Showing posts with label social capital. Show all posts
Showing posts with label social capital. Show all posts

Monday, March 18, 2024

Why should peacefulness be viewed as a characteristic of a good society?

 


In the most popular post on my blog, written in 2009, I asked: What are the characteristics of a good society? I began the post by suggesting that a good society would have good institutions – norms and laws that are good for its members. I noted that in thinking about the characteristics of a good society different people tend to emphasise different things that they consider to be important e.g. egalitarianism, personal freedom, moral values and spirituality. I then suggested that rather than just agreeing to differ, it might be useful to try to identify some characteristics of a good society that nearly everyone would agree to be important. 

The three characteristics I identified were: 

  • institutions that enable members to live together in peace; 
  • institutions that provide members with opportunities to flourish – to have more of the things that are good for humans to have; 
  • and institutions that provide members with a degree of security against potential threats to individual flourishing.

No-one has suggested to me that they disagree that good societies should have those three characteristics.

However, I have been wondering recently how I should respond if someone suggested that in some societies a substantial proportion of the population hold attitudes that place a relatively low priority on living together peacefully. For example, while they may play lip service to peacefulness, people in some societies may not consider that it is important for children to learn to have tolerance and respect for others.  The chart shown above suggests that the importance placed on that particular child quality does indeed vary substantially throughout the world.

On reflection, I have decided that my view that peacefulness is a characteristic of a good society does not actually depend on the degree of support for that view in any society.

Why is peacefulness important?

It is appropriate to begin with the proposition that a good society would have good institutions – norms and laws that are good for its members. What that means is that a good society has institutions that support the flourishing of its individual members.

In my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I identified several basic goods that a flourishing person could be expected to have:

  • Wise and well-informed self-direction
  • Health and longevity
  • Positive relationships
  • Living in harmony with nature
  • Psychological well-being.

The merits of that list is a matter for ongoing reflection and discussion but I think it is helpful in considering what characteristics a society needs to have if it is to support the flourishing of individual members.

The contributions of peacefulness are fairly obvious. Peaceful societies protect the rights of individuals to self-direct, provided they do not interfere with the rights of others. They contribute to health and longevity my minimizing violence. They provide a context in which people can develop trusting relationships with others.

There isn’t any explicit discussion of the concept of a good society in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing but the extensive discussion of progress in that book is highly relevant. Progress is defined in the book as growth of opportunities for human flourishing. On that basis, the good societies are those in which a great deal of progress has occurred in the past. Progress can be ongoing because there is always scope for good societies to become better.

Importance of consensus about the desirability of peacefulness    

Widespread agreement about the importance of peacefulness to human flourishing provides important support for institutions that enable the peaceful resolution of disputes among people with different political objectives. A society has little hope of becoming good, or remaining good, when an increasing number of people become willing to resort to violence to impose their visions of a good society on others.


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?  


Wednesday, June 7, 2023

To what extent do international differences in economic freedom reflect people's values?

 


This is a companion piece to the preceding post in which I considered the extent to which international differences in personal freedom reflect people’s values.

The extent to which international differences in economic freedom reflect different values is of interest because it has bearing on the extent of popular support likely to be given to policy proposals involving expansion or restriction of economic freedom. If people feel that existing economic policy regimes are aligned with their personal values, they are less likely to support radical change.

The accompanying graph suggests the existence of a positive relationship between an index of facilitating values and economic freedom. As suggested in the label of the horizontal axis, the index of facilitating values reflects the priority that people in different countries place on autonomy, and the extent of interpersonal trust in different countries.

Indexes

I am not aware of any other index of values facilitating economic freedom similar to the one I constructed in preparing the graph, even though there has been a substantial amount of previous research undertaken on cultural values supporting economic growth and institutional change. (Nicholas Moellman and Danko Tarabar have referred to some relevant literature in their article, ‘Economic Freedom Reform: does culture matter?’, Journal of Institutional Economics (2022), 18, 139-157.)

The priority people place on autonomy seems likely to be important in facilitating economic freedom because respect for individual autonomy implies respect for individuals engaged in commerce, particularly innovators. Trust of strangers seems likely to be important in facilitating economic freedom because it reduces the tribal instinct to seek to use the powers of the state to advance the interests of group members at the expense of other groups.

I have used Christian Welzel’s autonomy index to measure autonomy. This index uses three items in the World Values Survey (WVS) which ask respondents their views about desirable child qualities. Autonomy is considered to be valued more highly by those who independence and imagination as desirable child qualities but do not consider obedience as such a quality. (See: Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising, 2013). I used an updated version of the index based on the latest round of the WVS (2017-2022).

Welzel’s generalized trust index was used to measure interpersonal trust. This index gives higher weight to trust of strangers than to trust of family. I reconstructed the index for the latest round of the WVS by combining items covering close trust (trust of family, neighbours, and people you know personally), unspecified trust (whether most people can be trusted) and remote trust (trust of people you meet for the first time, people of another religion and people of another nationality). Unspecified trust was given double the weight of close trust, and remote trust was given three times the weight of close trust.

In constructing the facilitating values index, autonomy was allocated 75% of the weight and generalized trust was allocated 25%. Those weights were chosen on the basis of regression analysis using the autonomy and generalized trust indexes as explanatory variables to explain economic freedom. (Researchers seeking further information about the methodology used in constructing this index are welcome to contact me.)

 The Fraser Institute’s economic freedom index incorporates a large number of indicators relating to size of government, legal systems and property rights, sound money, freedom of international trade and regulation.

Discussion

My focus is on the outlier data points in the accompanying graph, and particularly on those countries which have substantially lower or higher economic freedom than might be predicted on the basis of values facilitating economic freedom.

One of the first things readers may notice in the graph is that values facilitating economic freedom are shown to be higher in China than in the U.S. and Australia. That may seem surprising if Geert Hofstede’s analysis, or your knowledge of cultural heritage, has led you to expect Chinese people to be much less individualistic than Westerners. If you need to be persuaded that many Chinese people have an individualistic perception of human flourishing, you might like to read an article I wrote on that topic in 2021.

While you are thinking about China, you might like to compare economic freedom in that country with that in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The most obvious reason why the latter jurisdictions have greater economic freedom is because they have adopted market-friendly ideologies.

Similarly, adoption of market-friendly ideologies explains why Albania has substantially greater economic freedom than Iran and Libya, and why Chile has greater economic freedom than Argentina and Venezuela.

Conclusion

The existence of values facilitating economic freedom helps to explain why some countries have higher economic freedom than others. However, it seems that a substantial part of international differences in economic freedom can be explained more directly in terms of prevailing government ideologies which either support or oppose free markets.


Monday, April 10, 2023

Can cottage industries exist in a machine age?


 J C Kumarappa posed that question his book, Economy of Permanence, which was first published in 1945. He argued that in the final analysis “values and valuation” would determine the direction to be taken. He viewed the choice between cottage industry and large-scale production as an ethical choice as to which type of economy would be preferable. He associated cottage industry with “permanence and non-violence”, and large-scale production with “transience and violence”.


Kumarappa has been described as an ecological economist. He was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote a foreword to his book.

Some of Kumarappa’s views seem to have been largely a product of the context in which he lived, but others resonate more broadly. Similar views have been taken up by many affluent consumers in high-income countries. In what follows, I will discuss first why Kumarappa associated large-scale production with violence before considering why he associated it with transience.

Violence

Kumarappa recognizes the potential for specialization and market transactions to be mutually beneficial for the people involved. On that basis, readers might expect him to view wealth accumulation via specialization, trade, and market competition to be a peaceful process.

However, Kumarappa argues that large-scale production prompted industrialized countries to hold other countries in political subjection to obtain materials. He also suggests that large-scale production “is the root cause of wars”. He claims that machines must make full use of productive capacity, rather meet market demand. That results in surplus production. Wars are started to capture markets.

I see several problems with that line of reasoning, but I will only focus on the most obvious one here. Kumarappa seems to assume that manufacturers have control of armies that can be used to ensure access to raw materials and markets. That seems to me to be a strange assumption to make, but I can understand why an Indian economist might see things differently in the light of the history of British colonial rule.

Transience

Kumarappa argues that an economy based on large-scale production is built on the “quicksands” of “profit, price, purchasing power, and foreign trade”. He suggests that material standards of value and personal feelings of consumers cannot have “any degree of permanence” because people change and are perishable. For permanence to be achieved, the standard of value must be objective and controlled by ideals that have enduring qualities. He claims that civilization had endured in China and India because it was based on altruistic and objective values.

The value that Kumarappa places on permanence may require explanation because Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, shares with Buddhism the doctrine that everything is in a constant state of change. Kumarappa was a Christian, but I don’t think that explains as much as his reverence for what he describes as “the secret of nature’s permanency”.  He was referring to ecological factors which “function in close cooperation to maintain the continuity of life”.

Kumarappa was particularly concerned about the impact that the products of large-scale production were having on traditional village life. He argues:

“We are often led away by low money prices ignoring the great gashes in our economic and social organisation made by such short-sighted choice of ours.  … Money value blinds the vision to a long range social view, so that the wielder of the axe fells the branch on which he is standing”.

Kumarappa argues that moral values are attached to every article sold in the market. We should not ignore such values and say “business is business”. Accordingly, anyone who enters into a commercial transaction has a grave responsibility to ensure that she does not become party to circumstances that she would not consciously support. He believed that the consumer is only able to bring her scale of values into play when goods are made locally.

Different views of progress

Kumarappa had a very different view of economic growth than is presented in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. It may be worthwhile to try to pinpoint the reasons for this.

I don’t think Kumarappa would have any problems with my definition of progress as the growth of opportunities to obtain the basic goods of a flourishing human. He would probably agree, more or less, with my list of the basic goods – wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships with others, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being.

Kumarappa would probably begin to object at the point where I assert that economic growth counts as progress to the extent that people aspire to have the goods that it offers. He might suggest that people who aspire to have those goods are mistaken because they could flourish to a greater extent by maintaining a simple lifestyle. The more powerful argument he would offer is the one presented above - that the products of new technology are disruptive to existing economic and social organisation.

I would respond by referring to what Deirdre McCloskey has referred to as the bourgeois deal. People in industrialised countries have been willing to accept the possibility that the introduction of new technologies might disrupt their lives because they have good reasons to expect that they, and future generations, are likely to benefit from the expansion of opportunities that it provides.

If that line of argument had been presented to J C Kumarappa in 1945 I imagine he would have viewed it as “pie in the sky”. I am less sure that he would hold the same view today.

Cottage industry

I don’t know much about the economic health of cottage industry in Inda today, but it does continue to exist. The photo shown at the top of this article was taken at Kalra’s Cottage Industry in Agra, when I visited there last year. (By the way, the service offered was excellent. The hand-knotted floor rug I purchased was delivered to my home in Australia without any problems, and in perfect condition.)

My point is that as their material standard of living rises, many people are willing to pay more for high quality products of cottage industries than for mass produced items. Many people also become increasingly concerned about such things as the levels of remuneration of workers who produce the products that they buy and potential environmental damage of production methods. People tend to pay greater attention to such concerns when they feel that they can more readily afford to do so.


Sunday, November 6, 2022

Are you also a decentralist?

 


Max Borders shares his personal philosophy of life in his book, The Decentralist: Mission, morality and meaning in the age of crypto. His aim in doing that it to persuade readers to become decentralists.


I decided that I was already a decentralist before I had finished reading the introduction. The fundamental point is that decentralism is required because individuals need to pursue happiness in different ways. The mission of decentralists is to create conditions for radical pluralism – a garden of forking paths. Sometimes we flourish by walking together; at other times we need to take different paths in order to flourish. The garden of forking paths creates opportunities for people to blaze different trails.

There is no easily accessible summary of the main principles of decentralism espoused in the book, so I have attempted to write one:

  • In navigating our lives, we recognize the existence of centralized political authority while fostering parallel consent-based systems which have potential to underthrow (rather than overthrow) centralized authority.
  • We choose persuasion in preference to compulsion.
  • To better govern ourselves and to communicate with moral suasion, we recognize that human minds are governed by emotion and instinctual energy, as well as by reason.
  • We create and foster “flow systems” with a high degree of flexibility and eschew attempting to control or regulate society.
  • We advocate an evolving technological ecosystem that can bring about a decentralized transformation in governance, finance, enterprise, aid, and even defence.
  • We aspire to moral practice (excellent character) that encompasses non-violence, integrity, compassion, stewardship, and rationality.
  • We advocate the daily practice of mindfulness to help guide us in our commitments to realize the consensual society.
  • We believe that the potential for widespread acceptance of the values of decentralism is the culmination of humanity’s stepwise journey from a focus on survival values, through a range of intermediate stages which have provided expanding opportunities for human flourishing.
  • We accept and seek to apply the principles of a free market.
  • We seek to make our lives meaningful at an individual level by learning to tell the “story of me” (Who? What? Why? Where? How? When?) and at a social level, “the story of us” (development, mutual understandings, shared conceptions of the good).

I agree with those principles. Max Borders persuaded me a few years ago to look forward to the social singularity. Hopefully the ethical principles he advocates for the age of crypto will help that vision to be achieved.

Some ideas in The Decentralist seem to me to be wacky but they are not central to the ethos of decentralism. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that we should dispense with “the idea of truth as something to be discovered in the world instead of experienced by the subject” (p 123). An untrue story is not made true by being widely accepted and told frequently. We cannot prevent reality from biting our bums merely by embracing delusions about it.

The book is easy to read. The digital gimmicky of the presentation style will no doubt appeal to many readers. Each chapter elaborates a number of concepts corresponding to the chapter number. So, in Chapter 1, we have “one revolution”, in Chapter 2, “two hands”, in Chapter 3, “three governors”, and so forth. Those who would prefer to read a book covering a similar range of issues, and advancing similar views using a more conventional style of scholarly discussion, are welcome to read my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

From my perspective, the most interesting chapter of The Decentralist is Chapter 3, which considers implications for communication of classifying people as thinkers, relaters, and movers, depending on whether their minds are governed primarily by their heads, their hearts, or gut instincts. I had previously been introduced to the idea that humans have brains in hearts and guts as well as heads, and should seek alignment between them. When we speak metaphorically of following our hearts, keeping cool heads, and being gutsy, we are expressing ideas that are deeply entrenched in human culture (and even anatomy, perhaps). I was also aware of marketing techniques appealing to emotion and instinct. However, I had not previously given explicit consideration to the potential for normal persuasive communications to benefit from attention to emotional and instinctive needs of readers, as well as to their need to be given reasons to change their minds.

This book, itself, combines appeals to emotion, reason, and instinct in persuasive communication. For example, the introduction appeals to emotion in its discussion of an individual’s desire to be happy, it appeals to reason in its discussion of broader aspects of human flourishing, and it appeals to instinct in recognizing the importance of action in pursuit of the differing goals of individuals. The metaphor of a garden of forking paths seems to me to be a wonderful way to combine those concepts.

Conclusion

The Decentralist strongly supports the view that individuals have greatest opportunities to flourish under conditions where they are free to choose for themselves which path to take. The personal philosophy that Max Borders espouses in this book will hopefully persuade many more people to adopt the ethics of decentralism.


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What implications does a livewired brain have for personal development?


 


I was pondering this question while reading David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, writing about neuroplasticity for a popular audience. My interest in brain plasticity was aroused over a decade ago when I read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, and speculated about some implications of his assertion that “to keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus”.

Eagleman prefers “livewired” to “plastic” because the latter term may bring to mind plastic molds rather than flexibility. He suggests that we need the concept of liveware “to grasp this dynamic, adaptable, information-seeking system”.

By the way, Eagleman’s book has left me thinking that in 50 years’ time, people who are shown the above cartoon will still be able to see the humor in it.

The livewired brain

In my view, the most important point that Eagleman makes is 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”.

Experiences during early childhood are to a large extent determinative. If infants don’t have appropriate social and sensory interaction, their brains become malformed and pathological.

As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified. As brains get good at certain jobs, they become less able to attempt others. Adult brains keep most of their connections in place to hold on to what has been learned, with only small areas remaining flexible. Nevertheless, even in the elderly an active mental life fosters new connections.

Eagleman distills the main features of livewiring into seven principles:

  1. Brains match themselves to their input, e.g. when a person is born blind the occipital cortex is completely taken over by other senses.
  2. Brains wrap around the inputs to leverage whatever information streams in. It is possible for one sensory channel to carry another channel’s information, e.g. with appropriate equipment, the brain is able to learn to use information coming from the skin as if it is coming from the eyes.
  3. Brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback, e.g. that is how we learn to communicate with other people, how we can learn to control machinery, and how a damaged spinal cord can be bypassed using signals passed directly from a brain to a muscle stimulator.
  4. Brains retain what matters to them; flexibility is turned on and off in small spots based on relevance; what is learned in one area is passed to an area in the cortex for more permanent storage; the cortical changes involve the addition of new cellular material; brains have a different system for extracting generalities in the environment (slow learning) and for episodic memory (fast learning). “Everything new is understood through the filter of the old.”
  5. Brain lock down stable information. Some parts of the brain are more flexible than others, depending on the input. Brains adjust themselves depending on how you spend your time. When learners direct their own learning, relevance and reward are both present and allow brains to reconfigure.
  6. Plasticity arises because different parts of the system are engaged in a competitive struggle for survival. Competition in the brain forest is analogous to the competition between trees and bushes in a rain forest. The principles of competition poise the brain “on the hair-trigger edge of change”.
  7. Brains build internal models of the world; by paying attention, our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models.

Eagleman argues that the computer hardware/ software analogy tends to lead people astray in thinking about brain function. He suggests that as neurologists illuminate the principles of brain function, those principles will be gainfully employed to create self-configuring devices that use their interaction with the world to complete the patterns of their own wiring.

The book ends with this thought:

“We generally go through life thinking there’s me and there’s the world. But as we’ve seen in this book, who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era—all of it.”

That could be interpreted by social engineers as an invitation to seek to modify our brains by shaping our environments. I prefer to see it as an invitation to individuals to think about their belief systems and the choices they make that influence their personal environments because their beliefs and choices can have a profound impact on their own personal development. I will explain later the links between personal environment, social capital and individual flourishing.

The idea that individuals can make choices about their personal environments implies the existence of free will. Eagleman is somewhat skeptical about the existence of free will but he speculates that it may be a property of the whole brain as a complex network or system.  He acknowledges that organisms display the property of free will in their interactions with their environments. Self-direction seems to be implicitly acknowledged in the discussion of some topics in Livewired.  For example, there seems to be implicit acknowledgment that individuals may choose what they practice in the discussion of the ten-thousand-hour rule concerning the need for practice to acquire expertise. Self-direction also seems to be implicit in choices many elderly people are making to keep their brains active.

More fundamentally, if brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback it seems reasonable to expect such behavior to encompass actions that are consciously self-directed as well as those occurring without conscious awareness. The idea that by paying attention our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models seems to me to suggest a role for conscious self-direction. If humans are capable of building robots which can adjust their internal models in the light of experience, it seems reasonable to expect individual humans to be capable of using some of the principles of brain function to create better versions of themselves.

The knowledge that human brains are livewired suggests to me that it is not unduly optimistic to believe that individuals begin life with huge potential for self-directed personal development and that this potential in never entirely extinguished as they grow older.

Directing attention to achieve cognitive integrity

Self-direction implies an ability to direct one’s attention sufficiently to consider the consequences of alternative courses of action. An ability to direct one’s attention is a meta-cognitive capacity – it entails a degree of control over one’s own thought processes.  

You might be thinking that exercising control over thought processes is difficult enough for psychologically healthy people, so it must be impossible for people suffering from addictions, obsessions and delusions. However, in a Psychology Today article, Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, has pointed to evidence that people who appear to have a diminished capacity for rational deliberation in some aspects of their lives, can actually be helped by therapies which help them to exercise agency and acquire relevant knowledge.


In a scholarly contribution, published in 2019, Gena Gorlin and a co-author introduced the concept of cognitive integrity to describe “the metacognitive choice to engage in active, reality-oriented cognition”. (Eugenia I. Gorlin and Reinier Schuur, ‘Nurturing our Better Nature: a proposal for Cognitive Integrity as a Foundation for Autonomous Living’, Behavior Genetics, 2019, 49: 154-167. Independent scholars may be able to obtain access by following links on Gena Gorlin’s web site.)

Cognitive integrity is both a state of mental activity and a trait-like disposition. It stands in contrast to passive cognitive processing – being driven by unconsciously activated intention – and active pretense, or self-deception. The pretense of cognition occurs when we procrastinate and make lame excuses to ourselves to avoid doing things that we have chosen to do. Among other things, self-deception can also involve negatively distorted self-assessments, inaccurate causal attribution for life events, and false memories. Those cognitive biases are common among individuals with depression and anxiety.

Gena Gorlin posits that people who engage in repeated exercise of cognitive integrity earn self-trust. By contrast, those who engage in frequent self-deception are likely to harbor an increasing sense of insecurity about their own abilities.

It seems to me that there is a strong overlap between people who practice cognitive integrity and people who are self-authoring and self-transforming, according to definitions adopted by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow. A self-authoring mind is self-directed and can generate an internal belief system or ideology. A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology. You can read more about that and how I see it as linked to personal integrity in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing (pp 171-173). There is also relevant discussion on this blog.

Personal development as a multi-stage process

The information we have about the livewired nature of brains is suggestive of substantial potential for individual personal development throughout life. The process of personal development can be seen as a multi-stage process involving interaction between a person’s family and social environment and the degree of cognitive integrity they achieve.

In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I make use of an analytical framework proposed by the economist, Gary Becker, to propose that the extent to which an individual flourishes at any time during her or his life, is a function of personal capital and social capital.

Personal capital includes all personal resources, natural abilities, skills acquired through education and on-the-job training, and preferences, values and habits acquired from past experiences. For example, habit formation causes previous consumption patterns to have a large impact on current preferences. Those habits can either enhance or inhibit an individual’s flourishing.

Social capital incorporates the influence of other people—family, friends, peer groups, communities. People want respect, acceptance, recognition, prestige, and so on from others and often alter their behavior to obtain it. Social capital can have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s flourishing. For example, peer pressure on a teenager could lead to sexual promiscuity, or to healthy exercise.

This framework recognizes that present choices and experiences affect personal capital in the future, which in turn affects future flourishing. It is difficult to modify the social capital of the networks to which individuals currently belong, but they may have opportunities to leave networks that damage their prospects of flourishing, and to join other networks.

I wrote:

“The journey of life is a multi-stage process. At each stage, the extent that we can flourish depends on effective use of personal capital we have developed in earlier stages, and alertness to opportunities for further investment in personal capital. Investment in personal capital can help us to forge mutually beneficial relationships with others and, if necessary, to enter more favorable social networks. As we flourish, our priorities may change, bringing about changes in preferences and behaviors. At each stage of adult life, flourishing requires values consistent with wise and well-informed self-direction.”


Monday, July 12, 2021

Can historical injustice be redressed?

 


This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country” encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.

The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For example, when a mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.

The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice specifically:

“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”

However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of “outstanding injustices”:

“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”

Working toward redressing historical injustice will not extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be na├»ve to expect that it would. Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events as “water under the bridge”.

Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.

Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their predecessors.

However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC committee express the view:

“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”

The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw, who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in all parts of the country.

The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.

As discussed in my recent book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:

“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived elsewhere in the world”.

I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices suffered by our ancestors.

So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare support.

That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities will result in better outcomes in future.

In my view, as discussed in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do political partisans make credible assessments of the views of their opponents?

 


The charts shown above suggest that some of the assessments that political partisans make of the views of their opponents are wildly inaccurate. The probability that a Democrat will consider that men should be protected from false accusations of sexual assault is higher than Republicans believe it to be, and the probability of a Republican accepting that racism still exists is higher that Democrats believe it to be. The organization which published the data makes the point that Americans have much more similar views on many controversial issues than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically active. My focus here is on why partisans make such large errors in assessing the views of their opponents.

Probability assessment is not always easy.

Steven Pinker included “a sense of probability” in his list of 10 cognitive faculties and intuitions that have evolved to enable humans to keep in touch with aspects of reality (Blank Slate, 220). Individuals obtain obvious benefits from an ability to keep track of the relative frequency of events affecting their lives. A capacity to reason about the likelihood of different events helps them to advantage of favorable circumstances and to avoid harm.

Pinker points out that our perceptions of probability are prone to error, but Daniel Kahneman has a much more comprehensive discussion of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that even people who have studied probability can be fooled into making errors in assessing probability when they are led to focus unduly on information that appears particularly pertinent and to ignore other relevant information. He gives the example of a cab involved in a hit and run accident in the city in which 85% of cabs are Green and 15% are blue. A witness identifies the cab responsible as Blue, and the court establishes that he would be able to identify colors correctly 80% of the time under circumstances that existed on the night of the accident. What is the probability that the cab is Blue? Most people say 80%, but the correct answer, provided by Bayes’ rule, is about half that (Loc 3005-3020). People tend to make a large error because they overlook the fact that a high proportion of Green cabs means that there is a good chance that the witness has mistakenly identified a Green cab to be Blue, even though his observations are accurate 80% of the time.

Kahneman notes that people are more likely to make errors in assessing probability when they “think fast” rather than analytically. However, it is not necessary to understand and apply Bayes’ rule to solve problems such as the one presented above. A simple arithmetic example can suffice. If there were 1,000 cabs in the city, there would be 850 Green cabs and 150 Blue cabs. If we had no more information, the probability of a Blue cab being responsible for the accident would be 15%. We are told the witness saw a Blue cab and would correctly identify 80% of the 150 Blue cabs as Blue (i.e. 120 cabs) and would mistakenly identify 20% of the 850 Green cabs as Blue (i.e. 170 cabs). The total number of cabs that he would identify as Blue is 290 (120+170). The probability that the witness has correctly identified a Blue cab is 0.414 (120/290) or 41.4%.

Kahneman also makes a point about causal stereotypes. He does this by altering the example to substitute information that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of the accidents, for the information that 85% of the cabs are Green. Other information is unchanged. The two versions of the problem are mathematically indistinguishable. If the only information we had was that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of accidents, we would assess the probability of a Blue cab being responsible at 15%. As before, if we evaluate the witness information correctly, it raises the probability of a Blue cab being responsible to 41.4%.

However, when people are presented with the second version, the answers they give tend to be much closer to the correct one. They apparently interpret the information that the Green drivers are responsible for 85% of the accidents to mean that the Green drivers are reckless. That causal stereotype is less readily disregarded in the face of witness evidence, so the two pieces of evidence pull in opposite directions.

Political partisans don’t have much incentive to make accurate assessments of the views of their opponents.

The potential for errors in fast thinking and the impact of cultural stereotypes may account for much of the error of partisans in assessing the views of their opponents, as shown in the above charts. People do not have a strong personal incentive to ensure that they accurately assess the views of their political opponents. Potential errors do not affect their income and lifestyle to the same extent as, say, errors in the probability assessments they make relating to personal occupational and investment choices.

In addition, political partisans may not even see any particular reason to be concerned that they may be misrepresenting the views of their opponents.

Reasoning along those lines seems to me to provide a straightforward explanation for the prevalence of partisan conspiracy theories. Research by Steven Smallpage et al (in an article entitled ‘The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs’) suggests that partisans know which conspiracy theory is owned by which party, and that belief in partisan conspiracy theories is highly correlated to partisanship. The authors conclude:

“Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of an alienated psychology”.

Extreme partisans tend to promote theories that discredit their opponents. Perhaps that is the way we should expect partisans to play politics in a society where many people think it is ok to “bear false witness” because they believe everyone has “their own truths” and objective reality does not exist.

We do not have to speculate that partisans are deluded or crazy when they hold firmly to improbable theories about their opponents in the face of contrary evidence. They are more likely to be ignoring the evidence to demonstrate loyalty to their party and its leaders.  

However, that doesn’t offer us much solace. Some of the conspiracy theories currently circulating seem similar to the false rumors that governments circulate about their enemies during wartime. Extremists among political partisans may be circulating those rumors with the intention of promoting greater political polarization and a breakdown of the values that have hitherto made it possible for people with divergent views to coexist peacefully.

Is increasing polarization inevitable?

Much depends on the attitudes of the majority of people who currently disinclined to spread rumors that they believe to be false and likely to promote social conflict. If people with moderate views make known that they expect political leaders to disavow false rumors about their opponents, they can encourage that to happen. Leaders of the major parties have an incentive to try to attract voters with moderate views away from opposing parties. If leaders disavow false rumors, partisans will tend to echo their views.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Does T S Eliot provide useful hints about the resilience of Western culture?


 

The quoted passage comes near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, which was written in Britain during the Second World War. Eliot goes on to use vivid imagery to describe the beginning:

“At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

The theme of the poem is:

“All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well”.

The author urges us to view history as a pattern of “timeless moments”. We celebrate those who died as a consequence of sectarian strife even though they were not “wholly commendable’. We do not celebrate them to “revive old factions”. We celebrate them because of what we have inherited and taken from them. They now accept “the constitution of silence” and are “folded into a single party”. They have left us with a symbol “perfected in death” that “all shall be well”.

The poem seems to me to offer hope for the future of Western culture, despite the author's experience of the “incandescent terror” of bombing raids while it was being written.

Eliot elaborates his views on culture in his book, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. The first edition of that book was published in 1948, but he began writing it at around the same time as Little Gidding was published.

At one point, Eliot suggests that culture “may be described simply as that which makes life worth living” (27). He views culture as linked to religion: “there is an aspect in which we see a religion as the whole way of life of a people … and that way of life is also its culture” (31).

Eliot claims that it is an error to believe that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges: “a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay” (29).

The author saw Western culture as already in decline at the time of writing, by comparison with the standards 50 year previously. Eliot “saw no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further” (18-19).

Although I am skeptical of such sweeping claims, I think Eliot makes an important point about the potential for cultural disintegration to ensue from cultural specialization:

Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas, cultivated by groups with no communication with each other” (26).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is Eliot’s suggestion that “within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups”, is “quite necessary for civilization” (59). In discussing the impact of sectarianism on European culture he acknowledges that “many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity” (70). Perhaps disunity helped by encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

My reading of Notes Toward the Definition of Culture left me feeling optimistic that Western culture can survive the current culture wars. The culture wars seem to me to be akin the historical sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

Western culture has previously survived attempts of dogmatists to silence their enemies, so it can probably do so again.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

How can governments mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on human flourishing?



This is an appropriate question for economists with an interest in public policy to be considering. It recognizes a possible role for governments and recognizes that an approach focused on human flourishing is likely to be more appropriate than one focused entirely on reducing the death rate or reducing adverse impacts on GDP.

The possible role for government stems from the perception that people who are most vulnerable would not able be to protect themselves adequately without some government intervention. People who know they are vulnerable have a strong incentive to practice social distancing, but personal circumstances often make that difficult. Without the threat of coercion, it is unlikely that we will see the degree of social distancing necessary to reduce the rate of spread of the virus. In that event, hospital services are likely to be over-whelmed by the number of people requiring treatment. 

As always, with government intervention, there is a risk that the cure will end up worse that the disease, but the risk is probably worth taking in this instance.

What is the appropriate indicator of human flourishing to be used as a policy objective? There isn’t just one! The prime candidates, per capita GDP and average life satisfaction both suffer from the same flaw – they don’t account for the impact of early death on the well-being of the dear departed. We should continue to consider the impacts of policies on death rates as well as their impacts on the well-being of the living.

Per capita GDP was never intended to be a measure of well-being, but it is relevant. Many factors that impinge on well-being – such as the ability of people to afford food, housing and health care – are influenced by per capita GDP levels. However, per capita GDP cannot account for impacts of coercive policy interventions, such as enforced home confinement, on psychological well-being.

Average life satisfaction seems to be a reasonable indicator of the average psychological well-being of groups of people. It is a poor indicator of economic and social progress because it doesn’t account for the extent that members of one generation perceive themselves to be better off, or worse off, than members of preceding generations. Fortunately, that deficiency is not pertinent for present purposes.
There is some evidence that lock-down and GDP decline have potential to have substantial negative impacts on average life satisfaction.

An article entitled ‘Health, distress and life satisfaction of people in China one month into the COVID-19 outbreak’, has recently been published by Stephen X Zhang, Yifei Wang, Andreas Rauch, and Feng Wei. The article is a pre-print and has not been subjected to peer review, but no major flaws are obvious to me. As might be expected, the study suggests that the life satisfaction of people with chronic medical conditions was adversely affected in locations with severe outbreaks of COVID-19.

However, the life satisfaction of people who exercised a lot was also adversely affected in locations with more severe outbreaks, suggesting frustration at restrictions imposed. Those who were able to continue to work had higher life satisfaction than those who had stopped work, with people who were able to work “at the office” having higher life satisfaction than those who worked at home.

The relationship between per capita GDP and average life satisfaction is complicated. Average life satisfaction is relatively high in countries with high per capita GDP, but tends to grow very slowly, if at all, as per capita GDP rises further in such countries.  However, there is some evidence suggesting that when per capita GDP falls in high-income countries, this is likely to be accompanied by substantial declines in average life satisfaction. Austerity in Greece reduced per capita GDP by about 26% over the decade to 2017 and was accompanied by a decline in average life satisfaction of about 20% (GDP data from OECD and life satisfaction data from World Happiness Report, 2020).

Hopefully, COVID-19 will result in much smaller declines in per capita GDP than in Greece. and economic recovery will be much more rapid.

What are the trade-offs involved in shut-down? The human welfare implications of shutting down large parts of an economy for an extended period are enormous. However, a short close-down of all those activities in which social distancing is difficult might be preferable to a less severe and more prolonged lock-down. Tomas Pueyo’s discussion of the hammer and dance (see graphic above) makes sense to me, even if the Hammer needs to last more than 3-7 weeks.

Social distancing and lock-down is an investment in buying time. Buying time for what? It can’t be for development of a vaccine. That will take too long!

It makes sense to buy time to build up the stock of respirators, ICU beds etc. to help cope with an influx of hospital patients needing treatment.

It also makes sense to buy time to obtain testing equipment that can give accurate results within a short time frame. Speedy and accurate testing has potential to enable infectious people to be detected and temporarily taken out of circulation, so that the rest of the population can return to something like normal life.

This post has not yet referred to stimulus packages. I support giving money to people to help them survive a crisis that is likely to depress aggregate demand. Please note, however, that what people can buy depends ultimately on what is produced. When an economy closes down the necessities of life tend to become scarce.

My conclusions:
  • Policies to mitigate COVID-19 should be considered from a human flourishing perspective rather than solely in terms of either minimizing deaths or minimizing damage to an economy.

  • The best policy seems to be to buy time by enforcing strict social distancing for a relatively short period rather than less strict distancing for a longer period. The policy aim should be to buy enough time to enable hospitals to cope better with an influx of patients and to put in place a testing regime that can enable life to return to something like normal as soon as possible.
Postscript: May 6, 2020
There isn’t a great deal of substance that I would like to change in this article with the benefit of 6 weeks hindsight. The graphs showing possible outcomes in terms of exponential growth and bell curves still look right. Some countries, including Australia, have moved along to the end of “the hammer” phase of the bell curve and are beginning the tricky “dance”. Perhaps infection rates may be greatly under-estimated and there is now considerable herd immunity, but I doubt it.

Although the governments of some countries are behaving abominably, at this stage I am confident that in Australia the intervention ‘cure’ (palliative might be a better word) will not be worse than the disease. To a large degree, the shutdown occurred spontaneously, with governments playing catchup, as large numbers of people stayed home, and businesses shut down. There has been some coercion, e.g. shutting of beaches in metropolitan areas and travel restrictions. Some police have risked public goodwill by excessively diligent (stupid) enforcement, e.g. picking on individuals sunning themselves in parks many metres away from any other human. Most people seem to be following social distancing rules because they accept that it is a sensible precaution to take for their own benefit and/or the benefit of others.

From an analytical perspective, I have been reminded that it is possible to incorporate deaths and economic considerations in a common metric if you try hard enough. Richard Layard, Andrew Clark et. al. have presented a WELLBY analysis that seeks to do that in a paper entitled, ‘When to release the lockdown: A wellbeing framework for analysing costs and benefits’. The authors use estimates of wellbeing-years (based on life satisfaction surveys) to balance the impact of policy decisions upon the number of deaths from COVID-19 against incomes, unemployment, mental health, public confidence and other factors (including CO2 emissions).

Their analytical framework looks elegant, but I am concerned about the implied policy context. It seems to me that this kind of analysis is more relevant to decision-making by a benevolent dictator (one applying utilitarian philosophy) than to a society where government should see its prime responsibility as protecting the lives and liberty of citizens.

Another article that has been brought to my attention is: ‘Some basic economics of COVID-19 policy’, by Casey Mulligan, Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel. This article looks at the trade-offs we face in regulating behavior during the pandemic.  It uses conventional cost benefit analysis to consider several possible policy objectives, including buying time and limiting the cumulative cost of a pandemic that will ultimately run its course. They conclude:
The key difference in terms of the optimal strategy is whether our focus is on keeping the disease contained. If the objective is to buy time, then our analysis favors early and aggressive intervention. This minimizes the overall impact … . In contrast, limiting the cumulative cost of a pandemic that will ultimately run its course argues for aggressive policies later, when they will have the biggest impact on the peak load problem for the health-care system and when they will have the greatest impact on the ultimate number infected”.

The authors conclude by listing some simple economic principles to guide how public policy should proceed when faced with a new but poorly understood pandemic. Those principles include buying time upfront, and using that time wisely to gather information to implement a screen, test, trace and quarantine (STTQ) policy. They suggest that both the “buy-time” and long-term containment strategies will have to be based on an effective STTQ policy.

The approach adopted by Mulligan et. al. of considering the nature of trade-offs and suggesting policy principles is more to my liking. If these authors had used their conventional cost benefit analyses to provide specific recommendations of the kind provided by Layard et. al. I would raise the same concerns about the implied policy context of advising a benevolent dictator, rather than informing a democratic political process.


I have misgivings about the valuation of life in both studies, but have not considered the relative merits of each approach, and have nothing better to offer other than directly considering the economic cost of saving lives under alternative strategies.