The stuff you find in academic and professional journals runs the gamut. Sometimes it’s good science and sometimes it’s bad science. Occasionally, it’s abject drivel. A piece of the latter just turned up in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supposedly one of the nation’s elite scientific journals. Entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior, it claims, among other things, that “Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower class individuals,” and “Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.” Unfortunately, only the abstract is available online. PNAS is hiding the rest behind their copyright fence, but you can “rent” the article for a nominal fee at Deepdyve.
The title of the article gives a broad hint about the quality of the rest of the piece. It simply assumes the existence of something that doesn’t exist; an objective ethics. The authors don’t refer to “our ethics,” or, as Marx might have put it, “proletarian ethics,” or “the ethics currently prevailing among professors at the University of California at Berkeley,” the source of the “studies.” No, they simply make the bald assumption that Good and Evil exist as objective things. Perhaps it will finally start to dawn on you, dear reader, why I am always harping about the nature of morality in this blog. Among other things, understanding the distinction between subjective and objective “ethics” may prevent you from publicly making an ass of yourself in academic journals.
It is, of course, obvious that individuals of our species, like those of thousands of others, recognize differences in status, and that, in all these species, there are behavioral differences between high and low status individuals. However, authors of articles documenting these differences in, for example, European jackdaws or hamadryas baboons, don’t commonly coach their readers to distinguish which of the animals are Good and which Evil. Suppose, however, we ignore for the moment the author’s conflating of behavioral traits in Homo sapiens with their own subjective moral judgments, and consider the quality of the article aside from this rather glaring fault.
In one of the studies, the authors investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides. They began by making the rather dubious assumption that “upper-class drivers” are identical with those who drive nice cars. To “prove” this assumption, they refer to a “pop sci” book entitled Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy In An Era of Excess, written by Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell whose subjective moral predispositions, if we can judge by the reviewer comments at the Amazon link, are entirely similar to their own. “Observers” stood near the intersection, “coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn.” To add weight to the claim that such behavior is “unethical,” they helpfully note that, such behavior “defies the California Vehicle Code.” Sure enough, “A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic, b = 0.36, SE b = 0.18, P < 0.05.” I will not cavil at the fact that such observations were made. After all, who would dare to doubt a binary logistic regression? One can, however, question the bias of the observers. What were their attitudes towards “high status individuals?” Was any attempt made to determine whether they were more likely to conclude that nice cars had cut them off than clunkers in identical situations? Do the authors give us any hint at all that they have ever heard of such a thing as a double blind procedure? None of the above.
There are similar rather obvious faults in the rest of the seven studies. One of them at least provides comic relief by measuring whether rich people are more likely (no kidding!) to steal candy from a baby, or, as the authors put it, “individually wrapped candies, ostensibly for children in a nearby laboratory.” All of them contain statements such as, “Greed, in turn, is a robust determinant of unethical behavior,” “These results suggest that upper-class individuals are more likely to exhibit tendencies to act unethically compared with lower-class individuals,” “These results further suggest that more favorable attitudes toward greed among members of the upper class explain, in part, their unethical tendencies,” etc., with the implicit assumption that “ethics” is some objective, scientifically quantifiable thing-in-itself, hovering out there in the ether independent of the subjective judgments of mere mortals.
One wonders about the quality of peer review of stuff like this. Far from any shred of intellectual honesty or scientific integrity, it appears the PNAS reviewers lacked even something as elementary as common sense. Did it never occur to them to consider such obvious indicators of the association of social class with “unethical behavior” as the population of our prisons? Presumably, most of the inmates have committed offenses even more serious than “defying the California Vehicle Code.” What is the distribution of “rich” and “poor” among them? Ah, but I forget! All those people are in prison to begin with because of the exploitation and injustices of rich people! We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?
Apart from the wretched nature of the “science” in these articles, one wonders whether the authors ever considered the results of similar jihads against “rich people” in the past. They used to be called “bourgeoisie,” and mountains of similar “scientific studies” demonstrated that these “bourgeoisie” were also “unethical.” Once all was said and done, 100 million of the “bourgeoisie” had been murdered to atone for their lack of ethics. Do we really want to go there again? To judge from these “studies,” a good number of us do. It would certainly bring a smile to the faces of some of those earlier “scientists,” now no doubt ascended to that great Workers Paradise in the Sky.