Showing posts with label Ethics and moral instincts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ethics and moral instincts. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Did Hayek acknowledge the importance of individual self-direction in his vision of spontaneous order?

 


One of the reasons why Friedrich Hayek’s vision of spontaneous order is more attractive than collectivist alternatives is because it offers individuals greater opportunities for self-directed flourishing. However, the question arises of whether Hayek may have undermined the appeal of his vision by presenting a view of the limitations of human reason that leaves little room for individual self-direction.

In exploring this question, I sketch out the importance of self-direction to human flourishing, Hayek’s objections to constructivist rationalism, Hayek’s reverence for tradition and social evolution, Hayek’s attitude to free will, and the role of human agency in Hayek’s account of spontaneous order.

Importance of self-direction

 In helping make the case that “self-direction is the central necessary constituent or ingredient of human flourishing” Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen quote Aristotle and Henry Veatch, a leading neo-Aristotelian of the 20th century. Veatch writes:

“Is it not evident that not only does a human being not attain his natural end by an automatic process of development and maturity after the manner of a plant or animal? In addition, no human being ever attains his natural end or perfection save by his own personal effort and exertion. No one other than the human individual – no agency of society, of family, of friends, or of whatever can make or determine or program an individual to be a good man, or program him to live the life that a human being ought to live. Instead, attaining one’s natural end as a human person is nothing if not a ‘do-it-yourself’ job.” (The Perfectionist Turn, 51-2)

The errors of constructivist rationalists

Chris Sciabarra makes an important point about Hayek’s anti-rationalistic beliefs:

“His enemy is not reason but the constructivists who have “historically again and again given birth to a revolt against reason”. (Total Freedom, 131)

Hayek observes that constructivist rationalists - enthusiasts for a deliberately planned society - tend to base their case on the synoptic delusion, “the fiction that all the relevant facts are known to some one mind, and that it is possible to construct from this knowledge of the particulars a desirable social order”. (LLL, v1, 14) Hayek argues that by over-estimating the powers of reason, constructivist rationalism has given birth to a revolt against the wisdom embodied in abstract rules, including rules of just conduct, which tell us what not to do. (LLL, V1, 31-34) The abstract rules protect individuals from arbitrary violence by others and enable them to try to build for themselves a protected domain with which nobody else is allowed to interfere and within which they can use their own knowledge for their own purposes. (LLL, V3, 163)

Hayek’s reverence for tradition and social evolution

In my view, Hayek sometimes went too far in downplaying the ability of humans to understand the significance of abstract rules. For example, in one instance he claimed that “submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional, that the rationalistic mind finds so uncongenial, … is indispensable for the working of a free society”. (COL, 63) It seems to me that most people are capable of understanding the purposes served by rules of just conduct. It makes more sense to explain those purposes than to suggest that reverence for the traditional should be sufficient reason for compliance.

The emphasis which Hayek placed on group selection in the evolutionary process also downplays the potential role of reason. Hayek argues that rules of just conduct evolved because the groups which practiced them were more successful and displaced others. (LLL, V1, 18) James Buchanan pointed out that there is no reason to believe that group survival will always lead to a more beneficial state of affairs. Chris Sciabarra makes the same point, also noting that Hayek does not provide an objective standard by which to judge as desirable or undesirable the consequences of spontaneous orders. (Total Freedom, 131)

Buchanan suggests that Hayek’s skepticism about the ability of humans to rationally design social institutions, including constitutions, precludes any attempt at reform. In their excellent discussion of this point, Peter Boettke and Scott King suggest that the issue has been confused by conflating the question of the origin of institutions with questions relating to the development and improvement of institutions. They note that Hayek is open to attempts to improve spontaneous orders through small revisions in the overall rules. (I refer to the chapter entitled ‘Hayek and the Hayekians on the Political Order of a Free People’, in Hayek’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of F. A. Hayek, edited by Stefanie Haeffele, Solomon M. Stein, and Virgil Henry Storr.)

Hayek’s attitude to free will

Discussions of Hayek’s attitude to free will often begins with his venture into theoretical psychology in The Sensory Order, published in 1952. When I read the ‘Philosophical Consequences’ chapter of that book, about 30 years ago, I gained the impression that Hayek was an advocate of free will. Hayek certainly rejects the idea that it is possible to explain why people hold particular views, at particular moments, from knowledge of their material circumstances. Immediately afterwards, in discussing free will more explicitly, Hayek asserts:

“To us human decisions must always appear as the result of the whole human personality – that means the whole of the persons mind – which, as we have seen, we cannot reduce to something else.” (See page 250 of “The Essence of Hayek”, 1984 by W. Glenn Campbell (Foreword), Kurt R. Leube (Editor), Chiaki Nishiyama (Editor).

Hayek based his argument against microphysical reductionism on the belief that the human brain can never fully explain its own operations. Paul Lewis has suggested that if Hayek had relied more fully on the ideas of organismic biologists he would have been able to develop an emergentist argument against microphysical reductionism, thus providing a stronger basis for use of concepts such as goals and purposes. (See Lewis’s chapter entitled ‘Tensions and Ambiguities in Hayek’s Social Theory’ in Hayek’s Tensions, cited above. Those who are interested in reading a philosophical emergentist argument for free will can find one in the The Metaphysics of Emergenceby Richard Campbell. I reviewed the book here.)

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek offers a potted summary of the free will debate. He notes that the concept of universal determinism that dominated 19th century science seemed to eliminate the possibility of free will. He also notes that physicists have now abandoned universal determinism but doubts that this affects “the puzzle about the freedom of the will”. He then states:

“It appears that the assertion that the will is free has as little meaning as its denial and that the whole issue is a phantom problem, a dispute about words in which the contestants have not made clear what an affirmative or negative answer would imply.”

However, Hayek’s subsequent discussion of the conclusions generally drawn by determinists and voluntarists about their respective positions leaves little doubt about where he stands:

“The determinists usually argue that, because men’s actions are completely determined by natural causes, there can be no justification for holding them responsible or praising or blaming their actions. The voluntarists, on the other hand, contend that, because there exists in man some agent standing outside the chain of cause or effect, this agent is the bearer of responsibility and the legitimate object of praise and blame. Now there can be little doubt that, so far as these practical conclusions are concerned, the voluntarists are more nearly right, while the determinists are merely confused.” (COL, 72-73)

In discussing the difference between “inner freedom” and the absence of coercion, Hayek had already made clear his belief that it is possible for a person to be guided by “considered will”, “reason or lasting conviction, rather than by momentary impulse or circumstance”. He adds:

“If a person does not succeed in doing what, after sober reflection, he decides to do, if his intentions or strength desert him at the decisive moment and he fails to do what he somehow wishes to do, we may say that he is ‘unfree,’ the slave of his passions.” (COL, 15)

Later, Hayek asserts:

“The recognition that each person has his own scale of values which we ought to respect, even if we do not approve of it, is part of the conception of the value of the individual personality. (COL, 79)

The role of individual human agency

In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek wrote:

“Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decision of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.” (231-2)

That statement seems to me to be broadly consistent with the do-it-yourself job of being a good person, as described by Henry Veatch. However, some of the things that Hayek wrote later give a different impression. In The Constitution of Liberty, he advocated submission to rules and conventions, quoting David Hume’s assertion that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”. (63) In Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek writes:

“Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one.”

Mario Rizzo has suggests (in a paper entitled, F.A. Hayek and the Rationality of Individual Choice’) that Hayek’s mature views about rationality should be understood in terms of a general framework acknowledging that humans are both purposeful agents and rule-followers. In emphasizing the importance of rule-following behaviour, Hayek didn’t abandon individual rationality. Even at the purely individual level, leaving aside the need to coordinate plans with others, rule-following makes sense because we live in a world of uncertainty and because our minds have limited capacities to know and compute.

Hayek seems to have rarely considered individual agency apart from the spontaneous order. The following paragraph provides a good summary of his perspective:

“What makes men members of the same civilization and enables them to live and work together in peace is that in the pursuit of their individual ends the particular monetary impulses which impel their efforts towards concrete results are guided and restrained by the same abstract rules. If emotion and impulse tells them what they want, the conventional rules tell them how they will be able and be allowed to achieve it.”

Personal perspective

Did Friedrich Hayek undermine the appeal of his vision by presenting a view of the limitations of human reason that leaves little room for individual self-direction? In his efforts to counter constructivist rationalism, I think Hayek inadvertently understated the role of human reason in individual flourishing. However, if individuals have greater potential for self-directed flourishing than Hayek thought possible, that makes spontaneous order a more attractive option.

In assessing Hayek’s views on the role of self-direction in individual flourishing it is important to recognize that advising individuals how best they could flourish was incidental to his main purpose. One way to illustrate that is by reference to my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. I draw fairly extensively upon Hayek’s wisdom in the first part of that book in discussing topics such as the definition of liberty, rules of just conduct, transmission of ancient law to the modern world, and evolution of social norms.

I only mention Hayek’s contribution once in the chapter discussing the challenge of self-direction. His views are referred to in that context not to emphasize the difficulty of self-direction but to counter the view that we (humans) are prone systematically to make serious mistakes in the individualized pursuit of happiness. I draw attention to the fact that Hayek urged respect for social norms that embody the experience of generations in advocating a legal and social order consistent with pursuit of happiness by individuals. (150-1)

In retrospect, I could also possibly have drawn on Hayek to point out implications of the fact that reasoning is cognitively demanding. In pursuing our personal goals it often makes more to sense for us to choose rules (norms) to follow, based on our own previous experience and the experience of others, than to attempt to reason our way through life by treating every issue that arises as though nothing similar has ever previously been encountered in human history.  


Friday, April 26, 2024

Why do I consider myself to be a neo-Aristotelian classical liberal?


 

I pondered the above question as I read Fred D Miller’s book, Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics (published in 1995). Although some of Aristotle’s politics is challenging to classical liberals, Miller mounts a strong case that it is not anachronistic to attribute to Aristotle a concept of individual rights and support for a moderate degree of individualism.


Neo-Aristotelian classical liberals are not overly interested in defending Aristotle’s politics. They seek to have their own ideas assessed on their merits rather than in terms of the extent to which they agree with Aristotle's writings. Nevertheless, they have good reasons to label themselves as neo-Aristotelian – they draw inspiration from Aristotle.

Neo-Aristotelian classical liberals certainly appreciate Aristotle’s recognition of reality and his approach of attempting to understand the nature of the world in which we live. However, it is not necessary to be any kind of Aristotelian to follow Aristotle in that regard. In an earlier essay I argued that John Sellars had adopted an excessively broad view of what it means to be an Aristotelian by suggesting that all who join Aristotle in attempting to understand the nature of the world are Aristotelians. I argued that Aristotelians seek guidance from Aristotle’s ethics.

In my view it is Aristotle’s views on the nature of humans and individual flourishing that offer greatest inspiration for classical liberals. I think neo-Aristotelian classical liberals obtain inspiration from Aristotle mainly because they perceive him to have embraced an important role for individual self-direction. In what follows I draw upon Fred Miller’s book to explain why that is justified.

Aristotle’s account of individual flourishing

Aristotle identifies human flourishing with actualization of the potential of individuals. Miller suggests:

“Aristotle’s theory is perfectionist in the sense that it presupposes a theory of human nature and identifies the good with the fullest possible development of this nature.”

Aristotle identifies the good as “that for which everyone strives” but is not a perfectionist in the sense of insisting that anything short of perfection is unacceptable. For Aristotle, perfection provides an objective standard against which we can judge which of the things we might wish for are more choice-worthy. The good is both desirable and choice-worthy.

Aristotle maintains that rationality is the essential function of a human. He sees this function as stemming from the nature of human beings as a particular kind of organism. He argues that it is good for individuals to promote this function.

Miller notes Aristotle’s claims that virtuous acts must be chosen by the agent for their own sakes, that true self-love is embodied in persons who act according to their own judgement, and that the exercise of reason, in contrast to perception, is voluntary and up to the agent. He summarises:

“Those claims together seem to imply that rationality, virtue, and happiness are essentially free and voluntary”.

Miller also notes that Aristotle “relegated liberty to the status of a mere external good” and “prescribed frequent intrusions on individual freedom of choice in the pursuit of liberty”. However, he observes:

“None the less, it has been argued that Aristotle provided the theoretical basis for a more central role for self-directedness or autonomy”.

The references he cites of authors taking that position include some works by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. With the benefit of advances in knowledge, it seems to me that the foundations for Aristotle’s views supporting individual self-direction are much stronger than the foundations for his views supporting slavery, a subordinate role for women, and a role for the state in moral development of adult citizens.  

Neo-Aristotelian classical liberalism

 In The Perfectionist Turn (2016) Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl write:

“Succinctly stated, human flourishing is understood by us to mean the exercise of one’s own practical wisdom.”


They argue that “human flourishing and the goods and virtues that constitute it” cannot “be adequately understood apart from the actualization of human nature”. They assert that “holding that human flourishing is the ultimate end and good for human beings is compatible with there being many diverse forms of human flourishing and with self-direction being vital to the very actuality of human flourishing”.

Rasmussen and Den Uyl state that they “seek to advance a neo-Aristotelian account of human flourishing”.

My views on human flourishing have been strongly influenced by Rasmussen and Den Uyl, as well as Aristotle. The following passage is from my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing:

“Wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to the process of human flourishing. The nature of humans is such that when individuals mature, they normally have potential to exercise the practical wisdom and integrity required to direct their own flourishing in accordance with goals they choose and values they endorse. Individuals cannot fully flourish if they are unable to exercise their potential for self-direction.”

The views presented in that passage were inspired by my reading of Aristotle.    


Thursday, February 29, 2024

Is ecological justice also a mirage?

 


David Schmidtz advocates “ecological justice” in his book, Living Together: Inventing Moral Science. Although Schmidtz does not refer to Friedrich Hayek in this book, his general line of argument is similar, in many respects, to that developed by Hayek in Law, Legislation, and Liberty. From Schmidtz’s earlier writings, it clear that he is well aware of Hayek’s views.


I presume Schmidtz has good reasons for not comparing his views to those of Hayek in this book. However, since Hayek argued that ‘social justice’ is a mirage, I thought Hayek would not object to me asking whether ecological justice could also be a mirage.

In this essay, I provide a brief summary of Hayek’s reasons for viewing social justice as a mirage before considering the basis for Schmidtz’s concept of ecological justice.

Why did Hayek view social justice as a mirage?

Hayek argued that it is “a dishonest insinuation” and “intellectually disreputable” to make reference to social justice in an attempt to bolster an argument “that one ought to agree to a demand of some special interest which can give no reason for it”. Hayek implies that where there are good reasons for assistance to the less fortunate, reference to social justice adds nothing to the argument. (LLL, V2, p 97. See also p 87 for Hayek’s discussion of reasons to support “protection against severe deprivation”.)

Hayek also argued that “a society of free individuals” … “lacks the fundamental precondition for the application of the concept of justice to the manner in which material benefits are shared among its members, namely that this is determined by a human will – or that the determination of rewards by human will could produce a viable market order”. (LLL, V2, pp 96-7)

Elsewhere, Hayek made the point that the size of the national cake and its distribution are not separable issues:

“We must face the truth that it is not the magnitude of a given aggregate product which allows us to decide what to do with it, but rather the other way around: that a process which tells us how to reward the several contributions to this product is also the indispensable source of information for the individuals, telling them where they can make the aggregate product as large as possible” (Conference paper published in Nishiyama and Leube, “The Essence of Hayek”, p 323).

Hayek went on to make the point that John Stuart Mill’s claim that “once the product is there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with it whatever it pleases” is really “an incredible stupidity, showing a complete unawareness of the crucial guide function of prices”.

Interestingly, David Schmidtz suggests that by pulling production and distribution apart, J. S. Mill “unwittingly pulled one question into two half questions that in fractured isolation had no proper answers and that would derail rather than facilitate our study of the human condition”. (p 6) Following Mill, questions about production were allocated to economists, while questions of distribution were the province of philosophers: “those who work on justice”. (p 5)

What is ecological about justice?  

David Schmidtz writes:

“We are social and political animals, and justice is a human adaptation to an ecological niche.” (p 220)

What does that mean? The common human characteristic of negotiating what we expect from each other is one of the reasons why humans are viewed as social and political animals. As people negotiate what to expect from each other, they create social niches in which they hope to flourish. (p 25) Schmidtz suggests that to speak of justice is to speak of what we should be able to expect from each other. (p 219)

Justice manages traffic. (p 220) People share an interest in avoiding collision, but otherwise have destinations of their own:

“The truth for political animals is that since we began to settle in large communities, being of one mind has not been an option. Being on the same page is not an option. Even our diverse ideas about how to resolve conflict are a source of conflict. And, disturbing though it may be for a theorist to admit it, theories do not help. It is a political fact that we live among people who have theories of their own, who do not find each other’s theories compelling, and who are perfectly aware that there is no reason why they should.” (p 221)

Schmidtz discusses several other features of ecological justice. For example, norms of ecological justice are an adaptive response to reality. Principles of justice are based on an understanding of which institutional frameworks are enabling people to flourish and which are not. Justice is somewhat testable: when the world tests our ideals and finds them wanting, we need to rethink.

The author ends up suggesting that the features of ecological justice that he has discussed “do not define ecological justice, and do not exhaust it, but they indicate whether a conception of justice is more or less ecological”. (p 226)

 Instead of seeking to define ecological justice, perhaps it is more helpful to ask what is the question that ecological justice seeks to answer. The title of Schmidtz’s book suggests that the question has to do with how we can live together. In his introduction, he asks:

“What if justice evolved as a real question about what people ought to be able to expect of each other?”

Since we have reasons to believe that justice evolved in that way, perhaps the relevant question is:

What rules of just conduct should influence what people ought to be able to be able to expect of each other, allowing for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways?  

(That question borrows words from Friedrich Hayek, and Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, as well as David Schmidtz.)

Conclusion

David Schmidtz’s concept of ecological justice is certainly not a mirage. It has to do with the nature of humans as social and political animals, and the nature of justice as a human adaptation to an ecological niche.

Rather than seeking to define ecological justice precisely, perhaps it is more helpful to ask what is the question that ecological justice seeks to answer. My suggestion is:

What rules of just conduct should influence what people ought to be able to be able to expect of each other, allowing for the possibility that individuals might flourish in different ways?  


Thursday, February 15, 2024

What makes a narrative good?

 


I asked myself the question posed above as I was reading Michèle Lamont’s book, Seeing Others, How to Redefine Worth in a Divided World. The passage quoted below seems central to Michèle Lamont’s book:

“The hegemony of the American dream manifests in the emphasis Americans put on neoliberal virtues of material success, self-reliance, individualism, entrepreneurialism, and competitiveness. These criteria of worth have gained more and more influence as “models of ideal selves,” and encourage many to internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives. This model can also lead people to seek out a scapegoat group to blame.” (p 31)

Those sentences seem to suggest that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame.

Internalizing blame

The author doesn’t explain why she believes neoliberalism can cause people to “internalize blame for the increasing precarity of their lives”, but she lists several references in the notes section which may support her claims. The one which seems likely to be most relevant is an article by Glen Adams, Sara Estrada-Villalta, Daniel Sullivan, and Hazel Rose Markus entitled ‘The Psychology of Neoliberalism and the Neoliberalism of Psychology’, Journal of Social Issues 75 (1), 2019.

Adams et al use the term ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to an economic and political movement that came to prominence in the late 1970s, advocating “deregulation of markets and free movement of capital with an emphasis on fluidity and globalization”. Such usage of ‘neoliberalism’ to refer to advocacy of free markets is now common, even though the term was once generally understood to refer to advocacy of left-leaning policies, e.g. a ‘social market economy’, rather than free markets. Like most advocates of free markets, I would prefer to be referred to as a classical liberal or libertarian, but I can usually assume that I am among good company when I am labelled as a neoliberal.

The authors argue that neoliberalism encourages “an entrepreneurial approach to self as an ongoing development project, an imperative for individual growth and personal fulfillment, and an emphasis on affect regulation”. I don’t object to that characterisation. It describes some aspects of the approach to human flourishing in Part III my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

However, the authors suggest that neoliberalism also supports psychological “responsibilization” - an ugly word for an ugly concept. The claim they make is that neoliberals advocate that individuals should not only accept personal responsibility for problems which it may be possible to ameliorate through behaviour change (such as obesity and substance abuse) but also to accept responsibility for misfortune more generally.

Neoliberals argue that free markets tend to reward individual effort, but that doesn’t mean that they believe that economic misfortune is always attributable to lack of individual effort. In fact, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism is recognition that social problems of poverty, unemployment etc. are often attributable to foolish government economic policies that are opposed to economic freedom.

I don’t know any neoliberal who would suggest that individuals should “internalize blame” for any disruption of their lives associated with innovation and competition. Neoliberals are more likely to suggest that people who lose jobs or other remuneration because of the disruptive impact of innovation and competition should view such setbacks as beyond their control. The potential for such setbacks is a price that previous generations have willingly paid to enable to enable their descendants to enjoy the benefits of economic growth. Deirdre McCloskey – a prominent classical liberal – has coined the term, ‘bourgeois deal’, to refer to the willingness of people to accept the potential for their lives to be disrupted by innovation and competition in exchange for ongoing expansion of economic opportunities. (See Bourgeois Equality.)

I doubt that many psychologists would suggest that their clients should “internalize” blame for all the bad things that happen to them. When psychologists suggest that individuals should take responsibility for their lives, I am sure that the vast majority would mean that individuals should focus on taking personal responsibility for problems that are within their locus of control.

Who is responsible for the scapegoat narrative?

It took me some time to work out why Michèle Lamont believes that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame for misfortune. Her reasoning evidently has more to do with her belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal than with the beliefs of neoliberals.

On the page following the passage quoted above, Lamont writes: 

“From Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, neoliberalism has come to be understood as a precondition for a successful society”.

I believe that free markets help societies to become and remain successful, but it is hard to understand how anyone could perceive Donald Trump to be an advocate of that view. While in office, Trump administered the final blow to the “neoliberal consensus” on international trade that characterised the post-Cold War period, and he currently favors further restrictions on international trade and international movement of labor.  

Lamont’s claim that neoliberalism encourages people to seek out scapegoat groups to blame seems to rest on the behavior of Donald Trump. She observes that in 2015 former president Trump advanced a false narrative in which immigrants from Mexico were rapists and drug dealers. (pp 51-2). During the 2016 campaign Trump appealed to “America’s forgotten workers” by recognizing their plight and “by blaming globalization and immigration for it”. (p 70)

Lamont also suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class “who are often perceived as “the losers of the system”. (p 165). Early in the book, she notes:

“Instead of depicting ‘everyday Americans’ as ‘deplorables’, as Hillary Clinton was perceived to do in the 2016 presidential campaign, her opponent Donald Trump affirmed their worth in his various electoral speeches, explaining their loss of social status as a result of globalization and immigration.” (p 8)

Lamont’s narrative

The title of Lamont’s book, “seeing others”, refers to “acknowledging people’s existence and positive worth, actively making them visible and valued, reducing their marginalization, and openly integrating them into a group”. (p 6) She suggests that having one’s sense of worth affirmed “is a universal need that is central to our identity as human beings and our quality of life”. (p 7) She urges that we “bridge boundaries with those who are different” via “ordinary universalism”, or “emphasizing similarities over differences”. (p 144)

I don’t object to those sentiments, and I doubt whether many other neoliberals would either. It is certainly appropriate to recognize that ordinary universalism can be “a vital counterweight” to “Nationalist populism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” which “are on the rise in many countries”. (p 146) As an advocate of ordinary universalism, however, I think it is unfortunate that the author was not sufficiently “inclusive” to recognize that anti-Semitism also belongs on that list.  

I also object to the idea that “individualist approaches” to improving wellbeing “may harm more than they help, since they pull people’s attention away from more meaningful efforts”. (p 48) The author seems to be suggesting that excessive attention is given to approaches that help individuals to improve their assessments of their own worth. Instead, she urges:

“We need to ask ourselves hard questions about how we decide who matters and what we can do to create a more inclusive society.”

It seems to me that people who are lacking in regard for their own worth are unlikely to make a positive contribution to ensuring that the worth of others is appropriately recognized.

Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of how it is possible to change hearts and minds in order to reduce stigmatization of marginalized groups, and thus build a more inclusive society. That discussion is largely beyond the scope of this essay.

In Chapter 7, however, the author discusses the result of a survey of the attitudes of Gen Z students (aged 18 to 23). She seems a little perplexed that Gen Z tend to “embrace some neoliberal ideals – hard work and success” but is pleased that they “combine personal professional aspirations with the promotion of collective well-being”.

The author claims that apart from “the wealthiest of the wealthy” every other group “finds itself reeling from an onslaught of difficulties, disappointments, and anxieties, grasping for dignity and stability”. (p 47) That is implausible and seems at odds with her message about destigmatization of marginalized groups. However, it fits well with another theme of Lamont’s narrative.   

As already mentioned, Lamont suggests that Trump provided “an empowering narrative” for the working class. She suggests that the Democratic party should counter that with “messages of solidarity and dignity”:

Redirecting working class anger toward the one percent is more likely to sustain fruitful alliances than driving wedges between diverse categories of workers who have so much in common.” (p 159)

Is Lamont’s narrative good?

It seems to me that appropriate criteria to consider whether a narrative is good include whether it encourages ethical behaviour and whether it is factually accurate.

Regarding ethical behaviour, Michèle Lamont seems to be seeking to “mobilize” good narratives when she suggests:

“We engineer our world together by mobilizing narratives that expand recognition of who is worthy.”

Leaving aside engineering, the message she is attempting to convey seems to be that narratives have a role in reinforcing the ethical intuition that we should respect other humans and behave with integrity toward them, irrespective of gender, sexual preference, race, nationality, religion, wealth, social status, political affiliations etc. I am not entirely convinced that she would include ideological opponents among those who are “worthy”, but she does acknowledge that “it is worth trying to understand even people we may strongly disagree with”. (p 159).   

On the question of factual accuracy, Lamont’s narrative, which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent, seems to me to be just as questionable as Donald Trump’s narrative which suggests that the workers have reason to be angry about globalization and immigration. Neither of those narratives promotes an accurate understanding of economic reality.  

Conclusion

In this essay I have examined Michèle Lamont’s narrative that neoliberalism encourages people to either internalize blame for misfortune or to seek scapegoat groups to blame. My conclusion is that her claim that neoliberalism encourages people to internalize blame is baseless. Her claim about seeking to blame scapegoat groups seems to be based on the false belief that Donald Trump is a neoliberal.

Good narratives should encourage ethical behaviour and be factually accurate. One of Lamont’s objectives in this book seems to be to “mobilize” good narratives that reinforce the ethical intuition that we should behave with integrity toward all other humans. However, the factual accuracy of her narrative that workers have reason to be angry with the wealthy one percent is highly questionable. If accepted by governments that approach would encourage unethical redistributions of incomes and further dampen incentives that are essential to the ongoing growth of widespread economic opportunities.


Tuesday, January 23, 2024

What is wrong with Sartre's view of self-creation?

 


I have read a great deal of the fiction written by Jean Paul Sartre, but my knowledge of his philosophical works is second-hand. I read Nausea, The Age of Reason, The Reprieve, and Iron in the Soul, when I was in my 20’s. Those novels still sit on my bookshelves along side novels by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Ayn Rand.

The only Sartre novel that left a lasting impression on me is Iron in the Soul. I have a vague recollection of the plot of Part One that novel. It ends with Mathieu Delarue, an academic who became a soldier in the French army, taking part in a futile military operation after France had been defeated by Germany during World War II. The purpose of this military operation was apparently to use up ammunition. Part One ends with Delarue declaring that he is free, even though it seems that his life is about to end.

At the time I read the book I would have been impressed that Delarue had found inner freedom by doing something decisive, but I doubt that I contemplated whether he had discovered himself or created himself.

It is only in the last decade or so that I have pondered whether personal development is best described as a discovery process, or a creative process. David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies: A philosophy of personal individualism (1976) has recently prompted me to think further on the topic. I will begin with a general discussion of Norton’s view of personal destinies before considering his view of Sartre’s position.

Is your destiny in your genes?

While reading the first chapter of Personal Destinies, I balked at Norton’s injunction to "accept your destiny".

I accept the author's argument that self-actualization requires a person to discover the daimon within, and to live in accordance with it. I have no problem with injunctions to "know thyself", "choose yourself", and to "become what you are". However, being told to "accept your destiny" seems more challenging.

What does Norton mean?

Norton suggests that from the moment of birth, it is the destiny of each individual to actualise their potential in a particular way. If they live in accord with their destiny they become like the heroes of a Greek tragedy, showing undeviating consistency of character as they meet their fate.

He is suggesting that individuals are destined to have a unique personal character if they follow their daimon. He is not suggesting that the individual’s fate is pre-determined.

Why did I object?

My first objection was that accepting one's destiny seems opposed to accepting personal responsibility for one's choices. Norton explains that is not so. Individuals are free to choose to adhere to their destiny or to deviate from it.

I think my second objection has more substance. I have seen individuals change their character through their own actions. Genes play an important role in determining our destinies, but they are not the only determinant. Brain plasticity seems to enable people to change their destinies, for good or ill.

I recommend David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain, to anyone who needs to be persuaded that genes are not destiny. As previously discussed on this blog, Eagleman, a neuroscientist, makes the point that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

It may even be possible for adults who follow their daimons to create more "potential" to actualize. If that is correct, it makes sense to think of personal development as involving self-creation as well as self-discovery. In the post already mentioned, I referred to the approach offered by Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, as an example of self-directed personal development. Gorlin has referred to her approach as a call to self-creation.

What is the problem with Sartre’s view?

Sartre argues that humans are “condemned to be free”. Each self constitutes itself as a “fundamental project” which is a product of free choice.

Norton explains that Sartre’s view of self-creation stems from the idea that whatever may be given to consciousness can appear in consciousness only as a meaning, and meanings are the product of consciousness itself. A person is nothing until he or she (or ?) chooses an identity. Human reality owes nothing to “inner nature”. There are no innate capabilities. “Talent is nothing other than acquired ability deriving from activity that is engaged in by choice.”

Norton suggests that autonomous self-awareness first appears in adolescence as a discovery rather than as a creation:

“In adolescence, autonomous self-awareness first occurs in the form of one’s awareness of being misidentified by the other. … Throughout childhood the individual has unquestioningly accepted adult identification of himself, usually that of his parents. Now, however, it is in the parental identification that the adolescent recognizes misidentification …. . Beneath this sense of misidentification and responsible for it is the adolescent’s new-found awareness that only he can speak. The moment is portentous and felt to be such. By its tone of  “from this moment and forever-more,” it signals a future very different from the past, it marks a disruption of the personal continuum. At the same time misidentification by others cannot be corrected because the new found “inner self” of the adolescent as yet has no voice with which to speak to the world, it is but a murmur within, audible to one person alone, and this helplessness projects itself as “fated to be misunderstood.” (p 111)

That passage brings back some memories of adolescence. And, even now, that feeling of being “fated to be misunderstood” sometimes returns to me.

An internet search suggests to me that developmental psychologists commonly believe that autonomous self-awareness first occurs during adolescence between the ages of 12 and 18 years. That stage of life often involves a great deal of experimentation leading to self-discovery.

The attraction of Sartre’s view of self-creation is that it appears to offer unlimited opportunities to individuals choose their identity. In arguing that human freedom is freedom for self-discovery and self-adherence, Norton suggests that Sartre’s advocacy of absolute freedom is actually a capitulation to “the forces of alienation at work in contemporary life”:

“The man who has no authentic feelings, and must on every occasion manufacture his feelings, is no exemplar of freedom but rather the self-alienated product of special conditions of life today.” (p 116).

Sensible self-creation

The main difference between Gena Gorlin’s approach to self-development and that of Sartre is that Gorlin does not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming a self-aware person. The existence of a person is presupposed in the builder’s mindset that Gorlin advocates:

“A person chooses what she wants to build, and she holds herself accountable for the work of building it.”

Robert Kegan’s concepts of self-authorship and self-transformation also seem to me to be sensible approaches to self-creation. Most adults have socialized minds – they are faithful followers and team players. Those with self-authoring minds are in the next largest group. They are self-directed and can generate an internal belief system.  Only a tiny percentage have self-transforming minds, capable of stepping back from, and reflecting upon the limits of personal ideology. I included some discussion of Rober Kegan’s concepts in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Conclusions

David L Norton’s book, Personal Destinies, has prompted me to think further on the topic of whether personal development is best described as a discovery process or a creative process. Norton’s view that personal destinies are determined at birth does not leave any room for self-creation. The existence of brain plasticity suggests, however, that it may make sense for psychologists to view personal development as having a creative component.

Norton offers an illuminating account of what is wrong with Sartre’s extreme view that it is necessary to choose an identity before being aware of being a person. Norton seems to me to be correct in suggesting that autonomous self-awareness occurs as a discovery process during adolescence.

Sensible advocates of self-creation do not claim that it is necessary to choose an identity before becoming aware of being an individual person.


Sunday, January 14, 2024

How do democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea?


 

In countries with endemic law and order and corruption problems, outbreaks of rioting and looting often lead to military dictatorship, or some similarly authoritarian style of government.

However, I don’t think many people expect the recent outbreak of rioting and looting in Port Moresby and other major cities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to result in authoritarian government. In the 50 years since it gained independence from Australia, PNG leaders have muddled through several major crises without resort to authoritarianism. Local leaders, including military leaders, have generally displayed little appetite for radical change. They have responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the PNG constitution. Responses to the Sandline crisis of 1997 are a prime example.

The Sandline crisis

In January 1997, the PNG government approved a contract to engage Sandline International – a firm employing mercenary soldiers – to neutralize the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA). The aim of the exercise was to reopen the Panguna copper mine which had been shut down in 1989 as a consequence of BRA activities seeking Bougainville’s independence from PNG.

General Jerry Singirok, the commander of the PNG defence force, did not believe that the proposed Sandline operation would succeed, and was concerned that it might result in mass civilian casualties. He also believed that the Sandline contract was unconstitutional. He resolved to expel the mercenaries from PNG before they were able to begin military activities on Bougainville. To achieve that objective, Singirok and some trusted colleagues devised and implemented Operation Rausim Kwik. The operation received overwhelming public support in PNG.


I don’t propose to present my view on whether Jerry Singirok did the right thing. I encourage readers of this blog to make up their own minds after reading Singirok’s recently published book, A Matter of Conscience: Operation Rausim Kwik. I enjoyed reading the book. It was given to me for Christmas by one of my brothers, who lives in PNG. As well as discussing the matters of conscience that Singirok had to consider, it provides an exciting account of the planning and implementation of this secret military operation.

My purpose in the remainder of this essay is to sketch out how the Sandline contract and Rausim Kwik were viewed in Australia, and to offer some additional thoughts about PNG institutions.

Australian views of the Sandline crisis

As I remember, there was intense interest in the Sandline affair in Australia. News stories about mercenaries and mutiny always attract attention but the Sandline affair was of particular interest because of the proximity of PNG to Australia, PNG’s history as an Australian colony, and the large number of Australians who had lived and worked in PNG or had family living there.

As the former colonial power, the Australian government didn’t want to interfere overtly unless it became necessary for action to be taken to protect Australian citizens. The official reaction of the government could be described as hand-wringing.

Prior to the Sandline affair, Australian authorities had been trying to persuade their counterparts in Port Moresby that peace on Bougainville could only be achieved via a negotiated settlement. Support provided under the Defence Cooperation Program included a requirement that the helicopters provided could not be used as “gunships”, and other similar conditions. Sir Julius Chan, the PNG prime minister, claimed that it was Australia’s reluctance to provide adequate support that had led his government “to go to the private sector”.

The Australian government did not send a strong message to the PNG government about its opposition to employment of mercenaries in the region until after Jerry Singirok had taken action to arrest the Sandline executives. At that point the Australian PM, John Howard, sent three senior public servants to PNG to urge Sir Julius to cancel the Sandline agreement and deport the mercenaries. The emissaries threatened that Australia might not continue its aid program if the PNG government continued in the proposed use of mercenaries to put down the rebellion on Bougainville.

In his public address to the nation, Singirok reassured the public that he was not conducting a military coup. Nevertheless, he insisted that the government ministers involved should step aside pending a judicial inquiry into the hiring of Sandline.

I think there was as much concern in Australia about Singirok’s mutinous behaviour as about the PNG government’s employment of mercenaries. The actions of the military commander in preventing implementation of government policy seemed like a step in the direction of military dictatorship. Singirok notes that the Australian High Commissioner handed him a diplomatic note from Canberra stating among other things:

“We strongly believe that it is essential that the PNGDF obey the directives of the PNG government and cease any illegal or unconstitutional activity.”

However, I doubt that the Australian government’s hand-wringing had much influence in ensuring that the Sandline crisis ended peacefully.

PNG institutions

Some prominent PNG citizens helped to end the Sandline crisis by assisting negotiations between Singirok and Sir Julius Chan. Singirok was dismissed as commander of the PNG defence force, but his demands were met. The PM and two other ministers stepped aside while an inquiry was held. Normal constitutional processes were resumed.


Sean Dorney, an Australian journalist with over four decades of experience in reporting on Papua New Guinea, regards the professionalism of its defence force as one of PNG’s strengths. In his book, The Embarrassed Colonialist, published in 2016, he writes about the PNGDF under the heading: “A Developing Country’s Military With No Ambition to Rule”. He quotes General Toropo, who was then commander of the PNGDF, as saying that he cannot see a military coup ever happening in PNG because the PNGDF regards itself as a professional organisation and “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”. Dorney notes that prior to independence, Australia made a conscious effort to recruit soldiers from all around the country so that the defence force would not be dominated by a group from any one province or region.

Dorney has a less favourable view of the police force. He notes that a police department had not even been created until the decade before independence and suggests that inexperienced and untrained staff were major problems at that time. He notes that by international standards the size of the police force relative to population is very low in PNG.

The professionalism of the police force is obviously still a problem. The most recent bout of rioting and looting occurred after police went on strike because of a pay dispute. Hopefully, the increased foreign aid that Australia announced last year to police training etc. will be of some help in improving the professionalism of the PNG police force.

Improved policing is an obvious response to a law-and-order problem, but it may not be necessary to invest vast amounts of public money in crime deterrence in order to make the transition from a high to low crime society. In his book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that firm government enforcement of laws could not have played a major role in enabling Britain to achieve a low crime society. In the 18th century, large parts of Britain were virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages 376-379).

The incentive to engage in crime depends on the alternative economic opportunities available to potential criminals as well as on the expected rewards of crime. The more general issue of what has been holding back the growth of economic opportunities in PNG, discussed previously on this blog, is relevant in this context.

Criminal activity has certainly been having an adverse impact on the growth of economic opportunities, and lack of economic opportunity has no doubt tempted more people to resort to crime. However, that does not necessarily make the problem intractable. One possible solution is for police to give highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The survival of democratic institutions in PNG does not seem to be seriously threatened by current levels of crime and corruption. There is a risk, however, that crime and corruption will reach a stage where criminal gangs directly threaten the survival of democratic institutions.  

Conclusions

Democratic institutions survive in Papua New Guinea because local leaders have generally responded to major crises by seeking to uphold the constitution. That was particularly evident in the Sandline crisis of 1997.

The PNG defence force has been aptly described as a developing country’s military with no ambition to rule. The defence force regards itself as a professional organisation that has “has got beyond tribal and regional differences”.

The professionalism of the PNG police force is more questionable. A more professional police force could help ameliorate PNG’s endemic law and order problems by giving highest priority to deterring the violence and theft that is having a major adverse impact on the economic opportunities of poor people.

The main risk to democratic institutions in PNG seems to me to lie in the potential for crime and corruption to expand to a point where criminal gangs take over the government.


Postscript

1. Noric Dilanchian has provided the following comment:

You've written a good article Winton.
As my only closely relevant background, in my last year in law school (1982) I helped a friend write her Law in Developing Societies course thesis about protests by indigenous people on Bougainville Island before the first major conflict.
Our conclusion then was that massive mining pollution and industry behaviour, among other factors I cannot remember, were conducive for societal collapse. It then happened.
I was also reflecting on your thinking in light of three books I read late in 2023 on the 20th century history of Iran. There a central problem was that the royal rulers always sought exclusive rule-supporting control over the armed forces. That had very bad consequences. As for the police in cities, they performed the connected with elites thug role comparable to and evident in Sydney during and before Premier Robert Askin's administration (1965-1975).

2. Pat Green wrote:

If I could draw comics, I would draw a helicopter way up in the sky, and attached to it is a silhouette of PNG. Hanging up high on the rope is a bunch of politicians cutting the rope above their heads with a big tramontina that has "idependence" etched on it.

There is no future in the current system. 


Sunday, December 31, 2023

How would you describe your philosophy?

 


I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question posed above. When I tell people that I am an economist, some of them ask about my views on economics before regaling me with their opinions. When I tell people that I am a blogger, they usually ask what I blog about before telling me what I should blog about. I don’t claim to be a philosopher, so there has been no reason for anyone to ask me to describe my philosophy.

However, a comment by Ed Younkins in the addendum to the preceding post on this blog prompted me to think about whether it would be possible for me (as a casual reader of philosophy) to prepare a coherent summary of my philosophical beliefs.

Some readers might be interested in the process I used to summarise my views. I asked ChatGPT to ask a series of questions to help me to explore my philosophical beliefs. I responded to her questions by providing copies of extracts from blog posts etc. that I had written, and asked her to summarise my responses. The summary she produced was done competently, but I did some further editing.

I view the outcome as a work in progress. If anyone points to holes in my reasoning, I will endeavour not to be excessively defensive in my responses.

Summary

I am a Neo-Aristotelian classical liberal.

As will be apparent from what follows, I am strongly of the opinion that it is appropriate to consider what kind of thing an individual human is before engaging in philosophical reasoning related to any aspect of human experience. That is why many of my beliefs are grounded in current scientific knowledge (and speculation) about human evolution, neurology, and psychology.

It seems appropriate to begin with philosophy of mind because awareness of our own awareness is the starting point for all consciousness reasoning. I will then proceed to outline views on epistemology, metaphysics, human nature, ethics, and political philosophy.

Philosophy of Mind:

We cannot doubt that we think. When we are thinking, we may be aware of the flow of inner thoughts and feelings and of our experience of the world in which live. Our observations of other animals suggest that they share with us some awareness of their surroundings. That awareness is a product of evolution – it serves a purpose in helping animals to survive and reproduce. Similarly, our awareness of our own awareness is just another step in the evolutionary process – the purpose it serves is to help individual humans to flourish within the cultures in which they live.  (Main influence: Richard Campbell).

Epistemology:

Humans are born with a potential to acquire knowledge that is particularly relevant to human flourishing. However, knowledge acquisition is primarily experiential. Experiences during early childhood have a major impact on brain development. As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified, but brains retain some plasticity throughout life. Brains learn by evaluating feedback from actions taken – they adjust internal models when predictions are incorrect.

Conscious reasoning plays a crucial role in determining what knowledge adult humans acquire. It makes sense to use probabilistic reasoning when considering alternative explanations for observed phenomena.

Practical wisdom (wise and well-informed self-direction) is integral to individual flourishing. As well as being important in its own right, it helps individuals to maintain good physical and psychological health, good relations with other people, and to live in harmony with nature. (Influences: Aristotle, David Eagleman, Michael Huemer).

Metaphysics:

Metaphysical realism: We exist as part of a real world. Beings exist independently of our cognition of them. (Influences: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Human Nature:

Humans have inherent potentialities that are good. (Main influence: Abraham Maslow).

Ethics:

Our awareness that we need to make something of our lives emerges before we can make conscious choices relating to our individual flourishing. Ethical intuitions relating to traditional virtues – practical wisdom, integrity, courage, temperance, justice – are a product of social evolution and family upbringing.

Ethical intuitions provide only a foundation for ethical reasoning. Although everyone has a natural inclination to engage in activities that contribute to their own flourishing, actualization of their individual potential requires some understanding of that potential, and the application of practical wisdom that is linked to that person’s dispositions and circumstances. Each individual is responsible for developing his or her own character, and adopting the good habits required to flourish more fully. (Influences: Robert Nozick, Aristotle, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen).

Political Philosophy:

Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends provided they do not encroach upon the rights of others. Recognition of individual rights enables individuals to flourish in different ways without interfering unduly with the flourishing of others.

The role of government is protection of individual rights. Performance other roles should be contingent upon consent of the governed. (Influences: Friedrich Hayek, James M Buchanan, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Notes

The summary presented above focuses on some broad categories of philosophical beliefs. I have left out some categories of beliefs (philosophy of science and methodology of economics) because they are too specific to be covered in this overview. One of the most popular posts on this blog is about aesthetics, but I have not read widely on that topic. Some other important categories (e.g. religion) have been left out because I prefer not to display my ignorance.

Anyone interested in further explanation of my beliefs is welcome to ask me. Many of the relevant topics are covered in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. There are also relevant articles on this blog that have been written since that book was published e.g. a discussion of Richard Campbell’s views on the emergence of consciousness (here), and David Eagleman’s views on neural mapping and plasticity (here).

References

Philosophy of Mind

Campbell, Richard, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Epistemology

Aristotle, The Complete Works (Kindle Edition), ATN Classics, 2023.

Eagleman, David, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, Canongate Paperback, 2021.

Huemer, Michael, Understanding Knowledge, 2022.

Metaphysics

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Human Nature

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being (Chapter 14), D Van Nostrand, 1962

Ethics

 Nozick, Robert. Invariances, The Structure of the Objective World, Harvard University Press, 2001.

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics (Translator: F.H. Peters) Online Library of Liberty, 1893

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Political Philosophy

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.