Saturday, April 7, 2012

Change of Pace Photo


Spring Flowers in Midtown


Isaiah Berlin and the altars of history

Back to rarefied ideas. I said in a recent post that there's one piece by Isaiah Berlin which has had a huge influence on me over the years. This is from his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, reprinted in the book Liberalism and Its Critics (Readings in Social & Political Theory)(p29)

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals - justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there lies a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other. 'Nature binds truth, happiness and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain', said one of the best men who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality and justice. But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less the ideals of mankind.

The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value on freedom to choose.

For many years I thought this meant that we have to be tolerant about the need to trade-off different ends and balance different principles. Above all it meant that one should distrust zealotry and utopianism and single internally consistent frameworks which purported to explain everything. It was an argument for "everything in moderation" and pragmatic problem-solving.

Now I think that virtue ethics is a way forward. The point of cultivating the virtues is to make the right choices in particular situations, rather than to choose between univeralist principles in a grand sense. If we are condemned to choose between ends, at least we can try to make better choices over time


The view from the corner table

G often tells me I should put more personal items into the blog, which can be more compelling than rarefied discussion of ideas. And she is right. Here we both are on a cold but sunny Saturday afternoon, sitting in one of the more attractive reading rooms in the NYPL system. I am blogging, and she is writing for her book across the grand oak table from me.
It's been a turbulent two weeks for us. She has been overwhelmed with work and scrambling to catch up with projects. I'm settling the details of a major change in my work, looking to leave my current situation and do something new.
It's positive in the end, but it doesn't make for completely undisturbed sleep patterns.

Haidt and Virtue Ethics

We're concluding a discussion about Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

There are some aspects of the book which I find a little irrelevant. He spends several chapters arguing a technical point in evolutionary theory, namely whether evolutionary selection at the level of groups can exist. Most scientists since the 1970s believe that groups don't have any evolutionary significance, because the math does not work. Selection and competition of individuals within the group will overwhelm any traits which benefit the group as a whole. However Haidt argues sometimes major transitions take place in evolution - from unicellular to multicellular life, for example- at which point it makes sense to talk about larger entities evolving.

I'm still skeptical, or so recent articles in Scientific American suggest.

And it does not necessarily affect his argument that evolutionary change can happen sufficiently fast for us to have innate moral foundations in our psychology, even if we have been living in modern societies for ten thousand years at most, a mere blink in historical time. I've been persuaded on that score by Gregory Clark's book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton Economic History of the Western World)(see a short nyt review here).

In the end, Haidt concludes:

If you take home one souvenir from this part of the tour, may I suggest that it be a suspicion of moral monists. Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon a single moral foundation. Human societies are complex; their needs and challenges are variable.

The fact we have six different moral foundations means focusing on any one of them to the exclusion of the others is likely to lead to problems, or so Haidt believes. In particular, systems like Kant or Bentham's ethics try to reduce morality to a single metric and blind us to the complexity of our actual choices.

This is perhaps the great challenge. I've long thought the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin had the best insight into morality, arguing that some of the best things in life and highest principles do not entail each other, are not in harmony, and in fact actually conflict. Trying to achieve a single utopia where all the virtues shine is a recipe for bloodsoaked disaster. (I must look up that exact quote, which is one of my all-time favorites and biggest influences.)


And Haidt cites Berlin at the end of his book as well:

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrestled throughout his career with the problem of the world’s moral diversity

But interestingly Haidt says (without further explanation) that he thinks virtue ethics is the way to go.

I personally think that virtue ethics is the normative framework that fits human nature most closely.

I increasingly feel that virtue ethics is the way forward as well, even more so than the acknowledgement of pluralism in Berlin.

So overall, I find a great deal of congruence between how I see things and Haidt's book. But it's a starting point. He provides more evidence that collective action problems matter, and a lot of our partisan and practical political problems arise because often we don't even see there are collective action probems to solve.

Our social technologies are fraying. Society and the economy are evolving, and we need to adapt.




Why do utopian communities fail?


We're still discussing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. One question I've asked my wife, G, who knows a lot about utopian issues, is why some, or indeed most utopian communities fail.


She didn't know of any systematic study. But Haidt points to one explanation when he discusses the role of religion in society.

Haidt has little time for the "new atheists" such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens who see no useful role for religion at all. It is not a story of rational enlightenment beating back the forces of mysticism and prejudice, he says, or a "parasitic meme" encouraging war and intolerance. Instead, religions help groups stick together.

There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.

And some of the evidence comes from looking at which utopian communities survive.

The clearest evidence comes from the anthropologist Richard Sosis, who examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century.. . .For many nineteenth-century communes, the principles were religious; for others they were secular, mostly socialist. Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.

Much of the difference was religious communities appeared better able to solve collective action problems and prevent free-riding, according to Sosis' research. Demands for sacrifice of self-interest could serve as a signal of trustworthiness and commitment.

For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.

Why might this be?

.. when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense. In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

Religion helps to solve the collective action problem of getting people to work together, trust each other and prevent free-riding.

Incidentally, this reminds me of studies which find that the Protestant denominations which require more commitment and sacrifice are far outpacing the liberal mainline churches. (see this David Brooks column, for instance.)

People are more likely to trust and co-operate with co-religionists, or indeed those who profess a simiar strong ethical code. Religions help sustain those foundations of authority, sanctity and legitimacy that bind a community together, but which liberals find hard to see as anything other than retrograde.

Without such bonds, though, societies might fray and disappear, says (secular jewish) Haidt:

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

I'm not intensely religiously committed myself - I will be in church tomorrow on Easter Sunday, but that is one of the few times G and I will be in a church this year. What I'd draw from this is it is much harder to get societies to stick together or change for the good than most liberals believe. Religion is a social technology, to use the language of some earlier posts.

Our economic problem is one of our most important social technologies - labor exchanged for money - is reaching some limits, as productivity soars and the goods that we want are increasingly non-monetary and non-material. Money can't buy you love, as the song goes.

The challenge is to evolve better social technologies to deal with that underlying reality. And to do that we need to understand the existing social technologies that sustain functional societies, so we do not inadvertently undermine them. There are serious collective action problems in moving to any kind of new economy. That deeper structural reality matters more than the short-run fiscal outlook or Friday's payroll numbers.


What makes people liberal or conservative?

We're discussing Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

His discussion of what makes people liberal or conservative fascinating, as I've long wondered about that. Sometimes I am genuinely puzzled how people can hold the views they do.

Up to half the difference is heritable, he says. He says one of the main predictors of liberal inclinations is openness to experience.

This finding fits well with many studies showing that conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise.Other studies have implicated genes related to receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has long been tied to sensation-seeking and openness to experience, which are among the best-established correlates of liberalism. As the Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne said: “The only things I find rewarding … are variety and the enjoyment of diversity.”

Now, the most obvious thing about any psychology or personality tests I've done personally, like the "Big Five" personality tests, is I tend to be mid-range on four of the five - but almost off the chart on openness to experience. I love novelty, new foods, different cultures, travel, the vast open landscape of history, the insight into experience of literature, and the pleasure of different ways of looking at things. I choose to live in the most dense colorful kaleidoscopic city in the world, New York. I am instaneously suspicious of set answers on anything.

But I'm not that liberal - socially conservative, if anything.And the main reason for that is likely a senstivity to what Haidt calls moral capital.

In fact, we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community.


Moral communities share moral systems which help glue them together:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

And the problem is you cannot assume moral communities can or will sustain themselves. Human beings, Haidt says, have plenty of competitive distrust and incentives to mistreat each other from our primate heritage.

If you look at a troop of chimps, it is not a picture of communal harmony - but rather savage domination and competition.

But that is not the whole story. Humans are 90% chimp, 10% bee, he says. We have a "hive switch" in certain circumstances that makes us instinctually work for the common good. But it is not easy to trigger cooperative behavior.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy.

Of course, it is not that moral capital is always and in every situation a good thing:

Let me state clearly that moral capital is not always an unalloyed good. Moral capital leads automatically to the suppression of free riders, but it does not lead automatically to other forms of fairness such as equality of opportunity.

But liberals often have a tough time seeing any point to the other moral foundations which help sustain a community:

liberals often have difficulty understanding how the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations have anything to do with morality. In particular, liberals often have difficulty seeing moral capital.

And here is the crux of his argument.

Nonetheless, if you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, you’re asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire, and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently.

And so this is why the partisan liberal has now come to see some point to conservatism:

A more positive way to describe conservatives is to say that their broader moral matrix allows them to detect threats to moral capital that liberals cannot perceive. They do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family). Preserving those institutions and traditions is their most sacred value.

So I think the main reason I'm a registered independent with a rightward tilt, rather than a liberal, is because I think moral capital is important. I think you can better achieve liberal goals by controlling downside risks, rather than ignoring them. I want change, but pragmatic change that works in practice and delivers better lives to people, not a romantic dream which turns into darkness.

I agree with Haidt on this:

When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one that we might actually achieve.

I've argued before that the checks and balances of the US Constitution have worked out much better over time than the utopian radicalism of the "Rights of Man" in the French revolution a few years later. Change needs an immune system. If you want to have a changed economy - and I think we really do need to rethink our economic structures - it can't be just a failed utopian experiment. You need ways to promote good behavior and restrain free-riding. Otherwise most people will be too fearful to support change, unless they feel they have little left to lose. And change is likely to lead to disorder and disaster.

On that score, Haidt notes some research on why utopian communities fail, as wel'll see next




The Righteous Mind

So I read Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I've talked about Haidt a number of times before, including recently here, because ethics and psychology have steadily worked themselves more and more into what I want to do on this blog. If many of our problems are economic, many of the solutions to those problems are ethical - or at leat, involve not deceiving ourselves about ethical issues. The fact that economics and psychology tried to be become value-neutral and rational for three generations is a major part of our problems as a society.

And Haidt is one of the most interesting people writing on moral psychology right now. I find his views intriguing. There is a certain wisdom to what he says.

Haidt is a professor at the University of Virginia, as credentialed as they come. And he, like other leading psychologists like Martin Seligman, came to believe the profession had lost its way.

First, he talks at length about how he came to develop his current perspective in moral psychology, from undergraduate at Yale to postgrad work in Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as a transformative experience visiting India for an extended stay. It is the story of how he became increasingly uneasy about gaps in the story that leading psychologists like Lawrence Kohlberg were telling. They saw moral psychology largely in developmental terms, as children came to recognize the value of rules which prevented harm.

But Haidt comes to believe that rules are much more reflective of a particular society, not a matter of universalist reason. He saw rules about sanctity and authority in India, and empirical work in Brazil and the US gradually convinced him that the secular liberal view of educated Westerners was too narrow. Indeed, it was his immense frustration as a partisan liberal that the Kerry campaign did not seem to be able to connect with middle America in 2004 that drove him to think more about the roots of different political orientations.

He is not arguing for relativism, however. Quite the opposite, in some ways. We do have evolved moral intutions in common. But this is not the enlightenment story of progressive reason conquering the dark forces of subsconscious prejudice.

Reason and the conscious mind, he says, is like a small rider on a large elephant of instinctive mind. Reason does not rule. It tends to make up post-hoc justifications for what the elephant wants to do anyway.

Kant and Bentham (both likely a little austistic, he thinks) elevated reason to the exclusion of all else, and sent moral philosophy on a two century diversion.

Instead, says Haidt, David Hume had it right. Moral sentiments come first. The idea that pure reason should be our guide is naive.

.. the worship of reason, which is sometimes found in philosophical and scientific circles, is a delusion. It is an example of faith in something that does not exist. I urged instead a more intuitionist approach to morality and moral education, one that is more humble about the abilities of individuals, and more attuned to the contexts and social systems that enable people to think and act well.

That brings him to his six "taste receptors" or foundations for morality. These are innate dispositions in most people, at least outside educated western elites.

Haidt has altered his system. There were five factors before, but he has rethought "fairness."

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

This is something I've argued before myself, that the left finds it hard to understand "fairness" as fundamentally about who deserves what, rather than equality.

Haidt suggests that an ancient desire to prevent tyranny of a hunting group by a despotic alpha male led to the evolution of a sensitivity towards illegitimate repression.

I looked into what was known about the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers, and found a strong argument for splitting apart these two kinds of fairness. The desire for equality seems to be more closely related to the psychology of liberty and oppression than to the psychology of reciprocity and exchange. After talking about these issues with my colleagues at, and after we ran some new studies on various kinds of fairness and liberty, we added a provisional sixth foundation—Liberty/oppression.

So now his original fairness foundation is more about proportionality. He locates much egalitarian feeling within the liberty-oppression foundation.

We all recognize some kinds of authority as legitimate in some contexts, but we are also wary of those who claim to be leaders unless they have first earned our trust. We’re vigilant for signs that they’ve crossed the line into self-aggrandizement and tyranny. ...

But egalitarianism seems to be rooted more in the hatred of domination than in the love of equality per se.The feeling of being dominated or oppressed by a bully is very different from the feeling of being cheated in an exchange of goods or favors.

So equipped with his revised six moral foundations, he argues that liberals are sensitive to just three of them, but conservatives tend to be senstive to all six.

We'll discuss his take on why people are liberal or conservative next.


Monday, April 2, 2012

The Art of the Start

I read Guy Kawasaki's Art of the startabout entrepreneurship and start-ups.

He says:

There really is only one question you should ask yourself before starting any new venture:

Do I want to make meaning?

Meaning is not about money, power or prestige. It's not even about creating a fun place to work. Among the meanings of "meaning" are to

      • Make the world a better place.
      • Increase the quality of life.
      • Right a terrible wrong.
      • Prevent the end of something good.