters, not the success of the organism which carries the gene, although the two are closely linked. And it is not surprising that humans themselves have inherited psychological characteristics (such as putting the tribe’s belief ahead of their own when representing the tribe) which reinforce these memes – after all tribes are such a useful method for enhancing the survival of humans (and not just because they’re usually kinship groups) that humans and tribal systems have co-evolved for hundreds of thousands of years.

This does not absolve the humans involved from moral responsibility for the actions they take as part of a group. But it means that there is an extra layer of responsibility. If you have a large dog who may bite, it would be wrong to let it run off the lead unsupervised. If you thought that it was likely to chew through its lead and run free, or attract a different owner who would then let it injure people then the only ethical course of action would be to retrain it, restrain it in ways which would prevent this from happening, or in extreme cases have the dog put down. The same goes for groups, companies and governments. It is not only the humans within the group but also those who can see what is going on who must retrain or restrain organisations which are likely to engage in immoral actions.

So in summary:

  • Groups, whether tribes, corporations, or governments, are not moral agents. They do not want to act one way rather than another, they do not choose, and they do not take moral responsibility for things done in their name.
  • However, groups are complex systems which have evolved certain mechanisms, cultures, and proclivities. These are inclined to lead group members to behave in certain ways. In part one I examined the way in which tribal psychology influenced the behaviour of group members, and how it could be exploited by politicians and leaders. It’s clear from the way long lived groups interact that they will tend to accrete and evolve meme-systems which enable them to compete successfully with other groups for members and resources. These meme-systems may well not be in the broader best interests of humanity even if they are in the short term best interests of the group members (and they may in fact advantage the group to the disadvantage of group members).
  • Humans acting as members of a tribe, corporation, or government, have a moral responsibility which cannot be passed to the collective entity. Just following orders is never enough. Because of the nature of group meme-systems, however, it may not be enough to expect individual group members to enforce moral behaviour in a situation where they are likely to fall under sanction by the systems the group has built up to ensure conformity to the system.
  • For this reason it’s most important that the wider society should take moral responsibility for restraining, regulating, and requiring that groups allow their members to act in an ethical way.

In fact it is perfectly clear that corporate regulation, national legal systems, and international criminal sanctions are if anything moving away from requiring that corporate CEOs, politicians, and bureaucrats should act morally, and that we are even moving away from allowing them to do so. The fanciful belief that the market (hallowed be its name) will reward moral behaviour, repeatedly proven false, is simply a sop to those foolish enough to want institutions to treat individuals with humanity. It’s high time that humanity started to insist on changes to institutional mechanisms and culture.

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One Response to Meme systems and category mistakes

  1. Pingback: Writings on the wall » Blog Archive » Citizen arbitration: an utopian suggestion

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