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Sixth time lucky?

September 12, 2012 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

In less than an hour I will give my sixth annual chief executive lecture to the RSA. If you want to watch it you can here.

Over the years I have spoken about:

2007: The future it’s up to us

(a bit pious but helped me identify the issue of social capacity as a key one for the RSA)

2008: The Social Brain

(basically, giving the audience a Cook’s tour of evidence on the brain and behaviour, but it did help to put a stake in the ground for our growing interest in behaviour change)

2009: Left brain, right brain

(got people talking but was guilty of a slightly deterministic way of thinking about the brain, for which people like Raymond Tallis have mocked me ever since)

2010: 21st century enlightenment 

(the one of which I am most proud. Doesn’t really cut the mustard as scholarship but seems to have gone down quite well on YouTube)

2011: Enlightened enterprise

(helped to link our modern mission to longer established themes such as commerce and enterprise but – although we  had a good event – didn’t seem to make much impact)

Preparing for these lectures is just like cooking a dinner for guests. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it but it is a bit nerve-wracking, and even when it seems to have gone well the contrast between the time taken to research and write the speech and the time taken for it to be consumed (and forgotten) inevitably leaves me feeling deflated.

It is an honour to deliver the lectures but although I hope they are one of the things that shapes the Society’s thinking (along with our historic mission, Trustee guidance, Fellows views and partners suggestions), I am not a politician who can pass laws or even a scholar who can claim to have unearthed new findings.

So tomorrow as always I will no doubt be asking ‘why do I bother?’ and this time next year despite having failed to answer the question I will once more be re-reading my notes, checking my flies are done up, taking a  deep breath and secretly hoping to change the world.


A small flotilla of ideas – is anyone waving?

Although I took time out to watch the boats, I am spending much of the Jubilee weekend continuing to think about my forthcoming RSA annual lecture, which aims to add depth to the 21st century enlightenment thesis. If you have a spare ten minutes I would be ever so grateful for views….

In a recent post I offered a rationale for examining social problems first as ‘power to’ problems (broadly assuming policy makers and public want the same outcome) while recognising this approach might disclose ‘power over’ issues (in which one set of interests are in conflict with another).

There is an important consequence of seeing problems as ‘power to’ not ‘power over’. In the latter case the amount of power in society is, broadly speaking, assumed to be fixed. The main questions are who holds that power and to what purposes they put it. But in the former case the power available to address a desired change is a function not primarily of the distribution of a fixed quantum of power, but more of the degree to which factors such as insight, co-ordination, mobilisation and leadership are applied to the problem.

One way of thinking about difficult and complex (‘wicked’) problems – like how affordably to provide care and dignity to older people, to provide children with equal life chances in a liberal market economy, to foster a culture of learning and enterprise among employers and employees, to increase economic prosperity while living within environmental constraints – is through the prism of cultural theory (more descriptively called the theory of plural rationality).

I have written extensively about these ideas before. The framework began with the anthropological findings of Mary Douglas and the development of grid-group theory. Douglas proposed that the characteristics of societies, and groups in societies, could be plotted against a group axis based on the strengths of membership ties and shared values, and a grid axis based on the level and fixedness of social hierarchy. This led to the development of a two by two matrix of low group, low grid (e.g. a trading floor), low group, high grid (e.g. prison), high group, low grid (e.g. a commune) and high group, high grid (e.g. an organised religion). Each type emerged from and reinforced culture and habits thus creating a powerful perspective on social reality.

As a typology this offered an interesting way of thinking about groups and institutions and for understanding why different worldviews can be difficult to reconcile. But the idea became much more powerful when a number of thinkers started to explore how positions in the matrix were reflected in predispositions towards action. As grid group theory became cultural theory, four ways of thinking about change were mapped on to the matrix; the individualistic (low grid, low group), the fatalistic (high grid, high group), the egalitarian (low grid, high group) and the hierarchical (high grid, high group).

To make this more concrete we can describe how these perspectives translate into different views on a challenge, say, climate change: The individualistic perspective is optimistic about the adaptability of humans and nature and expects, given free reign and the right incentives, ingenuity, markets and technology to solve the problem. The fatalistic perspective may be inclined to scepticism about the whole issue but assumes that even if climate change if real and man-made nothing will be done about it until it is too late, or if anything is done it will have other adverse consequences. The egalitarian perspective argues that climate change can only be addressed through a fundamental change involving all citizens committing to more socially responsible and sustainable ways of living. The hierarchical perspective emphasises the need for leadership, an alliance of scientists, policy experts and political leaders committing to a rational global framework to reduce and allocate emissions.

As Michael Thompson has argued, these perspectives apply not only to the response to climate change but also reflect different views of nature itself; individualists tend to see nature as resilient, egalitarians see it is as fragile, the hierarchical views sees it as needing careful risk management while fatalists view nature as inherently unreliable and unpredictable.

Whilst typologies imply fixed and stable states, recent cultural theory has added an insight that introduces change and offers a perspective on complexity. Thompson and others argue that the perspectives gain much of their energy from their opposition to each other. For example, hierarchists are united and inspired by their resistance to the irresponsibility of individualists, the unrealism of egalitarians and the apathy of fatalists.

As Mary Douglas herself put it, praising how cultural theorists had built on her initial observations:

The brilliant stroke was to introduce the idea of competition between cultures. They compete for members, compete for prestige, compete for resources. What had started as a static mapping of cultures upon organisations was thereby transformed into a dynamic theoretical system. It made a double attack on methodological individualism and on philosophical relativism. It put cultural theory into the heart of policy analysis and ethical theory.

It is important to appreciate that the four perspectives are not consistent within individuals. Not only might I be hierarchically minded at work, egalitarian in my politics, individualistic in my personal life and fatalistic when watching West Brom, but when entering a new situation which calls forward a view of power and change my response will be conditioned by the interplay of my personality, current predisposition and the existing configuration of perspectives in that situation.

Here, largely intuitively, I add my own suggestion. The four categories of cultural theory can be seen to have a fractal quality.

Remembering that grid group theory arose from the rich empirical base of multiple observations of a range of ‘primitive’ tribes, it could be suggested that at the base of many behavioural dilemmas lie four possible human responses; do what I am told (hierarchy), do what the group does/is right for the group (egalitarian), do what I want (individualistic), and it doesn’t matter what I do (fatalistic).

Imagine a child’s birthday party: some children will obediently follow the advice of adults and the rules of games, others will pay particular attention to ensuring that everyone is joining in, while some children will compete fiercely to win games even if this involves a little cheating. A final group seems only to be going through the motions, slightly in a world of their own. The adults observing these behaviours might want to reflect on the ways their messages to the children reinforce these behavioural responses, sometimes emphasising obedience to the rules of the party and the games, other times encouraging ‘fairness’ and calling on the children to attend to the needs to their friends while occasionally – particularly on behalf of their own child – geeing them up to win the games and applauding them when they do. Indeed, one research study (can’t lay my hands on the reference right now) has found the four cultural theory responses to be observable in primary school classrooms.

The degree to which these modes are ingrained or learned could be tested by a combination of social psychological experiments and the use of brains scans to see whether it is possible to identify distinct neurological processes aligning with the different responses.

If this basic structure of options holds true it would need some evolutionary explanation: why have these four responses evolved?  An hypothesis can be sketched. As a species that has culture, meaning and the ability to make its own decisions, we need hierarchy for order and social organisation, but were we to be uncritical of hierarchy we would be vulnerable to being destroyed by the folly and self-interest of leaders and their Gods. Similarly, while we need bonds of reciprocity and solidarity to function in groups, over weaning egalitarianism would lead to social stasis through resistance to change whether generated internally and through contact with out groups. Individualism is necessary for survival and the competition which drives performance and innovation, but were we only to listen to the voice saying ‘do what you want’ there soon really would be no such thing as society. Finally, fatalism is necessary for us to cope with being the only species carrying the terrible awareness of our own individual mortality, but were humans to have been in thrall to fatalism then our species would surely have long since given up the ghost.

As evolved instincts, this four-mode cognitive switching mechanism is then embedded in cultural and institutional form at every level where different modes of response to change are available, from a household argument to global policy-making.

Given that these categories of response are inherent in human cognition and are culturally ubiquitous, and given that they are bound in a continual process of competition, in which the success of one by empowering the others gives rise to its own overthrow, then strategies which rely on human behaviour for their success need to take account of all four responses. This is why cultural theorists advocate what they call ‘clumsy solutions’ – strategies that take into account each response and seek to turn these into aspects of the strategy rather than for the alternative (if they are excluded) of them emerging as sources of failure/forms of resistance.

Which brings us back to ‘power to’ or the lack of it. Remember that cultural theory has three active modes (hierarchical, egalitarian, individualistic) but also – crucially – one passive mode (fatalism). Clumsy solutions seek to draw on the respective power in each mode (its insights, methods and tools) and to combine them to solve or at least mitigate a problem.

But what if the problematic of developing such solutions lies not only in the need for clumsiness (as against the flawed neatness of solutions which exclude one or more modes), but also in the internal strength of each mode? If we want to construct an arch of clumsy solutions and not fall back on the barren ground of fatalism, we need to do so on three sound pillars of active rationality.

To clarify: not every problem needs a clumsy solution, nor is every situation or institution one that relies equally or substantially on each mode. To refer to today’s news stories; we understand armies in action are overwhelmingly hierarchical, street parties are egalitarian and tennis tournaments are individualistic. The attempts to impose the ‘wrong’ mode in any of these circumstances would be immediately jarring. (Although, remembering the fractal point earlier; within each mode there will be sub-variants of the other modes, for example the bossy guy tending to over-organise the street party or the Private leading a disparaging conversation with his colleagues about the unreasonable leadership by the brigade captain).

But the kinds of problem almost certain to need a clumsy solution are the ‘wicked problems’ with which I began this post. Not only are we finding it difficult to solve these problems but we are losing faith in our ability to do so; in the developed world there has in recent decades been a marked trend toward social pessimism. Could it be that this reflects not just the challenge of developing and negotiating clumsy solutions but also the relative weaknesses/delusions of each mode? The ‘power to’ deficit is not just a problem of combining elements but of the state of those elements themselves.

It is this thesis that will be the subject of subsequent posts. Here are four brief points upon which I hope to elaborate.

1. The argument that hierarchy is in crisis has almost become a cliché, having versions stretching from the legitimation crisis identified by Habermas in the 1970s to the disruptive implications of new technology described by writers like Clay Shirky. Equally, a crisis in egalitarian bonding and solidarity can be linked to changes in the modern world including rising affluence and growing geographical mobility. This may be why the modern condition often feels like a disorienting mixture of individualism and fatalism.

Yet, as cultural theory tells us, these currently dominant modes are subject to their own internal tensions and any society that underplays hierarchy and egalitarianism is lopsided and frail. A fruitful approach to social analysis may therefore be to examine concretely the state of play of each of the active modes at the level of society as a whole. Individualism may be dominant but is it possible that the limited competition from ailing hierarchy and a weak egalitarianism is what has led this impulse to become hubristic, self-defeating and therefore ultimately frail?

2. Moving from analysis to interpretation, cultural theory intriguingly suggests a policy of generous pluralism. In the face of complex issues, at any level from the home to Whitehall, the enlightened individualist (to take one example) understands that workable solutions will benefit the development of a robust egalitarian voice, give fair due to the challenges of hierarchy, whist resisting the temptation merely to disparage the human instinct of fatalism. Imagine the wider benefits of a world where seeking to strengthen the confidence and clarity of an adversary’s case was conventionally seen as good practice.

3. In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I quoted Robert Kegan’s idea of self-authorship as a way of thinking about the kind of consciousness we needed modern citizens to attain. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or true’ that which is merely familiar; and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”.

Applying cultural theory might this ideal be extended from its obvious meaning as openness to other ways of living and believing to the reflexivity, recognition and respect which comes from appreciating that wherever there are difficult decisions to be made these foundational types of response are latent not only in the situation but in every one of us?.

4. At the heart of the 21st century enlightenment thesis was the suggestion that – in light of modern social challenges and new insight into human behaviour – the time has come to re-examine the core values which triumphed in the original enlightenment; autonomy, universalism and humanism. These values plot broadly on to the active modes of cultural theory; autonomy/individualism, universalism/egalitarianism, humanism/hierarchy (in that humanism is the principle that human beings should collectively order their own affairs to maximise their own interests; i.e. the technocratic doctrine of utilitarianism). In the 2010 lecture I examined how these values have become thinned out and distorted (for example, the decline of the notion of autonomy into mere possessive individualism), and the need to reconceptualise them (for example, seeing universalism not simply as an issue of extending rights but also fostering empathy and solidarity). In so doing I was unknowingly sketching a way to renew the modes of rationality that must combine to create clumsy solutions to wicked problems.


Too old to rock and roll?

May 16, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

After spending a couple of days in Holland I’m feeling a bit flat, and that’s not just a pathetic geographical pun. I spoke on Monday evening to De Publieke Zaak a really impressive Dutch organisation which combines a mission to promote new debate and dialogue with a variety of projects aimed at challenging and supporting young people in deprived areas (although the Dutch definition of deprivation is a good deal less hard-core than Britain’s).

As anyone who ploughed through Monday’s epic post will know, I used the speech for another iteration of the 21st century enlightenment thesis.  The speech went fine. An incredibly impressive audience (all of whom, of course, spoke perfect English) reacted thoughtfully and asked relevant and challenging questions.

Yet still, I couldn’t throw off the questions that nag away at me. Is the speech any more than a rag bag of the obvious reflections and unrealistic entreaties? And, what am I hoping to achieve by telling people my worldview? I’m not a bishop or a politician of even someone who has done important original research of my own. I suspect deep down I harbour the hope that at the end of the speech the audience will rise up and carry me shoulder high into the street proclaiming that at last they know the way forward. That’s about as likely as me being chosen as the next West Brom manager.

While in this reflective mood I get an email from Dr Linda East, who is based in the School of Nursing at Queens Medical Centre Nottingham and is also one of my closest and longest-standing friends. She tells me that based on a short conversation we had a few days ago she has developed a new typology (see below) which enables her to frame her thinking about the relationship between policy on health and sustainability. Actually all I did was listen to Linda and make a few suggestions but it is gratifying to think that an idea of mine is being used to frame her thinking and engage her students.


Two by two matrixes always make me think of that old blog favourite, cultural theory, and actually it maps on quite well. The medical model equates to a ‘fatalistic’ way of thinking (sickness is fate, leave it to the doctor), public health is the hierarchical perspective (experts telling us how to live better), self-help is the individualistic perspective and sustainability is the ‘egalitarian’ (a focus on solidarity and consciousness raising). I suspect Linda – who is very green – wants everyone to ascend the top right corner so I did remind her that cultural theorists encourage clumsy solutions which seek to engage each model of change

Put these two things together and I have a new personal metaphor. When it comes to ideas I am that bit of the space rocket that gets the thing off the ground and into the air (I think it’s called the propulsion system) and then drops off before falling back to earth. My dream is to land on the moon but I never get higher than the clouds. I guess that’s fine. We all have our small part to play in making the world a better place.

The only problem is I’m getting older all the time and somehow the idea of being a middle aged propulsion system isn’t very inspiring.




Enlightenment marathon (version 2)

May 14, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

In recent days I have been asking people to sponsor my crazy mountain marathon in Scotland in early June. I am incredibly grateful to those people – especially a very generous RSA Trustee – who have helped me get so close to my target of two thousand pounds toward the Great Room refurbishment. But to prove the dictum, ‘give him an inch and he’ll take a mile’, I am today making an even bolder request. How about reading my longest blog post ever? It is the final draft of a speech I am delivering to a Dutch think tank tonight. Most of it is a reprise of my 21st Century Enlightenment lecture in 2010 but I am always trying to inch these ideas forward and would love to know what readers think of the latest iteration….

I am excited to be giving this talk in a country that was the cradle of the Enlightenment. Although there were many different versions of the enlightenment as a movement, it had at its core three values; autonomy, universalism and humanism or freedom, justice and progress as we might refer to them today. Part of my argument is that we should question our modern interpretation of these values. But it is also apt to be here because the Dutch Golden Age vividly demonstrated the possibility of human imaginations and capabilities taking a leap forward.  I believe that now may be time for another important advance in human development.

Necessity, insight and idealism shaped the Golden Age. In the face of the threat of Spanish imperialism and from the sea – not to mention fire and plague – a small emerging country needed to both a sense of national mission and to identify and exploit its distinctive potential in a fast changing world.  It goes without saying that the enlightenment was a time of insight in which new ideas changed attitudes and new attitudes cleared the ground for further insight. The early Dutch state gave refuge to Galileo, a man whose scientific insights were seen quite rightly as a profound threat to religious doctrine. And the open inquiring culture of the nation then gave rise to a spirit of invention and ambition. And, as well as necessity and insight, the enlightenment was also a time of idealism, in particular a belief in reason and the possibility of man-made progress.

This evening I want to suggest that once again these ingredients – necessity, insight and idealism – could coalesce to shape what might be called a 21st century enlightenment.

Necessity, so it is said, is the mother of invention. Is there today a necessity for change? There are two answers to this question which cannot be lightly rejected. The first, cogently articulated by Matt Ridley in his book ‘The Rational Optimist’ is simply ‘no’. He celebrates a world where people live longer healthier lives than ever before, where global absolute poverty rates have halved in a generation, where citizens in the rich world enjoy experiences and opportunities unimaginable to their parents let alone grandparents. The average supermarket shopper today can buy better food than the Queen of England would have been served fifty years ago. For Ridley free markets, technological innovation and human ingenuity will solve tomorrow’s problems just as they solved yesterday’s, and this incudes environmental challenges.

On the opposite side is the argument that climate change, resource depletion and wider damage to the eco-system demand immediate and drastic changes in our attitudes and lifestyles.

If the optimists are right we can sit back and enjoy the journey, if the worst case environmental scenarios are accurate then change is likely to be extreme and perilous. But between free market optimism and apocalyptical prediction, I want to make a more modest suggestion; the existence and widening of a gap. This lies between the aspirations most of us have for the kind of world we want to live in, and in which  we want our children and grandchildren to grow up, and the future we seem likely to create if we rely on current ways of thinking and behaving. I call this the social aspiration gap.

Let me identify some dimensions of that gap. Take jobs. Over and again in every nation, surveys have found that paid employment is a critical factor not only for people’s finances but also for their self esteem and wider well-being. As the worlds’s population grows we need to be creating something like three billion formal jobs yet the current total is something around one point two billion. Mass unemployment – particularly among the young – now seems endemic in many parts of Europe

What about heath and old age? Putting aside the absence of adequate provision in the developing world, in rich countries the costs of health care as populations age is putting an ever greater burden on public finances and the economy more widely. We all want to enjoy dignity and care when we become old and frail but in a country as rich as the United Kingdom this is denied to many and with years of public sector austerity to come the situation is deteriorating.

Despite the genuine progress made in countries like the Netherlands we are still in the rich world impacting the environment in a way, which were it to be copied by the developing world, would be completely unsustainable.

We want to live in societies which combine freedom and tolerance with shared values and norms and a genuine opportunity for all to succeed. At its most simple we want to live good lives, but in the rich world there has been a facturing of the relationship between prosperity and well-being and surveys show populations ever more pessimistic about the social future.

There are many things which could help to close the gap between aspiration and current trajectory but, surely, one must be change in the ways we, the people, think and act. This can be described in different ways, and the analysis will differ from country to country, but in essence we need citizens better to align aspirations and actions in three domains, the political, the personal and the social.

One thing about which most people seem to agree – it is certainly something which tends to unite the extreme left and right – is that the problem of politics is one of leadership, or its absence. In a sense this is true, but I think it is more accurate to say the problem now is one of followership. Having been encouraged to think of politics as a form of consumerism, we demand what we want – even though what we want can be incoherent and impossible – and then became enraged when we don’t get it.

The UK’s leading opinion pollster has summed this up neatly; ‘what the British people want is simple’ he says ‘they want Scandinavian welfare on American tax rates’. Tax and spend is not the only example. Polls in the UK also show people want power devolved but are also indignant when service standards differ from place to place, that we accuse the state of interfering too much in our lives but the moment anything goes wrong our first inclination is to demand the government does something about it. We condemn politicians for failing to address the long term yet demand that they meet our demands in the short term.

Closing the social aspiration gap requires a political discourse through which we engage with the kind of choices that have to be made on our behalf and also appeciate the degree to which the choices available to leaders depend upon our own willingness to be responsible. For example if policy makers face a trade off point between economic growth and environmental sustainability, where exactly that point falls will depend on the choices we make as citizens and consumers.

In the next few weeks and months Dutch political parties will choose their leaders for the forthcoming election. An attribute we tend to prize in politicians is their ability to convince the public they can meet their demands and solve their problems. Today, instead, we need the opposite; the ability to persuade people that their demands are often unreasonable and that we must find ways together of solving our own problems.

Which takes me to the need for more personally responsible and resourceful citizens. With the funds available to the state limited and with demands on the public purse rising, and in a world where change becomes faster and competition more intense, we simply have to accept greater responsibility for meeting our own needs and building our own capabilities. This means looking after our health, renewing our education and skills throughout life, saving for our retirement. It means being more entrepreneurial, more risk taking. Greater resourcefulness may require a different mindset. There is much discussion around the world about the capabilities we should now be teaching children, for example, instead of educating young people to fit in to a job that already exists we may need to prepare them for a world in which they have to create and recreate their own job.

And in the social domain we need a citizenry that sees civic engagement, volunteering, philanthropy, or simply being a good neighbor – as an inherent part of living a proper adult life. The state and the market will not suffice, we must release the hidden wealth of sociability, solidarity and compassion. At the same time as geographical mobility and changes in family structure are creating an epidemic of isolation and loneliness, more and more evidence underlines the importance of face to face social networks as a source of resilience and opportunity for the individual and the community.

By now you may be asking: so what? If people were better the world would be better; is this anything more than a pious truism? Perhaps the reason something can appear self-evident but yet rarely articulated is that this perspective runs counter to two powerful intellectual perspectives in contemporary political thought, perspectives which also permeate everyday discourse. From a leftist viewpoint a focus on citizens obscures the determining effect of deeper social structure. It runs the risk of blaming the victims of alienation, powerlessness and injustice for their plight. From a free market perspective, the attempt to change people is in danger of legitimising social engineering when all this is needed is for the hidden hand of the market to transform individual utility maxmisation into progress.

Free market thought is underpinned by a simple and mythical theory of human decision-making. Debunking this theory brings me to the second condition for a new enlightenment; insight. The idea of a social aspiration gap suggests a number of areas for new thinking ranging from the way we do politics, to how we educate children to the design of public services and institutions – the kind of questions the RSA explores in its research and development –  but running beneath these inquiries is a deeper set of questions; about what makes human beings think and act as we do.

As I have said the model of human behaviour which has come to dominate public discourse and the assumptions of policy makers, especially in the US and UK is that of free market economics. Human beings are seen as rational, perfectly informed and utility maximizing. As an heuristic this idea may have its uses, but as a description of who we are and how we decide it is widely inaccurate. We are often not rational, we are rarely if ever perfectly informed, nor, unless one uses an entirely circular defintion, do we appear to we maximise our utility.

From a variety of disciplines but particularly behavioural economics and social psychology, there is ever more evidence of the complexity of our nature. And what behavioural economists and social psychologists observe in real life and research studies, neuroscientists can correlate with brain activity and evolutionary psychologists can in part explain from deductions about human development. As Daniel Dennett has said we are trying to navigate a fast changing modern world with a prehistorically evolved brain.

Here are some examples of how badly we fit the model of homo economicus:

When it comes to decisions including financial decisions we are driven by what Keynes called our animal spirits. This kind of herd mentality was displayed before the credit crunch but it is endemic in modern markets, something we should have learnt from the experience of 17th century traders in Tulip bulbs.

Reseach shows that our process for making moral judgements seems primarily to involve reason providing a rationale for our instinctive, unthinking response. As Robert Heinlien said ‘man is a rationalizing animal not a rational one’

Generally, the friends we have appear to make more differences to our behaviour than the individual resolutions we make. And by the way the number of active friends our brains can handle may have been set by evolution at the Dunbar number of around 150.

We tend systematically to exaggerate our own virtues and abilities, the vast majority of us think we are above average drivers, we over-estimate the amount go money we give to charity.When bad things happen to us we instinctively blame misfortune but when others suffer setbacks we find reasons in their character.

So bad are we at acting today in accord with our wishes for tomorrow that StickK, a successful web-site in America, helps people keep to commitments like giving up smoking or completing a book by pledging money to their least favourite cause immediately payable if they break their resolution. Apparently the George W Bush memorial library has been the biggest beneficiary of this scheme.

And, as Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo vividly demonstrated, in the right circumstances even the most humane person can easily be persauded to behave like a sadist.

The list of ways we don’t conform to free market’s theories model of homo economicus goes on and on. But two key, related, points stand out. Human behaviour is considerably more instinctive and more social than it feels to us or that modern culture encourages us to believe. This does not require us to abandon the idea of consciousness nor deny the uniqueness that lies in the human species capacity to think about thinking and to make meaning. But individual consciousness is an emergent capacity of a species that is instinctive and social. Plato talked about the wild horse of emotion and the wise charioteer of reason but it is more accurate to see our conscious will  as the rider of an instinctive elephant, its choice of route across the jungle highly influenced by the paths laid down by social habits, norms and clues.

New thinking about human nature has important implications for political thought. The challenge to free market individualism is pretty obvious but there are questions too for a liberal left which has tended to view traditon and convention as holding us back.

An important analysis is offered by the economic historian Avner Offer in his book ‘The Challenge of Affluence’. Offer explores that recent fracturing, I described  earlier, of the relationship between rising prosperity and well-being in the UK and USA. Why is it that being richer isn’t any more a guarantee of being happier? Offer argues that since the enlightenment, society has developed norms, institutions and processes which help to protect us from some of the cognitive frailties I described earlier, and in particularly our tendency towards self centeredness and short termism. He calls these social inventions ‘commitment devices’ and we could include in them marriage, loyalty to church, trade union or civic association, and norms and rules limiting debt and credit. But as affluence increased in the post war decades and the shrill ideology of consumer capitalism became more dominant we come to see these devices as mere constraints on having what we want and having it now (which, by the way, the economics profession is helpfully telling us will lead to the greater good).

New thinking about human nature has important implications for politics. To an open minded right of centre thinker, a more instinctive and social model of human behavior makes it harder to ignore the impact of social arrangements on individual resilience, opportunity and well-being. To an open minded thinker on the left it leads perhaps to a greater respect for tradition, for social norms, for the importance of values of restraint and even deference.

But these are responses to the way we are now. If necessity says we must change and insight challenges us to develop different models of change, idealism lies in the conviction that human beings can achieve both a higher level of social functioning and greater individual fulfillment.

Perhaps we should see the world today, and the sense that we may lack the tools to solve some of our most pressing problems, as marking a stage between the conditions in which we evolved and the capabilities to which we might aspire.

We evolved in conditions of stable and unchanging social organization in which simple structures of authority and decision making authority. We aspire to wise and responsible self-government yet now find ourselves unwilling to be governed but not yet able to govern ourselves.

We evolved in conditions of homogeneity only knowing people exactly like ourselves and generally responding with suspicion and hostility towards those we did not know. We aspire to live in a world where each person is accorded the same worth and where freedom and pluralism are underpinned by a framework of shared values and mutual respect. Yet now we find – and this is a point I hardly need to make to this audience – that issues of identity, nationalism and conflicting world views are febrile and intractable while our increasing global interdependency has yet to be reflecting in anything resembling global citizenship.

And we evolved in a subsistence economy, where – if we were fortunate – we had what we needed but very little more. We aspire to live in a world where we can live the good life, having in and around us those things which provide the soundest basis for fulfilment and wellbeing. Yet now in the rich world we suffer from various forms of over-consumption. In the memorable phrase of Tim Jackson ‘we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to make impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about’.

Kant suggested that the enlightenment was the moment when the human race entered adulthood. But then we look around today’s world and particularly full of change, confusion, self obsession, resentment sometimes it feels we are stuck in the stage of late adolescence. Whether we  grow up depends on many things – some of them perhaps not within our control – but history shows that ideas and their social expression in culture matter. When it comes to the values that might guide us to greater maturity, a starting point is those which were the well spring of the enlightnment.
Autonomy, that each individual should have the freedom to develop their own life (and their own relationship with God) was a revolutionary idea with revolutionary consequences. But in modern culture too often freedom is equated with mere possessive individualism. Instead, reflecting on our human nature, we need a richer idea of autonomy, one which is both self aware – in that it is a state not given to us but that must be earned through reflection and restraint – and socially embedded – in that genuine autonomy is a characteristic of a society not simply an attribute of individual.
Universalism, the idea that all human beings should be accorded dignity and respect, was not of course really universal at all in the 17th century, not if you were poor, not if you were woman and brutally so if you were not European. But since then the rise and rise of human rights – although far from  complete – has been perhaps the enlightenment’s proudest legacy. But while the rights project has advanced, have we left human emotion behind, making a proejct of liberation easy to characature as a cage of political corectness? Remember, our evolution bequeaths us a tendency to find difference threatening. So the question how we live together in our communities, in our nations, in a shrinking world of depleted natural resources is not an easy one to answer, particularly as we become less obedient to the paternalism of a well-meaning elite.

The question for the future is not so much the rights of man as the cohesion of humanity. What are the competencies, institutions and frameworks which will provide the foundation of respect and reciprocity necessary for us not just to survive but to thrive in our growing interdependency? To take just one aspect of this challenge, how can we move beyond religious sectarianism and strident atheism to a deeper understanding of the spiritual dimension of life, one which allows those of different faiths and none to focus on what unites rather than divides them?

And finally humanism. The idea that human beings should arrange society in the way that maximises their wellbeing rather than according to the dictates of tradition or scripture. In the face of necessity and with insight into our human nature, can we create a space beyond the logic of markets, science and bureaucracy, a space to develop vivid, concrete and mobilising ideas of what the good society might be and what might be involved for all of us in moving toward it?

Perhaps the economic crisis will pass and health economic growth will return bringing with it full employment and expanding social provision. Perhaps climate change is an exaggerated threat and can be solved with a technological fix. Perhaps conflict betwen identities and beliefs will subside to a grudging stalemate. But perhaps not.

Perhaps a better future now relies on us becoming the people we need to be to create the future we say we want. Perhaps in this quest we can be guided by a more subtle, concrete and modest account of who we are as a species. And perhaps necessity and insight can be joined by idealism.

We have come a long way  since the Dutch golden age heralded the emergence of a new world view. But there is further we must go and some of it in new directions. For surely the very essence of progessivsm lies in the conviction that the greatest chapters of the story of human development have yet to be written.


Fair enough?

April 20, 2012 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

A comment on yesterday’s hubristically titled post focussed on the absence in my account of ‘how to save the world’ of any mention of social inequality. It is a valid criticism. But here are some things to bear in mind when we do talk about social justice.

When people are asked about what is unfair in society they are as likely to focus on what philosophers call procedural justice (playing by the rules) as distributional justice (social equality). As any political canvasser knows, if you ask people in disadvantaged areas about what is unfair they are more likely to refer to the neighbour who is working while on benefits or the immigrant family perceived to have got housing priority than to bankers, private education or the class system.

In his recent book on moral instincts, Jonathan Haidt suggests these two views of fairness (he calls procedural justice ‘proportionality’) are distinct impulses. While, as would be expected, the left tends to have the strongest story on distributional justice, conservatives often have a powerful message on the procedural dimension.

Sticking with Haidt, we need also to deal with the central idea of his book, which is that our moral judgements are more instinctive than reasoned. For example, he cites the example of Millian liberals who, having responded negatively to a story about a man buying a supermarket chicken, having sex with it then cooking and eating it, then scrabble around trying to find some harms-based rationale for their response. So while from moral and political philosophy we can derive ideas about what ought to offend us, this is not the same as changing what does offend us, the latter being based on long evolved aspects of our characters. It is like the distinction between what we know to be healthy foods and our continuing appetite for curry, beer and doughnuts.

In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I made the point that in progressive circles a lot of time is spent discussing the content of social justice but much less on the emotional foundations which underlie a desire to treat others justly. These debates are now getting more prominence with the growing popular interest in brains, behaviour and evolution. ‘Empathy’ is a widely discussed phenomenon, the existence and significance of mirror neurons is hotly debated and I suspect this year will see a shift in the evolutionary debate towards those who argue for group selection.

Although Robert Putnam’s work on values and diversity is important (and challenging) we could also do with more sociological research on why fairness is more or less powerful as a social norm in different types of places and communities.

Finally, people for whom justice is the most important value have to accept that most people are less motivated and more pragmatic. I am sure most voters would subscribe to the Ralwsian exception; inequality can be justified if it increases the aggregate well-being of everyone, including the disadvantaged. This is one reason why the left has seized so enthusiastically on the evidence presented by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level.

Nor is it simply that arguments for justice have to contend with an economic/utilitarian calculus, there is also the value people ascribe to freedom as a virtue. Whilst people on the political left tend to assume that greater equality is a characteristic of a better society, those with less strong political leanings may see the connection between justice and progress as more contingent.

I have said before that one important aspect of what I call ‘the social aspiration gap’ is that we are not in any way on track to deliver a widely shared value; namely that all children should have reasonably equal life chances. I adhere strongly to this value (and I believe any credible meritocrat must also be an advocate of greater equality across society in general), but I also think the case for fair life chance is more likely to be furthered if progressives move beyond assertion and theory (however elegantly expressed) to an account and strategy informed by wider insights into public values and human nature.


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