Saturday, December 31, 2016

296. Acting as in nature

Biomimicry is a new scientific paradigm, looking to nature as a source of inspiration for the design of things. Freya Mathews developed this into a lesson also for human conduct.[i]

A fundamental feature of conduct in nature, as recognized also by Spinoza, is the conatus: the drive to maintain and expand and develop oneself. Similarly, Plato recognized the notion of thymos, as a fundamental drive to manifest oneself.

Mathews proposed that in nature conatus is combined with a striving towards least resistance, avoiding unnecessary fights and dodging obstacles, to conserve energy. That contributes to survival in evolution, in not wasting energy but seeking to employ rather than resist ambient forces of nature. Her prime motive was to find a way of profiting from nature while conserving and reviving it, in a sustainable economy.

This appears also in WuWei, the principle of ‘letting go’ or ‘non-interference’, in the Chinese philosophy of Tao. It goes back further, I think, in Hindu Vedic philosophy.

It appears to stand in stark contrast with Nietzsche, with his ‘will to power’, rejoicing in the overcoming of obstacles, and with the rhetoric, in economics and business, of strategies of ‘conquering’ markets’ and ‘defeating the competition’.

One might object that in nature also there is destructive rivalry, as in males fighting over females. Sometimes that is more feinting than fighting, but it can be very violent. That also is part of evolution: next to the urge to survive there is the struggle for progeny.

WuWei can be passive, letting go, but also active. That entails the search for ambient conatus to harmonize with one’s own, in symbiosis. In evolution this can yield ‘co-evolution’: the selection environment evolves together with the units that are selected.

In societies and economies, this would mean the seeking of complementarity in ties between people, and between organizations, in knowledge, skills, roles and positions, in alliances and networks. I have pleaded for that, and developed the logics for it, in much of my professional work. The art of it is to seek how what one does may fit and favour what others want, for them to reciprocate, in search of some sort of balance of mutual cost and advantage. In fact, we see an urge to overcome, in takeovers between firms, rather than the patient building of alliances.

There are two problems to this story.

First, as Mathews recognized, human beings, more than other beings, are prone, in their conatus, to overcome limitations and obstacles presented by nature, rather than bending to them. While often this results in destruction of nature, it can be of crucial benefit to humanity, in preventing or controlling storms, say, or earthquakes, and illness.

So, how to reconcile this with WuWei? Perhaps one can see imposition on nature as only a measure of last resort, when active WuWei fails.

The second problem remains the Nietzschean will to power. The flourishing of life can be antagonistic, in contests, debates, war and strife. The answer to this may be twofold. Contests should not destroy but build, in a striving for excellence, and contestants should admire and grant the winner’s triumph, with the winner staged as a role model.  

Diplomacy should do its utmost to prevent wars in seeking reconciliation or compromise in rivaling conatus. And when war is inevitable one should seek to employ the enemy’s flow, his moves, to create his defeat.

Economies should seek to thrive in both collaboration and contest, and the latter should be beneficial to the whole (society) in which it takes place. Competition can be contest for excellence, but it can also be mutual destruction, elimination or take-over.

I am reminded here of the distinction between positive and negative power, discussed earlier in his blog. Positive yields more room for choice, while negative power reduces it or imposes choice. It is ethical to pursue the first but not to pursue the second.

[i] Freya Mathews, ‘Towards a deeper philosophy of biomimicry’, Organization and Environment, 24/4, dec. 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2016

295. The commons of truth

The classic case of the commons is a common pasture for grazing animals. It is the duty of each user to beware against overgrazing and contribute to maintenance, but each is tempted to shirk the duty and free ride on the maintenance performed by others. Here I look at public, shared truth as a commons.

Objective, shared truth cannot easily be had, but we need it. Opinion is personal, fact is public, and without it the public collapses. If everyone’s opinion becomes personal truth, politics ends in pandemonium. Today, in public communication, lies, libel and opinion seem to dominate truth, in social media and even also in newspapers, and media are shirking their duty of  checking facts. From the pandemonium, everyone picks up what suits him, and nobody seems to feel responsibility for maintaining shared truth.  

In this blog I have repeatedly defended a view of knowledge and truth that is a form of relativism, but not a radical form. We interpret the world according to mental frames that we have developed in the course of life, and hence depend on its trajectory. All the more reason to enter into conversation and debate with other people with other mentalities. It is our only chance to correct our prejudices.

We cannot achieve more truth than warranted assertibility, and the warrant is achieved in dialogue, debate.

That requires the ability to engage in giving and assimilating constructive criticism, trying to establish some commonality of truth. That requires the crossing of cognitive and cultural distance, which requires openness, empathy, and the determined effort to engage in voice, falling back on exit only as a last resort.

What we observe, in present culture wars, is the opposite: a flight into self-righteousness, seeking exit. Moulding apparent facts, fabricating outright falsehoods, and filtering news for the confirmation of prejudice. Like other commons, the commons of truth requires joint tending, not the self-serving ravaging of it. Conduct does not need to be self-effacing, as long as it is not self-enforcing.

Truth needs institutions to help carry the care for it. Perhaps, first of all quality media that dig the deep, sift the fair from the foul, and bend right what is hammered askew. If markets force them to fail in this, competing on hype and low price, then they should be subsidized, to enable their task, hiring and keeping the best of journalism. That is one of the requirements of a politics of virtue.

But how about creative destruction? Can the commons be reconciled with creativity? Creativity creates self-confidence and the will to break rather than preserve established order and truth. Boundaries can challenge rather than subdue.

Yes, but creation must prove itself, demonstrating that ‘it works’. It must establish a new warrant. It should accept that challenge and should not shield itself from such tests. It should demand the opportunity to prove itself, not deny the need for proof.

The commons of truth is not a thing, a pasture, or a bedding laid out with ready doctrine, but rather a process, a practice of seeking warrant, testing it, rejecting and remaking it. The trick is to tolerate disagreement and give it the treat of curiosity. Creating distance as a challenge to cross.     

Saturday, December 17, 2016

294. Skeptical idealism

In an article on the 19th century Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen, in the New York Review of Books of 24 November 2016, Gary Morson labelled him a ‘skeptical idealist’, ‘… oscillating between opposing impulses, inclined to romantic utopianism and ironic realism’.

Perhaps the label of ‘sceptical idealism’ also applies, at least to some extent, to what I have been writing in this blog. That emerges, to sum it up, in my ‘imperfection on the move’. The ‘imperfection’ refers to the realism, and the ‘on the move’ to the idealism. Admit that perfection will never be achieved, and yet try to improve what we have.

Like Herzen, I am wary of absolutes and universals. Most controversially, perhaps, I reject the ‘golden rule’, according to which ‘do (not) unto others what you (do not) want done upon yourself’. I think it is more humane, and more conducive to a flourishing life, to take into account differences between the other and oneself, concerning aims, means, competencies, and conditions. Do onto others what they want, not what you would want.

Like Herzen, I reject determinism, any idea of an inexorable march of history to some ideal world, and I take a more evolutionary view. The world evolves by the confluence of contingency, and not necessarily for the better. Here lies the irony of realism. Actions often yield unexpected and sometimes adverse effects. There lies both the excitement and the tragedy of life.    

That accords with the multiple causality that I adopt from Aristotle. There is agency and purpose, but also the availability or absence of means and competence, and, above all, conditions that may or may not enable a fruitful coincidence of causal factors.

For an illustration, I recall the case of the rise of the Dutch East India Company in the 16th and 17th century, discussed in item 100 of this blog. It arose from the confluence of weather and geography (in the location of the Netherlands on the North Sea, between the Baltic and the Iberian peninsula, where the competition in trade lay), a fluke of nature (the herring moving their spawning grounds from the Baltic to the North Sea due to the ‘small ice age’), and, yes, agency, in the form of entrepreneurship in trade and innovation (building ships, canals, dikes, and windmills).   

The problem with skepticism is that it can yield pessimism and inaction, submission to the inevitable quirks of contingency. Part of the art of life is to muster optimism, and the old virtues of faith, hope, courage, and moderation. Belief in the potential for the good, hope that it will be realized, courage to face the possibility that it might not, and moderation in claiming perfection when it does work out. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

293. The rhetoric of trust

Rhetoric can make or break trust. It can be positive and negative. Positive rhetoric seeks to achieve mutual understanding. Negative rhetoric seeks to twist or hide the truth, or to dispose the other to one’s advantage, surreptitiously, hiding it.

Intuitively, one is inclined to say that the positive is good for trust, the negative bad. I think that is largely correct, but some cases are less clear, such as framing and priming. I will come back to that.

As discussed previously in this blog, trust requires openness and voice. Openness about errors, receptiveness to explanations, in an attention ‘to work it out’ when problems arise.  (See item 259 on parrhesia). Positive rhetoric is needed to cross cognitive distance, trying to achieve mutual understanding and moral compatibility.

In communication, one will in the first attempt try to assimilate what the other says and does into one’s existing cognitive framework (in a wide sense, including moral considerations). If that fails, in the second approach one may try to accommodate one’s framework to enable assimilation. Creative use of metaphor by the other helps.

Since trust is at stake when expectations are not fulfilled, one should not elicit unrealistic expectations, not pimp one’s promises. That is often what rhetoric is tempted to do, and the intention may be positive, but the effect is likely to be negative. Intentionally false promises are outright negative. Politicians, in particular during elections, are tempted, and thereby lose trust. Negative also is the inability or refusal to listen, or to listen only to what one wants to hear, such as false promises.

An effective negative ploy of rhetoric is the following. When confronted with inconvenient criticism or a difficult question, do not respond to the substance of it but retaliate by making the other’s motives suspect, or conducting an attack dressed up as a rhetorical question. ‘Are you serious?’. ‘ Do you always conduct such aggressive questions?’. ‘Who do you think you are to ask me questions like that?’ This ploy has a triple benefit. It avoids the issue. It turns a challenge to defend into an attack. And how can the other possibly prove that his/her intentions are good?

I was recently confronted with this ploy. I responded with a challenge to respond to the question I had posed. The dialogue ended in a shouting match. I was wrong. Shouting is always wrong. And I should have framed my question more sensitively, avoiding any tone of aggression or condemnation that may have lurked in it. That also is part of  positive rhetoric.

Another negative form of rhetoric is projection (a notion derived from Freud). It entails seeking to see and interpret the actions of the other according to how one would have acted oneself. This clearly blocks understanding the other.

Yet another, related, negative form is pre-emption: anticipating the other to react before he/she does it. In particular when it is a pre-emptive strike. ‘Of course you will not agree with me …’.

Now, how about framing and priming? One may frame a discourse, prompting a response, or prime the interlocutor, so as to create a disposition in your favour. This can be done with the choice of setting, mood, wording, and expression.

This can be positive and negative. Manipulative when crafted to dispose the other in one’s favour. Positive when honestly trying to provide the basis for mutual understanding. But does one always recognize which it is, in the other and in oneself?             

Saturday, December 3, 2016

292. Virtues of trust

Earlier in this blog I discussed the relation between trust and hope (item 107) and trust as a virtue in itself (164). Here I elaborate on those two pieces, and connect them.

First I take the traditional Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, and then the ‘cardinal’ (pivotal) classical virtues of deliberation, courage, moderation, and justice. They all come together in trust.

Essential in all this is the radical uncertainty of trust. To recall: this is uncertainty where one does not know all that may happen: what opportunities will arise, what options, what dangers, with what outcomes. Then one cannot play the economist’s game of appending probabilities, calculating risks, and optimizing choice.

Such uncertainty arises especially in relationships when one does not try to force the other into one’s own, established mental framework, but allows him/her to contribute to the construction of it, as I have argued in this blog.[i]  Then, virtually by definition, uncertainty is radical.

In insisting on calculability of risk, as economists do, one foregoes the opportunity for novelty and self-transcendence that carry fundamental uncertainty. One sells both the other and oneself short. Under such conditions, trust requires a leap of faith (the first Christian virtue) in the potential for goodness that the relationship offers.

This does not, of course, eliminate the uncertainty involved, so that one needs hope for the potential for goodness to manifest itself. The pitfall here is the temptation to raise false hope, for the other. Few things are so dangerous for trust as creating expectations one cannot fulfil. There, I think, lies one of the reasons for distrust of politicians, making promises during elections that they know they cannot fulfil.

Next, love is needed in the form of friendship or philia, as proposed by Aristotle, who characterized friendship as having a joint project whose outcome is as yet unknown, so that one cannot at the start apportion responsibilities, duties and shares in outcomes. Then one needs to go beyond reciprocity, giving, in one’s participation in the project, without being assured of sufficient return.

The intrinsic quality of the relationship, in enjoying it, is needed to carry this. Here, one satisfies the ethical principle of treating the other not only as a means but also as a goal in itself.    

The connection of trust with the cardinal values is as follows.

Courage is needed for the leap of faith.

Deliberation is needed for what in my treatment of trust, in this blog, I have called the ‘causal ambiguity’ of trust: if one’s expectations are not fulfilled, one should not immediately jump to the conclusion of untrustworthiness. There may have been a mishap involved, or lack of competence, or lack of commitment or attention. One should extend the benefit of the doubt, in the exercise of ‘voice’.

Moderation is needed not to demand the maximum of return at the expense of the other, but to grant mutual benefit.

As proposed by Aristotle, justice is needed to enable the other virtues to be exercised, i.e. to enable people to reflect, muster courage, exercise moderation, exercise voice, extend the benefit of the doubt in case of failure, and enable and grant their pursuit of goals.

Alas, in current culture in developed societies people have not sufficiently learned to reflect, accept risks, to be resilient under adversity, to exercise moderation and patience towards others, and to conduct voice in constructive criticism and acceptance of it.        

Saturday, November 26, 2016

291. Need for a virtuous elite

It is fast becoming the currency of political correctness to blame present upheavals of populism in Western countries on ‘the elite’. With good reason. The elite of top decision makers in politics and business, with assorted pundits and economic ideologues, has failed to take into account, among other things, the plight of those who have lost out in globalization, with an erosion of their employment, income, and values.

However, and here I take a politically incorrect position, we do need an elite. Or something like it, though with a better ethic, an ethic of serving, not self-serving. An elite that does not congeal into an oligarchy. Given that the term is so tainted perhaps another term should be used. Guides or guardians, perhaps?  The first sounds like scouts and the second seems too paternalistic. And I dislike terms that softly obfuscate. We are, in fact, talking about elites.

Milbank and Pabst[i] argued, and they convinced me of this, that democracy requires something in between the ‘one’ of the state and the ‘many’ of citizens: the ‘few’ of intermediary institutions. Those are needed for two reasons.

First, the development and implementation of policy, jurisdiction, education, engineering, health care, management, etc. require expertise, experience and an ethic of profession and vocation, with support from professional or vocational associations.  

Second, for democracy to function in present times involvement of citizens is needed between public and private, in local forms of collaboration, in many areas: health care, schooling, training, employment, investment and entrepreneurship, spatial ordering, public amenities, etc. They are needed to personalize democracy and make it more direct.[ii] 

A deeper point here is that government from the centre, by the ‘one’, is based on a mistaken idea that policies and government can be universal, with rules and procedures that apply equally to all, regardless of specific, local conditions and personal circumstances. That has arisen from a laudable ideal of equality under the law. That should indeed apply to what is forbidden, to protect negative freedom. But for enabling people to exercise positive freedom, for a flourishing of life, it is an illusion. That needs to be locally rooted.

In this blog I have argued repeatedly against universalistic pretensions, and I have pleaded for recognition of Aristotelian phronesis: the ability to weigh and balance multiple, not necessarily commensurable and often conflicting, values and virtues, depending on local and individual circumstances. I granted that this is difficult and needs to be guided by role models. There, I propose, lies part of the task of a new elite. 

A related deeper point here is, as I picked up from a recent inaugural address by Gjalt de Graaf[iii], that while we are putting all the weight of democracy on positioning, in representation, elections, and referenda, democracy should be seen more as a process that involves citizens. And that should be seen not so much in terms of interests but in terms of underlying values that meet and clash, in the process.  

Intermediary roles used to be performed by churches and aristocracy. Liberalism has eliminated those but has not replaced them with a new elite to perform the legitimate functions of the few. There were good reasons for abolishing the old elites, for their indoctrination, paternalism and perversities of power. But they did have an ethic of service that is now lacking with the new elite that has arisen in the vacuum, driven by personal ambition and self-interest rather than service to some higher idea or society, producing new perversities of power. Latter day robber barons.

The new elite should be one of excellence in knowledge, virtues, character, expression, understanding, and the skill of phronesis.

The objection to aristocracy was that its position depended on where one is born. Liberalism  aimed to replace this by meritocracy: position based on merit. But the chance of getting on is still very much related to the position, wealth, educational level, and social contacts of parents. And as Milbank and Pabst put it, we now see how meritocracy tends to ‘.. throw up the ruthless and self-regarding … (with) their incessant pursuit of a sense of entitlement’[iv]. The merit should not be one of personal advancement but of public service with vocational excellence.

Professional and trade associations became suspect in shielding off their membership from competition and renewal. Any new elites and intermediary institutions should remain open for new ideas and for entry from all classes and regions. New elites should not congeal into oligarchy. 

[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The politics of virtue, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
[ii] I also argued this as part of a response to populism, in item 283 of this blog.
[iii] On 11th November, Free University of Amsterdam.
[iv] Milbank & Pabst, p. 221.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

290. What virtue debate?

Previously in this blog (item 287), I criticised present liberalism for neglecting public goals of virtue, oriented at the flourishing of life, leaving them to the individual. Of course, liberalism is not against public debate of values and virtues, but does not consider it the business of the state. And indeed such debate crops up like weed between the cracks of the public pavement that blankets what brews beneath. People are concerned with issues of virtue and they will voice it. However, the topics that emerge are next given a liberal twist that avoids the issue.

Pollution and climate change are problematic because they yield what in economics are called
‘externalities’: Pollution does not get reflected in the prices of goods. A way out is sought by selling emission rights, thus attaching a price to pollution, and allowing a market for such rights. As a result, these rights converge on where pollution is worst, since that is where they fetch the highest price. Worse, rather than building an ethic not to pollute, it eliminates the need for it. Violation of an ethic, or absence of it, is now bought off and thereby legitimised.

Fortunately, entrepreneurs that operate from outside vested interests are often motivated by the ethical motive to contribute to society, as a goal for a meaningful life. They are not averse to gaining a profit, and indeed they claim they have a right to it, but that is not what motivates them most. And once they manage to develop viable alternative, renewable sources of energy, and this is taken as the future for markets, oil companies are forced to go along because the value of their old fossil-based assets starts to decline, yielding a drop of the firm’s share value.

At a day-care centre the staff wanted to reduce late pick-ups by imposing a fine. As a result late pick-up increased. Whereas first timely pick-up was an ethical matter of solidarity with the staff, late pick-up now became part of the product to be paid for. 

Where the donation of blood began to be paid for, the quality of blood declined. It had been, and in many countries still is, an ethical sacrifice or service, not to be bought with money, and now it became a means of subsistence for the poor and unhealthy.

There are public debates on ethical issues of euthanasia, discrimination, refugees, genetic engineering, health care, pensions, homosexuality, globalisation, child labour, trade in body organs, tax evasion, and so on. These are difficult for liberalism to cope with, since they entail conflicting values and virtues, and here also there is a strong tendency to reduce the problems to economics.

Refugees are OK if they are highly skilled, or satisfy unfulfilled demand for low-quality work, and their high degree of motivation may be profitable. There is no ready tool to include any ethic of hospitality or care in the equations, so that drops out. However, refugees are widely seen as not OK since they are seen as dangerous outsiders that do not belong here, and this now trumps virtues of hospitality and sympathy, but this is not part of the market equation.  

Trade in bodily organs is generally seen to go too far, but child labour is defended on the argument that without it poverty would be even higher, rather than tackling poverty and furthering education.

More widely, emotion-laden values, and their neglect by the establishment, are now firing a populism where economic logic has an adverse effect, as we saw in Brexit and the Trump victory.

Tax evasion by multinational companies is bought off with lenient fines to avoid expensive litigation, with disregard for the symbolic and ethical import, and for the enormous political cost of populism, in what is seen as a double standard at the expense of  the regular tax payer.

So what, then, do I propose? How should these things be done differently? I propose that in each of these and other cases the mutually rivalling virtues, and the practical and economic concerns involved, and the trade-offs between them, should be made more explicit, in public debate. Concerns of utility are not irrelevant, but should not routinely shove off ethical issues of virtue, such as justice, fairness, solidarity, decency and integrity.

Ethical dilemma’s tend to be hidden away, but that is a mistake. They serve to bring to the fore what values are involved, and that is a precondition for debate.[i]   

[i] This point was made in an inaugural lecture at the Free University Amsterdam, by Gjalt de Graaf, on 11th November 2016.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

289. Multiple causality of virtues

In a politics of virtue, which values and virtues are to be held in common, and which are to be left to individual choice? If we want to go beyond the negative freedom of being left alone, to include positive freedom for developing and realizing one’s choice of the good life, what competencies and conditions are required, and which corresponding values and virtues? Which are of public and which only of private concern?

In this blog I have employed the multiple causality of action proposed by Aristotle (items 96 – 100). Would that help here as well?

To recall: Aristotle distinguished the following causes: efficient (agency), final (goals), material (means), formal (method, competence, technology), conditional (surrounding conditions surrounding), and exemplary (role models). What is the scope of one’s agency: what room does one have to act, what does one want, what does one need for it in means and method, what are external conditions, and what are good examples to follow?

There, the question would then be: which values or virtues belong to what causes, of action, and to what extent are they public or private?

For agency (efficient cause), the question is whether one is recognized as a legitimate agent, without discrimination, say. That is a public issue of justice, connected to human rights. But it is also a private issue, with the virtue of taking responsibility for one’s actions. 

The final cause is the choice one makes for the good life. That is a private issue, though developed in human relations, in the course of developing one’s identity. It requires the virtue of courage to make a choice and stand by it, with commitment and perseverance. A minimum of courage is needed, but some people more than others relish risk and restlessness, in their striving for excellence, excitement, creative destruction, or adventure. That is fine, provided that it pursues positive, not negative power, as a matter of justice. Other people attach more value to composure, equilibrium, peace of mind. In Nietzschean terms: more Dionysus or more Apollo.  

What is fitting, viable, or desirable, depends on talent, age, stage of development, being single or not, having children or not, the environment one lives in. Different activities have different standards of excellence. What is shared depends on groups. People congregate to share more values or virtues.

I think virtues are dynamic, in a double sense. They change as one develops, and they are needed to achieve development.  

For positive freedom one needs access to what is needed for choosing and realizing the good life, in terms of means (material cause) and competence (formal). Those are in large part a public issue, with sufficient income and housing as a material need, and access to education, schooling, for the formal cause. That is part of social justice.

The conditional cause is the most complicated, in a mix of private and public. It entails legal institutions, ensuring justice. That includes assurance of negative freedom, with constraints on one’s freedom for the sake of the freedom of others, but with a minimum of meddling, control, imposition, constraint. That entails the virtue of moderation and self-restraint, and, again, a matter of taking responsibility.

But since the human is socially constituted, conditions should not only constrain but also enable it in the pursuit of the good life. For that it needs individual values and virtues for human interaction. But institutions also should enable interaction, in competencies for collaboration. This is both a public and a private issue. It is an important part of education, schooling, formation, which should include critical reflection, formation of identity, expression, and social responsibility and capability.

All this requires capabilities and virtues of empathy, patience, openness, willingness to listen, courage to exercise voice, in making and accepting criticism, friendship in the form of philia, in projects with shared interests, with mutual commitment and loyalty, balancing interests of self and other. This requires moderation, and attachment not only of instrumental value to relationships but also intrinsic value. Here we find the old ethical principle of never using people only as means but also as ends in themselves. It requires an ability to engage in contests and accept losing them.  

The core capability here is that of ‘voice’. That requires the virtue of reflection, being reasonable, and the ability to weigh often incommensurable or even conflicting values and virtues, depending on specific circumstances of specific individuals, and to debate the dilemma’s.

That is difficult to do well, and people who are proficient in it serve as role models, in the exemplary cause.       

Saturday, November 5, 2016

288. The politics of virtue

Given the crisis of liberalism, discussed in the preceding item of this blog, there is a need for a politics of virtue that looks beyond mere negative freedom, allowing for virtues that open up positive freedom for the pursuit of the good life. To enable people to develop wider values and virtues than only those of consumption.

Having negative freedom is ‘being left alone’: freedom from interference such as coercion, imposition, molestation, and authoritarianism. However, as recognized by Milbank and Pabst[i], this fear of interference has led to ‘leaving people alone’ in a wider sense, with lack of care and concern for others, such as parents offer their children, in upbringing, teaching and guidance.

Developing potential, enabling for action, judgement, communication, conflict resolution, moderation, courage, empathy, fairness, justice, and striving for excellence. Those contribute to positive freedom: capabilities for a flourishing life, not only being ‘free from’ constraints but also ‘free to’ develop and exercise talents. They are virtues, traits needed to achieve a good life.

But all that has come to be seen as meddling, paternalism, not as enabling but as constraining negative freedom, even in schools. The choice of a good life and associated virtues are seen as up to the individual, not to be meddled with at school. But like education in general, schools should have the task of furthering positive freedom with its corresponding virtues.

The motive behind the rise of liberalism was to get rid of religious and political indoctrination and manipulation, but that has strayed into absence of any concern for values. Separation of state and church has become separation of state and values.

All this has contributed to the lack of ability to exercise and absorb criticism, discussed in item 286 of this blog. Criticism is seen as an affront to autonomy. A public drive against obesity can be blamed for hurting the self-regard of obese people.

Next, flight from criticism yields indifference and lack of courage, dressed up as respect for the integrity of the other. But, I propose, true respect entails interest in another’s contrary opinions, and the other as worthy of one’s critical attention.  

The paragon of negative freedom is the market: freedom from interference in conducting economic activities, no matter at what cost of perversities of gluttony, extortion, make-believe, avoidance of public and environmental responsibilities, commodification of intellectual, spiritual and cultural values, primacy of efficiency over quality, and only instrumental rather than also intrinsic value of work and relationships. The latter violates the ethical principle of treating another as having not only instrumental but also intrinsic value.

Under the pressure of competition trust cannot survive and is to left to personal relations of love and friendship, so economists say.

Deirdre McCloskey has recently argued that markets have produced bourgeois virtues, the classical virtues of reflection, courage, temperance and justice, and that those virtues are needed to operate in markets. Reflection is needed for good business decisions, courage is needed to take the risk of investment, and temperance and justice are needed not to antagonize customers. That may be true in the ideal, the utopia of economic theory, and may have been true in fact in earlier stages of capitalism, but in present capitalism, dominated by multinationals, not much of that is to be seen now.

Decisions of top management of multinationals are often not in the rational interest of the firm, but are motivated by hubris, self-aggrandizement, and mimicry (e.g. in mergers and acquisitions, as has been well-documented in research), banks have hived off risks onto the public, producing the 2008 financial crisis, the drive for salary, bonuses and conspicuous consumption seems to be without limit, and with power play on governments special favours have been obtained and laws and regulations are avoided or bent to achieve more profit.     

In sum, the nurturing of virtues for positive freedom should be brought back as a public endeavour. However, the challenge is to do so while leaving the choice of a good life up to individuals, with all their differences in talents and preferences.

As discussed earlier, in items 281 and 282 of this blog, this entails the development of virtues on a meta-level of striving for mutual understanding and collaboration in the pursuit of what people variously make of the good life. As discussed, that includes the old Christian virtues of faith (in the human potential for good), hope (for the realization of that potential), and love (in reciprocity and an adequate degree of altruism), as well as the classical cardinal virtues of reflection, courage, moderation, and justice. Those should be taught and trained, in families, schools, and organization of work.    

[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, The politics of virtue, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016

Saturday, October 29, 2016

287. The crisis of liberalism

There are various forms of liberalism. Loosely, it means liberty of choice for the individual.  But what kind of liberty? Choice of what? What does it mean for an individual? The cardinal, present form of liberalism consists, I think, of the following principles.

First, autonomy of the individual (as opposed to its social constitution).

Second, a focus on negative freedom; lack of interference with the individual. This stands in contrast with positive freedom, to pursue one’s view of the good life, on the basis of corresponding values, virtues, and competencies. In liberalism that is left up to the individual, free from public meddling.

That has indeed been liberating, with its contribution to momentous achievements such as human rights, legality, ownership rights, police monopoly of violence, equality under the law, being innocent until proven guilty, independent judiciary, and different forms of emancipation.

Third, the assumption and ideal of rationality driving human action and public policy.

Fourth, a reduction of human nature to the drive of self-interest, even at the expense of others. Other human features that might keep this back, oriented at relationships rather than autonomous agents, such as benevolence, care, trust, empathy, and altruism, are not regarded as being part of human nature, and are felt to be ‘wishy-washy’, intangible, not satisfying rational requirements of objectivity, logical rigour, and measurability.

And then there are markets. Their miracle is that through self-interest they promote maximum material welfare. Without that, liberal self-interest would not have been palatable.   

As noted by Milbank and Pabst[i], while values and virtues, as instruments for positive freedom, are seen as up to individuals, beyond the pale of politics, the potential for vice, in excessive self-interest at the cost of others, is a public matter, since it limits negative freedom. Containing the hazards of self-interest then becomes the only moral task of government. No appeal can be made to virtues since those are outside public discourse, and are too vague, various and ‘irrational’ to have any bite. Only imposition of control is left.

This idea goes back to Hobbes’ idea of the need for a ‘Leviathan’ to contain the ‘war of all against al’.

To be rational and without regard to individual values, motives, talents, experience and conditions, control has to be bureaucratic, uniform and impersonal (one thinks of Weber here), imposed by the state (or in name of the state[ii]). As a result, conduct is increasingly regimented and strangled by an accumulation of control.[iii]

Efficiency is objective and measurable, as minimum monetary cost, while value is subjective and hence unwieldy, if it goes beyond mere exchange value, expressed in price. This reduction of value to exchange goes by the name of ‘commodification’.

As a result, in the realm of rational policy efficiency always wins. If quality is to play a role, it is to be fixed in objectified, quantifiable, standards of skill, process or outcome, which contributes to the accumulation of stifling control.

As noted by Milbank and Pabst, taken together, this explains the puzzling phenomenon, in present society, of an alliance between market ideology, demanding maximum negative freedom for self-interested conduct, with centralized control of such conduct, to limit threats to negative freedom. Socialist ideals of a strong state can thus ally with liberal ideals of negative freedom. A requirement for this was only that socialism drop its old ideals of upholding social justice beyond the decrees of laws, in humane conduct, protecting the weak, and guiding and ‘uplifting’ the populace with education and culture.

This results not only in a reduced scope for positive freedom, for the pursuit of a flourishing life, but, ironically, even of negative freedom, in that limitation of scope. And so liberalism swallows its own tail.

[i] John Milbank & Adrian Pabst, ‘The politics of virtue’, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
[ii] As in the case of the control of hospitals, in terms of detailed protocols for work, delegated to health insurance companies, after the change of the system in 2008, in the Netherlands
[iii] That has led me to explore a lighter form of control that leaves more room for trust, called ‘horizontal control’, discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Monday, October 24, 2016

286. Creative conflict and criticism

Present culture wars in Western societies, with shouting matches between nationalists and cosmopolitans, ‘elites’ and ‘commoners’ or ‘grass roots’, highly and low-educated, free traders and protectionists, are due, in large part, I think, to an unwillingness and inability to engage in uttering and absorbing constructive criticism. At the same time there is an urge towards expression and self-assertion. Together, they have disastrous effects of polarization, with mutual indifference, or intolerance and escalation of negative conflict.

Conflict can be creative but that demands the effort and ability to engage in giving and accepting, appreciating, constructive criticism, based on openness and curiosity, aimed at mutual understanding. Those may be based on Christian virtues of faith in the positive potential of people, hope of its realization, and love for the give and take of relationships. It may also be based on traditional, cardinal values of reflection, courage, moderation and justice. We seem to have lost all of those, somehow.

What is happening?

First, young generations, not having suffered the horrors of war, racism and nationalism, have grown up in a safe, protective environment, robbing themselves of the need to deal with hardship that builds strength and resilience.

This has fed risk avoidance, in an obsession with safety and control. That has produced excessive control mechanisms in many realms of work, which stifle professional initiative, kill intrinsic motivation of work, and narrow room for improvisation and for catering to variety of taste and circumstance.

Second, postmodern philosophy has generated, mostly as a result of misunderstanding, an excessive, perverse relativism, according to which any view is as good as any other. Opinions are as good as arguments, and everyone has a right to his or her own. There is no common ground for debate, and criticism is seen as intolerant, offensive, power play.

The misunderstanding is this. I accept relativism in the form of renouncing absolute objectivity and truth, accepting that one’s views, and even observations, are biased by forms of thought, based on one’s biological and cultural inheritance, and formed along one’s individual path of life.  However, the resulting difference in ideas and views, in what earlier in the blog I called ‘cognitive distance’, form a reason not for abandoning debate, but, on the contrary, for engaging in it. Precisely because our views are biased, the only chance we have at correcting them lies in looking at other, conflicting views. As I argued at several places in this blog, one needs opposition from others to achieve freedom from one’s prejudices and errors.

In contrast with this, an ethic has arisen where respect is seen as avoiding criticism, rather than valuing opposition. People congregate with whom they agree, cuddling their conformity.

Third, there is a romantic urge for individual self-expression, authenticity. In combination with unwillingness and inability to voice and absorb criticism constructively, this becomes a noisy celebration of narcissism.   

At some schools, students are bedded in safety, in a pact of mutual non-aggression. Trust is seen as softness, conflict avoidance. Instead, students should be educated to voice and absorb constructive criticism. It is precisely because there is trust that one can tell each other ‘the truth’. Returning to the cardinal virtues: one should learn to listen and reflect on what is said, what to say, and how to say it. Have the courage to take the risk of giving and evoking criticism. To be moderate and modest in one’s claims, and just in judgement.

This issue is connected with the notion of cognitive distance. To recall: cognition here is a wide notion, including knowledge as well as moral views concerning the conduct of relationships. Distance is bothersome, makes collaboration difficult, but also yields the potential for learning. Ability to cross cognitive distance enhances learning by interaction. It is good for society as well as the individual.

One can make a distinction between distance in substantive knowledge and moral/ relational distance. The latter is more difficult to cross than the former. Constructive conflict is best served by reducing moral distance, in order to better cross distance in knowledge. Dealing with each other while disagreeing.    

Saturday, October 15, 2016

285. Nietzsche and Aristotle

Nietzsche did not and Aristotle would not have adopted Christian ethics, utility ethics, and duty ethics. Notoriously, Nietzsche demolished Christian morality as a mask for the exercise of a universal will to power. Morals of humility, pity, modesty and self-sacrifice have arisen as the revenge or pre-emption on the strong by the weak, their victims. Being pre-empted in the exercise of their will to power on others, the strong then turn against themselves in guilt and self-sacrifice.

Here, Nietzsche went back not to Aristotelian virtues of the citizen in society, the polis, but to the Homeric virtues of the single hero, the man of action who wins and dominates.   

But then Nietzsche ended up in a phantasy of the strong-willed, autonomous Overman, beyond good and evil, who creates his own values, independently from others, in what Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘moral solipsism’.

Earlier in this blog, in item 60, I called this ‘Nietzsche’s mistake’. My argument was as follows. Will to power becomes acceptable, even a virtue, in a joy of overcoming obstacles, when it is not aimed at suppressing or dominating others, but is sublimated in overcoming obstacles in oneself in the effort to transcend oneself, in an Aristotelian striving after the good life. Nietzschean solipsism is self-defeating because one needs openness to the opposition from others to escape from one’s own prejudices and blindness, which is the highest degree of freedom.

On the other hand, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, Aristotle, here in agreement with Plato, thought that in spite of the multiplicity and apparent conflict between multiple virtues harmony between them existed, and conflict between them was evil.[i]

There seems to be some tension between this and the acknowledgment, by Aristotle, of the difficulty of phronesis, practical wisdom, in finding a good balance between rival virtues, depending on the specific conditions at hand. What if in the exercise of his genius someone neglected his duties as a father? Or betraying a friend to save a country? Aristotle acknowledged that there are no universal rules for this, and that proficiency in phronesis is rare.

Nietzsche, by contrast, relished conflict as a source of renewal, in ‘creative destruction’ (a term from the economist Schumpeter, not Nietzsche). Pain is part of transformation and transcendence of a limited self. Here I side with Nietzsche.

Here there is a problem with Aristotle’s view of virtues as needed to perform well in socially established and accepted ‘practices’, or language games, as discussed in preceding items in this blog. What if the practice is evil, or unduly constrains liberty?

Consider, for example, the present difficulty of getting away from the socially perverse practices of bankers and leaders of businesses more widely, in maximising their personal gain rather than the interest of society, indeed in damaging that interest, in avoiding taxes, destroying the environment, fooling customers, dodging rules, hiving risks off onto citizens. Some of them relish the virtue of being excellent in playing the game well, cleverly tricking customers to buy harmful financial products, and thereby violating the virtue of serving customers. 

How to transform such practices, or escape from them? What are the implications for virtue? What are the virtues of rebellion? Where lies the boundary between having to accept and respect the rigours and virtues of how to perform a practice well, and the virtue of resisting and changing any perverse practice? That has been a major theme in this blog (see items 266 and 267). I still value that transformative, rebellious feature of Nietzsche.              

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame University Press, 2015 (first published in 1981).

Saturday, October 8, 2016

284. Which virtues?

In this blog I pleaded for a virtue ethics in the tradition of Aristotle, rather than the utility ethics that dominates economics, or a Kantian duty ethics. But there are so many virtues flapping around, with much variation in which virtues take precedence. Are they all relevant? Is there some coherence or unity between them? To answer this question I make use of the work After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

For Aristotle, a central virtue is justice, since that yields the conditions for exercising other virtues. Another key virtue for him is the use of reason, in particular practical reason (phronesis), needed to balance virtues in action. That includes the virtue of truthfulness. Further, there are the virtues of moderation, empathy, prudence, courage, and commitment/perseverance. These virtues converge in the so-called classical ‘cardinal’ (i.e. pivotal) virtues of reflection, courage, moderation, and justice.

Central Christian, biblical virtues are faith, hope and love. And also humility, modesty, and forgiveness. Aristotle would hardly include those, but to people who grew up in a culture of Christian heritage, even when not being practising Christians, such virtues do seem to have their self-evident place.

So, what virtues when, and in what order?

From Aristotle, Alasdair MacIntyre picked up two things that I want to mention here.

First, the idea that virtues are character traits needed to strive for the good life. They arise in relation to practices, as required to excel in them. Since there is a large variety of practices, it is no surprise that there is a variety of virtues and their constellations. Being a good soccer player requires other virtues than being a good surgeon. They may, however, share some virtues, such as perseverance to achieve excellence. 

It is important to note that this notion of virtues as required for good performance presupposes a notion of what a good practice is, and this notion needs to be shared. The practice entails certain types of actions, and rules of the game. Aristotle was oriented towards the human being as a ‘political’ (i.e. social) animal, and his ethics is oriented towards shared, social practice, a common good. Friendship is having a shared project, a shared interest, with no separate, individual ownership. It is not up to the individual to decide what a good play is. He/she needs to submit to its rigours in order to be a legitimate player. I would compare it to Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘language game’ that I used in preceding items in this blog. 

Now, is there one universal good life for Man? Or is it determined by the community, as Aristotle suggests. As I discussed in preceding items in this blog, that would be fundamentally opposed to liberal individualism. There, choice of the good life is to be left to supposedly autonomous individuals. There should be freedom based on individual preference. How freedom and virtue may be reconciled is discussed in the preceding items in this blog. However that may be, one needs to conform to rules of language games, and a tension with authentic, individual choice remains. 

The second idea that MacIntyre adopted from Aristotle is that virtue is oriented to a life that is good as a whole, oriented to some overarching good, with projects connected in the totality of a life. He then arrives at the following characterization: ‘The good life of Man is the life spent in seeking the good life of Man’[i].

One might then add as a virtue the ability to select projects that contribute to the good life envisaged. There, one needs to find a way between on the one hand coherence and concentration of virtues and skills in a limited range of projects, not to spread one’s talents too thin, and on the other hand variety to explore novel opportunities.

Aristotle does not postulate that one knows beforehand what the good life is, and allows for trial, error, and learning in seeking it. That sits well with the pragmatist approach that I take in this blog. Action forms knowing.

My choice of a good life, which I stated several times in this blog, is as follows. Make the best use of your talents to contribute to what you leave behind after death, which is the only hereafter there is. That gives a meaning to life that transcends one’s own life, but developing and utilizing one’s talents is also gratifying, joyful. This gives a guideline to what projects to choose in the development of one’s life.

What about radical innovation of practice, in ‘creative destruction’? What are the virtues for that? The virtues of rebellion? I mentioned the tension between conformity to rules and developing an authentic self (see items 266 and 268). I will return to that issue in the following item in this blog, in a discussion of Nietzsche an

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, 2015 (first published 1981), p. 219.