Saturday, April 22, 2017


312. The law, the market, and honour

The law is imposed, regardless of one’s inclination, interest or morality. The market is self-regulating, in theory, based only on self-interest.

Imperfections and limits of laws and markets raise the need for morality, based on some form of ethics. Best known, perhaps, is Kantian duty ethics. In this blog I have argued for a broader virtue ethics, with, among others, the ‘pivotal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation and justice.

The problem with duty ethics and also, though perhaps to a lesser extent, with virtue ethics, is that they are largely driven by reason and may therefore lack motivating force, particularly in the present, which seems increasingly driven by emotions.

How can morality, in benevolence towards others, and virtues, as instruments of ‘the good life’, gain emotional commitment? In other words, how can they become more self-driven, self-motivating, like markets, while maintaining the orientation towards the well-being of others, unlike markets?

The desirability of this is two-fold. First, it adds intrinsic value of self-motivation, making one feel good. Second, there is an economic argument. The law, duties, and other regulation require expensive monitoring and control.

In my attempt to bring in virtues, beyond self-interest, into economics and politics, in this blog, I have tried to maintain personal freedom of the choice of the good life. For that, I made a distinction between public virtues, to be shared, and personal virtues, left to individual choice.

Public virtues are virtues of allowing for, indeed appreciating, variety of choice of the good life, ability and commitment to listen, and to voice as well as accept constructive criticism, in dialogues and debates on truth and morality, empathy in understanding the motives and positions of others. One would like to have not only personal commitment to the common good of such public virtues, but also commitment to uphold it in public.

How can this goal be loaded with emotional commitment?

Kwame Anthony Appiah offered a solution in the form of a restoration of honour, under the condition that it is morally right.[i] The latter condition is crucial, since honour in the past has strongly tended to be amoral, yielding exclusion, subjugation, violence and terror. Appiah discusses the cases of duelling, footbinding in China, slave trade, and honour killings of women.

Appiah clarifies honour as follows. People have a deeply rooted thirst for respect, and following an honour code yields that, either publicly or privately, in self-respect, or both. As Appiah put it: honour makes a private impulse public.

For positive examples, think of professional honour codes of soldiers, policemen, doctors, scientists, journalists, and, one would hope, managers and politicians.

With the encroachment of neo-liberal market ideology, such hour codes have eroded, replaced by material incentives, and a shift from professional honour to a substitute in the form of power and wealth. That has yielded a mushrooming of costs of monitoring and control.

Elsewhere in this blog (item 75) I argued for a the notion of ‘horizontal control’, where the ones to be controlled are involved in the determination of the instruments of control. There were two arguments for this. One is the satisfaction of more autonomy, with more room for choice, action and improvisation, for its intrinsic worth and its economic worth of motivation, quality, and innovation. The second is the reduced economic cost of monitoring and control.

However, here also, to strengthen motivation, one may need to re-instate professional or organizational honour.

For example, consider the experience with perverse conduct in financial markets that precipitated the crises starting in 2008. To remedy this, I proposed the introduction of other virtues than only utility. And institutional reform to reduce the incentives for bankers and banks to act against public interest. And to reduce the short-termism of financial markets,

Only then, I argued, would some ethical education of bankers make sense. One needs to create the conditions for ethical conduct to be viable. Now I add that this may, in addition, require a re-instatement, or a novel formation, of professional honour, to make virtuous conduct more self-regulating.            

[i] The honor code; How moral revolutions happen, New York Norton, 2010.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


311. Reason contributes freedom to the will

According to what I will call ‘the brain boys’, there is no freedom of the will because what we choose or decide is determined by brain processes we are not aware of. We rationalize choice afterwards, when we become aware of it.

This is not new: it was asserted already by Spinoza, and by Nietzsche.

I had a discussion on this with Dick Swaab, a well-known Dutch author in this field. He defines Free Will as follows: the ability to take a different decision under precisely the same conditions. That is impossible. Given the setting (‘conditions’), our choices are determined, they could not have been otherwise. We cannot correct or change them by reason. This is classical determinism.

One can hardly disagree with this. It seems to be saying: the same causes yield the same outcomes; other outcomes require other causes. Thus, the statement is not very informative. It seems necessarily true, hence not falsifiable, and hence, according to a received view, not scientific (which requires falsifiability).

My definition of free will, following the philosopher Kant, is as follows: conscious, rational deliberation has an effect on our conduct. I immediately add that this effect is very limited, and indirect, acting though neural processes that entail much else, as I argued earlier in his blog, in item 5 (posted 27-07-2012). I then put it as follows: our consciousness is not in control but it does affect choice.  

Our decisions are determined mostly, often entirely, by unconscious reflex, impulse, routine or heuristic. However, conscious reason does have an effect, more or less, and to that extent there still is free will, according to my definition.    

For Swaab (I checked this with him) such conscious deliberation does play a role, and is part of the ‘conditions’ that effect the unconscious decision. So, we agree, in spite of our difference in definition of free will. 

Thank God much of the workings of our brain are unconscious, in a similar way that it is a blessing that we are not conscious of our digestion (if it goes well), our bloodstream, and the production and injection of hormones into it, and their absorption into our metabolism.

There is the familiar notion of ‘tacit knowledge’: ‘we know more than we can tell’, we know things, and have skills, we are not aware of and could not explain. It is often built by exercise and then becomes tacit. Think of a carpenter, a surgeon, an art critic, a sportsman.

Many years ago, in Lisbon, I tried to draw money from an ATM, but the screen displayed a sign ‘communication disturbed’. I thought that meant a technical breakdown in the communication system, and tried again a bit later, with the same result. I then realized that whereas the number pads of ATM’s in my home country count from top to bottom, here they counted van bottom to the top, so that the habitual movement of my fingers on the pad produced a wrong number. I did not know the number: it was embodied in an unconscious movement of my fingers. I had to mentally reproduce the number from the movement of my fingers on an imaginary screen, of the type I was used to, and transform that to a different, awkward feeling, conscious movement on the Portuguese screen.

Let us picture the brain as having two parts: the unconscious and the conscious. Now choice may proceed along several paths, as follows:
1.      Directly from perception to an unconscious decision.
2.      The process then moves on from the unconscious decision to the conscious, in awareness of the choice. That may indeed produce a rationalization that in fact had no causal influence on the choice.
3.      Perception triggers the conscious, which conceives of reasons, which are then fed into the unconscious decision making process, with more or less effect on it. The greater the effect the freer we are. Whether, to what extent and how the conscious and the unconscious are triggered depends on the setting, and is subject to ‘priming’.

When consciousness is on the afterburner, as in 2, it may contribute, as an ‘input’, to the ongoing construction of neural networks that produce future choices. This saves the rationale for punishment (apart from the rationale of retribution): it affects the future making of unconscious choice (in normal, not pathological brains).

Now the interesting question, to me, is to what extent, and in what way, conscious reason has an effect in the choice process.

For an example, let me take trust. That is heavily loaded by emotions, often yielding unconscious ‘gut response’. However, as I discussed at length in his blog, it is also amenable to reason, in analysing reasons for people to be trustworthy, such as dependence, reputation, incentives, morality, position, responsibilities, and outside pressure to cheat. It would be interesting to find out how the two come together, or not, in the decision making process.          

Saturday, April 8, 2017


310.  Connecting the separate worlds of the mindless and the mindful

I am puzzled by the ongoing debate between the mindless and the mindful. I came across it again in a review, in the March Issue 2017 of the New York Review of Books, of a recent book by Daniel Dennet, protagonist of the mindless, by Thomas Nagel, defender of the mindful.

According to the mindless, all we have in our brains is neural structures of physical/chemical entities and processes. Minds, in reality, are ‘nothing but that’. Subjective experience of consciousness is an illusion. A useful illusion, but illusory nevertheless, ‘not part of reality in the way the brain is’. Dennet c.s. claim ‘that the representations that underlie human behaviour are found in neural structures of which we know very little’.        

The mindful, by contrast, claim that ‘our subjective inner lives are not describable merely in physical terms’.

The two views are said to belong to ‘separate worlds’ that cannot be combined. I disagree.

This is an old debate, going back to Descartes’ separation of mind and matter, soul and body.  

In this blog I have adopted the argument that our mental structures are indeed physical, in patterns of neural connection, and arise from action in the world, according to a Darwinian process in which network patterns survive, in mutual competition, according to perceived success, in the form of perceived well-being.

Most of this is indeed subconscious. However, those structures in the brain are representations, not as mirror images but as mappings, of experience, from interaction with a world of physical objects and other people, with their use of language, shared symbolic orders and corresponding social structures and processes. To understand mental structures it helps to study such influences from outside.

Perhaps this is similar to the way in which species represent the selection environments they evolve in.

The body is built from the food it eats. The brain is built from the experience it feeds on. 

This indeed implies that our subjective inner lives ‘are not describable merely in physical terms’. Sooner or later, perhaps the gap will be closed, when subjective experiences, as functions of our dealings with the world, can be rendered in terms only of neural networks.

But precisely because, as Dennet avows, we know very little of these neural structures, we need the non-physical to make headway in explaining cognition. Understanding underlying physical structures and processes will require some understanding of the non-physical factors that generate their construction.

Admittedly, the physical structures of the brain generate illusions, more or less, of consciousness, free will, and knowledge of truth, but these illusions are real in their consequences as we act upon them, in judgement, speech and other communicative action, the outcomes of which feed back into construction of the reality of the physical inside the brain.

So, the two worlds are connected, and it is silly to maintain their separation.                  

Saturday, April 1, 2017


309. Being involved, in knowledge, nature, and organization

It is an old idea and ideal of knowledge, starting with the ancient Greeks and continuing into modern Western philosophy, with RenĂ© Descartes, to see knowledge as contemplation of an eternal truth. That contemplation is also the root meaning of the word ‘theory’. The knowing subject is a spectator, standing outside the object that is contemplated.

This spectator theory of knowledge has had far ranging implications, spilling over beyond theory of knowledge and science, into views of nature, and of organizations, in management.

In Western philosophy of knowledge it yielded the claim of objective knowledge, and the Cartesian duality of mind and body, and in theory of meaning, with meaning seen as reference to something.  Concerning knowledge, the problem then was how cognition is able to grasp reality without being part of it, immersed in it. That yielded the split between idealism, where reality is seen as conceived mentally, and realism, where mind is seen as an inscription in the brain of reality by means of elementary perception.

A better position, in my view, arose in American pragmatist philosophy, some 100 years ago (with Peirce, James, and Dewey), adopted in different ways by continental philosophers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. Its view, which I adopt, is the constructivist one that cognitive structures guide action but are also formed in it. Not a static  view of contemplation but a process view of involvement. One tries to assimilate perception and experience in existing mental structures, but when fit fails, the mind accommodates to the misfits, in some way, elaborated earlier in this blog. In this way, the knowing subject is involved in the object, and vice versa.

This creates a problem of truth, since knowledge now is a mental construction. In pragmatist philosophy, objective truth is replaced by the notion of ‘warranted assertibility’, where ‘working’ in practice is an important criterion of ‘truth’ or ‘warrant’. Meanings of words depend on use, in ‘language games’, as Wittgenstein proposed. Truth is not a given outcome but a process of dialogue.

The implication is that while scientists should to their utmost to be objective and detached, they cannot fully succeed, and they should recognize that even their thought is involved in premises, disciplinary perspectives and methods, and value judgements, implicit or explicit, in choices and the framing of research questions. To mend this, scientists need to be involved in application of their results, and the ‘stakeholders’ associated with it need to be involved in the formulation of goals and the application of research.

Concerning nature, the outside view, separating man from his environment, has led to an instrumental, manipulative practice, increasingly destructive of the environment. This is connected with the dominant value and virtue of utility in liberal, Western thought, which neglects the intrinsic value of nature, and virtues of care. Instead, dealing with nature should be based on a feeling of being involved in nature.  

In management theory and practice, the outside view sees people as instruments, neglecting the intrinsic value of human relationships, and virtues of justice. Economic theory of organization has been governed by the idea that a ‘principal’ (a nicer word than ‘boss’) governs an ‘agent’ (a nicer word than ‘labourer’), sets the goals and targets that the agent must achieve. Supervision is seen as control, measuring performance against pre-set standards.

The absurd situation then arises that people are employed, as professionals, in present ‘knowledge  society’, because they have knowledge and skills that management does not have and yet management, as the ‘principal’, has the pretence of being able to judge what the professionals do.  

In the neo-liberal drive of privatization and liberalization of public services (such as health care), and market-like incentives in services that are still run publicly, this idea of control has also proliferated, in top-down ‘accounting for performance’, according to set protocols. This is done in spite of the scientific literature on ‘communities of practice’, which shows that professional practice is too complex and variable, because context-dependent, to be caught in such protocols.

This type of control turned out to be needed because markets don’t really work when users cannot judge quality of the ‘product’ (as in health care). So what was started from a market ideology of freedom from interference, laissez faire, ended up in a baroque rigmarole of control.

There is an alternative form of ‘horizontal’ form of control that entails involvement of the control agency in the object of control, which is involved in the specification and application of controls (see item 75 of this blog).