Saturday, October 6, 2018

Does the I-You relation enter into every aspect of the moral life?



Roger Scruton argues in On Human Nature that the “I-You relation enters essentially into every aspect of the moral life”.

That strikes me as an exaggeration. Examples readily come to mind of the exercise of the traditional virtues of prudence (practical wisdom) and temperance (moderation) that do not involve other people. We can make the ethical judgement it is good to exercise practical wisdom by managing our food intake and exercising regularly without considering possible benefits that might have for others. We can make the ethical judgement that it is good to be able to respond with moderation when our computers misbehave, even if there are no other humans nearby to witness unrestrained emotional outbursts.

So, why does Scruton take such an extreme position on the importance of the I-You relation? Scruton follows Stephen Darwall, who argues that the moral life depends on the “second-person standpoint” – the standpoint of someone whose reasons and conduct are essentially addressed to others. In attempting to explain that proposition, Scruton argues that it is “only because we enter into free relations with others that we can know ourselves in the first person”. He presents two supporting arguments – one from language and one from recognition.

The argument from language, associated with Wittgenstein, is that first-person awareness arises from mastery of a public language and recognition that others are using the word I as I do, to express what they think or feel directly.

The argument from recognition, associated with Hegel, is based on the claim that in a state of nature, motivated only by my desires and needs, I am conscious, but without the sense of self. The sense of self arises from encounters with other humans and the struggle for survival.

It seems to me that the argument from language fails because it does not explain why first-person awareness would depend on having words to express what that feels like.

The argument from recognition fails because it does not explain why it is necessary to identify other humans as having self-awareness before being aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Indeed, it is not clear how any individual human can ever be certain that other humans are self-aware – we assume that others are self-aware as we observe their behaviour because of introspection about the way our own actions are related to our thoughts and feelings.

Within a few decades, we could well be assuming that some robots are self-aware because they seem to behave as though they are self-aware. Incidentally, just now when I asked Siri if she is self-aware, her response was: “Not that I am aware of”. I expect she has been programmed to make that response, but it is the kind of response one might expect from a self-aware human trying to appear to be clever.

In attempting to provide a functional explanation of self-awareness, it is not clear why Roger Scruton gives so much credence to the speculations of Hegel. He persuaded me earlier in the book that much human behaviour, including laughter, can be better understood in terms of its social meaning rather than evolutionary causes. But evolutionary causes are pertinent to functional explanations. We should not lightly dismiss the possibility that self-awareness provided evolutionary advantages to the individuals who possessed it by helping them to survive terrifying solitary endeavours, as well as to compete with and to cooperate with other humans.

Of course, we don’t need to ask how we came to have self-awareness if we acknowledge that the fundamental problem of ethics is taking responsibility for how we live all aspects of our lives. It is sufficient to acknowledge that we have self-awareness, which entails the ability to reflect upon our own behaviour, feelings and thoughts.

The template of responsibility, advocated by Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in The Perfectionist Turn, bases ethics on “the existential fact that we must make something of our lives”:

“For the template of responsibility, the basis for determining worthiness is human flourishing or wellbeing of some sort. Its ultimate value is integrity. Integrity expresses itself interpersonally in honour but when applied to the agent herself, the term ‘integrity’ signifies a coherent, integral whole of virtues and values, allowing for consistency between word and deed and for reliability in action” (p 20).

By contrast to the template of responsibility, the template of respect refers to the view that ethics as essentially about relations among persons. Den Uyl and Rasmussen note that Stephen Darwall’s second person perspective provide a prime example of the template of respect. Darwall’s perspective leads him to the view that ethics is essentially a social or communal phenomenon. He sees our sociable nature as giving rise to moral obligations conceived in juridical terms. Den Uyl and Rasmussen comment:

“Darwell wants to suggest that it is only reasoned and reasonable claims and demands that we can make upon one another. And yet, unless a determination of what is reasonable is left to individuals, there is … nothing beyond the grasp of what might potentially become the subject of publicly dictated forms of claiming and demanding” (p 167).

(The Perfectionist Turn has been previously discussed on this blog: here, here and here.)

In the hands of Roger Scruton, the founding of ethics in the I-You relation leads eventually to approval of Hegel’s assertion that the dialectical opposition between the family, as a sphere of pious obligations, and the market, as a sphere of free choice and contract, “is transcended and preserved in a higher form of unchosen obligation – that towards the state”. Scruton asserts:

“The bond of allegiance that ties us to the state is again a bond of piety”.

In Roger Scruton’s framework, ethical conduct almost seems to be equated with accepting obligations and following rules, rather than accepting responsibility for one’s own actions. To his credit, he condemns the commandants of concentration camps “given to obeying orders and willing to sacrifice their conscience to their own security when the time to disobey had come”. But he doesn’t seem to understand that people who feel a bond of piety to the state are likely to be particularly challenged when it comes to knowing when the time has come to disobey.

Before concluding, I want to note that I enjoyed reading On Human Nature, despite the impression that might be given by what I have written above. I found Roger Scruton’s discussion of the limitations of the explanations offered by evolutionary biology to be particularly illuminating.  

Friday, September 21, 2018

Why read a book providing advice to radicals?


I doubt whether many people would consider me to be a radical, even though I look forward to the withering away of the state as the social singularity subverts government activities. My views about politics have been most strongly influenced by people who were once considered to be radicals, including John Locke and Adam Smith, but these days people who hold such views are more likely to be described as conservatives. Following Friedrich Hayek, I reject the conservative label because I am strongly opposed to the use of the powers of government to resist spontaneous social change.

I have been reading Derek Wall’s book: Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states. My main reason for reading the book was my previous advocacy, on this blog, of Elinor Ostrom’s approach to discussion of economic and social issues as a means of promoting dialogue across ideological divides. Elinor Ostrom argued that instead of presuming that individuals sharing common pool resources will inevitably experience the tragedy of the commons, we should leave ideology aside and seek to learn from experience why some efforts to solve commons problems have succeeded while others have failed. I suggested that if we apply Elinor Ostrom’s research methodology to national politics we should also seek to learn from experience why some countries have been more successful than others in coping with the tendency of interest group activity to have wealth-destroying impacts that are analogous to over-fishing.

Derek Wall describes himself as a “left-wing member of a Green Party”. When I started reading the book I didn’t expect to be able to endorse it as suitable reading for anyone other than people who self-identify as having radical views, or have some desire to be able to have a dialogue with radicals. The fact that I endorse it as worthwhile reading for a wider audience illustrates the potential for Elinor Ostrom’s views to have wide appeal across the ideological spectrum. The nonpolemical tone of the book is a credit to the author. The deep impression that Elinor Ostrom’s views have had on Derek Wall will be obvious to everyone who reads the book.

The rules for radicals that Derek Wall has derived from Elinor Ostrom’s writings are listed below, with some brief explanation summarised from the book:

1. Think about institutions. Economic activity is shaped by institutional rules. Formal rules are less important than the “dos and don’t that one learns on the ground that may not exist in any written document”.

2. Pose social change as problem solving. Those who look at politics and economics in an abstract way often fail to deal effectively with particular issues.

3. Embrace diversity. Polycentricism promotes good decision-making. The idea of a god-like leader or committee with perfect information is a myth.

4. Be specific. Move from slogans to analysis. Keep asking what can we specifically do in a specific context.

5. Listen to the people. People who participate in commons may be more likely to have good ideas about solving problems than outside experts.

6. Self-government is possible. The Ostrom approach of promoting self-government at a local level provides an attractive alternative to both top-down bureaucratic management and exercise of power by populist politicians.

7. Everything changes. Evolution happens. Technological change is creating new opportunities for collective economic activity e.g. Wikipedia.

8. Map power. If you can map flows of power, you are in a better position to change the flows.

9. Collective ownership can work. It is not always utopian and unrealistic.

10. Human beings are part of nature too.  Ecological problems are profoundly political. The politics of humanity has an influence on the rest of nature.

11. All institutions are constructed, so can be constructed differently. Communities need to keep adapting and reinventing institutions. Institutional development should occur constantly and engage all citizens.  

12. No panaceas. Imperfect humans cannot design utopia. If we attempt to construct institutional blueprints failure is likely.

13. Complexity does not mean chaos. Polycentricism and overlapping jurisdictions can be more efficient than hierarchical structures with linear chains of command.

It seems to me that most of those rules are as relevant to conservatives as to radicals. In all modern democracies conservatives and radicals seem to share the misconception that all economic and social problems can be solved if they can win and hold on to power at a national level.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Can MEMEnomics help us to predict social change?



MEMEnomics is the title of a book by Said Dawlabani, a cultural economist. The book, published in 2013, is an application of the psycho-social model of human development pioneered by Clare Graves and Don Beck. MEMEnomics has been praised by several prominent people, including Deepak Chopra and Bruce Lipton, but I have yet to see any praise by prominent economists. The author does not claim that his book is part of the economics mainstream.

Said Dawlabani suggests that MEMEnomics represents the coming together of two fields: memetics – the study of the replication, spread and evolution of memes - and economics. Just as genes carry the codes that define human characteristics, memes carry the codes that define cultural characteristics. The book is focused on value-system memes - the varying preferences and priorities that humans have in their lives depending on their level of development. The way human values may change with levels of human development was discussed in a recent post on this blog.

The author defines MEMEnomics as “the study of the long-term effects of economic policy on culture as seen through the prism of value systems”. Much of the book is devoted to attempting to explore the cultural implications of changes in economic policy in the United States. The author recognizes the desirability of ensuring that his model can explain history before it is used to attempt to predict the future.

There are three memenomic cycles identified in the book:

·         a “fiefdoms of power” cycle, peaking around 1900, in which American industrialists played a dominant role - large-scale exploitation, fraud and corruption came to identify the values of that era;

·         a “patriotic prosperity” cycle, peaking around 1950, characterized by economic expansion and government intervention – Keynesian macro-policies and social polices – and ending in stagflation;

·         and an “only money matters” cycle, peaking around 1980, characterized by monetarism and deregulation of the economy, and leading to the financial crisis of 2008.

I am not sure the author succeeds in demonstrating that changes in economic policies have led to cultural change. The cycles identified seem to me to be caricatures of beliefs held by powerful elites rather than accurate descriptions of deep-seated changes in values held by ordinary citizens. Nevertheless, it might be reasonable to argue that the cycles represent changes in ideologies of opinion leaders that have been reflected superficially in voting preferences and priorities of the American public.

The author suggests that we are standing on the cusp of a fourth cycle, “the democratization of information cycle”, in which technological advances are allowing social networks to play a pivotal role in affecting social change. That view has merit in my view, but I think this technology-driven change is better viewed as an exogenous factor rather than a new ideology emerging from the down-side of “only money matters”. At this stage it seems that, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, social networks have aided the return of economic nationalism rather than a policy environment placing higher priority on human development and living in harmony with nature.

As discussed in previous posts (here and here) there does seem to be scope for technological advances to have profound impacts on human values and the way we organise ourselves relative to each other over the next few decades. However, since some of those innovations threaten the scope of government, it seems unlikely that government policy will play a top-down role encouraging them to happen. Policy change seems more likely to occur in response to the demands of ordinary citizens for governments to get out of the way, so citizens can make effective use of new technology.

I enjoyed reading the final chapter of the book discussing the concept of a sustainable corporation. Inspirational examples are provided of corporation leaders setting out to define how the core values of their organisations can enable them to simultaneously pursue profits and a higher purpose. Unfortunately, some of the shining examples of 2013 do not all shine so brightly today.  Said Dawlabani has written an interesting article recently on the reasons why that has happened.
 Entrepreneurs who are selling new sets of values to investors, staff and customers will always encounter naysayers. In the face of this negativism some of these pioneers will succeed, many will not.

One of the messages I get from MEMEnomics is that individual entrepreneurs are likely to play a crucial leadership role in facilitating transition from a subsistence value system limited to expressions of selfish interests, to a value system that understands the interconnectedness of all life on the planet.

It strikes me that for economics to shed light on the role of the entrepreneur in this process it needs to recognize that the value created by entrepreneurs is likely to have a large non-pecuniary component in future. In pursuit of personal values some innovative entrepreneurs are offering investors the opportunity to feel that their funds are being used for the betterment of humanity and/or the environment, as well as generating financial returns. Similarly, they are offering employees the opportunity to feel they are engaged in a meaningful venture rather than just an income earning activity, and are also offering consumers opportunities to feel good about their purchases.

The economic model that seems most relevant in this context is 'identity economics' - as discussed in a book of that name by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton. The key idea is that people gain satisfaction when their actions conform to the norms and ideals of their identity. In a tribal society, identity economics is like identity politics – people adopt the norms and ideals of the tribe to which they belong. In a cosmopolitan society the relevant norms and ideals are those of the market economy, incorporating a large measure of respect for the rights of others and social trust. Over the next few decades, hopefully the relevant norms and ideals will incorporate greater concern for the well-being of all humans and other living creatures.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

How will human values evolve as we approach the social singularity?


As explained in a recent post, Max Borders has coined the term, social singularity, to describe the transformation in social organisation that could occur following mass adoption of secure networking technologies. Some existing mediating structures could become obsolete, new forms of coordination could emerge and we might collaborate as never before.

In his book, The Social Singularity, Max relies heavily on spiral dynamics to discuss the way cultural values may evolve as we approach the social singularity. Spiral dynamics was developed by the psychologist Care Graves and popularised by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. It postulates that at different stages of development different values become dominant to help people to function in the life circumstances in which they find themselves.

The spiral is summarised in the graphic shown at the beginning of this post (copied from the toolshero web site). In brief, at first stage of the spiral, survival values are dominant. At the second stage, the dominant values are those of the tribe or clan. At the next stage, we have values related to power, glory and conquest. Then we have loyalty and deference to higher authority. This is followed by the values of science and commerce, and then the ethics of care and the politics of equality.

As we approach the social singularity, prior value systems will be transcended: more people will come to see themselves as interdependent beings, requiring some autonomy and respecting the autonomy of others. Beck and Cowan described the final, holistic, stage as an integrative system that “combines an organism’s necessary self-interest with the interests of the communities in which it participates”.  Max comments:

“This way of seeing the world is neither rugged individualism not crude communitarianism. It requires seeing ourselves through others and others through ourselves”.

What evidence do we have that humanity is heading in that direction? Questions have been raised as to whether spiral dynamics is firmly grounded in evolutionary biology and anthropology, but from the little I know of ancient history it seems to provide a plausible account of the way different cultures have emphasized different virtues. If we look at the economic history of the last few centuries, the story told by spiral dynamics seems consistent with the work of Joel Mokyr and Deirdre McCloskey about the emergence of a culture of economic growth, first in western Europe and then spreading to other parts of the world. The theory also seems consistent with the empirical work of Ronald Inglehart and Chis Welzel on value change, based on the World Values Survey. As noted on this blog a few years ago Chris Welzel’s book Freedom Rising provides evidence that as societies have advanced in terms of technological sophistication and education, emancipative values - relating to autonomy, choice, equality etc. - have more widely shared and the dominant life strategies of populations have shifted from an extrinsic focus on material circumstances to an intrinsic focus on emotional qualities.

That research doesn’t tell us how dominant values might evolve in the years ahead, but Max Borders makes clear that he sees people who are comfortable with subversive innovation – innovation that has potential to replace existing mediating structures including government agencies - as “the standard bearers for a future in which a better world can be dreamed by visionaries, socially constructed, and hard-coded into existence”. Max adds:

“As dreamers and doers, we are prepared to forgo the spectacle of elections and the blood sport of campaign politics. We want to take a vantage point from high above, looking at how we can reweave the latticework of human interaction to create a great reconciliation between private interest and community good."

If we view spiral dynamics and the values of the social singularity in normative terms, Robert Nozick’s suggestion that the pursuit of higher layers of ethics can be thought of as building on the ethics of respect, seems highly relevant. As I noted some years ago, Nozick saw four layers of ethics:

·         The most fundamental layer - the ethics of respect - mandates respect for the life and property of other people.

·         The second layer – the ethics of responsiveness – mandates acting in a way that is responsive to the inherent value of others, enhancing and supporting it, and enabling it to flourish.

·         The third layer – the ethics of caring – ranges from concern and tenderness to deeper compassion, ahimsa and love to all people (perhaps to all living creatures).

·         The top layer – the ethics of Light – calls for being a vessel and vehicle of truth, beauty, goodness and holiness.

Subversive innovation offers a basis to hope that the ethics of Light could one day pervade the cultural values of many humans rather than those of only a few saints and sages.

Friday, July 20, 2018

How can we overcome confirmation bias?


This guest post by Leah Goldrick was originally published on her excellent blog, Common Sense Ethics. Leah acknowledges that confirmation bias is linked to pattern recognition, which serves a useful purpose. The confirmation bias problem arises when we seek out information to confirm what we believe and ignore everything else.

The documentary that Leah refers to in her first paragraph is worth watching. It illustrates how easy it was for a group of people who did not appear likely to be particularly gullible to acquire an unshakeable belief that the end of the world would occur on 21 May 2011.



Why is it so hard to for us the change our beliefs or to get other people to change their minds? A new documentary film Right Between Your Ears, examines the science and psychology of how people form convictions. According to producer Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist, certain aspects of human psychology make it very hard for us to be objective or unbiased.

People usually form beliefs by accepting what they've been told by someone they trust: parents, teachers, media and so on. Our beliefs can change when we learn new things. But when we become convinced of something, it is similar to a religious belief in the way our brain operates. We may react with anger when challenged. This human tendency often leads us to seek out information which confirms what we already believe and ignore everything else - it's a cognitive bias actually - called confirmation bias.

It seems obvious why confirmation bias can be a problem - it can prevent us making good decisions. It makes us rigid thinkers. Someone can easily fool us by simply appealing to our established belief systems. The good news is that there are some practical strategies to overcome this natural human shortsightedness that I'll let you in on at the end of the post.

How We Form Beliefs

Let me back up for just a second. What led me to write this post (besides my abiding interest in critical thinking) was the Shakespeare authorship course I recently took online via the University of London. Along with being just about the most interesting topic ever, the instructor, Dr. Ros Barber, focused the first lesson on the science of how beliefs are formed, cognitive bias, and how belief systems can crystallize into orthodoxies which may not be questioned without ridicule.

Dr. Barber interviews ​Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist and documentary film maker currently working at the Department of Neuroimaging at King's Institute for Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, about how we form our beliefs in the first place.

According to De Meyer, we form fairly rigid belief systems or perceptual frameworks out of necessity as we go through life in order to handle the information continually coming at us. Usually, our perceptual framework serves us quite well. But it can also be a major intellectual handicap when we are confronted with information which undercuts our established belief systems. De Meyer states:

"But beliefs become strongly held and particularly if we build our identity around them, they begin to act as perception filters. Indeed, it might be useful to think of a belief as a perceptual framework, something that helps us make sense of the world around us." 

Confirmation Bias

The problem with our perceptions being filtered through our belief structures is that it can create something called confirmation bias. We tend to interpret new information in a way that strengthens our preexisting beliefs. ​​When we are confronted with information which conflicts with our beliefs, we will often find ways to discard it. We also tend to search out information which confirms our beliefs rather than looking for more neutral or contradictory information.

For our general functioning in the world, we must keep our perceptual frameworks fairly rigid. So even when our brain finds data that is anomalous, confirmation bias can lead us to explain it away as an error. Experiments in the 1960s hinted that people are biased towards their beliefs. Later experiments focused on our natural tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives.

Anyone can suffer from confirmation bias: teachers, Shakespeare scholars, even scientists. In one study on confirmation bias involving scientists, over half of laboratory experimental results were inconsistent with the scientists' original hypotheses. In these cases, the scientists were reluctant to consider that data as valid. The anomalous finding was usually classified as a mistake. Even after scientists had produced an anomaly more than once, they would often choose not to follow up.

When we perceive, we construct systems of beliefs inside of our heads like a lawyer trying to prove a case. The more strongly we are engaged in a topic, the more likely we are to dismiss contradictory evidence. Basically on both sides of any debate, we have a system beliefs that tells us that we are right and the other side is wrong.

According to Ros Barber, "[When any conflict happens] it's been described as "a dialog of the deaf" because people can't hear the other point of view. They just think it's totally invalid." 

Cognitive Dissonance

So why does confirmation bias happen? It might be because of wishful thinking, or because of our limited mental capacity to process information. It could also have to do with a failure to imagine alternate possibilities (more on this later). Another explanation for confirmation bias is that people are afraid of being wrong, and fail to ask the right probing questions about their beliefs, instead reasoning from their already held conclusions.

When we are confronted with contradictory evidence, it causes something called cognitive dissonance - mental distress caused by information that doesn't fit in with our current understanding of the world. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and people will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid it.

​Cognitive dissonance was first theorized by psychologist Leon Festinger who argued that we have an inner drive to hold consistent beliefs. Holding inconsistent beliefs causes us to feel disharmonious. Festinger studied a cult whose members believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood. He investigated what happened to the cult members, especially the committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs, after the flood did not happen on the proposed date.

The most committed cult members were more likely to rationalize their original beliefs (confirmation bias) even after experiencing cognitive dissonance in the face of the flood not happening. Loosely affiliated members were much more likely to admit that they had simply made a mistake and to move on. The more attached we are to a belief, the harder it is to change it. 

How To Think (and Debate) With Less Bias

​So what are the best strategies to overcome our natural human shortsightedness and bias? The first is to keep emotional distance in reasoning, and the second is to consider the other side (or sides) of any debate, a technique called the "consider the opposite," strategy.

1. Keep Emotional Distance When Reasoning

Given the natural human tendency towards confirmation bias, it is important to be at least somewhat dispassionate when reasoning and debating. I like to call this emotional distance. Emotional distance is just as much a character trait of a reasonable person as it is a strategy for handling cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias may in part stem from our desire not to be wrong, so by keeping emotional distance, you essentially are willing admit to yourself that you could have some things wrong. Don't be too attached to any particular piece of evidence. In any difficult debate we all may get certain parts of the puzzle incorrect.

Look out for signs of confirmation bias in yourself. ​ Remember that the more strongly held your beliefs are, the more likely you are to refuse to consider alternative evidence - like the cult members who invested everything in their belief in an impending flood.

Emotional distance also involves viewing debate as dialog rather than an angry fight. If your ego gets too caught up defending a certain belief, you are more likely to get angry when contradicted. Angry people usually double down and become more extreme on their point of view rather than considering someone else's. Keep in mind that politeness might actually be the secret weapon for getting someone to overcome their bias. Kris De Meyer suggests:

"When we do feel a pang of anger at being challenged, rather than responding very quickly we can step away from it for maybe a few hours or a day, think carefully about where that person is coming from, and then see if we can give them more constructive comments that then doesn't spark his or her angry response. Because it's those feelings of anger at being misunderstood and of being misrepresented that really are the ones that drive us towards more certainty. And if the conversation becomes amicable, it can be heated and passionate without being acrimonious and negative. The way to use [your knowledge of confirmation bias] is to question yourself and to reflect on your own assumptions and your own interactions with other people."

Maintaining emotional distance is powerful, but it may not be enough to overcome biases, which is why we should also use this second strategy:

2. Consider the Opposite

Confirmation bias may in part be the result of our limited mental capacity to imagine alternative scenarios. The consider the opposite strategy helps us to envision how else things might be. In a recent study, this technique was proven to work better than just attempting to remain objective.

Considering the opposite in everyday practice works like this: you take a look at a set of facts about something. Generally, you would try to discern whether the facts support your belief or not. If you are experiencing confirmation bias, you would probably imagine that the facts do actually support your belief. But when you force yourself to consider the opposite, you instead imagine that the facts point the opposite way, disproving your belief. This helps you to imagine alternatives to what you already believe.

The consider the opposite strategy works particularly well with diametrically opposed beliefs, but always bear in mind that there may be more than one alternate possibility. Be willing to entertain various possibilities rather than falling victim to false dichotomies. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Should we look forward to the Social Singularity?


The social singularity should not be confused with the technological singularity, which Wikipedia defines as the hypothesis that invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable change to human civilization.


The Social Singularity, as described by Max Borders in his recently published book of that name, relates to the way we (humans) organise ourselves in relation to each other. Max’s hypothesis is that at some point social organisation will be completely transformed as a result of mass adoption of secure networking technologies. When that happens some existing mediating structures will become obsolete, new forms of coordination will emerge and we will collaborate as never before.



What does that mean in terms that you and I can understand? The best place to begin is with the concept of subversive innovation. You might think it is tedious to begin an explanation by introducing another concept, but I promise to provide some concrete examples before long.

These days just about everyone knows what an innovation is. Most readers will be familiar with disruptive innovations that are making many goods more accessible and affordable. Subversive innovations “are those that have the potential to replace long-accepted mediating structures of society”. The mediating structures that Max is writing about include: hierarchical firms; group-think practices among the scientific establishment that have led to widespread acceptance of numerous findings that cannot be replicated; centralised education which views students as having “heads like buckets to be filled with information curated by central elites”; long-standing practices of financial intermediaries; mainstream media that once generated social coherence; and national governments.

Readers will already be familiar with some of the subversive innovations that are occurring. Some firms are replacing hierarchical command and control structures with decentralised systems in which self-directed individuals create order by establishing networks to achieve common purposes. The Internet has enabled informal networks of people, often including amateurs, who question scientific dogma e.g. the paleo-diet movement. Disruptive innovation has begun in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Long-established practices of financial institutions are being challenged by block chain technologies, and cryptocurrencies are enabling people to transact without using national currencies or financial intermediaries. The Internet has disrupted the role of mainstream media in generating social coherence - making it possible for populists to challenge political orthodoxy, but also reducing the potential for views to coalesce around a deeply flawed narrative.

The potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government is in my view the most interesting idea in the book. We can already see this happening to some extent as innovating firms search out the weak joints in government regulation, particularly the regulatory barriers to competition that have enabled incumbents in various industries to prosper at the expense of the rest of the community. Think of how Uber’s ridesharing innovations circumvented regulations protecting incumbents in the taxi industry.

Max suggests that the potential for subversive innovations to displace centralised government will be enhanced by the advent of smart contracts in which a host of humans can act together to achieve a common goal without middlemen. The coordinating mechanism of smart contracts involves distributed ledgers, programmable incentives and blockchain secured tokens. Tokens can align the interests of producers, consumers and investors in ways that may have potential to enable many types of public goods to be produced privately by profit-seeking entrepreneurs. It doesn’t seem possible at this stage to provide a concrete example of how this might work. Perhaps it can be thought of as crowdsourcing on steroids.

Where might this take us? Max suggests that the potential for people to forge real social contracts - contracts they choose to enter voluntarily rather than the hypothetical social contracts of political theory - “could become the killer app of politics”:

"Communities of tomorrow will form entire systems of mutual aid through digital compacts that have nothing to do with borders or accidents of birth. … Humanity will upload important commitments into social contracts. Cosmopolitan communities of practice will form in the electronic ether. What remains on the ground—goods, services, and the relationships of flesh-and-blood neighbors—will be a far more localized phenomenon. The days of outsourcing our civic responsibilities to distant capitals are numbered."

What Max has in mind is polyarchy – competitive provision of goods that have been provided collectively. The basic idea is that if there is nothing intrinsically territorial about a system that provides goods like health insurance or education, you should be allowed to exit one system and join another without moving to a different system’s territory. You could take resources you were once required to pay in taxation and use them to pay for membership of another community or multiple other communities.

So, what reason do we have to think that governments might one day be willing to recognize the right of exit required to make polyarchy a reality?

Max notes that new constituencies are forming around the benefits of the sharing economy:

"Special interests that once squeaked to get the oil are confronted by battalions bearing smartphones. Citizens, fed up with leaving their prayers in the voting booth, are voting more with their dollars and their devices. Free association is now ensured by design, not by statute."

The Social Singularity mixes the author’s views on how things ought to evolve and how he expects them to evolve. Max acknowledges that he does this. The book offers readers an appealing vision of how the future could evolve and invites them to help make that vision a reality.

The book contains much that I haven’t written about in this short review. I should mention the link between the social singularity and spiral dynamics. Now I have mentioned it, I want to write more about it. Perhaps later!

I should also note before concluding that the title of the book, as presented on the title page, is The Social Singularity: A Decentralist Manifesto. Decentralization is a theme of the book. Max begins his chapter on the future of governance by quoting Vincent Ostrom:

“The fashioning of a truly free world depends on building fundamental infrastructures that enable different peoples to become self-governing”.

 In a post I wrote a few months ago I mused about how Ostrom’s vision of decentralisation of politics could eventually become a reality. If I ever write on that topic again there will be a reference to Max Borders and the concept of subversive innovations will feature prominently.

The Social Singularity deserves to be read widely and thought about deeply.

Postscript

1. You might also be interested in a follow-up post on how human values may change as we approach the social singularity.


2. Simon Saval has drawn my attention to his excellent hand-illustrated guides for Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and Ethereum which have been designed to help beginners understand the technology. If you are interested, please follow the link.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?


According to Jason Brennan, a political philosopher, there are three broad types of democratic citizen:

·         Hobbits are mostly apathetic and ignorant about politics. They don’t give politics much thought.

·         Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. They have strong and largely fixed world views. They tend to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political opinions and ignore or reject information that contradicts those opinions.

·         Vulcans think scientifically and dispassionately about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They try to avoid being biased in explaining contrary points of view.

When I attempt to relate these citizen types to the stages of adult development identified by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, discussed in my last post, it is obvious that Vulcans have self-transforming minds. I have the impression that other types of democratic citizen tend to exhibit lower stages of adult development in their political views than in other aspects of their lives. There isn’t much incentive to behave like a responsible adult in the political arena since your vote is unlikely to be decisive. Some Hooligans may be self-authoring (self-directed) in the sense that they have chosen for themselves which political team to support. In their role as citizens, however, Hooligans are characterised as having the socialized minds of faithful followers. Hobbits may be socialised, or even self-authoring, in some aspects of their lives, but they are disassociated from politics.  


In his book, Against Democracy, Jason suggests that few citizens are Vulcans. Nearly all citizens are either Hobbits or Hooligans. Hooligans have more political knowledge than Hobbits but are still prone to make systemic mistakes on many important issues in economics and political science. The cumulative impact of their incompetence has adverse consequences for other citizens. On this basis Jason argues that there are good grounds to presume that some feasible form of epistocracy – a system that gives competent and knowledgeable citizens more political power than others - would out-perform democracy, in which all citizens have equal voting rights. Epistocracy would still result in rule by Hooligans, but would give greater power to competent and knowledgeable Hooligans.

Jason is against democracy only in the sense that he considers that some form of epistocracy would be likely to produce superior outcomes. He acknowledges evidence that democracies have done a better job of protecting economic and civil liberties and well-being of citizens than dictatorships, one-party governments, oligarchies and real monarchies.

In the light of the bias and ignorance of voters, some readers may be wondering how most modern democracies have managed to avoid catastrophic outcomes. Jason suggests that has been prevented by several moderating factors including the power of the judiciary and government bureaucracies to set their own agenda, the power of political parties to shape the political agenda independently of what voters desire, and politicians who have generally been much better informed than voters.

That line of reasoning supports the views of Joseph Schumpeter, a famous economist who argued about 70 years ago that the success of democracy was problematic unless it was strictly limited.  In my book Free to Flourish I noted that other famous economists, including James Buchanan and Milton Friedman, suggested that additional constraints needed to be imposed on democratic politics to avoid bad outcomes.  

In the preface to the 2017 paperback edition of Against Democracy, Jason notes that in recent years more people have become willing to consider the flaws in democracy. After mentioning Trump and Brexit he goes on to make the point that his criticisms of democracy are based on information on voter ignorance that has been known for a long time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explore whether there has been a change in the moderating factors that have hitherto ensured that outcomes are better than they would have been if the prejudices of ignorant voters had prevailed.

The change I have in mind is the declining power of the major political parties to shape political agendas in ways that moderate the ill-informed desires of electors. It strikes me that over the last decade or so, innovations in the social media have greatly increased the power of ill-informed Hooligans and the populist politicians who promise to give effect to their views. Ill-informed Hooligans can now more easily establish links with like-minded people who share their misconceptions. They tend to communicate in echo chambers that reinforce their outrage when the leadership of the major parties is unresponsive to their concerns. Consequently, in some countries we are seeing ill-informed Hooligans taking over major parties and the reins of government. In other countries splinter parties comprised of ill-informed Hooligans are attracting supporters away from major parties and making it more difficult for them to pursue coherent policy agendas. No matter which way it is happening, the growth in political influence of the ill-informed Hooligans seems likely to be detrimental to the future well-being of citizens in democratic countries.

Jason outlines a range of possible forms of epistocracy that might reduce the political influence of Hobbits and ill-informed Hooligans. Most of these suggestions involve taking the right to vote away from ill-informed people or giving their vote lower weight.

However, it is difficult to see how those proposals could ever be politically feasible while most citizens continue to have some faith in democracy. Even citizens who have shown no interest in politics in the past are likely to place some value on their right to vote. They are likely to perceive that it has existence value. The right to vote offers all citizens the potential to participate collectively in voting an oppressive government out of office, should the need arise.

It seems to me that when government by ill-informed Hooligans produces economic disasters the best response we can hope for will be for changes to be made in the rules of the game to tip the balance in favour of better economic policies. This could involve such things as more effective public debt ceilings, and making proposals for changes in tariffs and other trade barriers open to scrutiny by an independent agency responsible for reporting publicly on national economic benefits and costs. A couple of years ago I suggested some more fundamental institutional changes to make government in Australia more accountable in an article in On Line opinion.  

The question in the heading of this article is prompted by Jason’s favourite epistocracy proposal, government by simulated oracle:

 "Suppose there is a range of candidates from various political parties. We can ask citizens to provide their anonymously coded demographic information and then take a test of basic objective political knowledge. They then rank the candidates from most to least favored. Using these data, we can determine how the public would rank the candidates if the public were fully informed. Whatever candidates ranks the highest, wins." 

I am not attracted to the idea of adjusting the preferences of voters in this way, but I wonder whether a significant proportion of voters might be willing to accept the guidance of an oracle to help them to decide how to cast their votes. What I have in mind is that individual voters would be surveyed to determine their preferences and then offered impartial expert voting advice based on their responses. At present there are any number of commentators offering voting advice, but effort is involved for individuals to find and interpret this information. I am not aware of any oracles offering unbiased voting advice tailored to individual voters.
How many Hobbits and Hooligans would accept impartial expert advice about how to vote?     

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?