Archive of ‘politics’ category

Social Contracts in the Game of Life

“We are all players in the game of life, with divergent aims and aspirations that make conflict inevitable. In a healthy society, a balance between all these differing aims and aspirations is achieved so that the benefits of cooperation are not entirely lost in internecine strife. Game theorists call such a balance an equilibrium. Sustain such equilibria requires the existence of commonly understood conventions about how behaviour is to be coordinated. It is such a system of coordinating conventions that I shall identify with a social contract.”
– Ken Binmore, Game Theory and the Social Contract, Volume 1: Playing Fair, 1996, p6

Ken Binmore

Ken Binmore

And there you have it. One of the most straight-forward articulations (assuming if you understand the concept of ‘equilibrium’) of what a social contract is and why we might want one, and it appears but six pages in to Binmore’s epic two volume series on game theory and the social contract. I’m going to enjoy reading this.

But Binmore has other tidy revelations in the following pages, such as that the Left is often misguided because it proposes contracts that break through ‘feasibility constraints’, and as a result, proposes utopias that are inherently unstable.

The Right, on the other hand, values a nice stable equilibrium so much that it clings to yesterday’s contract and resists change that might bring about an improved contract – often resisting it to the point where the only possibility of change becomes revolutionary change.

A final tid bit – of particular pertinence to politicians –  is that one ought to always consider the feasible before considering the optimal. Another way of putting this is to say that, prior to criticising the status quo, one ought to consider the next best feasible option, and if it’s worse than the status quo, then one ought to reconsider one’s criticism.

We need more game theorists contributing to philosophy, IMO.

Two Arguments Against Libertarianism

Libertarianism – in a coarse telling – is political philosophy that places primacy on individual freedom over all other values. As such, it’s often placed in contrast to traditional political notions that advocate some limits to freedom, such as liberalism (economic regulation, but personal freedom) and conservatism (personal regulation, but economic freedom).

It’s not the most popular political orientation; a 2006 PEW study found only 9% of Americans polled fell in to the libertarian category compared to 18% liberal and 15% conservative. However, libertarianism appears to be particularly popular amongst those who are wealthy and well educated.

It’s also popular amongst economists, for libertarianism is quite compatible with some of the key assumptions that underlie  modern day free market economics: such as that behaviour is driven by self-interested rational agents. For these agents, interference in their behaviour restricts their ability to pursue their own preferences. From this point of view, the only role of the government ought to be to enforce property rights, manage contracts and provide a few true public goods, like defence, roads and basic infrastructure. Everything else is left to individuals to figure out for themselves, according to their free will.

Libertarianism can seem an appealing philosophy from a purely rational perspective. Why have a government interfere with my life, telling me what I should and shouldn’t want – or can and can’t do? As long as I don’t interfere with the ability of others to pursue their personal goals and preferences, I should be free to pursue my own ends unhindered. And, furthermore, in doing so, we can advance the ends of all individuals care of the magic of the invisible hand.

However, there’s a chink in libertarianism’s armour. In fact, there are two.

First is the assumptions it makes about human psychology – such as that we are capable of understanding and articulating our preferences and that we’re able to act upon them rationally, i.e. that we’re Homo economicus.

In fact, the truth is quite different. Preferences are often obscure. There are long term and short term preferences. Imagined and real. Needs and wants. And often the preferences we articulate are not in accordance to the things that actually benefit us or make us happy.

Often our decisions cause us – and others – harm. And in retrospect, we often regret many of our decisions and wish someone had encouraged us to do otherwise. Or our decisions are manipulated, either by other individuals, or by the environment at large. Or, most sinisterly, by those with vested interests, such as politicians or companies trying to encourage you to buy their product, whether you need it or not.

Libertarianism is rather unforgiving of behaviour that leads to self-harm, yet many of us have strong desires to prevent others from causing themselves harm, even if that means limiting their freedom – such as the freedom to gamble away all their money or the freedom for companies to advertise sweet and fatty foods to children.

Then there’s the second chink: libertarianism makes for an unstable society.

Common habits, customs and traditions – as well as common moral values – bind a community together and encourage cooperation. A highly libertarian society, with a vast diversity of values and customs, is a fractured society, without the bonds of common culture except those that emerge in pockets as people of similar preferences gather together (and, I’d suggest, establish rules of behaviour, which limit personal freedom).

Certainly, the market can enable high levels of cooperation in terms of production, but a strongly libertarian market is largely unregulated. That can lead to great inequities emerging, and that can also destabilise the society.

Or take a personal practice like polygany – the taking of multiple wives. Libertarians would hesitate to regulate such a behaviour, yet polygany can also destabilise society. A deficit of potential mates increases levels of male competition for status, often leading to violent conflict.

Consider many of the limits on freedom advocated by liberals and conservatives. They come at the issue from different directions, but they’re both trying to achieve the same end: bind communities together and encourage cooperation.

Liberals do this by limiting the ability of some to gain disproportionate power over the group and exploiting that power for their own ends. They also attempt to lift up the most disadvantaged, bringing more people in to the pool of cooperators rather than letting them drop off the edge. Liberals are less interested in the effort one puts in as the results that come out.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seek to regulate personal freedoms – customs, habits, practices etc. Taboos are common, with behaviours steered towards a common ground. This also binds communities together through like beliefs, traditions and prohibitions.

Food taboos in religion are like this. They might start as health initiatives, but they rapidly become instruments of conformity. And a highly conforming community is more likely to trust each other and cooperate.

Libertarians – at least extreme libertarians – sacrifice the egalitarianism of liberalism and the social binding of conservatism for hyper-individuality.

Libertarianism is an appealing idea if you hold human agency and freedom above all else. However, it has its weaknesses. Freedom is certainly worth having, but at what cost?

Evolution and Politics: Third Time Lucky

The history of the fusion of evolution and politics isn’t one to be terribly proud of, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an exciting future. And I happen to think it does have an exciting future, hence my concern not to be lumped in with efforts from the past.

Evolution and politics first locked eyes across the room in the company of Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinism movement. However, the Social Darwinists made a couple of pivotal mistakes.

Herbert SpencerThe first was to assume that evolution had an intrinsic progressive quality. Thus one organism could be called more evolved than another, despite Darwin himself rejecting that very notion. As a result, the Social Darwinists saw evolution as justifying inequality and suffering if it furthered the ends of evolution itself; if it yielded more evolved organisms. And, clearly, the wealthy and powerful were more successful than the poor and powerless. So be it, they said, it’s all for the better. Well, wrong.

The second mistake they made was to derive an ought from an is. They saw evolution as being natural, thus being good, sneakily slipping in the shaky premise that everything that is natural is good. Well, again, wrong.

EO_WilsonRound two came in the 1970s with the Sociobiology movement. This was a far more nuanced philosophy, large parts of which are still alive and kicking today under the moniker evolutionary psychology. However, Sociobiology proponents such as E.O. Wilson often – and perhaps unconsciously – made the slip from is to ought all too easily. As a result, descriptive notions – such as those concerning aggression, sexual inequality or nationalism – sometimes sounded an awful lot like apologising for the behaviours that result.

Now… round three.

Peter Singer(Actually, a brief mention of round two-point-five. Peter Singer’s cheeky little book, A Darwinian Left, is a worthwhile read for an alternative perspective on how evolution can inform political thinking from a purely descriptive level. Singer suggests that we cannot draw any prescriptive values from evolution, but we can draw some prescriptive lessons by using evolution to better understand human psychology. Thus you might value happiness, or empathy, or altruism – or if you’re conservative: competition, achievement, stability etc – and then use evolutionary psychology, amongst other things, to figure out the best way to promote those values.  Nice idea, but really only extends the notion of using out best descriptive tools to further our chosen ends. Nothing terribly revolutionary about that.)

Now… round three.

Central to my current research is the idea that, on the descriptive level, evolution might not provide insight in to any one political ideology, but might explain the very diversity of political ideologies we see in the world today and throughout history. That’s a long way from the notion that evolutionary explanations somehow suggest there should be less diversity in human behaviour.

Often an individual’s political views will be influenced by their intuitive and emotional responses to particular issues – and these intuitive and emotional responses are shaped, at least in part, by evolution. And evolution equips us not with just a limited number of consistent intuitions or emotions, but with a vast diversity of intuitions and emotions, often in conflict and tension with each other.

But evolution is canny. It hasn’t just equipped us with any old intuitions and emotions. It’s equipped us with a selection that helped us to solved many of the reoccurring problems that confronted our ancestors. Chief amongst these problems was: how the hell do you get a bunch of non-related individuals to cooperate for mutual benefit without defecting on each others’ arses?

And, crucially, there are multiple answers to that question – no one best, but some better than others in certain situations. Think of it like an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. In a population of Nice strategies, it’s beneficial to be Nice. However, in a population of Nasty strategies, it pays to be Nasty. And everything in between. From a descriptive point of view, I think this goes a long way to explaining the robustness of the political spectrum.

But what about the leap from descriptive to prescriptive? Without falling in to the is/ought trap, I think there are some prescriptive lessons we can gain from this.

One is that evolution can help us understand where our values come from in the first place. If your values are based around compassion, or cooperation, or even competition, there might be very good evolutionary reasons why you might hold those values. If you want to avoid the is/ought problem, then it might be worth re-examining your values in the harsh light of biology. It may even be that there is no way to escape the is/ought issue – but that might not be such a bad thing. In fact, that might lead to a kind of moral naturalism – a notion that is not altogether absurd.

If this is the case, then we might be able to – cautiously – draw some norms from evolution. One might be the primacy of survival. Arguably, if you hold a moral or political belief that is inclined to get you killed before you can pass on that belief, or pass on offspring with the genetic predisposition to that belief, then that belief will likely die out. I think that could be a very good reason for not adopting that moral belief.

Should we agree to this, then I would suggest that there is in all probability no one moral or political belief that reigns supreme. In fact, the very diversity of beliefs and norms that we see in the real world might be the optimal strategy. That’s not to say we should accept the diversity we have today in a fatalistic way – for change is another value that’s worth holding. Instead, we should seek to allow a diversity of beliefs, let them be in tension with each other and that way we have the best chance of prosperity.

Sure, there’ll be conflict that arises from this approach. But, as with any decision, one must ask what’s the next best alternative? And if that alternative leads to more conflict, then the answer may be clear. And I’d suggest that any mono-ideological position would either be unstable, and not survive, or would lead to more conflict. That’s a hypothesis that needs testing – and that’s precisely what I’m trying to do.

All in the name of having evolution and politics do more than just eye each other cautiously from across the room, but take hands and engage in vigorous conversation. That’s evolution and politics three-point-oh.

Unphilosophical America (and Unphilosophical World)

America (and, I’d venture to suggest, the rest of the world) is imperilled by growing scientific illiteracy. So says science journalist Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum in their new book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. (An interesting review and commentary on the book can be found at RealClimate.) I’d tend to agree with their prognosis.

unscientific americaBut, while I’m venturing suggestions, I’d also put forward the notion that America (and the rest of the world) is also imperilled by philosophical illiteracy as well.

I’ve spoken before about the conspicuous lack of applied philosophers compared to the default pure philosophers. I’ve also spoken of the importance of philosophy in an endeavour which is yet to be invented, synthesis: the bringing together of insights from disparate disciplines.

But philosophy also has a vitally important role to play in public discourse by applying its rigorous standards to contemporary debate. I suspect you’d agree with me if I said the quality of public discourse, particularly in politics, is appaling. The sheer propensity of logical and argumentative fallacies or outright distortion of definitions or arguments is shameful. Yet most people feel no shame when they utter a banality.

So who’s to hold us all to account? Who’s to tell us that our arguments, our beliefs, our reasoning must be better. That flimsy ad hoc justifications and rampant bias just aren’t good enough? Damn relativism, a poor argument is a poor argument and should not be excused.

Seems philosophers could do this, so why don’t they? It’s simple really: there’s no incentive to. And the world isn’t just going to come knocking on the door of the ivory tower unbidden. Philosophers are going to have to open that door of their own account and get their hands dirty mingling with the masses. We need at least some philosophers who see public outreach as just as important as publishing papers, if not more so. But there are hurdles to overcome to get to this point.

One of Mooney’s and Kirshenbaum’s key points is that the academic community tends to be ill disposed towards scientists who make efforts at public outreach, and thus find themselves on the covers of magazines or hosting popular television programmes. Whether it’s because it’s considered unbecoming of a professional scientist to mix with the unwashed, or whether it’s plain envy, such popular figures tend to become sidelined in academia.

I’ve seen first hand a reluctance on behalf of some scientists to be quoted in the media for fear of being misrepresented in hyperbolic throes that might be poorly received by their peers.

However, at least science has a few individuals who were willing to stoop to explain some of the wondrous discoveries of that endeavour to the world. Not only polymaths like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (whom I can almost single handedly credit with teaching me science), but popularisers like Richard Feynman, Paul Davies, Julius Sumner Miller and Karl Kruszelnicki, amongst others.

Sadly, philosophy has a pitiful honour roll in comparison. Only a few individuals would even be recognised as philosophers by the general public, perhaps Daniel Dennett, Peter Singer, AC Grayling and Alain de Botton – maybe Bertrand Russell, if memories stretch that far back. Even then, a similar resentment exists within the academy towards philosophers who busy themselves with pursuits other than churning out papers on obscure and impenetrable (and often, quite irrelevant) topics.

This cannot continue.

Come on, philosophy. You don’t have to devote all your time to writing papers and teaching other philosophers. It’s time to fling open the doors of the ivory tower and walk in the Sun.

Liberals, Conservatives and Moral Diversity

Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times about the psychology of liberals and conservatives has been getting some attention this past week. Probably because the research on which it’s based resonates so clearly with so many people. It’s research by Jonathan Haidt, whom regular readers of this blog will recognise as being a great influence upon my own research.

However, Haidt’s exploration of the psychology that underpins the political spectrum – fascinating and illuminating though it is – is not the end of the story. For when you combine Haidt’s research with another intriguing finding that our political views are largely influenced by genes (Alford & Funk & Hibbing, 2005), it raises a big fat question: why does our psychology – and biology – vary in the way it does?

I have a theory. It’s called Moral Diversity. It goes a little something like this:


Don’t Count the Republicans Out Yet

What is it with the cripplingly short memories of commentators when it comes to US politics? Here we have just a couple of the many wailings that the Republican party is down for the count, a party in ruins possibly never to arise again.

What claptrap.

republican_elephantHarken back, oh, five years, and what was the dominant meme doing the pundit circuit? Why, that the Democrats were down for the count, a party in ruins possibly never to arise again. Heck, wander back a little further through the archives, and you hear the same gnashing of teeth as Clinton left office in 2000. The very same rhetoric is being used against the Liberal Party here in Australia.

It’s in the nature of (healthy) democracies to swing like a pendulum, left, right, left, right, perphas passing through the centre long enough for a coalition or centrist govenment to form. But it’s natural, normal and quite healthy for parties to overextend, be punished by the electorate for doing so, fracture, reform and come back fighting again.

So liberals (in the US sense) shouldn’t count the Republicans out. Not yet. The soul searching they’re going through right now, and the reformation that is sure to come, is going to be targetted squarely at the present administration. So Democrats shouldn’t be complacent. They should assume the Republicans will be back some day, and keep careful tabs on how they do it, the leaders they fall behind, and the values they adopt. For not to remain vigilant will only invite disaster, if not at the next election, then at the end of Obama’s term.

The Future of Morality

As I struggle and strain, on a daily basis, to make sense of that strangest of human capacities that is morality, and struggle to suggest to my peers that it might not be what they – and two millennia of philosophers – think it might be, I come across a chapter in a book that might well be a manifesto to the New Synthesis in Morality.

colored_pencils_chevre_sIt’s authored by Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir, and it’s to appear in an upcoming edition of The Handbook of Social Psychology, although it’s available for download directly from Haidt’s home page.

Get it. Read it. Because this is it, folks: this is the End of the Beginning of the New Synthesis, the path hacked through the jungle of confusion to a new destination, and the Beginning of the Middle of the actual hard work of mapping the complex terrain of our moral faculty.

Haidt et al’s main thesis is as follows: (more…)

The Palestine Solution

I look on at the tragedy unfolding in Gaza with a mixture of deep sorrow and outrage – as I imagine many others do as well. Sorrow that violence and suffering appear to have become not the exception, but the expected norm on both sides, although clearly the suffering disproportionately felt by the Palestinians. Outrage  that the elected leaders on both sides continue to let down their own people by perpetuating demonstrably flawed ideologies and policies.

It has gotten to the point where I believe many don’t even see a solution to Israel/Palestine conflict as a possibility any more. But there is a solution. In fact, there’s not just one solution, but hundreds, even thousands of solutions.

The caveat is that ‘solution’ here means a proposal whereby both sides can benefit, and over time come to live in peace.  An ‘objective solution’, if you will. Many have already been proposed. And there are undoubtedly many more left unexplored.

However, an ‘objective solution’ isn’t necessarily one that both sides will accept. And that’s the great tragedy. Obstinacy on both sides of the conflict are preventing any solution from sticking.

This means the solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict is not a material one. It’s a psychological one. Finding the solution isn’t just a matter of tweaking the variables, it’s a matter of convincing the players involved to accept it.

Yet, sadly, a Venn diagram representing the sets of proposals acceptable by Israelis and Palestinians don’t overlap.

But all is not lost. Summits might seem like more pointless tweaking of the variables. But summits do foster one essential ingredient to a psychological solution: trust. However, that’s only the first step. The next step is for the respective leaders to gain the trust of their own people, and convince them that the solution is good for them.

Only then will a solution stick. Any lasting solution cannot be purely top-down; it cannot begin and end at a summit. It must be bottom-up; it must come from the will of the people themselves.

So, while a solution might seem hopeless in light of recent developments, it’s never entirely hopeless. The Israel/Palestine conflict is fundamentally a psychological one. And psychology is malleable.

The only potential barrier to a psychological solution in my eyes is the role of religion in the conflict. Religion has a knack for galvanising thinking and stifling any possibility of change. We can only hope that humanity will prevail – after all, that’s what religion is supposed to promote.

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