Occupy Cyberspace

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First there was Occupy Wall Street, but now the noisiest protest seems to be coming from those who wish to occupy the Internet. The irony of it all is that this time, it’s the powerful corporations who are staging the sit-in (or ‘blackout’ or ‘shutdown’, as the case may be), ostensibly on behalf of grassroots consumers. The power brokers of cyberspace, led by Google and Wikipedia, have mounted a substantial protest against the anti-piracy bills being debated in Congress. The bills known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Prevent Internet Piracy Act) have been attacked as threats to our freedom of speech and free market economics.

“Imagine a world without free knowledge…” begins Wikipedia’s protest page, “Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open Internet” [BBC News, NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]. This must be some powerful bad medicine, if it threatens to kill the patient. At least, that seems to be the position taken by Wikipedia’s publicists.

Whether or not these pieces of legislation have been well-crafted is certainly open to debate. I’m not concerned here with the legalities, but rather with the moral stance of the corporate protesters. The invective being thrown at these bills calls into question the integrity of the internet companies’ response. What moral weight do their tweets and texts bear? Consider the source: these proclamations and accusations are voiced by the companies who make their living by building and driving traffic in cyberspace.

The protesters are careful, of course, to avoid any appearance that they are in favor of piracy. They don’t question the motivations or intentions of the legislation aimed at reining in the pirates out there far from our shores (China, Russia and the Middle East are frequently listed as pirate-friendly safe harbors).

Rather than offer constructive suggestions however for how to combat piracy, the corporate protests seemed designed to upset and rally people to the cry that this legislation may be bad for business. For their business, that is. Let’s be clear about that, because it was designed specifically to protect the business of other companies who produce the valuable content being peddled in cyberspace.  One protester in San Francisco, representing an online travel company, put it plainly, “this legislation is bad, it would directly impact our company.” [NY Times, Jan. 19, 2012]

It’s the self-serving tone of such protests that raises the question of integrity. There is precious little moral content in the argument that what’s bad for my business is bad, regardless of how it affects others.

Of course the protesters do not mean to suggest that their moral footing is grounded in self-interest; rather, they imply that their moral authority stems from their concern for freedom as a general principle, as well as concern for the individual information consumers in particular. Of course, this argument is also suspect because their altruism seems to flow from concern for their own customers—the consumers of information services.

These moral arguments are weak. In the first instance, the argument for freedom could just as well be claimed by their opponents who argue for the freedom to earn a living and not to have their products stolen by pirates. Freedom of information is not an issue being questioned by the legislation; piracy is. In the second instance, concern for their own customers once again begs the question of whether the protests are self-serving.

A sincere moral argument rooted in altruism would take a different course. It would demonstrate motive and desire to help solve the piracy problem. It would demonstrate resolve and commitment on the part of the Board of Directors and management to help address a problem that is significantly undermining other significant businesses in our economy.

To protect one’s self-interest with defensive arguments lacks integrity to any source of morality higher than hunger or survival. True integrity recognizes a higher calling, namely, to act out of sincere concern for others’ welfare. That is why biblical notions of morality, based in kenotic self-emptying of self-importance, are just as critical to corporate moral authority as they are to personal integrity.

Perhaps the protesters had valid reason to question the structure of these bills. In that case they might have addressed those issues head-on in a manner which carried much greater moral strength. They might have shown integrity by demonstrating their sincere concern to solve the problem. They might have offered ways to strengthen their current anti-piracy policies. And yes, because “business is business”, this would most likely cost them something in the short run. But in the long run they would have demonstrated a concern for our entire economic system and not just for their own slice of it. They would also be living into the higher calling of integrity which flows from an understanding of the biblical call to be witnesses to a greater reality than pecuniary self-interest.

[this post has also been published at the Center for Integrity in Business: http://blog.spu.edu/cib/2012/01/ ]

Information Overlord

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In in a commentary on the recent announcement of the “The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”,[1] Neal Gabler points out the hidden category mistake of this title: “In fact, none of them are ideas.” He says, “[W]e live in an increasingly post-idea world—a world in which big thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”[2]

It’s become commonplace to worry about the effect that all our texting and tweeting is having on our ability to think. But brevity does not in and of itself beget banality. Pascal had it right when he said, “If I had had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.” It’s not the conciseness of the letter that crowds out the important ideas, but rather the lack of time to ponder and refine them. (Even so, I doubt that Pascal’s ideas would be so well remembered if he had delivered them solely in tweets.)

The real issue here is whether we as a society are losing interest in big ideas. The marketplace loves the stimulation of new inventions and entertainment, but has little use for new ideas unless some adventurous entrepreneur or promoter can figure out how to make money off them.

Given our fascination with the entertainment value of staying constantly in touch with friends, fans and idols, it’s easy to see how the information glut can overwhelm the limited bandwidth of our attention spans. There might be no harm in non-stop communicating and information surfing if these activities reliably added value to our greater purposes as a society. Unfortunately, the opposite effect seems more common. Political rhetoric for example seems to have been driven to the least common denominator of sound-bites.  “Yes, we can!” and “No new taxes!” make great fight songs, but they are no substitute for the kind of considered wisdom we will need to judge the trade-offs required to balance the budget and generate growth in human capital. To make progress on these fronts we must move beyond the polemical piling-on of spin-controlled projections, and take time to question their underlying presumptions.

The same pressures are at work in academia also. Especially in a business school, the need to stay current can tilt the curriculum in the direction of studying the latest trends, in order to graduate students with immediately profitable knowledge and skills. There is merit in this aspect of a business education, yet it should not obscure or obliterate deeper thinking upon the classical ideas of morality, justice and human nature.

This is what incites my passion to teach classes on big ideas like the spirit of capitalism and the modern moral imaginary. We need leaders who have thought about these things. We need managers who have developed a robust context in which to make trade-offs affecting people’s lives as human beings, and not merely as workers and consumers. We need economists and legislators who weigh the stewardship of resources in the balance of the transcendent. Business is not just a matter of keeping up with the latest consumer trends, or speeding up the time-to-market for the newest technologies. Business is for doers, yes. But what we do, and how we do it, depends upon the ideas which inspire us. Gabler says it well: “The implications of a society that no longer thinks big are enormous. Ideas aren’t just intellectual playthings. They have practical effects.”

Big ideas inform the choices we make regarding how to invest our time and our capital—both financial capital and human capital.

Here’s an idea: when business is driven as much by the transcendent ideas which inspire the human soul as it is by the ideas which monetize the newest information, then business will truly be a boon to human flourishing, and the “invisible hand” will be guided by the wisdom of moral sentiments.

[1] The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2011.
[2] Gabler, “The Elusive Big Idea”, NY Times, August 14, 2011.

Musically Speaking of Ethics

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 What gives music its power to soothe the savage beast, to incite the passions, and to lift the heart? Some scientists believe they are now on the verge of explaining just how music produces these responses.  They are searching for biophysical explanations of what makes music musical, and are discovering some fascinating clues as to how the brain responds to music. The key to their research is to quantify and measure the quality of expressiveness which gives music its emotional charge. Their experiments aim to explain how two different performances of the same piece of music can have such very different emotional impacts upon the listener. [Pam Bullock, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons”, New York Times, April 18, 2011]

These special neurons are called “mirror” neurons, because they seem to be triggered when a person observes the behavior of others, as though one were watching oneself in a mirror. This function correlates to feelings of empathy—the experience of feeling what another person feels, or at least feeling what we imagine the other person is feeling. It’s as if the neurons in our brain mirror the emotions of another person. Neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves calls these systems of mirror neurons “one of the most significant discoveries in the last decade”, because they suggest the existence of neural substrates which enable the “capacity for personal relatedness”.[1] These specialized neurons seem to suggest the possibility that emotions such as empathy are hard-wired into our brains, and that these emotions can be triggered by music which incites our mirror neuron substrates.

Not only that, but these same mirror neurons have been shown to be activated when people are faced with experiences of ethical conflict also, and again, empathy seems to be the connection. There seems to be a connection between morality and music therefore, even if only at the basal level of neuronal systems. This makes sense because to perceive how another person might feel about an event is the first step toward moral awareness. If I am capable of feeling empathy for how my action might affect you, then I am more likely to frame it in terms of moral responsibility, and to not be so self-centered about it. Evidence comes from brain scans of persons who are watching another person be injured or treated unfairly. The same sorts of responses occur in the brains of persons wrestling with a moral dilemma. Common sense would expect this to be the case; after all, moral dilemmas trigger the same sorts of emotional responses as the experience of seeing another person being injured. We may thus conclude that ethics and empathy are closely linked. This is why some researchers suggest that the best clues to understanding moral behaviors such as altruism will be found by studying the function of mirror neuron systems.

Based on the commonality between feelings of empathy and ethical behavior, it should come as no surprise to learn that mirror neuron systems are active in both experiences. After all, empathy and ethics would seem to be offshoots of the same ability to sense what another person is (or might plausibly be) feeling. Thus we might expect to find mirror neuron systems active in the brains of persons as they deliberate upon moral dilemmas, because in order to imagine the morality of one’s actions, it would help to be able to imagine how one’s actions might affect other people.[2]

Now returning to the question of what makes music musical, why should we expect the same neural substrate which triggers feelings of empathy and ethics to be activated by music? The interesting point is that the more musically expressive the music, the more active the neural substrates.  But why? This is the question being asked by the scientists who seek to understand what makes music musical.  The interesting result of their brain research is that when subjects listen to artistic (i.e. musically expressive) performances, the mirror neurons are not the only specialized areas of the brain to be activated; the areas associated with motor control also become noticeably more energized. These are the same regions which would actively regulate of physical movement, whether dance or walking or raising a glass; these same neural systems which control bodily movements become active also in the appreciation of good music. This is not merely a matter of having a sense of rhythm, or of having an urge to tap one’s foot to the beat. Research suggests there is more to it—much more indeed, because regular music, such as that produced by mechanically (whether by human or machine) with perfect timing and pitch, with every note held for the precisely correct duration and intonation, does not activate the motor control system and mirror neuron system nearly as much as music performed by masterful artists with beautiful expression. The beautifully performed, expressive performances are not the perfectly played ones, it seems. The beautiful performances are the more or less imperfectly played ones, if we are to judge by timing and tonal purity.

What then is beauty? See how quickly brain research leads into philosophy! No sooner do we seem to be on the path toward discovery of the mechanics of human perception and response, by reducing experiences down to the deterministic firing of synapses and structure of neural networks, than we realize that the very thing we are struggling to understand cannot be understood apart from the subjective perspective of a living subject.

In order to appreciate a melody, to perceive the beauty in it, we might say, the melody must be perceived holistically, and not merely as the sum of its parts. If we break the music down into individual notes, even perfectly played ones, there is no music, but merely notes; there is no beauty in merely mechanical precision. Kant, the brilliant theoretician of moral philosophy, had this figured out long before the advent of modern neuroscience and the invention of brain scanning technologies.  If there be beauty in a work of art, it will result from the holistic impact of the whole piece, in which each part “exists only through all the others [and] thus as if existing for the sake of the others and on account of the whole.”[3] The same is true for musical performance, as Franco Chiereghin observes in his inquiry into the peculiarly human trait of musicality:

…in a melody, taken as a unitary whole in its temporal articulation, each note exists in view of each of the others and at the same time; as it is embedded in the melodic development, it exists only through all of the others.[4]

Well structured tones and rhythm are not enough to make the music sing; but rather, it’s the small human imperfections, disturbing subtly the orchestrated structure of the music, which imbue a piece with beauty to incite the passion of human persons. It takes the consciousness of one human person to appreciate the beauty and musicality in another’s performance. This is the peculiarly human aspect of beauty—it requires not merely a sophisticated neural network to process the acoustic stimuli, but also a living human person to make sense out of it, and to construct a meaningful, expressive whole from the subtle imperfections of the performance. Those imperfections and deviations from the mathematical precision of music are precisely the ingredients which infuse the performance with meaning and beauty, the beauty of which cannot be appreciated apart from the capacity of a personal intelligence to perceive and make sense of the emotion being communicated through the performance. Of course this process engages the same brain substrates involved in motor control and empathy. How could it be otherwise? After all, rhythm and emotion are essential, basic components of music interpretation.  But the higher gift of musicality requires the mysteriously holistic interpretation of a whole person, one who can transform the notes riding the airwaves into the music of the heart.

The most expressive music rides upon the currents of the subtle imperfections and imprecisions induced by the artist, and the transformational power of a human consciousness turns them into a thing of beauty, and not a string of senseless mistakes. The human person who hears the music and makes sense of it receives it as an expression of a living soul. For this reason alone does music sing of a greater truth and a spiritual reality.

Similarly, ethics also is a function of that same peculiarly human capacity to perceive beauty by making sense of the whole. Like music appreciation, ethics depends upon the capacity of a human person to recognize a greater truth than that which is presented merely by the facts or mechanics of life. We are not surprised therefore that music, empathy and ethics all engage the mirror neuron systems. There is a commonality here among these experiences which pertains to the human capacity to express and discern—to give and receive, we might say—the meaningfulness of another person’s emotional experience.

Music and morality are common to human life. They are beautiful precisely because there is more to life than what can be seen with the eye and heard with the ear. Let those with ears hear.

Anne Sophie Mutter

[1] Malcolm Jeeves, “The Emergence of Human Distinctiveness: The Story from Neuropsychology and Evolutionary Psychology”, in Rethinking Human Nature: a Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176-203, 198.

[2] This hypothesis is being actively studied by neuroscientists. V.S. Ramachandran argues that these human capacities emerged as “culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped select for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snowball effects that culminated in Homo sapiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside.” Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New York: W.W. Norton,2011), 23.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, Ak. Ausg. V, §65, p. 373 (Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 245. Cf. Chiereghin, p. 97 for this reference.

[4] Franco Chiereghin, “The Peculiarly Human Feature of the Aesthetic Experience: The Teaching of Kant and the Challenge of Neuroscience”, in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 82-106, p. 97.