How Capitalism Changes Conscience

By: Jonathan Haidt

In: Centers for Humans and Nature

Date: 28 September 2015

Key Concepts:

  • Our world is changing fast.
    • Ecologically, economically, demographically, etc.
  • Most of us are disoriented by these changes.
    • Rapid changes change our ethics.
  • “Most important graph in the world.”

GDP History

The “hockey stick” of rapid recent prosperity. Source: Derek Thompson (2012), based on Angus Maddison data.

    • GDP per capita from the year 1 to the year 2001.
    • Shows how capitalism changed the West and Japan in the blink of an eye.
    • Foretells a similar transformation in the rest of the world.
  • How does this transformation make you “feel”.
    • Asia: people respond positive love to it (prospect of future progress).
    • West: ambivalent, hostile to capitalism (worries about environment, etc.).
  • Rising prosperity changes people – Inglehart-Welzel culture map.
    • Traditional, survival: life is tough and uncertain, religion helps (pre-industrial).
    • Secular, survival: still hard, but materialism increases (exploitative phase).
    • Secular, self-expression: rising security, rights, freedom (expressive phase).
  • Developed world moves towards progressive, left.
    • Consensus on social and environmental issues shifts leftward.
  • Capitalism and the wealth it creates changes nature and humanity simultaneously.
    • Capitalism got us into this ecological mess, back when most people had materialist values and cared little for the environment.[
    • But as values and cultures shift toward post materialism all over the world, capitalism might just get us out.


  • The march from religious survival to secular self-expression perhaps applies to a simple, mechanical world.
  • The world has gotten more connected and complex.
    • Capitalism doesn’t only reduce uncertainty.
    • It can also dramatically increase it for large groups of people.
  • Societies may become more adaptive over time, people may not.
    • Especially under conditions of higher uncertainty.
    • People may become more focused on survival (focus on keeping what I have).
  • Harder to interpret or control impact of capitalism.
    • What are good and what are bad outcomes?
    • Which externalities matter and how much and for whom?
    • Scale and time frame of its impact becomes more extreme over time.

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