Sunday, June 24, 2018

How can people become more open to critical evaluation of their own views?


It might not be obvious to everyone that it is desirable for people to be open to critical examination of their own views. The process of critical examination takes time and energy and can be unsettling. If it leads a person to change his or her view, relatives and friends might disapprove.


What is the problem with immunity to change? One problem is failure to actualize potential. In the first chapter of their book, Immunity to Change: How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey provide evidence suggesting that immunity to change of attitude tends to hinder mental development of adults. Survey data indicates that there is potential for mental development to continue throughout adulthood, at least until old age. Development tends to occur unevenly, with periods of change followed by periods of stability.

Researchers have identified three adult plateaus of development corresponding to different meaning systems that people use to make sense of the world and operate within it:

·         A socialized mind enables an individual to be a faithful follower and team player.

·         A self-authoring mind can generate an internal belief system/ ideology/ personal code and is self-directed. It places priority on receiving the information it has sought and creates a filter which determines what information it allows to come through.

·         A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology and systems of self-organisation. Individuals at this level of mental development value the filter they have created to separate the wheat from the chaff, but they also value information that may alert them to limits of their filter.

Individuals at each successive level of mental development can perform the mental functions of the prior level as well as additional functions. A person who had attained the self-transforming stage of development can be self-authoring when required to develop and execute a plan of action, and can also be a team player when that is appropriate.

Studies involving several hundred participants suggest that most people (58% of respondents) have not attained a self-authoring level of development. Of the remainder, only a tiny percentage have self-transforming minds. The studies probably exaggerate the level of personal development of most of the population because they were skewed towards middle-class professionals.

This research seems highly relevant to questions considered recently on this blog about echo chambers in the social media and the reluctance of many people to listen to opposing viewpoints, as well as to consideration of the ingredients of good leadership. The vast majority of those who aspire to be able to reflect objectively on the limitations of their views of how the world works are likely to be biased against seeking information that might challenge those views.

As the title of the book suggests, Immunity to Change is about overcoming the psychological resistance that that prevent us from making the changes we want to make in our own lives and within organisations. The book is replete with examples, drawn from the extensive consulting experience of the authors, to illustrate how people can identify and deal with hidden fears that prevent them from making the changes they want to make. Most readers of this book are probably aspiring to leadership positions or attempting to change organisations, but much of the material in it is relevant to anyone who is attempting to make changes in their lives.

I will focus here on the approach to overcoming internal resistance that the book might suggest for a person who wants to become more open to critical evaluation of his or her own views on issues that have become highly politicized. I will provide my own responses to the series of questions suggested by the authors, rather than speculate about how others might respond. Hopefully my introspection will have some relevant to others.

1.       What is your improvement goal?

As already noted, I want to be more open to critical evaluation of my views on issues that have become politicised. My reason for doing this is that I suspect the opposing side on such issues might sometimes have genuine concerns that are worth considering.

2.       What are you doing/ not doing instead?

I rarely read opinion pieces by commentators whom I consider likely to be opposed to my views on controversial issues. I have sometimes expressed the view that I need to be paid to read such commentary.

When friends and relatives challenge my views on controversial issues, my response is often overly defensive. I begin such conversations with the intention of ensuring I understand the opposing point of view, but I am easily diverted to point scoring.

3.       What hidden competing commitments prevent achievement of your improvement goal?

When I imagine myself reading commentary that is opposed to my views I feel that I am likely to be bored by a recitation of views that I have previously rejected. It seems like a waste of time. However, I must also acknowledge fear that reading such commentary could be unsettling. The authors of these pieces often do their best to appeal to the emotions of their readers. I acknowledge some concern that I might need to modify my views if I start feeling sympathy for the plight of victims of policies that I support. The hidden commitments underlying those concerns are not feeling unsettled and not being swayed by appeals to emotion.

My defensiveness in conversations on controversial topics with people with opposing viewpoints seems to be related to the tendency for such conversations to degenerate into point-scoring exercises in which participants attempt to attach labels to each other. I am concerned that I might respond in kind if conversation partners disrespect me. The hidden commitments are to avoid being labelled and to avoid losing self-control.

4.       What are the big assumptions that underlie this immune system?

I accept that the hidden commitments identified above act as an immune system to prevent progress toward my improvement goal. I can see why I am unlikely to be able to make much progress merely by forcing myself to read commentary that is opposed to my views, or by telling myself not to become defensive when discussing controversial issues. The hidden commitments identified above have been acting as an anxiety reduction system.

 The authors of Immunity to Change explain the concept of “big assumption” as follows:

"We use the concept of big assumptions to signal that there are some ways we understand ourselves and the world (and the relationship between the world and ourselves) that we do not see as mental constructions. Rather, we see them as truths, incontrovertible facts, accurate representations of how we and the world are.
These constructions of reality are actually assumptions; they may well be true, but they also may not be. When we treat an assumption as if it is a truth, we have made it what we call a big assumption."

The big assumptions underlying the hidden commitments I have identified seem to be related to self-trust. There is an assumption that I can’t trust myself to feel sympathy for the plight of some unfortunate people without losing my mental faculties. There is also an assumption that I can’t trust myself not to lose control if I am disrespected.

Identifying those big assumptions was an “aha” moment for me. The absurdity of the assumptions seemed obvious as soon as they were identified.

However, Kegan and Lahey emphasize that the process of overcoming immunity to change does not end with identifying big assumptions. The next step is to design tests capable of disconfirming the big assumptions. The tests involve changes in usual conduct that generate information that we can reflect upon to challenge the big assumptions. The authors emphasize that the purpose of running the tests is not to see whether performance has improved, but to generate information to provide a learning experience.

This is where my story ends. In writing this article I have ‘tied myself to the mast’ with a public commitment to test my big assumptions. However, it could be counterproductive to disclose what tests I have in mind, and I’m certainly not going to promise to write a sequel to tell you what happens.

Even if it achieves nothing more, this exercise of identifying big assumptions has made me more appreciative that the difficulty other people have in being open to critical evaluation of their own views could well be attributable to deep-seated fears.
I recommend Immunity to Change to anyone struggling to understand why they are having difficulty in making the changes they want to make in their own behaviours.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

What should be done about echo chambers in the social media?



Why bother reading a book by Cass Sunstein which suggests that echo chambers in the social media are becoming a problem for democracy and that something should be done about them? That was a question I had to ask myself before deciding to read Sunstein’s recently published book, Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

The people who are likely to be most enthusiastic about reading this book will be concerned about echo chambers already, and be fans of Sunstein. I was already concerned about echo chambers before reading the book, but reading other books by Sunstein did not induce me to join his fan club. From his interview about this book with Russ Roberts on Econ Talk, I thought some of the views presented would be challenging. 
I was in no hurry to read the book.

That illustrates a problem with echo chambers. Many of us have a tendency to avoid being challenged even when there is potential to learn something useful from people who have opposing viewpoints. I only read the book because I have recently been thinking and writing about the potential benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints.

The book was worth reading to help me clarify my own views. In summary, Sunstein suggests: 
“to the extent that people are using social media to create echo chambers, and wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they are creating serious dangers. And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such”.

The serious dangers that Sunstein is referring to include group polarisation, the spreading of falsehoods within echo chambers, a high degree of social fragmentation and greater difficulty of mutual understanding.

The author doesn’t claim that this is currently the general pattern, or that group polarisation and cybercascades are always bad. He recognizes that it is sometimes good for a perception or point of view to spread rapidly among a group of like-minded people. His claim is that group polarisation can, nevertheless, be a significant risk even if only a small number of people choose to listen and speak solely with those who are like-minded. Enclave deliberation can cause members of groups to move to positions that lack merit e.g. terrorist agendas. “In the extreme case, enclave deliberation may even put social stability at risk”.

Turning to the second part of the quoted passage, readers may wonder how Sunstein can argue that a system of free expression can be consistent with regulation of consumer choices.  His argument seems to rest on two propositions:

·         First, free speech is not an absolute – despite the free speech guarantee in the U.S. constitution, government is permitted to restrict speech in various ways e.g. attempted bribery, criminal conspiracy, child pornography.

·         Second, the free speech principle should be read in light of the commitment to democratic deliberation rather than consumer sovereignty. From the perspective of supporting democratic deliberation, regulation of television, radio and the Internet may be permissible to promote democratic goals.

I’m uneasy about the second proposition. The U.S. Supreme Court would presumably disallow legislation which purported to support democratic deliberation in a manner that conflicted seriously with fundamental freedoms. In parliamentary systems that have no constitutional guarantees of liberty, however, legislative action to support democratic deliberation could be far-reaching and ideological. For example,  it could mandate coverage in school curriculums of the foundations of democracy in the history of western civilization, or alternatively, its foundation in the history of protest movements and revolutions.

The purpose for which Sunstein seeks government action to support democratic deliberation is to ensure a measure of social integration by promoting exposure of people to issues and views that might otherwise escape their attention. He writes:

“A society with general-interest intermediaries, like a society with a robust set of public forums, promotes a shared set of experiences at the same time that it exposes countless people to information and opinions that they would not have sought out in advance. These features of a well-functioning system of free expression might well be compromised when individuals personalize their own communications packages—and certainly if they personalize in a way that narrows their horizons”.

I support those sentiments  but I am wary of government intervention in support of them.  Seemingly benign government action in support of public forums can be counterproductive. I have in mind particularly the Q&A program of Australia’s public broadcaster. This is a taxpayer funded public forum which exposes people to opinions they would not seek to be exposed to. On issues that have become politicized, the people watching the show might be entertained by the antics of those presenting opposing views but are unlikely to have gained a better understanding of the issues.  

There are already many public forums on the Internet. If people choose to join forums that don’t welcome dissent from prevailing views that is akin to people avoiding public places where public demonstrations are held. That choice should be respected. 
If a growing proportion of the population chooses to spend an increasing proportion of their time echo chambers rather than open forums, that is a cultural problem with potential implications for democratic deliberation.  it should be dealt with as a cultural problem rather than a public policy problem.

Those of us who are concerned that echo chambers are becoming more prevalent should remember that sectarian echo chambers have warped democratic deliberation in the past. How were those religion-based echo chambers dismantled? I can’t claim to know much about the history, but I doubt that government intervention played a significant role. It was a cultural shift. It was presumably led by influential people within some factional forums who took a stand in favour of allowing dissenting voices to be heard. Influential people outside the echo chambers must also been active in encouraging individuals to think for themselves rather than to parrot the views of church leaders and sectarian politicians. In many organisations, tolerance of dissent came to be viewed as the norm and thinking for one’s self came to be viewed as a virtue.

Could that happen again?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

What are the ingredients of good leadership?


As I contemplate leadership failures in some major organisations, in Australia and elsewhere, it strikes me that the people responsible for those failures have not been meeting the norms of behaviour expected of responsible adults. For example, it doesn’t seem like responsible adult behaviour to persist in charging customers for services that they haven’t received.

That has me wondering whether the prevailing emphasis on inspiring organisational leadership rather than efficient administration could be responsible for a decline in the quality of senior executives. It seems to have become possible for some people to rise to the top by learning how to present a vision and flatter stakeholders, without acquiring management skills and business ethics along the way. Perhaps we are seeing a shallow leadership culture displacing the long-standing management culture that encouraged business leaders to take pride in being trustworthy.


Should the gurus who began promoting an emphasis on organisational leadership about 30 years ago be held responsible for the shallowness of leadership in some modern organisations today?  As that question arose in my mind I decided to revisit a book that I had read about 30 years ago - On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, a famous leadership guru. I had a vague recollection that Bennis argued that organisations need leaders, not managers. 
My recollection was correct. The book contains a heading: “Leaders, Not Managers”. Under that heading there is a list of differences between leaders and managers. For example: “The manager administers; the leader innovates” and “The manager has his eye always on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon”. I don’t see recognition that organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.

However, the concept of leadership that Bennis advanced is far from shallow. He can’t be held responsible for readers who think leadership just involves mastering jargon about visions and stakeholders.

Bennis presents the view that “leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully”. He explains:

“The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world, and the key to understanding is learning – from one’s own life and experience”.

Bennis lists the ingredients of leadership as: a guiding vision; the passion to pursue that vision; integrity (encompassing self-knowledge, candour and maturity); trustworthiness; and curiosity and daring.

Those seem to be characteristics that would be displayed by any flourishing adult. As noted in an earlier post, human flourishing also requires alertness to the new opportunities emerging in changing circumstances.

That makes me to wonder whether there is any difference between the characteristics of a good leader and those displayed by any flourishing adult human. Toastmasters International, an organisation dedicated to assisting members to acquire leadership skills, as well as to improve communication skills, suggests one possible difference: “Great leaders inspire others to follow them”.

That difference is probably not important. Flourishing adults tend to display attributes required to attract followers, even when they don’t seek to be followed. They can’t avoid setting an example of behaviour that some others might choose to follow. As implied in the mission of Toastmasters clubs, the development of communication and leadership skills results in “greater self-confidence and personal growth”.

Perhaps I should try to sum up. It does seem possible that recent leadership problems in some major organisations are attributable to a shallow leadership culture. Some of these problems might have been avoided with a more conventional management culture - less emphasis on public relations and more emphasis on maintaining efficient and ethical management practices. Leadership gurus, such as Warren Bennis, might have contributed to such problems by downplaying the importance management skills. Nevertheless, the ingredients of leadership identified by Bennis are characteristics of flourishing adults - people who act with integrity. Organisations need leaders who have both high-level management and leadership capabilities.

 One question which I have not addressed is whether it is possible to identify intermediate stages in acquiring leadership capabilities. Do you have to learn to think for yourself before you can be a leader? Does Robert Kegan’s concept of self-authoring represent an intermediate stage in development of leadership capabilities?

Friday, May 11, 2018

Why ask questions?



Ruins of the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi where  “Know Thyself” was inscribed.



When I started blogging, about a decade ago, I decided that the title of each article would be a question. That seemed like a good way to explore the relationship between freedom and flourishing. As I saw it, the response to each question would lead to further questions. Looking back, the scope of the blog has been broader, and the exploration process less orderly, than I had originally envisaged, but I am still asking questions.

Asking questions makes me it easier for me to stay on topic when I am writing. It also prompts me to reconsider whether I am answering the right question. I have found it is not easy to ask questions that get to the heart of an issue if you don’t know much about it. I have often revised questions in the middle of writing an article as I have learned more about the subject matter.

Not long after I started blogging one of my friends asked me if I was aware of Betteridge’s law that any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. At the time my response was that Betteridge’s law didn’t apply to my blog because a yes or no answer was not applicable to most of the questions I asked myself. That is still the case. Of the 19 questions considered in the blog over the last year, there were only 4 that could be answered yes or no and there was an even split between positive and negative answers.

Another friend made the comment that the approach I had adopted on my blog was somewhat Socratic. I doubted whether that was so, but I knew little about Socrates. A few weeks ago I decided that it was time I learned more about Socrates.

Socrates didn’t leave behind any books for us to read but it is possible to obtain a reasonably clear picture of his views from what others have written. The most important source is Plato, who was a follower of Socrates, but Plato seems to have used Socrates as a spokesman for his own views in some of the dialogues. I am relying here on Luis Navia’s book, Socrates: A life examined, which uses some other sources – including Xenophon and Aristotle - to distinguish the views of Socrates from those of Plato.

Socrates seems to have been a gregarious man who went around Athens talking to all sorts of people and asking them philosophical questions. He was loved and admired by a small group of devoted friends. It seems likely that most Athenians viewed him as an eccentric figure and were indifferent to his philosophical preoccupations. However, a few influential citizens viewed him as “a dangerous man who would question and challenge the beliefs and practices of the state religion” and “pour contempt on long-established political practices and customs”. That led an Athenian jury to find him guilty of irreligiosity and to sentence him to death in 399 BC, when he was 71 years of age.

Are the views of Socrates relevant to us today? One view that seems highly relevant is the idea that it is possible to obtain wisdom on ethical questions. Socrates rejected the relativism of the Sophists - teachers of rhetoric and public relations - who believed that ethical values were meaningless. The Sophists apparently believed that it is impossible to determine what is good or bad, right or wrong. I guess that Socrates would encourage us to view the core values of organisations – which often include integrity and similar concepts – as meaningful. He would discourage us from following the post-modern view that promises to adhere to such core values should be viewed as merely public relations exercises.

Socratic dialogue is also relevant to us today. For Socrates, the search for wisdom was based on the dictum “Know Thyself”. The point of departure of the dialogue was Socrates’ confession of ignorance about the correct definition of a moral state or mode of behaviour and his request to a companion to explain the concept. The explanation led to further questions, which uncovered inconsistencies in the view originally expressed. It was common for the discussion to end inconclusively, leaving the companion confused, but perhaps stimulated to think more deeply.

Luis Navia suggests that for Socrates the rigorously methodic and painfully honest examination of the things we say brings to light the thoughts that ultimately structure who we are. He suggests that Socrates’ goal was the unveiling of the human soul:

“Nothing is more important, nothing more urgent, than understanding who we are. This is the meaning of that memorable statement … : ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’."

I have also consulted a book by Richard Paul and Linda Elder entitled The Art of Socratic Questioning, to obtain a contemporary view of this topic. The book is full of questions that might be useful to teachers and other leaders of group discussions. The authors suggest that as well as serving the purpose of helping students to distinguish what they know and understand from what they don’t know and understand Socratic questioning can “ help students acquire the powerful tools of Socratic dialogue, so that they can use these tools in everyday life (in questioning themselves and others)”.

The authors identify four directions in which we can pursue questions about a belief:

·         How did you come to believe that?

·         What reasons, evidence or assumptions underly that belief?

·         What are the implications of that belief?

·         What opposing thoughts or objections would others raise, and how would you respond to them?

If we practice disciplined, self-directed questioning we have potential to be able to cultivate the “inner voice of reason”. This has potential to help us in many aspects of life, including blogging.

So, has the approach I have adopted on my blog been “somewhat Socratic”? The main Socratic element has been the initial question, which is the title of each article. It might be a good idea to make the blog somewhat more Socratic by making some future post specifically about question/problem definition.  For example: What are the underlying questions that need to be considered to come to grips with issue X, Y or Z?

Perhaps this post has raised more questions than it has answered. What important questions have I left unanswered?

Friday, April 27, 2018

Is Steven Pinker too optimistic about the future of liberal democracy?


Steven Pinker’s aim in Enlightenment Now, The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” and to show that those ideals have worked to enhance human flourishing.

In response to one of Pinker’s earlier books I was prompted to consider whether Enlightenment humanism is the coherent world view that he claims it to be. In this book Pinker makes clear that he views “the ideals of the Enlightenment” to be synonymous with the open society and classical liberalism.  He argues that four themes tie the ideas of the Enlightenment together: an insistence on applying reason to understand our world; use of the methods of science; humanism, defined in terms of a focus on the happiness of individuals rather than the glory of tribes, races, nations or religions; and the hope for progress through political institutions that are conducive to human flourishing. Pinker regards liberal democracy as “an Enlightenment-inspired institution” and “a precious achievement”.

In my view Pinker succeeds admirably in showing that for the last two and a half centuries application of those Enlightenment ideals has enhanced individual human flourishing. Much of the book is devoted to evidence of the massive progress that has been made in the quality of life enjoyed by people on this planet over that period. I recommend this book and Max Roser’s Our World in Data web site (the source of much of Pinker’s data) to anyone who needs reminding that ‘the good old days’ were not so great.

Turning to the future, Pinker is more of a hopeful realist than an optimist. He recognises that “the darker sides of human nature – tribalism, authoritarianism and magical thinking – aided by the Second Law of Thermodynamics” have potential to push us back. In an early chapter he points out that in a world governed by entropy and evolution, the default state of humankind is characterized by disease, poverty and violence. A large and growing proportion of humanity have been able to escape from the default state through ongoing adherence to the norms and institutions fostered by the Enlightenment.

As I see it, the prospects for further progress in human flourishing in the liberal democracies will be strongly influenced the effectiveness of this form of government in delivering economic policies conducive to ongoing productivity growth. Productivity growth will obviously be required if people continue to aspire to have higher disposable incomes, but it will also be required to generate the additional taxation revenue needed to prevent public debt spiralling out of control. That is because spending on social welfare programs – particularly health care and retirement benefits - is likely to rise as the proportion of elderly people rises. Resort to higher tax rates would be likely to have adverse effects on incentives to work, save and invest, and thus reduce productivity growth.

Pinker notes that with stronger safety nets in place, the poverty rate for elderly people in the United States has plunged since the 1960s and is now below that for younger people. However, generous safety nets have a down-side. People in the liberal democracies face traumatic adjustments in the years ahead if governments are unable to meet public expectations of ongoing funding of existing programs at current levels.

Pinker recognizes low productivity growth and “authoritarian populism” as potential threats to human progress but does not draw out the links between these threats. Most of the populists that he is concerned about do not strike me as being particularly authoritarian, in the sense of enforcing strict obedience to authority. Nevertheless, they are stasists, seeking to undermine the Enlightenment values that have enabled technological progress and international trade to contribute massively to human flourishing since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Pinker’s discussion of the recent causes of low productivity growth is adequate, as far as it goes, but he fails to emphasize the potential for additional damage to be done by populist politicians seeking to capitalise on fears of the disruptive impacts of globalisation and technological progress.  

Pinker makes the important observation:

A challenge for our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism”.

He is scathing in his description of current electoral politics:

Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people”.

In support of this assertion Pinker cites: the rational ignorance of voters; the bundling of disparate issues to appeal to a coalition of voters with geographic, racial, and ethnic constituencies; and media that “cover elections like horse races, and analyse issues by pitting ideological hacks against each other in screaming matches”. He notes:

“All these features steer people away from reasoned analysis and towards perfervid self-expression”.

Pinker’s suggests that for public discourse to become more rational, issues should be depoliticized as much as possible. His discussion of the ways in which issues become politicised and proposals for depoliticization of issues was covered in my last post on the benefits of listening to opposing viewpoints. His discussion ends by noting that the discovery of political tribalism as an “insidious form of irrationality” is “still fresh and largely unknown”. He appeals to readers:

However long it takes, we must not let the existence of cognitive and emotional biases or the spasms of irrationality in the political arena to discourage us from the
Enlightenment ideal of relentlessly pursuing reason and truth”
.

Pinker may not sound particularly optimistic about the future of liberal democracy, but he may well be too optimistic. Unfortunately, in addition to the irrationality he discusses, we are also confronted by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin liberal democracy. As explained by James Buchanan (see this post for the reference) failure of the liberal order is becoming increasingly likely as a higher proportion of the population becomes dependent on government and voters increasingly seek to use the political process to obtain benefits at the expense of others.  

We seem to be heading toward what might be described as a democratic tragedy. As noted in an earlier post, when interest groups view the coercive power of the state as a common pool resource to be used for the benefits of their members, the adverse impact of tax and regulation on incentives for productive activity is likely to result in outcomes that will be detrimental for everyone. The incentives facing individual interest groups in that situation are similar to those facing users of common pool resources in the absence of norms of restraint.

Perhaps, as more people come to recognize that liberal democracy is confronted by deep problems, efforts will be made to reform political institutions to produce better outcomes. It is not obvious how that can be achieved, but we should not allow ignorance to prevent us from seeking solutions.

In my view Seven Pinker is on the right track in urging people to be hopeful:

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing”.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What is to be gained by listening to opposing viewpoints?




It is comforting to listen to people espouse views like our own. Perhaps it makes us feel that our views are being validated.

Listening to an opposing viewpoint can feel challenging. There are several reasons for that. There may be times when we are not in the mood for the intellectual stimulation involved in considering the merits and demerits of an opposing viewpoint.

A more deep-seated reason for feeling challenged arises when we identify strongly with views that are being attacked. We may even feel offended. That has traditionally been seen to be likely when views on politics, religion and sex are being criticized. Ethnicity and culture should be added to that list. People also tend to be highly offended if anyone casts aspersions on the sporting teams they support.

However, taking offence is optional. Many Collingwood supporters, and many people of Irish and Scottish descent even seem to be able to see the humour in some of the jokes made at their expense.

From my childhood memories, in the farming community in which our family lived in the 1950s, there seemed to be greater willingness to listen to opposing political viewpoints than exists anywhere today. There seemed to be widespread acceptance that you need to listen to opposing political viewpoints if you want to argue against them effectively. People steered clear of discussion of religious differences and if anyone had views about sex and marriage that were at variance with conventional morality they didn’t discuss them openly.

The civility of the participants is obviously an important determinant of the amount of heat generated when contentious political issues are discussed. From my own experience, and limited discussions with others, I have the impression that in the 1950s people were generally more intent than they are now on maintaining civility when participating in political discussions. It seemed common for discussions to end in a meeting of minds on some points and respectful disagreement on others. Occasionally, when one of the main participants was intent on giving offence, discussions would end in an exchange of insults, or worse.

Have people become more open to listening to opposing views on other contentious issues since the 1950s?  A few years ago, I would have argued that the shibboleths had diminished as the major religions had become more tolerant of each other and a revolution in attitudes had caused many people to moderate their views of sexual morality.

It now seems that the old shibboleths have been replaced as new issues have become politicised. When issues become politicised it now seems to be much more common for people to parrot the views of the leaders of their political tribe and to refuse to consider opposing viewpoints. The art of listening seems to be disappearing from the public realm.

Steven Pinker has an interesting discussion of the politicization of issues in his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. He refers to research by the Dan Kahan, a legal scholar, who argues that bitter public disputes over science are now “the exception rather than the rule”. The exception arises when certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. To help make this point Kahan refers to recent U.S. history regarding vaccines for Hepatitis B and the HPV virus (a major cause of cervical cancer). Both vaccines prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Hep B vaccination has apparently been accepted without much opposition, but HPV vaccination has become a political firestorm because of fears that it would encourage teenage promiscuity. Kahan suggests that the difference stems from the way the two vaccines were introduced.  Hep B vaccination was treated as a routine public health matter, but the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine lobbied state legislatures to make vaccination of adolescent girls mandatory. Kahan’s view is supported by Australian experience of a voluntary HPV vaccination program being introduced successfully without the issue becoming politicised.

Issues often become politicized when they are taken up by political leaders. For example, it seems likely that by politicising the global warming debate, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth made it more difficult for conservatives to acknowledge the merits of any proposed policy action on climate change.

The media also plays a role in politicising issues by converting disagreement on public policy into a spectator sport.  In my view Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, is a major offender. The ABC’s charter requires it to inform and entertain, but unfortunately does not require it to encourage the reasoned debate and respectful disagreement necessary for liberal democracy to function effectively. In particular, the Q&A program seems to me to be designed to politicize policy debate. It entertains viewers by providing a forum for activist and conservative tribes to clash on totemic issues. Although some panellists and audience participants do their best to engage in reasoned debate, it would be difficult for any viewers to obtain a better understanding of alternative viewpoints from this program.

How can we have a useful exchange of views on issues that have become politicised? In a recent article on this blog I suggested that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings. That is rarely straight forward, of course, because interpretation of experience is not immune to ideological bias. But it is still good advice!

It can also be useful to ask people to explain views you disagree with, rather than asserting that they are talking nonsense. Steven Pinker notes that when people are asked to explain an opinion they often realize that they don’t know what they are talking about and become more open to counter-arguments. That is more likely to occur when they are aware that someone is listening intently to the answer they are giving.

This view is consistent with Leah Goldrick’s conclusion in a recent article about the know-it-all syndrome. On her blog, Common Sense Ethics, Leah writes:

“Thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. This is why doubt, not certainty, is so important. Doubt is the starting place that leads us to question the assumptions that have lead us to a particular conclusion, and doubt is what drives us to learn more if we will humble ourselves enough to consider that we may be wrong. Constant learning, from a place of humble confidence, rather than a place of arrogance, is the antidote to know-it-all syndrome”.

You are more likely to have useful exchanges of view if you “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. That is one of the rules that Jordan Peterson lists in his recent book, 12 Rules for Life (recently reviewed on this blog). Peterson suggests that we remain threatened by disease, self-deception, unhappiness and many other causes of suffering because we are too ignorant to protect ourselves. There is always potential for us to improve our own lives if we respect the personal experience of our conversational partners.

Some of my readers may be wondering whether there is any organisation they could joint to help cultivate a listening culture and improved communication in the community in which they live. A few weeks ago, the realisation dawned on me that for the past 16 years I have been a member of an organisation whose founder believed that “in bringing improvement in the way of better thinking, better listening, better speaking to individuals we are contributing to the improvement of the society which is made up of these individuals”. The quote is from an article by Ralph Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International, which appeared in the February 1958 issue of The Toastmaster. (The article, entitled, ‘The Toastmasters Club … Its Meaning and Values’, has been reproduced in Personally Speaking: Selections from the Writings of Dr Ralph C Smedley.)

The mission of Toastmasters is to develop communication and leadership skills of individual members so that they can achieve greater self-confidence and personal growth. The benefits that can bring to the lives of individual members are obvious but, as Ralph Smedley maintained, members of Toastmasters - now numbering more than 352,00 – also have an opportunity to contribute to “the building of a better society made up of individuals who must act in groups”.

Monday, March 26, 2018

How many rules for life can you remember?


A few hours after I had finished reading Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos” I thought it might be interesting to see how many of his rules I could remember.
I remembered: stand up straight; use your past performance as a benchmark for comparison rather than other people; have meaningful objectives; don’t let your children do anything that makes you dislike them; be a good listener; be precise in your speech; tell the truth; and the one about setting your house in “perfect” order before you criticize the world. That is 8 out of 12. The rules are paraphrased as I remembered them rather than quoted directly.

I would not have much trouble explaining in terms of my own experiences why I remembered some of those rules. For example, the lessons that I had about 20 years ago in the Alexander technique left me with some knowledge of the links between posture, attitude and intention, as well as scepticism about the utility of the injunction to “stand up straight”. I remembered the rule about setting your house in perfect order before you criticize the world because I doubt whether anyone ever has their house in “perfect order”. I certainly have no intention of refraining from criticism of the views of “the radical left” until I get my house in “perfect” order.

The four rules that didn’t come readily to mind were: “treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”; “make friends with people who want the best for you”; “do not bother children when they are skateboarding”; and “pet a cat when you encounter one in the street”. The meaning of the last couple of rules is not self-evident. The one about skateboarding is mainly about encouraging boys to acquire manly virtues. The one about petting a cat seems to be about taking advantage of opportunities to notice that we live in a wonderful world, despite the suffering that is attendant upon existence. That is just my interpretation. As Nathan Robinson has noted, Jordan Peterson does not always abide by his own rule to “be precise in your speech”.

My purpose in revealing how many, or how few, of the 12 rules for life I remembered is to open discussion about the accessibility of the rules Dr Peterson has offered, rather than to confess the imperfections of my memory. A month, or so, after reading Peterson’s book a few cult followers will remember all his rules, but I doubt whether many other readers will remember more than 1 or 2 of them. That is because Jordan Peterson’s selection of rules seems arbitrary, and he has failed to organise them in a systematic way that might make them easily accessible.

The best way I can illustrate the arbitrary nature of Dr Peterson’s rules is by referring to the 12 rules for life that Russ Roberts developed for himself after interviewing Jordan Peterson. Although Roberts acknowledges that his list of 12 rules for life was inspired by Peterson - and there is a lot of overlap between the sentiments covered in both lists - they look quite different. There are also differences in emphasis. For example, the first rule on Roberts’ list, learn to enjoy saying “I don’t know”, might be implied by Peterson’s rules about telling the truth and listening, but in my view, he doesn’t give this rule as much prominence as it deserves. If other people can develop a different set of rules for life, it is reasonable to ask what would make Peterson’s list superior to one that might be drawn up during a brain storming session by any randomly selected group of people.  

Dr Peterson’s list of rules would be more memorable if they were related in an obvious way to a central organising principle. His book has underlying themes, but those themes are not evident in his list of rules. Perhaps someone could develop a mnemonic to help people remember the items on his list, but that would trivialize the whole exercise.

As I read through the 12 rules, the rule “pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” strikes me as being of central importance. Dr Peterson’s offers several definitions of meaning, all poetic rather than precise.  The definition that seems to come closest to the central theme of his book is this one:

Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order, whose purpose is to produce out of the attendant chaos a new order that will be even more immaculate, and capable of bringing forth a still more balanced and productive chaos and order. Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that” (p 201). 

That passage brings to mind an attempt I made a few years ago to understand the meaning of Dao. We can feel that we have some understanding of Dao, but it is difficult to be precise in our speech about it. My limited understanding left me feeling that it is wise to proceed with minimal rules, waiting to observe how things develop, and redirecting with minimal effort the things that are subject to our influence. I’m not sure that Jordan Peterson would agree.

If I push myself to be precise, what I would mean by pursuing what is meaningful, is pursuing what is important to you in the various domains of life.

In the personal domain we seek to understand what we know and what we don’t know, where we have been, where we are now, what we value, and what values we want to be expressed by the persons we are becoming. Our values determine our intentions, our attitudes and our posture. We want to improve, so we focus on our intentions in what we do, rather than our expectations of how we will perform based on how we have performed in the past. We measure our performance by comparison with our own past, rather than the performance of other people. We treat ourselves like persons we are responsible for coaching. We seek friends who want the best for us, providing encouragement and taking us to task as appropriate.

As regards interpersonal relations, we seek to place particular importance on authenticity and trustworthiness. We listen to what others have to say because they may know something that we don’t.  We seek to be precise and forthright in communication. We encourage our loved ones to behave in ways that will enable them to be widely liked and respected.

We approach the world with humility. We don’t seek to govern the lives of other people because we know the shortcomings in our governance of our own lives. We avoid the temptation to be over-protective of young people because they have to learn from experience how to take responsibility for their own lives.

So, that probably covers more than enough rules for life. If you can only remember one rule, the most important rule is to remember to do what is important.  That rule in particularly useful to remember when you find yourself falling into the trap of trying to avoid negative thoughts and feelings. Doing expedient things to make yourself feel better is likely to end up making your life more chaotic.

I would like to end this somewhat critical post by acknowledging that there is much that I like about Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. In fact, my main point is that it is unfortunate that the author has not found a way to make the messages of the book more memorable.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Is John Locke responsible for the failings of liberal democracy?



The liberalism that Patrick Deneen writes about in his recent book, Why Liberalism Failed, is the set of principles upon which liberal democracies are built. This set of principles encompasses the classical liberalism favoured by many who would like to reduce the dependence of citizens on government, as well as the progressive liberalism of those who see a role for government in supporting emancipative values.

In my view Deneen makes many good points. Having just finished reading and writing about The Meaning of Democracy by Vincent Ostrom I welcome Deneen’s further reminder that citizens of the United States (and other liberal democracies) no longer display the intense commitment toward democratic citizenship at a local level observed by Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the 1830s. I welcome Deneen’s view that “politics and human community must percolate from the bottom up, from experience and practice”. I welcome his support for practices “that sustain culture within communities, the fostering of household economics, and ‘polis life’, or forms of self-governance that arise from shared civic participation”. I welcome his acceptance that the achievements of liberalism “must be acknowledged” and that we “must build on those achievements”. I also welcome that Deneen’s book is much easier to read than Ostom’s book.

Unfortunately, Deneen’s book is based on a monstrous error. The error I refer to is not directly linked to his criticism of globalization and technological progress, his forecast of growing inequality, or his fears about “rapacious exploitation of resources”. Some of what he writes on those topics is in error, but in my view those errors are balanced to a large extent by insightful comments about education and politics, and his acknowledgement that “there can be no going back”. (Deneen’s negativity about the modern world leaves me with a strong desire for an antidote. My desire to read Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s latest book, has suddenly become more urgent.)

Deneen’s monstrous error stems from his mis-reading of John Locke:

Both Hobbes and Locke—but especially Locke—understand that liberty in our prepolitical condition is limited not only by the lawless competition of other individuals but by our recalcitrant and hostile natures. A main goal of Locke’s philosophy is to expand the prospects for our liberty—defined as the capacity to satisfy our appetites—through the auspices of the state. Law is not a discipline for self-government but the means for expanding personal freedom: ‘The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom’.” (p 47-48).

Deneen has taken the quoted sentence about the “end of law” from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. However, in the paragraph from which the quoted sentence is taken, Locke was actually writing about the discipline of self-government rather than law provided “through the auspices of the state”. The paragraph begins:

The law, that was to govern Adam, was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason”.

Locke goes on to imply that everyone has to learn “the use of reason” before they can know where their “proper interest” lies. It is in the context of writing about “the law of reason” that Locke notes:

“the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: for in all the states of created beings capable of laws, ‘where there is no law, there is no freedom’ for liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others”.

Locke implies that “the law of reason” is linked to norms of reciprocity: “for who could be free, when every other man’s humour might domineer over him”. See: Second Treatise of Government, para 57.

In The Nature and Purposes of Government: a Lockean View, Linda Raeder has carefully noted the vast difference between Hobbesian and Lockean views of the state of nature. While Hobbes saw the state of nature as a “war of all against all”, Locke saw it as being governed by natural law. Linda Raeder notes that Locke’s particular formulation of the law of nature “carried forward a longstanding tradition that ascribes an intrinsic moral dimension to human nature”.  According to that view all humans “possess an inherent ability to distinguish between right and wrong” and “every human being knows, as Locke says, that he is obliged, ‘as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind’.” (Raeder, loc 465)

Why do I view Deneen’s mis-reading of John Locke a monstrous error? If Deneen had read Locke more carefully he could not claim:

Liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires” (p 37).

Nor could he claim:

“Liberalism’s ascent and triumph required sustained efforts to undermine the classical and Christian understanding of liberty, the disassembling of widespread norms, traditions, and practices, and perhaps above all the reconceptualization of primacy of the individual defined in isolation from arbitrary accidents of birth, with the state as the main protector of individual rights and liberty” (p 27).

If Deneen had not misread Locke his central thesis about the contradictions inherent within classical liberalism would fall apart. He could not claim:

“Liberalism has failed—not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded. As liberalism has “become more fully itself,” as its inner logic has become more evident and its self-contradictions manifest, it has generated pathologies that are at once deformations of its claims yet realizations of liberal ideology” (p 3).

If we want to understand why liberal democracy is becoming “a war of all against all” we need to understand why the norms underlying it are breaking down, despite the efforts of classical liberals to uphold them. Why is it that people now exercise less restraint in the demands that they make on others through the political process? Why is it that those whose tax payments fund transfers through the political process increasingly consider themselves to be exploited? We can’t blame John Locke, or his classical liberal followers for the failings of liberal democracy.

Despite my misgivings about Why Liberalism Failed I am grateful to Patrick Deneen for drawing attention to the importance of the exit rights advocated by classical liberals. In discussing how self-governing communities might emerge, he writes:

“For a time, such practices will be developed within intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society. They will be regarded as ‘options’ within the liberal frame, and while suspect in the broader culture, largely permitted to exist so long as they are nonthreatening to the liberal order’s main business” (p 179).

That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the exit rights that Locke and Jefferson helped to have recognized as core values of western civilization. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the opportunity to note that the author is pointing to a means whereby liberalism could transform itself rather than fail.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What kind of governance would emerge if we insisted that we are individually responsible for fashioning mutually beneficial relationships with others?


This post begins where the preceding post ended. I suggested there that conditions most favourable to human flourishing would emerge in “self-organizing and self-governing societies” in which each person “is first his or her own governor and is then responsible for fashioning mutually productive relationships with others”.  That is the description of self-organizing and self-governing societies provided by Vincent Ostrom in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies (1997, p 84).

Ostrom argued that it is “within families and other institutional arrangements characteristic of neighbourhood, village, and community life that citizenship is learned and practiced for most people most of the time”. This is where people learn to be self-governing, by learning how to live and work with others. (p x)

He explained that in face-to-face relationships associated with activities entered voluntarily for mutual benefit people also learn to exercise power with others rather than power over others. The exercise of power with others implies a willingness to take account of the interest of others in "patterns of social accountability." The democratic form of governance that evolves under those circumstances is likely to be characterised by “mutual understandings grounded in common knowledge, agreeable patterns of accountability, and mutual trust” (p 287).

Vincent Ostrom’s views on the benefits of decentralized governance for human flourishing were based partly on the empirical research on governance arrangements conducted with Elinor Ostrom at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University. Aspects covered in this research included urban policing, irrigation systems, and forest resource management. Lin Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work showing that common pool resources could often be successfully managed by user associations.

The history of decentralized governance, particularly in the United States, also provided Vincent Ostrom with evidence that self-governing societies were practicable. He observed:

“The American federalists and Tocqueville were able to conceive how democracy as a form of government could be used to craft the architecture of authority relationships in ways that were constitutive of what could appropriately be conceptualized as self-governing societies. Such concepts drew on prior experiences in consti­tuting free cities, monastic orders, religious congregations, merchant soci­eties, craft guilds, associations among peasants, markets, and other pat­terns of human association” (p 280).

Why have many functions previously performed by voluntary associations and local government been centralized, leaving citizens to be passive consumers of services with no direct role in management? It is easy enough to identify who might benefit from centralization. Access to central pools of funding have offered service providers the prospect of higher pay. Bureaucrats have been offered vast opportunities for career advancement. Centralization of funding has offered many consumers the prospect of getting someone else to help pay for services they consume.

Centralisation of service delivery has also promised lower cost service provision resulting from scale economies. However, such benefits have been offset to some extent by inefficient work practices associated with centralized bureaucracies. Lower costs could have been achieved with greater certainty if decentralized governance had been retained, with service delivery contracted out to the private sector.

Some readers might suspect that Vincent Ostrom was a reactionary, vainly seeking a return to the village life of a bygone era. He is more appropriately viewed as a scholar seeking progress toward a science of citizenship. In the final chapter of this book he writes optimistically:

“A quest for conflict resolution consistent with the reestablishment of communities of associated relationships based again on precepts of covenantal relationships is the way for maintaining the covenantal character of self-governing societies through time and across generations. Such an approach is facilitative of innovations consis­tent with standards of enlightenment, freedom, justice, reciprocity, and mutual trust in patterns of order in human societies” (p 280).

It is hard to know how sufficient numbers of citizens might eventually decide to insist that assign­ments of authority under current legislation be made subject to challenge and contestation by groups who want to be self-organizing and self-governing. Perhaps this will emerge from the slow train wreck now occurring in bureaucracies of even the older-established democracies as they experience increasing difficulty in meeting the expectations of voters. To reduce costs, greater efforts may be made to provide social safety nets in a manner consistent with contestable service delivery. Increasing efforts may be made to involve community groups in service delivery. Volunteers, who are still active in many areas of service delivery, may seek greater involvement in decision-making. We may also see more community groups seeking to opt out of centralised provision of social services to obtain services more closely attuned to their requirements.