Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Did Enlightenment thinkers believe that reason could illuminate all phenomena?


When I began to think about David Friedrich’s painting “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, there seemed to be something odd about it. The painting reminded me of a TV news report I saw recently showing an Australian politician walking along a beach wearing a business suit. Both the politician and the “wanderer” seemed out of place. Perhaps the politician had a busy schedule which prevented him from changing into beach attire, but how can we explain the symbolism of the painting?

László Földényi, a Hungarian essayist, has suggested that the painting reflects the longing of Romantics to retreat from the fog of prosaic life “and find in nature that universal connection which civilization was supposedly unable to provide”. Földényi implies that, contrary to their intentions, the Romantics’ view of nature was similar to that of Enlightenment thinkers who viewed it as the object of rational and scientific thought:

“If we look at the wanderer in Friedrich’s painting, he appears to be giving himself over to nature, and yet at the same time he is decisively isolated from it. And this indicates to us that the Romantic “deification” of nature, its enlargement into a metaphysical category results in a tendency leading toward the violation of nature just as much as the openly technicist viewpoint does. For there too in the background lurks the intention to call to account, to seek proof and persuasion, the desire for nature to become the likeness of humanity, to be the mirror of our soul. In a word, the desire for nature to be pliable to their conceptions of it—even if, in certain cases, these conceptions differ from those of the natural scientists.”

The quoted passage is from Földényi’s book, Dostoyevsky reads Hegel and Bursts into Tears. The book
consists of 13 essays in which the author seeks to examine “the experience of inscrutability to be found in depths of all cultural phenomena.” He is attacking the “belief in the omnipotence of reason that illuminates all phenomena” which he believes to be “the great inheritance of the Enlightenment”.

Hegel is a prime target.

The title of the book comes from an essay in which Földényi speculates that Dostoyevsky may have read Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of world history while exiled in Siberia and writing The House of the Dead. Hegel viewed world history as having a rational purpose and argued that the character of some nations is such that they don’t belong within the purview of world history. He ruled out Siberia as a setting for world culture.

Dostoyevsky suffered greatly in Siberia but felt his estrangement from world history to be a form of redemption from the gray rationality of European civilization. Exile enabled him to obtain a better understanding of other Russians and of himself.

Hegel is also the target of criticism in the final essay which discusses Elias Canetti’s book, Crowds and Power.  Földényi discusses the difficulty of attributing a genre to this book, telling readers that it is distinguished by its openness to metaphysical questions - particularly the ancient question, “What is man?” - and a capacity for amazement at the world.

Földényi suggests that “Canetti almost appears to be sending a message” to Hegel. Canetti was disturbed by “the arrogance of concepts” and held examination of individual phenomena to be more important that generalizations. He claimed that the conceptual interested him so little that he had not seriously read either Aristotle or Hegel.

Hegel believed in the fulfillment of history, but Canetti’s book is “a great pessimistic expression of the viewpoint that man is irreparable”, as he continually repeats brutal acts “while employing ever more refined means”. According to Canetti, Europeans live in an ocean of myth, mistakenly thinking that their rationalism is the fulfillment of history.

I am glad that we do not have to choose between the views of Hegel and Canetti. In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I argue that although the roots of liberty run deepest in countries that recognize Western civilization as providing their cultural heritage, history gives us no grounds for complacency about the future of liberty in those countries.

The old horizons

The essay I found most illuminating is the one on belief in the devil. Földényi suggests that beliefs about God and the devil “took leave of their traditional metaphysical theater” toward the end of the 18th century. He illustrates the metaphysical theater with Goethe’s description of the demonic situation that Faust observed within himself of being torn between the sensual and the non-sensual. He suggests that Faust was “perhaps the last emblematic figure of European culture who … represented his own endangered mentality without losing sight of the Great Plan as envisioned by Pico della Mirandola.”

After that, Földényi claims that the “Good” lost its transcendental constraints and became limited to concepts of utility, advantage, and pragmatism, and “Evil” came to be understood as “anything impeding what general belief proclaimed as advantageous and useful.”

So, what was Pico della Mirandola’s Great Plan?  In the 15th century Giovanni Pico della Mirandola suggested that the goal of man - the reason God created humans - was to love the beauty of the world or to admire its greatness. However, man can do this in his own way. He can shape himself in whatever form he prefers. He can degenerate into a lower, more brutish, form of life, or “be reborn into the higher orders, those that are divine”.

It seems to me that the essence of the Great Plan can still be followed by those of us who are uncomfortable with the theology of Pico della Mirandola if we take care not to lightly dismiss intuitions that to be fully flourishing we need to transcend a focus on utilitarian considerations. My personal view is that such intuitions deserve to be taken seriously because they stem from fundamental aspects of human nature. Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing offers the suggestion that we may take pleasure in seeking to transcend utilitarian preoccupations “whilst rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to employ the metrics of pleasure and pain to assess the worth of our endeavors.”  

Final comments

I have selected only a few of Földényi’s essays to discuss here. Some readers might be interested to follow up his challenging views on melancholy and anxiety, or the sad story of Heinrich von Kleist who features as prominently as Hegel.

In my view, the author is successful in illustrating the poverty of rationalistic approaches in explaining cultural phenomena. However, in asserting that the Enlightenment is responsible for widespread belief in the omnipotence of reason, he is taking a Eurocentric view. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers certainly did not believe that reason could illuminate all phenomena. Modern followers of Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Adam Ferguson are unlikely to feel that their views are under attack in this book.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Is "scout mindset" a worthy objective of personal development?


If someone had mentioned “scout mindset” to me a week ago, I would probably have thought they were referring to mottos of the scouting movement such as “Be prepared!” and “Do a good turn every day!”. Since then, I have had the opportunity to read Julia Galef’s book, Scout Mindset, Why some people see things clearly and others don’t, which was published last year.

I think this is a remarkably good book - even though it has left me feeling somewhat more modest about the accuracy of some of my perceptions.

Scout mindset versus soldier mindset

Julia Galef defines scout mindset as ‘wanting your “map” – your perception of yourself and the world – to be as accurate as possible’. The scout aims to form a map of the strategic landscape. The scout mindset is characterized by accuracy motivated reasoning and guided by the question: Is it true?

By contrast, “soldier mindset” is aimed at fighting off threatening evidence. It is directionally motivated reasoning, evaluating ideas through the lenses of “Can I believe it?” and “Must I believe it?”

Galef suggests that soldier mindset is our default setting, and argues that in many, if not all situations we would be better off abandoning it and learning to adopt a scout mindset instead.

I am inclined to the view that intuitive thinking is our default setting, and that there are often good reasons to be reluctant to abandon intuitions and expectations that are based on patterns that have we have observed in the past. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to argue that most of us have a tendency to keep fighting conflicting evidence long after it should have persuaded us to change our minds. That is the soldier mindset. When we adopt a scout mindset, we begin to assimilate the evidence and re-assess our views sooner – perhaps by engaging in reasoning akin to Bayesian updating of probabilities.

Galef explains that there are several reasons why people tend to adopt a soldier mindset. It enables them to avoid unpleasant emotions by denial or by offering comforting narratives. It helps them to feel good about themselves by maintaining illusions. It helps them to motivate themselves by exaggerating their chances of success. It helps them to convince themselves so they can be more successful in convincing others. It enables them to choose beliefs that make them look good. It also helps them to belong to social groups of like-minded people.

The author suggests that scout mindset is more useful to us than for our ancestors. I have some reservations about that claim. Scout mindset would have been a useful attribute for our hunter and gatherer ancestors when they were searching for food. Nevertheless, she is persuasive in arguing that, by comparison with your ancestors, “your happiness isn’t nearly as dependent on your ability to accommodate yourself to whatever life, skills, and social groups you happened to be born into”.

In subsequent chapters, Galef proceeds to discuss how to develop self-awareness, thrive without illusions, change your mind, and develop a scout identity. In what follows, my focus is selective. Readers seeking a more comprehensive review should also read Jon Hersey’s article in Quillette, which persuaded me to read the book.

It seems to me that the strongest objection that people raise to having accurate perceptions of themselves is that self-delusion serves them well. The strongest objection to seeking accurate perceptions relating issues of public policy is that it is not worth attempting because the individual voter’s influence on policy outcomes is insignificant. I will look at those objections before discussing scout identity as an objective of personal development.

Does self-delusion serve us well?

A substantial amount of psychological research purports to show that people who deceive themselves are happier than realists. Galef points out that these research findings are based on measures of self-deception that lack any objective standards of reality as a basis for comparison. They use measures of self-deception that conflate positive beliefs with illusions. For example, the measurement methodology assumes that people who claim that they never get angry are deceiving themselves. Similarly, people who claim that they always know why they like things are assumed to be deceiving themselves.

It is not necessary for us to deceive ourselves about the probability of success before embarking on new ventures. Galef refers to Elon Musk as an example of an investor who has proceeded with ventures even though he has a clear-eyed view that they have a low probability of success. When asked why he has said:

“If something is important enough you should try. Even if the probable outcome is failure”.

A gamble can worth taking if the expected payoff (value of each outcome x probability of occurrence) is positive.

There can also be an issue of perspective involved in assessing probability of success. I find it helpful to think in terms of adopting a player mindset rather than a spectator mindset. On the basis of past performance, spectators might be justified in assessing that the player has low probability of success in a particular event. However, a coach who knows a great deal about the player’s capability might have good reasons to suggest to her that the spectators are under-rating her chances. Encouraging the player to adopt a mindset that makes use of her inside knowledge might induce her to take a more positive attitude toward training etc. My point is that adopting a player mindset is an exercise in realistic self-appraisal, rather than self-deception.

Julia Galef is not alone in being critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. As previously noted on this blog Neera Badhwar has also taken that position, and has argued strongly that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism. Badhwar also notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.

Why seek accurate maps of public policy issues?

Readers who are familiar with Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing will be aware of my concern that individual voters lack incentive to become well-informed about policy issues. Most voters are either apathetic about politics, or view it in the same way as they view sporting contests. They cheer for their team and jeer at their opponents.

Galef discusses Bryan Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. In explaining what he means by rational irrationality Caplan suggests:

“In real world political settings, the price of ideological loyalty is close to zero. So we should expect people to ‘satiate’ their demand for political delusion, to believe whatever makes them feel best” (The Myth of the Rational Voter, p 18).

Galef rejects the view that voters are rationally irrational on the grounds that it implies that they are “already striking an optimal balance between scout and soldier”. She seems concerned that if she were to accept that rational irrationality is widespread, she would have to appeal to the desire of the readers of her book to be good citizens, and/ or to love truth, in urging them to adopt a scout mindset.

However, it seems to me that readers of this book who have any interest in politics are more likely to be Vulcans than Hooligans – to use the terminology of Jason Brennan (in Against Democracy, 2016). Vulcans try to avoid bias, while the Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. The Hooligans are so wedded to soldier mentality that their beliefs are determined by the social groups that they identify with. The only hope of persuading these soldiers to modify political beliefs that are at variance with reality rests with the ability of scouts to persuade the generals (opinion leaders they respect) to modify their views.

Galef has little respect for those Vulcans whose reasoning resembles that of Spock in Star Trek, but has plenty of advice for people who really want to avoid bias in beliefs relating to policy issues. For example, she discusses the research of Phil Tetlock, which suggests that people who are willing to make subtle revisions of forecasts of global events in response to new information tend to make more accurate forecasts than academic experts.  

The author also has some interesting advice for people who want to reduce bias in their beliefs by exposing themselves to views outside of their echo chambers. Exposing partisans to the views of their political opponents tends to reinforce their existing views. She suggests:

“To give yourself the best chance of learning from disagreement, you should be listening to people who make it easier to be open to their arguments, not harder. People you like or respect, even if you don’t agree with them.”

Scout identity

Galef notes that identifying with a belief can wreck your ability to think clearly because you feel that you have to defend it, which motivates you to feel that you have to collect evidence in its favour. She suggests that activists are likely to be most successful if they hold their identity lightly enough to be capable of engaging with the views of opponents and making clear-eyed assessments of the best ways to achieve goals.

The author presents several arguments for seeking to adopt scout identity, but suggests that the most inspiring one is “the idea of being intellectually honorable: wanting the truth to win out, and putting that principle above your own ego”.

In reading The Scout Mindset, I was struck by parallels between the argument presented for adoption of scout mindset and the views of Robert Kegan on stages of mental development from a socialized mind, which enables people to be faithful followers and team players, to a self-authoring mind and self-transforming mind. Readers wishing to investigate further might find it helpful to read Immunity to Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. (I discuss the book here.) 


In my view Julia Galef makes a strong case for people to seek to have realistic maps - perceptions of themselves and the world that are as accurate as possible.

The author successfully challenges research findings claiming that self-deception contributes to happiness of individuals, and she provides useful advice to those seeking to make their maps more accurate.

Galef offers particularly useful advice for people seeking better mapping of public policy issues. If you want to become less biased, listen carefully to the views of opponents you respect rather than seeking exposure to opponents you do not respect.

I agree with the author that the most important reason to seek to have realistic maps is because that is intellectually honorable. Scout mindset is a worthy objective of personal development.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Would a good society seek to maximize a social welfare function?

 This article is about my personal experience in attempting to understand social welfare, the concept of a good society, and my role as an economist involved in the processes of social choice. I decided to write about this topic after writing an article for Savvy Street on the related topic, “Can social planning enhance individual flourishing?”

When economists talk about maximizing social welfare, they are referring to a concept that appears to have something to do with the well-being of people. However, the concept is best viewed as a signaling device to suggest that the social planner claims to have obtained insights about society from studying an abstract mathematical model. Such signaling is not helpful to consideration of the merits of policy proposals.

Maximizing social welfare can encompass policies that would enlarge the economic pie (national product) so that there is potential for everyone to be given a larger slice. In that case, it might be reasonable to argue that the policy would receive widespread support among citizens. A good society - one that is good for the people who live in it – could be expected to adopt such policies. However, claims about pursuing social welfare objectives make such policies no more attractive than if they are advocated to simply expand opportunities for individual flourishing.

Maximizing social welfare can also encompass policies to redistribute the economic pie in a manner that advocates believe will somehow enhance the collective well-being of citizens.  When maximizing social welfare is said to require redistribution of the cake, some citizens will be advantaged at the expense of others. It is possible for some policies of this nature to receive widespread support (e.g. provision of a basic social safety net) but that is less likely when extensive redistribution is proposed to equalize the utility that different individuals obtain at the margin from additional income.

Whose welfare function should we maximize?

The idea of social welfare maximization implies the existence of a social welfare function reflecting insights about determinants of collective well-being and expressing the “general will’ of the people. It was over 50 years ago that I began to realize that this idea is highly problematic. My libertarian friends might find this hard to believe, but it happened while I was studying welfare economics.

An article by Francis M Bator influenced me greatly, although perhaps not in the way the author intended. As I was reading Bator’s article - ‘The Simple Analytics of Welfare Maximization, The American Economic Review, 17(1) March 1957 - I remember feeling that this was an object of great beauty. I suppose the article seemed beautiful for the same reasons that abstract art can seem beautiful. Bator provides a geometric presentation of the derivation of a production possibilities curve, then proceeds to derivation of the utility possibility frontier, which he then crowns with a social welfare function, as shown in the diagram above.

Bator’s description of that diagram left a lasting impression on me. He tells us that BB represents the grand utility possibilities frontier, showing at each point the maximum utility for person X given any feasible level of utility for person Y, and vice versa. He then proceeds to explain the “bliss point”, Ω, in the following words:

“To designate a single best configuration we must be given a Bergson-Samuelson social welfare function that denotes the ethic that is to “count” or whose implications we wish to study. Such a function – it could be yours, or mine, or Mossadegh’s, though his is likely to be non-transitive – is intrinsically ascientific.”

What Bator meant by ascientific is that the function involves ethical valuations. However, the point that has stuck in my mind is that despite the heroic assumptions Bator was making in constructing his beautiful geometric edifice, he did not try to pretend that it could be crowned with a social welfare function aggregating the preferences of all citizens. The function depicted “could be yours, or mine, of Mossadegh’s”. (Mohammad Mosaddegh was an Iranian prime minister who held office from 1951 until 1953, when his government was overthrown - apparently in a coup orchestrated by M16 and the CIA.)

Is it possible to make sense of the diagram? 

As I look at the diagram now, the idea of choosing between the utility levels of different people seems problematic. It would also be problematic to some modern utilitarians whose social welfare function is defined simply in terms of maximizing average life satisfaction (making the implicit ethical judgement that everyone deserves to have the same life satisfaction). In that case, if the axes measure the life satisfaction of X and Y, the bliss point would be defined by the intersection of the possibility frontier and a 450 line drawn from the origin. The 450 line would represent all points where X and Y have equal life satisfaction – X and Y would each have maximum life satisfaction at the bliss point.

However, I reject that modern utilitarian view. It seems to me to reflect an inadequate understanding of the determinants of individual flourishing. As argued in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, even though average life satisfaction may be a reasonable indicator of the average psychological well-being of large groups of people, psychological well-being is just one of the basic goods of a flourishing human. In my experience, when people are encouraged to offer more than perfunctory responses to questions about how they are faring, they tend to talk about a combination of different things such as their aspirations and the choices they have made, their health, and their personal relationships. Satisfaction is relevant, but does not encompass all relevant aspects of human flourishing.

To make sense of the choices represented in the social welfare function depicted, I would need to replace “utility” with “opportunity to flourish”. Even then, I would need good reasons to make an ethical judgement about whether X and Y deserve to have their opportunity to flourish enhanced or restricted.

What are the implications for social choice?

While Bator’s description of the social welfare function let the cat out of the bag for me, I remember reading about Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem at about the same time. I think the main lesson I took away was that the processes of government must inevitably be somewhat dictatorial. That makes it important to have constitutions that protect liberty and electoral processes that are capable of kicking tyrants out of office.

While studying welfare economics, I also took a course in public choice in which I had my first exposure to The Calculus of Consent, by James M Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch. That book and other writings by Buchanan have had a profound impact on my views about the good society and the role of economists.

Buchanan and Tulloch noted that when individuals are considering constitutional rules that they expect to be in place for a long time, they are uncertain as to what their own interests will be in any of the whole chain of later collective choices made according to those rules. Such uncertainty may enable people to set aside their current economic interests in making constitutional choices. One implication is that individuals will tend to choose somewhat more restrictive rules for social choice-making for areas of potential political activity that could involve violation of liberty.

Buchanan and Tulloch link liberty directly to the concept of a good society:

“The acceptance of the right of the individual to do as he desires so long as his action does not infringe on the freedom of other individuals to do likewise must be a characteristic trait in any “good” society. The precept “Love thy neighbor, but also let him alone when he desires to be let alone” may, in one sense, be said to be the overriding ethical principle for Western liberal society.” (p 217).

 Buchanan later warned that the norms that underlie democratic institutions are under threat when politics is allowed to become little more than a ‘commons’ through which competing coalitions seek mutual exploitation.  (For further discussion of this please see Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and HumanFlourishing).

What should economists do?

Economists who advise on public policy often view themselves as social planners who are advising benevolent despots. They are frequently disappointed to find that those whom they advise give higher priority to political and personal goals than to publicly stated economic objectives, or lack the political power to implement recommendations.  

James Buchanan suggested that economists should adopt a contractarian approach, with a focus on the consequences of rules and, in particular, on the question of what rules of the game individuals might accept voluntarily as participants in an authentic constitutional convention. In providing an example of this approach, Buchanan suggested that such a convention would be unlikely to endorse rules of the game which allow majorities in a single generation to impose public debt burdens on subsequent generations of taxpayers. (Nobel prize lecture).

My career

The focus of my career in public policy advice was partly contractarian. For most of my public service career I had the good fortune to work in agencies of the Australian government (predecessors of the Productivity Commission) which undertook research and published reports on the economic implications of changing the rules of the game for economic development. The focus of much of this work was assessing effects of barriers to international trade and other forms of industry assistance.

I note that my career was only partially contractarian because the agencies were required to make recommendations to the government according to specific terms of reference for individual inquiries and more general guidelines. The specific terms of reference were sometimes designed to ensure that governments received politically palatable recommendations, but the research and policy analysis published in inquiry reports, and in annual reports, informed policy-making processes in ways that led eventually to adoption of rules of the game more favourable to free trade.

The advisory agencies were given general guidelines including having “to have regard to the desire of the Australian Government …  to improve and promote the well-being of the people” and to “improve the efficiency with which the community’s productive resources are used”. I do not believe that the collectivism reflected in the reference to people and privately owned capital as “the community’s productive resources” had one iota of influence on the research and policy analyses conducted by the agencies.

I have endeavored to maintain a focus on the implications of different “rules of the game” in the public policy aspects of my subsequent consulting career and my writing on freedom and flourishing on this blog and in my books. There have been some lapses, but I hereby forgive myself 😄 . It has not always been easy to avoid falling into the trap of viewing oneself as a social planner advising a benevolent despot. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

How should voluntary organisations make decisions?


Should voluntary organisations make decisions by seeking consensus or by majority rule?

In my experience, the usual practice is for members to seek consensus before putting issues to a vote. Formal meeting procedure is normally used to record decisions and meet legal requirements. The steam roller of majority decision-making is available where consensus is not possible but that way of making decisions is usually considered to be a last resort option.

Why is that so? Formal meeting procedure is part of our democratic heritage, so why should we reluctant to use it to make decisions in voluntary organisations? I see two reasons - potential divisiveness, and the potential for members to vote with their feet.

The potential for divisiveness is obvious to anyone who observes parliamentary debates. When people take sides on issues, they seek to demolish the views of their opponents and, in the process, implicitly (or explicitly) cast aspersions on their reasoning abilities. That is not conducive to the mutual respect among members that is required for voluntary organisations to function effectively.

The potential for members to vote with their feet is inherent in the nature of voluntary organisations. If individual members feel that insufficient efforts are being made to accommodate differing interests and views of members, they are free to leave.

These issues must be arising in many voluntary organisations all over the world as groups decide whether to conduct meetings online or in-person during the Omicron wave of COVID19.

Some groups are asking members whether they support a specific proposition (to meet online on in-person). That is equivalent to putting the matter to the vote straight away. People who have no strong preference will agree to either proposition, depending on which one is put to them. Those who have a strong preference opposed to the proposition that is put to members have a good reason to feel that they are being steamrolled.

The alternative I favour is to survey members to ask whether they are willing to attend meetings that are held online, in-person, or both forms of meeting. If a substantial proportion of the membership is willing to attend both forms of meeting, that opens up the possibility for compromises to be made to reach consensus. For example, one way forward would be for some meetings to be held online and some meetings to be held in-person.