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.