Monday, July 31, 2017

326. Values, identity and democracy

An individual is socially constituted, from interaction in its environment. Thus, individual identity feeds from cultural, group identity, and is loaded with shared values one holds dear and is prone to protect.

Democracy aims to achieve compromise, settling differences in interest. In liberalism (in the European, not the American sense), values are not a matter of public concern, but are to be left to individual choice. Behind liberalism and economics lies a utility ethic, looking only at outcomes, regardless of underlying intentions and processes that lead to outcomes. This focus on outcomes facilitates democracy, avoiding conflicts of values that may obstruct negotiation on interests.

However, the increasing sway of neo-liberalism, leading to effects of globalization that are perceived as unjust, perverse effects of markets, and self-interested conduct of leaders (‘elites’) in politics and business, have bred growing protest, and demands for a role of values, and attention to process and intentions, as a matter of public debate. And with that, politics is becoming more a matter of cultural identity. 

The problem with an identity-based politics, however, is that to the extent that the values concerned are more absolute and exclusive, identity becomes sacred, and compromise on the sacred is sacrilege.[i] That obstructs democracy, which requires sober, reasonable debate, in moderation, in search of a golden middle. Identity politics does not seek the middle, but hails the extremes that demand its recognition.

In this blog I also have pleaded for a shift from an ethics merely of outcomes to an ethics also of process and intentions, in the form of a virtue ethics. Now the question is this: does the  problem indicated above undermine my plea for a virtue-based politics? After all, ethics is informed by values, associated with views of what ‘the good life’ is. Is there a danger, then, that my plea intensifies the problems of an identity-based politics? I have a solution to this potential problem. It is twofold. 

First, as I argued early in this blog (in item 10), identity should not be seen as having some essence, which you either have or don’t have, being inside or outside. That makes identity unique and exclusive, blocking democratic debate. Instead, identity is to be seen as multiple, with partial overlaps, and subject to development.

One is member of a variety of groups to identify with, to a greater or lesser extent. Family, neighbourhood, profession, organization where one is employed, sports club, etc., and, yes, also of a nation with its language and history. I proposed (in item 209 in this blog) to see identity as a node in a network of relationships that overlap, more or less, with those of other people.

Those relationships yield access to resources[ii], and people with more sparse, constrained networks have less access. The narrower the network, as in the case of economically, cognitively, socially, culturally and symbolically less endowed classes, the narrower and more pronounced the focus of identity is.

The point here is that when identity is not seen as corresponding with an essence, but as being multiple, there is a basis for openness to others with partly overlapping sources of identity.     

The second part of my answer to a possible problem for virtue politics is as follows. I define virtues as competencies for living what one thinks is the good life. Now, not to provide an obstacle to democratic debate and negotiation, the virtues should be procedural, not substantive, about how people deal with each other, not about what the true good life is. That is indeed, and here I preserve a core of liberalism, to be left to individual choice.

And that is, in fact, as I argued before (in item 305), what the classical, ‘cardinal’ virtues are: reasonableness, courage, moderation, and justice, which are procedural, leaving open the choice of the good life.

Now, formerly society was also segregated, even more radically than now, in blocks, according to religion or political ideology, each with their own churches, schools, unions, regions, neighbourhoods, even shops. Was that not a problem? Somehow the elites at the top of those blocks managed to compromise, run democracy, in varying political coalitions.[iii] 

I wonder: could it be that the old ‘elites’, whose job it was to negotiate democracy, had those cardinal virtues, but have been losing legitimacy as a result of losing them, in unwillingness to be open to other views, lack of courage to take political risks of not satisfying the prejudices of their constituencies[iv], lack of moderation (in pursuing excessive remuneration), and lack of justice (in looking mostly to self-interest, as they were told to do in the economics classes that gained them a position).     

[i] I pick this up from a comment made by Ian Buruma in a discussion, on Dutch TV, on the future of democracy, on July 2nd 2017.
[ii] And to different forms of capital, as suggested by Bourdieu: economic, cognitive, social, cultural, and symbolic. He looked at identity in terms of positions in ‘fields’. I think that networks is better, more specific.
[iii] This is another comment I pick up from Ian Buruma, made in the debate mentioned above.
[iv] Made more difficult, I must admit, by demands for transparency of political deliberation, which earlier could be more secluded.

Friday, July 21, 2017

325. Causes of a crisis of trust

Trust is said to be like clean air: one does not talk about until it is no longer there. And now there is a lot of such talk. The word ‘trust’ careens across daily discourse. Why? Where does the smog of distrust come from?

There is, I propose, a pernicious combination of three conditions: a great need for trust, a lack of courage for it, and a lack of trustworthiness to merit it. I consider each in turn.

First, an increased need for trust arises from an increasing complexity and interdependence in society, in division of labour that went global, with fluid capital and labour, yielding shifts of production and employment, waves of refugees, tax evasion, and pressures on governments to accommodate the demands of multinationals. Lack of trust on these matters has led to revolt against free trade and ruling elites, intolerance regarding refugees, a re-emergence of nationalism, and shelter sought in authoritarian regimes.

In communication, opportunities for connection have exploded on the Internet, with social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. There, lack of trust leads people to cocoon in bubbles of the likeminded, and to blast invective across the media.

Second, there is a lack of courage for trust. Trust entails giving room for actions of others, which yields risk, in room for action against your interest. Without risk there is no relation. It requires courage to accept that, and also resilience, to cope with setbacks and disappointments. I discussed this in an item on adaptiveness (item 321). To cushion courage, one needs some slack, a buffer of time, money and attention, to absorb setbacks. Trust is not being nice to each other: Precisely because there is trust one can give the other ‘a piece of one’s mind’.

Present society, at least in highly developed Western Europe, has become accustomed to risk avoidance. Conditions have to be safe. This leads to the excessive, perverse control of professional work, discussed in the foregoing item in this blog.

To connect with earlier item in this blog (323, 324): Control may be based on scripts, as a generalized frame, but must allow for interpretations and variations depending on the context, as narratives.          

Third, there is a lack of the trustworthiness that is required to deserve trust. In economics classes, prospective managers and politicians have been told that self-interest is a virtue, ‘greed is good’, and efficiency is the basis for prosperity and happiness. But trust requires give-and-take, with openness and awareness of the interests of the other, and some appreciation of the intrinsic value of trust-based relationships. 

Liberalism has won the day, and in liberalism virtue is a private, not a public concern. Debate on morals is seen as a stifling moralism that hampers markets, but trust requires virtues of reasonableness, empathy, openness to others, moderation, and justice, as argued earlier in this blog.

Here, a problem also is the following. In more complex organizations and institutional structures, with division of labour, intertwining interests, roles and positions, responsibilities become diffuse, and blame can be dissolved, across people, and that also undermines trustworthiness. This is part of what earlier I have called ‘system tragedy’.   

Saturday, July 15, 2017

324. Perverse control

In the absence of trust, in present society, professional practice is widely plagued by perverse, excessive, counter-productive control. Oversight is often necessary, but it has gone too far, become perverse, locking professional workers, including teachers, medical doctors, scientific researchers, etc. into protocols, with the goal of preventing accidents, malpractice, cheating, incompetence, and opportunism.

That has perverse effects of failing to achieve the stated objective of efficiency and quality, and indeed achieving an opposite effect, in high costs, decline of motivation, inevitable loopholes, loss of a sense of own responsibility, strategic conduct ‘to beat the system’, resulting in less quality, and lack of room and incentive for experimentation needed for innovation.

In the business literature there is a stream on ‘communities of practice’. There, it is a received wisdom that professional practice is too rich, i.e. too complex, context-dependent and variable, due to accumulating experience and innovation, to be caught in fixed protocols.

Here I aim to dig a little deeper, using the preceding items in this blog. In those terms, the argument against rigorous, formalized, top-down control is that they entail the pretention that practice can be governed by scripts, while in fact it should be seen more in analogy to narrative. The script constitutes the canon, and remains guiding, but should allow for individual variation in interpretation, depending on context and experience. In other words, work should be conducted according to the spirit, not the letter of a script, taking the script as a platform for deviation even if it looks like deviance.

This does not entail full release of control, but room for deviance, subject to argument and subsequent demonstration of success.

There is nothing new in this. It is found also in legal litigation, where law is to be interpreted with allowance for special circumstances and varying perspectives.

In philosophy one finds it in the practical wisdom, ‘phronesis’, proposed by Aristotle.

Earlier in this blog (item 75) I pleaded for ‘horizontal control’, where vertical, top-down imposition of protocols is replaced by debate and negotiation between controller and controlled, where the latter can bring in experience and evidence of deviations from rules that work. By taking part in this, the controller deepens its insight into what works, and thereby becomes an increasingly attractive partner in debate. The aim also is to reduce controls to a minimum, to reduce costs of control, and to ensure that they are feasible and functional, in line with practice.

This yields a concrete form of the otherwise perhaps remote notion of narrative as opposed to scripts. This also connects with the role of ‘voice’ in relationships, mentioned several times in preceding items in this blog.

So, the excess of top-down control is explained, in part, by a misapprehension of the nature of professional work.

Another part of the explanation is cultural, in an excess of risk avoidance, due to lack of resilience, inability to absorb disappointments, setbacks, to fall and get up to go on. A lack of adaptiveness, to connect with a previous blog: lack of flexibility, robustness. Hence the lack of trust. Trust is giving room for action, and that carries risk. Without risk life is lifeless, society stagnates, without trust. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

323. Script and narrative

In this blog (item 31) I presented my theory of invention, in the form of a ‘cycle of discovery’.  To clarify it I used the notion of script (item 35). A script is a structure of connections between nodes that represents and guides action. The nodes represent constituent actions, linked into a coherent whole of a practice. The links represent a sequence, logical implication or causal action, or transfer or sharing of resources. The classical example is that of a restaurant, with nodes of entering, seating, selection, ordering, eating, paying and leaving.

The notion of a script is useful to illustrate the difference between different forms of innovation: change of nodes, the sequence of nodes, the connections between them. Thus the innovation of self-service restaurant entailed a change of sequence: selection, ordering and paying precede seating and eating.  

It also illustrates how there can be levels of innovation, embedded in each other: nodes have their own subscripts: different forms of paying in the payment node, for example. They also have superscripts: how the restaurant is embedded in its environment, in its location, access and parking, in arrival and departure of clients and supplies..

Here I want to elaborate on the notion of scripts, again using an insight from Jerome Bruner, as I did in the preceding item.[i]

Ever since I started using the notion of a script, I have been reflecting on what the ontological status of it is. Is it something given objectively, documented in some written operating procedure, as used for training personnel, perhaps, or as the printed script of a theatrical play? Or is it a mental representation of the process, built by participants in it, perhaps not even deliberate but subconsciously, forming part of ‘tacit knowledge’? In that case, how rigorous or even definite is it? And how idiosyncratic?

Bruner contrasted the script with what he called a ‘narrative’. That has the following features:
1.      It is ‘diachronic’: developing and varying in time
2.      It is particular, not universal but context- and individual-specific
3.      It refers to ‘intentional states’ (belief, desire, fear, ….) and how they are affected by events. It is not a logical or causal explanation. It indicates reasons, not causes.
4.      It is hermeneutic: subject to a variety of interpretation. It does not carry a single ‘true’ or ‘correct’ meaning but yields an intuitively appealing account.
5.      It is not only the case that he meaning of the whole depends on that of the parts, but also the other way around: the meaning of the parts depends on that of the whole, depending on the context. Bruner notes that this narrative comprehension is one of the earliest moves of mind to appear in the young child.

Concerning the last point Bruner also refers to the ‘hermeneutic circle’, which I discussed (in item 36 of this blog) and used as an example of the emergence, in the emergence and shift of meaning, in the preceding item on emergence.

And now the point is this. Narratives require scripts as necessary background, but those do not constitute the narrative itself. Scripts are often implicit, and may be breached ‘from a precipitative event’, which leads one to see things in a different light. Narratives vary with context and individual while ‘maintaining complicity with the canon’.

Two things, now. First, this is strongly reminiscent of the distinction de Saussure made between ‘langue’, which is the canon, and deviations and variations from it, in ‘parole’, which I mentioned in the preceding item in this blog.

Going back to invention, there is a canon of established ‘normal practice’, in a script, which may or may not be written down, as the ‘langue’ of the practice, but it allows for idiosyncratic and contextual variation, the ‘parole’ of invention, and that is what drives invention from application in novel contexts, as argued in my ‘cycle of discovery’.   

[i] Jerome Bruner, The narrative construction of reality, Critical Equiry, 18/1 (1991), 1-21.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

322. Reference and constitution

In this blog a leading principle is that of philosophical pragmatism. It can be summarized as follows: the human being perceives, senses, feels and thinks according to mental processes that guide actions but are also formed by them, in interaction with its environment, especially other people.

As a result, the human being is socially constituted. However, every individual is also unique in its mental construction along its individual life path.

In other words, to connect with the preceding items in this blog, the individual is emergent, in its mental construction. Its parts constitute an identity, as a coherent subject, which is not present in its parts. And while its path of development is constrained by genetic potential, its outcome cannot be predicted. It is uncertain as a result of interaction between self and other. Hence relationships also are emergent.

This presents a major challenge to economic science, as will be argued in later items.

Here I want to add to previous discussions of meaning (items 32, 168 in this blog). There I used the distinction between reference and sense (derived from the work of Frege), but with a twist. Reference is what an expression refers to. The word ‘cat’ refers to the collection of all cats. Sense was defined by Frege as ‘The way in which something is given’, the way it presents itself. I turned that into ‘the way in which we identify’, i.e. how we identify something as something. How we identify some animal as a cat.

I argued that the latter, sense, is idiosyncratic, with largely personal connotations attached to the concept, collected along one’s path of life. We have all had a variety of experiences with different cats. This connects with the distinction that de Saussure made between ‘langue’, the given shared understanding of meaning, at any moment, and ‘parole’, idiosyncratic language use that varies between people and over time.

Here I want to add to that discussion, using an insight from Jerome Bruner[i], a philosopher who has been an important source of inspiration in several aspects of my work. The idea I want to pick up from him here is that in much of our thought and talk we ‘do not refer to the world but constitute it’. That captures well the idea, originating with Kant, that we cannot observe the world as it is in itself, but construe a virtual reality, a rendering of the world and our position in it. That is how we make sense of the world.

Much of that is not conscious, not a matter of rational reflection, let alone a testing of hypotheses.

Let’s face it: this constitution of our view of the world entails prejudice. Among other things, that yields a problem concerning claims of objective scientific knowledge. That claim lies not in individual objectivity but in debate between scientists, and is imperfect also there.    

It also fits with the idea that the knowing and sensemaking subject is not an objective, outside onlooker of the world, but part of it, constituting itself in it. That is found, for example, in Heidegger’s notion of ‘being in the world’.

So, there is constitution in a double sense. The individual is constituted by action and interaction in the world, and in the process it constitutes a representation, a virtual reality of that world. Since it is done in interaction with others there is some commonality, some shared sense and understanding, shaped in part by shared language (langue) and other forms of culture, as well as idiosyncrasy (parole), which yields the variety that feeds renewal of sense and purpose, both private and public. This is a crucial thing about humanity and society.           

[i] Jerome Bruner, The narrative construction of reality, Critical Enquiry, 18/1 (1991), 1-21.