Everything under control

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We hold onto our superstitions even when we know they are superstitions, but the urge to control our environment is more significant than our urge to follow the truth. I think this urge emerges from the need to be prepared for an unknowable future. In modern times, this need has led to the belief that science will eventually enable us to make reality manageable, a belief that can come at the expense of understandings and practices developed in local communities. This is not only undesirable but also unnecessary. There is no contradiction between abstract knowledge and local practices, but it is the question of how abstract knowledge can be applied in specific contexts. In doing so, we must not forget that reality can never be controlled, as we learn from humour and art.

When I put on my socks, I put on my right sock first and then the left. That’s important to me, because if I don’t do it like this, I’m going to have a bad day. The order of putting on my socks is something I can decide for myself, with the nice result that I feel like I’m in control of the rest of the day.

Now I’ve had really bad days, even after I put on my right sock first. But can you imagine the misery that would have happened to me if I hadn’t? This personal ritual shows that the need for the idea of ​​control is stronger than the control itself. We have develop rituals with which we pretend to control our environment, even when we don’t.

The insatiable need for the idea of ​​control may well stem from the way our brain works: our brain rewards itself when it guesses right, then it thinks it really knows what is real.

Like so many other living organisms, humans constantly anticipate changes in our environment and adjust their actions accordingly. Often these are small actions: for example, if I press a key with my finger, I expect that letter to appear on my screen. Sometimes it concerns bigger decisions and then there is a difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom: for example, you choose a job because you think it will make you happy or rich later on.

These expectations are generally established through experiences and impressions. You have learned that a letter appears on the screen when you press a key or you think you have noticed what makes you happy. In fact, you continuously make hypotheses about what is going to happen and adjust your actions accordingly. Hypotheses that are tested simultaneously with these actions.

If happens what you expected, your hypothesis is confirmed. That gives a good feeling: you are on the right track; you seem to understand how reality works. Reality conforms to your wishes, you have it under control. But where the confirmation of a hypothesis feels good, it hurts when it is disproved. In that case, the world is not what it should have been and not doing what you think it should have done.

To gain control over the world around you, you must be able to understand that world. There is a coherent set of understandings to explain everything that happens around you, and the trick is to understand that coherence by connecting causes and effects. Control is about trusting the ‘tricks’ we use to face the future. Two strategies seem to be distinguished in this regard. First of all, there is a conservative strategy in which understandings are embedded in existing practices and rituals, but also in our environment. We know what we see around us and we know the things we do. By excluding novelties as much as possible, you are less likely to be surprised.

But since the Enlightenment, there has also been another way of exercising control, namely by producing scientific knowledge that can be used to manipulate reality. This modern strategy mainly focuses on discovering new things, so that you will not be faced with surprises later. By developing the right knowledge you can dominate nature. If you know, rather than just think you know, how causes and effects are related, you can predict what will happen and then you can manipulate reality so that you can shape the world to your liking. Next, modern technology is the means to effectuate this manipulation. With the tandem of science and technology, we can make the uncontrollable controllable.

This modern strategy is not so much aimed at the instant gratification of the need to have control, but postpones that gratification until we can manipulate everything ‒ so we don’t have to guess anymore and we will be in charge of our universe. In short, it is no longer about fulfilling the need itself, but about the promise that that need will one day be met. The modern control strategy is one of an eternal flight forward.

This strategy breeds control freaks for whom control is a precondition for satisfaction. Controlling the environment is then no longer a means to meet your wishes, but has become an end in itself. We also recognize this ambition on a larger scale. Modern institutions manipulate human behaviour in such a way that it becomes predictable. One of the great academic heroes, Albert Hirschman, argued that the free market is a social context designed to filter the capriciousness of human behaviour. The market is successful in this because ‘passions’ as a motive for trading have been replaced by ‘interests’. After all, it is unwise to invest as your heart dictates, it is better to think about it carefully, because then you increase the chance of profit. In short, the market system gives you ‘incentives’ to pursue your ‘rational self-interest’. If you don’t behave in the ‘rational’ – that is, right – way, a competing party will benefit. In turn, the political system comes up with laws that everyone, including the legislators themselves, must abide by. Those who don’t will be punished. Not only do legislators have to abide by their own laws, there are also checks and balances, and of course democratic elections to exclude arbitrariness as much as possible.

All the understandings we use to graps reality are formed within a community. You learn them from the people around you, you read or hear about them in a language you know. The community you belong to provides you with the understandings that enable you to have command over the world around you. In addition, the modern compulsion to control can often lead to the erosion of existing understandings. This explains many social conflicts in which people who mainly rely on the understandings they already know are opposed to people who mainly trust the understandings that are based on scientific knowledge. It is the story of the ‘somewheres’ versus the ‘anywheres’: respectively the higher educated groups of people who move in global economic and social networks and the lower educated groups of people who are attached to the recognisability of their environment. It is a difference between understandings based on a concrete environment and meanings based on an abstract context.

This distinction shows why some groups have difficulty with developments such as immigration or radical measures that are motivated by abstract knowledge (think climate or corona policy). This effort manifests itself in distrust of old institutions and new rules. It is counterproductive to combat this mistrust by pouring out more information about these groups – often the Pavlovian response from policymakers and experts. After all, it is the precisely abstract nature of that information that is the problem.

We have to overcome the opposition between abstract and concrete understandings. After all, in daily life we ​​usually follow a mix of both strategies, nobody is completely an ‘any’- or a ‘somewhere’. In addition, we need theoretical knowledge to understand reality. The climate problem and the corona pandemic are real problems for all people, in whatever local environment they may be. Another point follows from the fact that communities are neither isolated nor homogeneous. The world is also understood in different ways within a community. So there are always conflicting systems of meaning. Moreover, the conservative strategy is not inherently racist or backward. Actually, I think that the majority of people who rely mainly on concretely formed understandings are caring and open-minded. It does seem to be the case that excluding this strategy is a breeding ground for undesirable excesses. Some ‘somewheres’ will cling even more tightly to what they know and will fight even more fiercely against everything they don’t know. It does not become a conflict between different ways of satisfying the need to exert control, it becomes a conflict between what is good and what is bad.

The main point is that the modern and conservative strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Where things go wrong, attempts are made to completely institutionalise social reality so that social behaviour becomes manageable. As I wrote above, institutions such as the market, politics and the law streamline our behaviour, they make it predictable by assuming general rules and regularities. However, this is ethically undesirable. It seems to me little more than a basic human right that individuals should be able to exercise control over the understandings they use to shape their lives. After all, if you deprive them of that opportunity, you hurt them, perhaps not in a physical sense, but certainly mentally.

Not that the right to control means that concretely formed understandings automatically take precedence. Neither abstractly formed understandings nor concretely formed meanings are more valuable or truer than the other. The point is that the use of theoretical knowledge always has consequences that are local and direct – abstractly formed understandings are ultimately applied in concrete situations.

The right to have a say is not about the right to control, but about the vulnerability people experience when the meanings they use to understand their lives are eroded. If a local context is seen exclusively as a manifestation of general contexts or if a local context is moulded into a general context, people lose their say and this must and can be countered by an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies.

It is tempting to view the modern and conservative management strategy as a contradiction between modern hubris and reactionary superstition, but ultimately these are both ways to disclose an intrinsically unknowable and uncontrollable future. Both are destined to fail.

It is interesting to look at Popper’s falsification theory from that point of view. This theory leads to a paradox: science is the vehicle that should lead to complete control, so that we never have to doubt our predictions again; but science doesn’t confirm expectations, it falsifies hypotheses. In short, with science we mostly seem to hurt ourselves.

Another striking phenomenon is that the tools that have been developed to make the world manageable also turn out to be unpredictable themselves. First, we can think of technology, the pre-eminent means of manipulating the world around us. However, the use of technology is by no means predictable and leads to new uncertainties. As Ulrich Beck stated, technology can counteract risks, but it also leads to risks itself, which we have to wait and see if they can ever be made manageable. The same applies to an institution such as the market. This makes the behaviour of individuals more predictable, but at systemic level there are numerous processes that can only be explained in retrospect. So we move from crisis to crisis.

Even when we know more and can do more than ever, we must continue to assume the unexpected. Not only will the nature around us continue to surprise us, but also the things we make and the words we speak add something new to the world, without us knowing what this will mean.

One of the best ways to face the unexpected is humour. When we laugh about something, it is often because our expectations are played with. A joke makes it clear that the assumed correctness of the understandings they use is not necessary at all. Humour shows us that we don’t have to be afraid of things we can’t predict. Art is also very helpful: good art confronts you with your own presuppositions and forces you to rethink them. Humour and art are areas in which the need for control is put to the test in a somewhat painless way. I think that the lessons of humour and art should be more widely used, that we should laugh more often about our failures and that we should force ourselves to adjust our expectations more often. So that the uncontrollable becomes a lot more manageable.

Further reading:

Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk society. Towards a new modernity. London: Sage Publications.

Hirschman, A.O. 1977. The Passion and the Interests. Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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The Fable of the Fable of the Bees: Private Hubris, Public Scarcity

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Following Bernard de Mandeville’s parable from long ago, neoliberal thinking sees people as ‘bees’ that compete for scarce resources. That competition is believed to bring out the best in people. This assumption is not only untrue, but also evil: it destroys both ourselves and the environment. It is better to strive for collective wealth by establishing rules that allow individuals not only access to shared knowledge, and which also empower them to create new knowledge.

Just some recent events from Dutch news. First, people who violently refuse a vaccination, with the main argument being that they do not want to run any risks of side effects while they don’t expect to be really sick themselves from corona. Second, the tax authorities accuse innocent citizens of fraud. The responsible cabinet resigns, but is basically re-elected in the subsequent elections – most voters don’t seem toc are about the scandal. Third, Afghans who have supported the Dutch army are largely left to their own devices after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. This has no significant political consequences, apart from some ministers who step back.

All these cases show a lack of imagination: the inability to look at the world from the point of view of another person or from the standpoint of the collective interest. There’s plenty of empathy for those who are like us, but it seems incredibly hard to to empathize with those who aren’t like us — which is what is desperately needed.

In fact, many people do not seem to see the social collective of which they are a part as a coherent moral or social connection, but at most as a structure that should serve their personal preferences.

I hate the overuse of the term neoliberalism, but you really can’t see this lack of imagination as something different than the total victory of neoliberal thinking. Introduced in the 1980s under Reagan and Thatcher, for whom there was ‘no society but only individuals’. Formed into a policy paradigm by left-wing leaders such as Kok, Blair, Clinton and Schröder, among whom it no longer mattered whether the government ensured the implementation of policies or the market or an organization that was somewhere in between.

For the roots of neoliberal thinking, we can go back to 1714 when Bernard de Mandeville, born in Rotterdam but living in England, published The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. De Mandeville argued that private vices, such as economic activities, could lead to general prosperity. Before that time, economic actions were mainly seen as a necessary evil: you had to make, sell or buy things, simply to survive. It’s about self-interest and that was always morally reprehensible. Mandeville argued that even though all those actions might be bad in themselves, they ensured that everyone got what they wanted and that wealth was created on an aggregated level.

Mandeville’s idea was further elaborated by Scotsman Adam Smith in 1776’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations. Smith argued that if everyone acted on the basis of ‘self-love’, the competitive system of the free market would eventually work for it. that ensured that the greatest possible prosperity would arise on a collective level.

Smith fought against the then prevailing dogma that a country should protect its economy as much as possible. This dogma had exactly the opposite effect: it reduced prosperity, and this only on the basis of the belief that self-interest was inherently bad.

Over the years, it has been Smith’s thinking that has become a dogma itself, even though the self-love of the baker or blacksmith has meanwhile been exchanged for the pursuit of profit maximization by the investment bank or a venture investor. This leads to an increase in the gross national product, but this is just phantom growth. The extra income doesn’t end up with people, but with companies that seem to use this income mainly to generate even more income, instead giving it to their employees. In this, it is good to acknowledge that we are not exploited by the CEOs of the big companies, because they also are just employees, but by the companies themselves.

The people who work for those companies, including the CEOs, seem to have to work harder and harder to deliver the same performance. Everyone seems to be getting busier and busier, because there will always be someone who can work even harder. In this way, the market economy not only exhausts nature, but also humans. That person, even if he is the CEO, is just like nature nothing more than a resource, which is used to produce goods and services.

We must realize that neoliberalism is not so much a set of economic dogma’s, but of moral dogma’s in which the free market is basically seen as the only place where income is generated. Government intervention only leads to inefficiencies and therefore takes place as little as possible. From this dogma, austerity rounds follow austerity rounds, so that fewer and fewer public facilities remain, without resulting in richer countries.

Another article of faith is that the competitive system of the marketplace ensures that the best people get the most opportunities, which also leads to the most prosperity. After all, when the smartest people end up in the most important places, it delivers the most value. This idea is also reversed: people who can’t get to the top apparently can’t or don’t want to – because that’s how the system works. In short, success or failure is not a matter of luck or bad luck, but respectively of your own merit or your own fault. A competitive system is a zero-sum game: the gain of one is the loss of the other. No wonder there is little consideration for those who are unlucky: not only it is this lack of fortune their own fault, it also contributes to my happiness.

Adam Smith showed that economic dogmas of his day were counterproductive. The same can be said today: the neoliberal dogmas do not lead to more collective prosperity, only to collective poverty. They just aren’t true.

To counter the neoliberal devastation, you can think of developing more solidarity and a better distribution of wealth, for example through a progressive tax regime or levying taxes on inheritances. We also need to get rid of the neoclassical idea that price is everything, as Marianna Mazzucato suggests. In her opinion, it is better to look at the value created by economic productivity, in which it is not only the market that does something, but also the government that invests, for example, in knowledge development and infrastructure.

But can we go further? Because both when it comes to solidarity and a different understanding of value, it is still about the distribution of scarce resources. Even though resources are redistributed or made less scarce, the idea that the economy is a zero-sum game with winners and losers is still persevered.

Can we also arrive at a different understanding of prosperity? Prosperity that does not begin with the wealth of individuals, which must then be redistributed, but prosperity that begins with the wealth of the collective. After all, the basis of human success is not the cleverness of individual individuals, but the cleverness that lies between us. Just think about it: there were also very smart people among the cavemen, but they did not come up with smart innovations, ground-breaking medicines and lucrative investment models. This only has become possible now because there is a much greater collective wealth.

This collective wealth arises because we can share meanings through time and space. We can pronounce and write words so that they are not lost and spread. The words of Jesus Christ or Aristotle are thousands of years old, but we still know them and they still have a great influence on our thoughts and actions. In addition, our global vocabulary is still expanding daily: there are only more words, so that we can describe even more things and understand even more things.

With all those words and all those new understanding we can disclose more and more knowledge that we can use to solve and prevent problems and to build a civilization.

There is no scarcity in the intersubjective domain, because knowledge can be shared by everyone. The wealth of this domain is indeed collective and can multiply infinitely without ever making anyone worse off.

What are the conditions of intersubjective wealth when does it make us richer? I think the following. First of all, we must think in terms of a self-reinforcing process: it is about the possibilities that everyone has at their disposal to contribute to the increase of that collective wealth.

To make this possible, the institutions – also parts of the intersubjective domain that are shared – must ensure that individuals gain access to the collective knowledge stock and whereby these individuals can also add new knowledge to that stock. These institutions are the rules that apply within a certain social context and that guide people in their decisions.

Viewed in this light, the ideas of Mandeville and Smith were not that crazy: in their own time, these ideas did contribute to the increase of collective wealth. In the first place because the free market provided an enormous boost for the further dissemination of knowledge and technology. But also because the rules of the free market provide the conditions of the ‘wisdom of the crowds’: a collective is smarter if a variety of individuals can make an independent contribution to the whole in the absence of major power differences.

The rules of the market are based on competition that stimulates individuals to innovate. New technologies, products and services that increase the quality of life. But at the same time, a lot is wasted in such a competitive system. Think of all those good ideas that never became successful, think of old stuff that you have to throw away because a better or hipper version has been introduced, think of the destruction of the environment, the exhaustion of workers who have to work harder and harder and of consumers who have to ensure that their old curtains do not become the laughingstock of the street.

The market alone can never be enough. It is essential that there are also other institutional domains that can contribute to collective wealth. Consider, for example, civil society, the development of this domain was characterized by the formation of public opinion via discussions in coffee houses and newspapers between equal individuals. These citizens came to think from the vantage point of an imagined larger whole of which they were a part as individuals. What we’re seeing here is that rules came into being that prompt individuals to articulate their ideas, to take note of the ideas of others, to think about what others might want.

The domain of science should also be mentioned. The scientific revolution meant little more than the introduction of new rules for good science. These rules required scientists to make public not only their findings, but also the way in which they arrived at those findings. Scientists had to show that their experiments were correct.

In short, different institutional domains ensured a level playing field, variation, and openness. The conditions for increasing collective knowledge.

We now have more knowledge than ever at our disposal, we are no more than a few mouse clicks away from almost all possible information. Moreover, there is more equality than ever. Where women and workers could not participate, now everyone is empowered. Why isn’t that enough?

I do not pretend to have an exhaustive answer to this question. But I do think that this answer certainly has to do with the dominance of market thinking. As I wrote above: there is a lack of imagination. The rules of the market create the incentive to put your own interests first. If no civil society is opposed to that market, people will no longer have the opportunity to form an imagined collective. They cannot develop the ability to think about what is good for the community.

A second problem concerns the scale of that community. While the economy and the major problems of our time are global, we usually identify the community with a country or some even smaller context. There is no fit between our problem-solving structures and the problems. This also prevents ownership: even though environmental and social sustainability issues are widely recognised, individuals seem to find it difficult to relate them to their own lives. The responsibility to contribute to solutions disappears completely.

The market also seems to lead to more destruction than renewal. It is bad enough that people and the environment as resources are pushed to the limit, but it also doesn’t lead up to anything. Innovations mainly benefit the business itself, with companies merging into increasingly larger conglomerates or networks. This also affects the conditions for collective wealth: it reduces variation and if individuals have to compete against large organizations, there is by no means a level playing field.

This system is unsustainable and must be changed. We must look for collective wealth that multiplies without being destructive. To do this, you would have to ask for any policy measure whether it makes it possible for individuals to have access to knowledge and to add new knowledge.

Some investment decisions are simple. More and better education, more science, more culture, a basic income. Such investments all amply pay for themselves, even if you can’t measure it in conventional ways.

But, most importantly, more imagination is needed, new ways of solving today’s problems. We need to develop domains that fit the scale of contemporary problems. We need to look for the rules that allow navel-gazing to expand into an ever-widening horizon.

Further reading:

Dumont, Louis. 1977. From Mandeville to Marx. The genesis and triumph of economic ideology. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1962. “Strukturwandel der öffentlichkeit.”

Heijne, S., and H. Noten. 2020. Fantoomgroei: Waarom we steeds harder werken voor steeds minder: Atlas Contact, Uitgeverij.

Mandeville, Bernard. 2017. The fable of the bees: or, private vices, publick benefits: The Floating Press.

Mazzucato, Mariana. 2018. The value of everything: Making and taking in the global economy: Hachette UK.

Smith, Adam. 1998. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. A Selected Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Surowiecki, James. 2005. The wisdom of crowds: Anchor.


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What kind of science is afforded by technology?

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To a certain extent, science is the application of technology that helps to arrive at new knowledge. First of all, scientists use instruments to experiment with and to measure. But also, technology organizes the work of scientists. With advances in technology, the character of science will change. But how far can science change without ceasing to be science? This question requires a good understanding of technology, science and their interaction and a critical assessment of new technology’s possibilities and temptations.

Sociologists of technology talk about the affordances of technologies, which means that the physical properties of a device or design allow specific human actions. Affordances say something about how we interact with the devices we use. A technology seems to press certain buttons in our brain on or off so that certain actions are pre-sorted.

When Harrods introduced the first automatic escalator in 1898, the designers were amazed at the people who did not ascend the stairs but stood still, enjoying the escalator’s unexpected affordance. Many of us start scolding other road users as soon as they drive a car. The affordance of the car seems to bring out the worst in us. Or maybe not even the worst: owning a weapon also stimulates gun use, which is even worse.

Affordances play a role in almost all human activities. For example, if I had to write my dissertation on a typewriter, I would never have been able to obtain my PhD. I don’t even think I would have got my master’s degree. A digital word processor allows a different kind of academic work than an analogue typewriter, and my brain simply turns out not to be empowered with the requirements of a typewriter: I have to be able to scroll my texts; the spelling checker must be able to correct all my writing errors; I need to see a thesaurus if I can’t come up with a word. Indeed, I know from experience that the word processor enables a different kind of science.

Technologies are not neutral instruments; they change how we act and interact with each other. Affordances are about the impact of a single device on a person. But we are surrounded by countless devices: we are part of a network of people and things, where things respond to people’s actions, and people respond to the affordances of things: people and things determine each other’s freedom of choice.

This mutual influence of people and things is the starting point of actor-network theory (ANT). In this theory, both people act and form a network of actors together. For many, ANT is the theory you love to hate. Pretentious, vague and, most importantly, it denies the fact that only humans can act intentionally; the actions of a device are not the same; such a device doesn’t know what it is doing.

This is true. But ANT also focuses our attention on several essential issues. Firstly, it concerns how people and things become embedded in an interplay of practices that become so attuned to each other that other practices become virtually impossible. This means that choices from the past determine the choices we make now and in the future. New technologies always build on existing practices, which is why, for example, it is so difficult to introduce successful sustainable technologies − they do not fit with current unsustainable practices.

With ANT, we better understand how practices change with the introduction of new technologies, which usually happens without considering the moral implications. Consider, for example, how everyone looks at their mobile phone all day long. The mobile phone makes us part of a socio-technical network of apps and apps: the device shapes how we interact with others.

ANT shows that our decisions are not only made by our brain, but we have externalized many decisions, such as culture and institutions. Thus, Technologies largely determine our actions and our conscious thinking − perhaps to an even greater extent than our brains do. And that’s a good thing because technologies are often much smarter, stronger and more accurate than ourselves. As I wrote, technology can be seen as part of the intersubjective superorganism. Part of our thinking and doing lies outside of our brain, so we can do much more than our limited physical and cognitive capacities permit.

With new devices, our superbrain is getting even smarter. No wonder our values ​​and meanings are changing. We can do more, see further, and make decisions we could not make before. But we also ‘unlearn’ values ​​and meanings because technology makes them meaningless or because technology sends us in a different direction. Now that tires barely puncture, you no longer have to learn to fix a tire as a child. Now that the casual dress code in the office has become commonplace, you no longer need to be able to tie a tie. Don’t worry; there are always tutorials on YouTube.

What do these insights mean for the work of a scientist? What affordances does she have to deal with, and what network is she a part of? A first example can be found in the availability of knowledge. Until twenty years ago, most of the knowledge was to be found in books and academic journals that were by no means available to everyone. Scientists who worked at a university with sufficient money for a good library or expensive subscriptions had no problem. This inequality was exacerbated because precisely these universities were best regarded and largely determined the reputation of an individual scientist.

In short, the knowledge gathered by science was only accessible to a small group of people (mostly white men with grey hair and glasses). The most renowned universities retained their top position without any effort. They were at the top of the rocks that had to be climbed to be seen as an important scientist. Those who got to the top of the rock determined which knowledge was most valuable.

Thanks to the Internet, scientific knowledge has become accessible to all scientists. Journal subscriptions are still ridiculously expensive, but open access or otherwise illegal download sites such as SciHub ensure that knowledge can be shared universally. Knowledge has actually become something that can be retrieved by all scientists in the world, with which the essence of science can be pursued even more strongly.

But there’s more. What is seen as the most valuable knowledge no longer depends on someone’s reputation. Instead, rankings have been introduced that are more or less objective. Most striking is the H-index, a simple number indicating how many articles a scientist wrote are cited at least as often as that number.

I do not want to say that this index is the measure of things. For example, my H-index is almost twice as high as that of Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs; you know about the Higgs particle. I have never won a prize other than a bottle of beer at a pub quiz.

But that’s not the point. The criteria of the H-index are the same for everyone; it doesn’t matter which club you belong to. It is a much more democratic measure of the quality of a scientist than the arbitrary criteria before.

The story of the impact factor for scientific journals is comparable. This indicator shows how often an article from that journal is cited. This leads to a clear overview that enables every scientist around the world to estimate the status of a journal. As before, she does not have to spend years in a research field to know which journal is best read. Here, too, this leads to science that is more inclusive, more global and more democratic.

But while a new technology ensures that certain values ​​are realized, and problems are solved, other values ​​and problems come back. With our cell phones on the table, we are always ‘on’, constantly focused on the world that lies beyond our vision; this goes to the extent of real, direct access through eye contact or a good conversation. It’s easy to retype a word on a computer, but a day’s work may have been in vain if you forget to save your work. New errors have replaced the errors that a digital word processor fixes. Scientists and editors have become very creative in artificially boosting their H-index and impact factor, respectively. The perverse incentives that each indicator has to do their job.

As such, it’s no wonder that 15 years after its introduction, the H-index is taken less and less seriously. The NWO, the body that distributes the most research funding in the Netherlands, does not even allow these kinds of quantitative measures in the assessment of the quality of a researcher. This critical approach is justified; with every new technology, we need to question which practices, values ​​and meanings are pursued and which can no longer be pursued. Too often, innovation is blind to these questions question. There is simply a promise that people would like to believe in, such as the promise that a digital word processor makes writing easy or that increased computing power provides more knowledge. These kinds of promises should be treated with scepticism: we should always ask ourselves whether these promises correspond to what we want and need.

This last point is especially important when considering the promises put forward around big data analytics. The presence of an infinite reservoir of information and the unlimited computing power of computers allows the determination of relationships that do not require any human interpretation. All those cookies you accept mindlessly make it possible for the sites you have visited and the links you have clicked to be stored somewhere on a server. Your profile is compiled from this deluge of data.

Whether that profile matches your psychology is irrelevant. The results of the big data operations are correct because they are assumed to be accurate. Because the amount of information is unprecedentedly large, there is no other way – at least, this seems to be the idea − that it must lead to the correct inferences. The human brain is bounded in its rationality, as Herbert Simon stated, and has difficulty processing large amounts of information. Causal relationships drawn are no more than heuristic short-cuts: wouldn’t actual causality presuppose that all information is included?

No, what then remains is a meaningless mash that still needs to be interpreted. Big data suggests that science is little more than inferring relationships from information, as a rule of thumb: the more information, the better. But science isn’t just about collecting data. An interpretive step taken by scientists remains necessary, as this interpretative step adds meaning to the observations. With that meaning, we can understand what is happening (or think we can understand…). Big data adds an extra layer of noise scientists have to extract patterns from.

Adding meaning is indispensable because the reality around us is an amorphous whole. No device could give an accurate picture of that reality. Instead, we use devices to structure that reality. Similarly, there is no such thing as neutral information that can serve as input for big data analytics; this information has already been filtered. As the now well-known examples of discriminatory algorithms show, self-driving cars are more likely to hit a black person than a white person, and friendly chatbots lapse into racist trash talk in no time.

The advantage of devices is not that they show reality as it is but that they show everyone the same image of reality. It helps us rid truth claims of subjective elements. Where in the past, the truth was proclaimed by prophets − you couldn’t get it more subjective than that – we now have come to rely on technologically mediated measurements that do not belong to any person in particular.

I can never be sure that what I see looks the same to someone else. But a telescope always shows the same picture. In effect, this means that science can be seen as applied technology and not − as is so often thought − the other way around: the information that forms the basis of our knowledge must always be mediated by technical instruments. Whether that is a simple yardstick or the large hadron collider from CERN, these instruments make observations independent of the observer, so these observations become comparable. This comparable information enables science to bring order to science by recognizing patterns and drawing meaningful connections.

Ultimately, science is all about the application of objective technologies and the interpretations of subjective scientists. This combination ensures that science is more than ‘just an opinion’. This does mean that technology has a necessary, but not a sufficient, role. New technology will never be able to lead to a science without scientists. Instead, new technology should lead to more accurate tools and more accessible communities of researchers. So let us rejoice in the possibilities of new technology that makes more information available to more people, but let us not be distracted by the affordances of a technology that leaves us with knowledge which has no meaning.

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The language of the voiceless: Some questions about ecological ethics

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We humans are not who we thought we were, not nearly as rational, unique and intentional as we imagined ourselves to be. Instead, we are intrinsically connected with all the life around us. Which ethics would be appropriate if the current ethical approaches are based on outdated ideas? Do we have to have ecological ethics in which people are just a part, next to everything that also lives and moves? Not in every regard, I think, modern thinking has produced an ethical and political system that enables us to make autonomous collective choices democratically – something we need to maintain. On the other hand, this system is based entirely on language, while ecological ethics would also require the voiceless to have their say. There is no simple answer; trade-offs between anthropocentric and ecological approaches remain inevitable.

Ethicists are mainly concerned with relationships between people; connections between people and non-people are of secondary importance. But humans are by no means singular organisms; we are symbiotic beings consisting of humans and microbiomes, the latter composed of billions of bacteria, fungi and yeasts. That microbiome may have more cells than body cells and plays a role in almost all bodily processes.

In addition to ecosystems in themselves, people are also part of ecosystems in which everything is connected with everything. And all this is again part of a biosphere, a belt of about 10 kilometers that spans the earth and in which, as far as we know, all the life of the universe resides.

Our actions affect all that life, and it would be hubris to restrict ethics to humans. Instead of anthropocentric ethics, we should develop ecological ethics in which the connections between humans and their environment are central.

This is also what is argued by Donna Haraway. She argues that we should no longer start from the premise of humans as exceptional beings but instead emphasize the kinship between ourselves and our living environment. In addition, Haraway states that living beings do not just do things on their own, but always respond to the actions of other living beings. According to Haraway, always in favor of an ugly neologism, living organisms are ‘response-able’. With all these responding creatures, a web of coherent relationships is created, of which humans are only a part.

Bruno Latour comes with a similar approach. According to him, agency is not reserved for people or even for everything that lives, but for everything that is: both beings and things act. The points of departure of Haraway and Latour are slightly different. While Haraway is a biologist who mainly looks at organisms, Latour is a technology sociologist who primarily looks at things; these are not considered neutral objects but, just like us, actors in a network in which people and things determine each other’s actions.

In our everyday life, the latter is actually quite evident. We are surrounded by technologies, from the knife we ​​use to make a sandwich, the bicycle we use to move, to the internet and electricity-connected computer we use to email, order, work, and so on. The things around us constantly determine what we do, just as we determine what things do.

Latour started with the actions of technologies but realized he shouldn’t limit himself to things. The climate problem shows that not only technologies do something, but nature acts. Gaia, Latour’s name for everything that lives within the narrow biosphere that encompasses the Earth, is also a network of interdependent actors.

Thus, The climate problem can be seen as how Gaia reacts to our industrialized activities. The same is true of the coronavirus pandemic; the worldwide spread of microscopic living creatures is a response of nature to our hyper-dynamic lifestyle, globalised economy, and diet. A reaction that creates a new reality, to which we as humans have to react again.

The actions of Gaia are not just judgments; it is mainly up to us to label them ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Haraway and Latour’s ethical lessons diverge. Haraway argues that nature teaches us that as rooted individuals, we must take more care of our relationships. In contrast, Latour argues that we must give a political voice to everything not yet represented in political and institutional forums: technologies and manifestations of Gaia, such as water, soil, forests and air.

What binds both approaches is the message that we are not that special and must, therefore, be fully aware of our inescapable connection to the biosphere. This seems a necessary starting point, but I’m afraid it’s not enough: care and representation alone are not enough. Besides their neologisms, the problem of Haraway and Latour is that they turn modern philosophy into a straw man. Modern thinkers are portrayed as naive minds who have made people important because they make choices based on their exceptional rationality. In doing so, they ignore important insights, while a fully-fledged ecological ethics can only be successful if it does justice to responsible and meaningful action. We cannot do this without the modern principles of rationality, exceptionalism and intentionality, but we have to understand these differently. I will review these three properties here and briefly indicate how we can interpret them differently.

Modern ethics is indeed an intrinsically anthropocentric discipline, in which it was first determined what makes humans human, after which the moral rules that go with it were derived. Animals and other living organisms are treated poorly. For example, according to Descartes, animals are only mechanical automatons. Even for most philosophers, this is too ridiculous an idea, but Kant’s idea that animals are not autonomous and rational like humans (or at least so much less that it is negligible) is pretty widely held. Because what makes us unique, according to most modern thinkers, is our ability to think independently and logically.

Ironically, research shows that this ability doesn’t make us that special at all. Elephants and dolphins have larger brains, and experiments have shown that chimpanzees are less influenced by other chimpanzees than humans by other humans in their choices; they choose based on what they see for themselves and do not ape others as humans do.

This doesn’t imply that people are not unique; it means that most thinkers (and most others) have looked for that particularity in the wrong direction. As individuals, we are not very special, but as a species, we are truly unique. According to evolutionary anthropologist Joseph Henrich, humans have two unique qualities that explain the secret of humanity.

First of all, there is the ability to learn from others. We are not necessarily good at thinking by ourselves. Still, we are incredibly good at imitating successful others: we unconsciously select models who can do something very well and then copy their strategies. This way, we always follow the people we think are the smartest, most handy or resourceful. Because everyone does that, everyone is becoming smarter, more useful and more resourceful.

Second, we are unique in our ability to pick up and follow standards. We are virtuosic in recognizing social cues that indicate which actions are appropriate within a particular culture. In doing so, we assume that our universe is characterized by regularities; not only are there fixed rules that we are supposed to follow, but there are also lawful causes that explain certain events. The assumed regularities motivate our behavior and our beliefs.

These two qualities have led to many errors, such as choosing the wrong models or believing in nonsensical regularities. But they have also led to the emergence of ‘superorganisms’: cultures that have evolved in which people make smarter decisions than they would have individually. These decisions are based on an accumulation of smart choices from the past, which serve as generally applicable rules of action. Rather than being guided by our personal individual considerations and instincts, we base our choices on our collective intelligence.

I also see technologies as part of these superorganisms – in line with Latour’s ideas. We and our devices are elements of this superorganism that act according to specific rules.

In addition, language is also an intrinsic part of the superorganism. Language determines how we think, communicate, remember, categorize and give meaning to our experiences and impressions.

The norms, technologies and language are all aspects of an intersubjective reality that provides us as individuals with an unbelievably large repertoire of available knowledge, a repertoire that is only growing. Not that animals lack culture, technology or language, but on a scale that is incomparable to that of humans.

Thinkers like Haraway or Latour completely identify rationality with ‘instrumental’ rationality, which involves finding the right means for particular ends. It is a form of rationality that we see in the technocratization and bureaucratization of daily life. In this, meaning is imposed on our actions from an objectified way of thinking, also where it concerns our interactions with nature. Nature becomes a means to achieve a specific goal, for example, by supplying raw product materials. Nature is also presented as a mechanistic system consisting of analytically distinct blocks that influence each other according to the laws of nature.

Haraway and Latour have great difficulty with this mechanistic view because it offers no possibility of letting nature itself answer. Indeed, if nature is seen primarily as an instrumental resource, we are asking for problems − and certainly, we’ve got these.

But instrumental rationality is not all there is. When we look at Max Weber’s idea of ​​rationality, it is not just about instrumental objectification but just as much about making rules, values, goals and means explicit so that motivations and actions can be accounted for transparently. In other words, rationality refers to the ability to put thought into words and let those words be part of a dialogue. This creates a form of rationality that Jürgen Habermas has called ‘communicative’ that coexists with the instrumental form of rationality. Communicative rationality may be less visible, but it has nevertheless been decisive in how modern institutions and democratic politics are organized.

I have repeatedly described institutions as revolving around accountability: these structures force individuals to behave responsibly because they can be asked to give good reasons afterwards. In a democracy, it is about establishing rules and norms that everyone can agree to − even if only by agreeing on the procedures that must be in place to resolve conflicting positions. There is a shared understanding of the norms that prevail within a society, which statements are acceptable, how conflicts can be resolved, and how these norms can be adjusted if there is reason to do so.

The realization that we as individuals are part of a cultural superorganism has the necessary implications for our self-image as conscious actors, as modern thinkers have assumed. With Latour, we can say that intentions do not matter when we talk about agency; man and technology are both involved in an act. It does not make much sense to give either party a special status. In turn, Haraway puts the idea of ​​a singular personality into perspective: we are networks ourselves with everything that lives in and around us.

The fallacy of Latour and Haraway is that they assume that without the idea of ​​an intentionally acting individual, modern philosophy and ethics will collapse. I don’t think so, for we have known since Freud that many of our actions are not taken consciously, but that has not led to the end of modern thinking.

I have argued more often that the idea of ​​an intentional individual can best be seen as a ‘contrafactual’ assumption: it is an assumption that makes it possible to hold each other accountable for our decisions afterwards. Then, we are forced to give good reasons that could have counted as intentions had we been wholly intentional beings.

This contrafactual intentionality is one with Habermas’s communicative rationality. It forces a person to make her motivations explicit so that these can be discussed and a collective judgment can be formed. Institutions such as the legal system have been designed based on this assumption, but it is also in everyday life that the question, ‘Why are you doing that?’ is often asked. Just think of the education of children or the reactions you get after a wrong pass during a game of football.

The importance is that with the possibility of confronting someone afterwards about their choices, ethical frameworks have been developed based on the individual’s primacy. People do not have to obey a prince or priest to behave morally right; they have internalized the prevailing moral standards.

In sum, you can say that modern thinking has produced a moral and political system in which we ourselves can give direction to the rules and meanings that we consider important. We control the superorganism we are a part of through democratic procedures structured according to communicative rationality. We are not dependent on tradition or existing power relations.

The fact that no individual prevails in the design of the superorganism can be attributed to how responsibilities are structured in formal institutions. Persons can always be held accountable if they misbehave. In addition, the freedom and equality of this system make it possible for individuals to contribute optimally to the ever-growing collective intelligence.

In all these matters, language is decisive. Language allows us to articulate our motives, communicate with each other, give and share meanings, and introduce and preserve new concepts. You could also say that our ethical and political system is language-centric rather than anthropocentric. The big problem is that this doesn’t work well for beings and things that lack language.

We must not forget that many people still don’t have a voice, with future generations as the most striking example. Those who are most affected by the decisions being made now cannot speak out yet.

But they are not the only ones. Despite all the democratic ideals, people often cannot express themselves on matters that concern them. One of the problems here arises from the instrumental rationality described above, in which reality is described in an objectified and mechanized way. If such a description is taken as true, people have no chance of forming their meanings. This also sets aside the possible plurality of cultures, perspectives and principles for a singular system of meaning, while communicative rationality is precisely about confronting world views made explicit and justified in a dialogue.

Symptomatic here is how technical innovations are thought of. With Latour, you can say that the technologies themselves have no say in this, but you could just as well say that people have no say in this, either. The decision-making regarding new technology is left to experts and funders who strive for instrumental rationality. In short, anthropocentric ethics also requires the reassessment of rationality, exceptionalism and intentionality.

Let us turn to ecological ethics: the great challenge is how to give a language to beings and things without a voice without compromising the achievements of modern ethics. Despite all his harsh criticism of modern thinking, this seems entirely in line with Latour’s views. After all, he argues for participation through a fairly traditional way of parliamentary or institutional representation, in which voters speak for beings, things and voiceless people. In doing so, he trusts that many representative voices create an effective barrier against the objectifying tendencies of instrumental rationality. The pluralism of voices ensures that the actions and responses of non-linguistic beings also find a place in political and moral discussions.

I don’t know whether this barrier is high enough. I find it difficult to estimate to what extent communicative rationality can accommodate non-linguistic actions and answers. It is clear that the foundations of democracy are under pressure from the dominance of instrumental rationality, but can we do without it? I don’t think so; we need objectified knowledge to know how nature is doing and a bureaucracy to guarantee neutral procedures.

Ultimately, we have to make a trade-off between the cultural superorganism based on language and the intertwined network of living beings in which everything responds to everything without speaking out.

Further reading:

Habermas, J. (1981). Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Vol. 2): Suhrkamp Frankfurt.

Habermas, J. (1985). The theory of communicative action: Volume 2: Lifeword and system: A critique of functionalist reason (Vol. 2). Boston: Beacon press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene: Duke University Press.

Henrich, J. (2017). The secret of our success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter: Princeton University Press.

Latour, B. (2013). Facing Gaia. Six lectures on the political theology of nature’, Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, 18-28.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to earth: Politics in the new climatic regime: John Wiley & Sons.

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Social change and moral values: A modest research program to change the world

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In order to bring about desirable social change, it is necessary to know what is morally desirable and what is social change. Unfortunately, ethics and social sciences fall short here: ethics cannot cope with moral uncertainties, while sociology cannot handle social change. I choose an institutional perspective to deal with these issues. Firstly, because institutions can be seen as the way in which values are collectively safeguarded. Second, because institutions can be changed if there are good reasons to adjust the prioritization and interpretation of values.

We have to thank Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that we reflect on the relationship between social change and morality. Before Hegel, the world also changed, but this change was not seen as an intrinsic part of morality. Thinking about the way the world should work was independent from the question about how that world could be realized.

It is also thanks to Hegel that we still do not have a good grasp of the process of social change. To describe change, he came up with the famous trio of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, which can be substantiated in so many different ways that it is of little use. With Hegel, you can either arrive at Marx’s historical materialism or at highly esoteric directions. The great common denominator of all these approaches is that you can predict any development afterwards.

Sociology also offers little relief. As Émile Durkheim stated, sociology aims to explain social order. That society changes is a given, what is special about society is that why some of it does not change. Since Durkheim introduced the foundations of social science at the end of the nineteenth century, plenty of concepts and theories have been devised that explain a stable social order. Think of institutions, structures or culture. But we don’t really know the right words for change.

How can we examine the ethical aspects of social change in a way that is sociologically valid? Where to start when there are so few leads? I propose to first look at the way in which meanings become crystallized in institutions with the aim of safeguarding specific social values. I base myself on insights from philosophers such as John Dewey and Ludwig Wittgenstein, but also on insights from sociologists such as Michel Callon. I have to admit that I’m not aiming for conceptual coherence, I am saving that for another occasion, it’s about the idea.

Man is a being that gives meaning to the things around her. We name and categorize the things we see so that we can remember them and talk about them with others. Only then they acquire meaning. Something that cannot be expressed in language actually means nothing. Characteristic for humans is that meaning-making is a social process, meanings are constructed by linking the words we share with others to experiences and observations. In this way subjective impressions receive an intersubjective connotation.

The fact that you know what something means, implies that you know what is going to or should happen in a particular situation. A meaning introduces a regularity so that you can face the future with confidence. If you know what coffee is because you have drunk it many times and have seen how other people drink it many times, because you have read about it, saw commercials on the television about coffee and people drinking coffee, then you can safely take a sip of coffee.

Because we understand things the same within a linguistic community, it usually takes little effort for us to act together. You can assume that someone else knows what I know (and knows I know). This is how institutions arise, which are nothing else than repetitive actions between at least two persons that are based on a shared understanding of a situation.

Meanings are about regularity, about words that you can recycle to interpret recurring experiences and categorize new impressions. Yet the process of meaning making is a fluid process. A linguistic community constantly has to classify new impressions by using old words or introducing new ones. As a linguistic community there is always the question of what belongs to what.

Meanings also often have a normative connotation, they categorize impressions as good or bad, so that you not only know what to expect, but also know how to act. Within linguistic communities, different value judgments are aggregated by assigning an overarching value to them, so that a multitude of experiences and impressions can be captured with a single understanding. Such values ​​have a special status within a linguistic community, they are seen as normative principles that everyone should consider important within that community. In this way a linguistic community becomes a moral community which shares certain values.

Until recently, values ​​were maintained by priests, seers and philosophers. But as Immanuel Kant put it, the Enlightenment means that people must determine for themselves what is good for them. Upon the basis of Hegel you can say that modern institutions are formed to effectuate that goal, as the philosopher Seyla Benhabib argues ‘institutions make it possible to realize moral truths’.

These are not the institutions I talked about above, because two people are not enough to pursue ‘moral truths’. No, these are social institutions that are formalized, which usually means that it is laid down in law how those institutions work. Hence, Hegel called his philosophy a ‘philosophy of law’, where ‘the state is the realization of concrete freedom’, in other words, our freedom to determine for ourselves what we consider to be good is reflected in social institutions.

I do not only include law or the state among those institutions, but also social contexts that secure collective values by formalizing them. As I described earlier, you can also see democracy, the free market and science as such (and of course the conditions for these institutions are also largely anchored in law). These institutions secure equality, participation, freedom, prosperity and truth. You should also think of more specific policy arrangements or participation structures. In sum, it concerns all the formal rules that govern binding collective actions within society. Incidentally, I also include technology in this, because the technology we use determines to a great extent how we should act. Moreover, innovations are little more than attempts to realize certain values, each new technology aims to make the world a better place.

It is the social and formal character of such collective institutions that makes them so special. Firstly, this makes sure that no one can escape it, in the constitutional state there are no individuals or groups of people who are above the law. The moral values ​​really apply to everyone. Secondly, these kinds of institutions are codified, the laws and regulations are written down in such a way that they are permanent.

The latter implies that meanings are fixed in institutions. The rules and procedures are not flexible like everyday meanings. Within society itself, however, there are countless informal systems in which meanings are constantly changing and where values ​​are adapted to new insights and circumstances. These changing values ​​can conflict with the fixed institutional values. If so, it can lead to citizens’ dissatisfaction. They can come to protest by voting for parties that promise change, by demonstrating, or by displaying civil disobedience. ‘Emerging publics’ that use new meanings to understand social reality. They estimate values ​​differently or believe that the connection between values ​​and meanings should be adjusted. According to these groups, it needs to be reconsidered how a collection of impressions and experiences is aggregated by a value, new metaphors must be applied, emphases must be shifted.

To use the terminology of the sociologist Michel Callon, one may speak of ‘overflowing’. The institutional frameworks with which meaning is imposed on social reality − in Callon’s words: ‘framing’ − are no longer capable of coping properly with the meanings and values ​​introduced by emerging publics.


In a democratic system, such overflows necessitate adjustment. Society is free and autonomous, which means that the meanings and values ​​that are developed within that society are guiding for the institutions. I have mentioned with my colleagues the adjustments of these institutions as a response to social expressions of dissatisfaction as ‘backflows’.

Such backflows can be new procedures, new laws or regulations, or a modified policy. It is not simply said that such backflows obey new social wishes. That would also be difficult, as the values ​​of specific public groups do not need to be widely shared at all. There are plenty of loud protest movements that are getting a big amount of media attention, while representing only a marginal segment of society. For instance think of corona demonstrations and the anti-vaccination movement. Furthermore, institutions often revolve around the trade-off between different values, for example in vaccination programs there is the dilemma between the value of individual freedom of choice and the value of public health. A protest movement can very easily give up one of the two, a luxury that a policymaker does not have: he must consider how both values ​​can be included in the policy as good as possible. In short, it is always a matter of probing and trying out how an institution can be adapted in response to social discontent.

The framing-overflowing-backflowing dynamics create a cyclical pattern in which institutions are constantly adapted to changing circumstances and new meanings. That it is about changes in a certain type of society — ours — is clear, but at least you can describe this category of social change without having to resort to esoteric theories.

Social research benefits not only from a good description of social change processes. It also forces us to think more sharply about the role that moral theories can play in the design of our lives. What does it mean that institutions enable moral truths if institutions can always change?

One problem is that the cyclical pattern of framing-overflowing-backflowing does not relate well to the common way in which values ​​are accounted for in academic ethics. Somewhat implicitly, ethics seems to assume that there are moral truths that, on the one hand, are universally true, regardless of any worldly circumstance, and on the other hand, cannot be deduced through observation but only through reason. In other words, ethics falls within Kant’s domain of the ‘analytic a priori’.

As I wrote above, Kant’s work implied that values ​​were no longer seen as a given, handed down through tradition and power’; it became our ‘duty to think about which values ​​are actually correct. However, when moral values ​​are approached as absolute moral truths, it becomes difficult to say anything about the moral aspects of social change.

This is what shows: when ethicists write about social change, it generally concerns evidently immoral practices such as slavery or women’s suppression. But it is of course not very informative to take the abolition of slavery as an example of moral progression, while little can be said about the many ethical debates that are currently going covering the climate problem, the corona pandemic, digitization, institutional racism and so on.

Ethical issues such as these are characterized by various uncertainties. Firstly, there is moral pluralism: not only do individuals and groups apply different moral principles, they can also come up with different interpretations about which values ​​suit certain situations and how these values would fit these situations. In addition, we are dealing with descriptive pluralism: we are dealing with a present and a future of which we do not know the correct scientific description, and we are often dealing with contingent processes of which the future cannot be predicted. Many ethicists arrive at an ethical standard that turns out to be too crude to deal with these kinds of moral uncertainties – in spite of their intellectual virtuosity.

Emerging publics articulating new values ​​or linking old values ​​to new developments are a manifestation of such moral uncertainties. They not only show conflicting starting points and interpretations, they also show which ethical aspects are or could be relevant. The values ​​put forward in societal controversies enable us to learn about the values ​​to be covered by institutions.

Based on the cyclical dynamics of institutional adjustment described above, you can arrive at three important goals for ethics. This involves: 1) ethical evaluation of institutional framing; 2) the evaluation of the normative claims of emerging publics; and 3) establishing criteria for institutional adjustment.

The first point is about determining values ​​that guide the development of institutions. It is about identifying the values ​​that are important, while it is much less important whether those values ​​are universally valid or not. In fact, I think that the need to reflect on values ​​does not so much arise from the consideration that there are moral truths, but rather from the fact that there are none. If there is no single moral guideline for individuals, they will have to find a way in which conflicting moral claims and interpretations do not lead to collective misery (you could say there is agreement on the morally undesirable nature of collective misery, but that seems to me to be too thin to legitimize a scholarly field).

Whether the findings of ethics are universally true or not, understanding values ​​fulfils an important social role: it creates collective awareness that can give rise to social protest. Just look at the way in which the principles of individual autonomy and equality are continuously redefined according to the social situation at a particular moment. These ideas that have inspired our major institutions, democracy, law, the free market. But what freedom and equality and mean without empirical embedding is hard to imagine, we will always have to come to agreements about where our freedoms collide with those of others and where we can accept differences in access, possession or power.

With regard to the second point, ethics should contribute to the development of criteria by which social claims can be assessed. Social groups come up with moral demands, but ethics seems to have difficulty establishing the validity of these kinds of demands. The question must be asked which forms of overflowing are justified? This probably cannot be established uniformly, but ethics can indicate which justifications can be given for certain claims and, moreover, ethics can come up with procedural criteria that the social moral claims must meet. In doing so, account must be taken of both moral and descriptive pluralism.

The third point also concerns the development of procedural criteria. How can institutions be adapted in such a way that they respond to new social demands and wishes? What are legitimate ways to organize backflows? How can different groups, different values, different interpretations be accounted for in such a way that everyone feels heard? These are mainly questions that can be answered on the basis of democratic theories.

There is too little room here to illustrate these points with examples. But I think it is perfectly possible to find out for yourself how the three steps of institutional change work in social controversies such as vaccination programs, identity debates or conflicts around new energy policy.

Not all change in society takes place through the dynamics of framing, overflowing and backflowing described above. Just think of the influence of technological innovations, in which descriptive pluralism plays an important role: nobody knows what the technology of the future can bring, and different assessments of that future will co-exist. Also in this kind of explicitly intended change, it is about pursuing or enabling certain values ​​and here too ethics could play an important role − as I have also shown in other posts, for example about promises or debates about innovations.

All in all, it is the role of ethics to identify tensions between values. Values ​​are never absolute and institutions are never perfect. In daily life and in the design of institutions, it is always about trading off different values, ethics can help map out the way in which values ​​can be exchanged, where they inherently conflict, where one value goes to the expense of another. With such reflections we can not only describe social change in a better way, but also organize it in a better way. So that we know better how to change the world.

Further reading:

Benhabib, S. (1988). I. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought. Political Theory, 16(1), 29-51.

Boenink, M., & Kudina, O. (2020). Values in responsible research and innovation: from entities to practices. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 7(3), 450-470.

Callon, M. (1998). An essay on framing and overflowing: economic externalities revisited by sociology. The Sociological Review, 46(S1), 244-269.

Durkheim, E. (1973). Emile Durkheim on morality and society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Pesch, U. (2020). Making sense of the self: an integrative framework for moral agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 50(1), 119-130. doi:10.1111/jtsb.12230

Pesch, U., Correljé, A., Cuppen, E., & Taebi, B. (2017). Energy justice and controversies: Formal and informal assessment in energy projects. Energy Policy. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2017.06.040

Pesch, U., & Vermaas, P. E. (2020). The Wickedness of Rittel and Webber’s Dilemmas. Administration & Society, 52(6), 960-979. doi:10.1177/0095399720934010

Taebi, B., Kwakkel, J. H., & Kermisch, C. (2020). Governing climate risks in the face of normative uncertainties. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 11(5), e666.

Taylor, C. (2015). Hegel and modern society: Cambridge University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (2009). Philosophical investigations: John Wiley & Sons.


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The Myths of the Nation-State

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Commentaries on geopolitical developments often seem to start from a classical understanding of the nation-state, which is based on the convergence of central government, the idea of cultural-social unity and a resource-based economy. This idea is a nineteenth-century construction that no longer corresponds to reality: people are no longer simply tied to a country; information, the crude oil of this time, is infinitely divisible; and the energy itself is increasingly infinitely renewable. This does not mean that the nation-state will disappear, but we do have to look for an understanding of the nation-state that fits the fluidity of contemporary economic and geopolitical life.

Countries are not persons. They don’t have a brain and they can’t think, they don’t have a mouth and can’t speak, they don’t have limbs and therefore can’t act. Yet many pretend that they are. America has decided to do something, the Netherlands thinks something else, China acts in a certain way, Germany has chosen its course.

You see this personification of countries especially with experts, journalists and commentators when they speak and write about geopolitical issues. Governments of countries are seen as ‘strong’ if they seem to speak with one mouth, while countries that don’t do so are considered ‘weak’. It is usually Europe, ‘who’ is the considered to be the loser, compared to the massive blocs of the US and China.

There are many reasons for being suspicious of this type of analysis. The US is designed to be an incoherent whole, so that the government can never get too strong. The exception is its military power, where the government is allowed to intervene so to outcompete other countries.

The decisiveness with which China is setting up major economic and technological projects is usually contrasted with the sloth of decision-making here. But I think such projects are not so much an expression of unity, but are necessary to ensure unity. There is no trust in leaders or institutions, but technology and planning keep things together.

However, what bothers me most about this kind of analysis, are the underlying ideas of what a country should be. The commentators who assume a unitary state appear to be stuck sometime in the nineteenth century: the era when nation-states were formed, in which the nation-state was seen as the destiny of a community linked by language and geographic territory and in which shared history of ‘people’ provided a cultural identity and a moral unity. The fact that this unity was only invented in retrospect and that language was only standardized after the boundaries had been drawn did little to diminish the ideology of a national identity.

Countries are not persons. They have no brain and cannot think, they have no mouth and cannot speak, they have no limbs and therefore cannot act. Yet many pretend that it is. America does this, the Netherlands thinks that, China thinks this way, Germany does that.

You see this personification of countries especially in experts, journalists and commentators when they speak and write about geopolitical issues. Very quickly, governments of countries are seen as “strong” if they seem to speak with one mouth, while countries that don’t would be “weak”. The piss is often Europe, which would be weak against the massive blocs of the US and China.

There are many arguments for suspicious of this type of analysis. The US is designed to stick together like loose sand, so that the government can never get too strong. The exception is military power that is exercised in other countries, where the government is allowed to intervene.

The decisiveness with which China is setting up major economic and technological projects is then contrasted with the sloppiness of decision-making here. But I think such projects are not so much an expression of coherence, but are necessary to ensure coherence. There is no trust in leaders or institutions, but technology and planning keep things together.

What bothers me most about this kind of analysis, however, is the underlying ideas of what a country should be. The commentators who assume a unitary state have stuck with their analyzes sometime in the nineteenth century: the time when nation-states were formed, where the nation-state was seen as the destiny of a community linked by language and geographic territory and where the shared history of ‘peoples’ provided a cultural identity and a moral unity. That unity was only invented in retrospect and that language was only standardized after the boundary.

This traditional idea of ​​the nation-state is highly reminiscent of the family, this other social constellation that was perfected in the nineteenth century. The family consisting of father, who like a king cared for his wife and children, like a king cared for his subjects like a father.

The nineteenth-century family was represented outside the house by the father, the man of the house. He was able to enter public life. There he held a job and was allowed to vote. Only the man was expected to be able to act rationally. Wife and children stayed at home − locked up.


We now think this is retarded. Thank goodness. But when it comes to politics, this idea is still reproduced. The political leader is the one who is allowed to ‘go outside’ to represent the interests of the country. It is no coincidence that the state is presented as a ‘household’.

In the geopolitical game, a country is supposed to be represented by one person, with a few ministers and diplomats as ventriloquists. Countries are independent, sovereign. Within the borders citizens and politicians are allowed to speak with many mouths, like the children at home, outside they must be quiet and leave the floor to the father or the monarch or president. Only in this way autonomous sovereignty can be protected.

This frame gives rise to a zero sum game. Territory can only belong to one country. Nation states must therefore constantly be aware of other land grabbing. This forces these nation-states outwardly to monism. If you don’t act like the nineteenth-century father, if you can’t cope with public, geopolitical life, then someone else will take your house.

The emergence of nation states has been a long and contingent process. A process that you can describe most concisely as the combination of the military power of the dynastic rulers with the economic power of the cities. In the Middle Ages there were numerous royal houses in Europe, where power was connected with the land owned by the monarch. War and inbreeding created ever more powerful royal houses. At the same time, cities developed hubs of trade and industry, with money becoming concentrated in these cities. This was the money that the rulers needed to pay for their military operations. The monarchs imposed taxes on wealthy citizens, who demanded more and more participation to the point that monarchs were replaced by democratically elected governments that came to controlled the unitary state. Nonetheless, this centralized government is still about collecting and distributing tax money and about the monopoly on violence so that citizens can be protected from each other while the boundaries can be guarded.

The economic and political role of land has changed. Where in the Middle Ages the land itself was the essence of power, it came to concern the natural reserves that a country could provide. Over time, the emphasis came to lie to the resources that were under the ground. Grain, livestock, pelts and timber have been replaced by ores, oil and gas. Soil treasures have become a determining factor in the prosperity of a state, and the military power of such a state is not the protection of the land itself, but the protection of the economic resources found under that land.

The resource economy has entered into a triangular relationship with the practice of a central administrative apparatus and the idea of ​​cultural unity. This trinity has come to determine our understanding of the nation-state and the geopolitical relations between those nation-states.—

But the reality of the nineteenth and twentieth century is no longer the reality of today. Raw materials are still important, of course, but today’s economy is mainly about information and knowledge. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it, the economy has become ‘fluid’ limited only by the speed of light − literally, because information can be spread around the world via fiber optics at that speed.

Economic power is no longer located in fixed locations such as industrial areas, mines and ports, but in servers and offices that you can place anywhere in the world. More and more energy is no longer obtained from stuff that a number of countries happen to have underground, but it comes from renewable sources such as the wind and the sun. Money is not a salary that you receive in an envelope, and it is not limited by a supply of gold hidden somewhere in a safe. You do not make it by turning on the money presses, but by pressing an enter key. It is a virtual unit whose stock can be increased indefinitely.

The economic power still resides in cities, but those cities seem less and less embedded in the structure of a single nation-state. Instead, cities have become part of an international network. Cities are business centers in which the different infrastructures of telecommunication, communication, services and offices come together. Well-trained professionals work in the cities who use the same computer programs all over the world and who communicate in English. Cities are more important to these professionals than countries. You’re going to London, not to England; you’re going to Berlin, not to Germany. Not only has the economy become fluid, workers have also become nomads, not tied any longer to a specific location.

The geopolitical consequences of the liquid economy are hardly appreciated. It is clear that cyber warfare has replaced classic forms of warfare and espionage, but it remains unclear what the object of warfare will be in the future. Territorial war does not make sense when it comes to knowledge and information. How can you create a monopoly on these?

There is a lot of thinking going on about the consequences of the energy transition for traditional oil companies, but much less about its geopolitical consequences. It seems as if states are mainly concerned with protecting their interests, but it is not only the raw materials that will change in the energy transition, but it will also be the interests and it can be expected that the very character of the states will also change. Not that I think the state will disappear, as this still is the appropriate structure that allows the efficient management of infrastructures and institutions, but it will be a different kind of state.

I don’ t know how states will change. I can’t make predictions here. But at least we can deal with the moral implications of a liquid world. The idea of ​​national destiny is hard to maintain when borders between countries become diffuse and a nomadic life in a global economy has become normal.

It is important to emphasize that people can identify with a community, which provides solidarity and a moral compass, but there is no reason to believe that a shared history has to rely on the nation-state. On the contrary, the past has shown that such identification is extremely dangerous. Such a community is quickly presented as a singular ‘people’, a group of people who share a history and a destiny. Those who do not belong to that ‘people’ have no chance of ever being included and being admitted, and they will not be allowed to say anything about the values ​​and practices that are used. Numerous exclusion mechanisms are thus maintained and legitimized.

A community is also not automatically based on language. Of course people share language, but as mentioned above, we are also able to speak other languages. Usually, that’s a shaky form of English, but that’s good enough to bond with a person who doesn’t share your native language and your history. In this way we are enabled to get to know new worlds and new realities.

Compare this with reading translated books. There are always aspects that get ‘lost in translation’, but this loss is incomparable to the enormous richness you gain by being able to read all the books in the world instead of just those written in your own language.

Communities are always complex, they consist of networks of overlapping and changing communities. As individuals we are able to orient ourselves towards many different communities. We have a huge range of loyalties running from our family, the company we work for, the football club we are fans of, the country we live in, the city we move to, the church we attend, the party we vote for, down to the whole global population. We constantly switch from one loyalty to another, often without realizing so. This implies that it would be sensible to replace the starting point of moral unity by a pluralistic starting point that fits the fluid contemporary world.

This also implies that we have to distance ourselves from a rigid conception of central government. The coincidence of this government with a particular community to which individuals are loyal can’t be assumed any longer, there are several layers of government linked to a patchwork of jurisdictions and electorates. Again, we must get rid of the idea that pluralism is an act of weakness, that strong leaders are politicians who pretend to be the singular personification of a country.

To me, a strong state is a state in which there is thinking taking place about its new role, instead of persevering in defunct political-economic dogmas. Political leaders must ask themselves how the geopolitical game should be played when the most important raw materials can no longer be found in the soil. It doesn’t make much sense to be playing a zero-sum game when information is infinitely divisible and energy is eternally renewable. States must learn to play this game as if they were cities − as Benjamin Barber describes in his book If Mayors Ruled the World −, they should look at how competition can lead to an innovative climate and how cooperation can lead to mutual benefit.

States can no longer be seen as if is a family, they are not communities that convey a shared identity. There are no blood ties between citizens, but there is a network of imagined relationships, using all kinds of criteria: language, history, religion, origin, interests, etc.

Not that it is easy to develop a pluralistic community model. The first problem is that democratic ideas usually start from a single political community. The identification of an individual citizen with such a political community enables civic spirit and meaningful political participation. This identification has a strong emotional component, individuals feel connected to the political community. It is not without reason that I described above that there is a close link between traditional views of the nation state and the family, they are connections that nurture emotional connections. Connections which allow you to share your pain or your joy. Such an emotional identification becomes much more difficult when you’re dealing with a multitude of communities.

Just look at the difference between the national and the European parliament. It’s not just about knowing the names of your country’s top politicians, you also feel involved with them. You feel happy when your political party does well in the elections, you are ashamed of the statements of a politician who says disgusting things, none of that is the case with the faceless parliamentarians in Brussels or Strasbourg.

An attitude that suits us has not really developed yet, but the European Union is a salient example, as Bruno Latour also shows. It is far from perfect, but it is a political context that effectively enables us to work together, to travel, to make decisions, to respect differences, to articulate similarities, and so on. A reality that has become so normal for many that we no longer even realize it.

A bigger challenge lies elsewhere. The globalized economy with its fluid borders also leads to victims: those who depend on the traditional economy. People who depend for their income on the location where they work, who largely derive their identity from the environment where they live. People who do not live or work in the ‘old economy’. And obviously there are many of these people.

They should not be told to re-educate themselves or just adjust to the new age. This is a kind of paternalism that assumes that people have consciously chosen their circumstances and can reconsider their choice without loss. Starting points that are not only unrealistic but also fail from a moral perspective. It would be better to think about how the loss of stability, of opportunities, of identity can be compensated. We must show solidarity.

The catch-22 here is that it is precisely the nation state that is ideally suited to redistribute resources. Compensating for those who lose because the traditional nation-state is disappearing should be done by that same nation-state. Such a redistribution again assumes that a group of people show solidarity with the community as a whole. I can’t yet develop a coherent imagine of the nation-state 2.0, but it seems to me that we should first say goodbye to the nineteenth-century nation-state as a guiding ideal and investigate how pluralistic principles can be made actionable and liveable.


Further reading:

Barber, B. R. (2013). If mayors ruled the world: dysfunctional nations, rising cities: Yale University Press.

Bauman, Z. (2000). Liquid modernity. Polity, Cambridge.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to earth: Politics in the new climatic regime: John Wiley & Sons.

Poggi, G. (1978). The development of the modern state : a sociological introduction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.




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Responsibility in a complex world

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Responsibility has many facets, and it is typical of our current moral system that those facets interact so that people can be held responsible for their individual choices. This makes it possible to bring individuality and a social collective together in an ethically sound way. Yet there are developments that challenge the prevalence of this moral system. Especially as it becomes easier for individuals to shift their responsibility, because of the increasing complexity of everyday life. However, it is precisely the difficulty of anticipating the consequences of your actions that makes it necessary to actively assume responsibility − it is your moral duty, not only to solve important social problems, but also to preserve our moral system.

What can you do as an individual about the climate problem? Why are rules so often more important than people? Should you blame someone for making the wrong choice under high pressure? Can you hold an inventor accountable if his innovation leads to misery?

These are all questions that have to do with individual responsibility. It is not surprising that there are questions, it is a concept that is difficult to grasp. This is mainly because there are different meanings that are related, but still imply something slightly different. The easiest way to interpret these different meanings is to distinguish between causal responsibility, accountability and moral responsibility.

Causal responsibility refers to the contribution of an individual to a particular situation. For example, if I kick the ball past the goalkeeper, then I am causally responsible for the goal. Even if I hit the ball wrong and passed my own goalkeeper, I am still responsible for that event.

Accountability concerns the possibility that I can be held responsible for my action afterwards. If my shot turns out to be an own goal, my fellow players or my coach will come to me with the question: ‘Why did you do that ?!’ I have to answer for my deed afterwards. I can do s0 by giving good reasons, for instance that I tried to kick the ball in another direction, but hit it wrongly. This is a reason that could be accepted. If I say that I ‘also wanted to score a goal’, then it will probably not be accepted. In such a case, I did not act responsibly.

Moral responsibility is about the intention with which you perform your action. Whereas causal responsibility is about the moment at which the action takes place and accountability is about the assessment of the action afterwards, moral responsibility is about estimating the action beforehand. The question is to which extent the choice you make enables you to pursue a goal, a value or a result, without crossing moral boundaries. The essence of a free, intentional choice is that you could have made another choice. This because there was no outside pressure or because there were realistic alternatives.

Intentionally scoring an own goal is an irresponsible act, but if there were three stronger opponents in my area and I could never have hit the ball properly, or if the fans of the opponent threaten to kill my family if I don’t score my own goal, I will not be held responsible.

The idea is that the three forms of responsibility coincide and thus ensure continuity between past, present and future, as well as continuity between the individual, her action and the group to which the individual belongs. This is especially important when something goes wrong, such as in the case of scoring an own goal, because moral responsibility for failure feels like a burden. First, there is the possibility of a penalty, for my own goal I get scolded by teammates or I’ll be substituted by the coach − an outlook that isn’t appealing. Above all, a wrong choice can give rise to regret, perhaps the most gnawing in the repertoire of human emotions. The realization that you have selected the wrong option from a variety of options irrevocably confronts you with your own weaknesses. We would rather not choose at all than run the risk of choosing wrongly.

Enough about football. What matters most is that in modernity, the era that arose with the Enlightenment, the threefold idea of ​​responsibility has become the starting point of moral thinking. This has become so normal that we often forget how revolutionary this is.

After all, it has always been completely common that no causal relationship between an individual’s action, a particular event, was needed to establish culpable behaviour. Until 1700, witches were prosecuted for misery they could do little about. Until the beginning of the 20th century, animals were tried for their actions, despite the fact that animals actually only act on the basis of instinct and therefore have little freedom in their choices.

Contemporary cases such as honour killings in which someone is punished for the things a family member has done or racism in which an individual is primarily seen as a member of a certain group are examples of a mismatch between the three forms of responsibility. On the basis of our current moral principles, we can therefore categorize these matters as wrong without further ado.

These moral principles have not only shaped our moral thinking, but above all they have been used as design criteria for the main institutional domains. The sphere of the law is paradigmatic here, with liability as a dedicated form of accountability. In this, an individual may be asked to answer in court for her actions. The judge or jury checks whether unwelcome outcomes of those acts are culpable.

Also parliamentary democracy, the free market and science function as accountability structures, in the sense that within these domains persons can be held accountable as individuals for their actions, respectively through elections, competition and peer review.

The existence of these types of accountability structures helps individuals to develop their moral responsibility. By including the possibility of punishment afterwards in the considerations of taking a particular action, individuals will behave more virtuously.

Such a punishment afterwards can be a legal sanction, but also being voted out, bankruptcy or rejection by a scientific journal. If you do something wrong, you can be held accountable for it, so you better do the best you can.

The relationship between causal responsibility, accountability and moral responsibility is an ideal. Reality, as always, is disorderly and very often it is all too difficult to reconcile intentions, causes and reasons.

It simply is a given that the world is extremely complex. It is often difficult to determine which action led to which outcome, usually it involves a combination of numerous interwoven actions. What exactly was the intention of your actions often remains hidden, also to yourself. Which reasons are accepted is often a matter of arbitrariness rather than reason.

For example, in many events it is impossible to determine the causal contribution of an individual person. This is because we often act as part of a larger whole, such as an organization, a group, a community. To what extent are you responsible if you do what you are told, if you do things that are considered normal within your group or if there is peer pressure to behave in a certain way? Take a look at the climate problem. As an individual you don’t produce a lot of CO2, but with billions of people who each produce an average of 4.4 tons, it becomes a huge problem. As an individual you may want to change, but this intention is of little use.

With all this complexity, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to oversee the consequences of your choices. Think of the inventor of the combustion engine, is he responsible for all CO2 emissions? Perhaps causally, because if he hadn’t, we might not have had the climate problem (but probably ended up with an enormous coal shortage), but it is certainly not reasonable to hold him responsible him for his invention. But what about the fake news on Facebook or YouTube? Unemployment among taxi drivers because of Uber? The inconvenience of tourists due to Airbnb?

Another issue is the extent to which you can blame people for doing what everyone else is doing. We are all part of economic, cultural and political systems that limit our freedom of choice. You may wonder whether the choice to go on holiday by plane is actually a free choice when the alternatives are so much more expensive.

You can also ask yourself to what extent our actions are genuinely intentional. Does our consciousness actually give orders to our brains? Or is it the other way around? Often the latter, in those cases we try to find out afterwards why we actually did why we did what we did.

In the long term it is not really a problem that accountabilitystructures do not function flawlessly. These structures work in a ‘counterfactual’ manner, we assume that they work, even if they sometimes don’t work. In comparison, think about the case of lying. Of course we don’t always speak the truth, but when we have a conversation with someone, we still assume that they are not lying – otherwise we would not be able to have a normal conversation at all. Similarly, most scientists know that the peer review system is far from perfect, but few scientists would want to do without it. Instead, they want a system that works better. And there is indeed room for improvement because within accountability structures, the relationship between causality, intention and sanction is continuously tested and adjusted if necessary.

Here too the judicial sphere is the most illustrative. The judge has to determine to what extent someone can be held responsible for an act. Is someone who kills another while sleepwalking a murderer? Causally, yes, but not morally, because there does not seem to be a deliberate action. But what about a mentally challenged person who ends up in a criminal environment? Can such a person give good reasons for his actions? And if not, is she culpable? It is a constant search whether causes and intentions can be related.

I have also stated earlier that it is not a problem that we often reconstruct our motives afterwards and very often, perhaps almost always, do not really act intentionally. After all, these retrospective reconstructions are the good reasons you can put forward if you are held accountable for something. In this way you learn what good reasons are, you train your subconscious moral intuitions and you will make better choices over time.


In the long term, institutions and our unconscious motivations can be adjusted, but in the short term the complexity surrounding responsibility causes ever-increasing problems. If it is not clear whether you are causally responsible somewhere and you know that you will therefore not be held accountable or will be held less accountable, then it quickly becomes easy to pass on the moral responsibility as well.

The fear of punishment or regret leads to risk-averse behaviour, aided by the pervasive complexity of everyday life. This changes institutions in an essential way, instead of structures that make it possible to test the good reasons that can be given for actions, they become structures in which rules take on a life of their own. Institutions become bureaucracies. This leads to a loss of trust in the institutions in their operation as accountability structures. As a result, people become even less willing to act morally responsible. When institutions no longer serve the goal of sharpening the intuitions of individuals, genuine regret disappears. Punishment is then the only thing left. A ‘sorry culture’ emerges, in which expressions of regret are mainly instrumental to receive less severe punishments.

If people are given the opportunity to pass off their moral responsibility, few will feel called upon to do something. This can mean that urgent crises, such as the climate problem, are not tackled effectively. It simply takes too long for our institutions to adjust and our behavioural patterns to change.

What can we do? Earlier I stated that we should restore the virtue of forgiveness. After all, that would mean that errors do not automatically lead to punishment. But more than that, it is necessary for individuals to take the moral responsibility to act, ready to be held accountable afterwards. In short, we have to turn things around: complexity cannot be used as an excuse for not taking responsibility, it is a motivation to take moral responsibility. After all, we cannot rely on causality and liability in many real-life cases any longer.

It is not about taking a gamble, where you run the risk of losing a lot, but where there is also the possibility of a lot of profit. That would make it all easier, but the possibility of a quick profit is usually not there. It is about the necessity, the moral duty, that someone feels to contribute to solving a problem. The regret for not doing anything should be greater than the regret of any failure. We must dare to admit the emotion of regret − no matter how unpleasant regret may be.

For example, we have to find out for ourselves how we can emit less CO2, however futile our contribution may be. We also have to face that we ourselves are the one looking for cheap excuses if we screw up. Don’t blame the other person. We must find out how we can deal with the unpredictability of the consequences of our actions in a different way.

It is not just about solving urgent problems. It is also a moral duty to uphold the moral principles that are important to us. After all, if trust in institutions continues to crumble, the entire moral system will collapse even further.

Further reading:

Bovens, M. A. P. (1998). The Quest for Responsibility: Accountability and Citizenship in Complex Organisations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jonas, H. (1985). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Owen, R., Macnaghten, P., & Stilgoe, J. (2012). Responsible research and innovation: From science in society to science for society, with society. Science and Public Policy, 39(6), 751-760.

Pesch, U. (2005). The Predicaments of Publicness. An Inquiry into the Conceptual Ambiguity of Public Administration. Delft: Eburon.

Pesch, U. (2015). Engineers and Active Responsibility. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21(4), 925-939. doi:10.1007/s11948-014-9571-7

Van de Poel, I., Nihlén Fahlquist, J., Doorn, N., Zwart, S., & Royakkers, L. (2012). The Problem of Many Hands: Climate Change as an Example. Science and Engineering Ethics, 18(1), 49-67. doi:10.1007/s11948-011-9276-0

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Green shame

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There’s an increasing amount of talk about ‘green shame’: the negative emotion you experience when you make choices that are not environmentally friendly. Wouldn’t it be sensible to stimulate this emotion so that make society can be made more sustainable? No, this would be a bad idea, one that is not only unacceptable, but also counterproductive and unjustified. Shame cannot be a solution to ecological problems. In order to use green shame in constructive way, we must take it as the starting point for a social debate, instead of a goal.

Is it a good thing that people should be ashamed for getting on a plane, eating meat, driving a car, or other kinds of unsustainable behavior? And if so, should such green shame be encouraged? Of course you can say that it is a good thing if people start to behave in a more environmentally conscious way, even if that is out of shame. Every little bit helps. However, encouraging green shame is downright unacceptable.


It is evident that shame leads to better behavior. In fact, Sigmund Freud saw shame as the basis of civilization. According to him, children develop shame about certain bodily functions, such as urinating and defecating, which can be seen as the first and most important individual step in the process of internalizing cultural norms. The experience of shame ensures that the moral codes that prevail in a particular social context are obeyed.

Shame not only contributes to the realization that there is a moral code that belongs to a community, it also contributes to the creation of a self that is separate from the broader social context  ̶  a self with secrets, a self that seeks isolation to secretly deal with his or her shameless body features. It can be said that this self-awareness is a fundamental prerequisite for both the sense of individuality and commonality.

This suggests that you could use shame to encourage desirable behavior. But this would be a very instrumental view that conflicts with fundamental democratic conditions. To reveal this, you could go back in time and have a look at the hygienist movements of the nineteenth century. At that time, doctors, wealthy benefactors and city planners tried to educate the masses, mainly by teaching them how to handle their stools. Sewage systems were put in place, which had an unparalleled disciplinary effect on the poor. The mob had to be civilized. They no longer had to live lawlessly, that is to say, not just take a crap somewhere in a cesspit or on a bucket, but on a toilet.

The development of sewage systems is also interesting for another reason, because it also is the origin of the modern government bureaucracy. The government was given the task to clean up the population’s poo. This gave rise to the population a systemic collective in which central government was given the responsibility to take care of that population.

Since then we have come a long way. Not only in terms of hygiene and governmental activities, but also in terms of how much discipline we allow the state to impose. Today it is morally unacceptable for the state to claim that a large part of the population lives in an embarrassing way and that is a good thing. Society has become egalitarian and democratic: there are no groups any longer that tell other groups how to live, not even when it comes to sustainable behavior.


In short, shame makes people live up to societal norms and helps them see themselves as individuals and as part of a moral community. But the imposition of shame implies that certain groups are not seen as individuals or as full members of a community.

Not only is it unacceptable to require people to be ashamed of their unsustainable practices and decisions, it is also counterproductive. Sustainability policies are increasingly characterized by ‘moral tribalism’, creating diametrically opposed positions within society. Such tribalism does not lead to change, but to a trench fight in which each side becomes more and more convinced of the rightness its own position and the wrongness of the position of the other. The imposition of shame  ̶  something you see in many debates on the social media – only leads to greater resistance to ̶environmental measures.

Moreover, it is unjustified to make people ashamed of their individual contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This contribution is much more than simply aggregating choices made by individuals, it is a systemic effect: economic and social forces compelling individuals to make certain choices.

It’s not just about shared norms, but also about the alternatives you have as an individual. If you travel by train within Europe, you are on the road much longer than by plane at much higher expenses. Meat substitutes are unaffordable for people with a lower income and not always that tasty to start with. New energy systems such as wind turbines and heat pumps are expensive, ugly and often less efficient than traditional energy systems.

To blame individuals for making wrong choices ultimately boils down to a neoliberal reproache, that only bestows accountability on individuals. That is so much easier than developing and implementing collective measures. Good policies, clear agreements between governments and the business community, sanctions and subsidies, and so on, they all take effort. It takes knowledge and persistence, the will to make painful decisions. Issues that politicians and decision-makers would rather not venture into. But shifting the blame for the ecological crises to the individual citizen is a disastrous weakness  ̶  something we must oppose wholeheartedly.

But we don’t have to be embarrassed about green shame. Instead we have to put this shame to good use. After all, shame is an emotion and emotions encourage action. Where we can choose to hide unavoidable actions such as defecating and urinating, green shame compels us to adjust our consumption patterns to the new norms.

The question is not whether these new norms should apply to each individual, but the question that must be asked is whether the emergence of these norms makes it necessary to introduce collective measures. In short, green shame should not be the goal of a societal debate, but its starting point: this debate should be intended to stimulate discussions about which economic system and which policies are desirable, taking into account the different norms, preferences and interests that prevail in society.

The challenge is that a moral revolution is not imposed by the government, but facilitated by it. Neither governments nor civil society actors should condemn certain activities that have hitherto been completely normal, such as flying or driving, as shameful. But governments should be urged to develop and promote alternative options to unsustainable practices. The train should be turned into a viable alternative for air travel, public transport or the bicycle should become viable alternatives to cars. Meat tax instead of cheap and a discount for healthy and organic food. Don’t push on energy decisions, but make them a topic of discussion. If a situation in which choices can be made that are genuinely individual instead of systemic, the correct norms can be pursued in an acceptable manner.

Further reading:

Claeys, M. (2020). Green shame: the next moral revolution? Global Discourse, 10(2), 259-271. doi:10.1332/204378919X15764490951187

Gandy, M. (1999). The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 24(1), 23-44.

Geuss, R. (2001). Public Goods. Private Goods. Princeton & Woodstock: Princeton University Press.

Markowitz, E. M., & Shariff, A. F. (2012). Climate change and moral judgement. Nature Climate Change, 2(4), 243.

Melosi, M. V. (2000). The Sanitary City. Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

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Pesch, U. (2005). The Predicaments of Publicness. An Inquiry into the Conceptual Ambiguity of Public Administration. Delft: Eburon.

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The stories we tell ourselves

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Stories are omnipresent. Our lives present themselves to us in the shape of a narrative, in which we are the hero and which guide us in our actions. Not only do we live our lives according to the storylines we create, these stories also turn us into moral beings. They enable us to reflect, to accountability to virtue. Moreover, the moral ideal of individual autonomy is little more than the ability to construct your own narrative. This ideal, in turn, is at odds with our tendency to also create collective narratives that lead us to believe in an independent group identity. But such collective narratives also have an important moral role, they provide solidarity and empathy. The point is that we should not start from singular, but from a plurality of collective narratives, so that we can be both autonomous as individuals and solidary with others.

Humans are the only species that acts on the basis of what she thinks she is. For example, a cat does not think long about what to do: it looks for a warm place to lie down, because that is what cats do. A human, on the other hand, invents an identity for herself and is guided in her choices and actions by this idea of ​​what she is.

This difference between humans and other animals will likely be due to our linguistic abilities. With language we can make up narratives, stories in which we figure as the protagonist.


In fact, all narratives have the same structure: it concerns the ‘hero’, a person with clearly recognizable character traits who is confronted with a situation and who has to deal with this situation. Then the narrative unfolds: something has become clear to the hero about herself and her life.

Most of our lives are not interesting enough for Hollywood movies, but we are constantly looking to find out ‘who’ we are, what our character is. We do this by constructing storylines, by inventing situations and by examining how we would act if such a situation arises.

Constantly inventing storylines gives us an idea of ​​who and what we are. An image that is increasingly taking shape and that will increasingly determine our daily actions.

Someone who thinks he is funny will often make jokes. It is clear that this self-image is by no means always correct, as everyone knows, many jokers are far from funny. But what matters is that we have an idea of ​​ourselves, a story that unfolds itself and that motivate our actions.

That concerns all walks of life. The study you have chosen, the music you like, the clothing you wear, the child or parent you are. We look for a coherent idea that describes what we think we are so that we can meet our own expectations. In doing so, we are constantly looking, and uncritically so, for confirmation of those expectations, because the story has to be right.

We do not only make a narrative of episodes of our life or of certain character traits, we plot our entire life as a story: a start, an end, and things that happen in the middle and that can be reduced to just a few characteristics. Just read the obituaries: the lives of people who have breathed, felt, thought and acted for almost a century can be dismissed as ‘nice’, ‘happy’ or ‘heavy’.

I find it fascinating: you became who you are because you thought you were who you were. But the role of narratives goes much further that that: they determine not only who we are ourselves, but also how we want to relate to others. Above all, the stories that we tell about ourselves make us moral beings.

First, it allows reflection and empathy. After all, we can tell more than just stories about the events in which we figured. We can also propose other kinds of stories, stories of what could have been. We can also see ourselves as if we were someone else. This allows us to distance ourselves from ourselves, we can see the choices we made as just one of many possible actions that could have been made. We can judge ourselves as if we were someone else, but we can also judge others as if we were them.

It is this ability that makes us responsible beings. If we couldn’t tell our life as a story, we wouldn’t be able to explain to others why we did something. In addition, it would become difficult to properly assess the actions and motivations of others.

The second moral aspect of narratives concerns the autonomy of the individual, the basic principle of modern morality. It is good to realize that stories don’t just arise in our own heads. They are formed by what we think others expect of us. We constantly receive social cues and we have to constantly process these cues as part of our own story. Moreover, our self-narratives are articulated in a language that we did not create ourselves. The vehicle of our thoughts, our musings and worries are the words and meanings given to us by the people around us (who have not invented this language either). The meanings that our stories carry have a social origin. What we think about ourselves is never entirely ours.

But that does not mean that individual autonomy should be denied. On the contrary, it is not about being in charge of our language, but about being in charge of our own story. Key here is that the story we tell about ourselves is not based on the expectations of others.

This is also the cause of the most subtle, but also persistent forms of racism or sexism in which individuals are forced to first understand themselves as black or as women, which bereaves them from have the opportunity to create their own story. Individuals who should be autonomous are defined in a ‘heteronomous’ way. This form of heteronomous suppression is often ignored because of the absence of bad intentions. If you ask a black friend what he thinks about Black Lives Matter, it is not out of a sense of superiority, but it does mean that this friend has to answer for an identity that he has not formed himself, he is forced to see himself as part of a larger group. If this happens time and time again, he will lose his autonomy.

We not only make up stories about who we are as a person, but we also make up stories about who we are as a group. The bond people have within a community is based on an imaginary, that captures the essence of that group.

In such stories the protagonist is the group itself. Also this hero has a character and also this hero has to overcome obstacles. Obstacles which are often formed by other groups.

Such a shared narrative can be dangerous. Not only is it at odds with the ideal of an autonomous individual above outlined, above all, it creates a distinction between those who are part of the story and those who are not and who are easily seen as enemies.

You hear sometimes voices that pleas that also such collective stories should live up to the ideal of autonomy. That ‘we’ are in charge of the story ‘we’ tell, that we are ‘sovereign’ as a community, nation, or people. But not only does it fundamentally clash with the moral requirement of individual autonomy – it first makes us members of a group and only then individuals – but above all, this view clashes with the idea that all individuals are equal. And without this equality, there could be no question of individual autonomy to start with.

Yet such a shared story also has moral values, because without such a story there is no emotional connection, no solidarity and no empathy. Our moral intuitions are largely shaped by the feeling that we share an identity, a story, with others. It seems to be a paradox: we need the group story to create moral behavior, but if that story becomes too strong, it leads to immoral behavior.

But this seeming paradox does not really exist. We are not part of a single group, but of many groups which constantly change in character and composition. We are dealing with a plurality of stories and it is of the utmost importance that we recognize that we are part of not one story, but of many. That recognition makes us resilient to the lure of a single group identity, we can show solidarity with all the groups we could possibly belong to – to everybody, in fact. Moreover, this recognition helps us to shape our individual autonomy: as individuals we can relate to different stories, we can choose, we can go back and forth, the plurality of stories forms a magic box that allows us to be who we want to be.

Finally, we must remember that we can make up futures. Futures that harbor danger or futures that are peaceful. Our time horizon is far beyond that of any animal. We even think about our story after we die. This allows us to develop a moral sensitivity that goes beyond our own life, the groups we belong to do not only include those people who live now, but also those who will live in the future. This makes it possible to reflect on human history in terms of moral progress, by making choices that far transcend the here and now and by developing the right moral frameworks for future generations.

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The problem of polarization: the sense and nonsense of debates about new technology

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In debates about new technologies, one camp usually entertains unrealistic expectations of the benefits, while an opposed camp comes emphasizes the dangers that are just as unrealistic. This gives rise to a debate that only deals with question whether we want the technology or not, guided by irrelevant arguments. The polarization of societal discussions evolves from the abundance of information, so that only the most extreme points of view receive attention. This is not only a problem in discussions about new technology, but it seems to play a role in almost every societal debate. In this post, I will look into the conditions that must be met so that a debate can include as many social values and considerations as possible so to establish a collective standpoint − for example about the design of a new technology.

With regards to technologies such as 5G, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars or geo-engineering, usually two camps emerge. On the one hand, there are the ‘techno-optimists’ who expect a lot of salvation from these technologies, because they offer opportunities to do things more efficiently or sustainably or because they can solve major problems such as global hunger and climate change. On the other hand, there are the ‘technophobes’ who mainly point to the risks and dangers. The first camp thinks the risk assessment of the second camp is based on irrational fears, the second camp thinks that the faith of the other parties is a sign of hubris.

Both camps are not only busy with each other, they also determine the way in which the broad debate is represented in the media. This is because journalists seem to believe that presenting opposing views helps a reader to take a balanced position so that she can contribute to a democratic debate.

This has long been a legitimate starting point, but seems to be less effective in times of polarization. Certainly it doesn’t work when it comes to technology issues. In these cases, debates arise that are unrealistic, unbalanced and ultimately undemocratic.

What you see is a cascade of faulty starting points, so that debates about technological developments are no longer about what they should be about. First, there is the erroneous belief that every social debate, whether it is about new technology or not, can be characterized best by showing the extreme positions. Second, there is the erroneous idea that technological developments are seen as if it were natural phenomena.

Before I delve deeper into technological issues, I will first describe what a debate actually is and what it purpose it serves. To start with, you can see a standpoint as an evaluation, as an estimate of what a future situation will bring. That is what we do constantly as individuals: we look at what comes our way and make a decision based on what we expect to happen.

Also as a society, we are confronted with new developments that we must respond to as a collective. By far the best way to organize this is through a democratic debate in which different assessments are put forward, pros and cons are considered against each other, and finally a collective decision is made that makes it possible to deal with the future situation. Not only does such a debate do justice to the opinion of all members of society, so that everyone can ultimately accept the collective decision, but the plurality of positions also ensures that an issue is viewed from as many sides as possible, thereby ensuring that the final decision is of the best quality.

But when it comes to a new technology, it is not about a situation that comes our way. It is about the evaluation of a situation that we create ourselves, while this situation is discussed as if it were a natural phenomenon. Instead of discussing the technology itself, we look at the effects, the risks and the benefits.

Establishing an innovation usually costs a lot of money. In general, most technology developers do not have that much money themselves, so they have to turn to investors. Technology developers compete with each other to convince investors that their technology will be successful. It is important to not only see Gyro Gearlooses with a soldering iron or Whiz Kids in a garage as technology developers, it is mainly about entrepreneurs and scientists, people who can’t just make something, but who above all believe in something and are successful in spreading their faith. They come with promises: they create expectations and to stay ahead of the competition, those expectations must be articulated as sharply as possible. Realism is of secondary importance here. In fact, a somewhat realistic assessment of the capabilities of a new technology destroys the chances of that technology chance becoming successful in advance; there will always be someone that makes bigger promises.

This phase of competition between promises is ended when a decision has been made about which technologies are worthy of investment. Those expectations then take on a life of their own. Now their goal of eliciting investments has been achieved, expectations must be transferred to the market or society so that the investment can be turned into profit. Rules must be established or stretched, the public must be convinced of the importance of a technology. Just like money, laws and social legitimacy are resources that are needed to convert a technology from an idea into a successful product.

Technological development is therefore a process in which major economic interests play a role. The push for a technology to be successful is very strong and the debate about it is anything but disinterested, as an actual democratic debate should be. In short, what we see is not a debate, but a lobby.

Take a look at 5G. Slick commercials should convince the general public that 5G is going to bring a lot of good. Once that system is in place, we can go completely wireless, we can automate processes that we never thought could be automated. Self-driving cars, streaming of films and series in high-definition, monitoring everything that can be monitored. No more car accidents, no more boredom, no more inefficiency. Who doesn’t want that! It would be utterly crazy to want to stop 5G. Legislation regarding privacy or radiation must be amended so that the 5G can accommodate as well as possible.


But of course those expectations are completely unrealistic. Accidents will persist, perhaps not the amount and type of accidents we know today, but they won’t go away – just like we will still have to live with boredom and inefficiency. After all, every new technology comes with new consequences and effects. That doesn’t have to make a technology less valuable or desirable, but requires a bit more modesty.

If there is one thing you can predict is that there will always be opponents of a new technology. There are always groups of people who don’t trust the technology developers or who don’t share their big expectations. To make a point, the overstated promises can only be combated by counteracting the overstated risks and disadvantages.

For example, 5G is presented as the cause of the coronavirus or as an instrument that governments use to control our brains. If it’s not the government, it’s Bill Gates. Paranoid nonsense of course, but as unrealistic as the expectations regarding the benefits of 5G.

This is a pattern that you see again and again. The technophobes have to bid against the techno-optimists and vice versa, this creates a spiral of claims that gradually become less realistic.

Now everyone has the right to delusions, but it is a problem that delusions predominate in debates about new technologies. A discussion arises between supporters and opponents who both seem to believe in fairy tales.

Such a polarized and unrealistic discussion is encouraged by the way both old and new media work. There is a surplus of information and limited space to present all that information in newspapers and television programs. The internet offers plenty of space, but someone who is surfing doesn’t have the time to go through all that information. Information providers compete fiercely for attention, and can only get that attention by making the information as outstanding as possible.

In short, we see the same mechanism that we saw earlier when investing in new technologies. To find the right resource base, claims have to stand out as much as possible. Money, space and time can only be acquired by making extreme, unrealistic claims.

Not only are such claims unrealistic, they are to a significant extent incomparable as they are based on dissimilar ways of thinking. It is not about a different assessment, but about a different way in which the groups arrive at their estimate. It is a difference between factual and emotional reasoning, while it can’t be simply said that one way is better than the other.

Parties dealing in high expectations often refer to the scientific basis of their claims. Their arguments are presented in terms of numbers and graphs, where factuality seems to be paramount − but, as said, there are no facts yet that lie in the future. Above all, this way of thinking is a ‘frame’ that should increase the credibility of the technology so that the invested resources can be recouped.

The frame of the opponents is usually formed by stories and metaphors. They come with Frankenstein and Big Brother as examples of crazy techno-optimism. Unlike numbers and facts, stories serve to arouse emotions, for example they can articulate undefined fears or a vague feeling of discomfort. In doing so, we must not forget that emotions are nothing but a way of evaluating situations, based on our intuition we form a judgment about a situation and interpret it as good or bad. That is a way that is quick and dirty and perhaps even ‘ irrational’, but not intrinsically inferior than a scientific approach.

This is not only because the actual frame is as fact-free as the narrative frame, but also because it concerns a future that we want. As I wrote above, discussions about new technologies are conducted as if they were natural phenomena. As if it were a rainstorm, volcanic eruption, or flood of which the risks need to be assessed so to take the right precautions, such as bringing an umbrella, moving to another place or building a dam. But the discussion about a new technology should not be a discussion about what risks are acceptable or not, it should be a discussion of the conditions that the technology to be developed should meet.

It is not about who is has been right afterwards, but about whether a new technology can be designed in such a way that it can be seen as socially desirable. This question should be addressed in a democratic debate, meaning that a plurality of views, concerns, expectations, etc. are taken into account in decision-making. Instead, we have a tug-of-war discussion that leads to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a technology based on irrelevant arguments.

That is why it is so important that factuality is not paramount, but that the meaning of a new technology is considered collectively and in order to do so we must allow stories and emotions to enter into a debate. In fact, the debate should be conducted in terms of stories, because only within a narrative structure meaning can be given to future development. It is necessary to create a ‘level playing field’ where people can discuss and compare expectations in a meaningful way in order to arrive at a clear consideration of the design criteria to be included.

What is happening now is actually the opposite. Because the way of debating that is dominant, compels opponents to new technologies to go along with this way of reasoning. For example, there are numerous films on the internet showing fearful stories that are told in scientific terms. Such videos are easy victims for ridicule, as the usually confuse correlation and causality in a childishly naive way− after all, they are not the ones that are scientifically trained. With that, so the mutual frustrations only increase.

In many ways, technological developments are a special case. Still, I think we can learn a lot from the polarized debates about technology, as ‘normal’ debates increasingly come to resemble societal discussions about technology. They are becoming more and more polarized, while the sense of reality seems to become less and less important.

As in technology debates, polarization arises because of the way in which claims compete for attention while there is a scarcity of resources such as time and space. Claims then have to become increasingly outlandish to be heard, pushing the more nuanced claims out of the debate.

It is also comparable that polarized debates are not about points of view, but about belief systems. The opposing parties address the issues from a different worldview and come up with different frames. What is subsequently seen as ‘true’ or ‘good’ is an expression of this world view, so that there can never be any trade-offs between the position – it is all or nothing. The starting point is the own moral superiority that is fought by pointing to the perfidious positions of the opponents. This is not a debate, but gossip: a discussion does not serve to arrive at a collective judgment, but to prove one’s own right.

Consider things like climate policy or corona measures. If you follow the news, many opponents seem to see any government intervention as a further restriction on personal freedoms, while the advocates point to the silliness of their protests. Dystopian future scenarios are outlined, with the counterpart’s depraved motives invariably taking center stage. Climate skeptics quickly become stupid and irresponsible, while ‘climate geeks’ are arrogant and come up with totalitarian plans.

The parties are increasingly separated and agreements that both parties can agree with are becoming increasingly difficult. This means that, with current electoral proportions, a marginal difference can have enormous consequences. Just think of the Brexit referendum or the election of Trump.

We need to think of another way to deal with claims made in the debate. It is not about the clearest possible representation of a discussion by showing the extreme positions, but it is about showing the diversity of points of view, perspectives, frames, considerations, values ​​and so on.

Differences between positions are essential if used properly. A plurality of positions is a precondition for the quality of a collective position, but it is certainly not a guarantee. This plurality can just as well lead to flawed decisions, namely if the differences are not accounted for − if one position is simply chosen because a procedure deemed democratic allows for it.

Extreme positions are not automatically necessary to warrant plurality. On the contrary, they contribute to the fact that collective trade-offs cannot be made. Now that there is a clear idea of ​​the mechanism leading to polarization, this can be countered. That can be done in different ways. Media can take their responsibility: there must be different algorithms for the digital media and other rules of thumb for traditional media.

As in debates about new technology, we need to consider how we can make claims comparable. Just as technological development must involve a level playing of expectations, news ways in which the various positions can be weighed up against each other must be sought. Participants in a debate should not aim to prove themselves right, but to contribute to a collective judgment. The fact that there are different frames should not be a problem, but if those frames only serve to confirm themselves, democratic decision-making is made impossible.

It would be weak to put all blame on the media. Indeed, the social debate is conducted by ourselves, and we must also consider how we can make the best possible contribution to this debate. You can do that by taking other participants seriously and by resisting the temptation to go along with gossip.

When someone says that climate change or the corona crisis are hoaxes, you should not get angry right away, but ask yourself why someone says this. How is it that a person can believe in obvious nonsense, what are the underlying concerns and values? Are these also nonsensical, or could these contribute to a collective position that includes as many considerations as possible? Is the belief system or moral system on the basis of which someone draws bizarre conclusions in itself legitimate? Are there otherwise interests or motivations that explain why someone thinks what he thinks? Of course it might just be that you find out that claims that others make are stupid or immoral. But only at that moment, you can say that these can be excluded.

At the same time, you also have to ask yourself why you think what you think. Are my own ideas so realistic, can I take my own beliefs seriously, or are they motivated only by the dislike of my opponents? Is it fair that I attribute bad intentions to those opponents, what proof do I have to do that?

If we take each other seriously, if we are willing to make our claims as comparable as possible, but at the same time remain critical about what others and we ourselves say and think, then we can have a debate that can rightly be called democratic.

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Climate Change, Covid-19, and the Apocalypse

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All too often, the climate problem is presented in apocalyptic terms. That is unjustified, because we have long been dealing with the ecological and social effects of climate change. Moreover, such an apocalyptic image is counterproductive because it leads us to thinking that there is nothing to be done about it, that it is too far away, or that it may not be all that bad. In fact, there was no model of the climate catastrophe that shows what the effects of climate change are and how to deal with such a crisis − until the corona crisis came. Beyond the rate at which the pandemic has developed, this crisis is very similar to the climate crisis, especially when it comes to the unjust distribution of luck and misfortune. The question is what the resemblances between the two crises are and how the corona approach informs us about possible and desirable approaches to deal with climate change.

In addition to causing a lot of misery, the corona crisis also disturbs many small plans. For example, I wanted to write a post about how the consequences of climate change are often presented in apocalyptic terms: the world that is coming to an end, the sea level rise that overcomes us like a tidal wave, nature that is destroyed.


My problem with images like these is that they present the climate disaster as 1) something to come in the future and 2) that will strike us in a single moment. I think that is a counterproductive image that makes people apathetic and gives rise to cognitive dissonance. The problem is too big, too unimaginable, too abstract. That makes it tempting to think that the moment when we are really affected by climate change is still a long way off and that it may well turn out not that bed after all.

Besides being counterproductive, the picture of an apocalyptic climate disaster is also incorrect. We are already in the middle of the climate crisis. Every day we experience the consequences: changing weather patterns, drought and floods, war and the influx of refugees. These are sometimes recognized as indications of the coming climate disaster, but not as manifestations of that climate disaster itself. The message is not that we must save the world before it is too late, but that we must intervene to prevent worse things from happening.

My hypothesis as to why the climate crisis is misunderstood is that climate change is the successor to the Cold War. They are consecutive manifestations of the end times as announced in the Bible.


In the 80’s there was a fear of ‘the bomb’. It could fall any time and then there would be no more humanity. The superpowers could only respond to the other party’s threat by having a more destructive arsenal of weapons. Thus, both parties obtained an unlikely amount of weapons that, thank God, have never been used. The arrival of the Apocalypse as feared did not materialize, but the threat now persisted in the form of climate change.

But in the case of climate change, there will be no mushroom cloud that heralds the beginning of Armageddon. No one has to press a big red button to cause this catastrophe. It is already happening and what we have to prepare for is that it will continue for a while. In fact, the conflicts and calamities will only get worse in the coming decades.

Another misconception is to view climate change primarily as an environmental problem. Of course, a warmer climate is bad news for the polar bear and many other animals, but it is especially bad news for ourselves. Climate change is much more of a social than an environmental problem.

It is best to see the climate problem as an issue that raises big questions about the way economic and political institutions are structured, but above all it is about the distribution of opportunities and fortune.

In many ways, the climate problem thus resembles the global catastrophe we are currently experiencing. The corona pandemic also has a huge impact on the institutions whose operation we have never questioned until now, and the pandemic makes a deadly distinction between those who are lucky and those who are not. The main difference seems to be the speed at which the crisis unfolds. The corona crisis has traveled around the world in a few months, while we have known for decades that the climate is changing.

The corona crisis shows that the global business economic system is not equipped to deal with major shocks − it is not very resilient. There only needs to be one factory that can no longer supply the necessary materials and the global supply chain is broken. The network of companies in which money and goods circulate has become increasingly intricate. It has become an optimized system in which all parts fit together flawlessly, but also crashes irrevocably if one of those parts does not function.

This involves products that are now essential such as mouth masks and medicines, but it also concerns empty shelves in the supermarket. In the case of climate change, it will not be toilet paper or pipettes, but mainly food. After all, the agricultural system developed to feed billions of people is based on the assumption that the weather doesn’t change too much and that there is a more or less constant supply and discharge of water. Of course there have always been crop failures and floods, but those are periodic disasters. A higher global temperature leads to fundamentally changing weather patterns. What was once a wet area can become dry and vice versa. Crops no longer grow where they once grew well. Where shortages of medical devices are now arising due to clogged supply channels, it will be a matter of time when there are places in which food can no longer be produced.

Our enormous mobility plays an important role in both the corona and the climate crises. The virus travels with people who travel to distant countries for holidays or for business. At the same time, all that travel causes the emissions. Mobility costs energy and the faster and further you go, the more energy you need. The problem is that fossil fuels are the most suitable energy carriers for movable goods such as cars, ships and aircraft. To an increasing extent, electric cars can drive with sustainably generated energy, but the moment that airplanes fly on batteries is still far away − if that moment ever comes.

To stop the pandemic, we have to periodically renounce our mobile lifestyle. It is important to minimize contact with others. It is a side effect that this also brings large parts of the economy to a halt, with unprecedented economic decline as the inevitable consequence.

The opposite seems to be the case with climate change: limiting economic activity is not a side effect, but the key issue. In fact, the entire economy is no different than a process in which we convert natural raw materials into useful products and services (such as air travel) and waste (such as greenhouse gases). Combating climate change can therefore only be achieved through the reduction of economic growth and/or the containment of waste flows.

It goes without saying that climate policy focuses primarily on making the economy more sustainable, so that the size and impact of waste flows can be reduced. If that does not work, the economy will decline. It is important to realize that this will not be a conscious choice, but the consequence of the effects of climate change itself. As stated above, climate change will lead to disruption of production chains. Food and other raw materials will no longer be able to be supplied through existing distribution channels, resulting in a sad result of geopolitical, humanitarian and economic crises.

Think about it: many, if not all, wars in history revolved around the question of which country has access to certain resources. If new scarcity occurs, whether it be oil, water or fertile soil, it can lead to military activity within or between states. In the civil wars of Rwanda, Darfur and Syria, there are indications that climate change has played a role in this. The crop failures due to drought and the depletion of the land due to changing climatic conditions, in addition to lust for power, fanaticism and racial hatred, have been factors contributing to the emergence of these catastrophic conflicts.

The humanitarian misery is enormous, just think of the massacres, famines and flows of refugees that we have seen over the decades. In addition to this visible suffering, there is also the many invisible suffering of farmers who harvest too little to support themselves or coastal inhabitants who see their village disappear into the sea. But it is not only far away, it is also about things that we can see on a daily basis, workers in the ‘old’ industry who lose their jobs, entrepreneurs who see their investments disappear, householders who see their houses sink, and so on.

Typically, we hardly recognize this as symptoms of the climate disaster we are in, instead we see it as isolated phenomena or symptoms of the coming climate disaster. The conclusion that seems so obvious is just not drawn.

The climate crisis is more about the distribution of opportunities and fortune than the distribution of individual and collective prosperity. It is here that the climate crisis is perhaps most similar to the corona crisis. Whether you become infected with the coronavirus or not is above all a matter of luck. If you live in a country where circumstances prevail that have led to greater numbers of seriously ill and dead people, that is simply misfortune. Nobody deserves to get sick, nobody has the right to stay healthy. This certainly does not mean that the responses do not differ in wisdom and desirability, but that the question of who gets sick or stays healthy is a matter of fate.

With Covid-19, it is mainly elderly people who suffer severely. However, viruses such as H1N1, which caused the Spanish flu, and AIDS have mainly caused younger victims. There is nothing to say in advance about the consequences of the next major epidemic. Each is deadly in its own way. Of course, just like now, there are myopic and bigoted people who consider it unproblematic that people die who otherwise would have died in the near future or who see AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality or promiscuity, but the cruelty of an epidemic is the cruelty of arbitrariness.

As some population groups are unlucky, there are large differences in the opportunities that countries have to defend themselves against the consequences of corona. Are there sufficient resources to deal with the biggest economic problems? Can we scale up the capacity of the ICs, get help from neighboring countries? Is it possible to isolate people and can we purchase scarce medicines and medical devices? Even countries that have the means to get out of the crisis have their hands more than full. The countries that were already worst off will only be hit harder.


The visible distress of the corona crisis necessitates rigorous national action. The much slower developing crisis of climate change does not yet create the same sense of urgency: agreements between countries are made and treaties are signed, policy is being developed nationally. This is all necessary, but at this moment by no means all of these plans are converted into concrete actions.

Here too, countries with enough resources will be able to take effective action at a later stage, if the need is really felt, and here too the countries with the least opportunities will suffer the most. They have neither enough money nor the technical means to raise dikes, to move rivers, to build dams. They do not have the ability to buy their  materials elsewhere. Individuals will try to flee, countries will be destitute.

This crises only widen the gap between the rich and the poor, they make uneven distributions even more uneven. In addition, the losers are the losers because they were unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of the gap.

It has become a cliché, but the corona crisis teaches us that we are all vulnerable. That solidarity is still the only remedy to manage the pandemic. It should be no different during the climate crisis. It is not about guilt or penance, shame or reason, long or short term. It is ultimately about the distribution of bad luck and happiness, a distribution that is intrinsically unjust.

We need to think about how we can minimize this injustice, especially by thinking about how to organize effective measures. The question is how we can organize dealing with the climate disaster.

International coordination is necessary, but not sufficient. As is also shown by the corona crisis. Obviously, science operates internationally and the WHO coordinates as much expertise and advice as possible. But countries act in their own way and at their own pace. Some commentators see this as the return of the nation state. That is nonsense, the nation-state has never been away. It is simply the only organizational form that can effectively tackle social problems. In spite of supranational organizations such as the United Nations, national states must be called upon to actually implement a decision, even if the wanderlust of viruses and emissions causes them to cross national borders without effort.

We must therefore be able to make international decisions on tackling climate change, based on a shared fate, while at the same time thinking carefully about how these agreements can be converted into concrete actions within national borders.

Dreams of a new world are just as unhelpful as dystopias about a coming Apocalypse. If you assume an impending disaster, you will raise voices that claim that we must stop refugees or support old industry. After all, the link between the climate problem and refugee flows or bankrupt factories can simply be ignored or denied if the problem lies in a distant future.

I do not want to say that the climate crisis resembles the corona crisis in everything, but the current corona crisis can teach us a lot about how to deal with concrete and direct catastrophes. We do not need to assume business as usual any longer, now that we know that our lives can become abnormal any time; we do not have to dream about a new political-economic order, but we must ask ourselves how we can make such a global crisis as manageable as possible within existing institutional frameworks − in which the unjust distribution of bad luck should serve as a moral guideline.

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The idealistic fallacy of the autonomous self

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As a counterpart to the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ you could speak of the ‘idealistic fallacy’, which − strangely enough – seems not have been introduced yet in ethics. This fallacy boils down to descriptions of social reality based on normative starting points. In ethics, the idea of a rational, autonomous individual seems to be often subjected to this fallacy. In itself, this idea helps us to reflect on the moral structure of society; but if this idea is accepted instead of aspired, the appeal of improving society disappears and, moreover, it becomes difficult to figure out how exactly to pursue this improvement.

One of the greatest insights from ethics is that you cannot just infer what ‘ought’ from what ‘is’. Whoever does that steps into the ‘naturalistic fallacy. On the basis of this fallacy you can effectively criticize any reference that something is good just because of the mere fact that it is just the way it is. Traditions, conventions, the natural order, etc. can never just be used as a moral legitimation of a certain practice or situation. Evil things like slavery, women’s oppression, colonialism and so on have all been resolved because we realized that there was no longer any valid moral legitimacy.

The importance of this fallacy is that we can never accept the situation the way it is. We will always have to be vigilant and force ourselves to explore how we can make the world a better place.

But there is also another, underexposed, side to the gap between ‘is’ and ‘ought’: namely that you derive empirical reality from a desired image. You could call the fallacy that arises from this the ‘idealistic error’, in which a description of social reality is based on previously given moral principles.

This idealistic error is ubiquitous. For example, someone who already takes the premise that ‘people are bad’ will be confirmed all the time. The same goes for those who think that ‘most people are virtuous’. Those may be propositions that have normative elements, because what does ‘bad’ or ‘virtuous’ exactly mean, but they are mainly proposition that is raise based on empirical questions about how to determine that are bad or virtuous.

It’s no wonder people commit this fallacy. After all, our perception is always normatively colored. We see the world from a moral perspective formed by an interplay between cultural teachings and personal experiences. We have created a framework through which we try to evaluate new events in terms of right and wrong, testing that moral framework time and time again.

Usually this leads to little adjustment, because we are the masters of the ‘confirmation bias’. We use most of the impressions we gain to confirm our existing frameworks, impressions that do not help are quick to be discarded.

This is why social research is so difficult and so important. All methods that have been developed serve to counteract the confirmation bias, while it is ingrained in our whole thinking. Whether quantitative or qualitative, from interpretive sociology to statistical economics, all of these approaches aim to compel ourselves to scrutinize our assumptions. The downside is that you can only see part of that social reality and never create a complete overview, but at least this provides credible insights about social reality.

It is difficult to find such methods in the field of ethics. There is no empirical context that can ensure that insights can be tested and rejected. What remains are arguments that are confronted with counter-arguments, but there is absolutely no guarantee that you can come to better descriptions of moral statements.

Hence, it may be no surprise that ethicists in particular are guilty of the idealistic fallacy. The most important of these is probably the starting point of the independent individual who makes rational choices – the starting point of an autonomous self.

To find the source of this autonomous self, you have to go back to social contract theories. In themselves these are no more than handy theoretical tricks to think about which form of government would be best. What would happen if there was no society that existed before we were mature, autonomous individuals, so that we could design a form of government in a conscious and rational way? According to Hobbes, we would then transfer our sovereignty to an absolute ruler, so that we would not get into a war of all against all — something no sane individual would prefer. As such, they come together and draw up a contract so that a peaceful society can be established. Locke took sovereignty from the totalitarian monarch of Hobbes and handed it over to the people. Rousseau saw the social treaty mainly as a historical error: before the contract was concluded, people were free. Once a contract has been chosen, we must make the most of it and choose a form of government based on full consent.

Like most of us, I have never signed a contract with anyone about any form of government. In fact, to my knowledge, no state has ever emerged on the basis of a voluntary contract signed by rational loners. This would not even be possible, a person is not an individual who precedes the community. Any person is an intrinsically social being, with a shared language, shared norms, a shared identity and so on.

Social contract theories present hypothetical situations of what could have happened if people had been individuals who had come to a form of government on the basis of rational self-interest. It is a powerful method of avoiding the naturalistic fallacy, because it frees us from the situation we accidentally find ourselves in and allows us to focus on which alternative society is possible and desirable.

The rational, autonomous individual has become the starting point for most ethical approaches and descriptions of human action are soon used to confirm this account of man. Ethics often seem to revolve around reconstructions of empirical phenomena that are not aimed at a better understanding of those phenomena, but above all aim at not having to touch the premise of the autonomous self. Insights from disciplines such as neurology or sociology are easily pushed aside.

For example, many an ethicists and philosophers still hold on to image of consciousness as if the external world is represented one-to-one somewhere in our mind’s eye. This is useful, because then you can see a choice as the result of a linear process: you observe something; you process that information; you assess different strategies; and then make the optimal choice.

This all sounds so simplistic that is quite implausible that philosophers and ethicists cling to such ideas. And indeed, their reasoning is much more subtle than this. You can demonstrate this, for example, by looking at the idea of ​​a ‘collective intentionality’, which involves thoughts that are shared by more than one person. That is a difficult concept, because a thought can only exist in a brain − especially when a thought is considered to be an ‘object’ that is represented in the conscious mind. Indeed, there is no such thing as a collective brain. You can better describe ‘collective intentionality’ as pertaining to the thoughts of an individual who thinks that several individuals have the same thought. Basically, if I think that you think what I think that you think, we think the same thing and there is a ‘collective intentionality’ − or something like that.

Of course, a thought is something that belongs to an individual. The problem here is that it is believed that the thought precedes collective experience. It is a variant of the linear choice process described above: you make an observation, place it somewhere in your consciousness, consider the situation envisioned, and then make a choice. The experience of commonality has to be conceptually squeezed into this somehow. That is a difficult task and it is not surprising that there are many discussions about the true nature of collective intentionality.

You would expect that discussing philosophers are familiar with Ockham’s razor, the idea that the simplest explanation is the most plausible. The assumption of the autonomous self does not seem to be that simple. Empirical research into the workings of the brain and sociological research into how we relate to our community have produced much more elegant explanations.

That more elegant statement simply consists of turning this account around. If you say that the experience of commonality precedes thoughts and if the frameworks with which we perceive are formed from the premise of a shared experience, collective intentionality is no longer a conceptual problem, but a way in which we simply look at the world.

It all makes on think of the Copernican revolution. The astronomers of that time could calculate the orbits of the celestial bodies, but only with great difficulty. Putting the sun in the center of the universe made it a lot easier to calculate all those orbits.

But if we remove the autonomous self from the center of our moral universe, we need to rethink some of our ethical assumptions. We cannot simply assume that actions can be assessed as the result of conscious choices taken by an autonomous individual. Instead of an empirical description, it is better to see the autonomous self as a normative ideal that informs us how we can organize society, how we interact and what conditions apply to whether or not people are responsible for their decisions. More concretely, this comes down to the question of when a decision was still made consciously enough to address someone as if this person was an autonomous self.

In sum, if we accept that our moral principles are based on the ideal of the autonomous self, it is important to organize our society in such a way that we make that ideal as accessible as possible − for example by having the virtuous institutions that I introduced in a previous blog post. By being able to find out whether people can be held responsible for their decisions, by forgiving, encouraging, correcting people, and so on.

This also gives rise to the main problem of the idealistic fallacy of the autonomous self. If you stick to this idea at all costs, it becomes increasingly difficult to organize society in such a way that the ideal of the autonomous self comes within reach − after all, this ideal already seems to be there.

That is misleading and hazardous because the world is becoming increasingly complex. Thanks to digitization and globalization, it is becoming increasingly difficult to realize the ideal of the decisive self. If we don’t have a good empirical description of how people act and can act in a world where existing boundaries between jurisdictions and communities and between what is real and what is virtually blurring. An idealistic fallacy makes us empirically confused, but also morally lazy − with all the dangers that follow from that.

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The corona crisis as the big degrowth experiment

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Until recently, the deliberate shrinking of the economy seemed only an unrealistic hypothesis. However, the corona crisis offers opportunities to take concrete steps towards such a ‘degrowth’ economy. However, the idea of degrowth still seems to raise many practical questions, arising from the overly theoretical nature that degrowth economists have bestowed upon it. It seems sensible to me not to assume a radical transformation of the economic system. If the degrowth economy is presented in terms of all-or-nothing, it has little chance of being taken seriously. It is wiser to think of policies that contribute to the radical curtailment of the economic system so that the destructive forces of capitalism can be constrained.

About a year ago I published an article about ‘degrowth’, or the sufficiency economy. A system that is not based on growth, because this will irrevocably go at the expense of the finite reservoir of natural resources, but on contraction. The economy should be curtailed to a level where everyone has sufficient resources to live a quality life without destroying the environment.

The whole idea of ​​degrowth seemed unrealistic to me. The shock would simply be too big. The addiction to growth is in the capillaries of our entire economic system. Taking away economic growth implies a sustained period of mass unemployment, and the annihilation of the value of pensions and mortgages. This shock is not felt by big capital, but mainly by common employees. In short, one cannot expect wide support for a sufficiency economy.

But that shock has come with the measures against the corona virus. The economy has went in to slumber. It seems for the first time that we have deliberately brought about economic contraction. The reason for this is very sad and serious, but at the same time you can speak of a huge social experiment, in which we have kicked off cold turkey-style from our addiction to growth.

There are voices claiming that we should continue this way, that it does not make life worse, while improving the environment. This suggests that I have to swallow my words and reconsider my assessment, now that the first steps towards a degrowth economy have been made. Is it possible to say that further steps towards have become feasible now, and if so, what is the nature of these steps?

The default starting point of economic growth can easily become a straw man to blame for everything wrong in the world, with intentional shrinkage becoming the solution to all those problems. For example, degrowth is seen not only as pursuing environmental sustainability, but also ‘social sustainability’, which involves injustice, stress, exploitation, empathy, insecurity.

Indeed, there is much to be said about how economic growth has devastating consequences for people’s social and psychological stability. If it is not restricted by the right legislation, the capitalist system tends to ‘forget’ people. Profit, for example, is not used to improve the quality of life, but to create more profit. The pursuit of efficiency can lead to a race to the bottom, with child labor in low-wage countries being just one of the excesses.

Therefore, less emphasis on growth and limiting the capitalist system is also necessary, but the way in which a shrinking economy can combat injustice does raise the necessary questions. Questions that the advocates of degrowth economy could ignore until now, because they have been was mainly discussing a hypothetical thought experiment.

For example, there is the question of how we manage to less distribute resources in a more equal way. It is clear that most of the inhabitants of rich countries have sufficient means. Substantially less income would not make most of us much more unhappy, and if we transfer the liberated money to people who become much happier because of it, we will contribute to a better world.

But what exactly is sufficient? A roof over our heads and daily food are definitely needed, but where is the line between need and luxury? Of course, we can do without mobile phones, laptops, cars and airplanes, but can we also do without medicines or electricity? And what about those people who don’t have enough yet? Do they draw the line differently, because they are not yet used to the same level of prosperity as people in rich countries? And how do they actually transfer what we have too much to those who are short?

Either way, the first step is that there is the emergence of a collective awareness that enough is enough. When growth is no longer sacred, the rich part of the world will realize that it no longer needs it. Indeed, this seems to be a sentiment that quite a few people put forward during the corona crisis. Now that the obligation to travel from meeting to meeting has disappeared, it becomes clear how nonsensical it all was. Now that we are no longer on vacation, it becomes clear how nice it can be to stay at home. Wouldn’t it be good if these obligations did not return in the postcorona economy?

Of course, such claims are expressed by people who can easily afford it, who don’t have to worry about their rent or about their children. I also have the suspicion that these are people who will later try to make up for their missed holidays and meetings twice as hard.

To answer the question of what exactly is enough, we cannot simply assume objective criteria. The sufficiency economy is contrasted by ‘psychology of the ever more’ that has blossomed in capitalism. The emotion of envy, not wanting less than anyone else, fuels the evolutionary mechanisms of the free market. The free market is a domain in which there is scarcity and in which people are motivated not so much to bring in enough for themselves, but above all to have more than anyone else. After all, if you do not do so, a competitor will try to get those scarce resources. So it’s not that people are intrinsically greedy, but the market forces us to greed.

Capitalism encourages us to work harder, to buy nicer things, to put on an even bigger mouth, to go on vacation. So that we can outdo others and make them jealous of us. Envy seems to be the great engine behind the capitalist system. We want more and more, even if we destroy the environment and ourselves.

It is possible to control the emotion of envy. In fact, it is the goal of just about all cultural norms and institutional rules to achieve that. Religion, culture, agreements, law, conventions and so on can be seen as a method to eliminate the “destructive power of envy’, as Michael Walzer puts it. These rules and standards allow a distribution of scarce resources that people accept without asking for more. In fact, the free market is the only institution we know of that does not combat envy.

And that’s not all that bad. Because envy can also be the engine of technical progress. As Joseph Schumpeter’s creed reads: capitalism means creative destruction. Everything is destroyed, but there are new inventions to replace it. The competition between entrepreneurs forces them to keep innovating so that they gain the favor of the consumer.

These innovations are not only unnecessary knickknacks, but are also concern by medicines and science. Matters that actually improve our lives, and it is the question whether those improvements can continue to be pursued if the need for innovation disappears, if envy is effectively curbed. In this, it is not about individual inventors or researchers, but about the overall climate within which innovations are created. Modern innovations require investment, research and development, research programs, social legitimacy. There must be enough people who believe in the promise of an innovation before it can actually be implemented. Without an underlying capitalist engine, this whole innovation climate will disappear. The question is whether that is what we want.

The most famous book about degrowth is Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without growth from 2009. Jackson shows that a so-called ‘steady state economy’ can develop, in which the same amount of goods is produced and consumed every year. This economy is based on the equal distribution over the population and the freed-up working hours could be spend on meaningful activities, such as culture, self-development and commitment to the community. Prosperity should not be measured in terms of gross national product, but in terms of human flourishing.

The idea of ​​steady state was introduced in the 1970’s by Herman Daly, who saw this steady state as an alternative to the ‘growthmania’ of capitalism. His teacher, Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen, found the whole idea implausible. After all, how can the economy continue to adapt to people’s changing needs? You need innovation for that and innovation implies creative destruction, as Georgescu-Roegen had learned from his teacher Joseph Schumpeter. So even in a steady state economy you will have to destroy things and because there is only a finite supply of such ‘things’, the economy will eventually destroy itself – even it is steady state.

The ideologically tinted debates between the supporters of Gerogescu-Roegen and Daly are mainly held in theoretical terms. Model calculations are used by so-called ‘heterodox’ economists to show whether a particular economy is possible or not. But how we should turn the shrinking economy to a steady state remains unclear. Even if it is theoretically possible to reform the economy at will, it would require a level of command over the economic system which to me seems completely unrealistic.

After all, the recessions of the past have proven that turning from a shrinking economy to a growing economy has never been easy and attempts to do so are always accompanied by conflicting insights and assumptions. Indeed, even after the fact, economists continue to defend opposing statements about the nature of the recession and recovery.

It is therefore not clear to me how economists and politicians think to achieve a steady state economy. What strikes me in any case among both orthodox and heterodox economists is that the economy is seen as an independent system of which the parameters of which can be influenced by macroeconomic politics, but which cannot be intervened directly. The economy itself seems to be separate from politics and morality.

The underlying idea is that people are first concerned with satisfying their individual needs and only then focus on issues such as meaning and collective concerns. The market, in turn, is the domain where people can meet their needs.

This is a peculiar picture and it has only recently emerged in Europe. Until about 200 years ago, the market was seen as a necessary evil, where lower urges such as greed and envy could find their way. These urges had to be restrained by the moral virtues that at that time were mainly supplied by the church. It may be that greed and envy have acquired their place as virtues within the free market − as indicated above − but the free market has been given that space. Adam Smith showed that it would increase general prosperity if the market was given space, the individual vice of ‘self-love’ turned out to lead to a positive result on an aggregate level. Moreover, the competition that took place on the market turned out to be far more peaceful than the belligerent competition of politics of the time.

It is actually paradoxical that degrowth economists continue the idea of ​​an independent market. It is certainly better and more realistic to say that the market can operate within political and moral conditions. In addition, these conditions can be restrained if necessary.

Tim Jackson’s broad concept of prosperity is symptomatic here. Instead of leaving important human values ​​outside the economic system, this concept of prosperity tries to capture as many moral values ​​in economic terms as possible. But one should not so much try to transform all values ​​into economic values; it makes much more sense to secure those values ​​in other social domains, so that the economy can be confined.

Instead of steering the market as an autonomous system towards a steady state, you can better think about how to overcome the destructive powers of envy by resurrecting sharper boundaries. By having standards and rules that directly intervene in the ‘psychology of the ever more’. One may wonder how the policies proposed by degrowth economists relate to this?

In fact, a number of these measures make perfect sense. For example, according to Tim Jackson, the innovation climate should be influenced in such a way that it is particularly profitable to invest in sustainable technologies. Whether that leads to degrowth or sustainable growth is hard to say, but it is a good idea in any case.

In a sufficiency economy, you don’t have to work 40 hours. As early as in 1930, John Maynard Keynes suggested that a 15-hour work week would be enough. Sharing labor is an important condition in this. People do not compete for a job or a position, but work together to produce sufficient resources to make a good living. A surplus of money is then in fact exchanged for an unprecedented increase in free time.

Another measure that is proposed is the ‘basic income’. For the degrowth movement, this income serves to slow down the economy as people get more free time and work less. In turn, I would say that a basic income allows people not to participate in the economy and instead participate in domains that delimit the economy.

Something similar applies to the elimination of debts. Debt is the essence of capitalism, because entrepreneurs have to borrow money for their investments. But debt also leads to artificial growth that is of no use to anyone and it leads to people who have to get deeper into debt without ever having a chance to get out again. If debt is eliminated, new opportunities arise to break this vicious circle.

A problem for the degrowth approach is that there is no clear theory of social change. Macroeconomic measures such as those described above build on existing economic theories, but ultimately the degrowth economy also requires a completely radically different culture. Instead of maximizing economic utility, solidarity and meaning should be pursued. How such a mindset can be initiated remains vague. Much seems to be expected from local solidarity and sustainability initiatives, such as eco-communities, introduction of local currencies and sharing platforms. But how such local initiatives can lead to large-scale cultural change is unclear to me.

And maybe that’s not necessary at all. The most important could just be that small initiatives show people that there are alternatives. That the market does not encompass all of life, that we can set limits for the globalized, free market. We don’t always have to maximize our economic utility, but we can also make other choices. A sustainable initiative does not have to be of service to a large-scale transition, but can have added value just by staying small.

It is tempting to see the measures described above as a coherent package that ultimately makes the degrowth economy feasible. This temptation is especially great because the degrowth alternative has been developed as a theoretically consistent systems, based on the question whether a shrinking economy could actually be possible. But it is difficult to come up with concrete proposals from such a hypothetical starting point, especially now that the time seems suddenly to be ripe to take further steps towards a degrowth economy.

An all-or-nothing story is difficult to sell, especially because it has to compete with the plans that are currently being developed to rebuild the economy as much as possible. There is hardly any mention of sustainable investments, but instead there is strong support for airlines and heavy industry. Money is paid to many people, but that money seems to be primarily intended to encourage them to consume. The call for degrowth remains fairly marginal, drowning in the midst of all other sounds. It would be wise not to present vistas of a steady state, but instead to point to the destructive forces of capitalism and the opportunity to curb them now. We do not need a comprehensive economy that is shrinking, but we need an economy that is given less space in which it can grow.

Further reading:

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Daly, Herman E. “The Economics of the Steady State.” The American Economic Review 64, no. 2 (1974): 15-21.

Demaria, Federico, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova, and Joan Martinez-Alier. “What Is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement.” Environmental Values 22, no. 2 (2013): 191-215.

Dumont, Louis. From Mandeville to Marx. The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1977.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. “Energy and Economic Myths.” Southern Economic Journal  (1975): 347-81.

Hirschman, A.O. The Passion and the Interests. Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Jackson, Tim. Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Routledge, 2011.

Kerschner, Christian. “Economic De-Growth Vs. Steady-State Economy.” Journal of Cleaner Production 18, no. 6 (2010): 544-51.

Pesch, Udo. “Paradigms and Paradoxes: The Futures of Growth and Degrowth.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 38, no. 11/12 (2018): 1133-46.

Schumpeter, J.A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. A Selected Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Philadelphia: Basic books, 1983.


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The moral charge of made institutions

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The free market, representative democracy and modern science can be seen as institutions that were once designed to guard important moral conditions. The individuals who function within those institutions are forced to account to their consumers, voters or peers − thanks to the structure of the institutions themselves. This ensures that these individuals can learn what is considered to be virtuous behavior. However, the emergence of bureaucracies is weakening the moral effect of institutions. This is mainly reflected in the way in which rules have become an end in themselves and business has become more important than virtue. It is therefore important to rethink how we can make the institutions created function as liability structures.

Where there is regularity in the interactions between people, you can speak of institutions. Two people suffice. If people know each other how they react to each other in a certain situation, they do not always have to think and negotiate in order to reach decisions and agreements. That saves a lot of work.

In other words, rules arise that coordinate interaction. These rules belong to nobody in particular on the one hand, because they exist independently of specific individuals; on the other hand, they don’t exist if there is nobody using them.

You could see a culture as the total of as the total of institutions that are shared by a larger social whole. These are institutions such as language, power relations and belief systems. The institutions that form such a culture will generally have arisen spontaneously and at some point have acquired unquestionable legitimacy. They have become a reality in themselves.

Sociologists usually regard all institutions as spontaneously developed social systems. But you can also make them. And that is exactly what characterizes modern society: the institutions that surround us are institutions that are consciously designed to maintain the values ​​that we consider important. This mainly concerns the institutions (or institutional domains) of parliamentary democracy, the free market and science. All these institutions provide responsibility and virtue, but most of all they provide justice and freedom.

Sociologists are not so much concerned with what ‘should be’, but with what ‘is’; ethicists who do so, prefer to deal with individuals rather than institutions. The strong moral load of made institutions is therefore almost never appreciated. So let me briefly touch on the moral aspects of established institutions here.

It is pretty much the essence of institutions that they divide a certain good between people: they hand over the rules that determine who gets what, what is an fair exchange, who can say what, who can do what and so on. Usually those rules are clear, we all have an innate intuition which is ‘not fair’ − that is, if the rules are not followed. It is less clear what exactly needs to be distributed. Is it the case of a child who exclaims that it is ‘unfair’ that she is not getting any candy, or not receiving enough attention from the parents, does she think she is entitled to anything, or does she not think it is fair that she is less or the same? gets like her little brother. Even when we grow up, this mishmash of motivations remains, but the gut feeling is the same: if we feel that the distribution rules are not enforced, we feel treated unfairly.

This is completely different for made institutions, because these are precisely about the distribution and exchange of clearly delineated matters: money versus property, power versus control and knowledge versus authority. This makes the market, politics and science outright ‘distribution machines’. It is about who is entitled to claim a certain good, who is entitled to something and what is in return.

This is most obvious in the market: it is the amount of money that is seen as a ‘fair’ compensation for the ownership of a product. If you have paid enough for a device, you can do with it whatever you want. The same applies to the wages you receive as an employee, you exchange your time and effort and receive income in return.

Of course this is a very crude representation, in real life there are all kinds of other things at play − as if it were an ordinary, spontaneous, institution. You do not only want your employer’s salary, but also the recognition that you are performing well. Most of us also want to get satisfaction from their work and surround ourselves with great colleagues. But at its core, the relationship between employer and employee is, of course, just about money.

Politics is a little less straightforward, but it includes the effort to deliver on promises and ideas that are seen as a ‘fair’ exchange for the power a politician can acquire through elections.

In science someone ‘deserves’ the authority to tell something that is believed to be true. To do this, the scientist must expose herself to criticism, she must have studied for years and demonstrate that she has a good command of her profession.

Made institutions do not work differently from spontaneous institutions in their functioning as distribution machines, they also have a completely different status. Institutions created should serve spontaneous institutions: in a free society, it must be ensured that members of that society are not imposed on how to act, what preferences there are and what to think. In short, politics, the market and science must be contained; they must listen so that the freedom of citizens is guaranteed. Firstly, this is done by imposing certain rules on politicians, entrepreneurs and scientists, but even more so, this is done by offering these individuals the opportunity to learn what is the right behavior − behavior that meets the demands of the society.

The institutions created therefore do not present substantive values, but procedural values. The substantive values ​−- our norms, our customs, our preferences − must be made known by society to the institutions that have been created.

Take politics: in a democratic system, political leaders should listen to the wishes of the electorate. Or the market: the customer is king and the providers must ensure that their products meet the demands of the consumers. Not every scientific claim is simply believed; no, it must first be tested by independent peers whether it has been established on the basis of the correct theories and methods.

This creates accountability structures within which those who operate in these domains must account to their ‘public’, i.e. the voters, the customers or their peers. A politician who is not sufficiently responsive to her voters is voted out, an entrepreneur who does not offer what the market demands goes bankrupt. People within those institutions are forced to make choices that are in line with the wishes of the people outside those institutions. This guarantees the freedom and autonomy of society.

This role of accountability structures goes beyond ‘incentivizing’ officials to obey their audience. That would be too one-sided and perhaps too cynical approach, based on the idea that a person is no more than a behavioristic automaton. What really matters is that institutions that act as accountability structures ensure that they behave in a virtuous manner. After all, an official can only be held accountable for her choices afterwards, while she cannot just know in advance what the consequences of those choices will be. All she has to do is anticipate and reflect on the consequences and then make an informed decision.

An institution that functions as an accountability structure can encourage people to be virtuous. Without that structure there will be no good entrepreneurs, politicians or scientists. Nevertheless, we attribute special abilities to individuals and take the rules that form an institution for data.

The emphasis on individual quality seems to apply most strongly to science: we talk about geniuses there, we give prizes to individuals who have done something we hold in great esteem.

But progress is not simply the work of geniuses who have a special gift. As said, it is much more about virtuous persons whose actions are the result of a dialectical interplay between institution and personal capacities. They try to come up with truth-claims by following the existing rules as accurately as possible. This involves building on existing knowledge, on the usual concepts, the correct use of accepted methods and having it tested by independent experts. These are all matters that lie outside the scientist.

Science is intrinsically cumulative, new insights, theories, methods and concepts are constantly being added to the already existing collection. That accumulated knowledge is owned by no one, but belongs to everyone − that is the essence of scientific progress. It is not up to the individual scientists themselves to determine which knowledge and insights deserve to be added, that is to the institution of science. An individual scientist can only ensure that she conforms as best as possible to that institution.

It is the institution that is smart, or perhaps more precisely, it is the institution that ensures that, from a scientific point of view, virtuous people can enrich science. The further accumulation of knowledge therefore does not so much require more clever people, but the rules of the scientific institution must be up-to-date, so that they allow the virtuous scientists to perform as optimally as possible.

The virtue of scientists receives little attention. This is different for the enormous amount of knowledge that is now available and which, thanks to the internet, is also available to many people. ‘Open access’ is encouraged, new knowledge systems are being developed and that makes quite some sense, but how do we ensure that scientists can justify their truth claims in such a way that they are forced to follow the right rules? That remains unclear.

Not only is little thought given to how scientists can do their work in a virtuous manner. The same applies to entrepreneurs and politicians. And that surely is a problem, because there are many developments that undermine the functioning of institutions as accountability structures, which means that individuals are less and less likely to develop virtuous behavior.

Perhaps the most important of these developments is that the institutions created are mainly populated by organizations − as I wrote earlier, their own amoral − while the moral power of institutions is based on the actions of individuals. What actually happens is that the internal rules of an organization increasingly come to replace the rules of the encompassing institutional domain.

This makes it hardly relevant for an organization in which domain it is located. Market, state or science, in fact, it does not really matter as long as the internal rules of the organization are followed. In addition, it often happens that those rules are becoming more and more absolute, they take on a life of their own and become rules around the rules themselves.

As organizations become more and more alike, there is also the possibility of blurring boundaries, so that they no longer function properly as singular accountability structures. You see this especially in the wat that government and science are increasingly shaped like businesses. The privatization of public services, for example, means that the government sees citizens as clients; politicians and civil servants do not have to be responsive to a wide range of public values ​​that society brings forward, they must achieve pre-agreed goals with as few resources as possible.

Science is also increasingly controlled in terms of measurable output: the number of articles, the impact score of a journal, the number of students with a pass. The added value of new truth claims to our knowledge pool is then regarded as much less important.

It is therefore mainly the idea of ​​business that motivates the management of organizations. Sometime in the 1980s, it was concluded that government and science were not functioning efficiently and effectively enough and that a great deal could be learned from companies in the management of ministries and universities.

By the way, it is not that companies themselves are responsive to their customers. To them the interest of the shareholders is much more important. The market, too, doesn’t work like the accountability structure that was once intended.

It is striking that the business operations are made more and more manageable by the application of so-called ‘smart’ technologies. As organizations become more and more alike and thus apply the same rules, it becomes tempting to automate processes. After all, a good algorithm can follow rules much better and in a much more fine-grained way than any person and moreover it can do so at a lower salary. Those algorithms seem smart, they are no virtuous at all − they are way too stupid for that.

In the meantime, individuals are also less and less provided the opportunity to become for virtuous. The bureaucratization of the rules of an organization is now also fixated in digital systems, with which the rules become even more dissociated from the made institutions.

The consequence of the damage to the moral effect of the made institutions is the loss of responsiveness. This inevitably leads to a widespread distrust of society with regard to these institutions. The fragmentation of society seems to me to be largely due to the loss of moral capacity in the institutional domains. The free market is seen as a disruptive force; politicians are only filling their pocket; scientists are people with just an opinion. All symptoms of a loss of virtue.

So we need to rethink our institutions. Institutions are not just accidental social contexts, but they have an essential moral mission: without the right institutions, our society loses the capacity for justice and freedom. We must seriously consider how we can make our institutions work as accountability systems. The fact that institutions were ever created implies that we can also reform them – and by all means it seems high time to do so.

Benhabib, S. (1988). I. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought. Political Theory, 16(1), 29-51.

Dewey, J. (1922). Human nature and conduct: Courier Corporation.

Douglas, M. (1986). How institutions think: Syracuse University Press.

Merton, R. K. (1940). Bureaucratic structure and personality. Social forces, 18(4), 560-568.

Merton, R. K. (1979). The sociology of science. Theoretical and empirical investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Pesch, U. (2014). Sustainable development and institutional boundaries. Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences, 11(1), 39-54.

Pesch, U., Huijts, N. M. A., Bombaerts, G., Doorn, N., & Hunka, A. (2020). Creating ‘Local Publics’: Responsibility and Involvement in Decision-Making on Technologies with Local Impacts. Science and Engineering Ethics.

Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. Philadelphia: Basic books.



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The value of values: What ethics can learn from the corona crisis

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The corona crisis has led to a recalibration of the major social values in most countries. These values were traded off and subsequently action has been taken. In principle, ethics would be suited to play a supporting role here − especially after the crisis has been overcome and we reconsider the weight of different values once more. However, it seems that in recent decades academic ethics has focused too much on theoretical issues, it has lost itself in either abstraction or nihilism. It doesn’t seem to help much. Ethics could be much more constructive by interpreting the meanings of values in concrete situations and by looking at how the collective choice of certain values can be organized within the framework of deliberative democracy.

Almost everything seems to be upside down in the spring of 2020. Because of the Covid-19 virus, there is very little business as usual. Everyone is hiding at home, waiting for better times. You also see a rearrangement of the set of moral values. We are forced to think about what is really important, not only for yourself as an individual, but also for us as a society. What is the value of a human life compared to the value of the economy, how you as a society deal with the weak, how you can let the sick die in a dignified way? How do you deal with the misfortune of people who cannot take care of themselves? How do you deal with the growing gap between those who can take care of themselves and those who cannot?

There are also many more modest questions. How do you give meaning to personal contacts when you can’t see each other? How do I get through the day in a sensible way, when do I go shopping and what should I buy? Why would I shave off my beard? Anyway, for as long as it takes, there is more caring, solidarity and self-sacrifice than we could have imagined a few weeks ago.

Ethics could make an important contribution to answering these questions. After all, ethics deals with the following question: what should I do? A question that hasn’t been that relevant in years. However, ethics and philosophy seem to have little to offer when it comes to the kind of urgent ethical questions we are currently dealing with. In recent decades, the discipline of ethics seems to have retreated into theoretical trenches and it has largely ignored everyday moral issues. In fact, the question of what ethics can learn from this crisis seems more relevant than the reverse.

You can roughly recognize two approaches to moral issues in academic debates. The first approach can be found mainly in the field of ethics itself, where ethicists are mainly concerned with the question of the validity of specific moral claims. Using thought experiments, they analyze situations in which a moral claim is valid or not in the hope of gaining a better idea of ​​the universal validity of that claim. These thought experiments usually concern individuals who are confronted with a certain situation that leads to the falsification of a moral claim − as if it were a scientific experiment. In order to be able to falsify more and more finely, the invented situations are becoming more and more worldly to the point of complete irrelevance.

This academic ethics seeks ‘moral truths’, but without concern for the moral status of claims. Apparently this is not the work of ethicists. Instead, people are only concerned with the logical consistency of moral hypotheses. In addition, it is also very unsatisfactory that ethics hardly gives concrete indications how a society can be organized in such a way that it does justice to the ethical values ​​that are important. After all, it is difficult to scale up the focus on the individual to the level of the level. Also, there is no attention for politics, power, culture, because they are seen as contingent – non-essential phenomena that frustrate the search for universal truths.

Politics, power and culture, are very much key for the other approach to moral issues. This mainly involves philosophers and social scientists who find it nonsensical to test moral claims on their universal validity. Such moral claims have no objective status, but are derived from concrete social structures. That means that no moral claim will be value at all times and all places, instead such claims are tied to a specific time, place and culture. From this approach you can scrutinize existing social systems, but at the same time it is, at least methodologically speaking, nihilistic: it says that moral questions are an expression of social and political relationships, without telling how to relate relationships in such a way can organize that they do discuss moral questions.

The origins of this approach can be found in Nietzsche’s work. His statement that ‘God is dead’ is tantamount to believing in whatever universal truth is astray. Truth claims are always statements made within a cultural context. Whether that context is formed by the belief in a god or by the Enlightenment belief in rational science; ultimately what is true is determined within defined cultural boundaries. Beyond those limits, another truth applies.

Nietzsche’s thinking is particularly recognizable in the work of Michel Foucault, but also in other postmodern or poststructuralist approaches. The shared starting point is that every truth is a man-made truth, with power structures, belief systems and ingrained routines determining what is true and what is right. When you research moral truths, you should not look at the content of moral claims, but at the cultural context within which these claims are made. You have to deconstruct the moral truths and show which social conditions ensure that a certain morality can be maintained as true.

The socio-cultural deconstruction of truths convincingly shows that it makes no sense to separate moral claims from their social embedding. Even if a claim is universally true, you will see that it is shaped or understood in different ways in different cultural contexts. Contingency is inevitable.

That morality depends on the cultural context implies a relativistic attitude. After all, you can never just say that a certain moral system is better than another because the standards you use to say that something is ‘better’ are also culturally embedded.

But the fact that different value systems coexist and that you cannot just say which of those systems is better does not in any way imply that value systems in themselves have no value; that everything should be possible because there is no truth anyway. That simply ignores the core of human coexistence: we cannot help being moral beings, however hard we try. Every statement we make about how we relate to others is an inherently moral statement.  All our choices and assessments have intrinsic moral connotations.

To me, this is the problem with many of the deconstructivist authors. They pretend to be nihilists, but they are not at all – they cannot. These authors have taken on the task of deconstructing the moral shortcomings of existing social structures and ethical systems: they know in detail what is wrong, but they do not say how this can be changed for the better. Deconstruction remains little constructive, it does not provide insight into how you can organize society to overcome moral shortcomings.

It is not difficult to find out the moral assumptions of deconstructivist writers. In fact, it is usually very obvious. Here too, Nietzsche is copied, especially when it comes to his aversion to the Enlightened faith in reason. He found that with this belief, the passions, emotions and madness that make us human were ignored. He was looking for a morality that precedes thinking, before language. A quest without success − unless you see the madness that struck Nietzsche at the end of his life as such.

Following Nietzsche, everything that tends towards rationality is conveniently distrusted: bureaucracy, technology, expertise, economics, science. These domains reduce social reality to an objectified system that can be described in unambiguous terms. The personal, the individual, the abnormal disappears. Individuals are quickly perceived as enslaved by social structures informed by objectifying knowledge systems.

A second form of criticism has its origin in the work of Karl Marx. He showed how all social structures could be described as an opposition between a predominant and an exploited class. Marx’s opposition revolved around the possession of means of production, but in general it is about the division between those who benefit from a social system and those who are disadvantaged. Moral truths that are used within such a social system mainly aim to legitimize this division or, even better, to make it invisible. If it is taken for granted that women are not equal to men, that there are workers and capitalists, that race, ethnicity, nationality or orientation are good reasons for not having equal opportunities, there is little point in opposing it. That’s just the way it is.

It is the strength of the deconstructivist approach that it convincingly demonstrates in great detail that these truths are not just what they appear to be, but that they are means of reproducing certain distributions. These analyses of truths show the arbitrariness and injustice of social inequalities.

Such an analysis can serve an emancipatory purpose. After all, if you can show which groups are victims of a system, you can come up with recommendations on what should change to achieve more equality. But that does not happen or it happens only in an implicit way. Most deconstructivist scientists stick to their methodological nihilism.

What seems to play a role in this is that social change is hardly enforceable. Resistance is − in line with Nietzsche’s thinking − an individual act, whereby the outsider targets the established order. Such resistance shows that there are deviations from the norm, that society cannot be totally objectified, but how this leads to social change is unclear.

According to Marx, on the other hand, change is inevitable because the tension between the ruling and the submissive class ends in revolution, as the laws of history prescribe. Neo-Marxist authors omit this determinism, but social change, they say, will be brought about by resistance from below. Such resistance will  be suppressed as much as possible by the ruling class. There is also an aversion to representative democracy because it is seen as an instrument for preserving the socio-political status quo.

The corona crisis shows that both academic ethicists and deconstructivist researchers maintain positions that are hardly defensible. We do not live in a nihilistic universe, instead we are, for instance, deeply worried about elderly people who die in an inhumane way − even if we do not know these people personally. Most of us sacrifice our daily routines and their direct interests for the common good, without any hesitation. Nor are we interested in the consistency and universality of the underlying moral concerns, instead we recognize at a glance that others share the same values. Those who fall outside every risk group also know how to empathize with the victims, their families and the care providers. We almost all seem to realize that the arbitrariness of vulnerability can affect anyone.

In almost all countries, the economy has come to a halt so to make the pandemic as manageable as possible. The speed and scale of the interventions is unprecedented, and all certainties and expectations have vanished almost instantaneously. Sure, these interventions are only intended to be temporary, but either way the grip of existing structures and vested interests seems to be much smaller than anyone could suspect. Social change can take place and it can be achieved quickly and drastically. This speed refutes the assumption that social structures are virtually unchangeable; likewise, it is striking enough that the politicians that used to defend the status quo are the same persons that enforced these changes.

But does this whole situation not precisely show the power of science? The knowledge that has come about in an objectified way determines the way in which we live our lives. Our body is not our own, but it is defined by epidemiologists who say what your body is (a source of contamination) and what that body may do (not getting too close to another body). And it is not only science that defines us from the outside and deprives us of the possibilities of determining who we are: you can also see the emergence of a huge regime of surveillance that tries to profoundly influence our actions. Is it not the crux of the deconstructivist criticism that it is the interplay of politics and science that prevents us from being who we could be?

To a certain extent, it is. Many of the measures introduced are also objectionable. In fact, in their responses, countries seem to become caricatures of themselves. Countries are becoming more dictatorial, more populist, more centralistic, more cynical, lax or chaotic than they already were. There is enough reason to remain vigilant.

But the point I want to make here is that a conscious choice has been made as to which form of expertise takes precedence. Virologists and epidemiologists who have warned for years about a pandemic that would irrevocably come, have never been taken seriously. Instead, the authorities preferred to listen to economists who promised prosperity. That has completely changed now. Knowledge about the disease and its spread is more important than knowledge about economic prosperity.

Moreover, this expertise science seems to be needed urgently. Without the knowledge of the virus and the epidemiological spread, no one would know what to do and the consequences would be many times more deadly than they already are. That expertise can only be achieved through the objectification of reality, by looking for laws and universal claims. The question we need to ask ourselves is what science we want to have is it the science that leads to efficiency and the ‘lean supply chains’ that has caused the shortage of face masks or is it the science that helps us in taking care of sick people?

What, then, are the lessons that can be learned when looking at the moral aspects of the corona crisis? How can we as moral beings deal with this situation? First of all, it is clear that this question is answered in terms of values. To be sure, these values ​​are not abstract quantities unsung from the earthly world that can be validated on their universal consistency. Values ​​are concepts with which we give a multitude of situations moral significance, with which we can determine whether we find something good or bad and with which we can compare the certain situations in normative terms. Such values can ​​only arise if they are linked to concrete situations.

In itself you can see the term ‘value’  an empty box, a word without a load. This box only becomes meaningful when it is filled with situations, events, choices. The morality itself is fuzzy, it is not consistent. Of course, it makes sense to scrutinize the definitions of certain values, but it must be remembered that such a value is a conceptual aggregation that includes many empirical phenomena. The goal of ethics should be to study how that interaction between empirics and conceptual aggregation works, not to get stuck in the latter.

Moreover, there seems to be a very high degree of agreement about which values ​​are important: human dignity, equality and justice. The fact that some adolescents, populist presidents and utilitarian scientists are less concerned with these values ​​does not affect the general consensus. Apparently, when developing a collective moral choice, there is sufficient ‘herd immunity’ to tolerate deviations.

At the same time, it should not be forgotten that these deviations need be cherished in themselves: if we put human dignity first, every individual has the intrinsic right to come to his own judgments and to develop his own identity − as long as this does not come at the expense of the dignity of others.

This agreement on the most important values ​​gives cause to relativize a relativistic position, while at the same time it gives cause to give up the search for universal moral truths. We are moral beings, while there are no objective moral truths. We cannot know what is important, we can only choose it and then accept the consequences of that choice as if it was a truth beyond doubt.

Such a choice is not just an individual choice. Values ​​and norms are intrinsically social: they say something about how we want to live together, about what behavior we accept from others and how we relate to others. In short, it is up to us to determine what we consider important as a collective.

In the case of the measures around Covid-19, choices have been made by political leaders; the question is how society itself can make that choice. How can you organize this collective choice process? How do we ensure that given the absence of an objective or absolute moral truth, we, as society, can develop a shared morality? A form of deliberative democracy seems to be necessary here. Only in a democratic process based on the equality of all participants can you arrive at a balanced collective judgment about which values ​​are shared.

A deliberative democracy consists not only of procedures, but also of values ​​and principles that are seen as inalienable. All these values ​​and principles arise from the dignity of each individual person. Whether its equality, justice or tolerance, it all comes down to the simple fact that no person is better than another.

There always will be a tension between consensus and deviation. Constant attention will have to be paid to what exactly equality means in concrete situations. It is precisely within the framework of deliberative democracy that such tensions and such questions can be discussed in such a way that acceptable, but temporary, solutions can be reached. In addition, only the frameworks of deliberative democracy offer the opportunity to the weaker members of societies to directly address the strong, and to demand a fairer distribution of power and resources. Not on the basis of struggle, but on the basis of the values ​​that underlie democracy.

What is the role of ethicists in this? Are they still necessary? Maybe not if they look for moral values that are universally valid ​​or if they conquer the value of values – that would be some sort of decadent intellectualism. However, they may play a constructive role if they become concerned with the question of how to feed this collective choice process.

First of all, it is necessary for ethicists to look at how concrete situations relate to abstract values. As stated above, a value encompasses a multitude of different situations and denotes it with a single word. But what does that mean exactly? How does the interpretative step between situation and value work and what are its implications?

Determining a value is not an end in itself, but guides actions and choices. A value is an evaluation that motivates to intervene. This means that an ethical analysis must not only determine whether something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but especially how it can be improved. It concerns the identification of alternative options for action and the exploration of the consequences of those options.

All this requires not only an abstract understanding of value, but also an understanding of a concrete situation in which a value is in force. To be able to interpret the operation of the application of a value requires an accurate command of the empirics of the situation. Consideration must also be given to the possible consequences of applying a value.

In this, it is important for the ethicist to look at the consequences of her own interpretations. It is crucial that an ethical analysis reflects on itself. One may tend to forget it, but ethicists are people too. They sometimes think they can cling to a neutral position, but that just doesn’t work. What you can expect from an ethicist is that she examines her own assumptions and takes a critical look at the implications of those assumptions. That she distances herself from herself and reconsiders her assumptions and interpretations where necessary. That she enters into a dialogue, both with herself and with others.

Thus, ethicists can help understand values ​​by looking more closely at the significance of assigning values to a given situation and by examining the consequences of this value assignment.

In addition, ethicists can contribute to identifying the preconditions of deliberative democracy. The question is how to organize the process of collective choice-making? This contribution is an extension of the work of Habermas, Rawls and Rorty. Work that has been the subject of much criticism, because either it is not universally valid or it is an legitimizes the established order. Such criticism has hindered the further practical elaboration of these theories, while it seems that that is precisely what is necessary.

These thinkers have been mainly concerned with drawing strict, unambiguous boundaries between domains, such as the public and private domain. They haven’t looked that much at the ambiguity and porosity of those boundaries. Moreover, they often assume deliberation within a static and singular community, but our world is globalized and dynamic. Citizens are increasingly global citizens, but jurisdictions remain nationally oriented. There is still much work to be done.

These ethical projects will become particularly important after the corona crisis. We will need to thoroughly recalibrate our values. Do we try to pick up our lives again as they were before the crisis or do we realize that we want to do a number of things fundamentally differently? Do we place the primacy on the economy and consumption as before or accept a lower level of prosperity?

It also needs to be realized that global inequalities will be exacerbated by Covid-19: poor countries have fewer resources to effectively protect their populations. How should we deal with these inequalities? What is the right policy, what are the right forums to discuss it with?

Moreover, the corona crisis is not the only crisis we are dealing with. Just think of the climate problem, which appears to be just a slower version of the corona crisis. The climate also demands moderation, sacrificing economic growth. The climate is also exacerbating existing inequalities. Climate also demands the way in which values ​​are ranked.

In short, it is inevitable that important collective choices will be made. The processes that lead to such choices must be organized and supported. Ethicists can play an important role in this, but they must climb out of their trenches. The global crisis that we are in the middle of now gives ample reason and motivation to do so.

Further reading:

Habermas, J., & Ben-Habib, S. (1981). Modernity versus postmodernity. New German Critique(22), 3-14.

Rawls, J. (2009). A theory of justice: Harvard university press.

Rorty, R. (1989). Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


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Some chattering about the public debate on social media

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Isn’t it the case that the public debate has shifted from conventional media to social media – from paper to digital. After all, everyone can make themselves heard on the internet. Still, the discussions on social media hardly resemble the public debate. It is better to see these discussions as a form of gossip, aimed at maintaining existing norms that serve to separate us from them. Though gossiping might be amusing every now and then, it cannot make a useful contribution to the development of a pluralistic and inclusive debate in any way whatsoever.

With the advent of social media, also the place seems to have shifted where most of the public debate takes place. It is widely believed that this can no longer be found on the opinion pages of newspapers and magazines, but in the timelines and feeds of Facebook and Twitter.

Such debates on social media seem much more inclusive than the conventional opinion sections in newspapers. The placement of your letters or opinions is not in the hands of some editor, who soon finds something ‘too difficult’ or ‘irrelevant’ for his readers. No, this time it is that editor himself who has become irrelevant. Now, you can give your opinion whenever you want, just like everyone else. It could just be that the public debate has really become a matter of the public.

Unfortunately, the reality of the web is unruly. There are quite some discussions on the internet and everyone is concerned about everything. But they don’t convey a public debate.

Social media are the effectuation of social science theories. Just like engineers construct the roads and bridges we drive on, design the buildings in which we live and work, the machines we drive, fly and sail with, also sociologists have become some kind of engineers, namely the designers who determine how we interact with each other in the digital space.

That is, some sociologists. After all, the rules of the public debate are not taken into account. Not just because those rules are complicated – the social network analysis that underlies Twitter is not less difficult– but because those rules are hard for an individual user to enforce: they require effort and dedication.

That builds a bad business model. What a digital platform needs is an addictive combination of convenience and pleasantness, which makes us return to the same site over and over again.

The addiction to social media stems from the ability to show the best version of yourself and to be rewarded for it. A like for your holiday photo, a retweet of your sharp remark, and your dopamine level rises. It doesn’t take long for your brain to scream for more, for even more likes.

But it is not so much about showing the best version of ourselves, but it is especially about showing which group we are a member of. We want to reveal to whom we belong by showing the right images on Instagram, the right playlists on Spotify, the right messages on Twitter and the right likes on Facebook.

Actually all actions on social media are aimed at constructing boundaries between those who belong to us and those who do not. This is done through norms. A community is a group of people who share the same norms – or so it seems. In reality, the content of those norms does not really matter, that is just a stick to beat with: if the ‘other’ used the same norm, she could not just become a member of ‘our’ group; we will start using a different, or slightly adjusted, norm instead.

That is exactly what happens on social media platforms: users post norms that show to which group they belong and, more importantly, who does not belong to this group. Communities are created and reproduced by pointing to the norms used to exclude people.

‘Tribes’ are created on social media using norms that make them feel superior to other tribes. Political discussions become tribal conflicts between different truth systems, with little reason to transcend the conflict.

This is not a public debate: this is gossip. Social media offer the pleasantness of the pub, but then in the virtual world, where you go with your friends to confirm each other’s equality and to prove that the rest of the world is crazy.

The dopamine rush that we get when we refresh our screen comes from being recognized as being a member of the group to which we want to belong. For us, social animals that we are, there is little that is so important.

The feeds make it seem like there is something like an unambiguous community, a culture to which you belong or not, values and norms that form a consistent whole. Which makes it easy to determine who belongs and who doesn’t.

It is not difficult to articulate the underlying subtext of the Facebook groups you are a member of, no matter how innocent they may be. It is the subtext of a single identity to which all individual reports and responses are subordinate.

An algorithm does not have to be that smart at all to be able to determine who belongs to which group and what the members of that group would like to hear. People like to imagine themselves that such a group is a beautiful whole with a fixed, recognizable identity. So whatever such an algorithm offers, people will all too easily find their imaginary confirmed.

But well-defined communities with a clear identity do not exist and they should also not be strived for. This endeavor is at the expense of: the dignity to which also misfits and outsiders are entitled ;the counter-voices needed to achieve improvement and innovation; and the inclusiveness that an Enlightened society should pursue.

A public debate is precisely intended to make these values and ideas possible. By guaranteeing plurality, this debate should allow a non-singular community. What makes a community a community is not its imagined unity, but the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. It is here that the public debate finds its essence: the struggle through words and arguments with the aim of finding a language with which collective answers can be obtained.

Internet is a marketplace, where companies are in charge. It’s no surprise that gossip is lucrative. What should be surprising is the naivety about the possibilities of social media. You see attempts by governments to adjust their workings: after the Cambridge Analytica scandal Facebook is being asked for more responsibility; information campaigns are started after a series of fake news-messages.

But these kinds of events are not excrescences of social media, they are intrinsic traits. As we all know, the essence of gossip is that the truth doesn’t matter. Gossip serves to determine the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the boundary between true and false is completely irrelevant.

It is not wrong to use social media, but it is wrong to expect that these media can facilitate a public debate. This really requires other design choices that are not obvious as long as the social media depend on our addiction to pleasure. For the public debate, we must still rely on other media.

Of course, conventional newspapers and magazines are also made to earn money and discussions are all too often not that uplifting. But the old media afford gossiping to a lesser extent. The opportunity to actively draw boundaries between groups of people is decreased: if you want to participate in such a public debate, you are forced to take some distance from yourself, to think about your position relates to other positions. Only on the basis of such reflection can a public debate arise and transcend tribal struggles.

Further reading:

Marin, L. (2021). Sharing (mis) information on social networking sites. An exploration of the norms for distributing content authored by others. Ethics and Information Technology. doi:10.1007/s10676-021-09578-y.

Marres, Noortje (2017), Digital sociology: The reinvention of social research (John Wiley & Sons).

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Issues in the relationship between science and politics

[Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van deze post]

Issues in the relationship between science and politics

Political controversies such as climate change, vaccination or nitrogen deposition show that knowledge issues within a political context are not about valid knowledge but what someone believes to be true. At the same time, these issues about belief are often treated as scientific conflicts – leading to frustrations for just about everyone involved in such a controversy. This does not mean that these types of issues must be depoliticized; that would be undemocratic and counterproductive. Instead, it should be considered what scope of policy measures can be formulated based on the best possible knowledge. This could lead to a debate about which measures are desirable instead of the credibility of scientific knowledge.

It seems unimaginable that there are still climate sceptics. That there are parents who do not have their children vaccinated. Dutch farmers have come to dispute the nitrogen measurements of a renowned expert institute. All these controversies revolve around science that is doubted by the general public. There are more examples, but I will limit myself to these three salient cases, in which amateurs and lays think they know better than experts who have studied these topics for years. Or, conversely, is it inconceivable that a democracy does not respond to the wishes of citizens? That politics does not obey the feeling that prevails in society but is entirely guided by science?

The relationship between science and politics seems to be a complicated marriage between partners who sometimes have to do things together but prefer to go their own way. This marriage would only become more complicated if all possible knowledge were just a mouse click away. Not only politics but also knowledge is democratized. At the same time, not all experts and authorities find it desirable that everyone can speak out about the validity of expert knowledge.

Psychological research underlines how difficult the marriage between science and politics is. The human brain works differently depending on whether it deals with a scientific or political issue. People seem to lose their ability to think clearly about a political subject. Our tribal primate brain takes over: instead of arguing for a conclusion from several recognized premises, we seek arguments to support the conclusion that we consider desirable and demonstrate our moral superiority.

This pertains to cases such as nuclear energy, economic measures, drug policy, immigration, etc. With these types of politicized themes, your preference is determined by your political position, and you use all your brainpower to legitimize this preference. In short, your confirmation bias takes over.

To overcome this impasse and remove distrust of expertise, would it not be best to depoliticize these issues? Because then you would be able to make a balanced judgment. There are no protests against wind farms and nuclear power plants that will provide clean energy, no nationalist sentiments that cause countries to withdraw from international treaties and covenants, no anti-vaxxers that make their children a threat to the health of other children, no condoning talk of Islamic fundamentalism, and so on.

Steven Pinker also advocates such depoliticization in his book Enlightenment Now. The political person is unreasonable, and according to Pinker, only reason can bring us forward. But how reasonable Pinker’s argument itself is is doubtful. Let us look at how discussions about knowledge on political issues take place with a cool head – instead of having anger and frustration about the ignorance of the layman speaking out on scientific issues, take the best of us.

A first striking feature of these discussions is that they are often conducted in terms of opposing knowledge claims. But this is weird. Why would anti-vaxxers, protesting farmers or climate sceptics be bothered about the scientific state of affairs? They don’t worry about black holes or Higgs particles, do they? These parties have reasons for disagreeing with climate measures, vaccination programs, or nitrogen policies, and they must also have the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with those measures. But these protests pertain to politics, and doesn’t the underlying expertise not only play an indirect role, even if it is not trusted? Such knowledge does not have to be the center of the debate; it should not be a matter of secondary importance.

Another point that stands out is that emotions are distrusted and seen as the enemy of reasonableness. They make it impossible to maintain the overview you need to make good decisions. At the same time, it is clear that people are angry, scared, or frustrated throughout the political spectrum.

In a sense, getting rid of an overview is precisely what emotions do. But that does have a purpose because it enables you to make a decision at all. Without emotions, you wouldn’t do anything at all.

Emotions summon you to act, and they do not tolerate delay. An emotion shouts: do something and do it now! Emotions are how consciousness shows that there is something wrong with the world that needs to be restored.

You get angry when someone disgraces you; that anger shows that person that you take it seriously. You are ashamed if you violate a social norm, so that you will adhere to the applicable rules and norms next time. You are envious when you see someone deserve something you want – a prize, a promotion, much money – so you can do even better to achieve that. You will be sad if you lose something you will not forget is really important. And sometimes you’re just happy, then you don’t have to do anything.

Political emotions also summon for action because there is something wrong that needs to be corrected. A condition for this is that you identify with a group and have the same emotions as everyone in a group. But even you may feel one with a group, such a group has no consciousness and perception. The group never simply sees what’s wrong with the world. John Dewey introduces ‘issues’ such that affect the public as concerns they care about that they are worried about.

But not everything can just become an issue. Some issues are culture-related, so unemployment will be seen as a collective problem in one country, while in another, unemployment is only a problem for an unemployed individual. Issues are often made, for example, when someone successfully manages to convince a larger group that something is important, or they emerge contingently. But if something has become an issue, then it is a subject that mobilizes people, then it is something they care about, a subject about which they have a political emotion that needs to be addressed.

I spoke above about emotions that are shared within a collective. This perhaps suggests an image that is too homogeneous, namely that everyone in a country has the same feeling, like everyone is cheering at a sports game.

But that is not how it works within a democracy. This system is based on a multitude of opinions, values, beliefs, etc., and people are free to choose what they believe in and what they consider important. A democratic system aims to balance all those different values ​​and visions so that decisions are made that concern the collective.

Every measure will have opponents, and it is essential to democracy that those opponents have the right to oppose such a measure peacefully. This is most easily achieved by voting for another party at the next election, but it is also possible by actively demonstrating against that measure. It can also be achieved by mobilizing opposition, such as undermining its legitimacy or supporting such a measure. As people come to commit themselves to a specific goal, they will come to identify themselves with a party or movement. They feel related to its direction and purpose: political emotions are created.

Politics is the area in which emotions prevail. It is the institutional domain that is set up to identify and deal with wrong-doings in society. This is usually done very reasonably, but ultimately, politics revolves around shared emotions that give rise to collective action.

Science, on the other hand, does not give rise to action. Science leads to knowledge and understanding. Science is about what is, not about what should be. In short, science cannot, in principle, tell you what needs to be done. As such, all political measures that seem to follow directly from scientific knowledge are intrinsically political measures.

But is it really true that if the climate changes, it does not have to lead to something like an energy transition? Is it true that you have to vaccinate young children if you can thereby significantly reduce the number of deaths? Doesn’t it mean farmers must give up their farms if their cattle emit too much nitrogen near nature reserves? No, it is not all necessary, but of course, it is very obvious.

Knowledge is often not only knowledge, but it also can be a call to action. More than that, it calls for actions with drastic consequences. In addition to large-scale investments, the energy transition requires far-reaching changes to our daily practices. Vaccination programs need parents to have their children injected with something they must believe is good. Moreover, the children become part of a sizeable utilitarian program, which is not about the individual health of the child – the alpha and omega of each parent – but about the health of an abstract collective. Farmers not only lose their farms but are actually told that they have been living the wrong kind of lives.

In short, in these types of issues, issues are created by scientific knowledge. In these cases, knowledge touches people, and it touches people directly. And not only that, the way in which these issues are taken into consideration and the way in which they are discussed, the frameworks of policy measures that become standard, all these things follow from how science presents its insights.

This makes it much easier to explain why protests against these types of measures quickly end up as attempts to undermine the validity of the underlying knowledge. This may well be so, but this creates a debate that does not make anyone happy: there are the experts who believe that their science is being challenged on faulty grounds and the opponents who do not feel taken seriously.

Opponents feel urged to go against the scientific state of affairs by disputing that knowledge or proposing alternative knowledge. This may work for an ever-smaller group of believers, but it makes no use in the end. What it leads to is that science will have an even more fine-grained understanding of the problem so that the suggested knowledge is better corroborated.

For example, in response to criticism from climate sceptics, science has progressed immensely, and at this moment, there are no things about which we have more certainty about climate change. The opponents seem to have bought time with their criticism, but in the end, this delay only means that even more drastic measures will have to be taken now to tackle climate change. You see comparable developments in vaccination programs, where obligations and prohibitions are increasingly being introduced.

What remains for opponents are conspiracy and conspiracy theories. If science cannot be undermined, the disapproval becomes aimed at the scientists and other authorities. These are accused of succumbing to the big money, striving for world dominance, or the desire to keep the people stupid. Some will suspect that people are being fooled. But no matter how loud these critics may proclaim their vision, it is, above all, a final straw that shows the untenability of their position.

That knowledge itself is neutral and does not call for action is a somewhat artificial claim, as shown above. After all, you act based on what you think is true. Your emotions encourage you to act, but those actions take place based on the worldview in which you believe.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there are plenty of examples of conflicts involving the combination of power and truth, just about every religious war of the present and past. The bloody misery that resulted from such wars has precisely been the reason to disconnect the question of truth from the question of power. Emotions were no longer allowed in the world of science. The knowledge that science considers valid is not based on faith but on epistemological principles and calibrated methods.

As such, it seems not entirely justified to speak of a difficult marriage between science and politics, but it may be better to talk about a divorce that has not succeeded. The partners have agreed to go their way, but now and then, they come together again. It feels uncomfortable, yet familiar.

What are the lessons that we can learn? How should we deal with political controversies whose core is formed by disagreement over knowledge claims?

Firstly, depoliticization of this type of controversy is a wrong solution. First, it is fundamentally undemocratic: people have the right to protest against measures that affect them. Second, it is awkward. If people are not allowed to mobilize around issues, political decision-makers will not know what is important within a society. The process of issue formation is perhaps the most important way a society organizes itself politically. Decision-makers can (and should) learn from this: in order to be able to implement measures that are responsive to the wishes and preferences of society, they must address the issues of the public.

Secondly, we must consider how we can do justice to the separation between knowledge and faith as it has been implemented institutionally. If measures are based on scientific knowledge, it seems wise not to use that knowledge to prepare a singular package of policy measures. After all, this gives rise to discussions about the validity of knowledge that are rather unproductive in themselves, in the sense that they lead to the postponement of effective policy and numerous frustrations among citizens, politicians and scientists.

A solution could be to look at the scope of possible political measures based on the best available knowledge and then enter into a debate on those different options instead of a debate on the validity of that knowledge.

In short, debates should be about what is important and possible and, to a lesser extent, what is true.

Further reading:

Dewey, John (1927), ‘The public and its problems’, New York.

Latour, Bruno (1993), we have never been modern (Cambridge Harvard University Press).

Nussbaum, Martha C (2013), Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press).

Pesch, Udo, Huitema, Dave, and Hisschemöller, Matthijs (2012), ‘A Boundary Organization and its Changing Environment: The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency MNP’, Environment and Planning C, 30, 487-503.

Pinker, Steven (2018), ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason’, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 47.

Solomon, Robert C (1993), The passions: Emotions and the meaning of life (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing).

What political controversies such as the ones involving climate change, vaccination or nitrogen deposition show is that knowledge issues within a political context are not about what valid knowledge is, but what someone believes to be true. At the same time, these issues about belief are often treated as scientific conflicts – leading to frustrations of just about everyone involved in such a controversy. This does not mean that these types of issues must be depoliticized, that would be undemocratic and counterproductive. Instead, it should be considered what scope of policy measures can be formulated, based on the best possible knowledge. This could lead to a debate about which measures are desirable instead of a debate about the credibility of scientific knowledge.

It seems unimaginable that there are still climate skeptics. That there are parents who do not have their children vaccinated. That Dutch farmers have come to dispute the nitrogen measurements of a renowned expert institute. All these controversies revolve around science that is doubted by the general public. There are more examples, but I will limit myself here to these three salient cases, in which amateurs and lays think they know better than experts who have studied these topics for years. Or, conversely, is it inconceivable that a democracy does not respond to the wishes of citizens? That politics does not obey the feeling that prevails in society, but is completely guided by science?

The relationship between science and politics seems to be a difficult kind of marriage between partners who sometimes have to do things together, but who prefer to go their own way. This marriage would only become more difficult if all possible knowledge was just a mouse click away. Not only politics, but also knowledge is democratized. At the same time, not all experts and authorities find it desirable that everyone can speak out about the validity of expert knowledge.

Psychological research underlines how difficult the marriage between science and politics is. The human brain works differently depending on whether it is dealing a scientific or political issue. People seem to lose their ability to think clearly when it comes to a political subject. Our tribal primate brain takes over: instead of arguing for a conclusion from a number of recognized premises, we seek arguments to support the conclusion that we consider desirable and that demonstrate our moral superiority.

This pertains to cases such as nuclear energy, economic measures, drug policy, immigration, and so on. With these types of politicized themes, your preference is determined by your political position and you use all your brainpower to legitimize this preference. In short, your confirmation bias takes over.

To overcome this impasse and to remove distrust of expertise, would it not be best to depoliticize these types of issues? Because then you would be able to make a balanced judgment. No protests against wind farms and nuclear power plants that will provide clean energy, no nationalist sentiments that cause countries to withdraw from international treaties and covenants, no anti-vaxxers that make their children a threat to the health of other children, no condoning talk of Islamic fundamentalism, and so on.

Steven Pinker also advocates such depoliticization in his book Enlightenment now. The political person is an unreasonable person and according to Pinker, only reason can bring us forward. But how reasonable Pinker’s argument itself is, is doubtful. Let us look at the way in which discussions about knowledge on political issues take place with a cool head – instead of having anger and frustration about the ignorance of the layman speaking out in scientific issues take the best of us.

A first striking feature of these types of discussions is that they are often conducted in terms of opposing knowledge claims. But this is weird. Because why would anti-vaxxers, protesting farmers or climate skeptics be bothered about the scientific state of affairs? They don’t worry about black holes or higgs particles, do they? These parties have their reasons for disagreeing with climate measures, vaccination programs, or nitrogen policies, and they must also have the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with those measures. But these protests pertain to politics, and doesn’t the underlying expertise not only play an indirect role, even if it is not trusted? Such knowledge does not have to be the center of the debate, it should not be a matter of secondary importance.

A second point that stands out is that emotions are distrusted and seen as the enemy of reasonableness. They make it impossible to maintain the overview that you need to make good decisions. At the same time, it is clear that throughout the political spectrum people are angry, scared, or frustrated.

In a sense, getting rid of overview is exactly what emotions do. But that does have a purpose, because it enables you to make a decision at all. Without emotions you wouldn’t do anything at all.

Emotions summon you to act, and they do not tolerate delay. An emotion shouts: do something and do it now! Emotions are the way in which consciousness shows that there is something wrong with the world that needs to be restored.

You get angry when someone disgraces you, that anger shows that person that you take it seriously. You are ashamed if you violate a social norm, so that next time you will adhere to the applicable rules and norms. You are envious when you see someone deserve something you want – a prize, a promotion, a lot of money – so that you can do even better to achieve that. You will be sad if you lose something, so that you will not forget what is really important to you. And sometimes you’re just happy, then you don’t have to do anything.

Political emotions also summon for action because there is a something wrong that needs to be corrected. A condition for this is of course that you identify with a group, that you have the same emotions as everyone in a group. But even you may feel one with a group, such a group has no consciousness and perception. The group never simply sees what’s wrong with the world. John Dewey introduces ‘issues’ such that affect the public as concerns they care about, that they are worried about.

But not everything can just become an issue. Some issues are culture-related, so in one country unemployment will be seen as a collective problem, while in another country it is only a problem for an unemployed individual. Issues are often made, for example when someone successfully manages to convince a larger group that something is important, or they emerge contingently. But if something has become an issue, then it is a subject that mobilizes people, then it is something they care about, a subject about which they have a political emotion, a subject that needs to be addressed.

I spoke above about emotions that are shared within a collective. This perhaps suggests an image that is too homogeneous, namely that everyone in a country has the same feeling. Like everyone is cheering at a sports game.

But that is not how it works within a democracy. This system is based on a multitude of opinions, values, beliefs, etc., and people are free to choose what they believe in and what they consider important. The aim of a democratic system is to balance all those different values ​​and visions in such a way that decisions are made that concern the collective.

Every measure will have opponents, and it is essential to democracy that those opponents have the right to peacefully oppose such a measure. This is most easily achieved by voting for another party at the next election, but it is also possible by actively demonstrating against that measure. It can also be achieved by mobilizing opposition, for example by undermining its legitimacy or support for such a measure. As people come to commit themselves to a certain goal, they will come to identify themselves with a party or movement. They feel related to its direction and purpose: political emotions are created.

Politics is the area in which emotions prevail. It is the institutional domain that is set up to identify and deal with wrong-doings in society. This is usually done very reasonably, but ultimately politics revolves around shared emotions that give rise to collective action.

Science, on the other hand, does not give rise to action. Science leads to knowledge and understanding. Science is about what is, not about what should be. In short, science cannot, in principle, tell you what needs to be done. As such, all political measures that seem to follow directly from scientific knowledge are intrinsically political measures.

But is it really true that if the climate changes, it does not have to lead to something like an energy transition? Is it true that you have to vaccinate young children if you can thereby significantly reduce the number of deaths? Doesn’t it mean that farmers have to be give up their farms, if their cattle emits too much nitrogen near nature reserves? No, it is not all necessary, but of course it is very obvious.

Knowledge is often not only knowledge, but it also can be a call to action. More than that, it calls for actions with drastic consequences. In addition to large-scale investments, the energy transition requires far-reaching changes to our daily practices. Vaccination programs require parents to have their children injected with something that they must believe is good. Moreover, the children become part of a large utilitarian program, which is not about the individual health of the child – the alpha and omega of each parent – but about the health of an abstract collective. Farmers not only lose their farm, but are actually told that they have been living the wrong kind of lives.

In short, in these types of issues, issues are created by scientific knowledge. In these cases, knowledge touches people and it touches people directly. And not only that, the way in which these issues are taken into consideration and the way in which they are discussed, the frameworks of policy measures that become standard, all these things follow from the way in which science presents its insights.

This makes it much easier to explain why protests against these types of measures quickly end up as attempts to undermine the validity of the underlying knowledge. This may well be so, but it this creates a debate that does not make anyone happy: there are the  experts who believe that their science is being challenged on faulty grounds and there are the opponents who do not feel taken seriously.

Opponents feel urged to go against the scientific state of affairs by disputing that knowledge or by proposing alternative knowledge. This may work for an ever-smaller group of believers, but in the end it makes no use. What it leads to is that science will have an even more fine-grained understanding about the problem, so that the suggested knowledge is better corroborated.

For example, in response to criticism from climate skeptics, science have progressed immensely, and at this moment there are no things about which we have more certainty than about climate change. The opponents seem to have bought time with their criticism, but in the end this delay only means that even more drastic measures will be have to be taken now in tackle climate change. You see comparable developments in vaccination programs, where obligations and prohibitions are increasingly being introduced.

What remains for opponents are conspiracy and conspiracy theories. If science cannot be undermined, the disapproval becomes aimed at the scientists and other authorities. These are accused of having succumbed to the big money, of striving for world dominance or the desire to keep the people stupid. Some will suspect that people are being fooled. But no matter how loud these critics may proclaim their vision, it is above all a final straw that shows the untenability of their position.

That knowledge itself is neutral and does not call for action is a somewhat artificial claim, as shown above. After all, you act on the basis of what you think is true. Your emotions encourage you to act, but those actions take place based on the worldview in which you believe.

It is therefore not surprising that there are plenty of examples of conflicts that involved the combination of power and truth, just about every religious war of the present and past. The bloody misery that resulted from such wars has precisely been the reason to disconnect the question of truth from the question of power. Emotions were no longer allowed in the world of science. The knowledge that science considers valid is not based on faith, but on epistemological principles and calibrated methods.

As such, it seems not entirely justified to speak of a difficult marriage between science and politics, but it may be better to speak of a divorce that has not been entirely successful. The partners have agreed to go their own way, but every now and then they come together again. It feels uncomfortable, yet familiar.

What are the lessons that we can learn? How should we deal with political controversies whose core is formed by disagreement over knowledge claims?

Firstly, depoliticization of this type of controversy is a wrong solution. First, it is fundamentally undemocratic: people have the right to protest against measures that affect them. Second, it is awkward. If people are not given the opportunity to mobilize around issues, political decision makers will not be able to know what is seen as important within a society. The process of issue formation is perhaps the most important way in which a society organizes itself politically. Decision-makers can (and should) learn from this: in order to be able to implement measures that are responsive to the wishes and preferences of society, they must address the issues of the public.

Secondly, we need to think about how we can do justice to the separation between knowledge and faith as it has been implemented institutionally. If measures are based on scientific knowledge, it seems wise not to use that knowledge to prepare a singular package of policy  measures. After all, this gives rise to discussions about the validity of knowledge that are rather unproductive in themselves, in the sense that they lead to the postponement of effective policy and to numerous frustrations among citizens, politicians and scientists.

A solution could be to look at the scope of possible political measures based on the best available knowledge and then to enter into a debate on those different options instead of a debate on the validity of that knowledge.

In short, debates should be about what is important and what is possible and to a much lesser extent about what is true.

Further reading:

Dewey, John (1927), ‘The public and its problems’, New York.

Latour, Bruno (1993), we have never been modern (Cambridge Harvard University Press).

Nussbaum, Martha C (2013), Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press).

Pesch, Udo, Huitema, Dave, and Hisschemöller, Matthijs (2012), ‘A Boundary Organization and its Changing Environment: The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency MNP’, Environment and Planning C, 30, 487-503.

Pinker, Steven (2018), ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason’, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 47.

Solomon, Robert C (1993), The passions: Emotions and the meaning of life (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing).

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Making things and discourses. An answer to the question: What is philosophy?

[Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van deze post]

For a long time I had to think about what philosophy actually is as a field of study. I know the familiar definitions, but those are just salespitches. They do not answer the questions about exactly what its methods are, what really matters, what you can and may do with philosophy? In this paper, I will present philosophy as a field in which new systems of meanings are created –  I will call these ‘discourses’ – that should enable us to think more clearly about what is true and what is good. To properly use such a discourse, it is important that it is not seen as a stand-alone ‘thing’, but as a benchmark for our thinking and action.

Philosophy is the science of the non-empirical, or the science of the things that are not there. Or rather, because there are not many things, it is about things that are not tangible, but we can talk and think about as if they were tangible things.

For instance: concepts, logic, causality, values. Things that are essential to human thinking and acting, that make us what we are, while at the same time these are items that we cannot feel, see, hear, smell or taste and cannot test, validate or falsify.

The science of things that are not there is the science of meanings that we assign to the world around us. But in doing so philosophers create new meanings: after all, the attempt to understand non-empirical reality produces new non-empirical things. Philosophy is a hall of mirrors with reflections of reflections, in which it is never clear what is metaphor and what is reflection. Here, I will attempt to provide some clarification.

If you want to understand what meanings do and where they come from, you have to be outside of mainstream philosophy and go to sociologists, or French philosophers who have meaningful things to say, but do it in such an unfathomable way that nobody really understands what they are talking about.

To begin with, we can look at what the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called a ‘structure’: a system of meanings that brings order to the world, that gives people direction to their actions, that makes collaboration possible.

With such structures you can choose from numerous alternative names and approaches. Like those of Max Weber’s ‘selbstssponnenes Bedeutungsgewebe’, people are then animals who weave a ‘web of meanings’. This quote of Weber also became famous through Clifford Geertz’s book The interpretation of cultures. The fathers of social constructivism John Berger and Thomas Luckmann speak of a ‘symbolic universe’, in which many small events become part of a meaningful whole.

Such approaches and denominations are based on the assumption that a group of people who are part of the same culture understand the world in the same way. In short, a culture consists of those people who have the same structure with which all different impressions, events, interpretations can be aggregated to a higher level of meaning, so that it becomes possible to experience the world as cohesive.

You could say that this is a social version of Plato’s cave. As known, the parable of Plato is that, in the reality we are experiencing, we do not see the essence of the phenomena, but only a reflection of their true nature, just as cave dwellers only see the shadows of reality outside the cave, without seeing that reality itself. According to Plato there is a realm of ideas, a world next to this world where things really are what they are. We also do that with a structure, we create a conceptual reality that seems more real to us than the reality of the real world.

It seems doubtful that such a conceptual reality exists independently of our thinking, and also the ubiquity of coherence is questionable. You could say, in the words of Jürgen Habermas, that such a conceptual meaning system exists ‘counter-factually’: it is an assumption that allows individuals and groups to act in coordinated and purposefully. People act as if there is a coherent whole of meanings.

From this counter-factual assumption, a process of giving meaning takes place. Within a culture, phenomena are interpreted by assigning words and meanings to them. Socialization means that an individual learns to use words and meanings like the rest of the group does.

You could explain the desired coherence by following the structuralist sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss based on the ‘binary’ way in which meanings are assigned within a culture: wrong versus good, dark versus light, man versus woman, child versus adult, we versus them opposite, clean versus dirt. A meaning never stands on its own, but is always based on relationships with a wider range of meanings. Every empirical phenomenon that you see, name and describe is positioned against the background of other phenomena.

It therefore does not seem to be correct to grant a system of meanings an ontological status, which is done by some structuralist sociologists. Such a structure or system is a reconstruction that you make as a researcher helping you describe the behavior of people within a culture. Structures are created – a new thing comes into being: something that exists, something that can be described, interpreted and classified as an isolated phenomenon.

However, the coherence that is assumed in everyday life also seems to be pursued by scholars. The platonic ideal of a conceptual reality that is more real than real reality seems to reappear in this endeavor.

It seems to me that cultures are represented as more impenetrable than they actually are. In fact, any assumed coherence must be met with skepticism. After all, if you understand a culture as a group of people who share a certain coherent system of meanings, then a culture does not have to be large or absolute at all. You just need two people, for example two lovers who have their own routines and know exactly how each other acts, at least as long as they are together. If you take them apart and put each in a different setting, at work or the sports club, they will act differently, because then they will be in a different culture. In short, in my opinion, a culture is a flexible concept in which people switch from one culture to another, without realizing it.

We usually relate cultures to groups that are much larger and have a much longer history. We may have the idea that that culture represents a coherent system of meanings, which bring about a reality that seems more real than empirical reality, but ultimately it isn’t. Meanings change, cultures are malleable, people can ‘move’ to another culture. All of this goes without a problem, because the counter-factual idea of ​​a cohesive culture cannot be put to the test: that cohesion does not exist anyway, but is merely an imaginary point of departure.

Back to the philosophers. These are not so much concerned with describing things that concern others, as sociologists do, instead philosophers do what philosophers prefer to do: they mainly talk about themselves and about the systems of meanings they have created.

I call those systems of meaning, the pieces of the philosophers’ structure, discourses. For philosophers, it’s not about the concepts that explain things, like a structure that explains how people understand the world; it’s about explaining the concepts themselves. They develop new systems of meaning to ensure that understanding itself can be understood.

This sounds very meta and very vague, but in first instance it is about simple questions such as: how do we know what is true and how do we know what is good if the only things we have are meanings that differ per culture? Can we develop a new, artificial structure that will allow us to get closer to the truth or that will enable us to determine what is good from a moral point of view?

It is not surprising that philosophers have to have such discourses. There is no way to falsify philosophical statements –  which, in the end, are statements about non-existent things. What remains is the confrontation between claims and counterclaims, so that ultimately a coherent complex of ideas, arguments and insights arises. A complex that seems to be independent of the philosophers who have contributed to it. A structure, a thing that can itself become the subject of reflection and discussion. Then it becomes meta-meta and twice as vague.

For clarity it may be necessary to look at the mother of all philosophical discourses: that of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment as we now speak of it is the time that began with the groundbreaking insights of Descartes, Newton and Spinoza about the power of reason, the operation of nature, and the importance of political freedom. In 1691 the notion of the ‘Aufklärung des Verstandes’ was first mentioned: the clarification of the mind.

Not everyone was happy with that. In a pamphlet from 1783, Johann Friedrich Zöllner asked the question in a footnote: “Was ist Aufklärung?”, or what is this clarification, this enlightenment thing, because he did not find that clear at all.

Enter Immanuel Kant. In 1784 he wrote the essay An answer to the question: what is enlightenment? Some quotes:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”

Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!”

“Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.”

“If it is now asked, “Do we presently live in an enlightened age?” the answer is, ‘No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.’”

A number of things stand out here. First of all, Kant brings the different enlightenment directions together under the motto of Sapere Aude. But it is not just about thinking, no, it is about thinking in public so that an interaction of arguments and insights can arise that makes it possible to achieve more freedom and wisdom. Kant actually introduces the method of a discourse here, while at the same time introducing the discourse of the enlightenment. But the latter was probably unintended, his pamphlet seems to be mainly a reaction to Zöllner’s arrogance.

I write enlightenment here with a small letter (in German, of course, it has a capital letter, like all nouns) and I would prefer to continue to talk about clarification. Only a century after Kant’s text, enlightenment only becomes Enlightenment –  then it became a concept that began to lead its own life, with the connotations that we still know today.

A discourse is a thing. A structure that is disjointed from the participants in the discourse itself, with the effect that philosophical movements and theories seem to be less manmade than they actually are. Even more than that, such a discourse is often given human traits. We speak of intentions, goals, actions and reactions. For example, when it comes to political ideas, it is not strange to find sentences that begin as follows: ‘The purpose of liberalism is …’; ‘The true nature of pragmatism …’; ‘The underlying idea of existentialism is that …’; ‘According to utilitarianism …’ Few who wonder whether it is not strange that a branch of philosophy can think and intend such things.

Kant himself wouldn’t fall in that trap. He may have turned enlightenment into a thing in itself (pun intended), but it is a discursive benchmark on the basis of which people can organize their thinking and actions. If the ‘enlightenment’ tells that individuals must think for themselves, it means that people can tell themselves to what extent they meet the requirements of the enlightenment.

When it comes to assigning human traits to a discourse, Platonism seems to recur. The discourse is seen as a ‘more real’ reality, where philosophers have the task to unravel what exactly this more real reality is. But where it is up to sociologists to discover a structure, you this is not the same for philosophers. After all, they make a discourse, they discover very little.

When talking about structures, the assumed coherence was an important point. The question was whether this cohesion should also be pursued in the reconstruction of a structure. A discourse is not reconstructed, but constructed; it is therefore somewhat odd to assume coherence, instead it is an objective that can be pursued or a criterion for determining the quality of a discourse. That also seems to be the core of the discussion between Zöllner and Kant. While Zöllner states that everyone is talking about enlightenment, Kant creates the desired coherence, with which a discourse becomes a kind of ‘suitcase’ that is filled with a number of items, all sorts of concepts and ideas, so that you easily can pick them up and take them with you.

Forced attempts to impose coherence on a discourse lead to distortions. On the one hand, the assumption of coherence entails the danger of ‘discursive corruption’ – of which I talked about earlier. Thinking and action is then based on a discourse that is misunderstood.

On the other hand, numerous discourses are made into straw men that are used to undermine their credibility. A common victim is the social constructivist approach that I described above.

The social constructivist premise that all systems of meaning are developed through social interaction implies that a hierarchy cannot simply be retrieved, because the criteria about what is better are also derived from such a manmade meaning system. This often leads to the accusation that social-constructivism is a form of relativism that sees science as no more than an opinion and regards every culture as equal to each other. Then the step is easily made to blame social-constructivism for fake news or the condoning of female circumcision (admittedly, there are social-constructivists who give ample cause for this).

But that is not what a social constructivist discourse implies. The fact that there is no system of meaning that exists independently from human interaction, implying that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, does not mean that all knowledge is equivalent. Instead, this position forces you to think about the value of scientific knowledge and the criteria that we must use to test the quality of knowledge. Nor does it mean that values ​​such as freedom and equality are just as legitimate as the values ​​of oppression and deprivation. No, it is important to think critically about what freedom and equality mean within a certain culture and what inequalities and inequalities may be present below the surface.

The value of a good discourse is not a conceptual structure that is massive and coherent enough to lead his own life. It has to be a discourse that compels reflection, further thinking and discussion. Coherence is not a characteristic that can be assumed, but it needs to be a goal. After all, the more coherent a discourse, the sharper it focuses the discussion of the participants on it.

Further reading:

Berger, J. & Luckmann, Th. (1966). The social construction of reality. A treatise in the sociology of knowledge: Penguin.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Basic Books.

Habermas J. (2014) Truth and justification: John Wiley & Sons.

Kant, I. (1784), Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklarung? https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/159_kant.pdf

Levi-Strauss, C. (1955). The structural study of myth. The journal of American Folklore 68: 428-444. https://people.ucsc.edu/~ktellez/levi-strauss.pdf

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The eternal Golden Age: The discursive corruption of the Dutch self-image

[Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van deze post]

The Netherlands is often seen as a very tolerant country, where the right to individual self-determination comes first. The roots of Dutch tolerance and the desire for freedom are believed to originate from the Golden Age. Strangely enough, the idea of what the Golden Age exactly was, has been developed in the extremely conservative nineteenth century. About fifty years ago the meanings of tolerance and freedom have changed completely, but the idea has remained that the Netherlands is an exceptional country  ̶  not any longer a country that turned its back on the rest of the world, but rather a progressive guide country. All in all, there appears to be something like ‘discursive corruption’: based on an incorrect self-image, there is no proper debate about what the Netherlands could or should be as a country, because it seems that the precise nature of the Netherlands is already fixed.

Visitors from abroad seem to like the absence of monstrous monuments in the Netherlands. The lack of references to a feudal or colonial past is refreshing and it is seen as an expression of the lack of hierarchy. Characteristic of the tolerant country that the Netherlands is supposed to be.

Of course there are such references, they are just a little less flashy. After all, a street name is less likely to be noticed than a statue or a column. And the statues and columns that exist in the Netherlands are curiously often found just outside the city center.

But that may not all be that positive. I cannot say it with 100% certainty, but could it not be that, in the absence of statues, the Dutch seem to have forgotten what exactly their past has been. Revisionist ideas find their way easily and have led a national self-image that hardly seems to be factual.

The problem is that such an incorrect self-image makes it difficult to have a proper democratic debate. Such a debate requires a discourse within which it can be discussed which direction is the right or most desirable one. Instead, there seem to be discussions in the Netherlands about how decisions and actions contribute to the perfection of the Dutch national nature. While it is doubtful to what extent this national character is given, especially if you realize that it only is an apocryphal reconstruction.

One could speak of discursive corruption: the story the Dutch tell about themselves and that is repeated at the pub table, in the newspaper, in politics, and elsewhere, is based on a twisted representation of history and denies that democracy is about the development of a collective identity, not about maintaining it.

Of course every historical perspective is a biased selection, based on what people want to see. No history can be neutral or objective, because the only correct history would be the entire history itself.

That’s not what it’s about. In fact, discursive corruption is about the history of history. A national self-image is formed by agreeing upon historical benchmarks that indicate which values, virtues, achievements and goals are considered important. However, the presence of such benchmarks allows the further consideration of the desirability of this self-image by reflection, taking and discussing it.

For example, there are debates in many countries about how to deal with statues that are ‘contaminated’. The statues and structures that were erected in the nineteenth century symbolized military strength and courage and the supremacy over other countries, peoples and cultures. It was the era of ‘invented traditions’ that had to contribute to the creation of a national identity. In addition, history is written from the point of view of the winners, who show that it is not only good, but also righteous that they have won.

Today, we find a national identity derived from such values undesirable. The colonial and racist sense of superiority belong to the past, just as bloodthirsty militarism. The triumphant historiography of the nineteenth century has itself become part of history.

This cannot be found in the Netherlands. The history that is known to the Dutch still is the history of the victors of days gone by. Protests against the images of slaves on the King’s ‘Golden Carriage’, the statue of Coen in Hoorn or the street name of Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam are not protests against these victors, but are seen as the confirmation of traditional Dutch values ​​such as tolerance and freedom. Slavery was an aberration that took place far away, Coen’s genocide was not only far away, but also long ago, and nobody knows anyway who Witte de With was and what he has done.

In short, these memorials do not seem to compel the Dutch to adjust their self-image, so that the corrupt national discourse can be persevered. That discourse is formed by the idea that the Netherlands is a thoroughly tolerant, progressive and democratic country. A forerunner in progress and enlightenment. That idea that the Dutch love to lean on is unfounded and not older than half a century, as I will show later. The fact that the Netherlands has been lagging behind the rest of Europe and that this was something the Dutch were proud of, has been forgotten, since there were very few monuments to helped them to remember their unenlightened past.

Let’s take a look at the street signs that express that the street in question is named after a ‘nineteenth century statesman’. Abraham Kuyper, for example, who, as the patriarch of the so-called pillarized society, has had an unprecedented influence on the Dutch state system.

Kuyper founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the first political party in the country and up to the 1990s, a constant factor in the government. The revolution that is criticized in the name of the party is the French Revolution and more specifically the ideals of political equality and scientific rationality that come along with it  ̶  in short, the ideals of the Enlightenment. For Kuyper, these ideals went directly against the Calvinistic word of God.

According to the ARP, the Netherlands should do everything it could to resist progress, which was the course of the rest of Europe, where the Enlightenment inspired all kind of democratic experiments, such as the bloodily crushed Commune of Paris.

It is true that of the values ​​of the revolution  ̶  freedom, equality and brotherhood  ̶  you can find the first one in the nineteenth-century Netherlands. But then, above all, it was all about the freedom to just mind one’s own business. All those religious factions were only busy proving to themselves that had God on their side.

Something similar applies to the value of equality. The different pillars were considered equal, but within them hierarchical structures persisted. Elites were in charge, others had to follow.

Without doubt, the greatest Dutch value is that of tolerance. Today we see that as the acceptance even the celebration of differences between groups of people. For a Dutch person of the nineteenth-century, tolerance was mainly about the right to be left alone. All groups stood with their backs against each other, there was little that bound society as a whole. In the end, this attitude became crystallized in the pillarization, in which schools, newspapers, political parties, sports clubs, were formed around a single ideological direction, so that no one had to take issue with the concerns of outsiders.

It is pillarization that explains why there are so few large memorials were constructed, at a time that pompous arches and pillars were built elsewhere in Europe. There was simply no symbol that could unite the whole country. In other words, the revolutionary value of brotherhood was foreign to the country. That is an important point, because the idea that all members of a society are affectionately connected to each other is a condition for a well-functioning democracy. Only when people are seen as equals and those people share something as an identity, a culture, a certain way of understanding the world, something like a ‘people’ that is ‘sovereign’ to have control over themselves can come into existence.

Kuypers disliked American democracy. Many Americans, on the other hand, have been inspired by Kuyper. Especially extremely conservative Americans, such as those in the Donald Trump government, which are usually considered as right-wing radical idiots in the Netherlands.

Betsy DeVos, for example, minister of educational affairs, who is dismantling the American education system, by allowing the rich to buy the best education for their children, leaving the rest of society behind. DeVos, that sounds like a Dutch name. And indeed it is, she is from Holland, Michigan, founded by Calvinist pilgrims from the Netherlands. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper was a welcome guest there and his thinking had and still has a great influence.

In fact, the ideas of DeVos about what the American school system should be are directly inspired by Abraham Kuyper’s policy of schools that received money from the government, but otherwise were not to be restricted in their ideological or confessional character.

Another name that you often find on street signs: Johan Rudolf Thorbecke. The author of the 1848 constitution, which implied that the power of the king was transferred to parliament. He must have been an enlightened democrat, or not? Well, not really. Above all, he was a liberal conservative, focused on maintaining and increasing the dominant position of the free ‘citizens’  ̶  that is, that part of the population that could had become rich thanks to free trade and the absence of regulation. Men of wealth, about 5% of the population.

In the nineteenth century, politics in the Netherlands was by no means progressing upwards, as can be observed in other countries. It was primarily a trench war between Christian politicians and liberal politicians. Both parties were extremely conservative, aimed at preserving the rights and privileges that they considered theirs. The idea of ​​‘people’s sovereignty’, as said, a basic condition for democracy, was widely seen as a threat.

In 1865, Busken Huet, writer and journalist, puts the following words in the mouth of Thorbecke the words that “it is a mystery how one can relate our new constitutional institutions, new as far as they go in 1848 with the word popular sovereignty; to speak of popular sovereignty is as good to him as talk of a chaos, of something of which I cannot form a clear understanding; and that there is no trace of popular sovereignty in the occasional laws proposed by me”.

This may have been satire, but it was good satire because it brought out the essence of the matter.

If there was a widely shared idea that could unite the Dutch, it was that the Netherlands was an exceptional country. It had nothing to do with the rest of the godless world.

This exceptionalism was supported by the history that was reconstructed in the nineteenth century. The victors who determined the history of Dutch were the victors of the 19th century, the conservatives and their belief in God and Orange and the liberals and their belief in free trade. They found the roots of the Netherlands in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, in which the Netherlands became a free country that was no longer ruled by the Spanish king and the Roman pope. The Dutch themselves determined what they believed.

The Netherlands of the Golden Age was a trading nation, the basis of their success was economic progress. Not only tolerance, but also capitalism is a Dutch invention. That commercial spirit included the discovery voyages from the seventeenth century that were intended to develop a commercial empire.

At the same time there is a fate with the house of Orange. William the Silent, prince of Orange, started the campaign against Spain and this was successfully continued by his son Maurice of Nassau. The Oranges were seen by many as the natural leaders of our country, culminating in the establishment of a kingdom in 1815.

The narrative that was developed in the nineteenth century and that seems to be continued to this day is based on these characteristics: freedom, tolerance, commercial spirit and ‘Orangism’.

What did not belong in this narrative appears to have been retouched. This mainly concerns the entire eighteenth century, when surrounding countries became big and when the scientific revolution took off. This century was disastrous for the Dutch, business went steeply downhill and the Orange governors made a mess of their administration. Instead of tolerance, there were militias and civil wars between the the ‘orangists’ and the ‘patriots’. The victors of the nineteenth century managed to label the second group that had established the Batavian Republic of the late 18th century as traitors, who were collaborated with the French, which ultimately led to the Netherlands being ‘occupied’ by Napoleon’s France. On the Dutch Wikipedia site it can still be read that with the Batavian Revolution ‘a vassal state’ arose. It does not say that the revolutionaries turned to France to bring some order and civilization to the Netherlands, and that they tried to contribute a new direction to the country. No, the implication seems to be that the revolutionaries turned against a national character that was established only a century later. At least I think so, with my historical education it has become impossible for me to understand what exactly the implications were of the eighteenth century and the French era.

Today, little is left of Kuyper’s conservatism. Somehow the idea arose in 1960’s and 1970’s that the Netherlands did not oppose the Enlightenment, but was at the forefront of the great project of progress.

Conservative tolerance was effortlessly ‘reframed’ into progressive tolerance. With the disappearance of the pillars, also the hierarchy within those columns disappeared and gave way to a seemingly completely egalitarian country. Self-determination within the pillar became self-determination for every individual. Dutch isolationism became activist cosmopolitanism, and every repressive regime could count on the condemnation of the Dutch.

The stifling dogma’s of the pillarization were renounced, because it was found that these do not at all fit with the character of the nation as it was formed in the Golden Age. After all, the Netherlands it was all about freedom, self-determination and tolerance.

I can’t really say how that happened. Perhaps a combination of:

  • the rise of mass media, with English-language music, series and films coming in untranslated (subtitling would have been cheaper than dubbing);
  • many vacation days that were filled with trips abroad;
  • the first post-war generation who wanted to distance themselves from the religious chains of the past;
  • the success of the country in the greatest sport in the world that showed that the Dutch mattered;
  • and perhaps above the maintenance the rock-solid faith in their own infallibility.

Whatever the case, the Dutch wanted to be at the forefront of issues such as the emancipation of women and minorities, tolerance for people with a different opinion, participation for everyone, a cleaner environment. In addition, the Dutch thought they had the best command of English of all non-English-speaking countries (yeah right), their directness was valued as honesty. No other country was as pro-European, as pro-globalization.

It was typical that, especially in the 90s, you could not offend a Dutchman worse than saying that there was another country where people were ‘further’. This mainly concerned the so-called ‘ethical issues’ abortion, euthanasia, drug policy and gay marriage. Now that the pillars had fallen away, individuals had the right to determine for themselves what was good for them.

In these issues, the Netherlands thought to be unthreatened in progressiveness, but also when it comes to education, wealth distribution, emancipation, freedom, diversity, participation, etc., the Dutch claimed to be the progressiveness champion of the world.

This story is strange, but it becomes even stranger. The unfounded self-image of the world champion progressiveness  is being used more and more in current debates as something to be resisted. The ultimate subject of contempt is the cabinet of Den Uyl, the ‘most progressive cabinet of all time’. Incidentally, this was a cabinet that also contained the Abraham Kuyper’s ARP, so it is questionable how progressive that cabinet actually was.

Under the guise that we no longer want to be progressive fools that are ahead of the troops, protests are being made against sustainability policies, against taking on refugees that are in need, against investments in a viable European economy, and so on.

It is easy to establish empirically that the Dutch have never been ahead of the troops. In most rankings, they are dangling at the bottom.

Sometimes there is an outlier, for instance when the Lonely Planet declares Rotterdam or Texel as places a foreign tourist shouldn’t miss. The Dutch will probably also be leaders in breeding seeds and cultivating flower bulbs. But usually, the Netherlands is newsworthy because of its status as a tax haven, as the home country of companies that do business with corrupt regimes, as a country that would like to make human rights ‘negotiable’, as the least sustainable and least emancipated country in Europe, as a country with a sharp decline of the quality of education.

There are enough good things to be proud of, don’t get me wrong. It is a nice country to live in, with a lot things that are being taken care of in a well-organized way. Moreover, there will be few countries that have had more great footballers and painters per capita. But at the same time, the Dutch seem to be the victims of a corrupt national discourse: their collective self-image is wrong, while many political reactions are aimed at overthrowing this self-image. That makes it twice as faulty.

It needs to be said that there are discussions taking place, actually there are much more than would be desirable. Such discussion concern historic scandals such as slavery and mass murder. There are those who say that it was ‘just the way it went in those days’ and that such scandals ultimately contributed to the development of the Dutch identity as it was formed in the Golden Age and as such should still be seen as good. And there are those who that if the Netherlands wants to remain a progressive country, it needs to distant itself from that history ― for only that would do justice to the same Dutch identity that was formed in the Golden Age.

The fact the this Dutch identity has been a 19th century n invention that has little to do with the Golden Age of 200 years earlier gives this discussion a surreal touch. And it doesn’t bring anyone one step further.

It is better to give up the whole idea of ​​a fixed historically shaped identity, precisely because it is not at all clear what history has been exactly. The debate about a national identity is not only a debate about how a population relates to its history, but also which historiography is the right one that fits the national identity.

The Dutch may not have the obviously erroneous memorials that point them to the malleability of history, but that does not release them from the duty to be much more critical of the corrupt discourse that is now taken for granted.

Further reading:

De Tocqueville, A. (2008). Over de democratie in Amerika. Brussel: Prometheus.

Hobsbawm, E., & Ranger, T. (2012). The invention of tradition: Cambridge University Press.

Lijphart, A. (1975). The politics of accommodation: Pluralism and democracy in the Netherlands (Vol. 142): Univ of California Press.

Schama, S. (1988). Embarassment of the Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age: Random house.

Shorto, R. (2013). Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: Hachette UK.

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A new way for the political left: Towards a wiser and richer society?

[Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van deze post]

Given today’s problems, you could expect left-progressive parties to be successful, because they focus on today’s major political issues: justice and sustainability. But they have no success at all. Perhaps because these parties pursued emancipation mainly through developing competitive structures, which went at the expense of care for vulnerable groups. The question is first of all whether the progressive left can bridge the goals of emancipation and care for vulnerable groups and secondly what the nature of the problems are that need to be overcome. What is needed are institutions that not just offer increasingly smarter products and services, but instead offer products and services from which everyone can benefit.

Social-Democratic parties are suffering election defeat after election defeat, which is strange as the solutions to many of the problems that we face today must come from the progressive left. Socio-economic inequalities, environmental issues, protection of weaker groups, emancipation, these are all classic left-wing themes.

It may be an amateur’s the political science, but you could say that the Social Democrats were seduced into neo-liberal dogmas in the 1990s. You can say that in ‘the third way’ that was taken by Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and Wim Kok, emancipatory thoughts were pursued, but that emancipation had to come about through competition. By social domains into ‘markets’, competitive structures were created in which the talents of individuals could be maximally stimulated. Healthcare, science, infrastructure, all came under competitive regimes. By competition, you bring out the best in people and organizations, because it forces them to be as efficient as possible – if they don’t want to perish.

This neo-liberal take on emancipation builds on the waves of democratization from the 1960s and 1970s, in particular in creating equal opportunities for everyone. At the time, this was mainly worked out in educational policy: for instance in the Netherlands, the so-called ‘Mammoth Act’ of 1968, led to the democratization of education and to the increase of study grants that were awarded to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, culminating in the fixed basic grant in 1986. Where in the 60s only some were highly educated, nowadays one in three Dutch people is.

The emancipation of the individual through education and competition has led to a ‘meritocracy’ in which individual development is no longer be hampered by your socio-economic background. Not only are the opportunities now more evenly spread, society as a whole also benefits from a higher educated population where people can make better use of their talents. We are not only all equal, but above all rich.

The social transformation has been unprecedentedly successful. We are more equal than ever: wherever you come from or whatever the income of your parents is, in principle it is possible to follow any educational program and find a well-paid job. We are richer than ever: the average gross income of a Dutch person in 2020 is almost twice as high as in 1990.

Yet not everyone seems to be happy with this success. Because even if society as a whole becomes smarter and richer, there are still groups that are less rich and less smart. For the people who belong to those less successful layers, that is a difficult position. Of course, with your lack of a diploma and your poorly paid job you are still infinitely better than the factory worker from the nineteenth century, but the justice of one’s situation is mainly determined by comparing it to those who are in equal circumstances and not of those who lived long ago. And because in a society in which everyone is equal, a lower position on the social ladder is all the harder.

The injustice is more than just the feeling of an individual who cannot get along well. It also pertains to a promise that appears to be broken by pursuing emancipation through competition. Just think: where there is a competition, there are not only winners, but also losers. Every athlete who participates in competitions knows this, he knows there is a good chance that he will not win this competition. That is inherent in the rules of the sport that the athlete accepts before participating in a competition.

In striving for democratization and emancipation, it is not at all made clear that the participants can lose. Everyone, insofar as they do not belong to the already established incumbent order, is given the chance to get higher, but this turned out to be not the case.

It becomes even more unjust. Not only those without the right diplomas have less chances for a rich and healthy life, but because neo-liberalism is fully committed to individual responsibility for the choices people make, it is also their own fault that they fail.

A new group of losers seem to have been created for whom the is little care and consideration. These losers demand equality, they do not want to be disadvantaged in economic and social opportunities. At the same time, these requirements are often put forward in an awkward and narrow-minded manner. The rudeness and bigoted character of the so-called ‘yellow vests’ has become almost proverbial.

How to handle this? On the one hand, the requirement of equality is justified, but on the other hand, the way in which it is presented is wrong. In debates in politics and in the media, it seems that you can only choose from two options: either the stupidity of the protests is emphasized followed by perseverance in the chosen elitist path, or it is stated that you should listen to the gut feelings of the underclass.

It seems as if political and social debates have also taken hold of the destructive power of competition. These have become more and more tribal: you are either for or against us, while the purpose of the debate is to crush the other party.

But the assumption that you should mainly listen to the gut feelings of ‘the common people’ is primarily a sign that these people are not being taken seriously. After all, this assumption suggests that the common people are unable to enter into a reasonable discussion based on arguments. No, the people are considered to be emotional and irrational and there it ends. If you actually strive for emancipation, you must demand that everyone follow the rules of a decent audience – as I have written before.

I wonder how definitive the dichotomy between cosmopolitan elitism and the people’s gut feeling should be. In the first half of the last century, social democracy developed as a political movement that could eliminate the irreconcilable differences between capitalism and socialism. Even now, a social-progressive policy should have the goal of transcending differences rather than reinforcing them. More specifically, it should not only strive for emancipation, but also for the protection of vulnerable groups in society.

In political practice, it seems that initiatives are being developed that connect to this position. The belief in the neo-liberal mantras has since decreased considerably and everyone seems to be looking for new political ideas. At the same time, these initiatives do not seem to me as coherent. A bit of the ‘old left’, a bit of nationalism, sometimes some progressive ideas, and all that is mixed up.

No matter how you look at it, today’s major problems revolve around ethical and ecological issues. It is about equality, justice, sustainability – values ​​that, above all, and perhaps even exclusively, can be tackled with social progressive solutions.

In addition, we must not forget that emancipation based on a meritocratic approach is a good thing. Not only for the individuals who now get the opportunities they had not been given before, but also for society as a whole. As mentioned, it leads to more prosperity and a much smarter society. But how smart, or how wise, does society become if it is no more than the sum of individuals, some of whom become smarter through competition?

If we are fully committed to competitive, that is, evolutionary, structures, we will not get very far because, as we know, evolution is blind. There are plenty of examples of this blindness. Social institutions offer an ever finer network of services and products, but at the same time they are becoming increasingly complex. For many in society, these services and products become unattainable because they are unable to find out what they should do. This only leads to the reinforcement of the differences between those who with and without the right capabilities.

Consider, for example, subsidies that focus on sustainability or social coherence. These are intended for everyone, but to find the right forms in the right way is by no means an easy job for everyone. Or think of financial products that are highly digitized and flexible, so that people hardly have an overview of their financial situations, including the opportunities they have and the risks they run.

Many technological and institutional changes do not focus on a smarter society, but on smart individuals in society. Not only because they can earn the most, but because a system that focuses solely on increasing efficiency does not worry about those who are excluded.

Earlier I wrote that smartness is not a strictly individual trait, but that it is also something that is shared collectively. Individuals are especially becoming smarter because our shared knowledge increases. The technologies we work with, the institutions that regulate social intercourse, the language we speak, they all contribute to the way we understand the world and are able to cope with its problems.

Perhaps this idea of ​​collective cleverness can also serve as a source of inspiration for a new progressive policy. A richer and wiser society not only requires arrangements aimed at making individuals richer and wiser, but also institutions and structures that allow individuals to contribute to collective wealth and collective wisdom.

I admit that I do not yet know precisely what collective wealth and collective wisdom could be. In any case, it is more than the aggregation of individual smartness; it must be a condition that everyone can benefit from this wealth and wisdom. To this end, strong collective arrangements must be developed that are aimed at supporting vulnerable individuals and groups. Not only institutions that allow talented individuals to push their own limits, but also institutions that offer opportunities to those with other qualities and interests and institutions that take care of those who cannot come along.

In the development of institutions and technologies, much more thought should be given to whether they are accessible to everyone and, if not, what is needed to make them so. Thinking about a new development can lead to exclusion of certain social groups, because they are not mobile enough, have too little language skills, and are not used to a digitized world.

Perhaps you can go even further, by considering whether you can develop institutions in which the social whole is actually more than the sum of its parts. Where institutions not only belong to everyone, but to all of us. In the sense that everyone can benefit not only from ideas, from technologies, from social arrangements, but can also make a meaningful contribution to their development –  emancipation that not only assumes equality, but that also expresses it.

Further reading:

Bierman, S. (2020). Can Social Democracy Save the World (Again)? Foreign policy, January 2020

Pesch, U., & Ishmaev, G. (2019). Fictions and frictions: Promises, transaction costs and the innovation of network technologies. Social Studies of Science, 49(2), 264-277.


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