Sunday, August 14, 2022

 551. Varieties of freedom

In the previous item in this blog, I indulged in the gloomy view of democracy apparently sliding inevitably into an autocracy or junta. I hate that outcome, and want to give another try to avoid that conclusion.


What do we value in democracy? One will likely say ‘freedom’. What does that mean? I have often used the well-known distinction between ‘negative’ freedom, as the absence of intervention in one’s actions, and ‘positive freedom’ as access to resources needed for a good life. De Dijn (2020) made a different distinction: between freedom from slavery or bondage, and influence on one’s government. The latter allows for regulations imposed on citizens, provided the government that imposes them is elected by the people. It can thus violate negative freedom?

An illustrative example is the current rebellion of farmers in the Netherlands, who refuse to conform to measures to reduce nitrogen composites from manure, which are destroying grasslands and forests, and with those numerous plants and insects needed to pollinate them, because the measures compel the farmers to reduce their livestock or sell out and give up farming altogether. They go to vehement extremes to block the measures.

Does this yield an escape from the feared slide into autocracy? Only if people evaluate candidates for government on their performance in enabling benefits for society as a whole, such as effective environmental protection, the provision of benefits to the people, such as safety, protection, food, and cultural manifestations, in other words positive freedom. But there lies precisely the problem I identified before. Many people now focus on their own personal satisfaction, regardless of others or society as a whole.

Again, I can see that turning around only on the basis of upbringing and education, which takes at least a generation, and which I don’t see happening, unless by the initiative of young people seeing the light, or rather the impending darkness. There are young people not caring about material goods beyond what is necessary for living, such as good public transport, adequate housing, healthy foods and health care. Will that be enough? There are also young people who follow the pernicious example of their elders of thirsting after wealth for itself and after conspicuous consumption, if necessary to the detriment of others and of nature. Which juniors will predominate?


Sunday, August 7, 2022

 550. A slide into autocracy

There is much warning against the. external threat of autocracies such as China, Russia, Turkey, Brasil, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, etc. , but the real threat comes from inside, in an internal slide into autocracy. I see three causes of it.

The first cause is cultural. Citizens have gravitated en masse to a self-centred, hedonistic life style of consumption as a perceived right,. a right not only to an opinion, but also the right to be right, regardless of arguments, on the basis of counterfactual conspiracy theories and fake news, claiming that every opinion is as good as any other. Arguments on the basis of facts and science are branded as part of one’s pet conspiracy. Above all, disastrous for democracy, one has lost the civic duty of contributing to society, and listening to opinions and arguments of people with contrary opinions, and respect them.

A second cause is a systemic failure of unmanageable complexity facing limited budgets and civil service capacity. These are the problems of institutional crowding, and the dilemma of benevolence and justice, which I discussed before, in this blog.

A third cause is the perverse lure of autocratic leadership. Many people are ripe for autocracy, in their admiration of the decisiveness and speed of its decisions, in contrast with the bumbling indecisiveness and problem avoidance and the ineffective to and fro of government and opposition in a parliamentary democracy. The readiness for autocracy is often enhanced by the projected safety and sense of belonging of nationalism. Apparently, people are blind to its loss of free elections and freedom of expression and association.

Currently, every measure taken for the sake of society is met with vociferous blocking by interest groups, in the face of their having to accept a fall of prosperity or established ways of life. Think of measures for protection of the environment, with repercussions for farmers and fishers, reduction of traffic, for reducing congestion and emissions, for alomst everone. How many more roads can one build before the whole country is road. A stiff price for CO2 emission will greatly raise prices of airline travel, blocking associated holiday travel. The current congestion of Schiphol airport near Amsterdam hardly deters consumers to fly, and is now leading to court injunctions to maintain, i.e. increase capacity. Scarcity of energy will force people to isolate their homes, which only the well to do can afford. And so on.

One can now object that in the past the progress of knowledge and technology, together with the dynamics of markets, have solved many problems of scarcity and coordination, and will do so again.

Will there not be technological fixes to ameliorate the problems? Indeed, the problem is not inevitable, but the solutions one can think of are not primarily technological

A major fix would be to resist the accumulation of wishes citizens claim to have a right to, and to make regulations fewer and simpler, and with that more vulnerable to misuse. Will people accept this, or will discontent rise to the point of uprisings and sabotage? Culture will have to change, in a re-emergence of civic responsibility, in order to make room for policy for the good of society. That is a matter of education and upbringing, which will not happen soon, if ever. Increasingly. measures will have to be imposed on farmers, fishers, car drivers, holidaymakers using air travel, obese people, drug users, and compulsory inoculation against new viruses that will emerge. Since no parliamentary majority will be found for such draconic measures, this will gravitate to an autocracy or junta.

I am not advocating this drift into autocracy, but see it as difficult to stop or divert.

Sunday, July 31, 2022


549. Turn the Enlightenment down a bit

This is the title of a book that is coming out, in Dutch. Here I give a summary of its core, in English

Aghast at the irrationality, emotionality, fake news and conspiracy theories of our time, people have rallied under the slogan ‘Back to the Enlightenment’, with its promises of rationality and clarity. I sympathise with that, but warn that we should accept also the limitations of that, of reason and clear language, because otherwise we lose the Enlightenment altogether, and don’t see some threats to democracy.

Reason and science do not yield certainty. They are crucial but limited and one-sided, with disciplines looking in one direction and not others, and their insights being temporary, subject to new insights and theories. Our cognition, the working of brain and body, need emotions to direct our body and mind. Much of our motivation is subconscious, with shortcuts of ‘heuristics’. The merit of science is change on the basis of mutual criticism of scientists.

Language is often ambiguous. Public, stable meaning of concepts is only part of it. Next to such public, temporarily stable meaning for the sake of agreed reference (Frege) or ‘langue’ (Sassure)is one part. Another part is how people assign things to a category, recognise things ‘as’ something, called ‘sense’ by Frege, in a living stream of thought, called ‘parole’ by de Saussure. Together, they form a ‘hermeneutic circle’, where general meanings become specific, individual. in a sentence, in an action context, the general concept of ‘cat’ becomes that specific cat of mine, lying there on the mat. Exceptional specifics, when shared between people, can cause a shift of the general concept. This is how meanings change.

Asa result, meaning is not fixed, and is often ambiguous, allowing for deviations. That can be cumbersome, in discourse, but is in fact not a problem but rather a blessing, in leaving some room for variety of people, idiosyncracy and autonomy, a certain freeing of life and a source of change of ideas.

Neglect of the changeability of knowledge and meaning, in some excessive idealisation of the Enlightenment, makes society stagnant, homogeneous and totalitarian. In banning emotions, it reduces people to stereotypes, machines, automatons. It is better to live in a messy, volatile world, than in a stagnant and inhuman one.

Partly on the basis of this analysis, in the Dutch book I enumerate twelve threats to democracy. Democracy is threatened by loss of the ideals of the Enlightement, but also by neglect of its limitations



Saturday, July 23, 2022

 548. Relational causality?

 On several occasions, for different purposes, I have used Aristotle’s multiple causality of action, with the efficient, final, material, formal, conditional and exemplary causes. Does that apply also for social systems? For that, I have widened the final cause to ‘the generative cause’: factors that affect the final cause of people and groups, by motivation, enforcement or by feeding the exemplary cause. I have also added the ’institutional cause’. That is close to the conditional cause, but referring more specifically to the institutions that enable and constrain actions, such as regulations, laws, customs, enactment of laws, the judiciary and public works and amenities.

 Does that suffice, for social systems? An omission that I can think of is that of a ‘relational cause’, that affects social relations. Part of that may already be included in the material cause of communication systems, and in the institutional cause of language. How is one affected by relations, and what effects does one have on relations? How does one build ‘absorptive capacity’. How does one build and betray trust? What makes people trustworthy?

 A big role here plays what I have called ‘cognitive distance’, the fact that people see and interpret things differently, depending on what they are used to and how they grew up. Cognitive distance is an obstacle to mutual understanding, but also a source of variety, as a basis for innovation by ‘novel combinations’ An art of relations is to find ‘optimal cognitive distance’: small enough for mutual understanding, and large enough to offer a source of learning. In order to achieve a common purpose, organisations must to some extent limit cognitive distance, by means of an ‘organisational focus’, as discussed previously in this blog. Some of the rhetoric of economics is for a firm to take over or fuse with another, so as to increase control and efficiency. But that can reduce cognitive distance too much, by forcing partners into a shared focus, and there are limits to advantages of large size. An alternative way to profit from larger cognitive distance is to engage in an alliance, where partners maintain more cognitive distance. However, that requires the art of building and maintaining trust and trustworthiness.

 Relational causality includes the ability to understand each other and to make oneself understood, perhaps by the use of metaphor, to give and take, patience, self-control, and imagination of how others might feel and think in their situation, in other words empathy.

 Is all this to be seen as a separate cause, or as a feature of the formal cause, of how, on what basis, people operate?

Sunday, July 17, 2022

547 Personality and causality

I have not posted blogs for more than three months. I was busy writing short books, essays really, in Dutch, on various themes concerning humanity and society. As before, I have used this blog as a laboratory, a trial ground, for elements of books, and now also to make elements accessible in English, from the Dutch books, published by Aksent.

In this blog, for the social sciences, including economics, I have used the multiple causality of action of Aristotle: the ‘efficiënt cause’ of who are the agents, the ‘final cause’ of their goals, the ‘material cause’ of what they use, the ‘formal cause’ of how, on the basis of what knowledge or technology they use, the ‘conditional cause’ of what in the environment affects the other causes, and their actions, and the ‘ exemplary cause’ of the model they follow.

Personality surely matters, and for that I adopt the ’Big Five’ personality traits widely accepted in applied psychology. Those are:

The extravert, wanting to go his own way, not very observant of rules.

The neurotic, afraid, feeling vulnerable, hiding.

The dutiful, doing his job meticulously.

The friendly, following others, making adjustments.

The open, intellectual, walking new roads.

The question in this piece is: how are the two, causality and personality, related? For different personalities, the multiple causes have different strength and priority. An attempt at a survey is given in the table below. I say ‘attempt’, because views differ, in the literature, on how, precisely,  to characterise the personality traits



                        efficient          final                material           formal conditional      exemplary



extravert         go own way    strong will       limited             impulsive                    no model

neurotic           seclusive          timid               limited             withdrawn                  seeking

dutiful             group               obedient          collects            professional                following

friendly           others              empathise        collects            social                          following

open                deviant             novelty            seeks               adventurous                romantic

 Due to the sparsity of space in a table, the assignment of features is to some extent arbitrary, picking out one. A more extensive characterisation is as follows.

The extravert is averse to strict rules, and wants to go his own way. This is a trait of discoverers, adventurers, scientists, philosophers, artists, economic and political entrepreneurs. It is related to the classical notion of ‘Thymos’, discussed before, in this blog. It is also a trait of criminals and authoritarians.

The neurotic swerves through life, anxious and erratic, scared and seeking protection and refuge.

The dutiful is oriented towards social order, obeyance to rules, teamwork and professionalism.

The friendly is empathic, gives help, and seeks approval.

The open is adventurous, intellectual, careless of resources and limits, and romantic in the sense of wanting to cross borders.

 In view of the effects of personality traits on causality, one should consider the nature and effects of one’s own traits, and of those of people one interacts with. Should one restrain, encourage, console, reward, warn, protect oneself or the other?

 For example, in government communication of measures against Covid, to the extravert one might emphasize risks for themselves. To neurotics one might emphasize the safety of following regulations, and warn against too much seclusion. To the dutiful, one might emphasize duties and the need for order. To the friendly one could emphasize the need for solidarity. To the open the warning not to associate with others too closely, protect one’s resources, and be careful.


Saturday, April 9, 2022

546. AI, moral agents and patients

There is talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robots, overtaking the human being in intelligence, and dominating it. If that were the case, not to harm us, could robots develop a sense of morality, virtues, to prevent humanity from being overwhelmed? Robots are agents, they act, such as automated soldiers, drones, medical operators. AI includes many things that do not act, but are in boxes and spout results of algorithms.

I follow Damasio (2003) in seeing the human body and mind as a homeostatic system, keeping the physical and mental organism within bounds of viability. Emotions serve to trigger beneficial actions and obstruct harmful actions and influences, contributing to survival. Emotions and intelligence are intertwined in guiding human action (Nussbaum, 2001).

It seems that to be moral, robots would have to be conscious. How would we know if that is the case? We could have something like a ‘Turing test’: if we cannot, in their observed behaviour, distinguish robots without inner morals from those with it, can we not call robots with moral conduct but without corresponding mental states and emotions ‘moral’?

In the development of robots there is a ‘top-down’ approach, in programming rules into robots, and a ‘bottom-up’ approach, of self-learning, robots who develop their own internal structure in interaction with their environment, mimicking evolution. If benevolence and morality with humans arose from their  beneficial effect on group survival in evolution, how could that work for robots? What selection environment could, in an evolutionary process, with robots interacting with each other and humans, be devised for robots to develop benevolence and morality? Could robots not develop, on the contrary, to develop a destructive stance toward humans, seeing them as a threat to their survival? How do we decide on the selection environment conducive to outcomes that are beneficial to humans?  

Someone involved in developing robots said that it would be best to aim at the optimal use of complementary skills of robots and people. That would require some social skills in robots. It will take considerable time for robots to develop such skills. It is predictable that the logic of markets would cause acceptance in the shorter term of cheaper robots without such skills. This would cause an undirected, haphazard, uncertain and risky development of the stance of robots towards people.

Danaher (2019a) presented a different view of robots and the threat they may yield, even if they are benevolent and function very well. He distinguished between ‘moral agents’, who act and take responsibility for the morality of their actions, or the lack of it, and recognise the moral agency of others, and moral ‘patients’, who passively profit from the blessings of technology and the moral beneficence of the morality of others. AI can enable agency but also furthers patiency of people. Agency and patiency are not all or nothing, but more or less of both. There is, however, tendency for people to shift from moral agency to moral patiency. It has been going on for some time, but it accelerates, can reach its pinnacle in the use of robots.

Danaher gives the example of cars, They used to enable agency, in getting us to places, but with gimmicks of GPS, route planning and automated driving they contribute to moral patiency, to the point of leaving care against accidents to the robot. That could, we hope, still enable activities such as sitting in the back of the car and reading a book, but how many people will do that? It contributes to the overall surrender by people of life to robots.

Danaher (2019b) also asked the question whether human can be friends with robots, and answers in the affirmative. He goes back to Aristotle’s view of the dimensions of friendship: mutuality, honesty/authenticity, equality/no dominance, and diversity of interactions, which one can all doubt with respect to robots. However, human-human friendships ae also seldom equal, and do not extend across the full range of human life. If a relationship is does not cover the full range of life, this can be a blessing. Donaher gives the example of contact via internet. That can make the contact shallow but it can also help in avoiding prejudices that hinder direct relationships, such as race, colour, class, education, which fall outside the internet contact.

It is more difficult to assign mutuality and authenticity to robots. Robots may evolve by adapting to circumstances, but what if those circumstances radically change? I agree that robots can still be friends in the sense of yielding benefits and doing pleasurable things together. Danaher quotes the work of Julie Carpenter’s example of bomb disposal squads seeing their robots as friends and even honouring them at funerals when they fall. Robots  can compensate for disabilities, and one can become ‘friends’ with them in the way that a lame person can become friends with its guide dog.

However, though less blatantly than with sex robots, people may turn from human friends to robot friends because they are more obedient and less contrary. That would be disastrous for humanity, since one needs precisely the opposition of the other to develop one’s identity.

On the other hand, with their potential wealth of knowledge robots may act as intermediaries between humans, and Danaher argues that robots can be used to ‘outsource’ activities that form obstacles to human-human friendship. Danaher tells the example where ongoing pressures of one side of the friendship to play tennis may irritate the other and block the friendship, while now one play tennis with the robot. Of course, one can also seek a human friend who likes to tennis, even if that friendship is limited to the joint enjoyment of tennis.

Summing up: robots can be friends even if that is not a ‘deep’ friendship, and they can facilitate human-human friendship.


Danaher, M. 2019a, ‘The rise of robots and the crisis of moral patiency’, AI and Society

Danaher, M. 2019b, ‘The philosophical case of robot friendship’, Journal of Post-Human studies.

Damasio, A. 2003, Looking for Spinoza; Joy, sorrow and the feeling brain, Orlando FA: Harcourt

Nussbaum, M. 2001, Upheavals of thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Friday, April 1, 2022

 545. paradoxical elites

Elites are needed for representative democracy, but can also destroy it. Liberal democracies are a combination of a vertical direction and representation by an elite and a horizontal corrective by citizens. Highly and Burton (2006) claimed that liberal democracies need integrated, consensual elites, that share norms of conduct in political rivalry without violence, with negotiation and collaboration. ‘The sine qua non of liberal democracy is a well-ordered, internally accommodative, and relatively secure political elite’. (see also Schonfeld, 2008). This is as natural as organisations having directors. Direct, unmediated access to the will of the people is an illusion. Populists who militate against elites and claim direct access to the population when in power will themselves institute an elite, while hidden under a euphemism of ‘cadres, officials or functionaries’ (Pakulski, 2012:13).  Highly and Burton  speak of a web of overlapping and interlocked sectoral elites across different layers of society, such as industries, interest groups, social groups and NGO’s .

While a democracy requires such an elite, there are other types of elite that are not conducive to democracy. More often than not, there are ‘disunited elites’ that vie with each other and compete for dominance, often with violence, as used to predominate in Europe in the past, and now predominate in many African countries. The transition to an integrated, consensual elite is possible, but takes time and a certain prosperity in order to stmulate the wish for preservation of the status quo, and mobilisation of non-elite support. Third, there are ideologically united elites, that on the surface agree on a religious or political doctrine, but hide dissent that is carefully masked, as in Iran, Northern Korea, the former Soviet Union and current Russia under Putin, yielding a ‘simulated democracy’. (Pakulski, 2012: 15)

The integrated, consensual elites share social and recreational facilities ‘in executive and priviliged settings ‘ (Highly and Burton, 2006: 11), exhibit reciprocity in maintaining cohesion, preserving their structural unity, in a ‘stable polyarchy’,  and maintain a ertain secrecy of proceedings, a certain amount of protection against  reputational damage under mistakes, and revolving doors of careers between different networks in the web.  They tend to be technocratic, emphasising technical and procedural feasibilities, rather than ultimate rights and wrongs. This is in ganger of yielding the risk of an inward look, myopia and even blindness to some societal needs and opinions. This is easy to condemn, but is an outflow of the neccessary sharing of a morality of conduct. However, elites cannot afford to ignore those needs, and they are disciplined by periodic  elections. Nevertheless, correctives are needed such as an ombudsman or courts of appeal. Social media can give opportunities for direct contact, horizontalisation, between citizens and representatives, bypasssing or influencing representation, but in practice they often derail in invective, vindictiveness and outrageous conspiracy theories.  

Highly J.H. and M. Burton 2006, Elite foundations of liberal democracy, Plowman & Littlefield.

Schonfeld, W.R. 2008, ‘The foundations of liberal democracy’, Contemporary Sociology, 37/3.

Pakulski, J. 2012, ‘John Highly’s work on elite foundations’, Historical Social Researcg, 37/1: 9-20.