Episode IV: A Green Hope

When I moved to Toronto in early 2019, I had the notion that I would get more involved in politics. 

My analysis of society always circles back to the same conclusion. We know the problems. We know the solutions. We just need to do the hard work of motivating people to assume the short-term costs of the solutions for the sake of their long-term benefits. The problems persist, I think, because of a lack of political will.  

If that’s true, the next conclusion follows quickly from the first. To influence the political will, one must play the political game. And to do that, I need to volunteer to help one of the teams playing the game.  

Unfortunately, when I had a look at the usual suspects back in early 2019, my motivation to get involved cratered. I didn’t see any party where I would easily fit in.

I accept that winning elections is an important part of advancing policy, but I can’t really stomach the idea of stumping for policies whose only function is to win votes. I’d much rather start with the best policies and work hard to convince voters of their merits. Most political parties, as you’d probably guess, don’t seem to share my view. 

Today, I can write “most” parties rather than “all” because I now know that I overlooked the Green Party of Ontario. As luck would have it, I stumbled across their 2018 election platform the other day. When I read it, I was pretty much, “yes, yes, and yes” (x3).

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to take a closer look at the Greens in Ontario. I have voted for them in the past. I’ve also voted for the Greens at the federal level.

Moreover, I have since learned that the party had a significant breakthrough in the last election. They elected their first Member of Provincial Parliament in the riding of Guelph. Mike Schreiner, the leader of the party, was elected with an impressive 45 per cent of the popular vote (29,082), a 25 per cent increase over his tally in 2014 (10,230). After such significant step forward, I would have thought they’d be on my radar.     

Whatever the reason for my oversight, on the plus side, it means I have a very easy and straightforward opportunity to help out. I can’t be the only person in Ontario who shares my political values, who wants to get more involved in politics, and who has also overlooked the Greens. 

Ergo, this post. 

Give their 2018 platform a look. If you like what you read, buy a membership and sign up for their virtual convention on November 7, 2020. I’ll be attending, and, if all goes well, I will get more involved in the party and see what I can do to help them elect more MMPs in the next election.

I write, “if all goes well”, because I have been down this road before.

There is much more to a political party than its platform. The party’s culture will likely trump all other considerations, when it comes to deciding how much time I will volunteer to the cause.

My hope is that the Ontario Greens are still sufficiently deep in the political wilderness that they haven’t attracted the kind of people who think the pursuit of power always trumps principle, but, at this point, it is impossible to know.

In their platform, they say that they want to do politics differently, but that could be an empty slogan. More charitably, their vision of “differently” might simply be different than mine. Ultimately, there is only one way to find out: once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

I will let you know how it goes.

My last word on political philosophy (hopefully): chase no more

The fundamental question of politics concerns power: is power an end unto itself?

If it is, politics is fundamentally about managing power. It involves creating and managing social practices that determine who wields power and the extent to which they wield it. In principle, power could be exercised with an eye to true, good or best outcomes, but, so long as power is seen as an end unto itself, gaining, maintaining and exercising power will always trump the true, the good, or the best. Inevitably, this kind of politics is or will become authoritarian because any balance of power will always eventually be upset in favour of someone or some group.

If power is not an end unto itself, politics is fundamentally a form of inquiry. It involves creating social practices that have the best chance of identifying true, good, or best outcomes. It is unlikely that any set of social practices will always identify true, good, or best outcomes, but the shared commitment to social practices that aim for these kinds of outcomes can, nevertheless, justify abiding by outcomes even when we or others disagree with them. This kind of politics relies on both the expertise of the individual and the wisdom of the crowd.

In principle, we could empirically determine which of these two approaches to politics works best for human flourishing. In practice, however, people who think power is an end unto itself are little interested in empirical justification. For them, the experience of power is the most important consideration. It trumps all other considerations, including empirical evidence.

The human propensity to treat power as an end unto itself is, I think, the essential challenge of all politics. The authoritarian urge seems to be primordial, in an infantile sort of way, and can manifest itself in anyone and everyone, wherever they happen to fall on the conventional political spectrum. It also seems highly unlikely that there is any particular set of social practices that will exorcise the authoritarian urge from human existence. Instead, we must constantly work to correct, inhibit and contain it whenever and wherever it might emerge.

We must also accept that people who treat power as an end unto itself are not interested in facts, figures, argument or reason unless these are used to buttress their own power. Accordingly, it is appropriate, I think, to use power to contain or dispose of those who treat power as an end unto itself. However, if we are successful, we must be careful to remember that it does not prove that we are right and they are wrong. It only shows that we are sufficiently powerful to contain or dispose of those who would use power to contain or dispose of us, whatever the merits of our beliefs and values may be. A successful exercise of power proves nothing about the truth, value or merit of anyone’s beliefs. Might does not make right, even if it is our right that it serves.

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At some point in their growth and development, all things being equal, most humans will be able to make effective judgments about most matters that relate to them. No person will always be right but no person will always be wrong either. Furthermore, between right and wrong, there will always be many different judgments a person can reach that, all things being equal, are reasonable even if they are not wholly correct or wholly wrong.

Similarly, when a majority of people who are effective judges independently reach the same conclusion about some state of affairs, all things being equal, the fact of that independently shared judgement is the best evidence we have that the conclusion is correct. We can’t say with absolute certainty that the conclusion is correct but, in most cases and as a general rule, we should tentatively accept that the conclusion is probably correct even if we or others disagree with it. At the same time, we should also accept that we may learn in the future that the conclusion is incorrect. That is simply the nature of inquiry, political or otherwise.

It is the interplay between the effective judgments of individuals and the wisdom of the crowd that drives and shapes any politics conceived as a form of inquiry. The ultimate aim is to develop social practices that make the most of both. Practically-speaking, this means we should expect our social practices to evolve and change over time. We must always be ready to propose and test new ideas, mechanisms, and institutions and we must give up on the idea that any one person or any one group of people can, could have or will ever identify the one and only true form of government for all time. To do otherwise is to simply give up on the hope that our understanding of the world and each other grows and evolves over time.

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Politics does not only happen at the ballet box or when parliament is in session or between the commercials of the nightly news. It happens wherever we live, work and play. It happens whenever we decide together how we are going to live, work, and play. It happens wherever and whenever we answer in word and deed the question: is power an end unto itself?

Our answers shape our lives, our communities, our society.

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It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that we live most of our lives in authoritarian communities, organizations and institutions.

We are born into families that are authoritarian. We are educated in institutions that are authoritarian. We work at jobs that are authoritarian. Our political system is run, administered and governed by authoritarian individuals, groups and institutions. Our economy too.

The habits and practices of politics are like any other. We learn from doing and, if authoritarianism is all we do, then, our politics are also authoritarian, whatever we might think of the ribbons and bows of periodic elections. Elections are also an instrument of authoritarianism.

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I want to tell a noble lie. I want to claim that we need only conceive of politics as a form of inquiry to ensure everything will always work out well for everyone. Unfortunately, inquiry doesn’t work that way. We can make better or worse judgements based on the evidence, but there is nothing in and of itself that can definitively point the way to the best outcomes for all people for all time. There are no guarantees.

We also can’t avoid the use of power and there is always — always — a risk that we will abuse it, even when we use it judiciously and cautiously. Nothing can absolve us of the responsibility of the wrongs we may do even when we intend to do right. There are better and worse ways to avoid the abuse of power, but there is nothing in and of itself that will prevent all people for all time from abusing power. Again, there are no guarantees.

And, perhaps, after all these years, that is all political philosophy I need.

I suspect now that I may have wanted much more than that only because I also wanted there to be some kind of secular magic that would guarantee the best outcomes for all people for all time and that would also absolve me of any responsibility to attend to the unintended consequences of my well-intentioned actions. I suspect I also wanted to avoid the messy and uncertain business of winning friends, influencing people, and fighting enemies. I hoped also, I think, that I might bequeath to the world some magical words that would help solve all problems everywhere. I would then be free to enjoy the beauty of the day safe in the comfort that I had done all that I could to do to make the world a better place without ever breaking an egg, pulling a trigger or currying favour. I see now that I was chasing a chimera, a wild goose, and a dragon all in one.

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I am suddenly reminded that my very first essay in political philosophy was written in grade eleven or, perhaps, grade twelve. It was a short paper that attempted to explain what Marx had meant by the notion that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” I don’t remember if I wrote anything noteworthy, but I do remember struggling to write the paper. I also remember enjoying very much the struggle to write it. I also received a good mark. It’s easy to imagine that the struggle and the reward made me feel important — perhaps, even special. It probably provided a heady rush of meaning, purpose, and distinction at a time of lonely adolescence. Like opiates everywhere, it soothed and it distracted and, like junkies everywhere, I remember that first fix with a mix of fondness, regret, and understanding.

It has been said before and it will be said again: “In my beginning is my end.”

The condition of my humanity: arrogant humility

It would be fair to say that I have spent most of my life thinking about the human condition.

The catalyst for this lifelong reflection was the profound realization, at the age of nineteen, that God does not exist. At the time, it seemed that the fact of God’s non-existence was a big deal. I also thought that a full and proper understanding of this fact would have profound consequences for the way I, you, all of us should live. I expected profound consequences because we live in ways that have been built on and around the idea that God exists. Remove the keystone of God’s existence, I thought, and the structure of everything would fall away, and we could rebuild everything anew. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that God’s existence or non-existence is pretty much irrelevant to deciding how we should live.

Then, it occurred to me that capital-T truth does not exist. It seemed to me that this was the fundamentally important fact, for more or less the same reasons that I thought God’s non-existence was so important. Again, I hoped that if I thought long and hard enough about it that I would identify some profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that the existence or non-existence of capital-T truth is as irrelevant to how we live as the existence or non-existence of God, for more or less the same reasons. Whatever you or I may believe about the nature of truth, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to deciding how we should live.

Then, it occurred to me that a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness was the key. Because culture and society begins and ends with humans, it seemed reasonable to conclude that a better understanding of the human nervous system would lead to profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. Moreover, for the first time in human history we had tools that allowed us to exorcise the quasi-divine conception of self we had inherited from our ancestors. The moon may have already been conquered by others but we are the first humans to tread on the very stuff of the human condition. And while it remains theoretically possible that there may be some unimaginable discovery yet to be made that will falsify the conclusion that I am about to share with you and that you should really be able to anticipate by now; but, after reading, arguing, and teaching, I have reached the conclusion that we will never be able to draw unassailable and universally compelling conclusions about how we should live based on a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness either.

The crucial words here are “unassailable” and “universally compelling”. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that I was hoping to find a conclusion, a claim, an idea, something that would win in every argument and always compel all others to action. I was doing what prophets and priests and philosophers and warlords have been doing since time immemorial. I was trying to derive an “ought” from an “is” and hoping that the “ought” would be so magical and powerful that everyone would be swayed by it. The subtle and not terribly sophisticated difference is that I was trying to derive an unyielding “ought” from a “not is” instead of an “is.” Rather than saying, “x, therefore you must do y”, I was saying (or hoping for), “not x, therefore you must do y.” For example, instead of “God is love, therefore, we should do good,” I was hoping for “there is no God, therefore, we should do good.” And while it remains intuitively plausible to me even now that there is some special significance in the fact that things like God and capital-T truth don’t exist, I know that it is as nonsensical to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is not as it is to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is.

And, as important as that conclusion may be, the far more important insight, I think, is that the very idea of an unassailable and universally compelling argument is a coercive fantasy. It is essentially the hope that might and right are identical and that rightness can in and of itself compel others to believe and act. It is also an idea that leads, I think, either to passivity or to oppression because, if right and might are one in the same, either unpopular beliefs are not quite right or there is something not quite right with everyone who fails to accept and act on beliefs we think are right. If a belief, idea or way of life fails to compel acceptance and motivate action, we either think less of that which was  not compelling or think less of the people who failed to be compelled. So, either we end up believing and doing nothing because the burden of proof is impossibly high or we do whatever we want because disagreement is proof that those who disagree with us are somehow broken or not fully human and, for this reason, don’t deserve our consideration and can be compelled to do anything we want.

It’s also crucial, I think, to realize that might comes in many forms, is expressed in many ways, and is never in itself a measure of rightness whatever its form or expression. Most people, for example, would probably now accept the notion that the strength of a person’s muscles has no bearing on the validity of their beliefs, and yet many today still believe that the strength of a country’s military or its economy is a measure of the rightness of its moral and political values. Vote-getting, profit-making, and fundraising are often thought to be legitimate measures of rightness but they really only indicate what can attract votes, profits, and charity at any given point in time. An argument, a speech or an essay may be persuasive, but this in itself is proof only of its persuasiveness. Charm may be non-violent, but there is no reason to think that a consensus built on it is any more true than a consensus built on fear. Might comes in many forms, and it never makes right — even when it is expressed in a way we admire or by people we like.

I should, nevertheless, be explicit on this point: coercion is an inescapable fact of social and political life. We must sometimes coerce people to do things they would rather not do (remember: forcing people not to interfere in the lives of others is a form of coercion too). However, we should always coerce cautiously and from a place of humility, respect and empathy, recognizing that there will be times when we will also be coerced to do something we would rather not do. Most importantly, we must never conclude that our ability to force a person to do something that they would rather not do proves anything about the merits of our beliefs, our way of life or our worldview. Coercion becomes oppression, I think, precisely when we start to believe that our might — whether it be physical, intellectual, emotional, financial, electoral, anything — is proof that we are right. It is one thing to force people to comply with, say, a political or legal decision with which they do not fully agree, while at the same time recognizing that the decision may be imperfect. It is something altogether different to force compliance and, at the same time, insist that coercion would be unnecessary if only those who were being coerced were more rational, compassionate, or open-minded — or whatever term we might use to signal that they are to blame for not seeing it our way. We must, I think, always remain mindful of the fact that anyone of us — and not just those people who we think are the bad guys — can walk the path of good intentions from coercion to oppression.

With that important caveat in mind, we must, nevertheless, carry on living and, in my own case, I have come to embrace an attitude of, what might be called, arrogant humility. I’m arrogant enough to think I have a pretty good shot at making pretty good judgments about what is or is not the best course of action in most situations, when I do the work to gather and consider enough of the relevant evidence. I am also humble enough to accept that I often get it wrong, that I have blind spots, and that some of my most cherished beliefs and well-considered beliefs might be totally wrong. In short, I’ve come to trust my judgement, while at the same time accepting its limitations and failings. I am no longer looking for something — or a not-something — to validate my beliefs, decisions and failings.

I will not, however, claim that all people should necessarily adopt this attitude. I can’t ignore the fact that much good has come from people who have put their faith in God, who pursue the Truth, or stand their ground in the name of moral facts that they consider to be self-evident. I am also well aware that much evil has been done in the name of God, Truth, and indubitable moral facts written into the bones of nature, however, when I consider the evidence available, I am not convinced that these attitudes necessarily lead to good or evil. Whether a person has faith in God or in their own judgement, they must consider the evidence and make judgments based on it. They and I may sometimes disagree over what counts as admissible evidence, but a shared commitment to the fact that might does not make right and right does not make might seems to me to be much more important than a shared opinion about the nature of God.

And once I set aside aside worries about the existence or non-existence of God, Truth, and Human Nature, it was much easier for me to see that there is both too little and too much to say about the human condition. From one perspective, we are simple, fleeting and trivial creatures who, like all the other quirks and quarks in a cold, vast and indifferent universe, are, in principle, perfectly predictable. From another perspective, the human condition is an unimaginably rich and cacophonous kaleidoscope of boundless possibility and each human life is unique, beautiful, and precious. The human condition is a lot like the weather, I think. Seen from on high, it is simple and perfectly predictable, but, closer to the ground, it is complex, varied and difficult to predict, and, at the eye of the storm, no two storms are ever quite the same for those who experience it — no matter what the experts, instruments, and equations may say.

And that’s all I have to say about that (I think).

No Reason, No Cry: Determinism May Be Good For Your Health

TreesandBuildingPeople who insist that there is no such thing as free will often make an important gaff, as they dismiss – often trenchantly – the opinion of people who insist there must be something like free will. This gaff points to an important – and often overlooked – implication of the fact that we likely don’t have free will.

Here is a convenient example of the gaff:

“Given the dubious claim that rejecting free will damages society, and the undoubted benefits to our judicial system of embracing determinism, I’m still baffled by why compatibilists continue to argue that we NEED [sic] some notion of free will. […] Science tells us that our behavior is not under our conscious control ….”

Do you see it?

If there is no such thing as free will, there really is no reason to be baffled by the fact that compatibilists continue to hold their position and argue for it. It’s not like the compatibilists can freely and consciously choose to believe other than they believe, or argue other than they argue. They aren’t deciding to hold on to their view in the face of evidence to the contrary. No, they persist in their compatibilist belief and argue for it because of a complex, probably unknowable, and wholly determined process. Yes, their beliefs may change, but it won’t happen because they freely and consciously will that change. It will only happen if the necessary pieces in the deterministic puzzle fall into place. Otherwise, they will continue to be compatibilists and argue for the compatibilist position for as long as whatever wholly determined process makes it so.

And these observations, I think, point to a very important implication of the non-existence of free will that seems to be often overlooked. If there is no free will, there really is no such thing as “rationality,” “choice,” or “decision,” as we have typically understood them in modern times, because typically they are thought to involve an ability to freely choose between the true and the false, the right and the wrong, the this or the that. But, of course, if there is no such thing as free will, that can’t be correct. Instead, it must be the case that people reason, choose, and/or decide because of a wholly determined process – in all likelihood, the interactions of our brains and genes with the environment. To put it bluntly, without free will, we must discard any notion of human reason, which presumes we can freely will our way in and out of beliefs or anything else about which we might reason.   

Admittedly, for many people, that will be a difficult pill to swallow. Reason (or, if you prefer, rationality), like the enduring love of the one true God, is often thought to be the defining feature of our species. It is the secular magic wand that is often used to draw a line between us and the brutes. Without a totally free, capital-R reason, we humans don’t look very special when we compare ourselves to all the other wholly determined objects banging around the universe. For some, the prospect of having no special place in the universe might be as frightening as realizing that there is no God to answer our prayers.

To further complicate matters, on first impression, it will be very easy to think there are profound and scary consequences to this realization that human reason does not exist. While it is certainly true that we will need to rethink some of our theories about human behaviour, in practice, it won’t make a lot of difference in most people’s lives. Why? Because if it true that there are no such things as free will and human reason, it has always been true. Our description of an underlying process can change, but it doesn’t necessarily change the underlying process. To be sure, some people can be expected to act differently once the neurons in their brain realign to reflect the probably new belief that free will and reason don’t really exist, but how they respond to these changes is anyone’s guess. There is certainly no grounds to assume they will act any differently.

At the level of systematic inquiry, the biggest challenge – and opportunity – will be in the realm of moral and political theory, where it is very often assumed we humans are capable of the very kind of reasoning that is impossible in a universe of deterministic laws. As a result, I’m inclined to think many conceptions of morality and politics will need to be discarded or dramatically rethought. On the plus side, we will, I think, be able to look at old phenomenon from a fresh perspective. For example, the fact that voters often vote against their interests only seems perplexing when we think they can freely choose between the relevant candidates or policies. Instead, the fact that voters often vote against their own interests makes much more sense when we accept that those votes are determined by factors beyond the control of any one voter.

Strictly speaking, what I am proposing is not terribly radical, even if my characterization may be unsettling to some. For example, behavioural economists, primarily as a result of important and influential work in psychology, have already accepted the notion that we humans don’t reason anything like economists once thought we did. They are now adjusting their theories and research methods accordingly. Furthermore, it can be claimed, I think, that economists have always implicitly assumed that people don’t really reason freely because one of their fundamental claims has always been that the vortex of the market somehow magically makes all people freely choose to act in entirely predictable ways – which hardly seems free at all. Economists were, for a long time, perplexed by the fact that actual humans rarely act in accord with the predictions of their theories. Now, because of the historical evolution of the discipline, behavioural economists tend to talk as if we humans are poor at reasoning. However, it must be the case that we don’t reason at all, if by “reason” we mean anything that involves the exercise of one’s free will.

“If what you are saying is true,” the unsympathetic reader might ask, “why do you even bother sharing your ideas?” The answer, of course, is simple. I am one instance of a species that has reproduced successfully because a critical mass of us have always done something pretty much like what I am doing now – sharing ideas that cause people to take on those ideas as their own. Moreover, the part of me that thinks it is freely choosing to think and write in the way that I do can also point to research that suggests that mere exposure to an idea can cause people to judge it to be true, whether they realize it or not. So, if you’ve come this far, you’re already more susceptible to believing the claim that there is no such thing as free will and, for the part of me that thinks it is in control, that is as good a reason as any to share an idea. 

I also happen to think the idea that there is no such thing as a free will can lead to positive and practical outcomes in one’s life. In my own case, as my neurons have rewired themselves in whatever way is required for my conscious mind to take seriously the notion we don’t have a free will, I’ve discovered I am much less likely to get frustrated and angry with myself and others. From this new perspective, for example, people who disagree with me aren’t willfully ignoring the facts or failing to reason properly, they are simply following a wholly determined path over which they and I have no control. On the other hand, if I am the one who is wrong and not aware of it, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it, other than put myself into situations and environments that might stimulate correct belief and then wait for the cognitive miracle to come. Similarly, along those lines, if I make mistakes in my day-to-day life or fail to live up to some personal ideal, I am also much less likely to get angry with myself. Instead of punishing myself for a failure of will, I focus instead on the mental gymnastics that will keeping me moving towards my goal or ideal, which – not surprisingly – is exactly what the best teachers do.

Coming full circle, the main claim I’m advancing is, I think, straightforward. If you accept the view that there is no free will, expressing bafflement, frustration or even anger about other people’s unwillingness to share your view on free will (or any view, really) doesn’t make much sense. Admittedly, even if you agree with me, accepting and acting on my observation is not likely to be automatic. It will take time for your neurons to rewire themselves in whatever way will produce in you a new habit or behaviour. Of course, there is also a good chance that you disagree with me (and, I’d enjoy hearing why in the comments section below), but, please remember, whether or not we agree — or come to agree — is ultimately beyond our control.

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Alex P. Keaton: The Butterfly that Started this Raging Storm

Alex-P-KeatonI blame Alex P. Keaton.

Alex P. Keaton, I think, is the butterfly behind the raging storm of the business-first corporate agenda we endure today.

Alex P. Keaton, written as a karmic comeuppance for his former-hippy parents, was probably originally intended to be an object of ridicule. He was, after all, an adolescent rebel dressed in pinstripes, suspenders, and Reaganomics because it was the only outfit he could find that would shock his all too liberal parents.

Alex P. Keaton, stupid with rebelliousness, even might have been conceived as a critique of the new Right agenda. Only a foolish adolescent, the writers seem to suggest, could buy into that revisionist claptrap.   

Unfortunately for us and all of the politics that have come after, Michael J. Fox was too damn charismatic. The writers couldn’t help but re-imagine Alex in light of Michael’s charms.

Suddenly, accidentally, and unintentionally, the new Right had a human face. A generation of kids grew up thinking Republicanism, big business, and Wall Street might be best for them because it was best for their charming hero, Alex.

What might have come of Anglo-American society, I wonder, if Alex had been played by Kirk Cameron or Michael had played a social democrat?

I also wonder what other charismatic fictions, which beguiled us in our childhoods and youth, continue to shape and reshape our understanding of the way our lives ought to be.

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Six Duties Or A Half Dozen Rights: Does It Make A Difference?

I have a hunch that’s probably untestable. I’d like to hear what you think of it.

If you read a first year political science, theory, studies or philosophy textbook, at some point, you will likely learn: for every claim of right, there is a corresponding responsibility of duty.

If a person has a right to food, someone has a duty to provide that food. If a person has a right to vote, someone has a duty to make it possible for that person to vote. If a person has a right to be let alone; someone has a duty to leave that person alone. So, whenever we talk of a human right; we are also always talking of a human duty.

I’m not sure why but, historically, we tend to frame political debate in terms of human rights rather than human duties. This may be because tyrants often justified their unacceptable behavior with an appeal to their rights and to the duties of others. It seems natural then that people would push back against this unacceptable behaviour by asserting that they also have rights. Perhaps, it was easier to convince people to storm the gates of hegemony to claim an entitlement rather than a responsibility. Who knows?

Whatever the reasons might have been, I can’t help but wonder if our focus on rights rather than duties has in the long run changed the tenor of our political discourse for the worse. Tyrants speak of rights to justify their tyranny and to dismiss the legitimate objections and proposal’s of others. I’m not at all convinced the ideal society is one in which we all have an equal right to be a tyrant.

To be clear, I’m not making the strong claim that an appeal to rights is intrinsically tyrannical but it seems to me that political discussions framed in terms of rights too often focus on claims and clashes of personal entitlement and, more often than not, those kinds of conversations eventually lead to bad outcomes; whereas my hunch is that political discussions framed in terms of duties would more likely be focused on our responsibilities to others and, more often than not, these kinds of conversations would eventually lead to better outcomes.

Of course, I can’t make this claim with any certainty, because a true tyrant is always able to subvert any manner of speaking to his or her own selfish ends; however, my hunch is that if we articulated our rights as duties, we would improve the tenor of our political debates and produce better political outcomes. We humans are at our best when we recognize each other’s common humanity and political discussions framed in terms of duties to others, almost as a matter of definition, forces us to recognize that there are other humans to whom we owe our regard. In contrast, the egocentric focus of rights claims make it very easy for us to forget that our rights exist only because other people accept the responsibility to do whatever is required to uphold them.

What do you think?

Would our political discussions and outcomes be usefully different if we had a Charter of Duties and Responsibilities rather than a Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Would there be any meaningful change in the tenor of our political debates if we discussed, say, our duty to ensure others have access to education rather than discussing our right to an education? Or, am I making too much an ineffectual change in tone? Is this a case of it being six of one and a half dozen of another?

As a way to wrap your head around what I’m driving at, the next time you make a claim of right or hear someone make a claim of right, try rephrasing it as a duty. E.g. I have a right to park wherever I want vs. You have a duty to ensure I can park wherever I want.

I’d love to hear what you think!

The New Wilderness: On The Frontier of A New Kind of Living

In the 200,000 years since Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet, our ability to use and create resources has improved dramatically and our population has exploded.

When I reflect on the tremendous technological, demographical, and social changes of the past ten, fifty, and hundred years, it seems to me the most significant change concerns how we associate with each other.

Thanks to our increased economic, political, and communicative powers, many of us seem much more willing to create relationships and groups based on personal attachments and shared purposes that are unrelated to brute proximity and / or blood relations.

We also seem more inclined to accept that persons can — and maybe even should — belong to more than one group.

I say “seem” because I suspect some humans always have been willing to associate in this fashion and, because some of us can in fact associate in this fashion now, I suspect we always have been able to do it.

After all, from an evolutionary perspective, we are the very same primates we always have been. The tools we use are different, there are many more of us but, biologically speaking, we are very much the same.

I also suspect we didn’t associate in this fashion only because of a scarcity of resources and a superabundance of coercion. Without today’s technology and freedoms, it was simply impossible for the necessary connections to be made.

The lesson I draw from this line of thinking is that some of us are on the frontier of a new kind of living that was, until now, impossible. I also suspect, because I have faith in the species, it is a kind of living that will one day be taken for granted.

Therefore, in this ephemeral moment of unrealized possibility, I think we should nurture, cherish, and celebrate these new opportunities, relationships, and groups. I am even tempted to say, we should create these relationship and groups as a matter of duty because so many persons previous to us who had no choice but to go alone into the wilderness.

I won’t make this strong claim, however, because I am sure all those brave persons who ventured into the unknown wilderness alone — whether it be real or allegorical — did so because they longed for a world where a person could choose to live and associate how she pleases — even when it means being alone in the wilderness.

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Women, Politics and Power: What Is Your Political Dream?

Women have a huge sway in politics, especially democratic politics. The female voting demographic is closely examined and catered to whenever possible. Yet, rarely are there a proportionate number of duly elected female representatives, even when political parties set specific targets. Why? Studies show, women tend not to vote for women.

In a recent Globe and Mail discussion of why Mr. Ignatieff has failed to win over women voters, after a string of quotes that suggest female voters make political decisions based on a mixture of sex-appeal and perceived trustworthiness, I found this:

Calgary businesswoman Anette Ceraficki, 44, said of him: “I really want to like him. I really want to get excited about him as a leader, but he’s not giving me much to work with.

“When you see him in public, he’s surrounded by men in grey suits. He’s not supposed to be one of those guys. I like to think of the parallel being Obama. This is my dream. He’s got women all around him, smart, strong women.”

It shocked me that the political dream of a 44 year old woman in this day and age is a powerful man surrounded by a gaggle of (I am sure, smartly dressed) women competing with each other to win his opinion. Honestly, this seems more like a male political fantasy to me. Even the most charitable reading of this women’s political fantasy seems to me inadequate. Why have a male figure-head enacting the will of a group of political über-women, when a woman could do it just as well?

Is this woman’s political dream representative of women’s political dreams, generally speaking? I suspect it is, or, at least, something very much like it. How else to explain the tendency of women to not vote for women, even when given the opportunity?

So my questions: what is your political dream and in what way is it different from this woman’s dream? Would you vote for a woman, if you knew she was going to be in charge? How would you assess her potential for political leadership? Is this article just another case of a male-dominated media perpetuating sexist stereotypes about about woman voting patterns or does it actually offer genuine insight into women’s voting patterns? How do you explain the tendency of women not to vote for women?

Personally, I’d like to know.

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Why “Market Solutions”? Because “acting in accord with the independent judgments of a majority of competent persons” isn’t quite as snappy.

With respect to many of society’s problems, challenges and disagreements, I am a great believer in market solutions and, at the same time, I hate the expression, “market solutions.” I hate the expression because it is a very misleading description of the underlying mechanism at work and often obscures what an effective “market solution” actually involves.

For example, there really is no such thing as “a” or “the” market to solve any particular social problem or challenge. There is no special and separate domain of life which in itself has some kind of special and exclusive power to identify the best solutions to specific problems. Furthermore, there is no specific group of persons, buying and selling some particular good and service, who have a special and unquestioned power to order their own affairs or the affairs of society (sorry, Wall Street, not even you.).

Rather, talk of “market solutions” arises because of an accident of history. It just so happens that the specific social spaces where persons gathered to buy and sell goods and services also seemed to be the very locations where the greatest number of persons were able to exercise their independent judgments and also affect the outcome of their activities for the betterment of all. When one talks of a “market” solution, one is really referring only to this phenomenon, which is the result of the independent exercise of competent judgement, and its historical association with a feature of life we happen to call markets.

Fundamentally, the notion of a “market solution” begins with the assumption that most persons are sufficiently competent to make effective judgments. This means, more often than not, when presented with a choice, a person can be expected to identify the best option of those available. Once this is accepted, the next aspect of a market solution is a simple consequence of mathematics: assuming each person judges independently, the option identified by a simple majority of persons is most likely to be the best option of those available. Furthermore, the option identified by the independent judgments of a simple majority of all sufficiently competent persons is even more likely to identify the best option of those available.

Now, of course, there is more than one way to identify the majority of independent judgments of some group of sufficiently competent persons with respect to some issue and the method most associated with the expression “market solutions” is the price system. In this system, persons make independent judgments about the price at which they will exchange their goods and services and, over time, as people’s judgments evolve to reflect the different judgments communicated through the various prices at which different people are prepared to exchange goods and resources, those prices should come to reflect the majority opinion of most if not all competent persons and, for this reason, the best allocation of goods and services should arise over time as persons exchange them at the different prices. The greater the number of people involved in the price-setting, the greater the chance the best allocation of resources will be identified. On my view, all the evidence suggests, for the vast majority of day-to-day choices about the allocation of goods and services, this is the best system so far devised, however, this is not to say that the best version of this system has actually yet been implemented anywhere in the world, nor is it to say it is the best system for all choices about the allocation of all goods and services.

Using the price system to communicate information about the judgments of different persons is useful because it can create powerful incentives for persons to make effective judgements (e.g. competition and profit). Unfortunately, it can also, in some cases, create powerful incentives for persons to make ineffective judgments (e.g. competition and profit). It is important to emphasize that this is not a problem unique to the price system, although the specific kinds of incentives it creates may be unique. Any system employed to identify the majority of independent judgements will create different kinds of incentives for persons to make better or worse judgments. Moreover, it is a fact of human reasoning that there are many circumstances — whatever system is employed — in which persons for a variety of reasons will make ineffective judgments even if, on the whole, they are normally capable of making effective judgements (for example, when they are in a state of panic). There are even specific circumstances where most persons can be predicted always to make ineffective judgments (certain optical illusions, for example). In other words, no specific system for identifying the majority of independent competent judgments is perfect or can ever guarantee to identify the best result in every instance and this must be taken into consideration in the assessment of all outcomes as they arise.

On my view, the biggest obstacle to the identification of the best options is a tendency among humans to employ coercion to resolve disagreements and a tendency amongst many humans to renounce willingly their independent judgements in favor of the judgments of some minority. Coercion is a problem because there is no necessary connection between the ability to coerce and the ability to identify the best choices. The willingness of persons to renounce their own independent judgment and act in accord with some other person or group’s judgment is a problem because they will often do so for reasons which are unrelated to that person or group’s ability to identify the best outcomes and which also obscure the fact that even the most competent person or group is not always right. Needless to say both obstacles are inter-related and often work in tandem. 

So, when I say I favor market solutions, I mean that I favor empowering as many persons as possible to exercise their independent judgment and then acting on whatever way forward is identified by the majority of independent judgments, assuming the way forward can always be reevaluated as new information comes to light. A properly functioning price-system, on my view, can effectively facilitate this process with respect to the best allocation of most but not all of society’s goods and services. Determining which goods and services are not well-served by this system is a simple matter of trial and error. Of course, if we are to arrive at the best answers to this question, we must first ensure as many persons as possible can become sufficiently competent to exercise their judgments effectively and ensure all persons can exercise their judgments independently.

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Happy April Fool’s Day: The Real Joke Happens The Rest Of The Year

So, this is April Fool’s Day. And what have you done? Another year over. A new one just begun. 

As far as I can tell, there is no genuine consensus on the origin of April’s annual day of pranks. Even so, there is a dominant theme that runs through many of the educated guesses I’ve come across. More often than not, the original April Fool seems to be a person who does not act in accord with some massive top-down shift in the world order — like a substantial shift in the calendar — and continues to act in accord with the previous world order as she or he understands it. They are fools because they have failed to — or refuse to– act in accord with the new world order.

So, on this reading, the holiday is essentially about about humiliating and ostracizing a person who is not “in-the-know” and who is not even necessarily gullible. It is, in other words, a kind of celebration of group-think and one can even imagine the day being invented by some community leaders to hasten the adoption of the new calendar / new world order. From this perspective, however, one could easily argue, it is those who are “in-the-know” who are the truly gullible because it is they who have accepted a wholesale re-ordering of the world as they know it simply because the Pope (and the parish priest) said so. The fool, from this perspective, is no fool at all because he is not changing his judgments, his beliefs, his practices for the sole reason that some community leader has said so. 

In modern times, it seems the most notable and often talked about April Fool’s pranks involve media outlets, media personalities, and other opinion leaders in the community who leverage their de facto authority to dupe the very people whose trust they normally inculcate. For me, this seems to me to be a bit like “bully-day”– that is, a day when bullies really get to beat the snot out of the weak and they are meant to take it like good sports. The rest of the year these opinion leaders demand trust and even resent critical responses to their stories and, yet, on this day, people are fools because they accept the stories they are told. I suppose it is possible this represents an effort on the part of opinion leaders to remind us that they can’t always be trusted but it seems to me that it is more about people with de facto authority spitting in the eye of the people who trust them and publicly mocking them for it as well. The real April Fool’s joke is that people mostly accept what they are told by their opinion leaders all the other days of the year.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I can’t help but reflect on the G20 summit in London, the protests, and the recent efforts by our opinion leaders to address the world financial crisis. Over the past few months, a story has emerged about the best way to deal with the financial crisis (bail-outs, stimulus / deficit spending) and it has been more or less crafted by a fairly small group of officially recognized opinion leaders who stand to benefit the most from these efforts. In response, a counter-story has evolved which is as influenced by opinion leaders as the first. One of these accounts may be the best or neither may be the best. The only question that really matters : how do we figure out the best solution to this problem.

The real lesson to be drawn from April Fool’s day, I think, is that a person should not blindly accept the opinions of our leaders (whether they wear pin strips or not) and that each of us must exercise our own judgment independently. In some instances, a person may end up playing the fool because those “in-the-know” are wrong and sometimes a person may end up playing the fool because he or she is in fact wrong. There are no guarantees. Even so, the best hope that we have for arriving at the best solutions to our challenges and problems is if each of exercise our judgments independently, aim for the best answer, and allow for a convergence of judgment rather than letting opinion leaders of whatever stripe manufacture our consent. 

A very merry April Fool’s Day.  And a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.

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