Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Are citizens' juries susceptible to groupthink?

In my last post I considered the question of whether citizens’ juries might help to lift public debate on issues which professional politicians find difficult to deal with. After looking at the process involved in a citizens’ jury on container deposit legislation, I concluded that it was likely to be particularly important for citizens’ juries to be asked the right questions.

The post provoked two different responses. Evan suggested that citizens’ juries could make a valuable input to policy, but there was a problem of legitimization i.e. the process required government backing. Anon (kvd) asked why it was necessary to place between ‘the people’ and their elected representatives a layer of ‘non-responsible, unelected, single-issue, unaccountable’ citizens’ juries. My response was that I agreed with both Evan and kvd, but what I meant was that both had raised good points. Citizens’ juries would certainly need to be seen to have legitimacy in order to have the desired effect on public debate. And the onus should certainly be on those who propose such innovations to show why they are necessary and are likely to succeed.

I think we should be looking for innovations to make the democratic systems work better because there is a tendency for democratic governments to over-reach – to raise public expectations of what they can achieve and to take on more responsibilities than they are able to cope with. This is reflected to some extent in the tendency for many governments to take on excessive debts, but I see the problem as much broader than that. I will write more about that at a later stage.

 I have had an interesting discussion with Shona (the person who suggested last year that it might be a good idea to think up a new political system) about the possibility that citizens’ juries might be susceptible to groupthink. The discussion arose because of the example in my last post of a citizens’ jury coming to a unanimous decision, while successive polls looking at the same issue found that support for the proposal diminished after provision of information to participants. Shona suggested that I should take a look at the relevant chapters of Stuart Sutherland’s book, ‘Irrationality’.

Irrationality: Stuart SutherlandSutherland makes the point that not only do people tend to conform to majority decisions but group attitudes tend also to be more extreme than those of individuals. Rather than the attitudes of each member of the group tending toward a mid-position, as members of the group interact they tend toward a more extreme position. One possible reason is that if the group attitude is tending in one direction, individual members may express more extreme views in order to gain approval from other members. Another possible reason is that the group is willing to take greater risks than its individual members because membership of the group spreads responsibility.

Research relating to legal juries suggests that conformity to majority views is common. For example, a US study by Nicole Waters and Valerie Hans indicates that while about 6 percent of criminal juries fail to reach unanimity over one-third of  jurors say that if the decision had been entirely up to them they would have voted against the jury’s decision.

The potential for members of citizens’ juries to conform to majority decisions and for group decisions to become polarised has been recognized by some researchers in this field. For example, R K Blamey, P McCarthy and R Smith of the ANU discussed these issues in their paper ‘Citizens’Juries and Small-group Decision-making’. The authors conclude that the fact that citizens’ juries are susceptible to biases does not necessarily mean that individual-based decision-making (e.g. via opinion surveys) should be preferred. They make various recommendations designed to minimize the weaknesses of group processes and to maximize their strengths.

There are some situations where the tendency of small groups to conform to majority decisions is desirable. For example, a fairly high degree of conformity to group decisions is required for a system of cabinet government to work effectively. It seems to me, however, that the tendencies for bias discussed above would pose substantial problems in using citizens’ juries in the manner I had contemplated. There is a good chance that the outcome of a citizens’ jury process would not be representatives of the views that a group of randomly chosen group of citizens would come to if they had the opportunity to consider an issue independently. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What questions should citizen's juries be asked?

Since writing on the question of whether citizen’s juries might be better than focus groups I have been thinking more about the kinds of questions a randomly selected group of citizens could usefully deliberate upon. The answer probably depends on the objective of the process.

When Gordon Brown became prime minister of Britain in 2007 he announced citizen’s juries as his ‘new big idea’. It seems from his speech announcing the policy initiative that his aim was to improve communication between his government and the general public. His emphasis was on new ways of listening to people, consulting on new ideas and engaging in a dialogue and deliberation. He attended some of these citizen’s juries himself. An internet search indicates that the response at the time ranged from strong support to cynical suggestions that his motive might have to obtain more photo opportunities. Remarkably, within about a year the big new idea seems to have vanished without leaving a trace on the internet. I don’t know what happened. It is odd that there doesn’t seem to have been a public post mortem about what went wrong (or right) with the process. My guess is that the novelty of listening and consulting might have worn off.

It seems to me that the most useful objective of citizen’s juries would be to influence public opinion by providing a considered point of view that people might consider more trustworthy than the views of political leaders, interest groups or experts making judgements outside their areas of competence.  In other words, this process might help to address the combination of rational ignorance and hubris (or narcissism or whatever) that tends to lower the level of public debate on policy issues.

So, what types of questions might usefully be put to citizen’s juries? In my view the relevant questions would arise mainly from the issues that professional politicians find difficult to deal with because public opinion is ill-informed or unstable. Establishing citizen’s juries to look at such issues could be viewed as experiments to help a government to decide whether to take the political risks involved in introducing reforms.

I am not sure to what extent citizen’s juries have previously been viewed in that light. From the little I have read on the topic, the inclusion of unorganized citizens in policy processes is often seen as a desirable end in itself.

Greg Cutbush, a visiting economist at ANU Enterprise, responded to my last post by suggesting that before I get too enthusiastic about citizen’s juries I should take a look at a citizen’s forum on a proposal for a container deposit scheme in New South Wales.

In brief, the citizen’s forum was part of a review of container deposit legislation conducted by Stuart White of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS in 2001. Other parts of the review included a cost benefit study of container deposit legislation (CDL), stakeholder and community consultations and a ‘televote’.  The ‘televote’ involved two polls, the second of which followed provision to respondents of ‘balanced written information on the various arguments in favour and against CDL’. The eleven members of the citizen’s forum were provided with essentially the same written information, presentations from government officials and independent CDL experts, as well as exposure to three days of deliberation.

As a result of the provision of information in the televote process, support for CDL fell from 71 percent to 59 percent. By contrast, the citizen’s forum unanimously agreed to the implementation of CDL. I wonder whether the emergence of consensus reflects the impact of three days of deliberation.

In the aftermath of the exercise one member of the project team, Carolyn Hendriks, commented:
‘The introduction of new players to the policy debate, particularly in terms of their representativeness and legitimacy, was one of the key concerns raised by the interest groups in a recent Australian citizens jury held on Container Deposit Legislation (CDL). There were two key issues here. Firstly, interest groups questioned the capacity of ordinary citizens to comprehend their arguments. Secondly, most of the CDL interest groups saw themselves as the only legitimate stakeholders. According to this viewpoint, citizens with an opinion or interest in the issue can only enter the policy debate via a valid group. Extending public participation to virtual stakeholders such as lay citizens appeared to insult interest groups because it down-played their expertise and their long-term investment in the issue.’

The problem she alludes to was the withdrawal of some stakeholders from making presentations to the citizen’s forum, which necessitated reliance on written material. It is not clear whether this had any impact on the outcome of the deliberation process.

However, I have doubts about the value of the whole exercise because it isn’t clear that participants in the forum were asked the most appropriate question. As pointed out by Access Economics, in its review of the White report, the question of how best can governments increase recycling rates requires a ranking of CDL against other feasible options rather than an a consideration of whether a CDL scheme might be better than the status quo.

If citizen’s juries are asked the wrong questions they might reach unanimity about matters that are not particularly relevant to the policy choices that governments have to make. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Would a citizen's jury produce a better policy outcome than a focus group?

In an article published on his blog last Sunday Jim Belshaw argued that risk management by governments has come to focus too heavily on political risk avoidance because of concerns that a more balanced approach would be too difficult to sell to the public. As a generalization, I think the point is correct. It is possible to cite a few examples of recent Australian governments taking excessive risks (e.g. the infamous home insulation and school hall construction programs). In my view, however, the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments showed stronger leadership than those that have followed and were less prone to allow focus groups, polling and brainstorming on talk back radio and twitter to set the political agenda.

That is just a personal impression. It is difficult to cite hard evidence. Mike Steketee provided some examples in support of the view that poll-driven policies have become more common in an article in ‘The Australian’last year. In my view the strongest point he made, however, was to quote Rod Cameron, a veteran pollster, who has observed that politicians are now more inclined to accept the prejudice and narrow-minded bigotry coming out of focus groups as a basis for policy, rather than to seek to neutralize such views.

Irrespective of whether Australian governments have become more poll-driven in recent years, the temptation for governments to opt for politically safe options rather than those requiring courageous political leadership exists in all countries in which public opinion counts for anything. In many instances, of course, the politically safer option is much more risky in the longer term. In my view that makes it preferable to have a system of government in which it is clear which political parties are accountable for the decisions that are made or not made by governments, rather than proportional representation, in which responsibility is shared by the centre right and centre left - and the only parties that have clean hands are the extremists at either end of the political spectrum. I have in mind the situation in Greece, of course, but I am straying from the topic I want to write about.

Coming back to the importance of political leadership, I remember a conversation that I had with a wise person about 20 years ago. I made the point that Australia needed more courageous political leadership to pursue economic reforms. I expected the wise person to agree, but his response was that those who want governments to pursue economic reforms need to accept that governments don’t lead, they follow. The point he was making was that it is important to keep in mind that political leaders can never get far ahead of public opinion. The leader who prepares the ground for reform by attempting to raise the level of public discussion of an issue will often be more successful in promoting reform than the one who shows great courage in attempting to forge ahead ignoring ill-informed public opposition.

So, how should those who aspire to leadership seek to raise the level of public discussion of issues? One method that has had some success in Australia is the system of independent policy advice provided by the Productivity Commission and some of its predecessor organizations. The strength of that system - as Gary Banks, the chairman of the Commission, pointed out in a speech last year - has been the independence of the Commission, the process of public scrutiny of underlying research and analysis before the advice is submitted to government, and the educative role of the organization in helping to promote a broader understanding of issues and advocating initiatives to the public and parliament.

However, it has not been possible for the Productivity Commission to be as effective as it should be. In an interview with Alan Mitchell in the Australian Financial Review a couple of months ago (10 March) Bill Carmichael, member of the Tasman Transparency Group and former chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission, suggested that the Rudd and Gillard governments had sidelined the Productivity Commission as an independent advisor on microeconomic reform:
‘They have created a plethora of carefully selected inquiries and institutional arrangements designed to minimize bothersome critical analysis and produce outcomes more to their liking’.

The report of the interview ended with Bill Carmichael suggesting that political leadership is ‘a quality that has been missing from the present debate about economic reform’. An element of leadership is clearly required to move forward on difficult issues, even with the help of sensible public inquiry processes.

So, could citizen’s juries help to compensate for weak political leadership? According to Nick Gruen, in the transcript of an ABCbroadcast in which he spoke about ‘deepening democracy in the internet age’, a citizen’s jury or consensus conference is ‘a small jury-sized randomly selected group’ which ‘deliberates at length’ on policy issues. The body hears evidence from professional experts and advocates, and its conclusions are published.

It seems to me that the potential benefit of such a system would lie mainly in helping to lift the level of public debate on contentious issues, by providing members of the public with a point of view that they might consider more trustworthy than the partisan views of political leaders, or judgements of experts who might seem to be out of touch with the values of ordinary people. Citizen’s juries would certainly not be a substitute for sensible public inquiry processes, but they might help avoid policy development being placed at the mercy of focus groups and political point scoring. Citizen’s juries could perhaps be particularly helpful in development of policies that involve important value judgements e.g. deciding appropriate levels of immigration.

I will write more about citizen’s juries later.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is the case for government funding of mitigation research?

I ended a recent post by suggesting that serious consideration should be given to Bjorn Lomborg’s view that mitigation of climate change is likely to require a substantial increase in government funding of relevant research.
That position is somewhat at odds with a view that I have held for a long time that governments should stay out of the business of trying to pick technological winners by funding research and development. I acknowledge the case for public funding of basic research on grounds that it is a public good that would not be adequately supplied via the normal operation of market forces. If someone suggests, however, that governments should become heavily involved in funding of research into alternative energy because the world is running out of cheap sources of fossil fuels, I would regard that as a fairly silly idea. When the world does start running out of cheap sources of fossil fuels the prices of those resources can be expected to rise, providing a strong market incentive for private sector investment in research into alternative energy sources.

So, what grounds are there to argue that carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes that impose a cost on carbon emissions will not have a similar effect on research incentives? I don’t see any. In both cases, as the production of energy through conventional use of fossil fuels becomes more expensive the market should provide adequate incentives for research.

The case for substantial government involvement in funding of research directed toward mitigation of climate change cannot rest on arguments that apply to equally to many other forms of research, even though some eminent economists may think it does. For example, Ross Garnaut argues (in Chapter 9 of his 2011 climate change report) that ‘the carbon price alone will not lead to adequate investment in research, development and commercialisation of new technologies, because the private investor can capture only part of the benefits’. Similar externalities apply, of course, to a wide range of research, development and commercialization activities throughout the economy. Perhaps the existence of such externalities warrants some government assistance to industry, such as allowing capital spending on research and innovation to be treated for tax purposes as a current rather than capital expenditure.  It might also warrant some government involvement in funding of development rather than just basic research, particularly since it is often difficult to draw a line between R and D. But it would be difficult to justify the large increase in tax – and associated economic costs – which would be required to embark on a major program of government funding of research, development and commercialization of new technologies in all sectors of the economy.

It seems to me that the case for substantial government involvement in funding of research directed toward mitigation of climate change must rest on a form of government failure (the difficulty of obtaining international agreement for concerted action) rather than on market failure (or externalities). If governments were able to agree to an appropriate carbon price the case for additional government funding of research would disappear.

Bjorn Lomborg seems to be on strong grounds in arguing that international agreements to invest in research and development are likely to have a greater chance of success than carbon-reduction negotiations. Wealthy countries are less likely to object to making greater research contributions. Agreements to fund more research may also be seen as likely to make it easier to negotiate future carbon reductions by reducing the cost margin between existing fossil fuel technologies and less polluting technologies.

However, there is potential for gradual mitigation to continue to occur even in the absence of international agreements. Governments of countries with high per capita emissions will continue to come under political pressure – from internal and external sources - to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps the most likely outcome is that the world will stumble on toward a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to what would otherwise occur. The climate will nevertheless continue to change. This may impose high costs on some people (those faced with high adaptation costs relative to their current income levels) and benefits to some others. But the general story might be one of successful adaptation.

If that is the most likely scenario, it would make sense to view increased government involvement in research to mitigate climate change as a precautionary measure. It is probably worth doing even though it will, hopefully, not be necessary. Imagine a scenario where climate change accelerates and costs of adaptation begin to rise steeply. My guess is that in that situation, international agreement would be reached fairly quickly by the United States, China and Europe to cut emissions of greenhouse gases drastically and take steps to ensure that other countries do likewise. The economic cost of such reductions in emissions will be very high if there is still a substantial cost margin between energy generated using conventional fossil fuel technologies and cleaner technologies.

So, it seems to me that the case for substantial government involvement in funding of research to mitigate climate change is largely precautionary. It is in our interests to reduce the risk that will be posed to our standard of living if we have to make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at some later stage.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Can cyberbullying lead to mental health problems?

This is a guest post by Emily Isenberger.  Emily is associated with a website which provides resources for people interested in counselling, with a particular focus on how bullying and mental illness have been exacerbated by the Internet.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can leave lasting scars. Once a fact of childhood, playground bullying has taken to the internet and social media networks. For a new generation, the advent of cyberbullying means that home, once a safe haven from a school environment, is just as dangerous, if not more so. Because cyberbullying can reach larger groups, be performed anonymously, and comments can last forever, those bullied have no escape hatch and school administrators have little power to punish perpetrators. This can lead to serious mental health consequences. 

Across the board, victims of cyberbullying demonstrate higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, and withdrawal from school and other activities than their peers. Studies have shown that people who are bullied develop abnormalities in brain maturation. Specifically the corpus callosum, which binds the hemispheres of the brain together, lacks myelin when under stress, and therefore lessens the ability of the individual to deal with vision and memory. In other words, short-term bullying can have long-term effects on brain development.

Girls who are bullied produce less cortisol than girls who were not bullied; boys who are bullied produce more cortisol than boys who were not bullied. Because cortisol is the hormone secreted to help deal with stress, girls have a tendency towards shutting down completely, without the tools to process further stress. On the opposite hand, the fight or flight mechanism in boys triggers the former response, and boys have a tendency towards lashing out against their aggressors. Cortisol changes like this also depress the immune system, meaning that bullied students are likely to get sick more often than their classmates. 

Bullying affects more than just the victim. Families and other bystanders have higher incidence of depression, absence, and substance abuse addiction. Even the aggressors have a greater likelihood of domestic abuse, criminal violation, and alcoholism down the line. 

Cyberbullying can affect people of any age, race, or class, but if you want to study and research cyberbullying, Australian teenagers may unfortunately be the ideal subjects. Australian teenagers took the number one spot in Ipsos testing across 24 countries, and the results are in, just short of 90% of families in Australia have been affected by bullying. 

To prevent or overcome bullying, take the opportunity to talk to your children about their internet usage. If they’re feeling threatened by someone over the web, they do not have to sit quietly. Go over their options for privacy settings and talk about how to handle negative interactions with people over the internet. Currently, only one in three families use Internet-filtering software, and 40% restrict Internet usage to common areas. By putting blocks in place and monitoring how long your child can be on the web, you reduce not only his or her chance at being bullied, you reduce the chance that he or she will be the bully. 

Let your children know that you’re there to talk if they need you, but don’t push for more information than they’re willing to give. Above all, stay aware of changes in your child’s behavior. For more resources on counteracting cyberbullying, you may turn to the Jed Foundation’s website, which focuses on preventing suicide in bullied college students, but has information applicable to all age groups. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Does it make sense to view human progress as a risk to the environment?

I don’t think so, for two reasons. First, human progress is about ‘leaving the world a better place’. That sounds a bit like motherhood, but motherhood statements are probably appropriate on Mother’s day. I particularly like the context in which Ralph Waldo Emerson used the phrase:
‘To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children...to leave the world a better place...to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.’ [It would have been more accurate to attribute the phrase to Bessie A Stanley. Please see  Postscript 2 below for further explanation.]

Second, the environment adapts to whatever we do to it. I like the way Mark Dangerfield makes that point in his little book, ‘Environmental Issues for Real’ (2012):
Cover for 'Environmental Issues for Real'‘Our debate has been about how the environment is hurting, that we are to blame and only we can do something about it. Only the environment does not hurt, it just responds. Evolution has come about in spite of all the disturbances, atmospheric upheavals and changing climate. And evolution will be ongoing with or without us and the environment will always be there doing its thing’.

Mark makes the point that real environmental issues are about us. They are about ‘how we will cope with the notion that perhaps we are reaching the limit’. Environmental change will obviously be a problem for us if it means that our lifestyles are compromised. As I see it, values are also involved. I think most humans think that it is good to share the planet with a diverse range of other species. We see the lives of most other species as having value.

The idea that environmental issues are about us is consistent with the view that about 8000 years ago Earth entered into the Anthropocene – the new age of humans. This corresponds to the period in which humans have affected the environment through the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, urban centres and industrial activities. The Anthropocene coincides largely with the Holocene (the last 12,000 years).

Some people argue that we should be aiming to bring environmental conditions on Earth back to where they were at the beginning of the Holocene - on the grounds that the further the Earth’s systems get from those conditions the more likely we are to reach some kind of tipping point. The most common nightmare scenario is runaway global warming, ending up with and crocodiles in Greenland (if not a climate like that on Venus).

Few argue that such outcomes are likely any time soon, but they may not be beyond the bounds of possibility. The following view, in The Economist in May last year, seems to me to have merit:
‘In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed’.

So, how much would we have to modify our view of human progress in order to ensure that we continue to have a good Anthropocene? Is a good Anthropocene consistent with ongoing expansion of economic opportunities? The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) - the result of a major collaborative project of research agencies associated with Yale and Colombia universities – does not seem to me to provide much support for rejection of the view that human progress can involve ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. In general, high income countries – those which have had most economic growth in the past – have higher EPI scores than low-income countries. Over the past decade, there have been substantial improvements in average scores (population weighted) for Environmental health objectives (i.e. environmental factors affecting human health) and even some improvement for Ecosystem vitality.  Most countries with poor performance on environmental health have improved substantially over the last decade. The performance in relation to ecosystem vitality has been mixed. There has been further decline among the worst performers, but some other relatively poor performers (e.g. USA and Singapore) have improved.

We need to take account of the possibility that the future may differ substantially from the recent past. Some physical resources will probably become scarcer. This is unlikely to stop economic growth, however, because the real story of economic growth is largely about productivity growth and technological progress rather than electricity generation and steel production.

Little Green Lies: Twelve Environmental Myths - Jeff BennettWhat about the precautionary principle? I am usually in favour of taking precautions, but the use some people make of the precautionary principle is highly questionable. Jeff Bennett has discussed the issues in his recently published book, ‘Little Green Lies’.  He agrees with the general proposition that we should be careful in making decisions where future outcomes of those decisions are uncertain and potentially catastrophic.  He points out, however, that the way the precautionary principle is advocated often ignores the costs associated with protecting the environment and risks hobbling society in its request for improvement.

The most quoted statement of the precautionary principle is in the 1992 Rio Declaration. If I have correctly found my way through the double negatives in that definition, it is suggesting that ‘cost effective action’ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should not be postponed just because we don’t have ‘full scientific certainty’ that greenhouse gas emissions are likely to cause ‘serious or irreversible damage’ to the environment.  

As a general proposition that seems to me to have some merit, but it raises the question of what actions are cost effective. The only kinds of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that can possibly be cost effective for a small country acting alone are ‘no regret’ policies. In that context, I have previously argued that a carbon tax would have merit if the revenue was used to get rid of less efficient taxes. Unfortunately, those conditions don’t apply to the carbon tax currently being introduced in Australia.

Jeff Bennett applies the precautionary principle to climate change as follows:
‘Climate change poses a risk to society. That risk may or may not be due to human action, but it is a risk nonetheless. When confronted with the risk of a catastrophic outcome in the future, it is always worth contemplating taking out an insurance policy. In the climate context that can involve the adoption of adaptation policies. Essentially, those policies involve taking actions now that will protect society’s interests in the event of climate change causing a threat’.

Adaptation policies seem to be sensible for any single country acting alone. The problem is that adaptation would be massively expensive under the nightmare scenarios. In that context the issue arises of what international strategies have best prospects of success in actually addressing climate change. It seems to me that Bjorn Lomborg is correct in arguing that international agreements to invest in research and development are likely to have a greater chance of success than carbon-reduction negotiations.  Lomborg writes:
‘If we continue implementing policies to reduce emissions in the short term without any focus on developing the technology to achieve this, there is only one possible outcome: virtually no climate impact, but a significant dent in global economic growth, with more people in poverty, and the planet in a worse place than it could be’.

A lot of people seem to get upset whenever Lomborg’s name is mentioned. The question we need to address, however, is whether his diagnosis of the issues is right or wrong. If Lomborg is wrong, why is he wrong?

Postscript 1: 
The discussion of these issues is continued in a later post on the case for government funding of mitigation research.
Postscript 2:
Ooops! The quoted passage that I attributed to Emerson is actually not by Emerson. The original was apparently written by Bessie A Stanley. She wrote: 'He has achieved success ... who has left the world better than he found it ...'.The story is here. I am indebted to Howard DeLong for pointing out the error.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Will the 'better angels' keep winning?

When about half way through reading Steven Pinker’s book, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ (2011) I wrote something supportive of his view that Enlightenment humanism is a coherent world view. Since I have now finished reading the book I can now take a broader view of it. However, I don’t propose to attempt more that a one sentence summary of the line of argument in the book. Peter Singer’s review seems to me to provide a good summary.

Pinker argues that our ‘better angels’ are winning because violence has declined over the centuries. His book is full of evidence supporting this proposition, most of which I find persuasive. My lingering doubts centre around the spread of nuclear and biological weapons. There seems to me to be potential for crazy political leaders to destroy a higher proportion of humanity in future wars than in past wars.

Some reviewers have raised more fundamental doubts about Pinker’s view of moral progress. For example, John Gray suggests that if Darwin’s theory is right there is no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour. In my view Gray misses the point. Pinker’s view of moral progress seems to be based primarily on cultural evolution – the evolution of social norms – rather than biological evolution.

However, Pinker suggests that we should not expect our explanation of the evolution of norms opposed to violence ‘to fall out of a grand unified theory’:
‘The declines we seek to explain unfolded over vastly different scales of time and damage: the taming of chronic raiding and feuding, the reduction of vicious interpersonal violence such as cutting off of noses, the elimination of cruel practices like human sacrifice, torture-executions and flogging, the abolition of institutions such as slavery and debt-bondage, the falling out of fashion of blood sports and duelling, the eroding of political murder and despotism, the recent decline of wars, pogroms and genocides, the reduction of violence against women, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the protection of children and animals’.

The historical forces that Pinker views as leading to a reduction in violence are: the emergence of government with a monopoly on the use of force; the growth of commerce i.e. mutually beneficial exchange; growth in the power of women; an expansion in the circle of sympathy to encompass people in other communities and other countries; and what he refers to as ‘the escalator of reason’. The escalator of reason involves ascending to the vantage point of an impartial spectator (i.e. detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint). Pinker argues:
‘A humanistic value system, which privileges human flourishing as the ultimate good, is a product of reason because it can be justified: it can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation, whereas communal and authoritarian values are parochial to a tribe or hierarchy’.

The main distinction between the expanding circle and the escalator of reason is that whereas the escalator of reason requires the vantage point of impartiality, the expanding circle requires a capacity to see things from the vantage point of other people. Pinker explains that the expansion in literacy and greater reading of fiction from the Enlightenment onwards is one of reasons for an expansion in the circle of people for whom we feel sympathy. Australian blogger, Legal Eagle, helps make this point by combining a review of Pinker’s book with a review of Suzanne Collins’ series ‘The Hunger Games’. Legal Eagle suggests: ‘If, in popular fiction, we explore with the ideas of how various utopian designs of society can go wrong, and feel sympathy for the victims, hopefully we can guard against being swayed by such visions’.

Even though Pinker argues that we should not expect our explanation for the decline in violence to fall out of a unified theory of cultural evolution, it seems to me that he is actually not far away from developing such a theory. His linking of growing skills in abstract reasoning (the so-called Flynn effect) with Adam Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator is a major contribution.  As I have argued previously, however, the extent to which we develop impartial spectators that influence our behaviour must depend on the context of social interactions that reward particular behaviours and penalize others. The prisoner’s dilemma model and the concept of moral progress as positive sum game, which Pinker uses in his final chapter, seem to me to be on the right track toward development of a unified theory of cultural evolution.

It seems to me that a theory of cultural evolution should have four central ingredients:  a vision of ethical behaviour promulgated by the major world religions; the sense of personal identity of individuals in different communities and cultures; the incentives individuals have to change the way they perceive themselves and the way others perceive them; and the incentives of groups to change the rules of the game that determine individual incentives.

The golden rule of treating others as one would like to be treated oneself qualifies as the vision of ethical behaviour. A person who perceives himself or herself as the kind of person who acts in accordance with the golden rule is likely to obtain satisfaction from acting in accordance with this ideal. The extent to which individuals perceive themselves in this way will depend on their perception of the incentives in their environment. If they perceive that people outside their family group or tribe are not to be trusted they will not risk attempting to engage with them in cooperative ventures or mutually beneficial exchange. If they perceive that the incentives in their environment favour predatory behaviour they will tend to adopt a sense of personal identity that enables them to feel comfortable with such behaviour. Since societies that adopt rules of the game which discourage predation will tend to be more successful in enabling individuals to flourish, there is an incentive to adopt similar rules of the game in other societies.

This model suggests that moral progress depends heavily on the extent to which individuals perceive that others can be trusted. This is supported by research, some reported on this blog, which has shown that the countries in which community values are most strongly supported tend to be those with relatively high levels of social trust. An implication of the importance of trust, however, is that moral progress of societies may tend to be somewhat fragile.

I keep referring to 'The Better Angels ...', particularly the 'escalator of reason'. There are references here and here.

In my view 'The Better Angels of our Nature' is one of those books that people will still be referring to in 50 years time.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Is a desire for enlightenment (in the Eastern sense) consistent with Enlightenment humanism?

‘The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh – gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between the mind and body, don’t try to resist the temptation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments calling it good or bad.’
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor from 161 to 181 AD).

‘Every sensation arises and passes away. Nothing is eternal. When you practise Vipassana you start experiencing this. However unpleasant a sensation may be-look, it arises only to pass away. However pleasant a sensation may be, it is just a vibration-arising and passing. Pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, the characteristic of impermanence remains the same. You are now experiencing the reality of anicca [impermanence]. …
Only this experience of anicca will change the habit pattern of the mind. Feeling sensation in the body and understanding that everything is impermanent, you don't react with craving or aversion; you are equanimous. Practising this continually changes the habit of reacting at the deepest level. When you don't generate any new conditioning of craving and aversion, old conditioning comes on the surface and passes away. By observing reality as it is, you become free from all your conditioning of craving and aversion.’
S N Goenka, leading teacher of Vipassana meditation, from aspeech in Bangkok in 1989.

I have chosen the quotes to illustrate the similarity between an important strand of Western philosophy, stoicism, and Buddhist meditation practice. Goenka seems to me to be an appropriate source to quote because his courses attract students from a wide range of different religious backgrounds all over the world (and I have rudimentary personal experience of Vipassana meditation).

In a comment on my last post Ramana asked: Should civilization be devoid of a desire for enlightenment in the Eastern sense of the word? I have changed his question because it seems to me that the critical issue is whether particular ideas are consistent with Enlightenment humanism. Some ideas that are broadly consistent with Enlightenment humanism might nevertheless not survive the competition of ideas in modern societies. I have in mind, for example, a range of different beliefs about life after death.

In my view a desire for enlightenment, in the Eastern sense, is highly consistent with Enlightenment humanism because the people who have that desire are usually inclined to respect the rights of other people and seek to live peacefully with them. That doesn’t mean that I accept that people can actually achieve some ultimate state of complete enlightenment through successive reincarnations. In my view, the desire to walk the path has merit at a human level, in terms of improved mental health and personal relationships, irrespective of the end point attained.

In his monograph on the merits of western civilization, which was briefly reviewed in my last post, Wolfgang Kasper is critical of adulation of Tibetan wisdom in the West:
‘At present, one can observe a certain cultural ennui among elites, who take prosperity and freedom for granted. Protest songs, adulation of Tibetan wisdom (which, with a big class of indolent monks exploiting the workers, looks not all that attractive from close up), and the nihilistic cult of dropping-out reflect a certain disenchantment, but also utopian assumptions about what humans can achieve’.

I know what Wolfgang means. There is a tendency in some quarters to put forward utopian visions of society that are inconsistent with liberty. Such a vision seems to be reflected, for example, in the introduction to the ‘World Happiness Report’, that I wrote about here recently. But, in my view Wolfgang’s remarks about Tibetan wisdom and indolent monks are inappropriate. Such remarks are analogous to questioning adherence to traditional Christian virtues on the grounds that church leaders have failed to protect children from molestation by predatory priests. The existence of indolent monks and predatory priests should not be a reason to reject either ancient Buddhist wisdom or traditional Christian virtues.

Wolfgang’s remarks about Tibetan wisdom are in a section of his monograph about ‘enemies of civilisation’. In my view such terminology would only be appropriate (in the context of a discussion of western civilization) when used in relation to people who are opposed to institutions such as freedom and democracy. Western civilization has nothing to fear from the Dalai Lama. He makes clear in his writings that although he is not a fan of many aspects of modern economic life in the West, his quest is for spiritual revolution in the minds of people all over the world. There is a vast difference between seeking to change behaviour by influencing the perceptions and beliefs of individuals and seeking to change behaviour by imposing restrictions on individual freedom.

The following account of historical links between Indian religion and western culture is based heavily on material written by Jean Sedlar, an American historian.

The most promising direct historical link between Buddhism and Stoicism seems to be via Pyrrhon of Elis (365-275 B.C.), the reputed founder of Scepticism, a forerunner of Stoicism. There seems to be fairly reliable evidence that Pyrrhon accompanied Alexander's army to India. Diogenes Laertios (2nd cen. A.D.) claims further that Pyrrhon's encounters with Indian wise men led directly to his love of solitude and to his formulation of the Sceptics' fundamental thesis: namely, that knowledge is impossible and that the truly wise man should therefore suspend judgment on all questions.

Jean Sedlar acknowledges that Pyrrhon could ‘scarcely have failed to notice’ the ‘mental impassivity and physical endurance’ of the Indian holy men. However, she questions whether a mature and well-educated Greek, with ideas presumably well-formed already, would be significantly influenced by talks with them. She also suggests that there were obvious prior causes within Greece for the ideas developed by Pyrrhon, so it would seem gratuitous to assume Indian inspiration. 

The legend of a meeting between Alexander and Dandamis, an Indian holy man, is also relevant. Sedlar describes several different accounts of this meeting. From the perspective of the influence of Indian influences on western civilization, the one that seems most interesting is the interpretation in terms of Christian monasticism of the 4th Century. The points emphasized are that the Indian ascetics advocated a life-style that satisfies only the minimum physical needs; they attacked riches, luxury, and the perversions of Greek life. According to the story, Alexander had to go to meet Dandamis because he had refused an audience, despite inducements and threats. Dandamis said nature already furnished him with everything he needed and he did not fear death. When they met, Dandamis invited Alexander to abandon the world and find tranquillity in a life of renunciation. Alexander refused, citing the responsibilities of his position.

Sedlar comments: ‘The message of the text is clear: Alexander approves of the ascetics' life-style. Only practical considerations prevent him from imitating it himself’.  She notes that this account of the meeting became favorite reading in Christian monasteries both West and East – providing ‘support from pagans in defence of a Christian-ascetic mode of life’.

However, in the late 4th or early 5th century the story was changed to provide the opposite message, ‘namely to deprecate the monastic ideal’. In this text, Alexander had the last word, expressing the view that the Brahmins' life of renunciation is due not to free choice, but rather to the conditions of poverty prevailing in India. He then praised the riches of Greece and the high morals of its citizens. But that was not the final version. During the medieval period, the text was again rewritten to exalt Dandamis' philosophy of asceticism.

I wonder whether the meeting between Alexander and Dandamis has been portrayed in any modern movies. Different interpretations of what could have happened at such a meeting might well have an ongoing influence on culture in the West and the East in the years ahead.

Jean Sedlar also refers to the links between Greek philosophy and Buddhism that are evident in ‘Questions of King Milinda’ (probably written ca. 150-100 B.C.) which is included in the Burmese version of the Pali Canon. The book is an account of discussions between Menandros, the Hellenistic ruler of part of India, and a Buddhist sage named Nagasena. It concludes with the king becoming the monk's disciple. As Sedlar notes, the book is modelled in some respects upon a Greek dialogue. An abridged version edited by Bhikku Pesala is available on the web.