By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty.

Boy, do I hate those Freakonomics guys. I mean, seriously, they write a book that assures us, through the point of view of economists, that we’re better than “drug dealers” and that the way we look askance at names other people give their kids is justified and we buy it like our own prejudices are going out of style. Congratulations, Freakonomics dudes, we all think you’re geniuses because you can see the world from your own point of view.

So, you ask, what’s the problem with seeing things from your own point of view? Nothing, inherently. The problem is in the lack of nuance. Stephen Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, in their book and on Freakonomics Radio, speak from the point of view of economists. The whole enterprise is “surprising” in that they look at “real-world issues” through the lens of economics. Holy crap, economists look at the world through economic paradigms – you don’t say! Dubner and Levitt do, indeed, provide the economics perspective, but their assessment of the issues is myopic (to say the least) in that it fails to take into account the “real” thing about real life: it is nuanced, and it requires ethics.

A few months ago, for the holidays, the Freakonomics guys did this piece on turkeys. In the piece, Stephen Dubner discusses the fact (yes, it’s a fact) that nearly 100% of the turkeys we consume in this country are unable to procreate naturally. Yes, from the point of view of Freakonomics Radio listeners, the artificial insemination of turkeys is not only hilarious; it is “good economics”. Dubner and his interviewer laugh about the “jobs program” created by the fact that millions of turkeys are bred in this country so that their giant breasts (hysterical!) make them unable to stand on their hind legs long enough or to get into the appropriate position to have actual sex. The problem with this piece is that it gets so caught up in the comedy of turkey sex and the “job creation” of artificial insemination that it failed to address any of the ethical nuances of the issue. So, we are left with a humorous (at best) and congratulatory (at worst) piece about the awesomeness of an absurd, horrific, and completely unethical phenomenon that serves the business and consumer point of view nicely.

Freakonomics is not nuanced. Nuance requires the understanding of someone else’s point of view. With nuance comes ethics. I want to argue that it is our point of view that determines our actual ethics (actual, as in the way we ACT).

Earlier this week, NPR ran this story on “Why Good People Do Bad Things”. In this piece, the journalist asks whether it takes a bad person to do unethical things. As it turns out, we are all “frequently blind to ethics” in our decision making, because we approach problems from our own assumed point of view. The piece features (in awesome graphic-novel narrative) a man who, after promising his dying father that he would never be so unethical as his brother, who had just been convicted of fraudulent business activity, finds himself having done the very same thing 22 years later. This totally normal, “good” man had come to assume the identity (and, thus, the point of view) of a business man (like his brother), so, when he lied about his business’s income in order to get the loan that would (he thought) save his failing business, he ACTED as a business man. He acted in a way that was best for his business. Period.

Of course, most of us are not business owners defrauding banks and weakening the global economy, but that doesn’t mean that our own assumed points of view don’t allow us to act unethically on a regular basis. If your point of view is that of a homeowner, you might spray chemicals on your lawn, even though they have been proven dangerous to your local watershed. If your point of view is that of a consumer, you might look for the best bargain and buy the stuff that was made through the cheapest means possible, even though that means extractive, exploitive, and harmful methods. If your point of view is that of a parent, you might send your kid to a private school, even though it is a disinvestment in your community. All of these are reasonable decisions from the point of view of the individual. “Everybody’s doing it.” “It’s legal.” “It’s what’s best for me.” But they are not, generally, the most ethical decisions with regard to others. That’s what happens when we fail to incorporate nuance into our own decisions, and we accept the status quo. Thus, we get best-selling economists celebrating acute poultry suffering for the sake of “job creation” and we accept (even appropriate) their point of view. No nuance; no ethics; no challenge to the status quo.

David Fincher’s (highly nuanced) critique of the status quo point of view AND the fervent rejection of the status quo, “Fight Club” exhibits this problem with its exquisite denoument.  In his rejection of the unethical, corrupting, emasculating point of view of the status quo, Tyler Durden engages in a highly unethical act, but, the way he sees it: “everything’s going to be fine.”

Whether we accept the economic status quo presented by the Freakonomics guys or act to destroy the status quo by any means necessary like Tyler Durden, until we ask ourselves, “Where is my mind?”, we have confused “my point of view” with “the right thing to do”.

  1. Trish says:

    I wonder if our self-centeredness is growing, or is the increasing complexity of the world merely offering us more ways to express self-centeredness? For example, people on flights who use technology after they’ve been asked not to, sometimes repeatedly. It astonishes me how little responsibility people will take for the our actions.

  2. PG says:

    I giggled at “turkey sex” and “giant breasts.”

    And I’m uncomfortable when Matt Damon and Robin Williams hug.

    (By the way, wouldn’t Giant Breasts Turkey Sex be an incredible band name?)

    Okay, all ridiculousness aside…Edward Norton is an incredible actor.

    Okay, now I’ll get serious…

    The NPR article mentions the “ethical big picture,” but is there such a thing as an ethical big picture? Can that even exist when we do all have our own perspectives? And is an “ethical big picture” asking all of us – in a way – to constantly make the classic superhero decision: do you make a decision that saves the one(s) closest to you, or do you make the decision that hurts them but saves the city/country/world? And, if you make the decision that saves the city/country/world, but those whom you’ve saved turn around to then make decisions that are for the good of them and those closest to them, does that then just negate your decision in the first place?

    Clearly I have superheroes on the brain. I just went all first Spider-Man movie on this reply box.

    • Jenny Jocks Stelzer says:

      Paul, I really don’t think ethics is so dichotomous. Just because it is the best choice ethically (or for others), that doesn’t make it detrimental to the self (or those closest to us). Often (most of the time?) I think, we don’t actually make the best choice for ourselves and our own when we make the least ethical (or, the easiest) choice. The harder, more ethical choice is often best for all of us. Let’s talk Triple Bottom Line sometime!

      • PG says:

        I completely agree that the “best” decision isn’t always dichotomous, and that the best decision can be one that is beneficial to all. And I also agree that people regularly make decisions that aren’t good for themselves or their communities, because that was the easiest choice or the one that presented the most personal gain.

        My point, that I articulated poorly, was that I don’t think in all cases a “best” option can be universally defined. If it could, that would mean for every ethical decision there is one “correct” answer, and we simply have to get past our ingrained POVs, greediness, prejudices, etc. to make the right call. But since “best” can be completely subjective, doesn’t that open the door(s) to multiple options, all of which will have pros and cons, and all of which will be viewed as both “best” and “worst” by people, and they can all simultaneously be correct from their own POV.

  3. add2phd says:

    I am going to release some turkeys at the University of Chicago School of Economics in protest.

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