Saturday, June 4, 2011

Those who support capitalism will blame abuses on the individuals, while those who oppose it will blame abuses on the system

There are two ways to assign blame: blame individuals, or blame the system they act within. People seem to choose one or the other on the basis of their ideology, not on the basis of facts. Those who support capitalism will blame abuses on the individuals, while those who oppose it will blame abuses on the system. The same is true of democracy, religion, parenting, and all other hierarchies. In all cases, one can argue that the individuals are solely to blame, or that the system and its structures are to blame.

So how do we make the difference? Instead of using your bias to arrive at some knee-jerk conclusion, confront the facts about the system itself. What are its explicit rules? What are its guiding principles? Are there power relations within it? What incentives does it offer, that is to say, what is its impact on human behaviour?

Answering all these questions, and looking at the act, gives us the answer. If the unethical act is something that is perpetuated by the system, then blame the system (while not, of course, excluding the responsibility for the decision to the person). If it is not, then blame the person.

For example, if we look at the act of a CEO who fired thousands of people and gets a hefty multi-million dollar bonus for it at the end of the year, we’d rightly say that it is a heinous act. But that’s how capitalism works: the role of a corporation is to generate profits by all means necessary, and thus the CEO’s act, and the shareholders’ reaction, was perfectly in line with that. We can therefore absolutely blame the system in this case.

The act of a sweatshop overseer in Taiwan who sexually harasses his female wage slaves, on the other hand, does not prove anything about capitalism specifically (although it proves something about heteronormativity, or hierarchies as a whole), because his actions have nothing to do with any of the principles or incentives of capitalism.

Or another way of saying this: capitalism can exist without sexual harassment, but not without firing people or without profits. Or to think about it in a slightly different way: even if every single person in the system was completely well-intentioned, those latter things would still exist. They wouldn’t be sexually harassing people, but they still would be firing people and giving each other bonuses for doing so. -Read more: How should we attribute blame?

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