Showing posts with label Frames and beliefs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frames and beliefs. Show all posts

Monday, July 8, 2024

Can utopian thinking be dialectical?

 


This illustration of the fictional island of Utopia was apparently in the first edition of Thomas More’s book, Utopia, published in 1516. The word utopia was coined by More to mean ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere’, but More suggested that it could also have the same meaning as eutopia, meaning good place or happy place.

Modern dictionaries, such as Mirium-Webster and Cambridge, hedge their bets.  They define utopia as “a place of ideal perfection” or “a perfect society in which people work well with each other and are happy” and also as “an impractical scheme”, or “an imaginary or infinitely remote place”.

Examples of different usage

Both uses of the word occur in some of the books I have read recently. For example, in Marx, Hayek, and Utopia, Chris Sciabarra clearly takes utopia to mean “no place”, when he writes: “In this book, I explore the distinction between the possible and the impossible – between the radical and utopian – through a comparative analysis of the works of Karl Marx and F. A. Hayek.” Sciabarra suggests that for both Marx and Hayek, “Utopians internalize an abstract, exaggerated sense of human possibility, aiming to create new social formations based upon a pretense of knowledge”. Sciabarra notes:

“Despite their differences, both Marx and Hayek embrace a profoundly anti-utopian mode of inquiry. Marx identified this method as dialectics.”

Sciabarra views dialectics as “contextual analysis of systems across time”. (I have discussed application of the concept to problem definition in the preceding essay on this blog.)

An example of the use of utopia to denote a good place is in Fred Miller’s book, Nature, Justice and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics. Miller writes:

“Aristotelian politics has two poles: one is ‘ideal’ or ‘Utopian’, concerned with identifying the best constitution consistent with human nature and with resources that can be expected to be available under the most favourable circumstances or, failing that, the best constitution attainable by a Greek polis; the other pole is ‘mundane’ or ‘empirical’, concerned with maintaining and preserving actually existing political systems.” (186)

Miller recognizes that in attempting to identify the best constitution, Aristotle is posed with the problem of the disparity between his ideal of a community composed of individuals qualified for and disposed to a life of ethical virtue, and the actual characteristics of community members. Nevertheless, Miller argues that “the study of the best constitution will provide guidance to the practical politician concerned with establishing or reforming a constitution in less fortunate or diverse circumstances”. (190)

Although Miller doesn’t mention dialectics, my impression from reading his subsequent chapter, “The Best Constitution”, is that Aristotle’s discussion of ideal constitutions was dialectical. His discussion of the prerequisites for an ideal constitution is preceded by a study of actual constitutions. He also considers factors such as the minimum and maximum level of population required for the polis to be self-sufficient for the good life of citizens.

Apologia

 A few years ago, I wrote a post on this blog entitled, ‘What purpose is served by utopian thinking?’. In that post I suggested that anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking.

The post contrasts an anti-utopian view and a utopian view. The anti-utopian view is that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

 I suggested that the best way to challenge the arguments of those anti-utopians was to present some defensible utopian views:

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

I think my argument was defensible in terms of the way I defined utopian thinking, but it would have been preferable to have adopted a more dialectical approach. My main point should have been that it is not necessary to choose between a world of power struggles and an unattainable world in which human nature has been transformed. We are more likely to improve opportunities for human flourishing if we approach public policy issues with a view to both (a) upholding ideals that ought to apply and (b) the real-world constraints that should not be overlooked.

By the way, I still think that much of the thinking that went into “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing” was utopian, in terms of the way I defined that term. I think it is also true that there is a great deal of dialectical thinking in that book.

Conclusions

In considering whether utopian thinking can be dialectical it is important to be clear what we mean by utopian thinking. Under one definition, utopian thinking is out of this world. Under the alternative, anyone who considers what principles would apply in a good society is engaged in utopian thinking.

Chris Sciabarra adopts the first definition, and accordingly views utopian thinking as opposed to context-keeping and hence opposed to dialectical thinking.

Fred Miller adopts the second definition in his description of Aristotle’s somewhat dialectical discussion of an ideal constitution.

 I draw two conclusions:

  1. People who claim to be opposed to utopian thinking don’t necessarily consider ideals and principles to be irrelevant to consideration of public policy issues.
  2. People who defend utopian thinking may nevertheless be mindful of the need to consider real world context in considering public policy issues.

Addendum

I would like to draw attention to a response entitled 'Hayek, Bates, and Utopia', that Chris Sciabarra has posted on Notablog. In his response Chris mentions his excellent article, co-authored with Ryan Neugebauer, entitled 'Therapy for Radicals'. He also notes that Friedrich Hayek saw an important and honorable role for the notion of “utopia" in providing political inspiration. 

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Do people obtain more benefit from a walk in the park than from a walk in the suburbs?

 


I have previously written on this blog about the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness. In one essay, written in 2015, I referred to a meta-study (by  Diana Bowler et al) which suggested that exercise in natural environments promotes greater emotional health benefits – in terms of feelings of energy, and less anxiety, anger, fatigue and sadness - than exercise in an artificial environment. 

Since that study was undertaken there has been further research on the benefits people obtain from exercise in the natural environment.  I focus here on the conclusions of a review of experimental studies on psychological benefits of outdoor physical activity in natural versus urban environments. The review was authored by Claire Wicks , Jo Barton , Sheina Orbell , and Leanne Andrews, and published in Appl Psychol Health Well Being, 2022 Aug;14(3):1037-1061.

Natural versus Urban Environments

The authors identified 24 experimental studies which met their eligibility criteria, including a focus on psychological outcomes, broadly defined to include well-being, self-esteem, depression, anxiety, mood, and stress.

In the included studies, the natural environment includes forest, grasslands, nature reserves and urban parks. The urban environment includes commercial districts, city areas and residential streets.

The most common physical activity in the studies was walking.

The authors hypothesized that physical activity in nature would provide more favourable results for all psychological outcomes.

I focus here on the narrative synthesis of findings which was conducted across all studies. The authors conclude:

“Although there are some inconsistencies across outcomes, this analysis revealed results generally supporting our hypothesis. The majority of tests showed greater benefits following green exercise for anxiety, anger/hostility, energy, general affect and engagement, whereas four out of 10 tests found in favour of the natural environment for depression and one in four for tranquillity. Where studies did not find in favour of the natural environment, the results often indicated either favourable changes in both conditions or no changes in either condition.”

A personal view

I believe that most humans have deep-seated intuitions about their kinship (relatedness) to other living things. That led me, in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, to agree with the view that living in harmony with nature is intrinsic to individual flourishing and should be acknowledged as one of the basic goods of a flourishing human.  If living in harmony with nature is intrinsic to individual flourishing, I think it is reasonable to expect that exercising in the natural environment would provide greater psychological benefits than exercising in urban environments.

I walk regularly in a park close to where I live and obtain psychological benefits from doing so. I try to persuade others to do likewise.

However, I think my testimony about the benefits I obtain from walking in natural environments might be treated with some skepticism because of my belief that living in harmony with nature is intrinsic to individual flourishing. It is possible to argue that the psychological benefits that I obtain can be attributed to acting in accordance with my beliefs rather than to the impact of nature.

I am drawing attention to the findings of survey discussed above in the hope that it will receive serious consideration. Hopefully, it will induce more people to obtain the benefits of a walk in the park, and some of them will be led to view living in harmony with nature as intrinsic to their personal flourishing.


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?  


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. 


Monday, January 8, 2024

Was British colonial government as bad as modern critics would have us believe?

 


Nigel Biggar acknowledges that British colonialism contained evils and injustices, but he judges it to have been much better than its modern critics would have us believe.


Biggar directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University. His aim in writing his recently published book, Colonialism: A MoralReckoning, was to provide a moral evaluation of British colonialism, rather than a history of it.

 As indicated in the passage quoted above, Biggar argues that many of the modern critics of British colonialism have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth. He suggests that the controversy over empire is really about the present, rather than about the past. The real target of today’s anti-colonialists is “the Anglo-American liberal world order that has prevailed since 1945”. They denigrate the historical record of “the West” in order to corrode faith in it. He writes:

“What is at stake is not merely the pedantic truth about yesterday, but the self-perception and self-confidence of the British today, and the way they conduct themselves in the world tomorrow.”

Everyone who has regard for human rights, rule of law, and democracy should encourage British people to continue to be forthright in their advocacy of these ideals.

The focus of criticism

Biggar documents why modern critics of British colonialism are unfair in claiming that it was characterised by racism. He highlights three main examples:

The critics emphasize British links to the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, but overlook the leading role that the British government played in ending slavery in the 19th century.

The critics emphasize instances of appalling racial prejudice but ignore policies that were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of the members of all races.

Some critics slanderously equate the actions of British colonial authorities with those of the Nazis by claiming that they were engaged in genocide. They don’t acknowledge the efforts of colonial authorities to protect native peoples from harmful encounters with settlers.

Benefits of British colonialism

Biggar also documents many benefits of British colonialism. One of the points he makes is that it “brought up three of the most prosperous and liberal states now on earth – Canada, Australia, and New Zealand”. My friends in the United States can take comfort from the fact that the American revolution served to educate the British about the desirability of allowing those former colonies to govern themselves.

More generally, British colonialism promoted free trade, created peace in the colonies, developed public infrastructure, made foreign investment attractive, disseminated modern agricultural methods, disseminated medical knowledge, and “provided a civil service and judiciary that was generally and extraordinarily incorrupt”.

I will focus here on the quality of the civil service and judiciary.

Quality of governance

As a classical liberal, I am inclined to the view that less governance is better than more, and that governance imposed by foreigners is particularly obnoxious. Could it have been possible for the quality of governance offered by the British to have been better than the alternatives on offer during the colonial periods?

That seems likely to have been the case in many instances. Biggar notes that many local rulers in India wanted the British to secure power to obtain advantage over their rivals - they preferred British rule to indigenous alternatives including ongoing local wars. It is not obvious that any real-world alternatives to British colonialism in Australia and New Zealand (e.g. colonization by another European power) would have provided greater protection to indigenous peoples. In the absence of British colonialism in Africa, it is likely that the slave trade would have persisted to a greater extent, aided by the expansion of militant Islam, and internecine wars that were an ongoing source of slaves.

It is not difficult to understand why people working for British colonial administrations in the 19th and 20th centuries developed a reputation for being largely incorruptible. It is even possible for me – a person who subscribes to the private interest theory of regulation - to understand that when organisations develop a culture that is strongly opposed to corrupt behaviour, individual members tend to obtain a great deal of satisfaction – a sense of mission - from upholding that culture.

Biggar notes:

“Back in the closing decade of the eighteenth century, Lord Cornwallis’ insistence that officials in the East India Company should live on their salaries, give up private trading and resist bribes ‘helped to create a civil service that became widely regarded as incorruptible and just, one that even Indian nationalist newspapers would later regard as ‘absolutely above suspicion’ and ‘the high water mark of morality in the public service of the country’, and as beyond being ‘bribed to do anything.”

Biggar devotes quite a few pages of his book to quoting subjects of colonial rule who were full of praise for British colonial rulers. He also notes that in the 1950s several million Chinese voted with their feet to leave the communist Chinese mainland and live under British colonial rule in Hong Kong.

Conclusion

The modern critics of British colonialism have no reason to be concerned that it is about to make a comeback. Their reason for seeking to denigrate it is to undermine the ongoing efforts of people in Britain, and some of its former colonies, to promote the ideals of a liberal world order. Nigel Biggar’s book makes an excellent contribution to public discussion of the issues by pointing out that many of the critics have an unscrupulous indifference to historical truth.


Monday, December 18, 2023

Why am I thinking about selfishness during the season of goodwill?

 


The reason I am thinking about selfishness has to do with Ayn Rand. It has little to do with her attitude toward Christmas, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the sentiment expressed in the quote above (written by Ayn Rand in the December 1976 entry in The Objectivist Calendar). I had previously wondered whether Rand might have been one of those people who say “Bah Humbug!” at this time of the year.

I have been prompted to think about Rand’s view of selfishness by a discussion that has been taking place on The Savvy Street. Ed Younkins wrote an essay, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison, which has induced Roger Bissell to write a two-part response. Bissell’s responses have been published under the title: Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics. (Part 2 is here.)

Before I discuss those contributions, it is relevant to mention my previous attempts to understand Ayn Rand’s view of selfishness. Before you finish reading the essay you will understand why that is relevant. 

My previous musings

I was brought up to believe that selfishness is a sin. In Australia, it is common for parents tell children not to be selfish, for example, if they attempt to take more than a fair share of a delicacy at mealtimes. What the parents mean is that such opportunistic behavior shows no regard for others. People of goodwill would not do such things.

Perhaps that understanding of the meaning of selfishness was reinforced by Australia’s “fair go” culture. Dictionary definitions of selfishness suggest, however, that it is also common for selfishness to be viewed similarly in Britain and the United States.

I can’t remember when I first became aware that Ayn Rand viewed selfishness as a virtue, and had written a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. During the 1990s, I was certainly aware that most the small number of Australians who were knew of Rand’s existence were of the opinion that she and her followers were ethically challenged and encouraged narcissism. That view was later expounded in a book by Anne Manne, which I commented upon here.

In a post on this blog in 2009 I asked myself: Did Ayn Rand regard selfishness as a virtue? I knew she did, but I pondered the question because the heroes of Atlas Shrugged did not seem to me to be selfish. I noted that Rand’s view that selfishness is a virtue followed from a narrow definition of selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests”, and speculated that Rand had used that definition to draw attention to her opposition to the view that self-sacrifice is a virtue.

A few months later, I wrote on the topic, How far can Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism be defended? That post was an attempt to summarize some of the views of participants in a Cato symposium on ‘What’s living and dead in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought’. One of the aspects I focused on was the question of whether Rand, like Aristotle, viewed virtue – including regard for others - as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest, or as an instrumental strategy for attaining that interest. Although the participants in the discussion were all scholars familiar with Rand’s writings, they were unable to agree on that point.

The other aspect I focused on was the question of whether it was defensible for Rand to argue that what is objectively good and right for one individual cannot conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual. Most, but not all, of the participants viewed that argument as indefensible.

Younkins’s contribution

In his essay, Ed Younkins seeks to compare the ideas of Ayn Rand with those of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs). Younkins’s purpose is mainly descriptive and explanatory, but Roger Bissell has seen his contribution to be critical of Rand.

The summary table published at the end of Younkins’s essay is reproduced below.

Younkins's Summary Table



My focus here is entries relating Normative Morality, the Virtues, and Conflicts of Interest. The discussion in the preceding post on this blog is relevant to “the Good and Value”.

Younkin’s summary table doesn’t mention Rand’s view of selfishness explicitly, but it is lurking in the background in his discussion of morality, the virtues and conflicts of interest.

Bissell’s response

Roger Bissell doesn’t accept that Rand’s primary concern in respect of normative morality was that the agent should always be the beneficiary of his actions. He notes that in the introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand states that ego vs altruism is not the fundamental issue in ethics. He claims that “under all the ‘selfishness’ window dressing”, Rand is “actually just another individualistic perfectionist”. Perhaps Bissell is correct, but if so I am left wondering again, as in 2009, what purpose Rand saw in the selfishness window dressing.

With regard to the virtues, Bissell objects to the implication that Rand did not regard them as constitutive of a person’s flourishing. That difference of opinion takes me back to the Cato symposium referred to earlier, where several scholars were unable to agree on that point. My conclusion is that Rand’s views on that matter cannot have been stated clearly and consistently.

Roger Bissell’s support of Rand’s view on conflicts on interest also brings to mind the views expressed in the Cato symposium. I find it difficult to understand why anyone who recognises the importance of property rights would seek to defend the proposition that there can be no conflicts of interest among rational and objective individuals. Nevertheless, Bissell makes a heroic effort:

“To put it yet another way: whatever conflict two rational people might have on the level of individual values is subordinate to and outweighed by the common value they both have in everyone’s doing their own personal best and letting specific outcomes be determined within the framework of voluntary choice and peaceful interaction. They want their specific individual values to be achieved, but not at any cost—while they want their common higher rational values to be upheld, whatever the cost.”   

Perhaps we could imagine two rational and objective individuals with conflicting interests – for example, a farmer and a cowman living on the American prairie in the 19th century – agreeing on rules about property rights at an authentic constitutional convention, of the kind suggested by James Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch. However, it should be noted that the possibility of agreement has less to do with the personal qualities of the participants than with the imagined institutional context in which participants are uncertain about the impact that rules under consideration might have on their interests, and those of their descendants.

The ability of rational and objective individuals to avoid conflict are greatly enhanced by social, political, and legal orders that enable individuals to pursue their own ends without interfering with each other. Friedrich Hayek made the point clearly:

“The understanding that ‘good fences make good neighbors’, that is, that men can use their knowledge in the pursuit of their own ends without colliding with each other only if clear boundaries can be drawn between their respective domains of free action, is the basis on which all known civilization has grown.” (LLL, Vol1, 107)

The metanormative ethics expounded by the Dougs seems to me to be consistent with that view. Recognition of individual rights provides a context in which individuals can flourish in different ways without interfering with the flourishing of others.

Concluding comments

Ed Younkins concluded his essay by noting that although Ayn Rand differs from Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl “on how a number of issues are expressed, they agree on the desirability of a free society and are among the best-known proponents of capitalism from a neo-Aristotelian perspective”.

Roger Bissell concludes his response by suggesting that Younkins’s “descriptions of Rand’s ideas are too often inaccurate and his explanations too often flow from misunderstanding of those ideas”. I don’t know enough about Rand’s philosophy to make an independent judgement of the veracity of Bissell’s claims, but it is clear from contributions to the Cato symposium that I have mentioned several times that Younkins’s views are shared by other scholars who are familiar with Rand’s philosophical efforts.

It seems to me that this difference of opinion over the description of Rand’s ideas should be viewed in the context of ongoing discussions between those who see Objectivism as a closed system and those who see it as an open system. Those who see objectivism as a closed system accept that people should not label themselves as Objectivists unless they agree with all of Rand’s philosophy. Those who view objectivism as open system believe that it can be enhanced by incorporating new ideas that are broadly compatible with Rand’s ideas. (Younkins discusses the different views here).

I have the impression that those who see objectivism as an open system have an interest in minimizing the difference between Individualistic Perfectionism and Rand’s philosophy. As I see it, the Individualistic Perfectionism developed by Rasmussen and Den Uyl has been influenced by Rand, but deserves to be viewed as a coherent body of ideas that differs somewhat from Objectivism.


Addendum

Ed Younkins has provided the following comment.

"It seems to me that the Dougs (Rasmussen and Den Uyl) want to create some distance between Individual Perfectionism (IP) and Objectivism (O). Roger Bissell, on the other hand, appears to be be acting as if IP does not exist as separate from O. He may be viewing the Dougs as open Objectivists (like he appears to be), but who are mistaken in their interpretation of some of what Rand is saying. Younkins, like Winton Bates, is not wedded to either O or IP. Both Younkins and Bates  may be Rand influenced (as are the Dougs), but each of them develops his own unique and particular philosophical worldview or paradigm of freedom and flourishing (as do the Dougs). Of course, each of the 5 individuals mentioned (who are all friends) is promoting his own vision and version of a philosophy of human flourishing in a free society. This is how it should be."





Saturday, December 9, 2023

Did Ayn Rand recognize the capacity to exercise practical wisdom as a basic good?




 This question is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s novels. Second, in the first chapter of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I seek to identify the basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

My view of basic goods

The chapter identified the basic goods as: wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being. I suggested that the exercise of wise and well-informed self-direction helps individuals to obtain other basic goods.

The chapter also noted that Aristotle saw the exercise of reason as the function that distinguishes humans from other animals and held that a good man’s purpose is to reason well (and beautifully).

I argued that individuals develop and realize their potential for wise and well-informed self-direction largely by learning from experience. I therefore accepted implicitly that it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices that on mature reflection they might later regret.

Rand’s view

Until recently, I was fairly sure that my view of what is good for humans was broadly similar to that of Ayn Rand. Some of the things she wrote suggest that impression was correct. For example, John Galt’s speech (quoted above) suggests that it is good for humans to have the capacity to exercise practical wisdom. A similar sentiment is expressed in the following passage in the chapter, ‘What is Capitalism?’ in Capitalism: The unknown ideal:

“Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival – his only means of gaining knowledge.”

However, later in that essay, in endorsing “the objective theory” of the nature of the good, Rand rejects the idea that good can be an attribute of things in themselves:

“The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value.”

It seems to me that Rand is suggesting that it would not be legitimate to say that the capacity to exercise practical wisdom – which is a thing in itself - is a good attribute for an individual to have, irrespective of how it is used. Rand seems to be implying that having the capability is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of value.

Grades of actuality

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs) seem to me to provide a less ambiguous approach to considering the nature of the good in a recent article in which they compare their Individualistic Perfectionism (IP) to Rand’s Objectivist Ethics (OE). (‘Three Forms of Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism: A Comparison’, Reason Papers 43, 2, 14-43, 2023.)

The Dougs acknowledge that a person does not have a concept of moral good apart from the self-directed use of their conceptual capacity. The human good is individualized. It is good for a human being to engage in the act of discovering human good.

However, the Dougs suggest that the process of discovering the human good can be thought of in terms of grades of actuality:

“IP holds with Aristotle that there is a distinction between grades of actuality when it comes to living things. The first grade of actuality is the possession of a set of capacities that are also potentialities for a living thing’s second grade of actuality—that is, their actual use or deployment by a living thing. Included among the set of potentialities of a human being that comprise its first grade of actuality is the potential to exercise one’s conceptual capacity. This first grade of actuality is a cognitive-independent reality. However, when one’s conceptual capacity is exercised and used in a manner that actualizes the other potentialities that require it, then a second grade of actuality is attained. For example, one has the capacity to know one’s good and attain it (first grade of actuality), but one needs to engage in knowing and attaining it in order to be fully actualized (second grade of actuality).”

One’s inner nature

In 2008 I wrote a blog post on the topic, ‘Is our inner nature good?’. The post consisted of a discussion of the views of Abraham Maslow, Aristotle, J S Mill, David Hume, and Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund. My outline of the views of Abraham Maslow is reproduced below because it seems relevant to the current discussion.

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968, chapter 14).

On reflection, I am not sure that the concept of an inner nature makes much sense. However, the idea that all humans have good potentiality is appealing.

Conclusions

In my view it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices, that on mature reflection, they might later regret.

I am unsure whether Ayn Rand would have agreed. At one point she seems to imply that a capacity to exercise practical wisdom is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of values.

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl offer a less ambiguous approach by recognizing different grades of actuality. They suggest that the first grade of actuality is cognitive-independent. On that basis, there is no reason to doubt that the potential to exercise practical wisdom is good.

I like the idea that all humans have good potentiality.

Postscript

My understanding of the quoted passage by Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl is as follows:

Though we must use our minds and act in the appropriate manner to self-actualize, that is, to attain our second grade of actuality, it does not follow from this that what is being actualized is merely a potentiality.  Rather, it is a cognitive-independent actuality that also has potentialities.  The distinction between actuality and potentiality in the case of living things does not require a dichotomy. It is not 'either-or'. Aristotle is subtle.

Moreover, though attaining one's second grade of actuality requires both cognition and practical actions to exist, this does not make human good simply an evaluation (which Rand claims). To hold that an objective view of human good is an evaluation is a further non sequitur.  Consider this analogy:  Phar Lap was a thoroughbred racehorse, as such he would not have existed without much human thought and effort, and in terms of the function of racehorses he was very good.  But the reality of his goodness did not consist in our evaluation of him as good but in how well he fulfilled his function. The same is so for human beings, mutatis mutandis.  Humans attaining their second-grade of actuality does require cognitive effort and choice, but this does make the goodness thereby expressed merely an evaluation.

Further Reading

I was prompted to write this contribution by my reading of two recent essays on The Savvy Street:

Ed Younkins, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison; and

Roger Bissell, Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics.

Roger Bissell has also responded to this essay.

I encourage anyone wishing to obtain a better understanding of the issues to read those articles as well as the article by the Dougs referred to above.