Saturday, September 23, 2017


334. Crossing distance or crossing it out

In this blog, and elsewhere, I have discussed the benefits and problems of what I called ‘cognitive distance’, variety of thought. Too much distance makes collaboration difficult, too little distance can yield boredom and stagnation. Therefore, there is ‘optimal distance’: large enough to make contact potentially interesting, but not so large that this potential cannot be realised. Crossing distance requires effort and experience in dealing with people who think differently. As this ability grows, one can deal with greater distance.

One of the problems of present society is that people isolate themselves in segregated groups, with different group identities, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog. They become unable and unwilling to engage in reasonable debate, giving and assimilating constructive criticism, and see difference as an assault on their identity. Rather than crossing distance, distance is crossed out.

This due, in part, to the development of the ‘filter bubbles’ created by internet companies (Google, Facebook Amazon, ….) who tailor information, in the form of news, gossip, and product offerings, to the profiles of people constructed on the basis of past choices and contacts. People get served with what they are used to. This reduces cognitive distance.

Partly, the development is due also to people seeking their identity in culturally homogeneous groups, as discussed in the preceding item of this blog.

The romanticism of being nested in a culturally homogeneous group, with shared blood, soil, and national mythology, wins out from the romanticism of transcending boundaries and engaging in adventures of the new.

The process becomes a vicious circle, with lack of trust and understanding further tightening the noose of cultural identity, and people nestling deeper in their cultural cocoons. .

Lacking practice in dealing with people who think differently, at larger cognitive distance, one unlearns how to cope with it. People neglect to learn to give and absorb constructive criticism. Differences of view condense and harden in differences of identity, which are less open to compromise and negotiation.

This cultural entrenchment is to the detriment of both individuals and society. Individuals suffer from a narrowing of perspective that stints intellectual and spiritual development. Society loses its ability for reasonable debate, to reconcile different views and interests in peace and trust.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


333. The curse of identity

I my treatment of identity in this blog (in item 8) I distinguished between individual and collective or cultural identity. Note that the term ‘identity’ entails sameness, in being identical to oneself, or identical to others belonging to the same cultural identity.

It is becoming a curse how people take collective identity as the basis for life, and for their outlook on society. The trouble with such identity is that it is exclusive: excluding, judging, discriminating, rejecting those that do not belong to that identity.

The notion of identity steps into the trap of essentialism, which, I have argued in this blog (in item 10), derives from an ‘object bias’ in thought (item 29). That bias bases abstractions such as identity, culture, justice, human nature, good and bad, virtue, etc. on metaphors of objects in time and space.

Particularly catching is the container metaphor: one treats a concept as a box in which something is in or out. Here: you have a certain identity or not, and if you do that is because you partake in some essence belonging exclusively to that identity. You are an Aryan or Jew, white or black, male or female, member of a nation or not. You cannot be in two boxes at the same time, or partly in and partly out.

As I argued earlier in this blog (item 209), an alternative conception of identity might be that of a node in networks that is more or less distant from other nodes, in terms of connections that are shared directly or indirectly, yielding a notion of identities that overlap more or less.

As I argued in item 265, individual identity is formed in interaction with other people, and their being different helps us to escape from prejudice and myopia.    

I proposed that human cognition has adopted the object bias as a result of a long evolution where adequate identification of things moving in time and space was a prerequisite for survival. In present society it is working against us, jeopardizing the survival of humanity.

Psychologically, and also as an outcome of evolution, identitarianism arises from, and enhances, the ‘parochial altruism’ that I also discussed in this blog (in item 205). Humans have an instinct for altruism within their group, at the price of suspicion against outsiders.

In the notion of identity, I propose, parochial altruism and the container metaphor form a vicious pair. You belong to a identity or you do not, and if you don’t you are suspect.  

We should try to loosen the noose of parochial altruism with cultural means, extending the perceived boundary of the group, to extend the reach of altruism, but we are doing the opposite, in the present re-emergence of nationalism and other forms of identitarianism.

There are several ideas of identity formation. One is that of the autonomous individual, emerging from the Enlightenment and liberalism, as a footloose, cosmopolitan, hedonistic individual from nowhere and anywhere. Another form is that of identifying with some single-issue group: pro- or anti- abortion, white supremacists, black supremacists, gender supremacists, animal rights activists, environmental activists, and so on. A third form is identification with a nation’s mythical ‘blood and soil’. On the whole, then, individualism is either supreme or it is lost in group identity. If you are not black you carry the guilt of slavery, if not a female the guilt of male domination, and so on.

What happened with tolerance, recognition and acceptance of differences of opinion, race and religion, with empathy and solidarity across groups, needed for democracy? That was found in forms of both liberalism and socialism that now both seem to be in eclipse. Now, tolerance of other identities comes to be seen as betrayal of one’s own identity. 

There is more to identity groups becoming segregated and inimical. I will discuss that in the next item.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


332. Truth as a trojan horse

From the classical Greeks, western thought has inherited an urge towards truth at all cost. But that drive has turned out to be a trojan horse. As in the work of Nietzsche, for example, it has been shown that, to tell the truth, there is no truth.

A dominant view, for long, has been that truth is reference to something in reality, representing reality. According to one tradition this lies in elementary observation statements that refer to objective reality as we see it. Here, facts form the rock bottom of truth.

This view was demolished by Kant, who claimed that observation is formed by mental frames, such as those of space, time, and causality, that do not reveal objective reality as it is in itself.

Another tradition, going back to Plato, is to see reality as we observe it as confused, chaotic and in flux, while real reality lies behind that, in the form of universal, eternal ideas. This was also the recourse that Descartes took to ‘clear and distinct ideas’ as the basis for truth, and Spinoza with his ‘adequate ideas’.

Both forms of truth as reference have been taken down in postmodern thought, in the idea that human beings, and different people in different ways, mentally construct both observation and ideas, which eliminates objective truth. Ideas and words do not represent reality but constitute it, making what we see as reality. Yet we secretly maintain belief in the myth that we see the world as it is. It is difficult to act in the world without it.   

Also, many have shrunk back from the resulting relativism exhibited by postmodernism. If there is no objective truth, is there any difference left between mere opinion and truth? Then every opinion is as good as any other, and the basis for rational debate seems to disappear. And if there is no basis for debate, what remains to settle differences is violence.

Is there a way out? Can we save facts while acknowledging that they are not (fully) objective. As noted by Kant, facts without theory are blind, theory without facts is empty.   

There is a way out, in the notion of truth as ‘warranted assertibility’, taken from American pragmatic philosophy, which I have been using in this blog.

For a theory to have the best possible truth value, it must be shown to ‘work’ in terms of logic, purported facts, and application. While facts can be disputed, because they are informed by theory, they are still often, though not always, more reliable than theoretical speculation.

A case where facts depend on theory is that of black matter. It has never been observed, but its assumption is needed to account for movements of galaxies. Releasing the notion does not become an option until an alternative theory for accounting for those movements is found, as may now be happening, in an emerging information theory of the universe.      

With truth as warranted assertibility, counter to postmodern relativism debate becomes more important than ever. Precisely because we cannot grasp objective truth, the only chance we have of correcting our errors is debate, in confrontation between different views constructed by different people along different course of life, in different environments.  

Also, there is an evolutionary argument for a form of realism to remain. If we assume that the world exists in some form, even if unknowable to us, and we construct ideas on the basis of interaction with it, then in evolution and personal development ideas that are not to some extent adequate to that world would not have survived. False ideas obstruct survival.

That argument is not air-tight, however. I have speculated before, in this blog, that human thought operates on the basis of an object-bias: we think of things and abstractions, such as truth, and identity, as if they are objects, of concepts as if they are containers. That may have served humanity well for a long stretch of its evolution, as hunter-gatherers, but may now be working against survival.

Lacan characterized philosophy as love of truth, not truth as power but as weakness, a lack. I would revise that as follows: love not as closure, as terminal, but indeed as a lack, but a shifting one, imperfection on the move.

Saturday, September 2, 2017


331. Just reward and allocation

What is a just reward or remuneration? A soccer star or pop star earns many times more than, say, someone in nursing. Is that justified? The soccer player and pop singer have a talent that they have developed with great commitment end effort, and that is an accomplishment. They also have the luck that their particular talents are scarce and in demand. Here we find the economic argument of utility as satisfaction of demand. People are prepared to pay more for a good soccer match or pop concert than for medical care.

Then, it is necessary to recognize other values than only success in a market, such as value for society, in contributions to society. However, one can also argue that the soccer player or pop singer have cultural, symbolic value. The soccer player as symbol for the hero who takes risks and overcomes pain and opponents, and does that together, in a team. One can see the singers song as an expression and celebration of human emotion.

One can argue that talent is mere luck, but one can also argue that everyone has talent for something, however modest, and that utilizing talent not only has instrumental, economic value, as a source of income, but also intrinsic value: it is satisfying to do something you are good at, and for that one should be willing to sacrifice at least some economic value.

Justice also requires the virtue of moderation: one can be immoderate in ambition and
excellence, but not at the cost of others, and should be willing and able to engage in give and take.

Also, economic success arises not only from talent and commitment, and supply and demand, but also builds on a vast heritage of institutions (rule of law), culture (knowledge), and infrastructure (roads, technology, etc.). That heritage has been produced at the cost of blood, sweat and tears of many generations, who had to conquer it all. This calls for some modesty, and the willingness to share the returns from that heritage with those who were less lucky in the lottery of genes and birthplace.

Next to remuneration for work, how about allocation of scarce resources? Is that to be left entirely to markets? The argument for markets is to let scarcity lead to higher prices, which evokes new supply that resolves the shortage. That does not apply when there are hard constraints, for example from nature. Temporary shortage can lead to extortion, as in the supply of water after a disaster.

Markets cannot cover everything. Alternative forms of allocation are a lottery, queue, rationing, and ‘attribution’: allocation according to certain criteria. A degree or Nobel prize requires attribution of merit, and would lose its value when sold to the highest bidder.

Some measures are debatable for other reasons. How about letting rich dentists shoot a rhino at an exorbitant price, to use the proceeds for protecting rhino’s? What if due to a ban on child labour people die from hunger? Perhaps one should first abolish hunger and get children to school, and then forbid child labour.  

Markets are clever in circumventing non-market allocation. Michael Sandel[i] recounts the story of the mayor of New York who wanted to offer a free concert to the citizens, rich and poor, in the park, but because of limited capacity they had to queue for free tickets. An entrepreneur had vagrants stand in queue to collect tickets which he then auctioned to the rich.  

An example of attribution is attribution of merit, as in a contest or a prize. Another is attribution according urgency, as the triage in hospitals, with a waiting list in case of equal urgency.      


[i] Michael Sandel, What money can’t buy, Penguin 2013, p. 79.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


330. How to discriminate

Discrimination happens all the time. Some people get better jobs than others, more reward for the same job, more civil rights, and rewards while not doing anything for it. Discrimination has a bad name, but in some cases it is defensible, even laudable. What is what here?

When defensible it is better called distinction. One gets more according to clear criteria, such as accomplishment, as in winning a prize, or in selection based on talent. How about looks? Why not, if there is selection according to height or strength?

Looks and talent are based on luck, a draw in the lotteries of genes and location of birth. Accomplishment also requires courage, commitment, endurance, sacrifice, resilience, and absorbing pain. Mere looks do not.  

When, then, does distinction switch into discrimination? Looks may not require effort but are at least individual. Discrimination arises, I think, when distinction is based on mere membership of a group, according to race, religion, ideology, gender, or age, regardless of individual characteristics or actions.

Is that always to be condemned? What about membership of the Ku Klux Klan, a fascist or a terrorist group? Usually, discrimination is considered all right when politically correct, in a certain community. Its moral acceptability depends on what form it takes. It is wrong when resulting in unequal civil rights, such as refusing fascists the rights to a fair trial, or freedom of expression short of inciting violence or hatred. It is not necessarily wrong if n those rights are maintained and, again, people are treated as individuals, not merely as members of a group.

Is profiling all right then, according to race, for example, where group membership is not used by itself, for judgement, let alone conviction, but only as a trigger for attention, based on crime statistics, say, for further investigation of individual conduct,?

In this blog I have argued for virtues far beyond economic merits of efficiency or utility, but efficiency is still one of many considerations. There is an argument of efficiency here: given the statistics and scarce resources of control, it is efficient to focus on certain groups. But is that the practice? What if people were profiled as bankers, say, for further investigation of ethical conduct, given the experience of unethical banking? Or are statistics used selectively as an excuse for unethical, discriminatory profiling?     

Saturday, August 19, 2017


329. Art and hope

Recently, Rudi Fuchs, curator for a sculpture exhibition in Amsterdam, associated art with hope. For art, things are not necessarily as they are, can be different. Art offers new ways in and new ways out. Liberation, escape from stagnation or despair. That intrigued me.

To hope is to have a goal, with positive and realistic expectations of ways to get there, and confidence in agency, ability to do it. Without the realism hope becomes false, wishful thinking. Hope entails an expectation that ‘things will be all right’, depending in part on one’s own actions, but also on outside forces that one cannot control. This brings the notion of hope close to the notion of trust, as I discussed in item 107 in this blog.

What of that applies to art? The new ways in and new ways out. Escape.

A good illustration is a strophe from a poem by Baudelaire, from the section Spleen et ideal of his bundle Les fleurs du mal (the flowers of evil). Spleen here is heaviness of spirit, existential anguish, disgust, boredom, paralysis. The hope lies in escaping from it into the ideal, perfection. The title of the poem is Elevation. I first give the French text and then my English translation.

Derrière les ennuis et les vastes chagrins
Qui chargent de leur poids l’existence brumeuse,
Heureux celui qui peut d’une aile vigoureux
S’elancer vers les champs lumineux et serains.

Behind the troubles and the vast griefs
That weigh down misty experience,
Happy is the one who with a powerful wing
Can launch himself into fields luminous and serene.

Is this picture of art too pretty? How about the Marquis de Sade, Celine, Dostoyevsky? Do they yield hope? Such art also can be seen as an escape, in liberation from constraints of morality and law. But hope is positive, and how positive are those? How, if at all, can this be seen as escape into an ideal? Dostoyevsky said that without God humanity is irreparably evil. Does art here show hopelessness rather than hope?

Art is creative destruction. Perhaps destruction may need to take place first, to make room and create an incentive for the new. Is that how de Sade may be seen: destroying old morality to make room for a new one?

How about the sublime? Think of a hurricane, thunderstorm, or a forbidding mountain. Those inspire awe, astonishment, respect, fear perhaps, transcend the beautiful, and are beyond human grasp and influence. According to Kant it is beyond art, which would only yield a bad imitation of the sublime in nature. It transcends but cannot be achieved, and then lies beyond hope. Yet it is sometimes applied to art, such as a work of Bach or Beethoven, say.

If hope is required for trust, and art can produce hope, one might expect that art can help trust. However, when producing novelty, new ways in and new ways out, art also yields uncertainty, and can produce broken expectations, yielding broken trust. Given its uncertainty, trust requires courage, and that would seem to apply also to art. Art may be an exercise in courage, and thus may help people in learning to manage trust.

So, apart from the intrinsic value of art, it has value for society in bringing transcendence, Baudelaire’s ‘elevation’, and in developing and exercising hope, courage and trust.
   

Saturday, August 12, 2017


328. Aversion to love’s labour loss

Social psychology has discovered ‘loss aversion’: people go to greater length to prevent loss (‘loss frame’) than to achieve gain (‘gain frame’).

This is being used in incentives to perform (‘nudging’). Rather than giving a reward after good performance, according to the logic of loss aversion it is more effective to give the reward in advance, on the condition that it will be revoked in case of bad performance (loss frame). People try harder to prevent loss of the reward than to gain it.

Here, I want to connect this with a previous discussion (items 120/121 in this blog) of forms of love. I discussed the idea that love in the form of eros, passionate love, is needed engage in a love relationship, as a basis for developing into the more robust philia, loving friendship. Why not go straight to the second and avoid the sound and fury of passion?

I speculated that the function of initial eros is to blind one to the risks of dependence, conflict and disappointment that relationships bring. Without the passion we would not so easily take the plunge.

Here I add, as a second possible reason, the effect of loss aversion. Being rewarded at the start, with the bliss of passion, one is more dedicated to the relationship, under the penalty of losing the love when not committing to the relationship and making sacrifices for it, in love’s labour being lost. 

The alternative of gradually building up a loving relationship to attain loving friendship in the longer run, making the necessary sacrifices and compromises, would, according to the principle of loss aversion, yield less commitment.

There is yet a third possible line of argument. Recently, it has been confirmed, what was really known earlier, that scarcity, the limits of some resource, can have a positive motivational effect. For example: To make more effort to save when money is getting short, or to finish a project as the deadline nears. Under the pressure of looming scarcity, people focus on efforts to deal with it, solving the problem.[i]

However, and this is a newer  insight, if scarcity persists, focus can turn into dysfunctional obsession. People then get so absorbed by persistent scarcity that in the panic of not being able to cope, they disregard other things that also matter, or flee into actions that only make matters worse. For example: take out a loan at an exorbitant interest, or disregard family and novel work opportunities to complete the project.   

That may also arise in love. Under a looming loss of love, one can focus on restoring, repairing it, paying more attention, committing to it. But if that does not yield satisfaction, it can degenerate into obsessive demands for attention or forced imposition of attention that are perceived as a cloying, and hinder rather than help the flourishing of love.

To return to the first explanation of eros as blindness to risk, the initial abundance of eros may limit the focus on getting love, which now gushes freely, but that may make the relationship more relaxed, less forced, less obsessed, less stressed for getting love, laying the basis for developing philia.       



[i] Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir, Scarcity; The true cost of not having enough, 2013, London: Penguin.