Thu Oct 14th, 2010 at 12:16:41 PM EST
Ted Welch's Rawls diary was running out of space so I'm pulling this into a new diary.
Here's the seed exchange:
That is what I mean when I boldly assert that reality is a social construct and is therefore inherently malleable
On the contrary. There exists a physical reality whose laws are not malleable. If you exit your apartment by the window on the twenty-second floor, you are not going to make it to work that day. This is not a social convention, it is an empirical reality. On the other hand, there is also a reality of social convention, which is malleable.
Some points following on:
- There's a massive distance between Enlightenment notions of rationality, and how people actually act, both individually and in groups.
- Historically, politics has largely been about violent animalistic struggles for absolute power. Democracy with a true universal franchise is a relatively recent idea. In fact it's so recent it's less than a century old in most of the world. In spite of this a lot of people, especially in the West, seem to think that it's somehow naturally ordained and inevitable. In reality it's so exceptional that it has never happened before - and that makes it more fragile than it looks.
- Social and personal reality have never been calibrated. In the same way that you can't make measurements in science without accurate references, you can't create a rational political and economic system without good models of social psychology that take into account both innate and social distortions of perception and desire.
- Politically and economically, what we have now exists because it exploits distortions of perception and desire. Chaos and irrationality are inevitable until this changes.
- Social ethics have changed out of all recognition over the last century - and bizarrely, hardly anyone has commented on this. Historically, there is nothing outstanding about the cruelty, violence and stupidity of Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Bush. In previous centuries their actions and beliefs would have been considered normal. In this century they're considered aberrations and outliers. I think this is very interesting.
- One of the things that has changed is improved psychological awareness. We now have a concept - sociopathy - that describes violent exploitation and lack of empathy. And we also have a medical model that assumes sociopathy is a pathology, not a choice. This is also very interesting, because it's a completely new development in human thought. Historically extreme sociopaths have been considered cruel, evil and perhaps even unusual. But they've never been considered ill before - at least not in the West.
- Personal interactions have some limits on sociopathic behaviour. Lying in personal relationships still seems to come under caveat emptor, but cheating and scamming victims or physically assaulting them can lead to jail time.
- This isn't true in policy. Politics and economics still include feedback loops that reward sociopathic behaviour. Many people are at least reasonably good at cooperation. But if you have filters that give power to people who act pathologically, sociopaths will tend to crowd out rational people from the control structures that run your culture. From the narcissism of middle and upper management to the extreme derangement of much of the banking industry and the Washington consensus, this seems to be the chief political problem of the time.
This is why the arguments of people like Rawls, and also of better known theorists like Zizek and even Chomsky, are politically ineffective and irrelevant. You can't use rhetoric and disapproval to make irrational people act rationally. The absolute best you can hope for is a groundswell of disapproval that votes out transgressors.
But that's not nearly enough. Sociopathy gains individual and collective power by distorting non-malleable truths and perverting social moralities. Promoting competing moralities that are 'better' isn't an answer, because sociopathic ethics has no concept of fairness, of rational debate, of respect for the opposition, of consensus, or of consequences.
So there's no room for a rational or cooperative morality, because the moral space inhabited by sociopaths is already filled with their own negation of same.
Synchronistic update: I hadn't quite finished this when Migeru posted this from Monbiot:
Progressives, he shows, have been suckers for a myth of human cognition he labels the Enlightenment model. This holds that people make rational decisions by assessing facts. All that has to be done to persuade people is to lay out the data: they will then use it to decide which options best support their interests and desires.
A host of psychological experiments demonstrates that it doesn't work like this. Instead of performing a rational cost-benefit analysis, we accept information which confirms our identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them. We mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.
Our social identity is shaped by values which psychologists classify as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement. People with a strong set of extrinsic values fixate on how others see them. They cherish financial success, image and fame. Intrinsic values concern relationships with friends, family and community, and self-acceptance. Those who have a strong set of intrinsic values are not dependent on praise or rewards from other people. They have beliefs which transcend their self-interest.
'He' turns out to be Tom Crompton of WWF, who is making the radical and unheard of suggestion (unless you read ET) that psychology may have something useful to contribute to political theory.
Following on from this, it's obvious that we still have pre-Copernican policy, where rhetorical tricks of persuasion are used to manipulate unconscious feelings, and consequences are largely irrelevant. Lawyers and other professional persuaders know that facts are tangential to persuasion. They're useful if they're on your side, but you can deploy a library of tried and tested rhetorical techniques against them if they're not.
Sociopaths also know this. Sociopaths are known for their effortless ability to lie convincingly. If you put them into situations where there's no external checking for truth and lies are rewarded by status, they'll always prosper.
The answer isn't more rhetoric and persuasion, but a calibration of the unexamined internal models that shape how people really think. Eventually this can lead to a reinvention of politics and economics with different feedback loops that are less likely to collapse into the default unconscious distortions that cause so many problems.
This might sound unlikely. But 20th century morality, with its new dislike of previously acceptable horrors, would have been difficult to imagine in the 19th.
So far we're ten years into the next century. I'd like to think further surprises are possible.