Me trumps We

Neuroessentialist thinking seems to be seeping into popular discourse more and more with each passing day.  Consider this.

When you buy something, you want to get the best deal possible. The internet has made that easier than ever, with online comparison shopping allowing consumers to shave dollars off the purchase price by comparing the costs at competing retailers. One of the remarkable ‘benefits’ of online retailing, it has also allowed for a loophole that represents a moral dilemmas that we must each evaluate.

The loophole in question is the ability of online retailers to avoid charging customers sales tax, at least in the United States (here in Canada, online retailers, charge local taxes). The loophole arises because retailers are allowed to forego charging state tax to out-of-state residents. Amazon, the Goliath of online sales, appears to be everywhere, but legally is nowhere (well, nearly so – it is obviously in Seattle, where headquarters reside). As a result, in most states, Amazon charges no state tax. If you buy their products and are not charged tax, you are supposed to declare it yourself.  And you do that, don’t you?

In the last week, a small brush fire has broken out over the decision of California to force large online retailers to collect the sales tax. Farhad Manjoo, Slate’s saavy reporter on all things tech, provides a quintessentially neuroessentialist perspective on the argument. Implicitly invoking dual-process theory, Manjoo writes,

There are two powerful arguments in the tax debate between and the state of California. On the one hand, there’s simple fairness. For years, online retailers—which weren’t required to collect sales tax on purchases from Californians—have enjoyed a huge advantage over physical stores, which must collect sales tax.A $1,000 TV from your local Best Buy costs about $1,100 with tax; at Amazon, it costs exactly $1,000.

And then there’s the other side of the argument: ARE YOU KIDDING, YOU WANT TO RAISE MY PRICES, WTF???

Later in the article, he further fleshes out the neuroessentialist position.

(T)his isn’t an argument between two equally reasonable positions. It’s an argument between reason and emotion, between your brain and your gut. Amazon has no intellectually sound arguments against collecting taxes from residents—by all ethical and civic standards, its position is unsound. Instead, Amazon is counting on our emotions prevailing—on loyal, tax-savvy customers like me lashing out at our price-hiking legislators. I worry that there’s a good chance Amazon—and people like me—will prevail.

OK, I might quibble with the attribution of the emotional decision being made in one’s ‘gut’, but the essential argument is framed just right. Furthermore, Manjoo correctly concludes that it is entirely possible for us to be swayed by the emotional argument, making this a difficult situation to unpack. But let’s do just that.

Assume for a moment that the purchasing decision is statistical, as it very well may be: imagine some neuronal circuit weighing various possible actions, putting a value on the fairness argument on the one hand (like Manjoo, most of us are able to distinguish between what is fair and what is not), and putting another value on the emotional argument in favour of low prices. Ultimately, it is the neuronal circuit that comes to a conclusion on how to act – this is the stuff of which decisions are made. But I would argue that this decision arises not because, as Hume argued, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” There are lots of instances in which reason prevails over emotion: people don’t cheat on their spouses every time the opportunity arises (at least I don’t think they do). Rather, in this instance, there is self-interest inherent in the emotional argument, and as result the scales tip in its favour.

The moral of the story: “Me” trumps “We”.

Image credit: Ailangel


1 thought on “Me trumps We

  1. Pingback: Neuroscience in the public sphere | Neuroethics at the Core

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