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Prior Knowledge

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

comments on society

Today’s society is far from perfect. Don’t fear, this article is not intended to be negative. It simply recognizes certain faults in our society, and that’s needed to open the door to a discussion of the way forward. The problems first, and then, tentatively, a solution. We are the running out of fossil fuels. The environment is suffering from the effects of various pollutants, deforestation, other radical interferences. Many suffer from feelings of depression, isolation and apathy. And add insult to injury we are working harder than ever. Half a century ago only half of the adult population worked: that number has nearly doubled and the standard of living has not increased proportionally. The future is scary.

What the hell, it’s a dog eat dog world, right? Of course people will keep driving their cars, and keep knocking over forests to create grazing land for the hamburgers of tomorrow, right? And there’s just nothing we can do about it, right? Well, I’d like to think there is. Maybe, just maybe, we can find out what’s wrong and fix it. I know what follows is a simplification, but I’m hoping it gets at some truth despite.

Why do we use so much fossil fuel? One reason: everything is so darn far from everything else. The things that we care about are spread across miles and miles. Why else? We can’t be expected to freeze can we? But even so, why fossil fuel? The biggest reason all seems to be that its easy. Someone, some big multinational someone, has set it up to work for you, somewhere far away where you can’t see the consequences of your actions. You can’t smell the oil, see the machines churning and grinding. And they don’t expect you to think (in fact they’d rather you didn’t) about how much is left.

Why we deforest, pollute and so forth? You already know part of the answer. Somebody else is making it easy for you. And when you buy that hamburger that caused a tree to go down you make it easy for them too. They can tell themselves they aren’t choosing to deforest, they’re just doing what the market demands. Am I being unfair? Maybe. Perhaps I am giving some South American farmers a short shaft. They have to do what lets them survive. But that’s the point. There are things that they shouldn’t have to do.

What about the more woolly issues, depression, isolation, apathy? A short answer would be really trite. But maybe we can find some of the factors. Lets look at isolation. In our society we live in small groups: couples or families or at most a group of flatmates. We spend long hours at work, often alone at a desk. And people fall through the gaps. We live in a way that lets people slip through unnoticed, unconnected to other people, and with nowhere to go. Is it any wonder that people feel isolated? Some things are just damn difficult to do by yourself, or with a small group of people. Child birth and rearing young kids are some of those things. Two people, at least one of whom is working, simply can’t be expected to have an easy time of it. And it seems like it doesn’t need to be this way.

What about apathy and the long working hours? Here I hazard a guess at the cause: longs hours of monotonous jobs that we don’t or can’t connect with. The benefits of the jobs we do are often just simply not apparent. Who cares that 1000 more widgets have had their wobbles attached, or that 44 people have been distributed copies of that new bestseller, or that one more company has won its lawsuit against yet another company? Did those twelve year olds really need those stylish new clothes we manufactured and sold them? Maybe it pays the bills, but something seems to be wrong.

With the above said do we even need to talk about depression?

Perhaps these problems have a common cause. Perhaps they are linked to the society in which we live. And as such, perhaps a different social structure would serve us better. The question is what kind of system we want. Hopefully you’ll help me with the details, but some things pop out at me. It seems that instead of having big organizations like countries matter so much, we need the focus to be on smaller groups: small enough that everybody knows everybody. People can interact with each other more, know each other more, give each other support. It seems that the majority of the labour should go towards the welfare of these groups. We need to see what we are doing, so that we can feel pride and reap meaning from it, and so that we have to live down the things we do and feel culpable. We need to be more driven by things that matter, not influenced by consumerism, which it seems to me can only work on a large scale. We need to stop working when the days work is done and when it no longer feels worth while. We shouldn’t produce for the sake of production. Working at things that matter to you will be, I hope, a way of life, not an obligation. I hope we will not have to force people to work, but that it will just be a social norm. And individuals will have the right to exit the society whenever they wish.

This is not a reversion to tribalism, but a movement forward. Good communication will have to be maintained between the communities. Technological innovations need not be lost, though some will need to be rethought, and greener. Technological progress can even be made, and will have to be as different situations arise. I’m imagining that there will be no power hierarchy. In theory at least, all members can have a voice in all matters, and will be the one with the loudest voice on those things that concern them most and about which they are most informed. (I do mean all members, but I take it that children will rarely count in the most informed category.) Like I said, the details need to be worked out. Hopefully this is something to start with.

I’ve compiled a wee list of things that strike me as important. Have a look, and then contribute!

Things such a community should do
1) Use wind or solar power.
2) Use sustainable agricultural practice
3) Give the right of exit
4) Maintain strong ties of communication with other groups
5) Grow only to such a size that all members know each other well
6) Be there for each other

Things we can do now
1) Consume less
2) Where possible, buy second hand goods rather than first hand.
3) Support sustainable agricultural practice
4) Follow community focused practices!: Be there for other people. Help people move house, proofread other people’s essays, cook for anyone who’s ill. Maybe we could find a group of people who will commit to do these things for each other?
5) Get information out! (See below)

Getting information out
1) Talk to people about these sorts of issues.
2) Post on websites.
3) Attempt other forms of communication with these sorts of ideas in mind: i.e. academic writing, fiction writing. . .

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50 Comments:

  • I suggest that these proposed small communities aim to dissipate political decision making power as much as possible. The ideal would be that those members of the community who are affected by a proposed change be able to get together to deliberate the proposal and vote on it. I would expect the resort to elected (and unelected) officials to settle politial decisions to be minimised. Other factors that bear on dissipating political power include ensuring that the mass media do not have a systematic tendency to advance the viewpoints or propaganda of certain sectors of society and that disparities in wealth are not so great as to allow some considerably more power to influence policy.

    As strategy for what can be done within the existing order, I suggest that we push for legislation allowing communities more control in regulating their local economies (against the orthodoxy of letting the market work unfettered). Ideally, this would foster the growth of local industry and would empower people within the community (I expand on this idea in a long comment on Richard's Sept 15 2005 post "Affirmative action at TPM").

    I am also tempted to suggest a principle similar to the one I outline in my Aug 24 2005 post "a principle relevant to our organisation of economies". The rough and defeasible principle is that we should produce and consume only that which we need (or not too much more than we need). I expect that the decisions about what should be produced will be taken by producers' and consumers' councils rather than by a central authority. Some reasons for this principle are the following. It might take us from the consumerism that Alex bemoans to more controlled consumption. Also, it allows for the rational consideration of the 'hidden' costs of production such as environmental damage and injustice attached to procuring necessary inputs.

    10/11/2005 06:59:00 PM  

  • Thanks Sagar, looks really good. We'll have to figure out some way to make a list which people can interact with and add to properly. On a related note to what you were saying, I've got another one for the "things to do now". Support locally owned businesses and local produce.

    And thanks to everyone whose talked to me about this! You know who you are.

    10/12/2005 09:56:00 AM  

  • Maintaining connections (including communication and trade) between the communities would be extremely important, I think, if you are to successfully avoid the charge of "reverting to tribalism". (You've said as much already, I know, I'm just wanting to emphasize it.)

    I would worry about these communities becoming too insular. I hope they would maintain significant interactions, as it would be an incredible shame if we were to "shrink" our world down to the confines of our local geographic community. (For example, I feel much more of an affinity towards the global 'community of scholars' than my geographic neighbours. Your proposals might strengthen the latter links, but I don't think I would be willing to give up the former in order to achieve this.) Information technology can help a great deal with this, of course, so I don't think it needs to be a problem.

    I strongly agree with your comments on the "woolly issues". I think this is one that might be addressed within our existing society with just a few significant but simple modifications. You've already mentioned developing and strengthening local community groups. Another appealing - though slightly more radical - option is co-housing (a sort of communal living that still retains sufficient privacy and independence -- see link for details). This is something that groups of people can -- and do -- decide to do for themselves in our existing society. If it works out, others may see the appeal and voluntarily choose to follow suit. I think this sort of low-level grassroots reform is the best way to achieve the goals you highlight.

    As for economic issues, I'm not sure how many "good" jobs there are to go around. But I guess there are things we can do to try to make more of them, as some of Sagar's comments have suggested. More generally, I think most people would be a lot better off if they spent less and thus could work less, spending more of their time in more rewarding pursuits. It's going to be hard to achieve this though, in light of the whole "keeping up with the Joneses" problem. It's certainly something individuals can -- and should -- commit to doing; but I find it harder to see this one spreading to the mainstream. It seems we'd first need to overcome the dominant consumeristic values of popular culture. I'd be interested to hear suggestions for how we could win this 'battle of ideas', since I think it might be crucial. (I suppose this is related to your "getting information out", but it's more than just that. We also need to convince people to change their attitudes, not merely inform them that this is what we happen to want.)

    Finally, I've recently argued that an unconditional basic income, to replace the 'conditional' welfare payments that states currently provide, would have many good consequences in respects that are relevant to your discussion here.

    10/12/2005 03:06:00 PM  

  • On changing the consumerist values of popular culture, convincing people to give up some of their values is surely not the only way to proceed. I think we should connect the prevalence of consumerist values to various facts about our social and economic arrangements that either actively promote and perpetuate the values or at least act as enabling conditions that make widespread adherence to these values more likely. If we could pinpoint these factors and remedy them, we would go some way towards mitigating the consumerist trend without any need to convince individuals that consumerism is bad.

    I suggest one such factor is that in the market as we know it, there exist groups of people who have a financial interest in creating demand for any given product. If they do not create the demand from scratch, they at least find insecurities and longings (that could instead be dealt with through means other than consumption) and exploit them to sell more of their product. We could see the consumerism as merely a free expression of the individual's vision of the good - which liberal neutrality behooves us to respect. If, instead, we see aspects of the consumerism as manipulative or as negative externalities from the operation of the market-as-we-know-it, we could pass laws to circumscribe the actions of producers and marketers. Perhaps the necessary circumscription could aim at the goal that marketing amount to no more than informing the consumer of available products (marketing as we know it does far more than this). Perhaps we could also interpret the 'consumer' in the above sentence differently. At the moment, marketing is potentially directed at every indiviudal at any time of the day, no matter whether the individual solicits the marketing or not. To narrow the scope of 'consumer' for the purposes of marketing, perhaps we could say that a consumer is an indiviudal who signals her interest in the general line of products with which the marketer is dealing. To signal one's interest in a line of products might mean something like clicking onto a website devoted to the product or entering a supermarket or picking up a 'Buy, Sell and Exchange' or one of those booklets that lists houses for sale.

    Second, it seems the consumerist urge is partly fuelled by the fact that conspicuous consumption is a way of signalling one's status in a world where one's status is very often equated to one's wealth.
    A first step towards tackling this would be more government funding for more community activity with the aim that people will be more willing to associate their status and self-esteem with the way in which they develop their abilities and excellences (to use an Aristotelian term) in community projects and activities than with their financial status and conspicuous signals thereof. Another step might be reducing the working week. If people have more time to fill in on their own, they may be more willing to participate in community activity.

    I also think that bringing the distribution of wealth closer to equality might be a step to diminishing the prevalence of consumerism. For, I expect that if the distribution of income and wealth were considerably more equal than it currently is, there would be less conspicuous consumption on the part of the rich. As a result, there might be less of a stimulus for the poor to take conspicucous consumption to be a signal of status.

    Finally, and most generally, I speculate that fear and insecurity are major factors that promote self-regarding behaviour at the expense of other-regarding behaviour. I also think that if consumerism can be usefully contrasted to community activity, the contrast can be linked to the contrast between a self-regarding and an other-regarding mindset. (don't ask me to fill in the details of how exactly the two contrasts relate - I don't know) Now, suppose that we can make people more secure, both financially (the UBI is a way to do this) and emotionally (say, by promoting rootedness in one's community), so that people know they will be taken care of no matter what. I contend that in such a state, self-oriented concerns will be relatively less important for many or most people and other-oriented concerns will be relatively more important. I think many or most would freely re-evaluate their visions of the good in the direction of giving relatively less importance to pleasure through consumption and relatively more to pleasure through communing with others or through developing one's talents. (Hell, I've always wanted to join a band or a sports team and if I wasn't concerned that doing so would take time away from study and therefore hurt my chances of a career, I might just follow through on those desires.)

    10/12/2005 07:13:00 PM  

  • I suggest you need to centralize decision making as much as possible under a very powerful and responsive central governing structure. Why? well basically most of your problems circle around various group "competing" against one another and thus having an incentive to "win" (or survive) by short sighted (from a country point of view) strategies. The only way to systematically prevent that is to centralize the decision making process - otherwise the externalities will never be internalized this is somthing the communists realised.

    Similarly if you want to control the mass media you have to have the power to do it. You cant create a system that demands power and then say another aspect of it is that it has very little power.

    furthermore homoginization of culture will raise the effectiveness of any strategy and the balkanization of it would make most strategies less effective regardless of what that strategymight be (for example saving the planet).

    From a national point of view to achieve global goals all that maters is achieving the global consensus. Until that is done any attempt to be green or whatever is doomed to failure. It just makes it more profitable to be more wasteful elsewhere.

    I think consunerism (as hinted by richard) is a problem and that is related to lying in advertising and no information content and therefore agree with sagars on this I also think that clearly this is another example of how you must use international brute force to create the scenario you want.
    It would also be a financially viable strategy for a country to try to reduce general consumerism in as far as it would make them more of a china (factory for the world) than a NZ (importer).
    I also suport the UBI on efficiency grounds.

    Finally, I've recently argued that an

    >people will be more willing to associate their status and self-esteem with the way in which they develop their abilities and excellences (to use an Aristotelian term) in community projects and activities than with their financial status and conspicuous signals thereof

    Or you could jsut ensure that money signaled "excellences (to use an Aristotelian term) in community projects"
    money is a tool for doing complex maths to determine who deserves what - it may not produce the right answers at the moment but it should be able to do it better than almost anything else uinder the right conditions. If the above scenario falls apart there may be a problem with excellence as a measure of welfare.

    > Another step might be reducing the working week.

    as long as people are going without it would seem the problem is really people doing the wrong sort of work as opposed to people working too much (ie there is not enough output of the right things). I think the consumarism laws might fix this automatically.

    > As a result, there might be less of a stimulus for the poor to take conspicucous consumption to be a signal of status.

    I think it is relitive - so I dont think this would help much in itself. However this is one of the reasons why I think progressive taxation works!

    > Who cares that 1000 more widgets have had their wobbles attached

    I do :) Work can become a hobby if yo uwant - for some peopel it tends to become a hobby the sort of hobby they might not be able to make if it was not in the form of work.

    10/12/2005 10:26:00 PM  

  • I found the whole article to be rather interesting if perhaps a little one eyed, Alex. While it is of course a good thing to make people aware of issues, I am of the view that it is better to at the same time teach them how to think, rather than what to think. This is an important point to make here as I believe even with any or all of the suggested changes, things would still be in a pretty bad state. Until people are taught to think for themselves, no amount to system fiddling will make any real difference. But enough hypocrisy.

    I am rather interested by genius’s post, and almost entirely disagree with it. Let me quickly go through his first points and offer reasons why I disagree.

    “I suggest you need to centralize decision making as much as possible under a very powerful and responsive central governing structure”

    Not an uncommon sentiment, but I think it’s fundamentally flawed. Basically because of your following reason concerning competition; if establishing a powerful dictator(s) is intended to remove competition then I am very concerned how exactly this powerful central governing structure comes into place. Even if it is possible to fairly establish this government, I cannot see how they could possibly be held in check were they to abuse their position of power.

    You then move onto comment about controlling the mass media. Your suggestion that “if you want to control the mass media you have to have the power to do it.” Seems to suggest that competition will take place between the government and the media. If the government is powerful enough it will of course crush the media into submission, but this is hardly a competitive neutral state of affairs. Instead I believe what was intended by limiting the control of the media was to remove the framework that it has established for controlling the views of people. One plain way to do this is to of course educate people in the ways of critical thinking, and I cannot see this in any way requiring an over-powering of the media.

    You make some more interesting points but I think this will do for now.

    ((As a side note, I guess you are somewhat persuaded by a Marxist or communist line of thinking, and you will probably have guessed I am more inline with an anarchist approach. Of late I have been developing a view of a stable anarchy so I would be very interested to keep up this debate until it takes enough shape to become a blog post of its very own.))

    10/13/2005 05:38:00 PM  

  • There is a contradiction between the end scenario that would work and the thing we can practicaly achieve. It depends on what we asume we have control over.

    I suggest that the centralized structure is the one that would achieve the goals that sagars desires or any goals for that matter IF set up correctly.
    It is also more dangerous in some ways of course - which is why you need to develop the systems to protect society at the same time.

    Of course it would seem you dont propose an ideal government but instead want to propose a generic system of human interaction that might create this ideal world. I suggest this is MORE difficult than creating the government first in fact basically impossible without the aid of a government and likely to collapse if you weaken that government.

    > One plain way to do this is to of course educate people in the ways of critical thinking, and I cannot see this in any way requiring an over-powering of the media.

    Even this requires some micro management of things. You can achieve sagars aims in a convoluted way if you want, it is another option but I think it still requires control. Also education for a specific purpose like this is a fairly personal sort of domination of people unless you mean it in a very general sense in which case you run the risk of loosing the debate or it leading nowhere.

    10/13/2005 07:53:00 PM  

  • By the way I think we can imagine many ways a government can be constrained from acting against the interestes of our poeple.

    For example some sort of organization that reviews their performance or acts as an after the fact check (like another house of government or a judicial system). And a constitution spelling out the fundimental principles (in part to protect your checks and balances!).

    A more morally dubious method might be quite instrusive monitoring of those that govern you (imagine if they had to carry a video recorder and voice recorder with them all the time) for example and that all the data immediately became public record.

    And then there were of course severe punishments for blatant corruption and an authority given the power to enforce those laws.

    not that you would go that far - but I am noting that the controls are available.

    10/13/2005 09:08:00 PM  

  • Genius, I am not sure what you mean by “There is a contradiction between the end scenario that would work and the thing we can practically achieve.” Perhaps you mean a stable society is not possible given the constraints of reality? You comment that it depends on what we have control over, again I am unsure what you intend. But if you are suggesting that we only have control over ourselves, then I completely agree.

    However I must again disagree with you concerning the centralized structure that “would achieve the goals that sagars desires or any goals for that matter IF set up correctly.” For one because of the mundane reason that one of Sagar’s goals was to “to dissipate political decision making power as much as possible.” Nitpicking perhaps, but I cannot see how a central structure would dissipate decision-making power.

    I will concede that the way I see progress being made is MORE difficult. Though I disagree with you that it is impossible, and even think it is necessary. To make a brief remark concerning the original article; the method of progress via making everything ‘easy’ seems mistaken. I earlier commented that no system fiddling would help, and I think this is because unless the people within the system actually start making some hard choices for themselves, then while in the short term the system might trick them into behaving in better ways, it could not stay this way for very long. There is a clear distinction between doing things because they are easy, and doing them because they are the right things to do, as long as people are motivated by laziness they will do whatever is easiest. I have talked to many people concerning the decision to adopt a vegetarian diet, and disappointingly many have responded by agreeing that it is the right thing to do, but its just too hard, too much of a sacrifice. But back to topic. You say that to establish my view of the future the government is necessary, which is a bit of a moot point from our position because we have a government and have to work with it for the time being. As people are empowered and become skilled critical thinkers the need for the government should disappear. You suggest that it would collapse if the government was weakened too much, perhaps you could offer reasons why this might happen?

    As people learn the value of thinking I expect them to generously offer it as a gift to their off spring, maybe I’m dreaming though? I am not sure why you think that I am suggesting education for a ‘specific purpose’, but its my understanding that learning to think critically is one of the most diverse and important skills that anyone could learn, whatever they choose to go on to do with it. It would not be dominating in any sense, unless you were to tell them WHAT to think, but I’ve stated that you teach them HOW to think. I think perhaps you allude in your final sentence that if people knew how to think they would reject my suggested society and go do whatever they want. I say good on them, in fact its what I hope they do, I’m not too committed to achieving all these things about media laws and job distributions, they are just means to an end. If the future’s people can find better means then I should hope they would use them instead of dogmatically following my dictates.

    I am glad you brought up the topic of the constraints on the government to keep it in check. I must admit the first step to merely place an even more powerful structure behind it does not seem to improve the situation at all, why even bother? Behind this you put a constitution, which I agree with, if only for its place in my argument. I assume that the basis’s of this constitution will be the entirely population. If they do not agree with it, then it has no authority at all. So we run full circle with the state controlling the population, then the constitution keeping an eye on the state, but with the population supporting the constitution. However you might describe it, in the end it is with the population, with the individuals making individual choices, which the stability of the entire system rests. Given this it seems to me much simpler, and safer given the risks you have pointed out, to stick with the population all along

    ((funny how ideas and discussions seem to take on a fractal like nature isn’t it? Sorry for the size of the post))

    10/14/2005 02:14:00 AM  

  • > But if you are suggesting that we only have control over ourselves, then I completely agree.

    My point is that if we are to make large scale political comments then in one sense the conversation is fundimentally not practical i seriously doubt you or i have any power to bring about an ideal world of any sort - we might make changes but not big ones so the best we can practically do is tell peopel how they can act today.

    BUT - if I am to provide a vision of the future I must assume that I have already convinced a large amount of people (otherwise there would be no vision at all). If I can assume I (or you) have convinced EVERYONE then there is no need to fear the system is unstable.

    you for example fear that a bad person might become the leader (or might be corupted by power) I fear that the people in general will loose sight of your ideals and it will fall apart in that way.

    to me the latter seems a more likely problem because there are so many variables to control. But my point , to be fair, is that it depends on all sorts of assumptions.

    > For one because of the mundane reason that one of Sagar’s goals was to “to dissipate political decision making power as much as possible.”

    Haha OK there are some goals like that that it doesnt technicaly achieve. but having said that this is how I see it
    I try to imagine no central government at all - I imagine stone age anarchy with various individuals with lots of power and others with none.
    On the other hand there is perfect centralization of power where almost everyone has basically equal power except for a group of decision makers and with any luck we can use constraints to limit their power.

    > There is a clear distinction between doing things because they are easy, and doing them because they are the right things to do.

    there is a known effect that when one makes somthing illegal then public opinion almost immediatly shifts against it. Rather like people are robably mroe against smoking in public places now.

    > You suggest that it would collapse if the government was weakened too much, perhaps you could offer reasons why this might happen?

    my concern is that with a very weak government any person or group could start acting selfishly and they would slowly gain power just as such a person can gain power today. Eventually power would concentrate in exactly the wrong hands for your ideal world - you need someone to be constantly vigilent against that.

    Also I believe human beliefs are more often driven by their actions/needs than actions are driven by beliefs if you make it profitable to believe in capitalism and show them how to do it they will become capitalists to stop that you need to make sure it isn't. Dont make someone have to start doing what they dont believe in if you like their belief - because the action will win out in the end.

    > its my understanding that learning to think critically is one of the most diverse and important skills that anyone could learn

    The problem is that egotistic selfishnes or nhilism are both pretty irefutable (as much as we ma hate them) philosophies - you can't disprove them except in as far as they offend things like utilitarian sensibilities. you need to effectively brainwash everyone into being a utilitarian (or somthing similar) otherwise you will just get the diversity of oppinion we have now. Ie no ideal world at all.

    10/14/2005 07:39:00 AM  

  • > to merely place an even more powerful structure behind it does not seem to improve the situation at all, why even bother?

    the more powerful organization would not have power except to disolve or fire all or part of the general assembly. The point is immediate accountability - and that multiple people would have to go insane at the same time for a insane law to be passed.

    > I assume that the basis’s of this constitution will be the entirely population.

    The basis would be their welfare. As noted before I fear as complex central goverments ability to make a "1984" but I fear even more anarchy's ability to create pure anarchy. Or even for '1984' to emerge from anarchy as opposed to from a strong benign state. At least in a centalized state i would know that there were controls in place and could audit them and find them to be robust.

    10/14/2005 07:48:00 AM  

  • I think that the discussion so far has focused mainly on economics, social arrangements and the value of thinking. These are all important, but I think we should also recognize more clearly the roles of different (but closely related) things. In particular: language, imagination and the past; otherwise known as English, Art and History.

    Language is important, firstly, because there is no point valuing thought if one does not also value the means by which thought is communicated to other people. Careful language use and careful thought are usually pretty inseparable in philosophy, but I think there are important language skills that philosophy on its own does take adequate account of. The ability to persuade with language, for example, requires more than just thorough and logical arguments; usually it also requires attractive and sympathetic presentation (where “attractive” means striking, dramatic, fashionable; and “sympathetic” means that it appeals to the sympathies (as opposed to the purely rational faculties) of readers or listeners, through detail and vivid description etc.) These sorts of language use would I think (do people agree?) be essential if thinkers want their ideas to be implemented. “We need to convince people to change their attitudes, not merely inform them that this is what we happen to want.”

    In particular I think that the artistic qualities of language, and the qualities of art in general, would be useful in convincing people to change their consumerist values. Most good pieces of art or literature give persuasive alternatives to consumerist values, or at least alert people to the promises of other (more fulfilling and less damaging) kinds of ambitions or experiences. The problem, of course, is that most people don’t watch or read this kind of art or literature. If more people did do these things, philosophers would have less work to convince people to change.

    (Education is obviously quite important here too, and education at every level. Richard writes that “learning to think critically is one of the most diverse and important skills that anyone could learn, whatever they choose to go on to do with it.” Further, that “it would not be dominating in any sense, unless you were to tell them WHAT to think, but I’ve stated that you teach them HOW to think.” I don’t think many people would disagree with the first statement. I do think, though, that more is required than simply teaching people HOW to think: is also important to show them WHAT they can think ABOUT. Critical thought is invaluable, but if a critical thinker does not come into contact with the ideas upon which critical thinking is most gainfully used, then critical thought is a tool without a job. Perhaps schools and universities could do more to encourage the kind of broad, inter-disciplinary critical thought that we are engaging in here.)

    But back to art: people benefit from art not only by experiencing it (reading books, watching films etc.) but also by practicing it. This has two main benefits, one public and another private. Firstly, it can satisfy the impulses that people try to satisfy through wealth: autonomy, vanity, fame and having power over the thoughts and actions of others. It also tends to satisfy them in a fuller way, because the self-assertion that comes through art is much more personal than that which people get through money or bought goods: a million dollars is just another million dollars, and a large television is one of many large televisions, but a poem or a painting is the product of a unique creative effort, and I think (do people agree?) that is more satisfying. The more private benefit or art, as I see it, is the potential it has to make sense of oneself and one's world, and to ease the “fear and insecurity [that] are major factors that promote self-regarding behavior at the expense of other-regarding behavior.” I presume that most contributors to this blog make sense of the world by thinking about it, but many people are either not especially thrilled by philosophy or are more interested in other ways of making sense of things: by observing the world in minute detail, and describing their observations; or by arranging bits of the world in a neat and structured, but un-intellectual, way. The problem with these arguments for art is that many people are either not interested enough or good enough at art to benefit from it, and get more satisfaction out of other pursuits, like making money. If not everyone can benefit from art, though, we can at least try to get more people to do so and, if people are not willing to practice the more conventional arts (painting, writing etc.) they could at least be encouraged to pursue other (non-consumerist) acts of creativity or world-ordering or self-assertion: cooking for themselves, building their own sheds, running on hills rather than on treadmills, thinking for themselves, writing (ie. handwriting) for themselves, raising their own families, playing sport.

    Alex and others have talked about “apathy, isolation and depression”, and suggested that these problems might be alleviated by encouraging smaller and more conscientious communities, and by giving people more satisfying work, and so on. The problem you guys (and girls?) are talking about, as I understand it, is one of meaninglessness: the sense that one’s actions are not part of, and don’t contribute to, anything beyond themselves. One way to ease this feeling, I think, is to have a better awareness of history, and of one’s place in a greater temporal unity (which sounds a bit pompous, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it right now). Everyone is part of history, in the sense that they are a culmination of what has come before, and also in the sense that they can know and understand how history has unfolded. Everyone can also contribute to history, in the sense that they can influence the future. History, I think, can also give us information about our problems that we cannot get just by thinking hard about what exists in the present. Where the past is different from the present, it can suggest alternatives (and possibly solutions) to our state of affairs; where the past is similar to the present, it can comfort us with the knowledge that our problems are not particularly new or radical.

    In many ways the problems that Alex outlined are not new or radical at all. Twenty three centuries ago Plato wrote a book about all the things we are discussing here - the need to move away from selfish or money-oriented values; the need for more tightly knit communities; the need for critical thought, and the need to separate the lies of self-regarding people (marketers etc.) from the true knowledge that comes from correct and honest arguments; and the problem that thinkers face of convincing everyone else that their ideas are right (in the moral and the intellectual sense of the "right") for everyone.

    10/14/2005 12:39:00 PM  

  • Mike, thanks for your insightful comments -- I agree with much of what you say. But you are too generous in attributing those education quotes to me, I'm afraid they rightfully belong to Reuben.

    On the “apathy, isolation and depression” issues, I think a sense of history and rootedness might help in some respects. But there's also the more mundane problem of sheer social isolation, for which there is no intellectual answer. So I think the sorts of social reforms previously discussed are also necessary to remedy this.

    Also, for the point about art and the satisfaction of creativity, this reminds me of an excellent post from Prof. Peter Levine on Free Culture. That link mentions various available technologies that allow people to easily create their own (potentially high-quality) media. I quote: "The idea is to enable millions of young people to view “TV” that they have made for one another, instead of programs created by highly paid professionals at big companies."

    Genius - I'm more optimistic about demonstrating links between ethics and rationality.

    10/14/2005 02:05:00 PM  

  • Mike,
    “Sympathetic presentation"

    I think this is one of the "competitions" that naturally occur within society that are part of the problem.

    My problem with this is that when presentation is important debates in extreme cases it will descend into meaninglessness with positive imagery connected by flowing phrases ending in whatever you want the other side to do. Memes that do this the best will over time become more common. In the optimal scenario logic just restricts your ability to allow the imagery to flow.

    I wish that it was not that way and I think preventing that sort of thing is a worthy goal - and yet I realize what you say - that it is important and that without the use of such tools you will loose the debate (and who knows who would win...) furthermore that that is a area where, in general, liberals are quite strong.

    Anyway I like your post (with some things I agree with and others I don’t) - it seems like you allowed your mind to flow onto the screen. I guess you are a bit of an artist yourself.

    Richard,

    I think you can determine some irrational positions and such and that has some value - but just think....

    Almost every parent or teacher - teaches the children to share or that selflessness is admirable - they don't teach them why sharing is good and why selfishness is good.

    I.e. the restriction of debate in youth is generally leaning towards your ideals as it is.

    Not that I support restricting debate - I just don’t see free debate as a promising panacea.

    10/14/2005 07:57:00 PM  

  • Richard, interesting about the cohousing communities. I think that you're right that they would go a reasonable way to solving some of the "wooly issues". Mike too, I really like what you had to say about bringing meaning to your life through art and other means. (And in response to Richard's worry that their just aren't that many meaningful jobs, I think you're right, but only in this society. If the work you do benifits the people you know, its meaningful.) And ofcourse, these wooly issues are hugely and fundamentally important. But they don't strike me as half so urgent as the other things I mentioned. Perhaps I've been corrupted by preachers of doom and gloom, but it seems too me that our current use of resources is completely unacceptable and completely unsustainable. I like the cohousing thing, but it seems like only a temporary type solution. (To throw in the "what we can do now" category.) If the system doesn't change enough before the resources run out, it'll have to change after. So I want to look forward to that now. Even if we (in the global sense of 'we') haven't implemented anything by then, we will at least have had a discussion going and thought about what would be good. Richard, I feel you pain (to some extent anyway) about the loss of the "international community of scholars". I think that some sacrifices will have to be made, and if thats one of them, I'm willing to do without. But we need to figure out how such a thing would be possible. We need to figure out what is good in this society and how to adapt it to a society that meets our other goals. Here's to this blog figuring such things out!

    10/15/2005 11:41:00 AM  

  • 1) Genius: Yes, “meaninglessness” and “positive imagery” and “flowing phrases” are a problem. This is another reason for a good education in critical thought, I guess: to produce people who can recognise “meaninglessness” for what it is, and people who can be persuaded of the rightness of a view without the persuader resorting to artfulness or artifice.

    2)Alex McK: “And of course, these woolly issues are hugely and fundamentally important. But they don't strike me as half so urgent as the other things I mentioned.” Perhaps, but the two sets of issues are so closely connected that we may not want to separate them out like that: if, for example, people were better able to appreciate modest, unprocessed, inexpensive things (eg. ones own creations; the creativity of others) then “our current use of resources” would be less “unacceptable and unsustainable.” But yes, more is required than just getting more people to paint pictures in their spare time, or to read more books.

    3) Richard: on your link to this page you say that the discussion is from a “Green./Left perspective.” Does this mean that the rest of the political spectrum is either uninterested in these suggestions or opposed to them? Perhaps a further suggestion might be to promote greater and more charitable (ie. less partial) communication between people with different political loyalties. (Or do away with political loyalties altogether, if that is at all possible, since loyalty to one group immediately puts a person in opposition to many other groups, and many of the people in them.) Again, such communication would require a great amount of carefulness of thought and language, if it is to be anything more than a competition of wills.

    4) More on education. I think this is worth reiterating, partly because it is so important, and partly because it is so lacking. I mean “education” both in the sense of primary and secondary schools, and in the sense of “educating the public” (newspapers, TV, internet etc.). I’m not sure about other countries or other parts of my own country, but my schools really didn’t give much advice or room or encouragement for the types of ideas we are discussing here. I suppose these types of issues (what’s the world coming to, what do we want it to be, and how can we change it) are considered too weighty or difficult for people of that age, who are (quite naturally, rightly and irrevocably) more interested in sex or sport or music than the less stimulating affairs of government and civilization. Perhaps educationalists are also a bit reluctant to introduce matters of value or morality into schools, and prefer to either leave that sort of thing to the parents, or leave the kids to value what they want. I’m unconvinced by either of these reasons: what we are discussing here is how people want to live, now and in the future - that is surely as relevant to the lives of fifteen year olds as it is to twenty eight year olds, and surely more interesting to most students than Maths or History. Further, if schools don’t want to tell students what to value, they could at least encourage discussion about that sort of thing - at the very least, discussion about what education is for and what each of the different subjects are for, what their merits are and where they go wrong. I certainly think that Universities should do more of this sort of thing: without some awareness of what all the various fields of study are for, and an ability to engage in the kind of thorough general thought from which they all grew, then the specialties are branches on a dead tree.

    As for “educating the public”: I guess the internet helps with this, by circulating more information and more ideas in a more accessible way. But there is no point having all this information or all these ideas if people are not trained to care for the issues that are discussed, or to think carefully about them.

    10/15/2005 03:04:00 PM  

  • Yes, I absolutely agree that we should be teaching values -- and philosophy more generally -- in our schools.

    Critical thinking and intellectual stamina are sorely lacking in most people, sad to say. It's little use having informative websites if most people are incapable (or simply unwilling) to read more than a paragraph of text at a time. And that was certainly my experience on our old high school forums -- very few people were interested in philosophical issues, and indeed would complain if a post was "too long". So I got my own blog, and a much more selective audience. I enjoy it a lot more now, but I can't pretend to be engaging with the average "man-on-the-street".

    I hope that a philosophical education from a younger age would allow more people to develop the required intellectual skills. I don't know whether that's a realistic hope or not. But if it really is possible, then I'd have to say that this is the single most important issue out there. Democracy can only flourish in tandem with the intellects of the citizens. So long as most people are ignorant and unreflective, the ideal society will remain far out of reach.

    Mike -- I think most on the centre-right would sneer and recoil from much of the present discussion. Don't you? It seems a fairly straightforward descriptive fact that we are discussing this from a Green/Left perspective. You won't find many free market ideologues advocating renewable energy sources, or decrying consumerism. But I agree that we will ultimately need to cross partisan lines, and the question of how to do this is one that would be worth discussing here.

    Alex -- speaking of the market, it does seem a good mechanism for managing scarce resources. If you think resource R is about to be depleted, then you can buy and stockpile reserves of it yourself, then sell it to future generations for a massive profit. Simply put, investors will protect against absolute depletion.

    Present patterns may not be infinitely sustainable. But things never remain static in any case. New technologies will change the patterns. If oil is running out, we'll find some replacement. We always do. I don't see any grounds for concern here.

    My main environmentalist concerns are for externalities, like CO2 and other pollution, which our imperfect markets don't take into account. Those require government regulation to compensate. But once we ensure that the polluter pays, then again, it seems that straightforward market mechanisms will ensure optimal (or at least acceptable) results. If you disagree with this, I would want to hear the reason why. Where is the market failure?

    10/15/2005 03:51:00 PM  

  • co-housing sounds good - you could combine as many things as you wanted. rather like being a student. In the right form it could attract like minded people who wanted more community spirit. But it is hard work overcoming these sort of things.

    I lived in a place where we had bed rooms and a common living room and the problem I found was that even then we still did not really know our neighbours. I think what we needed was a communal playstation..........
    (having said that, we had a communal TV and some one stole it...)

    10/15/2005 04:17:00 PM  

  • Where is the market failure?

    there are heavily farmed areas in the USA (probably not the worst in the world but this is where i found statistics for) which are losing over 10 tons of topsoil into the sea per hectare of land, a year. This is pretty terrible for the environment and we dont have an easy solution if we are determined to keep these farms there.

    12 million hectares of forests are cleared annually. Virtually all forestation will be gone by 2050 and many countries will have exhausted their supplies by 2010 at the rate we are *currently* going.

    Need I mention oil? The Automobile Association in New Zealand recently called on the government to loosen their taxes/restrictions on consumption. Wheres the market sensitivity here?

    What about despeciation?
    http://www.well.com/user/davidu/extinction.html
    Yet another "externality", perhaps?

    Over a hundred years ago, in 1844, the great auk of Edley Island, near Iceland, was hunted to extinction for its feathers. How would you write this off? ignorance?

    I think that is is hopelessly wishful thinking to even entertain the idea that market forces can deal with these problems effectively. Where do these mysterious forces get sensitivity to the delicate ecosystem that we live in, when nobody alive can yet paint a sufficiently comprehensive picture of them?

    You can't just write all this stuff off as "externalities". Let me reiterate. We dont understand the externalities. We can't intervene, and remove an externality that we dont understand. And just with the great auk, we may not learn about them until after the fact. Market forces absolutely exploit any and all externalities, because funnily enough, people quickly learn the best way to make maximal profit - which, incidentally, is precisely to exploit those externalities.

    "I dont see any grounds for concern here".

    1) Man is not omnipotent. In particular, it is easy to conceive of a critical point in the degradation of our environment at which we would be unable to avoid environmental catastrophe, culminating in death/unnaceptably extreme losses in utility for all persons left living.

    2) There are many separate effects of our current rate of production, consumption and growth, which, if they continue unabated, would be sufficient to bring us to this critical point(for instance, deforestation, pollution)

    3) For some of these effects, if a sufficient number of people are not aware of it, we are unlikely to remove it before we reach that critical point. (For example something such as introducing certain species, such as gorse and certain rodents, into the new zealand environment)

    4) Some of the effects mentioned in (3) are unknown to us.

    5) There are models of production and consumption which do not have any such effects. (the species has been on the planet sustainably, under a different paradigm, for many hundreds of thousands of years).

    6) unless we learn and distribute information about all of the effects in (4), or change our model of production and consumption to one mentioned in (5), we are screwed.

    This isnt particularly ironed out but I'm willing to revise or clarify it if you want. Do you still think we have no reason for concern?

    Sorry if this was slightly off topic.. damn fractals :S

    10/15/2005 05:38:00 PM  

  • Richard

    I have the same problem. But I think you will find it isn't just in the areas that are your hobby that you can do that to people. You may well be able to do it while discussing their own hobby.

    I think people have been getting smarter over the last few decades (IQ tests etc) and will continue to do so and may well become more aware of philosophy. But there will still remain a huge gap between the intelectuals and the man on the street as there has always been (unless we 'go crazy' with GE).

    >You won't find many free market ideologues advocating renewable energy sources, or decrying consumerism.

    I think much of this is due to the alienation of the left and right from each other - to a large extent we can than the american left and right for that as well as the cold war itself. As mike hinted - the left and right have very uncharitable views of eachother and thus any view that is naturally from one side gets a bit of a knee jerk response from the other. It is like political ideology is the new tribalism.

    by the way they should ban the use of w's v's and or u's in word verification!!!

    10/15/2005 05:49:00 PM  

  • Patrick, I think a lot of those problems are due to externalities. Hunting to extinction, for example, is a result of the "tragedy of the commons". If greak auk specimens had been privately owned, any intelligent owner would have wanted to keep his investment intact. You'll notice that farm animals are at no risk of extinction. (Of course, there are still concerns about ethical treatment there, which certainly requires legislation -- there's nothing in the market to prevent severe cruelty and even torture. We must disincentivise such behaviour through external means.)

    Despeciation is certainly an important externality. People just don't have any market incentive to care about the environment. I agree that that's a problem, and we should try to figure out ways to address these externalities, as I said. But that's a different issue from resource depletion, which the market is perfectly designed to protect against for the reasons I explained.

    So yes, I am still unconcerned about resource depletion. (I remain very concerned about externalities, however; there is no "mere" about it.)

    Oil prices are going up (no matter the taxes) which will prevent overconsumption and provide an incentive to develop alternatives.

    That doesn't mean we should just ignore it, of course. I strongly support the Greens' plans to improve public transport, etc. My point is just that we don't need to worry about people using scarce resources irresponsibly. The simple fact is that in a functioning market, people can't afford to overconsume scarce resources. They can make more money through conservation.

    10/15/2005 06:01:00 PM  

  • Whats overconsumption? Oil is a limited resource. At least, the amount of oil created by natural processes is negligible.

    How much money do you think it would cost to restructure our means of production, worldwide, so that we didnt need oil? a trillion dollars? I wouldnt be surprised if it was orders of magnitude more. I mean, we use it for almost everything.

    I find it completely plausible that if (unlikely as it may be) we used up every last mL of oil, and then went about replacing all the means of production (and things that we use which are made out of oil)at the same time, then we would already have reached that critical point. It seems like there just wouldnt be the resources to spontaneously replace all factories, all goods made from plastic, most farm and construction machinery, many of our power sources, not to mention our modes of transport. In this extreme case, we would be faced with the greatest economical collapse in history.

    Now, as I said, it is unlikely to pan out exactly like that. We will probably finally "click" before then. But I don't see much action being taken at this point. We DEPEND on oil. We have to take major steps to improve the infrastructure before that critical point. And it seems rather plausible that we (we being the consumers who make a rather uninformed decision about when to upgrade their machinery, and also being the companies which produce the machinery required) dont have the information required in order to predict when it will become absolutely imperative that we upgrade that infrastructure.

    I know you have allowed that you are worried about externalities. But you dont seem to appreciate the problem for its seriousness. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the consequences of the depletion of resources that we rely upon are, as it stands, themselves an externality, (the externality is the effect it has on our future selves) as far as our current market behaviour is concerned. But I dont understand how we can incorporate this externality into the market and hence eliminate it - because we arent in the epistemic position to even quantify it!

    10/15/2005 06:42:00 PM  

  • Perhaps I can put my criticism more succinctly. You say "The simple fact is that in a functioning market, people can't afford to overconsume scarce resources. They can make more money through conservation". My response would be that we do not have a functioning market. In fact, it would be virtually impossible to obtain a market sufficiently "functioning" for there to be no significant externalities.

    10/16/2005 11:13:00 AM  

  • On another note,

    I'm concerned that has been a significant shortage of preciseness with regard to at least one term we have used, and I would like to clear this up because, as I have said, I think it is a significant one.

    Richard and Alex, what do you mean by "tribalism"?

    In particular, I am concerned that you are using the word in precisely the same way that words such as "heresy", and "primitive" have been used in the past - i.e. primarily as prescriptive or emotive terms, which at the same time lack a well defined descriptive content (and which serve to cover up dogmatically held commitments to a certain way of living, which in this case, at least, is precisely what we are supposed to be challenging here). Anyway, I shouldnt jump the gun - I may be mistaken, but nevertheless I'd like to understand what you mean when you use the term.

    10/16/2005 12:29:00 PM  

  • Frankly, I didn't mean much by the term at all, though I probably should have thought about it before throwing it in. For my part, I simply meant to sooth the worries of anyone who had read what I wrote and was in a panic over losing certain facets of standard western culture. I meant simply to emphasize that I don't mean for us to imitate any systems which are in place at the moment, including tribal ones, and that we have to figure out what is good in various societies and work to achieve the best possible combination. But you're right, terminology is important, if only for the credibility of this project. You sound like you have something to say on the subject, and I for one would like to hear it. However, regardless of what you say it turns out to actually mean, I'm a little worried about the baggage the word "tribal" carries in many people's minds. It might not turn out to be a good term to use because of that, no matter what else. I'll leave it there. Pat. . . over to you.

    10/16/2005 02:23:00 PM  

  • I think that a big part of the problem with our current culture is that we are indoctrinated. Here are some pernicious beliefs or memes that I think (taking the ideas from Daniel Quinn) our culture holds.

    There is one right way to live.

    The world was made for man, and man was made to rule it.

    Now, I know that both of these need a LOT more explanation, but I am kinda short on time at the moment. However, I promise to elaborate a bit in the future.

    For now though, I'll try and link up the last few lines with what I said about tribalism.

    I think that many people have an idea of "the way people are supposed to live". This idea is extremely normative, and in my view, very pernicious, because it is not based on any kind of meaningful fact. There is NO ONE WAY that humanity is supposed to live - the brute fact is that over the millenia, we have lived many different ways, and some have been sustainable. Some have lead to the flourishment of the arts, to science, and civilisation. Now, I am not saying by any means that those latter three are inconsistent with sustainability (they probably are but we have yet to find out exactly how) but what I am saying is that most people today believe that EVEN IF THEY WEREN'T consistent, it would be improper, or otherwise unnaceptable, for us to abandon civilisation as we know it. This strikes me as an absolutely despicable notion - It is perhaps the most pernicious meme pervading our current society. Pernicious for the simple fact that it encourages us to not live in a sustainable way, given that we havent sorted out a sustainable form of civilisation yet. I see this meme, which incorporates the idea that to be truly human you have to pursue science, or civilisation, or whatever, as on an exact par with the belief that humanity must obey the will of god, even if it leads to unsustainable practice.

    To sum up, elucidate, and hopefully make more relevant what I just said, people have an idea that it would be somehow bad for us to revert to a hunter gatherer lifestyle. Now, I think it would be bad too but for vastly different reasons. Its not a sustainable way of life given our population density and natural resources. However, I'm pretty sure that this isn't the rationale most would give. I think that most would say that it is just worse or less noble, or less right, for people to live like that. Why, I ask you all? As I have said to many of you before, hunter-gatherers worked far less than we do today - 3 hours or so a day. Whats more, cross cultural studies have shown that several tribal cultures still extant today have drastically less incidence of mental illness. As Alex said earlier, satisfaction in life has gone DOWN in our culture recently. Now, what I am willing to defend is that tribal or hunter-gatherer life is a perfectly respectable and a fully human lifestyle, and which has been better for human beings in the past than our culture is for us now. As I said earlier, it is unrealistic for me to suggest that we suddenly "go back to nature" - firstly, our current culture has some advantages over tribal life, and secondly, we have raped and pillaged nature - there isnt much of it left. But what I do suggest is that the fact that the tribal (in particular the hunter-gatherer) lifestyle has been truly time-tested, constitutes a reason to do what Alex suggested in the post just above. If we truly do love wisdom to the extent which we claim, we need to look at these other cultures (before we outbreed them into extinction) and figure out what they are doing that works. We might be surprised by what we discover. But it seems to me to be a huge step up from armchair "philosophising".

    Sorry if this was a tad incoherant, I am under time restrictions here :). But hopefully in subsequent posts I can clarify and add. And I do see this as completely relevant to the original post Alex - I hope you dont think I'm trying to hijack your thread, hehe :D

    10/16/2005 03:05:00 PM  

  • In case it wasnt clear from what I said just then, my response to the charge that the word "tribe" contains too much baggage is this. The baggage people have for it is the same irrational disgust which most people feel towards *any* other ways of living. The idea that "There is one right way to live" is exactly that which must be first to go. I really dont think there can be two ways about it. Unless people can be dissuaded of this fact, they are never going to change their lifestyles.

    10/16/2005 04:11:00 PM  

  • "the brute fact is that over the millenia, we have lived many different ways, and some have been sustainable."

    But of course this "brute fact" does nothing to show that those various ways of life were all equally admirable, or worth pursuing. We must all agree that some ways of life are better than others, or we wouldn't be having this discussion. Unless we have some ideal to work towards, it isn't clear why we shouldn't just embrace the status quo.

    Further, I think an extremely important part of what makes life worth living is rational inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge. "Science and civilization" are part of this; they are genuinely valuable advances, and I would never support any "reforms" that undermined this progress. That's what I mean in talking about "tribalism" - a technologically and intellectually primitive way of life that fails to do justice to the potential for human excellence.

    There's nothing "irrational" about recoiling from proposals that are antithetical to some of the most important values in life.

    Given that these are the connotations of "tribalism", I think we would be well advised - as a matter of political strategy, if nothing more - to follow Alex's lead in distancing ourselves from such positions. There is a huge difference between learning from other cultures, and "reverting to tribalism" in the pernicious sense I've described above. Of course we should want to do the former. But if you embrace the latter, you will scare everyone off (myself included).

    10/16/2005 04:32:00 PM  

  • "Further, I think an extremely important part of what makes life worth living is rational inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge. "Science and civilization" are part of this; they are genuinely valuable advances, and I would never support any "reforms" that undermined this progress. That's what I mean in talking about "tribalism" - a technologically and intellectually primitive way of life that fails to do justice to the potential for human excellence."

    That paragraph makes me wonder whether you are a perfectionist - who cares more for the abstract aim of scientific progress than more liberal conceptions of welfare such as desire fulfilment or hedonism, then. All along I thought you were a utilitarian.

    The example I gave was one where you were faced with a choice between sustainability (i.e. the survival of the species) and the pursuit of knowledge, and your statements seem to indicate that you would choose the latter. Thats horrible. Are you really saying that you would place your own personal desire to learn more ahead of the future survival of our culture or species?

    It doesn't matter, anyway. If we ARE faced with a situation where we have to make hard decisions such as these, then its analogous to a "money or your life" situation. You can reform society and lose those things you cherish, or you can face cultural collapse, and lose those things you cherish.

    "There's nothing "irrational" about recoiling from proposals that are antithetical to some of the most important values in life." Thats right. Just as there is nothing rational in recoiling from proposals that are antithetical to the will of god, either. I have yet to see anything to convince me that science and civilisation have [i]intrinsic[/i] worth, just as I have yet to see anything to convince me that the will of god has intrinsic worth.

    This ties in with your statement before about not being willing to sacrifice your international academic contacts, apparently for anything, including strengthened domestic ties. This strikes me as either making an assumption about how strong and meaningful those ties could become, or making the strange claim that regardless of how strong they could become, they wouldnt ever be preferable to the international contacts.

    In short, I have heard accounts of christian missionaries in africa which have been along exactly the same lines as your argument there. "Sure, your culture works, but you just arent living up to your potential as human beings".

    I do agree with you that some ways of life are better than others. It just so happens that my criteria for assessing those ways of life don't antecedently assume the non-negotiableness of certain values (other than positive mental states - and perhaps sustainability although I think I could perhaps derive the latter from the former).

    10/16/2005 05:28:00 PM  

  • Are you seriously proposing that the survival of the species hinges on us forsaking the intellectual values I've been pointing to?

    [As for my utilitarianism, I see intellectual values as part of the 'good' that should be maximized. I've certainly never been a hedonist! Nevertheless, my position is quite consistent with the most plausible forms of welfare subjectivism, and shared by J.S. Mill, whom I've never heard accused of "illiberalism" before! ;)]

    Anyway, I was merely wanting to point out how extremely undesirable "reverting to tribalism" is. Obviously it is preferable to extinction, but I hadn't realized that that was to be treated as a relevant alternative for the sake of this discussion!

    I reiterate that the proposed reforms are much more likely to be embraced if we adopt Alex's rhetorical stance than yours. There's no need to abandon intellectual progress and civilization, so why not make that clear and put people's fears to rest?

    10/16/2005 07:46:00 PM  

  • Patrick,
    For your argument to have relevance you dont have to just show that hunter gathering is an adequate answer you have to give a reason or a mechanism by which it would be relevant - for example do people really want to go back to it? is it an optimal state of happyness? is it more sustainable at current population levels? I doubt it would win on almost any grounds you cared to use.

    > All along I thought you were a utilitarian.

    I think richard is holds some beliefs above, or prior to them being shown to be utilitarianism, but I suport him all the same here.
    I would support you if it was a simple choice "end of the human race in 5 years or return to huntergatherer life"
    But I dont think it is
    The first argument is that it is more likely that if we allowed knowledge to advance that we would be able to find solutions to problems or be more able to be certain that for example the hunter gatherer lifestyle was best in case you were not completely sure it was perfect.
    The second is that I think (fairly undeniably) your hypothetical does not represent reality - we are very far from wiping our on species out - even if we destroy the environment on earth - if technology advances we will still make it to the stars.
    Therefore while we are on the verge of considerable suffering it is very unlikely it is the verge of extinction.
    I personally see that future as somthing that has almst unimaginable utilitarian weight - with potentialy billions of people on billions of planets.
    thirdly regardless of the above, your solution is impractical -
    NZ and the US and china and most countries could all go back to hunter gathering - but even if they did as long as someone keeps researching they will eventually gain influence over everyone else. you would still require someone to oversee everything to ensure no one advanced.

    I guess the question is - what are your values and what conclusion do they lead you to?

    10/16/2005 08:26:00 PM  

  • Well, after reading the post you linked to, it looks like you don't see intellectual pursuits as an intrinsic value, after all - its just a contingent fact about human psychology that it makes us much more happy when we do exercise our intellects. Thats completely different to this:

    "I would never support any "reforms" that undermined this progress"

    I gave you a thought experiment and you still seem unwilling to play along. In fact, the place where I brought science into it was when I made the point about how some people saw science/civilisation as the only acceptable path to take, regardless of what the possibilities turned out to be. I said, and I quote:

    "Now, I am not saying by any means that those latter three are inconsistent with sustainability (they probably are but we have yet to find out exactly how) but what I am saying is that most people today believe that EVEN IF THEY WEREN'T consistent, it would be improper, or otherwise unnaceptable, for us to abandon civilisation as we know it."

    I didnt even add the capital letters - they are still there to be read in my original comment.

    I guess I am assuming here that taking an unsustainable path will cause enough disutility of Mill's laughable "pig" sort to outweigh the fleeting gains in "socrates" utility. Personally, I think you would be bold to suggest that a starving, disease-ridden socrates is always going to be more happy than a "primitive" who is neither hungry nor sick.

    But of course I do agree with you. I see advances in knowledge as great instrumental gains - they tend to maximise our preference fulfilment or what have you.

    "Are you seriously proposing that the survival of the species hinges on us forsaking the intellectual values I've been pointing to?" Well, no. I was talking in the hypothetical. I have actually met people who claimed that science must be pursued, whatever the cost. I find those people dangerous. But there is another kind of dangerous person who (even tacitly) believes that there are certain other features of our society which are non-negotiable.

    I believe that there are some pretty well entrenched beliefs which we have to challenge, if we want to live in a way which promotes sustainability and happiness. Alex points to consumerism, for instance, and I think consumerism is definately a problem. But I think that our exploding rate of population growth and our exploding rate of consumption are linked to some very fundamental beliefs which we must tackle if we want to address consumerism, overpopulation, increasing work hours, and diminishing levels of satisfaction.

    "Anyway, I was merely wanting to point out how extremely undesirable "reverting to tribalism" is"
    Well, by your definition of tribalism, "a technologically and intellectually primitive way of life that fails to do justice to the potential for human excellence" I agree. Sounds horrible. However, I wasn't talking about that kind of tribalism. Were you saying that there was a necessary link between being "technologically and intellectually primitive" and "Failing to do justice to the potential for human excellence"? Absolutely nothing you have said so far has convinced me of this bit. The closest you have come is to point out that intellectual progress and intellectual endeavour tends to make people really happy. That does nothing to show that there aren't other goods, which can potentially outweigh the good of intellectual progress, when added together. You admitted as much yourself. And yes, I do believe that there are plenty of goods which some tribes have which we lack. And yes, I think they may be far more important than intellectual progress.

    http://www.clinical-depression.co.uk/Depression_Information/facts.htm

    This is a really really big problem. I have known many people with clinical depression - it is not to be taken lightly. Of course, it very well might be the case that some compromise might be struck between mental health and intellectual progress. I am all ears! My point is, that I find the needs of starving, disease ridden, insane people much more important than the needs of any potential "Socrates" out there. If forced to decide, I know where my vote would go.

    "There's no need to abandon intellectual progress and civilization, so why not make that clear and put people's fears to rest?"
    I have yet to be convinced that "civilization" is sustainable in its current form. We may find a way to make it sustainable, which would be great. Still, IF it turned out that civilization were the cause of all these ills, then I would be willing to give it and them up if possible - will you agree with that? Its just a harmless hypothetical. I will tackle the issue of whether such a need exists later - you can put your fears to rest then, perhaps.

    10/16/2005 08:59:00 PM  

  • Genius, I didnt actually say that we should go back to hunter-gatherer life.

    Although, I think you are mis-counting if you think that space travel (general relativity issues aside) is a solution to anything. At most it gives us a bit more time. If we continue growing at the current rate (a doubling every 35 years or so) the entire universe wont hold us for another 10 millenia. Sooner or later, we are going to have to face the issue of overpopulation with both eyes open.

    10/16/2005 09:05:00 PM  

  • Oh sure, I grant your hypothetical, but I think you're imagining conflicts where there really aren't any. We discussed depression and related problems earlier in the thread, along with some potential solutions -- and "making ourselves stupider" wasn't one of them. Our culture isn't perfect, but that's no reason to throw away the very best aspect of it. Again, we have some real problems, but the value we place on intellectual progress isn't one of them!

    As for overpopulation, that's easily remedied by providing a general education to females (or so the evidence I've heard about suggests). It's certainly not an issue here in NZ (and most other western countries too, I think) -- if anything, we don't reproduce enough.

    10/16/2005 11:50:00 PM  

  • Patrick - your "sustainable solution" has us sitting on earth for the next ten million years untill we get hit by a big enough asteroid. You are never going to beat the saturated universe scenario when you measure utility as somthing that can be added. I am very interested in any midle ground of course that allows us to live sustainably and yet still advance technologically.

    Richard,

    Also I think we do reproduce to much form the planet's point of view just not enough from the "nationalist" point of view. Nations gain power and growth from having lost of young people (suport the elders etc just like they did in primative societies), states decay (relitive to other states) from having too great a proportion of old people - but if everyone follows that strategy(encouraging babies) then the earth becomes vastly over populated untill a day of reconing (when lots of people die but we DO NOT become extinct). another of those competition things I was talking about.

    10/17/2005 07:41:00 AM  

  • Genius, wow, it seems like you know more about what form my "sustainable solution" would take than I do! Maybe you should introduce it to us? I'm sorry, but I just can't take anybody seriously who thinks that the world blowing up is an acceptable scenario provided that we have a chance of escaping to the stars. Dude, too much sci-fi.

    And as for your evidence, Richard, I fail to see how there can be evidence of the sort. For the last several thousand years, we have been pretty much consistently increasing our food supply ahead of what is required to feed our population. And we have been pretty much consistently growing to match that food supply within quite a short period. They have done plenty of experiments where they had a population of rats, and they altered the food supply. The population fluctuated with the food supply (and they didnt face famine or anything like that unless the food supply was drastically and suddenly lowered). There seems to be a very very strong, but admittedly contingent link between food production and population growth. In fact, our population began growing rapidly at the same time as our particular form of agriculture was invented. Now, these statistics you are talking of sound interesting (The link I was talking about isnt necessary even though it has never been falsified to my knowledge) but I would think that theres a high probability that they have been confounded with trade. It may be that these countries which educate their citizens better and which are not growing tend to also ship a large amount of their food surplusses to those uneducated countries. so when the uneducated countries grow, you assume it is the uneducatedness but in fact it is to a large extent the food surplus. Now, I'm not saying that education doesn't make any difference, but I'm far from convinced that it makes enough of one. It is a topic that is worthy of debate. Here we have 2 theories of factors which need to be dealt with before our population explosion will end - that its education, and that its economic system/means of production. Of course, its going to be an interaction of the two. For instance, people werent educated 20k years ago, but they werent growing as fast as we are now. Anyway, we should discuss this further.

    At the risk of making my comment too long:

    10/17/2005 10:41:00 AM  

  • Just thought this would be a more relevant place to put this comment which was put on Richard's blog by GeniusNZ:

    "Classic green /left contradiction ...

    they want to place very restrictive laws on things like how you can market (think about how wide the definition of "marketing" is and you will see just how totalitarian it has to be) And YET they talk about having almost independant tiny communities (egad).

    It is attractive in the same way a perpetual motion machine is attractive or social credit telling us they will print money enough for everyone to have everything they need is attractive."

    10/17/2005 05:20:00 PM  

  • Patrick,

    I did not mean your ideal solution I just meant your hunter gatherer solution (which is also your solution since no one else here was seriously suggesting it). You havent made clear what your ideal solution is.

    > Dude, too much sci-fi.

    I am just saying that you have failed to show utilitarianism would outright support hunter gather lifestyle - i am quite likely to suport your middle ground solution whatever that is but if you want to convert people to it you might want to start by presenting it instead of the other.

    I guess my comment on richards blog irritated you which is surprising since I would have thought you would agree considering your "we need desperate action" argument here.

    My point is that the left generally lacks pragmatism - the right has other issues no less serious.

    I am an equal opportunity critic. Which is why I can critique you and sagars and richard and anyone else here equally.

    10/17/2005 07:16:00 PM  

  • by the way you are welcome to read my blogs for a more comprehensive overview of my political/philosophical and so forth philosophy :).

    10/17/2005 07:43:00 PM  

  • "I did not mean your ideal solution I just meant your hunter gatherer solution (which is also your solution since no one else here was seriously suggesting it)."

    Could you explain to me again where I proposed that reverting to tribalism was a serious solution?

    "You havent made clear what your ideal solution is. "

    What do you mean by ideal solution? I definately haven't claimed to have a unified theory of exactly what is wrong and step by step instructions for fixing it. Neither did I think that any of us did. If I had any kind of comprehensive solution, I would have used it by now.

    "I am just saying that you have failed to show utilitarianism would outright support hunter gather lifestyle"
    I haven't committed myself to utilitarianism at any point in this discussion either. If you read my comments a little bit carefully, you might notice that I said that I thought that Richard was a utilitarian (which it turns out he is, after all) but you assumed that that meant that *I* was also one. But that's irrelevent anyway. If you had read my point about tribalism carefully, you also would have notice the point where I said:

    "[tribalism] has been better for human beings in the past than our culture is for us now. As I said earlier, it is unrealistic for me to suggest that we suddenly "go back to nature" - firstly, our current culture has some advantages over tribal life, and secondly, we have raped and pillaged nature - there isnt much of it left"

    Then I went on to say that we should carefully observe those other cultures and try to learn as much as we can from them - perhaps it will be of use to us.

    "I guess my comment on richards blog irritated you which is surprising since I would have thought you would agree considering your "we need desperate action" argument here."

    It did irritate me a little. It struck me as immature. Regardless of what Richard thought of any of the views presented here, he obviously thought it would be more sensible to post his views in the original thread where everyone could see them, and make up their minds on whether the arguments presented were "a classic green/left contradiction" or not, on their own. But honestly, I think that even more than my irritation, what possessed me to copy and paste your comment into this thread was that it was obviously relevant to the discussion. Perhaps others will respond to it, or at the least have a good chuckle :D

    Anyway, I think I have used up my post quota for the time being - maybe I should let some others speak before I post :) anyone?

    10/17/2005 07:45:00 PM  

  • > Could you explain to me again where I proposed that reverting to tribalism was a serious solution?

    You proposed it, Im not bothered by whether you were being hypothetical or serious.

    > I definately haven't claimed to have a unified theory of exactly what is wrong

    You are to be a "doom merchant" (please ignore the negative connotations) which is in a sense quite reasonable since we do have considerable bad things heading our way , if you do indeed believe that then the solutions should be quite clear - one needs action immediatly
    You are even more paranoid about these things than I am (and I'm pretty damn paranoid).
    In that case you can run straight over any objections with the answer "otherwise the earth will be destroyed" as you seem to above and yet you end up with nothing which is quite surprising.

    > I haven't committed myself to utilitarianism at any point in this discussion either.

    You mised the point - I dont debate with you to attack you or convince you I just adress each point one at a time - the point I was adrssing was your point about utilitarianism and richard's point of view. I think you have spnt to much time trolling or having a political beat up of some sort.

    I suggest if you get all your points logicaly in order you will cometo the right decision whatever that is.

    > but you assumed that that meant that *I* was also one.

    I didn't. I think we have some sort of confusion here because you dont understand how I talk. Maybe that is a discussion for a more philosophical thread though.

    "[tribalism] has been better for human beings in the past than our culture is for us now."

    I think we were disputing this on a number of different grounds

    > It struck me as immature.

    it was in slightly different language exactly what i said in my origional post here (and quite a number of posts on my blog). that the argument seemed to ask for two contradictory things. Why not laugh at that post?

    So I dont see what you added except in as far as you did not read the thread or any of my posts properly and in additon saw it as a way of scoring points in some theoretical game.

    10/18/2005 07:20:00 AM  

  • "You proposed it, Im not bothered by whether you were being hypothetical or serious."

    ...So you decided to write a trivial post? I already said that the hunter-gatherer solution wouldn't work. In fact, I said that as soon as I "proposed" it.

    You call me a "doom merchant" tell me that I should ignore the negative connotations, and whats more you say that its pretty reasonable for me to be one. I wouldn't call myself a "doom merchant", but I guess I should take what you say as a compliment!

    "In that case you can run straight over any objections with the answer "otherwise the earth will be destroyed" as you seem to above" Actually, no I can't. I am, at this stage, thouroughly convinced that you dont understand what a counterfactual conditional statement is. Here, lets try this one more time. I NEVER SAID THAT THE WORLD WOULD BLOW UP IF WE DIDNT REVERT TO TRIBALISM. In fact, I would disagree with anyone who made this claim!

    "the point I was adrssing was your point about utilitarianism and richard's point of view" Which point? The one where I expressed confusion at him when he said that he would support the advance of science and civilization NO MATTER THE COST? You miss it again and again and again and again. My point was, that for a utilitarian, ANY good has its price - You could have something good X which produces more of the good to be maximised than any other single good. But so long as there is some combination of goods Y which produces more utility, there will always be the possibility that X won't be part of the set of goods which maximises utility (for instance, if the inclusion of X would be inconsistent with the inclusion of Y).

    "Why not laugh at that post?" How do you know I didnt?

    "saw it as a way of scoring points in some theoretical game." Isn't that what an argument is? A "theoretical game"?

    Anyway, this thread has stopped making progress - All that is now happening is that I am explaining what I said, over and over again. Look, I don't have enough time to read the thread for you so I'm just going to ignore everything you say, for now - hopefully some other person will say something new, bring the discussion back on track, or maybe they will explain away the confusion that my comments seem to be evoking in you, allowing discussion to be continued further. Until then, all that is happening is that the comment thread is filling up with posts of mine, making the same point over and over again. Stupid waste of time, really.

    Once more for the road. The key to your comprehension lies in you referring to the first point you made in that last comment of your's. You may not be bothered by whether the points I make are hypothetical or "serious" but it makes a hell of a lot of a difference to the structure of my argument. Funnily enough, Richard wrote a good post about conditional statements on his site which applies perfectly to the mistake you seem to be making. Maybe you should go read it.

    10/18/2005 10:36:00 AM  

  • It looks to me like this thread needs some getting back on track. Like Patrick said, it does look like its stopped moving forwards. Self-proclaimed genius, it is interesting and can be helpful to play devil's advocate, but I think at this point in the project it's important not to get nit-picky. (And on the same note, in the interest of not freaking people out, it seems like a good idea to me to stand down on using the word "tribalism".) I really do think that we can have a productive discussion and make some progress. It seems like there is a lot of agreement here already. Everyone seems to agree that there are some problems with current society including the wooly issues and maybe the issue of oil depletion. We also agree that there are things about this society that we would like to keep if possible, science and the intellectual community being two of them we've talked about. I gather that we agree that there are (at least hypothetically possible) scenarios in which the best thing to do would be to give these things up. Nobody is suggesting that we ought to go back to a hunter-gather life style, and everyone (or everyone who has taken a stand anyway) seems to think that there are good systems in these tribes that we could benifit from adopting. A lot of people got behind the suggestion of more communal living.

    So where do we disagree? A lot of the disagreement concerns exactly how dire our circumstances are. I direct your interest and attention to Sagar's post, "Consequences of the Depletion of Oil". Oil isn't the only issue, and other things will need to be discussed too. And above all, people disagree on exactly what should be done, and exactly what is good in different cultures and types of societies, and what can be synthesized.

    Science is one thing that has been discussed a lot, and I want to add my two sense about it. I'm worried about the degree of faith in science that is insiduous in some of these posts. It sounds like some people are saying that we have nothing to worry about as far as the planet is concerned, that between science and economics everything is going to be ok. Well maybe science will fix things (or some of them) and maybe it won't. It seems like an awefully big gamble to take just to preserve our way of life. And even if science can come along and clean up after us, what right do we have to make a mess of things in the first place? I don't think any of us should be sitting around waiting for science to come to the rescue. If you really think that science is the solution, well then go train as a scientist, and go help. If not, maybe we should talk about other options. . . hence this forum.

    Another note about science and the pursuit of knowledge. I value it highly; I'm a philospher for crying out loud. But its worth is something we need to think about. The ease with which the phrase "the very best aspect of [western society]" rolls off Richard's tongue is frankly alarming. It seems to me that the things science and other pursuits of knowledge bring with them a lot of bad, along with the good. (Atomic bombs, vivisection, polution. . . and all those nasties we've been talking about!) Oughtn't we a least think about and discuss the worth of the different aspects of society? Isn't that what we are supposed to be doing here?

    10/18/2005 12:29:00 PM  

  • Alex, thanks for injecting some much-needed calmness and clarity back into the discussion. I'm certainly happy to "discuss the worth of the different aspects of society", which is, as you note, what we've been doing here all along.

    I also stand by my sentiments that the value we place on the pursuit of knowledge is the most precious distinctive characteristic of our culture. (We certainly don't have much else to gloat about!) Technology can be misused, but that's a rather different issue, I would think. And of course it isn't absolutely non-negotiable (it's not much use if we're all extinct, for instance). I was simply alarmed by Pat's apparent willingness to give it all up at the drop of a hat. He didn't appear to place much value on it at all, what with the insulting analogies with religious superstition, etc. But perhaps I misread him.

    10/18/2005 01:08:00 PM  

  • "the value we place on the pursuit of knowledge is the most precious distinctive characteristic of our culture."

    Funny thing is, I agree with you there. The only thing I disagreed with was with the "I would never support any "reforms" that undermined this progress". Of course, you have admitted that that never is more of a a "not without a very good reason". And once you have made that concession, I agree with you completely as well. I don't actually think that we are in that terrible position of having to make a choice, not with regard to science at least. I just think it is a precondition to the success of a discussion like this that we are willing to grant that statements like "scientific knowledge is good for people" are, of course, contingent (though, in the case of that one, probably true). The reason why I think it is important is that I do think we will have to make some pretty fundamental changes in our society. Not to the extent of disbanding the scientific method, but fundamental nonetheless.

    So in conclusion, the reason I got so hyped up was that I do see *unconditional* faith in science and the advance of technology as dangerous, just like religion is. I apologise for applying that analogy to you - it was due to a misunderstanding - I thought that you would be unwilling to drop science no matter what the facts (counterfactually perhaps) turned out to be, and you thought that I failed to see the value in science. As it turns out, neither are true.

    As Alex pointed out, there do seem to be two discussions, both of which are very complex and are bound to be long ones. First, there is the question of how things are - for instance, is our market system able to deal with peak oil without people in the third world starving (or going through hard times or whatever) and secondly, IF the answer to the previous question was no, should we re-work things? Should we let those people starve or should we reduce dependence on oil as quickly as possible to as to avoid it?

    It seems there is disagreement on both issues. S. P. Genius appears to be willing to accept famine, war and the rest, for a few decades or centuries, provided that science is allowed to progress, and that we will be able to escape the planet to the moon.

    Howabout we make this thread the official "what would be preferable to what" or "which things in society are most important" thread, if it looks like there is a lot of discussion to be made on that issue alone. And then sagar's thread could be about the facts of what is actually likely to happen. In other words "this good (driving cars lots), as it stands, is in some conflict with this good(insert the negation of bad consequence here), because of some contingent fact(we have limited oil reserves)"

    Then we can all do that good old fact+value maze navigation to come up with a solution :D

    10/18/2005 02:00:00 PM  

  • On dissipating versus concentrating power

    Let us take the resort to a powerful authority to be a last resort, in keeping with the prudential maxim of dissipating power as far as possible. In some cases we might wonder why we should follow the prudential maxim instead of simply having an authority that is bound by constitutions and checks and balances. The argument would be that often those doing the regulating and overseeing themselves need regulating.

    Instead of discussing the catch-all term 'centralized state', let us speak in terms of specific functions that would be required in this ideal society and that could only be performed by an authority with a disproportionate amount of power. We could then argue for and against the claim that the function is required or that it could only be performed by an overseeing authority or that the authority must be something like an elected body rather than a deliberating group of citizens.

    Where possible, let us try to resolve conflicts and competition by removing what our best educated guess tells us is the source (or one major source among several sources) of the problem rather than resorting to an adjudicating and enforcing authority to settle the dispute. This is in keeping with the aim of minimising concentrations of power.

    Specific resorts to centralising power by Genius

    Let's turn to some specific reasons Genius gives for a central authority. Genius writes that several of the problems being discussed involve groups competing against each other and having an incentive to win by short sighted strategies. Genius adds that the only way to prevent this is to centralize decision making. However, we are given no argument as to why this is the ONLY way. Given that Genius mentions the communist line, perhaps it's appropriate to point to a common criticism of state-socialism. Since no one owns the means of production in such a society, we do not have the capitalist class. However, this class is replaced by the statist class. Members of this class control production and dispose of surplus value, primarily in their own interests. It is to circumvent such problems that proponents of democratic socialism and anarchist views of socialism seek ways to order social institutions to dissipate political and some other forms of social power and to instead promote self-determination, direct democracy, worker control etc.

    Other problems for the solution of which Genius advocates a coercive central or international authority: global goals require global consensus, if a nation tries to be, say, green, it will simply lose out in the world economy. Note however, that it is possible that these could be addressed without more authoritarianism. Suppose the leading economic powers (perhaps the G7 countries and a couple of others) adopted much more green policies and set themselves the sorts of goals that we'd advocate. This would not only set standards for much of the rest of the world economy, but would be a huge improvement in itself as these countries are involved in the production and especially the consumption of a disproportionately great amount of the world's economic product. Why is this situation any more hopeful than requiring global consensus? Because the relevant nations are generally quite democratic; their populations are generally well educated and share (at least in rhetoric) many of the liberal concerns and common goals already. So, for progressive change in these countries, surely we do not need more powerful authorities, but rather things like education (including media reform) and more accountability of the political leadership to public opinion rather than to corporate interests.

    Before we get too discouraged by the size of the global task, let us note that there are current movements in many countries that strive to achieve some of the goals or political forms we have been discussing. Granted, these movements often combine their more laudable goals with others with which we may not agree. But hey, it's a start.

    Genius also asserts that homogenization of culture will raise the effectiveness of any strategy [for changing society to the ideal sort under discussion]. It seems we should be careful what we mean by the term 'culture'. Surely it is enough for a revolutionary change in social forms that people share an understanding of relevant historical, political and economic facts and are able to think through them in a rational enough manner. So, at the very least, I suspect the homogenization of culture is unnecessary. To make a stronger claim, I think that letting people develop their own ways of expression, communication and communing with their fellows is an empowering and esteem-boosting step that would serve the cause of any large social change in the direction of greater democracy or direct democracy.

    science

    A common strategy is to distinguish the intellectual endeavour of science from the politicised use to which technology is put. Fair enough. Taking this path, it is pretty hard to see the intellectual endeavour bit as anything but the flowering of one of humankind's excellences. However, let us also discuss the technology bit. Clearly, this is a mixed issue - there are plenty of costs and benefits. One issues is how easy it would be to curb the ill effects of technology. I do not see this as a simple matter of greater regulation. The issue iconcerns the social and economic structure of society, since the use to which technology is put in societies similar to ours is largely dictated by politically and economically powerful interests. In general we can expect that while technology used in such societies will benefit the majority of the population in various ways, it will also serve as a weapon whereby the controlling political and economic interests can increase their share of the pie or their control over their existing share. The technologies of radio and television, despite all of their benefits also serve as tools of propaganda (whether the propaganda is planned by a state or is an unplanned result of webs of economic self-interest-governed action). Further, there is also the problem of the relatively unforseen externalities of the use of technology such as pollution. Given the ability of technology to affect the lives and freedoms of citizens, we should treat this as a problem in political theory. Greater curbs on the way in which technology is used is likely to slow the pace of the intellectual endeavour of science too. I expect that this is not merely a matter of greater regulation. For, so long as the political and economic interests find it to their advantage to bribe (or 'lobby') or circumvent regulatory boards (consider the US FDA), they will do so. The aim ought to be to change the system of rewards and perhaps of decision making so that there no longer powerful interests who stand to gain by irresponsibly using technology. As for more pressing issues like pollution and resource depletion, I expect dealing with these may require even more thoroughgoing changes to our economic structures.

    10/18/2005 02:47:00 PM  

  • Thanks Patrick,

    Here is an extremely rough outline of “which things in society are most important”, assuming that you mean “which things will allow as many people as possible to live reasonably satisfying lives”:

    1) Basic necessities: food, water, a bit of shelter, access to other people,

    2) A sense that ones life is worthwhile. This could mean almost anything, but I take it to mean something like “having an intimate connection with the world that you live in”, or “extending oneself beyond the mere fact of ones existence, through art or fame or power or wealth or procreation or eros or charity or improving the world with science and philosophy or whatever.”

    Is there any disagreement about those things, or any additions? I admit that they are so vague as to be almost meaningless, but it’s somewhere to start (not that the last 45 comments haven’t got us anywhere). Also, it would be nice to have something that everyone can more or less agree on.

    10/18/2005 03:13:00 PM  

  • Patrick,
    You seem to be taking this all a bit to personally and basically most of your post is a result of you not understanding what I am saying so Im not sure whether to bother responding to it. Its bit confusing for you to accuse me of missing your point when it is clearly instead you who are missing mine.

    > "saw it as a way of scoring points in some theoretical game." Isn't that what an argument is? A "theoretical game"?

    are we having an argument? about what? If so I regret that because I would hope we would never have an argument only a discussion.

    > S. P. Genius appears to be willing to accept famine, war and the rest, for a few decades or centuries, provided that science is allowed to progress, and that we will be able to escape the planet to the moon.

    Did anyone else come to this conclusion from what I said???
    Or come to the conclusion that richard wanted us all to die to advance our knowledge?
    maybe we need to review our writing style.
    Anyway I apologies to everyone else if we have gotten off track i was looking for somthign a bit more like sagars latest post.

    ------

    Sagars,

    > However, we are given no argument as to why this is the ONLY way.

    It isnt my issue to prove it is the only way it os your problem to show there is a beter way that does not centralize power - if you can propose one that looks like it will work and offers additional fredom then as a utilitarian I will probably support you whole-heartedly. otherwise I will take the only solution on offer. I suport centalization because I havent seen anyone offering a good solution in that regard.

    > Members of this class control production and dispose of surplus value, primarily in their own interests.

    I propose there are ways to prevent/reduce that.

    > To make a stronger claim, I think that letting people develop their own ways of expression, communication and communing with their fellows is an empowering and esteem-boosting step that would serve the cause of any large social change in the direction of greater democracy or direct democracy.

    being empowered doesnt in itself further specific environmental goals even though it might have value in itself - it depends on how dangerous we see the threat as to see how much of this sort of thing we can spare resources to encourage. If everyone wants similar things then it iseasier to see what is hte best thing to do in any one situation if everyone wants different things policy making can become difficult and thus it becomes difficult to see what to do. an example is if we had a green/ act political system with 50-50 split. any policy ould drive half the country insane. if you had a 100% green country it would be easy to get general acceptance of any green policy.

    -----

    Mike,

    1) Basic necessities: food, water, a bit of shelter, access to other people,

    good - I dont think you need much more. the final part might mean an internet connection eh?

    2) A sense that ones life is worthwhile. This could mean almost anything, but I take it to mean something like “having an intimate connection with the world that you live in”, or “extending oneself beyond the mere fact of ones existence, through art or fame or power or wealth or procreation or eros or charity or improving the world with science and philosophy or whatever.”

    Indeed - i think you have to be vague even the later two test my ability to accept them as fundimental.

    10/18/2005 07:11:00 PM  

  • To clarify,
    I can see some general reasons why centralization would help to achieve most goals and can't see how decenralization would help (although I can see that many people might consider it valuable in itself that doesnt mean it helps to achieve a specific goal which might be being discussed for example environmental protection).

    10/18/2005 07:59:00 PM  

  • > Self-proclaimed genius, it is interesting and can be helpful to play devil's advocate, but I think at this point in the project it's important not to get nit-picky.

    Well "self proclaimed alex mck" (lets keep some good humor!), I agree and I was origionally trying to just point out that patrick was leading us in an odd direction but the dynamic between us lead us well off the track.
    I clearly have to much time - but its a bit like richards post on blogging requiring a forum where people would not complain about his long posts - I always have lots of thoughts more than just about anyone else can stand to read - but please ignore me when I become boring!

    10/18/2005 08:28:00 PM  

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