Book review – Why we should spend at the ‘moral market’

2012-11-24 09:32

The Moral Molecule by Paul Zak, Dutton Books, 235 pages, R289

Oxytocin has become almost as famous as testosterone or estrogen as a hormone that most people know something about. But Paul Zak makes a compelling argument that it is even more important.

What was once thought of as just a hormone secreted by breastfeeding mothers so they can bond with their babies, turns out be something that drives almost all human interaction, and is the key to what makes us better people.

Told with great scientific humour, in plain English, Zak’s observations shed light on the mysteries of why men cheat more than women – but also why some men cheat more than other men – why con artists will always have victims, and why the current wisdom taught to economics students is just plain wrong.

In a South African context it is even more important, though, especially towards the end of the book where Zak draws a strong correlation between the amount of tolerance and trust that is unconditionally given in a society and the financial prosperity and social equality of that society.

From one angle, you could conclude that people in richer societies are more tolerant and trusting of one another, but it also seems that once people start to trust one another, they get richer.

On the “intertrust scale”, South Africa is languishing near the bottom of the world’s rankings, unsurprisingly, but this is made up for by our surprisingly high levels of tolerance, though it seems the data this book used on that might have come at a time when all of us were feeling more tolerant towards one another, a quality there seem to be less of with every passing year.

Tolerance is the glue that has kept South Africa together so far, but it’s a fragile gift that we need to build on, to concertedly increase levels of trust in what has become our deeply suspicious society.

To create a “moral market”, we need to make people aware of how connected we all are, putting a focus more on service, and quality and not money (the old bottom line), and finally getting everyone to understand the rather obvious principle that the more people you enrich, and the more widely, the easier it becomes for everyone to become rich, and richer.

And, of course, happier.

It should be obvious that the days of the Gordon Gekkos, who say greed is good and the winner takes all, will be looked back on by future generations as barbaric and misguided.

This book gives powerful evidence as to why this should be so, linked fundamentally to our very biology.

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