Saturday, October 23, 2021


Here I start a series of fourteen pieces on dilemmas. They are mostly longer than previous items in this blog; u to some 2000 words. For each dilemma, I discuss arguments for one side of the dilemma, then for the other side, then for my own position, and I end with questions for discussion. The pieces are suitable for discussion in a class of students. When the series is finished, I will collect the items in a book that I will post on my website, from where it can be downloaded. 

524. Unity and diversity

A proponent of unity will argue that unity is needed, in equality under the law and institutions, customs, morality and language. Institutions are defined as rules that enable and constrain individual conduct. Measures against Covid entail constraint in movement and contact, to avoid an overextension of health care, and work only if different people conform. In fact, people differ in their opnions to what extent the measures are indeed needed, effective, and morally justified.

A nationalist craves unity of culture. The term culture has five meanings. First, it is something man-made, in contrast with nature. Second, it has the anthropological meaning of customs and habits, of religious belief, political conviction, dress, food, sports, dance etc. Third, it has the meaning of heritage, of architecture, art, folklore, myths, legal system, infrastructure, science, political system, constituting civilisation. Fourth, it has the meaning of transgressing boundaries, discovery, as with a discoverer, adventurer, scientist, artist or innovator. Fifth, it lies in a sense of belonging, of being embraced in unity.

The nationalist wants to impose a shared, homogeneous national culture, but at the same time wants to distinguish, even separate, it from that of other nations, It goes back, in particular, to the German philosopher Herder.

In protests, festivals and sports events, mobs can be lured into a unity, glued by shared emotions. A cause of that is that on the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, emotions are mostly equal among people. On the lowest level, the base of the pyramid, are physiological needs of air, food, fight, and sex, in which people are similar, on the next level up there are needs of safety, shelter and defense, then needs of social recognition and respect, and then, at the top of the pyramid, much more individualised intellectual and spiritual needs of self-realisation. The lower needs are the most deeply embedded, resulting from early needs of survival, in human evolution, and those are more equal between people than the higher needs, which are accompanied by differences in personality. With the more common and deeper emotions on the lower levels, the mob can explode in collective frenzy, ferocity and violence.

For examples of pernicious variety, in discord, see the polarisation under president Trump, even while he is no longer president, and in the emerging discord concerning the need and legitimacy of freedom-restricting measures against Covid-19.


The proponent of diversity, by contrast, argues that diversity is needed for freedom, and to prevent exclusion, on the basis of democracy. Dahl (1984) disdcussed polyarchy, rule by the many, in opposition to monarchy or oligarchy, and plurality as opposed to monism.

Another argument for diversity is that it is needed for renewal. Evolution is based, among other things, on variety. The other two priciples of evolution are selection by a selection environment, in survival of the fittest, and transmission of characteritics of the survivors to the next generation. In biology, generation of variety takes the form of the random mutation or copying errors of genes, and the cross-over of chromosomers, in sexual reproduction. In the economy, diversity is needed for rivalry and for variety in the ‘novel combinations’ of innovation. Rivalry generates the incentive of competition that produces efficiency, and yields experiments in different directions, improving the chance that something viable will come up. Unity can yield uniformity in a system, and that is likely to succumb to a shift of environment, such as climate change, thus making the system vulnerable. With variety, it is more likely that part of the system fits the new conditions. People want variety for individual expression, authenticity.

There is a variety of personality traits. Psychologists largely concur in using the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, although with different shades of meaning (Digman, 1990: 421-7):

Extraversion: action-oriented, daring, exploratory, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, thymos

Neuroticism: feeling vulnerable, suspicious, depressive, pessimistic.

Conscientiousness: will to achieve, dependability, task interest, conformity, superego strength, prudence, work, constraint and self-control.

Agreeability: friendliness, conformity, compliance, likeability, love, sociability, socialisation, resonance, the opposite of paranoia, hostility, indifference, self-centeredness, spitefulness and jealousy.

Openness: inquiring intellect, intelligence, culture, independency. Among scholars, variation and ambiguity of interpretation are greatest concerning this category of openness/intelligence (Digman, 1990: 433).

The notion of ‘thymos’ goes back to ancient Greece. Thymos is the drive of the human being to manifest itself in action. Plato gave a metaphor of reason as a charioteer holding in check two wild horses of desire and thymos, not in order to stop them, but to keep them from bolting and to direct them.

The big five personality traits have been used, for example, in studies of how people experience Covid-19 and act in response to it and the rules imposed against it. (Blagov, 2020; Hengartner et al., 2016). For example, when lacking conscientiousness and agreeability, extraversion may attend only to personal freedom, violating the regulations imposed against Covid.

Nettle (2006) asked the question how there can be such variety of personality. Would selection in evolution not have selected out the trait with greatest adaptive value? His answer was that the traits have costs and benefits, depending on the environment, such as climate, geography of the habitat, geology, scarcity, and those have varied much in evolution, favouring now this trait, then that. Neuroticism, for example, seems deleterious, but can be adaptive in a dangerous, threatening environment, to avoid threat, hide, and take precautions. Nettle gave several examples in animal life. One was that of a certain kind of bird, which in dry climates needed a strong beak of a certain shape, to crack hard nuts, while in a rainy climate, the nuts were softer, and such a beak would not be adaptive. More widely, when there is abundance of food, there are more competitors, according to Nettle, and strength and agression pay, but when food is scarce there are fewer competitors, and strength is wasted, and agression yields an unnecessary risk.

People never have identical ideas. Ideas always carry personal associations, accumulated along a path of life. One assimilates one’s ideas in present frames of mind, and when that does not fit, one accommodates that frame. I will later tell how that process works This yields cognitive distance between people (Nooteboom, 2000).


It is clear that we need some combination of unity and diversity, on the ground that arguments on both sides of the dilemma apply. Laws and regulations must be general, but there needs to be the possibility of deviations in the case of calamities.

            However, organisations need to limit internal variety of ideas, cognitive distance, to some extent, in organisational focus (Nooteboom 2009), to orient knowledge and competence needed to achieve a shared purpose, to attract fitting employees, and to offer ways of getting along and resolving conflicts. This is done on the basis of organisational culture, with shared ethics, symbols, role models, procedures and rituals. This limitation of variety for the sake of unity is needed to avoid ongoing negotiation and misunderstandings that obstruct the realisation of purpose. How far this goes, in the reduction of cognitive distance, depends on the purpose of the organisation. Firms oriented at efficiency need a comparatively narrow focus, and firm oriented at exploration and innovation need a comparatively wide one, to allow for the diversity needed for innovation. Diversity can be a problem, but also an opportunity. However, one can compensate for the myopia of a narrow internal focus by collaborating with outside others with a different focus. One can then seek partners at sufficient cognitive distance to provide novelty but not so large as to prevent mutual understanding.

According to the wisdom of the crowds (Surowiecki, 2004), one can benefit from variety of expectations, estimates, ideas. A condition is that the members of the crowd give their contribution independently. Meetings can have perverse effects, of sliding into group think (Solomon, 2006), when someone with authority or charisma drags others along in his/her opinion, or when there is pressure towards consensus. In information cascades people can successively ‘contaminate’ others to follow their lead, as in beauty contests, elections, valuation of stocks, and conspiracy theories. In all these cases, variety collapses in perverse unity. A puzzle in utilising diversity of inputs is how to select for relevance. An input may be too far off, but a divergent input can be the most interesting. An answer to this puzzle is to select according to subject, not content.

How diverse can rules and regulations be, in tailoring them to personal taste, needs or conditions? There is a tendency to erect Christmas trees of regulation on the occasion of newly discovered inequities, often with the result of regulations that are too complicated and expensive to apply. Up to what point are claims to special needs to be honoured? Take the compensations for loss of economic revenue due to measures against Covid -19. Choices were made but then some businesses were left out of the boat.

There has been an accumulation of controls to close all possible loopholes for improper practice, which now stifles the performance of many public services, such as health care, schooling, building, transport, care for the elderly, energy provison, etc. At the same time, this control is disabled by the loss of compentence for it that arose in hiving of public services in privatisation and decentralisation. The complexity of control has increased, while the competence for it has declined.

The explosion of control is fuelled by an inability to resist ever more differentiated claims, special pleading, crowbarred into rigid procedures, with distrust, suspicion of fraud. An issue that arose recently in the Netherlands, was that someone on welfare received gifts of shopping for foods from her mother and now has to repay it, as a penalty. There is little room for empathy for deviatons from procedures, which are often due to mistakes or errors of understanding or interpretation by citizens, who are then immediately seen as culprits. Civil servants executing the regulations should be given more room for, an eye for mistakes and hardship, allowing for some deviation from the rule. However, that requires more information on living conditions, invading privacy, is expensive, and yields inequality, and room for nepotism and corruption.


For mathematical adepts, I offer the notion of Entropy, which yields a conceptual instrument for looking at unity and diversity, order and chaos. It derives from a law of thermodynamics that a system not fed by its environment decays, in loss of order and distinction from its environment, its identity. A pot of boiling water cools down when taken from the fire. Its temperature gets equal to that of its environment. Organisms need to interact with their environment, taking in nourishment and excreting waste, in order to keep their distinctive structure and functioning, and live. Life is a struggle against increasing disorder, entropy, striving for its opposite, negentropy.

            The mathematical formula for entropy E of a system of n elements i of incidence, probability or ‘weight’ pi is E= −

pi logpi. E is a measure of a lack of organisation, in the sense of many elements having little distinction,.the same weight. For a system of two units of equal pi=½, E = 1, called a bit. For a system of four elements of equal pi 1/4, E = 2 or two bits. For a system with eight elements of equal pi , E = 3 or three bits. For a system with n states of equal pi, E = logn. A computational advantage of the log function is that log1/ n = −logn. E increases with the number of elements n and their ‘evenness’, i.e. equality of pi, The effect of the number of elements is illustrated above, with E increasing as n goes from two to eight. The decrease of E with the ‘unevenness’ of pi is as follows: For the case with three elements, with equal pi = 1/ 3, E =1.58, and with p1 = 2/ 4, p2 = 1/ 4, p3 = 1/ 4, E = 1.5.


-          Do you lean towards unity or diversity

-          Do you see ways to combine them that are not discussed above

-          Have you witnessed group think

-          Which personality traits of the Big Five do you have

-          What other personality traits do you see


 Dahl,R. ‘(1984), ‘Polyarchy, pluralism and scale, Scandinavian Political Studies, 7/4: 225-40.

Blagov, P.S. (2020), ‘Adaptive and dark personality in the Covid-19 pandemic: Predicting health behavior endorsement and the appeal of pubic-health messages.’, Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, an advance publication

Digman, J.M. (1990), ‘Personality structure: emergence of the Five-Factor model’, Annual Review of Psychology, 41 417-40.

Hengartner, M.P., W. Kawohl, H Haker, W. Rössler and V. Ajdacic-Gross (2016), ‘Big fivepersonalitytraits may inform public health policy and preventive medicine: Evidence from acrosssectional and prespective longitudinal epidemiological study in a Swiss commmunity’, JournalofPsychosomatic Research, 84.44-51. 

 Nettle, D. (2006), ‘The evolution of personality variation in humans and other animals’, American Psychologist, 11/6: 622-31

 Nooteboom.(2000), Learning and innovation in organisations and economies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

---------------(2009), A cognitive theory of the firm; Learning, governance and dynamic capabilities, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.

 Solomon, M. (2006), ‘Group think versus the wisdom of the crowds:The social epistemology of deliberation and dissent’,The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 44: 28-40.

 Surowiecki, J.(2004), The wisdom of crowds, 

No comments:

Post a Comment