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5.0 out of 5 stars Moral Markets: Intriguing Insights, a Rewarding Read, July 24, 2008
This review is from: Moral Markets: The Critical Role of Values in the Economy (Paperback)
This collection of essays provides an accessible and often delightful guided tour of the frontier of current research in sociology, economics, biology and philosophy.

The first of five parts is philosophical and argues that core moral values are real and universal, and not something illusory or relativistic. The second discusses new scientific evidence that certain species of apes behave morally: the roots of morality run deep apparently. The third lays out a couple of ways in which markets and morals co-evolve. The fourth examines the not-always-obvious interdependence of morality and law. And the final section looks at ways in which markets and morality can in fact be highly supportive of one another.

There are great insights to be gleaned from this book: several of the shortcomings of traditional economic thinking are neatly exposed; morality is revealed to be a field of empirical research as well as a subject of philosophical enquiry; markets are shown to be almost psychic on occasion in the speed with which they can capture and evaluate information. Economists have for a long time appreciated that law is important to the smooth functioning of an economy. This book shows us how virtues matter as much.

Here is one example of a nice insight. In chapter eight, Lynn Stout, writes about "Taking Conscience Seriously" and starts off by describing Homo Economicus, the stereotypical rational profit maximizer featured in the pages of most economics textbooks. "Not to put too fine a point on it," she says, "Homo Economicus is a sociopath. The hallmark of sociopathy is extreme selfishness as shown by a willingness "to lie, cheat, take advantage, [and] exploit."" She uses the American Psychiatric Association's definition of a sociopath to make her point. She goes on to point out how Homo Economicus has not only impoverished economic analysis over the years but has also corrupted generations of economics students. She reports evidence that they are less cooperative than their peers from other disciplines and consistently do less well in games like the Prisoner's Dilemma that depend on trust.

Another interesting insight: according to Sarah Brosnan who wrote on "Fairness in Non-Human Primates" in Chapter five, it is not just human beings who care about fairness but also capuchin monkeys. They will cooperate productively if the outcome is reasonably fair, but stop if things become sufficiently inequitable, even if that means foregoing any benefits: just like children who will throw the pie on the floor rather than be short changed by a sibling. Caring about fairness has deep evolutionary roots.

One final example of a surprising and satisfying nugget: in Chapter six, Peter Richardson and Robert Boyd discuss evolution and free enterprise values. This chapter takes a panoramic view of human history. Starting 250,000 years ago, they consider the evidence that the rapid growth in human brain size was driven by extraordinary variation in weather throughout the Pleistocene era: it made cooperative hunter-gatherer tribes adaptable enough to survive climate changes. Then, as the weather stabilized at the beginning of the Holocene 50,000 years ago, settled agriculture became feasible and our ancestors' brains were large enough by then to support the development of complex social organizations and wider circles of cooperation so that the first great river civilizations could appear about 5,000 years ago. Their thesis is that in both the Pleistocene and Holocene, it was a combination of selflessness and selflessness in individual behavior that produced population success. Altruism and other regarding behavior is deeply imbedded in our nature. Thus free enterprise, which gives rein to both these traits, suits us very well.

This is a really well edited volume in which the essays are complementary, clear, engaging and concise. Only an omnivorous polymath will fail to get a lot out of it. If you care about the evolution of selflessness, morality and open forms of economic organization and want to know what recent research has to say on the subject, buy it and enjoy.
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