The amorality of organizations

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Organizations are an inseparable part of our social life. Yet they are strange, as they do not fit into the moral system that has been developed since the Enlightenment. In that system, the market and state operate as accountability structures, establishing a relation between individual persons and institutional domains, making it possible to hold individuals responsible for their functioning. With the emergence of organizations, the workings of accountability structures seem to have lost their strength, because from the point of view of social domains such as the market and the state, organizations function as individuals, while individuals in turn obey the rules of the organization. That leads to all kinds of moral and social problems that are not well recognized because organizations are often seen as actors, just like people − something they can never be.

Look inside a book on economic theory and you will learn that you can see a company as a single entity that makes strategic choices. Just like an individual.

Few claims seem as easily falsifiable as these, after all, companies can have thousands of people working for them who all do their own thing. Yet many economists are stubbornly holding on to the idea of ​​the company as an individual.

In the neoliberal dogma, companies and individuals even occupy a similar moral position. According to that dogma, both strive for the same thing: optimization of their own utility function and if we give companies and individuals the same rights, the aggregation of decisions based on self-interest will yield an optimum level of prosperity. According to this thinking, it would therefore be best to limit companies as little as possible, just as we also allow freedom for autonomous persons.

Advocates of the neoliberal dogma are keen to refer to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations from 1776. After all, in this book, the idea was systematically elaborated that the aggregation of individuals who acted on the basis of self-interest could lead to the greatest possible social wealth.

Smith also presented in this book the example of the pin factory, advocating the benefits of division of labor. If workers focus on one specific task and there are enough workers who have tasks and there is sufficient demand for pins, then there will be a huge increase in production.

But Adam Smith’s pin factory is in little comparable to the Fortune Global 500 companies. The pin factory’s boss was actually the boss: he was the owner and manager in one. But those functions also fell victim to division of labor. Nowadays, owning an organization is sometimes in the hands of thousands of shareholders, who are organizations themselves, such as pension funds or investment companies. The management of a large company has a hierarchical, command and control structure, which can also result in thousands of fte’s in management functions.

The boss of a company like a needle pin coincides, as it were, with his company. If the company is not doing well, then the boss was also the victim. You could not even appoint the owner of a multinational, even at a shareholders’ meeting there is only a selection of them in a large room. If things go wrong with the company, the shareholders lose some money, which they probably have spread over many different companies. Shareholders can also pursue a different managerial course, perhaps by installing a different CEO − the person most identifiable with such a company as a whole, but ultimately also a passer-by with a well-paid contract. In the end, a company coincides with nobody in particular.

This difference also leads to a difference in moral responsibility. An organization is not a person. This certainly does not only apply to market organizations, but also to government organizations. Here too, there may be a minister or alderman who is functionally responsible for the ins and outs of such an organization, but it is difficult for this person to be morally responsible for everything that is going on within such an organization.

Since the Enlightenment, an institutional structure has been developed based on the possibility of holding individual actors accountable for their decisions. Most typical this is the role of the court. If you do something wrong by breaking the law, you have to account for this action before a judge or jury. After that, you can, for example, get fined or go to jail.

One finds the same idea in parliamentary democracy. A minister who does something wrong can be dismissed by the parliamentarian. If a parliamentarian does not do well, she will be ‘punished’ at the next election and lose her seat.

The market is also such an accountability structure. The producer of things that nobody wants or is way too expensive is not doing well and will be ‘punished’ by the absence of customers. In the end, it can even go bankrupt.

What we see here is that within a social domain such as the state or the market, individuals can be held accountable for their decisions. If these individuals make mistakes, they can be penalized for that afterwards.

The presence of accountability structures ensures that individuals are better able to do their best, since they take into account the possibility of punishment afterwards. In this way they learn to take responsibility for the decisions they are going to take in advance.

The relationship between a social domain and an individual changes structurally with the arrival of organizations. As an employee in a large company or as a civil servant in a ministry, you cannot be directly addressed by a client or parliamentarian. You mainly listen to your supervisor, who in turn also listens to a supervisor. What society as a whole demands from you is quite unclear.

With this, organizations have in fact taken the place of individuals. But organizations respond in a completely different way to individuals. Organizations have no pain, no pleasure, they don’t die.

As I have written before, a moral awareness requires a recognizable body, an undivided memory, and a single consciousness. The body of an organization is amorphous, the memory of an organization is distributed over databases, in forms and in the memories of countless employees and it would be silly to speak of the consciousness of an organization.

If you already assign a life cycle to organizations (and there are countless examples of this in the literature), then it is about lives with a sense of time and space that is completely incomparable with that of people.

This implies that the moral responsibility that was formed in individuals by the presence of liability structures is only present in a very diluted way.

Historically, this state of affairs can be explained. The design of domains such as the state and the market was roughly devised in the eighteenth century. I have already mentioned Adam Smith as the founding father of market-based liberalism. It was not without reason that Smith was a moral philosopher, but you can also think here of Montesquieu whose De l’esprit des lois dates from 1749. The modern organization comes from at least a century later.

Alfred Chandler describes how that modern organization came about. He states that we must look at the development of the railways in the United States in the nineteenth century. The construction and management of those railways could not be done by a single boss who controlled all employees from his office, they were far too far away for that. The company had to be designed as a multi-unit enterprise, the various units of which were managed as separate units by hired managers.

Chandler called his book The Visible Hand, as an explicit counterpart to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’  that ensured that the market functioned properly. With the manager’s visible hand and the emergence of the modern organization, the invisible hand that takes care of the discipline of the market becomes a lot less strict.

The railway company has become the model of every modern organization − both public and private. Helped by insights such as, for example, the ones presented by Frederick Taylor in 1911 in his book The Principles of Scientific Management. He showed that employees proved to be perfectly capable of being used as parts of a large machine. Something that was also observed by Thorstein Veblen and Max Weber, albeit a lot more critical.

Not only blue collar workers, but also the clerks and the managers came to identify themselves with the organization they were part of. Where the rhythm of the workers was determined by the speed of the assembly line or other mechanized processes, the clerks and managers are mainly concerned with their motivations and orientations. The decisions they make are decisions that they think are going to the benefit or interest of the organization as a whole. It appears that they surrender a substantial part of their individual moral abilities in favor of an amoral phenomenon.

As said, organizations do not know intrinsic morality, that is a characteristic reserved for people only. If you then assign organizations the responsibilities of individuals to individuals, something goes wrong. That is quickly reminiscent of a Marxist ‘Verelendungstheorie’, but that is not exactly what I am aiming for. It is not alienation, but it is just weird that non-moral entities have taken the position of moral beings.

Back to the neo-liberalism that I started this piece with. The legitimacy of this ideology is above all based on an aversion to organizations that belong to the domain of the state. This domain lacks the ‘incentives’ of the market that make a company flexible and innovative, as opposed to the sluggishness of government agencies.

But the discipline of the market only applies to a limited extent to large companies, which thus gain a huge advantage over smaller companies. These may be more flexible and innovative, but they also go bankrupt much faster. This makes neo-liberalism an ideology that is intrinsically unjust, not only with regard to smaller companies, but even more so with regard to the protection of the rights of their employees.

Moreover, neo-liberalism is based on a wrong assumption. After all, organizations are not intrinsically public and private. As stated above, they take over the position of individuals with regard to the domain of the state or the market, or they take over the position of those domains from the perspective of the individual employees.

The larger organizations become, the less they have to give consideration to pressures imposed by their institutional environment and the more they become alike. Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism and socialism would increasingly come to resemble each other, in the end, bureaucracies would dominate both the market and the state.

It is therefore a mistake to think in terms of market and state or market versus state. We need a fundamental mistrust of every large organization, because they reduce our moral abilities.

Currently, the largest organizations are multinationals, barely tied to specific locations, they can freely evade regulation or have the laws changed to their advantage. A counterforce is more than necessary here. Large state organizations seem to be the most obvious counterforce. But they also have to be distrusted just as much.

The question is not how we can make the organization responsible, we must be content with making them more responsive − to the extent that this is possible. The question is how an organization, with all its ingrained bureaucratic tendencies, can change if society finds it necessary. For example, how can we ensure that business activities do not just come at the expense of the environment or the well-being of people or how ministries choose not for the importance of the rules but for the interest of the citizens? I think that this is only possible if we become fully aware of the simple fact that organizations are not people, and that we do not equate them like we are accustomed to do in law (think of ‘legal persons’), in economic theories (see above) or in social sciences (think of ‘stakeholders’ and ‘actors’) − because then it will be humans who lose.

Further reading:

Chandler, A. D. (1977). The visible hand: The managerial revolution in American business: Harvard University Press.

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

Friedman, M. (2009). Capitalism and freedom: University of Chicago press.

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

Montesquieu. (2002). The Spirit of the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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

Taylor, F. W. (1914). The principles of scientific management: Harper.

Van Gunsteren, H. (1994). Culturen van besturen. Amsterdam & Meppel: Boom.

Veblen, T. (2005). The theory of the leisure class; an economic study of institutions: Aakar Books.

Weber, M. (1972). Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr.


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Causes versus understandings: Why self-driving cars may not be a good idea

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To explain human behavior you can start from causes, such as our evolutionary instincts, learned reflexes or statistical regularities. However as we our actions are also informed by the way we understand the world around us, meanings and intentions can also figure as explanatory approaches. In daily life, all these approaches are seamlessly intertwined, but differences between them become crucial when it comes to automating systems such as self-driving cars. After all, for automation you can only rely on causes, not on meanings or intentions. This implies that the normative aspects of meanings and intentions, such as values ​​and responsibilities are transferred to a technical system without having the ability to change them – even though there may be future developments that require so. This makes it doubtful whether the self-driving car should be developed further.

Not much seems to coincide so perfectly with human life as driving a car. First you sit in the back, then you move to the passenger seat in front, after which you get your driver’s license at eighteen. If you get old, you must be checked regularly to see if you are still human enough to drive a car.

No wonder that self-driving cars have such an appeal, it would mean a big leap forward into a science fiction-like world. Not only car traffic makes this leap, but also humanity itself makes enters a new phase of progress.

The big question is which actions you want to automate in case of self-driving cars. What is the model of man that needs to be replaced? There are, in fact, different approaches to explaining human behavior, and only one of these allows automation. First, we can look at the behavior that can be explained causally, but we can also look at the behavior that is based on our understanding of the world. This behavior, unlike causal behavior, is linguistic and reflexive in nature.

It is undeniable that human behavior can be explained on the basis of predictable regularities. We can see these regularities as the causes of certain actions.

To begin with, we are evolutionary shaped and our genetic material largely determines how we respond to certain stimuli. Our brain and system is pre-programmed to make choices in certain cases. But not all of our causal choices are innate. After all, as a species of animal we behave as little different from Pavlov’s dog in many cases, our reactions being subconsciously conditioned by previous experiences. These types of choices are also unconscious and predictable. In addition, our behavior also shows regularities at an aggregate level. Using statistical techniques, these regularities can be mapped and used to say something about the human actions are made.

In sum, if you want to explain the choices that people make, then you can look for causes finding these them in your DNA, in the way you are conditioned or in the statistical correlations – many scientists and laymen will do so happily.

This usually does not concern actual physical laws, but correlations, mechanisms or other non-necessary relations. The main issue here is that the laws of physics serve as a starting point for how you should look at reality. As explanatory approaches, causes aim to provide a description of human behavior that is comparable to genuine causal laws.

The beauty of such (pseudo) laws is that they can be well automated. Not that it is easy to keep a car on the road safely, but in principle you can optimize the system once you know the correct regularities and have sufficient computing power to make the necessary calculations.

However, if we ask ourselves how we make choices, then it will not suffice to only look at causes. We are linguistic beings which gives rise to other types of explanation for the way we behave.

We understand the world through our language and when it comes to understanding we speak of so-called ‘hermeneutical’ explanation approaches. First of all you have to think of meanings, which concern the way in which our actions are based on understandings of the world. Such understandings are not genetically or statistically, but culturally determined.

Secondly, you can think of intentions. The actions that we consciously take after we have reflected on the consequences of a number of possible actions. Not all, but certainly many, decisions are decisions that we have made in a well-considered way.

Meanings serve multiple functions in human action. First of all, we enable us to coordinate our joint actions. Understandings are socially constructed: the meanings we give to our experiences and our thoughts are obtained through learning processes within our social environment. Because understanding is socially constructed and meanings are shared, you can come to explicit agreements and, much more often, implicit coordination of choices. You don’t have to think about how someone else understands a certain situation, because you already understand the situation in the same way.

Secondly, meanings have an important function for an individual. They enable us to make new decisions that will have an outcome in the future. By understanding a situation based on earlier, more or less comparable situations and circumstances, we can form an expectation about the effect of the decision to be made.

The third, and perhaps the most important, function of meanings is that they indicate what is important and what is not. Which matters do we find valuable, what agreements are central to interpersonal communication, which norms are the right ones, etc. All these questions are implicitly embedded in the meanings that we share within a culture or that are laid down in institutions such as the systems of law or democracy. In this way meanings can give a moral dimension to our experiences and observations.

One could see intentions as a kind of mirror image of meanings. As mentioned, you make choices based on the way a situation is understood and the outcome that you expect. Afterwards, others can hold you accountable for the fact that those intentions were formed on the basis of a shared understanding and a legitimate expectation about the future outcome of that decision. When you have to account for your decisions, you are in fact forced to give good reasons that you had for making those decisions. Of course, what counts as ‘good’ is determined by the web of meanings that is used within a certain culture or institution.

The hermeneutic duo of meanings and intentions cannot be automated. They constitute a dialectical and moral relationship between an individual and a social environment and they start from expectations that are not just based on supposed causes or extrapolations, but on the basis of analogies, creative hypotheses, poorly understood superstitions. And usually all of these are applied at the very same moment.

Meanings and intentions are not just regularities, they enable you to do things and to reflect on things done whether they have had right outcomes. In addition, ‘correct’ is primarily about ‘morally correct’, not so much about ‘empirically correct’. In other words, meanings and intentions are focused on action and on organizing responsibilities.

However, it is not always evident whether something belongs to the domain of causes or the domain of understandings. This becomes clear when you look at the way people deal with emergency situations such in case of as an imminent accident.

Some of us will then freak out. The interesting thing is that you can see panic as a situation that you cannot give meaning to at that moment. In a panic we respond in an atavistic way that can be perfectly explained as an evolutionary cause.

But, different as we all are, not everyone reacts the same way. Where some panic, others will keep their cool and make an informed decision based on their interpretation of the situation.

How to automate such situations? In the case of airplanes you could say that pilots act resolutely, they take the helm in situations that are not standard. With cars it seems that the opposite path is followed as most attention is given to way in which automated systems will cope in dangerous situations.

I do not want to suggest that it is thought that car drivers are unable to understand an emergency situation or that they are considered to be incapable of giving good reasons for their choices in times of danger. The problem is that the difference between causal and hermeneutical explanations is simply not well understood.

This can be seen, for example, in the tendency of ethicists to see the arrival of the self-driving car as a real life ‘trolley problem’, so they can engage in thinking about how an algorithm must choose between victims in the event of an imminent accident. With that, the self-driving car is mainly used as a vehicle to explore ethical dilemmas, while the real ethical issues at play are ignored.

The original trolley problem is about a situation in which doing nothing leads to five victims and intervening to one victim. An algorithm can never do nothing; an algorithm, after all, has no intentions, it just follows what is assigned to it by the code. This makes the trolley problem-scenario in the case of self-driving cars a silly one: a self-driving car is not programmed to kill five people instead of one person – unless the algorithm was designed by a psychopath.

It is no problem at all for everyday life that the explanatory approaches are not separated, because everyday life is organized so that we can deal with it. For example, if you do something wrong and you have to account for that afterwards, then you are basically given the opportunity to put forward good reasons. In this way causes are drawn into the domain of meanings and intentions.

With that, causes are given meaning. And that is important, because human life is mainly about humans living together. We must organize this in such a way that we can coordinate our decisions and we must ensure that these decisions are in line with shared moral standards.

Causes are not very helpful for that. You cannot be expected to account for things that you can’t do anything about. What matters is that you have to establish about which decisions you really can’t do anything and about which choices you can. The line between those decisions is thin. A bank robbery is unacceptable, but if you are at gunpoint, you do not bear moral responsibility for the money you steal. It is not tolerable if you hit someone, but things are different if you do so while you are asleep.

The point is that these types of borderline cases need to be discussed. On a case-by-case basis it has to be examined to which extent whether a wrongdoing is the result of a cause or whether the offender must be reproached for his inability to give a good reason for his behavior. Moreover, it must always be possible in principle to transfer an action from the domain of causes to the domain of good reasons and vice versa.

That brings us to the core of this story. The most important question is whether we want to move around in meaningless systems. Not because it is technically impossible to automate cars, but because an automated system implies an transfer from the domain of meanings to the domain of causes.

You can say, yes, that is what we should want, because automated car traffic ensures more safety, more fuel economy and the time you spend driving the vehicle can now be spent in a better way. Just think about it, instead of calling your kids back in the car that they have to be quiet because otherwise mom or dad can’t concentrate on the road, you can play a game with them.

And why not accountable? You can still hold the developer of the technical system responsible – at least in the criminal sense or in terms of insurance. It can also be the administrator of the system, or the government, or the user. It will take some time and some conflict, but ultimately there will be a solution.

In short, the transfer from a meaningful system to a meaningless system can be done if we find out what we consider to be important and who can be hold for certain actions. Or not? I have my doubts. In human interaction it is quite possible to reconsider a certain distribution of explanatory approaches if there is reason to do so. A technical system is something different: a design choice that you make now also determines the scope of choices you can make in the future – unless an entire system is replaced at once, something that is virtually impossible. The shift from meaningful to a meaningless system is definitive: we can’t go back.

There are plenty of examples of such ‘lock-in’ effects. Consider, for example, that air travel has been made attractive in order enable everybody to become acquainted with other cultures. To achieve this value, measures such as not excising duties on kerosene were taken. But now it seems difficult to reverse that, even if everyone is aware of the environmental impact of air traffic. The train doesn’t work as an alternative as it is hampered by other lock-in effects, such as the different track widths that exist within Europe. Also this can hardly be reversed.

The fundamental problem is that you never know how a technical system will turn out in the future. Moreover, moral issues that do not yet play a role can later be of the utmost importance. It is certainly undesirable that a system is designed in such a way that possible moral issues can no longer be resolved.

The leap forward to a fully automated traffic system thus becomes a much less appealing picture of the future. It implies that we construct technical, institutional and moral ‘lock-ins’, making it impossible to cope with new problems or changed insights.

I see little attention for this issue. Technology developers, ethicists, politicians are too busy with technical and legal questions or moral questions that don’t really matter – see the trolley problem. Let us think seriously about how to deal with the future moral implications of the autonomous systems that are currently being designed and how we can ensure that ethical issues are actually discussed as moral – that is, linguistic – issues. This means that we must collectively reflect on the changing circumstances and the moral demands that come into play. Whether the development of self-driving cars offers room for such collective reflection? To be honest, the answer to this question gives rise to skepticism rather than confidence.

Further reading:

Mecacci, Giulio, and Filippo Santoni de Sio. “Meaningful Human Control as Reason-Responsiveness: The Case of Dual-Mode Vehicles.” Ethics and Information Technology  (December 06 2019).

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The Forgotten Virtue of Forgiveness in the Public Domain

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According to Hannah Arendt, the ability to forgive plays an essential role in public life, because participants do not have to feel discouraged about introducing something new ­– a decision, a position or an innovation. If things go wrong, they can be forgiven. However, there seems to be little left of the capacity for forgiveness, mainly because it seems to be poorly understood what public life entails. Politicians like to shift their responsibility, if something goes wrong they appeal to their good intentions, participants in the public debate do not realize that a public position is something different than a personal opinion and innovation is seen as a purely private activity to start with. I will argue here that all these activities belong in the public domain and that actors can only feel responsible for their actions within this domain if there is the possibility of forgiveness.

In politics, decisions are made that concern us all – this is what makes political decisions public. We must ensure that the officials who make or implement these decisions do not do things that we do not want. The democratic system is therefore designed as a punishment system: if an authority does something wrong, it can be penalized. A politician can be voted out and a minister can be dismissed.

In this way we ensure that there is equality and freedom. Those individuals who have the ability to tell others what to do are effectively disciplined.

The presence of this punishment system does not just cause drivers to do what they are instructed to do. But it’s not a punishment for the sake of punishment. The point is that such a punishment keeps the authorities sharp and contributes to the formation of their moral intuitions, they must be able to learn what behavior is considered valid – something I will return to later.

Attentive and virtuous drivers, that sounds great, but does it also work? Is it not the case that politicians do everything they can to avoid punishment and shift their responsibility? When something goes wrong, few members of the government step down; rather they apologize for their mistake. You could say that there is a sorry culture in which politicians shrug off their own responsibility in a virtuosic manner. A defendant minister does not account for the collective, but publicly wonders whether it is fair to speak to her about what a pastor has done, to blame her for not knowing in advance what the future would bring or having knowledge of the actions of all those thousands of officials in her ministry? She couldn’t help it. How can you be punished for your good intentions?

Something seems to be wrong here. The institutions that must ensure that officials are held accountable function so well, that nobody wants to feel responsible anymore. What is the relationship between punishment and responsibility if nobody knows what can happen?

To shed light on this issue we can, as so often, take inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition. A book of which the main themes are widely known, but which also contains crucial observations and analyzes that are commonly overlooked.

One of those analyzes is about the relationship between human capacities to make promises and to grant forgiveness. As we all know, a promise made is a debt unpaid: we are committed to a future and we are judged if that future turns out differently.

It is important that we can be reprimanded, because otherwise the promise would be an empty shell. But the moment you make a promise, you know that there may be circumstances that cause you to break that promise. Where do you stand as a debtor? According to Arendt, it is the essence that the debt made with a promise can be forgiven. In such a case the debtor is no longer, or to a lesser extent, held responsible for breaking his promise; because there was force majeure, inability, new insights, or simply because we all make mistakes sometimes.

It is the capacity for forgiveness that gives the promise its power. Without this ability it would be too demanding to make a promise: you would commit yourself to a future that you could never have complete control over.

What The Human Condition is best known for is the description of the public sphere, in which the community deliberates about what is good for that community. The deliberative process is the way in which a community can express itself as a collective, also when it comes to the question whether a broken promise is blameworthy or can be forgiven. In other words, in the political domain you do not give forgiveness as an individual to another individual. No, you grant it as a community.

In addition, you can indeed see the decisions of authorities as a kind of promise. A commitment to the public which they serve. A politician is therefore not judged by the lack of control over the future, but by the way in which his commitment is materialized. The politician has the responsibility to deliver on his promise, where the possibility of punishment is not so much a one-off sanction, but where the sequence of punishments forms an instruction of what the community values ​​as virtuous action. It is the ultimate check on the activities of a public official.

The gratuitous way in which politicians say ‘sorry’ described above seems to be a symptom of the absence of an actual public debate. Administrators do not see their sorry as the expression of their commitment to the community, but it is based on the absence of a personal commitment.

This is the world on its head. Of course things go wrong sometimes and of course that was never the intention of a decision, almost nobody deliberately pursues the wrong outcomes – that would be an absurd assumption. The point is that if something goes wrong, the responsible person can be called to account. Only after that an excuse be granted.

You can also see the sorry culture as a reaction to the enthusiasm with which the public charges politicians. Politicians are booed, feeds on Twitter and Facebook demand the scalpel of politicians, no matter whether they are left, right or in the middle. This culture of reproach may even be a stronger symptom of the absence of a proper public debate. People no longer recognize themselves as citizens who can participate in a joint debate. Instead, only formal legal and administrative arrangements seem to exist from which people derive rights, especially as individuals. What remains is a punitive system that only punishes, but does not train politicians in virtuous behavior.

Not only politicians receive critique. No, anyone who publicly expresses an opinion runs the risk of raising the scorn of the collective. And with the speed and reach of social media, this risk is big. A faux pas or Twitter can open a cesspool of contempt and hatred.

This is in fact a dynamic similar to the case of bashing politicians: errors in public life are not tolerated in advance. The difference is that there is no institutionalized system of punishment, what remains is a witch hunt.

The apologies of politicians amount to shifting away from their responsibility for the failure of a government service or policy. There are few excuses in the public debate, since there is no opportunity to shift the blame. Instead, if someone receives criticism, people invoke the sanctity of the freedom of expression or exclaim that there should be no brain police.

But that is not the point, an opinion is personal, it does not in itself play a role in a public debate, because that deals with a position. Such a position does come from opinion, but it serves the purpose of contributing to discussion about the collective course.

An opinion belongs to an individual, but a position is the way in which that individual relates to the collective. That requires a different disposition and moreover, it implies that there are requirements to contribute to a public debate. There are rules that the participants must adhere to in a debate, whereby these rules are determined by, among other things, specific traditions.

It takes practice to get to know those rules, where one of the most important rules concerns the boundary between public and private because that boundary determines how an opinion relates to a position. Because that boundary is both diffuse and changeable, it requires the necessary practice and cultivation to develop the intuition to know where this boundary is. Without the possibility of making mistakes, one can never learn. The public debate, in which mistakes are never forgiven, which is the debate we have now, is therefore intrinsically unsound.

A crucial point is the unpredictability of an action. While politicians think they can make excuses for not being able to oversee the consequences of their decisions, Arendt argues that it is the very essence of the responsibility attached to a promise that you do not know what the future holds. The same goes for participants in a public debate, they never know in advance what the impact is of their position.

To emphasize this, Arendt introduces the concept of ‘natality’, which refers to the birth of a person. Also in a public debate one may think of a some kind of ‘birth’, because within a public debate you can articulate your individuality by putting forward something new. Something that was not there before is introduced into a community’s discussion of the issues that matter. A decision or a position is ultimately a statement about what is good for the community and about what course that community should take.

The concept of natality emphasizes that you can never know what will happen next, a novelty is by definition unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable. Just as we can never know at the birth of a child what kind of person that child is going to be, because nothing is more novel than a newborn human being – at the same time as a parent you feel fully responsible for that child itself and for quite some time also for the actions of that child, without knowing exactly what the child is doing and how it will develop. It would be strange to shift that responsibility by just saying: ‘sorry, I didn’t know in advance that it would be such a jerk.’

Above I was talking about promises made by politicians. It is not easy to see the deeds done by authorities  as novelties. The birth of a baby is really something else than formulating a policy measure. Of course, these measures weren’t there before, but the drafting of laws is mostly seen as business as usual. Perhaps that is why the forgotten virtue of forgiveness plays such a small role in the public debate.

When we think about novelties we rather think of innovations: technical and organizational inventions that lead to an increased well-being. It is the work of entrepreneurs who try to outsmart their competitors by coming up with better products and services.

These novelties have a huge impact on our daily lives. Check out how the internet, mobile telephony, genetic modification, nanotechnology have changed or might change our lives. However, where we identify public action with governmental authority and in the public debate the confusion over public/private status dominates, we see innovation as a private matter. But it needs to be emphasized that decisions about innovations are in the end little different from public actions: after all, these are decisions that concern us all.

But because the actions of entrepreneurs and inventors are basically regarded as private activities, there is no public debate. Sometimes there may be criticism when it is feared that new developments threaten basic human achievements. Think of social media and privacy, the pharmaceutical industry and the right to affordable care, genetic modification and designer babies, robots and unemployment, and so on.

Technology developers will react to such criticism by claiming that innovation and economic prosperity demand risk taking. The argument they make is that we will stop progress if there is no one who is willing to take those risks. The entrepreneurs present themselves as tragic heroes who do not receive the appreciation they deserve.

Here too one observes apologies that are aimed at avoiding responsibility. If something goes wrong, it is not the fault of the innovators, but of… nobody really.

While it seems so obvious to look at the promises that innovators make. As I said earlier here, the process of innovation revolves around the promises that technology developers make: to get the resources they need to make their ideas come true, they have to make promises. Investors must be convinced that they can earn back their money, politicians must be convinced to change legislation, the public must be convinced of the legitimacy of the new technology. Without these promises there will be no innovations.

It is only logical to ask the innovators to account for their promises if they are broken, in order to find out to what extent they are responsible for the failure of the technology and, if necessary, to forgive them.

Because of course, you cannot hold the Wright brothers responsible for the CO2-emissions of today’s air traffic or Tim Berners-Lee for Cambridge Analytica. But you can examine to what extent Facebook or Twitter are only neutral channels of opinion of its members, whether Crispr Cas-9 allows us to eradicate all kinds of diseases, whether Blockchain makes corruption impossible, or whether automation actually leads to more efficiency.

This has to be discussed. Such a public debate would help innovators to become virtuous, they know they can keep their promises and they also know that they have a fair chance of forgiveness if there are good reasons for this.

We need a public debate that allows actors that act publicly to take responsibility for actions with unknown consequences. It does not really matter whether these actors are politicians, participants in a debate or innovative entrepreneurs. After all, all of these groups make decisions and propositions that have a major impact on the life that we live and it would be good if they performed these actions in the most virtuous way possible. We need to see politicians as individuals who introduce something new, that we start to see innovation more as something political and that as participants we have the awareness that we are taking on a public role. In doing so, we must recognize that these actions and positions can have unknown and uncontrollable consequences and that we are able, through public debate, to forgive – not as a favor, but as a virtue.

Further reading:

Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York.

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


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Thinking with words and thinking with things

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Thinking is usually assumed to occur exclusively within the brain. But there is much to be said for also looking at the thought processes that take place outside of the brain. We can first look at the way in which we use the language we have learned as a medium for our thinking. Secondly, there is the interaction between senses and objects that becomes increasingly refined through practice and dedication, until the moment we are thinking with things. This alternative view upon thinking allows us to reconsider some conventional outlooks on science, technology and education.

We think that we know what thinking is. After all, by introspection it becomes clear that this activity takes place inside the head, in the brain. After all, it’s not called intro-inspection for nothing. Thinking seems to be an activity in which the brain manages the information flows that have entered through our senses.

However, all kinds of empirical and philosophical research has shown that thinking does not work that way. Introspection easily misleads us. For example, the relationship between the senses and the brain is not one-way traffic, we perceive what we think we perceive. Despite these insights, disciplines such as psychology, neurology and philosophy still maintain the image that ultimately thinking is primarily a neurological process.

Of course the brain is the place where much thinking is done and without a brain there will not be a lot of thinking. But the dominant image too easily ignores the fact that many of our thinking takes place outside of our heads.

First, there is the role of language. When we think about possible futures or when we rewind the movie of the past in our head and think about the things that could have done differently, we use the words and meanings we have learned from our environment. This implies that there is little authenticity about our thinking: if thinking concerns reflection, we use a medium which does not originate from our own brain itself. Our thinking is not just subjective, but intersubjective: it refers to the social environment of the thinking individual and the meanings that are shared within that environment.

Of course we also think things that do not use language. Dogs and parakeets also think, but their barking and singing do not lead to much reflection (at least this is my suspicion). In fact, there is a lot of thinking that does not seem to take place inside of our brain, but involves the interaction with objects and materials. It is the craftsman’s way of thinking (our language is particularly gender-specific when it comes to craftsmanship).

Take a look at the following short documentary made by archaeologist Maikel Kuipers.

In this video you see how different craftsmen relate to their material, wood, fabric, clay and you see how the actions of craftsmen consist of an almost perfect choreography between eyes, fingers and things. Richard Sennett – also featured in the documentary – states that this choreography is a form of thinking that uses all senses, sight, touch, hearing, taste and smell, and that revolves around direct interaction with a material.

But why should this be thinking? Isn’t it just about thinking in a metaphorical way? I don’t think so. If you look at the way in which thinking takes place, then you can say that we constantly make ‘small hypotheses’ which we subsequently put to the test. We develop possible futures and see if they are correct. Testing takes place via conscious and unconscious mental processes or via the feedback we receive from our senses. We actually think in a sketching way: we orient ourselves to a future action based on everything we have learned in the past, and we plot lines that we think are the right ones.

Testing hypotheses takes place through a dialogue: we enter into a conversation with ourselves or with someone else to find out which statements are the best. In a discussion with someone else you try to arrive at a common understanding of a situation or shared agreements so that you rely upon each other in future activities.

We also use this model of a dialogue within our brain (as I wrote here). In the interior monologue we start a dialogue with ourselves by asking which futures are possible or desirable and how lessons can be drawn from the past. By definition, dialogues are based on language, which is why, as I said above, the structure of our reflective thinking is provided by our social environment.

But we not only enter into dialogue with others or with ourselves, we also enter into dialogues with things. We propose a hypothesis and ask things to give an answer. Consider of bicycles for example: we jerk the handlebars, learn how the bicycle reacts, with which the subsequent steering movements enable us to better control the bicycle.

Obviously, the working of thinking-as-sketching is nowhere as clear as in the activity of sketching itself: our fingers, the pencil and the paper draw a line, a kind of hypothesis based on the interaction with the material, after which you decide upon the information your brain receives via the eyes whether the line is the right one.

Performing your actions more often creates skill. You basically develop a kind of language between the material and yourself, so that you learn to understand the material. A craftsman is someone who effectively enters into a dialogue with the material he works with, he sketches and the material answers. The more skilled he becomes, the better this sketching goes, the more fine-grained the hypotheses will be.

Earlier I wrote about the way we use technology to ‘expand’ our brain. We use calendars and calculators because our own brain is not so well equipped to plan ahead or make difficult sums. But what I wrote above about sketching thinking actually goes one step further: we do not just use things to expand our thinking, we actually think with things. Things are the medium that allows us to formulate and test hypotheses.

Considering that we think with language and think with things, we can shed a new light on the pinnacles of human thinking, which are science and technology. But we can also look at the implications for education. What does it mean when thinking is not just about individual activities, but about the language and the things we share as a community?

It can be said that science revolves around the impossible goal of constructing a language that is completely independent of people, a language that is objective rather than intersubjective. Skilled scientists can make it look that they can reproduce that language to perfection. They know how to find, explain and apply the right terms and meanings. I do not belong to this category of scientists myself. First, I have to ‘translate’ meanings into a language that I do master and then I create my own view of things in the hope of convincingly selling them as scientific insights – basically, this entire blog is little else than the report of the attempt to do so.

But even those scientists who do not have to make that translation will suffer from the ‘imposter syndrome’. Especially within the social sciences and humanities in which the everyday and scientific language are the same, researchers have the uncomfortable feeling that they are claiming something without really knowing whether that is correct or whether it corresponds to the language that only exists in theory. Every moment the unmasking threatens, when it becomes clear that the scientist is only pretending.

This fear of unmasking is unfounded – except for the real frauds among us. After all, there is no language without people, not even the language of science. Ultimately, science is based on agreements about what counts as objective, about the language we regard as independent from subjective influences. These agreements concern the methods we use to arrive at statements about ‘reality’. It is about the reproducibility of the results, but also about the duty you have as a scientist to do your best as possible.

Technology concerns objects such as corkscrews and supercomputers, but to an increasing extent it also concerns new materials created through the application of nanotechnology or genetic modification. But above all, technology is about methods of dealing with things and materials. At the risk of stretching my metaphor to the extent it becomes esoteric, you can say that a new technology introduces a different language with which you enter into a dialogue with things.

In this, technology is often seen as applied science. It is certainly true that modern technology can only be developed on the basis of new scientific insights, but that does not mean that technology is a form of science. After all, technology is usually about things and not about language.

It is therefore makes more sense to see science as applied technology. As I said above, what is accepted as a valid truth claim within science depends on a set of agreements. These agreements concern the methods, the jargon and the paradigms. To a large extent, those agreements are also based on things; after all, you need a yardstick to be able to measure. But the role of things goes further. If we do not rely on our senses in our perceptions, but on devices, these perceptions gain in objectivity: they seem to have become less dependent on human interpretation. In addition, we not only have reached the agreement that we perceive via instruments, but we also come to agreements about which instruments are the right ones. Whether it is telescopes, thermometers, simulation models or particle accelerators, these devices mediate our gaze and it is accepted that this mediation leads to the observations in which we believe.

The Flynn effect means that each generation scores ten IQ points higher than the previous one. So we collectively get smarter. Usually this effect is explained by better nutrition and more habituation with abstract thinking, because we started to work more with computers. Our brain benefits from that.

But are they really just our brains? If we look at the thinking that takes place outside the brain, it immediately becomes clear that it is mainly our language and are things are getting smarter. Not so much because they train our brains in abstract thinking, but because that language and those things themselves embody more abstract forms of thinking.

Our entire education system is aimed at getting students to get the most out of themselves. They must develop their individual thinking and they are tested for their abstract cognitive skills. Schools are judged on the performance of individuals, but not on the way students learn to share a language and things.

The medicalization of thinking is an extension of this. We take pills to make our thinking more abstract, more focussed. Ritalin and smart drugs are aimed at making the brain function better, the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) is primarily a new step in this. In this, ‘better’ mainly seems to concern the way in which the thinking of the individual fits the requirements of a rational society.

All of this seems like a missed opportunity. Isn’t the Flynn effect not just an unintended side effect of a language and a technical environment that are becoming increasingly smarter, while we could also think about how we can make our language and technology smarter ourselves, but also which language and which things we really want to develop. I don’t see how that should be done exactly yet. But it’s a question that I consider to be worth thinking about.

One of the things that should be addressed in this is whether our thinking has not become too abstract? Do we not force ourselves too much into a rational straitjacket that does too little justice to our possibilities and our general well-being. The documentary introduced above mentions the revival of craftsmanship. Many of the things with which we think prevent thinking-as-sketching. Our digital environment is designed with the rationally functioning brain as a starting point, in which development and testing takes place within the brain itself, not outside of it. Before you start a conversation with things, you have to know exactly what you want to achieve – something the our brain isn’t particularly good at.

In his book ‘The Craftsmen’, Sennett tells how architects struggle with CAD programs, in which every line is a clear line. This deprives them of possibilities that are provided by pencil and paper. They are less able to develop and test small hypotheses with the material they work with, since the computer requires architects that the hypotheses have already been tested beforehand. A real dialogue doesn’t seem to be allowed.

At the same time, the computer is just another thing, just like a pencil or an abacus. Moreover, CAD programs allow all sorts of things that are impossible with pencil and paper. Nostalgia for the past is not necessarily a good adviser, but we can think of devices that actually make us smarter in a much broader sense than is currently assumed. I think that would be a good thing.

Further reading:

Apel, K.-O. (1975). The problem of philosophical fundamental-grounding in light of a transcendental pragmatic of language. Man and World, 8(3), 239-275.

Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Malafouris, L. (2013). How things shape the mind: MIT Press.

Sennett, R. (2008). The craftsman: Yale University Press.

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The romantic ideal of our illusory evolution

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There is the tendency to place the essence of being human in our prehistoric past, the period in which man evolved. Evolutionary psychologists make decisive statements about who we are and why we do what we do. That certainty, however, is rarely substantiated, most knowledge about primal times is only speculative in nature. Nonetheless, it seems that prehistoric times have come to form a kind of romantic ideal that dismisses us from the moral obligation to construct moral rules ourselves, via a public debate and ethical reflection. After all, our moral intuitions are assumed to have already been fully established by evolution. Like all romantic ideas, such a romantic idea is incorrect and misleading.

In short, romanticism comes down to the conviction that once you could be more human than you can be nowadays. For example, you can believe that in the nineteenth century or in the Middle Ages, people lived in harmony with themselves, with others, and with nature.

This romantic longing for a time when the world was as it should be seems to originate from the innate human need for purity. This need can entice individuals to create art: we look for who we really are and we report on that search in a book, painting, poem or sculpture. Sometimes these reports are beautiful, but most of the time it leads to clichés – in the end, most of us are not that special.

Romantic ideals becomes problematic when they seduce communities. This can take the shape of conservative resentment or nationalism, or, in case of the progressive left, the longing to go back to a time when we were not yet ‘alienated’ from ourselves, but were one with nature and/or with the community.

Thank goodness most romantic ideals are falsifiable nonsense. Medieval life was miserable: you were plagued by nature; other people hurt you; and you were too busy surviving to live in harmony with yourself. The nineteenth century was fun for a few, the rest of the people lived in slums, in the midst of cesspits and people with cholera. If you were lucky, you died quickly, because you would no longer have to work in the factory all day long.

It may be so that romantic ideals are constantly playing up and that there always will be some voters who fall for them. However, as long as there is a functioning public debate, this kind of thinking can be effectively combated. The nostalgia for a non-existent past will lose its appeal if it is highlighted from different angles and if the attention is focused on the dangers and historical shortcomings of romantic delusions.

But there is no reason to be cheerful yet: more and more often we are confronted with ideas that refer to the enduring prehistoric times when homo erectus evolved into homo sapiens.

Science-based references to primitive times do not seem to be romantic at first, but this impression is too naive: prehistoric times are represented as the time when man was truly human, in which the essence of man was determined once and for all.

These kinds of ideas have been around for a while. In the sixties, the economist Marshall Sahlins argued that prehistoric times presented the ‘original affluent society’, in which it took just a few hours per day to meet all needs. The rest of the time the primeval people could tell stories to each other around the fire, meanwhile enjoying a rich and varied meal. With the Neolithic revolution, we have only become less human – a claim that was repeated by Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens.

These days, the most popular insights originate from evolutionary psychology. We are what we are because we have evolved as tribes of hunter-gatherers. Our psyche and behavior are determined by our DNA and our DNA is determined by the evolutionary background that we share.

Just think about it, we have only been living in settlements for around 10,000 years, where we grow crops and keep cattle. There were hardly any major cultures for the Egyptian empire. Yet for over 200,000 years, humans have been the humans we know, preceded by more than a million years of precursors, branches, variations, and so on that turned us into what we are.

Increasingly insights from evolutionary psychology influence in management literature, but also in everyday ethical discussions an increasing amount of references are made to the time in which we were shaped and especially to the differences of this time and our time.

The group size of 150 people is notorious, the maximum size of a group of people in which we can engage in altruistic behavior. When we are surrounded by more people, we feel like a guest at a birthday party where we don’t know anyone. This wisdom is not only translated into organizational structures based on this magic number, but also serves as an excuse for our tendency to exclude strangers.

Furthermore, we seem to have the evolutionary disposition that we expect a leader to be a ‘he’ with a low voice and an above-average length. If you are a squeaky woman, you are 2-0 down when you apply for a managerial position. Was it a surprise that Donald Trump won Hillary Clinton? Not for evolutionary psychologists. Trump is an archetypal alpha male and that’s precisely corresponds with our innate preference.

Also the less than rational choices that we sometimes seem to make can all be traced back to prehistoric times. In the texts of evolutionary psychologists, there are lots of lions and saber-toothed tigers that would jump out of every bush to outwit you. Those who feared every little rustle survived and passed on their short-term fears to new generations, while those who only cared about the long-term risks did not reproduce themselves.

Now we have to deal with pensions, cigarettes and climate change. All things that require a long-term strategy, because our short-term preferences lead to the wrong choices. It will not work. We were not built that way.

Are we becoming fat? That is because we like to eat salty, sweet and fatty, because in the past we a lot more trouble to get food. A paleo-diet of nuts and seeds with the occasional bone of a self-caught boar is much healthier (still, I wonder if I have to floss my teeth after the irregular meal).

In sum, prehistoric times are taken as the period in which the essence of being human was developed. We are not able to make choices ourselves, because we are irrevocably driven by our genetic instructions.

The ethical notion of the naturalistic fallacy points at the demand that we should never straightforwardly assume that an existing situation is a morally right one. People who want to sustain established structures and traditions also have a duty to substantiate the legitimacy of this position.

The reduction of men to a being that cannot escape its cavemen roots then is quite convenient. After all, this suggests that we cannot change ourselves, even if we want to. Eventually we will have to return to the tribal patriarchy, with its authoritarian, misogynous and reactionary character. We can’t be blamed for that, that’s just the way it is.

Evolutionary psychologists like to boast with their knowledge. However, the basis of this knowledge is really paper thin. Though prehistoric times took a long time, there is very little left of it. No texts, after all we are dealing with pre-history. Only an occasional bone, shard, footprint, a few tribes that still exist in the far corners of this world. A lot of white spots have to be filled with that scanty material.

We can also look at those animals that are most similar to us. But which animals are most like us: the peace-loving Bonobo or the aggressive Chimpanzee? It is primarily a matter of preference and ideology of the researcher that determines this choice.

Computer models that simulate the entire evolution are becoming increasingly popular. Darwin’s laws are then, for example, cast in a game-theoretical form and subsequently you may found out what happened or could have happened. Are we altruistic or competitive, do we believe in gods because that creates a common bond or is such belief an evolutionary by-product? Let the computer do a number of model runs and we know it, at least we think so.

The common denominator of all these scientific approaches is that they are marked by deep uncertainties. With genetic techniques you can find out when we started walking upright and when we got a larynx, but there is no way to find out to which place we were walking and what the first conversation was about.

We still carry DNA from Neanderthals and Denisov people with us, apparently early humans had inter-species sex. Did the sapiens men pull their Neanderthal women into the cave by their hair, were the sapiens women seduced by the Denisov men with their deep voices? Was there a prehistoric case #MeToo or was it a case of informed consent. Nobody knows.

Models that redo evolution? You can extract every conceivable result by playing around with the parameters and by varying the entry data. Ultimately, such model results are predominantly speculation.

There is no way you can avoid that answers to these questions depend on interpretation. In their turn, these interpretations seem to be mainly formed by observations and beliefs from the present – as is typical of romantic ideas. Marshall Sahlin’s society of abundance mainly says something about the time in which he lived, the 1960’s, when there was an emphasis on communality and idealism. The claims of evolutionary psychologists about how an organization should work mainly say something about the social situation and power structures in our won times, in which people are first and foremost seen as a bundle of neurological traits defined by a genetic blueprint.

The era in which we live can also be seen a historic turning point in the confrontation between progressive and conservative mindsets. These never seem to have been so evenly distributed, and never before have the gaps between both directions been so big and decisive.

Very roughly one may distinguish progressive groups on the one hand that often live in cities and orient themselves cosmopolitan – the so-called ‘anywheres’–, concerned with climate change and populist authoritarian leadership. On the other hand there are conservative groups – the ‘anywheres’ – who are oriented towards the part of the world that is close to them, worrying about the loss of certainty due to immigration, due to the required changes in living patterns so to save climate, due to having to deal with a more complex collective identity and so on. The ratio between the two groups is almost fifty-fifty, in elections the representatives of both groups are taken their turns in winning and losing and a marginal difference in votes can completely change the future of a country – think Brexit, think Trump, think Erdogan.

The naturalistic fallacy is so important because it points to the ‘moral project’ that has been started with the Enlightenment. A long-term collective project in which we determine which ethical values ​​and position are legitimate based on theoretical reflection and on public debate. In this, no moral starting point situation can straightforwardly be assumed to be true.

The speculative claims of evolution psychologists may have a negative influence here. Firstly because, as stated above, it dismisses about half of the participants in the public debate of the moral obligation to account for their ethical position (and, in the meantime, dismisses the other half as utopian dreamers or unworldly fanatics). After all, one can easily say that people simply want to trust a powerful leader and that this leader is obviously male. One can easily state that we do not like to be confronted with uncertainties and foreigners.

But above all, these kinds of claims are challenging the foundations of the Enlightenment’s moral project. As Immanuel Kant stated, the Enlightenment is about shedding our chains, which is done by the disposition to critically question existing dogmas. But by placing the essence of being human in an unchangeable past, we chain ourselves again: after all, if we believe evolutionary psychology, there is little room to doubt our genetic predispositions.

But it is by no means necessary to take our evolutionary ancestry as the sole measure of being human. This is just a romantic projection with little credibility. After all, our recent history has proved the existence of female leaders, functioning democracies, and organizations that have a 150 members multiplied by 1000. And of course our moral intuitions are largely evolutionary shaped, but that does not mean that our norms and rules are fixed. On the contrary, these can in any case be adapted to new moral requirements – as I have written earlier. We are able to reflect on our actions and late, we are able to enter into discussions with ourselves and with others. We are able to participate in a collective moral project and we are able to ignore romantic ideas if this is necessary.

That scientific claims are characterized by uncertainties is not a problem, nor is it a problem that subjective interpretations are used to deal with those uncertainties. Science is a long-term task and because of its self-correcting capacity there is certainly no reason for concern.

Moreover, it is obviously very important that we understand how we work and many of the insights developed by evolution psychologists are helpful for this. But at the same time, a speculative and sometimes suggestive reconstruction of the past should never act as a measure of moral thinking.

Further reading:


De Waal, F. (2013). The bonobo and the atheist: In search of humanism among the primates: WW Norton & Company.

Gintis, H., Van Schaik, C., Boehm, C., Chapais, B., Flack, J. C., Pagel, M., . . . Erdal, D. (2015). Zoon Politikon: The evolutionary origins of human political systems. Current Anthropology, 56(3), 340-341.

Harari, Y. N. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind: Random House.

Hirschman, A. O. (1991). The rhetoric of reaction: Harvard University Press.

Laland, K. N., Uller, T., Feldman, M. W., Sterelny, K., Müller, G. B., Moczek, A., . . . Odling-Smee, J. (2015). The extended evolutionary synthesis: its structure, assumptions and predictions. Paper presented at the Proc. R. Soc. B.

Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined: Penguin Group USA.

Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., Willard, A. K., . . . Henrich, J. (2016). Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature.

Van Veelen, M. (2009). Group selection, kin selection, altruism and cooperation: when inclusive fitness is right and when it can be wrong. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 259(3), 589-600.


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Free will exists because we want it to

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It is not always clear that free will is not a mere physical phenomenon that obeys natural laws, which leads to confusion about the status of free will. But free will is above all an idea that helps us to organize our moral life. It points us towards the choices that we can make or could have made. Choices that we have made consciously enough to be held responsible for.

Discussions about free will are depressing. Often because it is seen as some kind of natural phenomenon, like gravity or thermodynamic laws. Obviously, this creates trouble as laws of nature describe unchanging, deterministic connections, while free will is about acts that are not determined. This confusion leads to the statement that free will cannot exist. After all, there is nothing in this universe that does not obey natural laws. Hence, the free will is an illusion and all the choices we make have already been decided.

It is no coincidence that these claims are often made by neuroscientists. After all, they are involved in the study of the physical functioning of the brain. This involves questions about neurological processes, the properties of our gray cells, the mechanisms within our brain that that result in something that we wrongly experience as a conscious decision. Then we ‘are’ indeed little more than our brain, nothing more than the body that unintentionally executes the algorithms of our neural network.

If you still want to explain free will in scientific terms, you may take on theories as quantum mechanics, because these are said to be non-deterministic. However, this not just involves a poor understanding of quantum mechanics, but above all it involves a misinterpretation of what free will actually is.

Free will does not have to be explained as a physical phenomenon at all, for the very simple reason that it is not. It is not an empirical phenomenon, but it is an idea with which we describe on an aggregated level all the things we do. It is sort of box in which we put actions and on which write ‘free will’ in capitols. It is a linguistic thing that allows us to evaluate actions we have taken and that allows us to prepare ourselves for future actions.

The physical cause of those actions does not really matter. We simply label these actions conscious and intentional, even though many of the actions and decisions that we make come about unthinkingly.

This idea of ​​the free is based on our ability to act as a coherent being and that can learn to make better decisions. But above all, free will functions as the foundation of the moral system in which we come to agreements with each other about which behavior is desirable.

According to some authors, it is an evolutionary trick that our consciousness sees many decisions as the outcome of a coherent organism. It is apparently efficient to respond to changes from outside as a single-acting being – at least if you compare it to organisms who are unable to see themselves as coherent beings. This apparent coherent action means that the different ways in which decisions are made are experienced as identical.

In reality however, our brain and our body respond to changes from the outside world in all sorts of ways. The brain consists of different regions with their own functions and their own ways of working. These regions interact with each other and with the senses or they do things on their own. The body sends hormones and nerve impulses back and forth that make us do all kinds of things. But all these decision-making streams are organized by the brain as a single decision-making process; within the ‘Cartesian theater’ of our consciousness, our decisions are made deliberately and voluntarily. All those neurons and hormones in all those brain regions and all those glands produce a diversity of impulses that incite action are orchestrated somehow as a singular motivation. Only when we go to sleep we switch off our coherent consciousness and end up in a dream state which is reigned by apparent chaos and randomness.

By acting as a coherent being we give ourselves the feeling of being in control: we are in charge of what we do. We love that feeling so much that the experience of not being in control is one of our most frustrating ones. A toddler who is not allowed to choose what she wants on her sandwich will get angry; if you let her choose between jam or peanut butter, you give her the illusion that she determines her choice herself.

I wouldn’t know the evolutionary function of this illusion. A pleasant feeling when you have control over your decisions seems to be reserved for people only. Most mammals will not really know them, they only do what they do. Not that animals have no will – just think of a cat who is mewing at the door to be let in – but they have no free will: to actually make choices you need a language so that you can make scenarios in your mind and come to a choice between those scenarios based on your own considerations. You must be able to argue with yourself, be able to take distance from yourself and from the moment.

Free will thus is a phenomenon that is not only determined by neurons and hormones (with which it could be analyzed as physiologically), but also by language, a ‘thing’ that exists outside of us while it cannot exist without being shared by the people who speak it. An intersubjective reality of which a description in terms of neural processes, air vibrations or ink molecules would be fundamentally inadequate.

People are incredibly fast in being able to share such a language: for the choosing toddler, ‘jam’ and ‘peanut butter’ already makes up sufficient vocabulary to behave as a human being that wants to make her own decisions.

The illusion that we are always in control of our decisions certainly does not mean that we are never in control. On the contrary, many of our decisions are really made consciously. There is no evolutionary innate ability to make arithmetic calculations, yet we can. Perhaps we don’t like it so much and we prefer to make a guess, or as Kahneman and Tversky put it: we tend to use our lazy System I that functions on the basis of heuristics and guesswork rather than deploy System II in which we torture our brains to come up with a carefully balanced answer. Nevertheless, there is something like System II that works in a conscious, almost rational, way. It is not without reason that our prefrontal cortex, where our calculative powers reside, is so huge. That is really not a kind of appendix or coccyx. We can choose consciously if we want to.

The illusion of control therefore mainly comes down to the fact that we see all our decisions as conscious. Or rather, want to see as conscious, because that gives us a good feeling. But control is not the same as free will. The importance of free will is not that evolution has somehow taught us to make us feel good, just as the combination of fat and salt makes us enjoy eating pizza.

As I stated above, a conscious choice means that you map out a number of future options and then consider which of those options is the most desirable. The illusion of a conscious choice boils down to the fact that you do not do that, but that, with that incredibly large head of yours, you can reconstruct afterwards how you came to that decision if you would have made it consciously.

That may seem like a rather useless case of rationalization with which we can maintain the illusion of control. A cynical vision would be that by fooling ourselves, we don’t have to give up the feeling of being our own boss.

But such a vision is wrong. The ability to reason afterwards what could have been a conscious choice allows you to learn how to make better decisions in the future – as I have said earlier. The idea of ​​free will then mainly indicates the direction of how the brain should have worked in an ideal world. By using such an ideal image, we encourage ourselves to think about our choices so that we can make better choices.

The essence is that our free will reacts to what we do unconsciously or less consciously. For example, your gut feeling is to scratch your nose like crazy if you feel itchy. We can then choose what to do. Respond to the itch and continue scratching or follow the social etiquette and ignore your itch as much as possible. Hence it is insufficient to explain free will only as a physical phenomenon, but it is also a phenomenon that can’t be straightforwardly described as causal: action does not always follow from the will, but sometimes it is the other way around.

Free will is therefore more than just hedonism, it is more than something that gives a good feeling, but it is also more than the mechanism by which we can align our actions with social norms. The ability to make choices autonomously and intentionally has become the foundation of our moral system, it is the way we relate to our society as individuals. Whereas in traditional societies there was little room for the ‘I’ with regard to the ‘we’, there is now much more room. The ‘I’ is no longer just part of the ‘we’ but it is a genuine individual. And that is only possible by taking free will as a starting point.

After all, this starting point makes it possible for individuals as individuals to be responsible for what they do. If they make a wrong choice, they will be approached individually for this and, if necessary, they will be punished individually. It isn’t that long ago that animals were tried for murder and witches were tried for natural disasters. It is progress that we no longer do that. An animal can do little else than do what it does, a group of women can do little about a poor harvest or societal misery. Nowadays only those are to be punished who have made a choice themselves. Such a connection between individual and choice can only be maintained if we can assume that that individual acted on her own free will: she had the opportunity to make another – better –  choice. The choice has been conscious enough to address the person acting.

The belief in free will makes it possible to reach a collective agreement that allows us to hold responsible for what we do. This is the result of a long historical process in which an attempt has been made to replace traditional moral thinking with Enlightened thinking based on individual autonomy and responsibility. Nowadays, you think, speak, and choose for yourself.

It is a collective moral project in which the emphasis is placed on the individual. In other words, we all want the free will of the individual to serve as the basis for the organization of society. We see this organization mainly in the legal system where individuals are called to account for their actions and, if necessary, where individuals are tried, and in parliamentary democracy where we as individuals vote for another individual that will represent us.

That does not mean that the Enlightenment process has been completed. We often base our judgments on other people based on the group they belong to. Sometimes this is unavoidable because we operate in groups, but all too often it is reprehensible and we condemn someone’s actions based on origin or gender.

Another difficulty is that it is not always clear when someone ‘could have done something about it’ with a wrong decision. Some of the neuroscientists that dispute free will state that we really can’t do anything about it, because all our choices are determined by what the brain does. If you want to improve someone’s behavior, you do not ask her to account for herself but, but you try to restore the hormone balance in the brain, for example, with a chemical intervention.

The determination of whether someone has done something consciously ‘enough’, as I formulated it above, is not primarily up to science, but to an institution that is intrinsically linguistic like the court. In court, someone can show whether another choice could have been possible, and what motivations can be given for the choices made. Even if those are mere rationalizations afterwards (in this science can obviously help out by determining whether or not it was impossible to have made another choice).

A person should be addressed above all else as a moral individual, and not as a bag of physical qualities, because that would mean that the ability is denied that individuals can think for themselves about how they could have acted and how they could have done better. By removing this ability, individuals are deprived of the opportunity to learn morally. And that is not the agreement we have made and with that it is a danger to the way in which we want to live together.

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The state of technology and society in a world without borders

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Political thinking often assumes an antagonism between state and society. Just as often, the role of technology is fundamentally ignored. However, modern information technologies such as the internet bring about changes in the public debate. The essence of the ‘public’ that constitutes society is an imaginary connection within a group of people, where technology plays a mediating role. If this is not properly understood, ‘retro-nationalist’ movements have every chance to flourish. It is therefore important to develop a better understanding of how state, society and technology interact, since technical networks do not straightforwardly coincide with national borders.

In our thinking, democracy is a nice and well-arranged system. There is the ‘state’ that provides the laws to which we must obey. This is legitimate as, in turn, the state obeys the wishes of the citizens who form the free society – or the ‘public sphere’ – together.

In this scheme in which opposition to society is placed, a number of variants are possible, all of which are democratic because society is ultimately in control. For example, you can state that society precedes the state, as classical conservatives argue. First there are laws and then standards. Progressive thinkers argue that there are too many inequalities of power in such a society, because norms soon lead to exclusion and discrimination. It is up to the state to correct those inequalities. Yet in progressive circles the state is not automatically seen as a savior. For many, it is a part of the ‘system world’ that not only imposes rules, but also standards, which society can hardly escape.

All these ideological variants have their own vision of what the problem is that needs to be solved, a problem that is sought in the unwillingness or inability of the state to act according to the wishes of society. That there is a much bigger problem behind that, namely that it is impossible to know what that society exactly is and what society exactly wants, seems to be properly ignored. In fact, the anarchist principle is that society exists separately from the state and could actually exist without such a state.

You can make a similar point about the role of technology. In the scheme presented above it seems to be separated from both state and society. This makes it possible to describe the role of technology at will. You can ignore the role of technology and pretend that we are stuck somewhere in the nineteenth century. You can say in a dystopian way that new technology will lead to state repression, for example by pointing to the surveillance techniques that scrutinize everything we do. On the other hand, you can argue that technology is precisely the means for the citizens to withdraw from the power of the state. Consider the possibilities of the internet to raise your voice as a society, without the state having anything to do with it. A bit more modest, but ultimately just as utopian, seems to be the idea that the citizen will finally be fully informed. You can also say that technology is part of the system world that the state is already part of: something that is outside of society and about which we have little to say, but something that determines our lives to a great extent.

What these ideas boil down to is that technology is not necessary for a society consisting of free citizens to exist. Moreover, they imply that a free society is conceivable without a state. This scheme is attractive for the sake of clarity, but at the same time it is naive and incorrect. State, society and technology cannot exist without each other: on the contrary, they make each other possible. Without the laws of the state, citizens would not be able to mobilize themselves as citizens, they would not know who they are as a group and what they have as a common interest. Without technologies that enable the exchange and processing of information, there would be no media by which the state and society can communicate with each other. This not only concerns old and new forms of ICT, ranging from pigeons to super computers, but also infrastructures such as stagecoaches and satellite connections. We need them to see ourselves as citizens who can decide for themselves what is good for them.

To substantiate this argument, a good understanding is needed of what ‘citizenship’ precisely is. Step one is that citizenship involves a group of people who recognize themselves as a group. Step two is that the group comes to discuss the issues that are of value to them. This idea of ​​citizenship originated in ancient Athens and re-emerged two millennia. However, this happened in a world in which most citizens did not know each other – the bond between citizens is an imaginary one.

To support this imaginary connection, the idea of ​​nationalism grew in the nineteenth century. The notion grew that cultural norms coincided with the boundaries of a nation state. These standards were based on a shared history and a shared destiny. The nineteenth century became the era of ‘invented traditions’ that ensured coherence of the imaginary citizenry. Myths like the Batavians who were autonomous in the Low Countries while the Romans dominated the rest of Europe. Symbols such as Scottish kilts with the tartan referring to former clans which had always resisted English rule (a tradition invented by a smart manufacturer of plaid fabrics from Manchester). Bloodthirsty Vikings who wore never existing horned helmets. And on and on with such invented examples.

This type of story has been of great importance in the creation of a folk identity. But more than stories, information technologies and role have played to create, reproduce and further shape the imaginary connection between citizens. In particular, the ability to print and distribute newspapers during the early forms of citizenship ensured that people could stay up to date with what they were concerned about, it made them recognize news as news that was important to them as a group. If people do not know each other, modern citizenship can only exist thanks to the presence of communication technology and media. In his classical analysis of publicness, Jürgen Habermas describes how newspapers and coffee houses were central to the formation of an audience that spoke about the issues that were important to them as an audience.

Citizens discussed the plays they saw and the books they read in the cafe. Newspapers wrote about it. In this way a ‘public opinion’ arose, an opinion that was not traceable to the sum of individual opinions or preferences, but the opinion of individuals who imagined what the opinion of the public as an independent entity could be. This way the audience pulls their own hair up.

Later we got radio, television and internet. But all these technologies do the same: they allow people to have concerns about things that don’t seem to concern them personally.

As in a democracy, the state must obey the opinion formed by the imaginary public, that opinion usually is about what the state should do. There is no issue as public as the affairs of the state. The boundaries of the public debate therefore often coincide with the administrative boundaries of the state.

In other words, technologies and myths may cause the experience of an imaginary unity, but nothing creates as much unity as the laws of the state. Ultimately, that is what citizens really share: they are part of the same jurisdiction. By the way, this unity of jurisdiction is a paradox, because it is about resolving conflicts. This means that unity is based on conflict and not on consensus – as it is often portrayed.

Not just existing laws, but especially proposed state decisions are important for democracy. After all, they initiate the discussion about what the state should do, the ideas of the state mobilize citizens as a society. The imaginary audience emerges as a reaction to the plans of the state. As John Dewey states: the public forms around the ‘issues’ with which they are confronted. A community arises when there are problems or concerns that are experienced as shared problems of concerns. Much more than stories, collectivity is based on the recognition that there are upcoming events that will affect everyone. This recognition leads to an imaginary connection, which in turn leads to the organization of numerous social initiatives.

In short, this means that the state makes society, because the state takes care of the events that transform individuals into a group. With the advent of radio and television, the mobilizing role of the state has only become stronger, because they have usually been established as national networks. At the same time, these media created a stronger focus on issues of national importance, so that the public more and more imagined themselves to be a national public. What art and artificial stories did in the nineteenth century, namely the stimulation of a national identity through a shared language and a shared history, came naturally in the twentieth century. It was only the internet that broke that automatic bond, resulting in the total fragmentation of the imaginary public identity.

First, let us go back to the state. Also the development of the national unitary state is based on technology. A complex administrative organization can only be achieved through equally complex means of communication.

It is no coincidence that the first written languages ​​of the Sumerians, Phoenicians and Mesopotamians served purposes of accounting. Nor is it coincidence that statistics mean ‘science of the state’.

Not only the development of communication technology and accounting systems is closely intertwined with the needs of a forming central unitary state. The communication channels have also become increasingly efficient and ensure more and more national harmonization. A simple example: until the nineteenth century each city or region had its own time, depending on the clock on the church tower, the arrival of the railways caused the need for a uniform, national time. In this way, the inhabitants of a state came not only to share rules, but also time, space and language. State, citizenship and technology are also strongly intertwined here.

All this cannot be done without mediating technology. This function of technology, on the other hand, is not well recognized. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that technology is difficult for political scientists. But it is probably more important that the guiding principles of modern democracy were laid down at a time when technology was not so all-determining, just before the Industrial Revolution erupted completely. Montesequieu wrote his On the Spirit of the Laws in 1748, James Watt came up with the improved steam engine 20 years later. Both would conquer the world, but along separate pathways.

The Industrial Revolution was primarily a revolution that was driven by economic activities. The fact that the railways – one of the main products of that Revolution – also created an interconnected country was only an economic side effect.

Misunderstanding the role of technology is not only an academic problem, it is not the first time that political philosophers and historians have been wrong. The point is that technology concerns us all, it is a collective issue. However, because it is excluded from both state and society, we cannot speak of it as a public matter. It is a deus ex machina, something that happens to us – the only thing left to do is to have the state establishing laws aimed at making the effects of the technology less severe (or make it a bit better), sometimes even by prohibiting further technological development.

This is the wrong starting point. As I have stated elsewhere, we must see technology itself as a public matter and have a debate about the conditions that a technology must meet, not about the consequences of that technology. Here, I want to emphasize in particular how the current information technologies have changed the classical patterns of the imaginary audience. As stated above, the internet is an international network which has borders that do not necessarily coincide with those of national states.

No wonder we are looking for an imaginary collectivity in public debates. Few regions seem to be immune to forms of ‘retro-nationalism’. Such atavisms from the nineteenth century could easily be refuted, at least if the correct underlying relationships are known. Not recognizing the dialectical relationship between state, society and technology obstructs this knowledge. It is difficult to see that the internet shapes a public of a different kind if you do not know how the public works in response to the issues that concern it.

Not that I have the answer. However, I do know that it is necessary to get a good understanding of the new public debate in which society 2.0, a ‘new public’, is the starting point. This is not just a society that consists of different types of connections, but also a society in which other types of things are valuable. The values ​​that are important here must account for the enormous socio-economic volatility and a new type of vulnerability.

We need to know how society 2.0 imagines itself and how technologies feed that imagination. Even more, we need to know what kind of state can be state 2.0 in the sense that it can obey society 2.0. In other words, which political constellations are able to respond to the wishes of the new public? Unfortunately I have not seen many answers yet that convince me, meanwhile we are stuck with countless countries where clowns, autocrats or a combination of both predominate.

These are difficult questions. The state that we know makes laws that apply within a jurisdiction, the officials who make those laws are mandated through national elections that are the benchmark for democracy – the public debate is above all a supplement to the system of an elected parliament. This is no longer the case in the state 2.0, this state is diffuse, unorganized and limitless. But with the right questions and the right understanding of the relationship between state, society and technology, we can at least move in the right direction.

Further reading:

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York.

Habermas, J. (1962). Strukturwandel der öffentlichkeit.

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

Pesch, U. (2019). Elusive publics in energy projects: The politics of localness and energy democracy. Energy Research & Social Science, 56, 101225. doi:

Taylor, C. (2002). Modern social imaginaries. Public culture, 14(1), 91-124.

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About Privacy, Poo and Cyberspace

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With the rise of digital technology, privacy is increasingly seen as a matter of managing and protecting personal information. Our intuitions about privacy, on the other hand, are not formed by abstract information as it exists in cyberspace, but by the need to protect yourself against the things you are ashamed of, such as bodily excretions or secrets of the mind. The ability to isolate you enables you to develop yourself as an unique and autonomous individual. Features that cannot be found in the virtual world.

Nowadays, debates about privacy are mostly about digital developments such as social media and monitoring technologies. But the link between privacy and digital technology is only a difficult one. For most of us, privacy seems to be about other things than what the virtual world is about.

Of course it is important to ask yourself who is allowed to use the information that you feed to the internet in one way or another and how this information may be used. But if you present these questions in terms of privacy, you neglect the essence of both privacy and of the importance of data protection.

Even without the link to computers, privacy is often seen as something that belongs to the western culture of the last few centuries. A concept that belongs to liberal thought, where the separation between the private and a public space creates freedom. That is most certainly not nonsensical, I basically have said the same elsewhere. But it may be better to see that liberal vision primarily as a derivative case of an approach to privacy based on the need to seek protection against vulnerability, a trait that is universally human. It is this need that largely determines our intuitions about privacy and that mainly involves a physical place where you can find psychological shelter.

The sociologist Barrington Moore states that the need for privacy is a fight or flight response aimed at coping with stress and danger. If an individual feels unable or insecure to meet a certain social obligation, then she would prefer to withdraw into a protected space. Such social obligations are regularly in the domain of physical activities, such as eating and drinking, but above all pooping and peeing. Things that everyone does, but we are all ashamed of.

We seem to be the most vulnerable if the boundary between our body and the outside world does not appear impenetrable. Bodily discharge like sweat, snot, pee, blood, saliva, puke and shit disgust us when we someone else produces it and it makes us ashamed when others us producing it ourselves. The self-control that we strive for and that is so important for our self-image appears to be relative. By creating private spaces, we get the protection we need to sustain the idea of ​​self-control.

For psychoanalysts, the shame of bodily secretion is what makes us human. By learning to be disgusted with your own feces, according to Freud, a child internalizes the norms of a culture. Lacan even projects that anal phase to the level of the development of humanity as a whole by stating that people started to distinguish themselves from animals when poo was seen as something to be ashamed of.

These claims might sound a bit outdated now, but from the viewpoint of developmental psychology there is something to be said for the formative role of privacy. It is all about the realization that there are secrets, things that you must or can keep for yourself. Things that are yours alone and about which only you have something to say.

The ability to keep a secret helps you to develop into an individual. A person who is fundamentally separated from everybody else. In fact, this is also the origin of the liberal vision of privacy, where each individual has the right of complete self-determination, in which no government or other party may intervene.

It is no wonder that privacy is primarily a matter of feeling. If your privacy is violated, it will affect who you are, what gives meaning to your life. The violation of your privacy is not something you conclude on the basis of an observation or rule, it is something that you feel intuitively.

You keep the biggest little secret in the smallest room. There you can isolate yourself during your most vulnerable moments. On the toilet, the archetypal private space, you can be the one you don’t want to be, but that you still are.

Not only the toilet offers protection, the house we live in does that as well. We feel at home at home because we are protected from the glances and judgments from outside, we can deal with our lack of physical self-control in a reasonably relaxed way. The bond we have with our loved ones allows a high degree of tolerance for our bad habits. For your family, your family or best friends, there are far fewer secrets.

Yet everyone has secrets that really are her own. We no longer have any drawers, boxes or anything else to hide our secrets and our junk. Private spaces that slide into each other like matryoshka dolls or that exist alongside each other.

And then we are not only at home in our house. Many of us regard their car as a private space. Our own music, our mess, our shouting at fellow road users that will never be heard by someone else. No place else you pick your nose as comfortably as in your ‘home away from home’, which happens to be found on roads that are public.

That is also what makes it so difficult for policymakers to counteract the negative consequences of driving a car. Congestion, safety and pollution hand over plenty of reasons to develop a policy that leads to less car traffic. But measures such as banning dirty cars in city centers, road pricing, extra excise duties, often lead to strong reactions. This vehemence suggests that those measures are primarily perceived as a violation of privacy, as a violation of the fundamental right to be free within one’s own private space.

This all seems strange and paradoxical. How can something be so public and so private at the same time? That is precisely so because public and private are intrinsically ambiguous. Paradoxes belong to the separation between public and private spaces, because secrets are physical or mental or because we use different spaces to isolate ourselves. We only have to look at the system that makes the toilet possible, namely the sewer system that connects all toilets and ensures that our secrets secretions remain secret (note the etymology). There have been working toilets for centuries, but they only became successful when it could be integrated into an infrastructure that regulates the supply and drainage of water. Only with such a system the practices of emptying of poop-filled buckets in canals, vulture pits and open sewers could be terminated- you now have to travel to distant lands to get sick of drinking water.

But the responsibility of this system is by no means private. On the contrary, it are public (that is, in this context, collective) organizations that must ensure that the underground streams of poo and urine remain invisible. Indeed, historically, the serving role of the government as manager of the public space comes primarily from the task of making our crap disappear as efficiently as possible, so that it seems as if it never existed.

So where does this take us in terms of privacy? Our need for it seems to be based primarily on the idea of ​​physical self-control, where we create shielded physical spaces that can mask the lack of self-control. This branches off to less physical forms of privacy, such as the secrets of the mind that turn someone into an individual. Moreover, the constellation of shielded spaces is far from clear, especially in our complex world. Above all, privacy is a feeling, so that paradoxes and ambiguities are hardly noticed. Based on our gut instinct, we know whether something or someone is getting too close, wants to know too much about us, or wants us to do things that are not our own choice.

What about the virtual world? The interweaving of fiber optic cables, which is tied to zeros and ones encrypted information into zeros and ones, is stored and transported to the seemingly infinity. The web allows you to further shape your individual identity. Separated from direct personal contact, many expect to enter the domain of the intimate, a domain where nobody sees who you are and what you do; a domain where you can enjoy your own little and big secrets.

However, there is a problem with this representation because it portrays the virtual space as something that it is not, namely a three-dimensional space. We only use the term cyberspace as a metaphor for lack of better, but it is a metaphor that largely determines how we behave on the internet.

Nevertheless, the web does not offer the protection it seems to offer. The web is also the site of cookies, data analytics and hackers. Unlike in the real world, the web knows no boundaries between what must be kept secret and what may be revealed. Cyberspace merely suggests that it is a platform for the hidden. But the virtual space of the web is a space without rooms, without walls, without doors, the intimate flows smoothly into the public. It is not for nothing that the virtual space is called the ‘cloud’, it is an amorphous mist in which it is never clear where you are exactly. Ultimately, the virtual world lends itself very poorly to the application of the concepts of public and private, because this world is intrinsically diffuse.

Big data, internet, social media, it is all seen as a threat to privacy, to the information that we would prefer to keep to ourselves; but it remains a difficult discussion, because our intuition of what privacy is seems to have a physical origin and not a virtual one.

The secrets you have on the web, which NFSW sites you visit, whose Facebook profiles you check, which guilty pleasures you listen to on Spotify, well, those are things that you want to keep to yourself. But that is hardly what debates on digital privacy are about, because these are about information that is collected or sold by companies and governments. But these are abstract data that have little to do with the secrets that have a special meaning for us.

The implication is that most of us are hopelessly naive when dealing with digital information. We do feel embarrassed if we stand in front of a group of people with sweat stains under our armpits, however, a smart analyst profiling us on the basis of clicks makes little impression. And that is to be regretted, because that collected and processed information can indeed have bad consequences and can lead to a new kind of vulnerability that we must protect ourselves against.

Now you can say that ultimately everyone will learn how to deal with the new digital vulnerability. A new phase in human development à la Lacan where it is not about an anal, but about a digital phase.

Maybe, but I think it makes more sense to approach virtual privacy in a fundamentally different way than ‘real’ privacy. Also because the current debates about privacy threaten to colonize other debates about privacy. For example, when it comes to street cameras and tracking systems, the debates are more about the collection of data than about the fact that the street is a space that should belong to all of us and not to a data collector, whatever its purposes. Even when it comes to DNA that may or may not be stored, people are primarily reduced to information carriers instead of producers of meaning. That leads to the question of what remains of people as beings who assign meanings to themselves and to the world around them?

Hence, I think that privacy should above all guarantee the latter, and it does not fit the digital world as a concepts. For that, someone has to come up with an ugly neologism with which the dangers of the digital can be described in a much more targeted way.

Further reading:

Gastelaars, M. (1994). Publiek private aangelegenheden. Een essay over de wc. Kennis en Methode, 1, 69-89.

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

Ishmaev, G. (2019). Open Sourcing Normative Assumptions on Privacy and Other Moral Values in Blockchain Applications. Delft.

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

Moore, B. (1985). Privacy. Studies in Social and Cultural History. Armonk & London: M.E. Sharp.

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

Pesch, U. (2015). Publicness, Privateness, and the Management of Pollution. Ethics, Policy & Environment, 18(1), 79-95.


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Optimization machines: The peculiar reversal of rationality

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The rational individual is an ‘optimization machine’ who chooses the right means to achieve a given goal. A problem is that people turn out to be not rational at all, which has motivated to the construction of optimization machines in order to pursue rationality. The first form of construction is that of computers. The second form is that of smart social structures, such as the free market. However, by removing the ability to make ‘good’ choices from people, moral problems arise. Especially the moral autonomy of individuals is challenged. With that, there are plenty of reasons not to focus too much on any idea of rationality and there are even more reasons to question the way these ideas are materialized in machines and structures.

Once upon a time, rationality was what defined us as human beings. After all, animals were not rational. To be fair, most people weren’t either, by but if there was anything rational, it had to be man. This focus on the ratio allowed for the Enlightenment to take off. With our special mind, we were able to free ourselves from all those dogmas that kept us under control. Science, democracy, ethics, all were based on the assumption that man was in control of his destiny thanks to his superior intelligence. And yes, I write ‘ his’  here, because the big thinkers were not that enlightened that they realized that women have the same capacity for thinking as men.

But what exactly makes human thinking rational? First of all, the mind is something that belongs to an individual. Society is no more than a loose gathering of thinking individuals, they have entered into a ‘social contract’ out of self-interest, but in the end, living together remains a necessary evil.

Rational thinking is also seen as something that goes against emotions, because it is believed that emotions are not intentional, but atavistic intuitions. Emotions are primarily a disturbance of thinking, rather than a form of thinking itself.

The separation between ratio and emotions returns in the separation between mind and body, where the body is given the role to obey the assessments of the mind. In this, the mind is increasingly identified with the brain, which is seen as the organ in which all thought takes place.

As a side note, this central position of the brain only seems to get stronger with the rise of brain scans, making neural activity traceable and measurable. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if we think that thinking only takes place in the brain, we will measure it only there and we have become so good in doing tis that we don’t feel the need to look further.

Rational thinking also is a linear process in which ‘input’ is converted into ‘output’. This approach to thinking emphasizes the conscious mind as the central command centre of human action. Consciousness then means that the thinking person knows what he thinks and knows what he wants, he can consider the range of alternative options and therefore decide what the best way is to achieve a certain goal.

This linear process is made possible by the way the brain is conceived by creating ‘internal’ representations of the external world. This vision of representations fits in seamlessly with the conception of this external world as being made up of seperated elements that can be interpreted in a clear way.

Rational thinking lends itself fully to utilitarian ethics, in which individualism is combined with the pursuit of the optimization of a certain goal – happiness – given the resources available. In short, the rational brain is above all an optimization machine. But as I have argued elsewhere, our brain does not work rational at all. In fact, our thinking is far from optimal.

To emphasize this last point, Herbert Simon introduced the idea of ‘​bounded rationality’, pointing to our inadequate ability to oversee all possible options when we make a certain choice. Instead of an optimizers, humans are ‘satisficers’. They apply ‘heuristics’, shortcuts that allow the full range of options to be brought down to a manageable clear number. Irrevocably, such heuristically-limited thinking leads to suboptimal solutions.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky point to the many ‘biases’ we have when making decisions. Instead of using ‘system II’, the most rational cognitive part of our brain, we tend to use ‘system I’ – the lazy system that tends to make mistakes.

The derogatory terms ‘bounded’, ‘heuristics’, ‘biases’, they all indicate that natural, human, cognition is seen as the deviation from the norm. It is clear that if we look for rationality, we will not find it in the brain.

If our brain is no optimization machine, then we will build one. Enter the computer. It is no wonder that Simon had high expectations of the intelligence of the artificial kind, since this was only limited by Moore’s law: computing power will only expand, which makes convergence to rationality nothing but inevitable.

For Simon and many others with him, the pinnacle of human thinking is the game of chess. The ultimate goal of artificial intelligence was to beat the human with chess. That would prove how rational a machine could be, a quest that was already successful in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue won from world champion Gary Kasparov. We had been overtaken.

But why the excitement? After all, computers are precisely built to deal with problems such as chess problems. These are the kind of problems that fit in perfectly with our idea of ​​rationality, in which fixed rules can be applied analytically without being disturbed by any context whatsoever. The kind of problems that we humans are bad at, very bad. Of course a computer wins, just as a calculator is better in arithmetic than a human.

If we then look at a so-called dumb sport, such as football, the reputation of computer fades fast. Even the eleven most advanced robots, each paired with its own supercomputer, will lose to a team of veterans of which the players base their decisions entirely on their lazy ‘system I’.

Ultimately, computers were developed based on the assumption about how the brain works. Namely, that thinking is a process that, uninterrupted by emotions or any external influence, converts input into output. Now that assumption turns out to be wrong, but that does not lead to an adjustment of our image of rationality, on the contrary, it is our cognition that is now being labelled as inferior. This is weird. Why not see the computer as an inferior form of thinking?

It doesn’t stop with the computer. More rationality is also sought by designing ‘smart’ social structures to remedy the shortcomings of our inferior brain. So we also build social optimization machines.

The motivation for this is that while individuals, independently of each other, invariably make the wrong decisions, a collective is capable of making the right decisions. This insight was presented by Francis Galton in an article from 1907 called Vox Populi that appeared in Nature. This article describes how the weight of a bull was estimated at a fair. Every individual guess was wrong, but oddly enough, the average of the estimates turned out to be correct. According to Galton, a democratic form of decision making produced more reliable results than you would expect.

To see how unexpected that was, you only have to look at Gustave Le Bon’s work The Crowd that appeared 11 years earlier. For Le Bon, the masses were mostly stupid. Individuals lost their ability to think independently as soon as they became part of a collective. Instead, individuals began to display traits such as “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others besides — which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution — in women, savages, and children, for instance”.


Le Bon confirms the conventional rationality model, including its appaling misogyny and racism. Galton’s findings yielded a crack in this model, but Freud’s psychology went much further. Human thinking turned out not to be rational at all, but decisions were made from the deepest layers of our subconscious mind. Numerous empirical findings have directly supported Freud ­- at least in the sense that psychologists, economists, neurologists have shown that the individual’s thinking is not at all rational.

While man has become irrational, the masses have only become more rational. In 2004, the journalist James Surowiecki published the well-known book Wisdom of the Crowds, in which Galton’s classic article is systematically elaborated. A crowd can be wiser than an individual because in a collective individual shortcomings are levelled out. After Surowiecki, many thinkers have been concerned with how to organize the social collective in such a way that the collective decision is the right one. What is especially important is that people do not influence each other, so that the statistical distribution of judgments among different individuals remains respected.

Now people, weak as they are, tend to be influenced by others – those are the evolutionary shaped heuristics that keep us from being rational. But with the right structures and the right tricks you can bypass these heuristics.

For example, you can ‘nudge’. By designing the right ‘choice architectures’, we can choose ‘better’. By placing fruit at the cash register instead of candy, we opt for the healthy alternative, by making saving for a pension mandatory, we do not spend all our income in one go. It is assumed that the decisions we make are not the ones that we really want, but that choices are imposed on us by our inferior brain. Our ‘true’ choices are the choices we would make if we had been rational. How we then know what is rational is a question that is usually not being asked.

That the crowds can be wise is because people disagree with each other – they eliminate each other’s misconceptions. We have known since Socrates that divergent knowledge claims are necessary to become smarter. A dialogue, either between people or between the different voices in your head, shows things from different sides, so that you get a better understanding of a certain issue. The dialogue therefore seems to be a smart structure because it makes us think better as individuals. But that idea is abandoned when it comes to the wise crowd. The collective itself has become smart, the people that make up the crowd remain just as dumb as they already were.

The prime example of a smart social structure that corrects individual biases is that of the free market. In this, individuals pursue their self-interest, individuals who want as much as possible for themselves, without worrying about the fate of others. That’s nice, because by only caring about themselves makes them much less susceptible for external pressures than in other social structures, such as those of a centrally controlled bureaucracy. In such a bureaucracy, the capacity of people to influence others is given free rein. With all the irrationality that follows.

Also here, one sees a remarkable reversal of the rationality model. For Max Weber, who characterizes modernity as ongoing process of increasing rationalization, the bureaucratic organization was precisely the paradigm of this process, because such an organization acts as a rational decision-maker in which the single administration analogous to the individual brain arrives on the basis of the correct information. These decisions are subsequently implemented by the executive units of the organization.

The free market has long been seen as a necessary evil. An unstructured collection of individuals driven by greed. Of course, Adam Smith already showed in the eighteenth century that a free market can lead to an optimal level of general prosperity, but the idea that a bureaucratic organization is more rational has survived until the fall of the Berlin wall, less than 30 years ago. This historical event showed that a centrally controlled system was not able to function properly at all and did not stand a chance in the long term against the adaptability of the free market.

The neo-liberal creed that has been dominant since 1989 states that rationality is present in the market and, in fact, nowhere else. The fact that companies have now become bureaucratic juggernauts that surpass most state organizations in terms of size and power is thereby conveniently ignored. That individuals are crumbled as marginal beings does not seem to harm neoliberal thinking.

In summary: science showed the failure of the rational brain, history showed the failure of the rational organization. The computer is the designated replacement of the brain, the market the designated replacement of bureaucracy.

I find these turns strange and, as should be clear by now, also undesirable. As described above, they go at the expense of the human dimension. Either by portraying people as inferior thinkers, or by making the interests of people subordinate to the interests of market organizations. This while the human measure remains the measure of things, at least for me.

There are also other important moral merits that are at stake here, namely our ability to make choices and bear responsibility for these. After all, the Enlightened thinkers granted the individual the ability to make decisions independently, that was not so much an empirical description, it mainly had a moral purpose. After all, if an individual person can make a deliberate choice, it will become possible to hold individuals responsible for their choices. People can be called to account for their decisions because they have been taken on purpose.

Isn’t it a problem then that people don’t turn out to be rational? Not if we rely on Jürgen Habermas’s approach to rationality. For him, a rational decision maker is part of an instrumental rationality that is subservient to a communicative rationality based on the ability of people to reach agreements on norms and interests via deliberative processes.

From the viewpoint of communicative rationality, it is no problem that we do not make our choices consciously, because we may be asked to give reasons for those choices afterwards. It can then be determined whether these reasons are legitimate or whether it would have been too much to ask for these reasons, in the latter case the person in question has proved to be unaccountable. Our legal system constantly examines which reasons are legitimate and where the boundary lies between liability or not. Thus the idea of ​​a rational decision maker has turned out to be an intermediate step in the development of modern institutions, an intermediate step that has proved to be unnecessary and for which we now have much more fine-grained theories.

But still we are stuck with the idea of ​​rationality, which has now been transferred from the individual to machines and social structures. In addition, the moral responsibility for individual choices has been reduced to an instrumental responsibility for the most efficient choices: computer, nudges, the free market, they are all aimed at optimizing choices.

The major problem is that our autonomy is being affected here. After all, we do not make the choices ourselves as individuals, no, those choices are made for us. The proponents of smart systems, often thinkers that have a utilitarian outlook, defend their position by stating that the choices that are being optimized are things like well-being, prosperity, a longer and healthier life. And who doesn’t want that? If an individual autonomy is infringed, it is primarily the autonomy to make stupid choices.

In addition, individual autonomy was based on the idea of ​​a rational decision maker, but that is precisely what an individual is not. Man is not at all autonomous, but a slave to all kinds of physical processes that take place in the brain without being conscious about them. That forwards another reason why it is only valuable to intervene in these processes from outside.

Even the communicative rationality of Habermas is not at stake, because which values ​​need to be optimized is precisely a question that lends itself to a deliberative process to which everyone can contribute.

This way objections can be explained away. But in a very naive way. Firstly, values ​​and goals are never completely independent of each other. There is only an analytical distinction, but in the real world your goals are largely determined by the resources you have at your disposal.

Moreover, all technologies and all social structures have intrinsic values. In the case of the optimization machines described here, the most important value is rather obvious, since that is optimization itself: efficiency becomes the central goal that must be pursued in whatever capacity.

In addition, technologies and social structures can handle some values ​​much better than others. In smart systems, for example, everything is usually interpreted in terms of flows that run from one point to another. This is because such flows allow themselves to be optimized quite conveniently.

With this point, we also come to the problem that optimization machines tend to become intertwined: we are increasingly witnessing how ICT-systems and social structures are connected to each other in smart systems. In this, it is not the case that values can be easily adjusted in these interconnected optimization machines, also if new values are called for. In the first place, these systems are adapted to each other by having commensurable forms of input and output, you can’t just ignore that.

This means, for example, that in a ‘smart’ environment you can’t just hang around on the street, you are expected to be on the move, going someplace in the most efficient way possible. Anyone who fiddles around is suspicious, perhaps that person can be sent in the right direction by nudging him. camera surveillance perhaps, street furniture on which you can’t really sit comfortably, devices that make an annoying sound.

We cannot simply introduce technical and social optimization machines that only make life better, these types of systems intervene in our ability to make choices as individuals and to be held responsible for those choices. However, the belief in the blessings of ICT and smart social structures such as the free market means that these ethical aspects are hardly discussed. That seems unfair to me and, in any case, it is hardly optimal at all.(Pesch & Ishmaev, 2019)

Further reading:

Ensmenger, N. (2012). Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm. Social Studies of Science, 42(1), 5-30. doi:10.1177/0306312711424596

Galton, F. (1907). Vox populi (the wisdom of crowds). Nature, 75(7), 450-451.

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

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Le Bon, G. (2017). The crowd: Routledge.

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. doi:10.1177/0306312719838339

Schreurs, P. (2000). Enchanting Rationality. An Analysis of Rationality in the Anglo-American Discourse on Public Organization. Delft: Eburon.

Simon, H. A. (1997). Administrative behavior. A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization. New York and London: The Free Press.

Solomon, M. (2006). Groupthink versus the wisdom of crowds: The social epistemology of deliberation and dissent. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 44(S1), 28-42.

Surowiecki, J. (2005). The wisdom of crowds: Anchor.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness: Penguin.



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A hero like Hirschman and the turns in transition thinking

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Although they are completely different subject areas, there is a striking similarity between transition thinking and development economics: both assume a development curve that describes the shape of an S. This representation makes it difficult to recognize other ways in which societal change can occur. Albert Hirschman pointed out the shortcomings of these kinds of dogmas for development economy, he proposed that we should look at different individual motivations and actions to understand processes of societal change. Also in case of transition thinking, it would help not to assume the S-curve, but to look at the way in which actors express their discontent with unsustainable practices and to ask the question about how this can contribute to the necessary societal changes.

One of my scientific heroes is the economist Albert Hirschman. By the way, in Hirschman’s case, you can rightly speak of a hero. As a German of Jewish descent, he fought the rise in fascism in Spain, Italy and France. As a member of the French underground, he helped countless Jews flee to the US during the Second World War (including Hannah Arendt – another hero of mine). Finally, he was in the US Army during the invasion and liberation of mainland Europe.

As a scientist, he distrusted dogmas. In his field, development economics, one theoretical model of economic development was assumed. Hirschman thought that was nonsense. He would rather go to South America himself to see which initiatives were taken and how these contributed to the progress of a country. Most of the time those initiatives were stopped when another lousy dictator seized power in such a country, but Hirschman never lost hope.

His method consisted of carefully observing empirical reality in order to arrive at the right concepts and patterns to describe that reality. Subsequently, he wrote thin books that presented major scientific contributions that usually far exceeded the domain of economics. His most famous work is Exit, Voice and Loyalty about the ways that someone has to deal with her discontent (within a group, an organization, a country or a system).

A model that exemplifies the theoretical approach of the development economists in the decades after the Second World War is the phase model of Rostow that was published in 1960. Rostow states that a developing country that works its way up to a developed country goes through the same phases, namely from pre-take off, via take-off to the drive to maturity.

For Hirschman, approaches such as those of Rostow lacked the essence of the economic development of poor countries. These types of approaches took a neoclassical view of the market as a starting point, where competition and a properly functioning pricing mechanism were mistakenly assumed. Such a vision of the market cannot simply be placed on every market, the institutional context of a developing country varies from country to region, and it makes no sense to use a generic Western model to understand such a market, let alone use it as a basis for development policy.

Another reason for Hirschman to distrust a neoclassical approach was the assumption that people acted solely on the basis of their self-interest. That may work in a special kind of economic system (namely our own system), but such individualism cannot be the starting point to describe general human action. For someone who risked his life in various wars against fascism, the narrowing down of any motivation to self-interest would be an absurd thought: people have, in addition to self-interest, all kinds of motivations, such as curiosity, moral awareness, emotions and a sense of community.

I have highlighted the Rostow development model here mainly for its form. The Rostow model is very similar to the S-curve devised by communication scientist Everett Rogers in 1962. Below there are images of the two models. I have thought for a long time that Rogers and Rostow were the same person (NB Robert Solow has nothing to do with this, despite the similarity in name and the fact that his economic growth model also appeared around the same time).

With his curve, Rogers described the way in which the market adopts a new innovation. First there are few users, only a small group of early adopters. If the technology catches on, then more and more people will start using the product and an acceleration will take place until the market or society becomes saturated and the growth of development flattens out.

These S-curves reappear in thinking about sustainability transitions. This is not surprising, since these transitions revolve around innovations, namely the kind of innovations that contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.

But where Rogers is indifferent with regards to the nature of the innovation, sustainability transitions specifically target the question how the development of technologies can be influenced in such a way that they become sustainable. Current technologies are usually not. Firstly, because they are based on the use of exhaustive resources, such as fossil fuels, scarce minerals and fresh water. Secondly, because they are polluting, such as plastic waste, emissions and toxins. By and large, it is a combination of both: the gasoline on which your car runs is at the expense of the available reservoir of petroleum and it emits CO2; the plastic bags are also made from petroleum and contribute to creation of the plastic islands in the oceans; the clean water with which you flush the toilet is becoming increasingly difficult to make because of the salinization of the groundwater and the flushed water is not only contaminated by droppings but also, for example, by medicines. Things have to change: we must develop new technologies that solve all these kinds of problems, technologies that are sustainable.

Old technologies must therefore be replaced by new sustainable technologies. We need to innovate. Not just of a product or a technical system, but ultimately the entire society must be replaced, it has to change into a sustainable society. In the terms of transition thinking: a ‘system innovation’ is needed. With that, the S-curve of Rogers not only describes the path that a technological innovation must follow, but also the entire social system. Now it is becoming confusing, because the phases of Rostow’s model are now taken up and simply integrated with Rogers’s diffusion model.

Is it not bad science to just merge two pictures? In fact, it is. But as I said, I had never noticed this before, I always thought Rogers and Rostow were the same person – and apparently I am not the only one, because I have found no evidence that another researcher has stumbled upon the manner in which the diffusion model for innovation and the development model for countries have been brought together in the transition curve.

By the wat, the use of Rogers and Rostow is striking enough on its own. Not only are these neoclassical models that are used to develop a not so neoclassical vision of a sustainable society, but also because the approaches have been strongly criticized in the past fifty tears. Nobody believes in the Rostow model any longer, Hirschman is no longer alone in that. Rogers’s model is still widely used, but it has been refined over time in response to a number of intrinsic conceptual and methodological problems.

A first problem for Rogers is that an innovation is not just a product or even a technology, it is above all a new way of acting in which a technology plays a role, which may in fact involve an old technology. This implies that it is fairly difficult to measure what the uptake of such an innovation actually is. What exactly do you have to measure and compared to what do you measure? Even more difficult is that if an innovation becomes more popular, the nature of the use can change. But if that is the case, then the innovation itself also changes, because that was precisely what makes an innovation an innovation.

Secondly, the path with which one innovation replaces the other can almost never be described with the S-curve; instead, such a curve can go in all directions. The diffusion of an innovation appears to be a contingent process with all kinds of feedback loops and unpredictable results. It is by no means a question of some supplier that releases a product on the market and gradually surpasses the product of a competitor. The competitor reacts with a new product, the market responds with new requirements, a new strategy is chosen within a company and the project is put on hold, the product suddenly becomes popular in a completely different context and unexpectedly competes with a total other technology. All such matters are the rule rather than the exception.

Quite some doubts to be raised. At the same time you can say that such an S-curve is just a picture that is used to illustrate how the transition should take place. The point is that the picture points us to the place where the main problem for a transition is, namely the first tipping point of the S, the take-off phase, where pre-development turns to acceleration. You could say that the theory of socio-technical transitions is fully focused on this tipping point, with raises the first question of what withholds sustainable innovations from becoming successful and the second question what can we do to remove those barriers ?

The core of the answer to the question why sustainable innovations fail to become successful is that many new technologies are being developed, but that you cannot force these technologies to become genuine innovations.

This is because a technology is not just an artifact, it is an artifact that is used. It is part of a certain practice. In addition, a technology almost never stands alone, but is often embedded in a larger network of artifacts and practices. That means that an innovation entails that people have to adjust their way of doing things and that entire networks of connected technologies have to be changed.

Take the example of the car. This is not just a means of transport, but a pivot point around which some of our most important decisions revolve. Questions about where we are going to live, work or go to for our holidays, all too often we are guided by the criteria of travel time and accessibility. To facilitate these decisions, a whole network has been developed consisting of suburbs, industrial areas, campsites, gas stations, garages, drilling platforms and oil tankers.

If you want to replace the artifact of the car by a more sustainable alternative, for example by a car that runs on electricity or hydrogen, you intervene in the standard repertoire of choices made by people. How far do I drive a single tank, what are the costs, how long will such a car last, how safe is it, can I still go on holiday with my caravan? But you also need to intervene in the network of technologies, where a new fuel supply infrastructure has to be built and technicians are required to develop new skills. You also affect the economic and business interests of companies, countries and individuals.

With that, sustainable innovation is difficult, you have to deal with all those existing expectations, rules, infrastructures, and interests. There is a socio-technical lock-in that ensures that the first tipping point of the S-curve cannot be taken. The system is so intertwined that technological alternatives do not get a chance to become successful. In transition theory, this is called the regime, the patchwork of established technologies, institutions, rules, practices, interests that all seem to be interconnected.

The task of transition thinking is therefore to break open lock-ins and replace the regime with a new, sustainable regime. The appropriate method for this is to help new, promising technologies by making them more attractive. You can do that by introducing subsidies and tax breaks so that the new technology is less expensive, but the main thing is to build a new system through targeted projects. In the context of such projects, people can learn exactly what the new technology means, which expectations and practices are the right ones, how the new technology relates to the old ones. Technology developers can also learn how their technology actually works, so that it can be adjusted if necessary. In short, start small by setting up a protected environment in which the technology can nestle and at some point be strong enough to compete with the existing system. Such protected environments for promising innovations are called niches.

This in turn leads to a variant of the S-curve. Where all sorts of alternatives are developed in the niche (bottom left) that after a learning period are strong enough to break through the regime (the arrows form into a single arrow) and grow into a new stable regime (the original picture shows much more, but then it becomes difficult to still recognize the S, so for convenience I omitted the quite some information).

This idea of ​​overcoming lock-ins is certainly productive and has yielded a lot of useful research and useful insights, but you could say that it has even been ‘locked in’ in the transition thinking. Other ways in which a transition can be made possible are still difficult to investigate within this framework. It has become a dogma and we have learned from Hirschman that we must distrust dogmas.

What then is the nature of this dogma? For this we must return to the way in which the transition curve combines Rogers’s diffusion model and Rostow’s development model. The diffusion of innovation means that a new technology replaces an existing technology, it is, to speak with Schumpeter, a form of creative destruction. Applied to a country, society or socio-technical system, that also means that the regime must be replaced by a new regime.

Every theory, however complex, can be seen as a storyline with a hero who pursues a goal and a villain who hinders the hero in reaching it. In transition thinking, the hero is the society on the road to sustainability, the villains are the incumbent actors, organizations and institutions with their already interests, rules and routines. These incumbent parties are closely intertwined with the socio-technical lock-in and with that they cannot help but stop every breakthrough, right?

But this story is hard to sustain. How would you like to replace such an entire system? How do you pass the existing institutional order? And do you want that? This institutional order may be unsustainable, it also ensures stability, democracy, freedom, progress, prosperity, and these are also important values. Are you going to replace them all to create a sustainable society?

Another question is how you actually determine when you have finished with the process of replacement? Rostow had a benchmark, every developing country had to be able to measure itself with Western countries. But what about the sustainability transition? When do you know you have reached the end of the S?

And why are the established parties automatically bad guys who want to stop any change? Is that system of established parties actually so homogeneous and should we not expect initiatives to set in motion sustainable developments? And if so, should we not distrust these initiatives because they are not being deployed by the right party?

The question then is what the role is for those who are outside the regime or the niche, the individual citizens. No villains, no heroes, but what are they? It seems as if they have to wait patiently for the transition to be rolled out over them. After all, as citizens or consumers they are on the side of the regimes, and as users of the new sustainable technology they are either guinea pigs within a niche or the unwilling recipients of the new innovation. Is that plausible or desirable to give citizens such a passive role? I think this is doubtful.

The criticisms I mentioned above basically come down to the combination of the criticism of Rogers’s and Rostow’s models. But the most important thing is that the replacement dogma of transition thinking directs the focus to a point and does not allow you to recognize other transition patterns.

You could start by not assuming a replacement model. You don’t necessarily have to put all your trust in niches that are seen as the opposites of the regime, you can also look at regime and look for opportunities to change them in a different way.

The starting point here is that a regime is a complex of rules, implicit and explicit norms about which decisions are the right ones. But a rule itself does nothing, such a rule only exists if it is followed – and that is done by people.

Having rules is necessary to coordinate interactions within a society, we can adapt our behavior to each other so that we know what someone else is going to do (and we know that the other person knows that I know what they are going to do). A complex society such as ours is characterized by the fact that systems of rules seem to be leading a life of their own. So many interactions must be coordinated with each other that there is little room left to play with the rules. But that does not exclude change. There are plenty of options for people to express their discontent with certain rules. Or in terms of Hirschman, raise your voice. Within the domain of politics you can protest, vote for another party, join a movement and so on. As a consumer you can buy another product, as a producer you can try to put an innovation on the market. As a citizen you can develop all kinds of initiatives, write a letter to the newspaper, start an energy collective with the neighborhood.

Not only are there many strategies that you can follow to express your dissatisfaction with rules. You can also have all kinds of motivations to change the rules. Dissatisfaction, conviction, the wish to become rich, it is all possible. These strategies and motivations of actors within and outside of the established institutional order to start sustainability initiatives must be identified and classified.

The result of such responses is that the rules will eventually change. Not always exactly the way everyone wants it, but still it is change in the right direction. New legislation, new technologies, new interests. We have seen it time and time again in the most recent years.

This view of regimes as rules suggests a circular model instead of a replacement model in which fixed rules lead to protest that gives cause to change the rules, those new rules will again lead to discontent, and the whole game can start again.

All in all, Hirschman’s empirical, open mind seems to be necessary to see which patterns of action can contribute to the sustainability transitions that are necessary. Like no other scholar, he has described how the discontent of an individual or group can lead to protest that can set off changes. This seems like a good starting point: look at all forms of protest against the rules and see how they lead to the change of rules and maybe we can learn something from it.

Further reading:


Adelman, J. (2013). Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Princeton University Press.

Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research Policy, 31(8–9), 1257-1274. doi:10.1016/s0048-7333(02)00062-8.

Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Harvard university press.

Hirschman, A. O. (1981). Essays in trespassing: Economics to politics and beyond. CUP Archive.

Pesch, U. (2015). Tracing discursive space: Agency and change in sustainability transitions. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 90, Part B(0), 379-388. doi:

Rogers, E. M. (2010). Diffusion of innovations. Simon and Schuster.

Rostow, W. W. (1959). The stages of economic growth. The economic history review, 12(1), 1-16.

Rotmans, J., Kemp, R., & Van Asselt, M. B. A. (2001). More evolution than revolution: transition management in public policy. Foresight, 3(1), 15-31.


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Can you call a politician fascist? Narratives, accountabilities and the ‘benefit of the doubt’

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Right-wing populist politicians have had electoral success in quite some countries. This has led to much debate about how far you can go in criticizing these politicians. Can you call them fascist, even though they are democratically elected? Does that not insult the voters with their legitimate concerns and does that not downplay the seriousness of the Holocaust? Perhaps, but also the accusation of fascism is an expression of a social concern. Moreover, it is a concern that can be said to be legitimate because democracy must fundamentally be alert to totalitarian threats. On the basis of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism, I will argue here that politicians have to account for whether their political narrative does go not at the expense of pluralism. Such a narrative presents a hero with a history and a goal, and an enemy that obstruct the hero from reaching this goal. In this, the narratives of right-wing populist politicians tend to have an absolutist, sometimes even mythical, gist that contrasts with the democratic demand of pluralism. As such distrust seems appropriate.

Populist movements emerge just about everywhere in the West protesting against the ‘political establishment’ in the name of the ‘people’. In particular, right-wing conservative and authoritarian movements, and especially their leaders, are often reproached for being ‘fascist’, which in turn leads to the reproach of ‘demonization’, ‘censorship’, and so on.

But also more moderate voices claim that comparisons with fascism have no use and do not belong to a democratic debate, because freedom of expression must be respected. Or it is forwarded that this comparison invokes a Godwin argument, referring to the ‘law of Godwin’ which states that every internet discussion ends in a comparison with practices from the Second World War. Such an argument kills the discussion.

Another argument is that the accusation of fascism not only blames the leaders of such parties, but also their voters. Of course there will be extremist lunatics among the supporters, but the vast majority of these voters will be ordinary citizens with legitimate concerns. Worries about identity, certainty, values ​​and so on. It does not seem fair to equate these people with Nazis. Moreover, these parties say to full-heartedly embrace democracy as they claim to stand up for the ‘people’?

In addition, a fierce approach could only be counterproductive, because people feel insulted, making them militant in their convictions. It is stressed that it is important to let everyone participate in the democratic process.

So can’t you respond in such sharp terms? Concerns about the low responsiveness of established politics may be legitimate, and a vote for an anti-establishment party may be a means of expressing those concerns, but the reaction that a particular party, politician, or statement is ‘fascist’ is an expression of a concern that seems just as legitimate. You can say that it is not the most sensible or constructive expression of this concern, but that also applies to a vote for a populist politician.

At the very least you can say that it is strange that populists are allowed to say stupid things and non-populists cannot. That seems to me to be stigmatizing and paternalistic.

One of the underlying reasons not to use the term ‘fascism’ is that the fascism of the Nazis has been a one-off period of extreme darkness, that originated from a deadly cocktail of historical circumstances. This situation has been so extreme that fear of a new fascist regime would not be justified. In fact, calling every new populist a fascist detracts from the seriousness of the Holocaust. Our institutions are believed to be strong enough to withstand anti-democratic threats, so there is no cause for concern. After all, only in the remote and idiosyncratic state of North Korea there is a classical totalitarian regime in power and the similarly totalitarian regime of the Islamic State seems to have been displaced. So why not give populist leaders the ‘benefit of the doubt’, give them the chance to see if they can deliver what they promise. Right?

But how strong is democracy? How much right-wing populism can she tolerate until she bursts? That is hard to say. But the resilience of democracy does not seem endless. In fact, she is probably much smaller than we suspect.

In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examines how the totalitarian regimes of the Nazis and the Soviets could have emerged. It is a remarkable book, way too long, unbalanced, that goes from historical analysis to hermetic considerations. Is it an analysis of the development of European anti-Semitism or does it analyze the phenomenon of totalitarianism? At the same time you see that Arendt raises the question that she treated much more systematically in later works such as The human condition or Eichmann in Jerusalem. That question was: what is the nature of totalitarianism and what can we do about it?

The depth of Arendt’s thinking usually disappears in interpretations of her work. I am afraid that will also apply to my reading of her analysis. With this disclaimer in mind, Arendt’s depiction of totalitarianism is that of a system that removes humanity from human life. This is done through the presentation of an inescapable truth that is separate from any human action. The organization of the totalitarian system is entirely focused on reproducing this truth and making everyone complicit in the system. Existing social ties between people are broken and every individual is subjected to the system, this includes both the executioner and the victim. Evil lost its meaning, as it is a concept that applies only to people and not to a system. Evil has become a ‘banality’, a mere administrative act.

To counter such dehumanization, a political system must take humanity as its starting point, so that people become resilient and so that they are not seduced again. According to Arendt, the essence of being human is that man is both an individual and a member of a collective. Only within a collective an individual can actually become an individual. After all, by contributing to a collective kaleidoscopic narrative, she can be recognized as an individual. Man is a ‘political animal’, she is an individual who participates in a community in which a collective story is created on the basis of pluralism.

Arendt thus takes an anti-liberal position. In liberalism, and certainly in the economic version of liberalism, people are not featured as individuals because there is no connection between them. There are only separated persons who try to fulfill their own needs. Precisely by separating every person from a political community, liberalism creates a climate in which totalitarianism can grow.

The ideal of equality is also not inviolable for Arendt. For the state – and that is not the same as a political community – citizens are equal to each other, you can only be an individual by being unequal to everyone else. Moreover, society consists of different groups that are not equal to each other. People can make connections themselves, we are free to pursue inequalities.

Arendt has often made controversial and sometimes unfortunate statements, for example about racial segregation in education in the southern United States. She felt that the government should not intervene, because a school belongs to society, not to the state. As a Jew that had to flee from Nazi Germany, she had a great distrust in the state.

Such positions can only be understood from the point of view that for Arendt, a political system seems to have one purpose only: to resist totalitarianism by guaranteeing pluralism and individuality.

What can we learn from Arendt? Firstly, that German fascism is merely one manifestation of totalitarian thinking, there is no reason to fear the return of the form of fascism from last century, but we cannot exclude other forms of totalitarian thinking in advance – whether it has a right, left or religious character. We cannot take democracy as given, instead we must always be vigilant when the dialectical relationship between individual and community appears to be under pressure.

Such a case occurs when people are no longer recognizable as individuals. On the one hand because they hide in faceless mass. Arendt speaks of the ‘mobs’ from the nineteenth century that made the streets of Paris unsafe. It seems that with the yellow vests in France and elsewhere these mobs are back again, screaming and rioting, acting as a group, not as individuals. On the other hand, individuals disappear because persons are seen as only representatives of a certain group. Anti-Semitism removes the possibility for Jews to become individuals, because they will never be anything else than Jews.

With the internet, new ways have come to make you invisible. You can hide anonymously in chat rooms or you can rant on Twitter under a pseudonym.

We must be vigilant if pluralism is undermined. For example, due to overly strong market thinking or because of a too technocratic policy. But also, and above all, when political measures are proposed that are based on a singularly understood idea of popular sovereignty. Not only is such sovereignty a fairy tale – after all, how could you figure out what exactly the people want – it also makes it possible to declare some parties as ‘enemies of the people’. Jews, Muslims, journalists, scientists, artists. It is scary how often it is the same list that is being proposed.

Also here the internet plays has a negative role. Undisputed conspiracy theories are rampant. Enemy images are distributed in codes that are known to the insiders, but which mislead outsiders, so that highly radical ideas can acquire a militant following. A series of horrible terrorist attacks is the sad proof of this.

How does the danger of totalitarianism return to everyday politics? What can you address a right-wing populist leader to? Quite simply, the question to be asked is one that should be put to every democratic politician, namely: how do you intend to counter totalitarian tendencies? How do you ensure that each person can be an individual who feels connected to a community?

Politicians tell a narrative, the version of the ‘truth’ that should apply: they focus on a protagonist who pursues a goal, but who is obstructed in this by an antagonist. For a right-wing politician the protagonist is the individual who wants to be free, with the government as the bad guy. For the left, society itself is the hero that strives for solidarity, but is opposed by competition and greed. In the political arena both sides will have to account for their story, with parties on the right having to account for their individualism and parties on the left with their socialism.

This happens quite automatically in conventional democratic processes. Politicians are forced to become acquainted with each other’s stories, to make compromises, and to work together, so that their narrative will never become completely leading for the state. The danger of a singular truth that transforms the state into a totalitarian system is thus avoided.

But it is more difficult for populist politicians to account for their narratives than it is for conventional parties. Simply because populism has intrinsic totalitarian tendencies, perhaps without the politicians and their voters recognizing this. This is the case because any appeal to a singularly conceived popular sovereignty goes against the principles of pluralism and moreover always implies the exclusion of certain groups.

After all, in the story of a populist politician, the protagonist is the ‘people’. An elusive unit that is assigned numerous properties. Any reconstruction of this mythical concept means that certain communities are part of this ‘people’ and others are not. In addition, there are reconstructions of a shared past and a shared goal that is being pursued. The most central question is who is bothering you in achieving that goal. Are they the outsiders, is it the elite, the newcomers or a ‘fifth column’?

Populism becomes especially dangerous when a call is made to eliminate these antagonists, by stopping them, removing them, locking them up. Then the story no longer fits into any democratic tradition.

It is here that contemporary political populism coincides in a dangerous way with the conspiracy theories that are being spread over the internet. When politicians refer to the eradication of enemies, sometimes in the code language that is only understood by insiders, these theories are given political legitimacy and totalitarian tendencies no longer play a role in the digital underworld only, but also in the upper world of society, so that thinking in terms of exclusion, incitement and even worse becomes normalized.

With that, it may happen that populist stories reveal patterns and motifs that we know from the darkest periods of history. A politician should be asked to account for this. Not from the reproach that someone is a fascist, but from the simple demand that you can impose on every democratic politician, namely that she can defend herself against this reproach. And yes, as I have tried to make clear above, this will require more effort for a populist politician.

That certainly does not only apply to the right. In quite a number of countries left-wing parties run into problems with their narrative about the Palestinian issue, where the state of Israel is the major opponent that makes it impossible to fulfill the goal of the Palestinians – a state of their own. The often proposed solution, the abolition of the state of Israel, goes hand in hand with a clear anti-Semitic sentiment. Also here, politicians must account for their story.

And what about voters’ responsibility? The idea seems to prevail that totalitarian tendencies will not be that bad, and that a populist voice is needed to make a statement against the way in which the established parties are politically committed. A vote for populism is then mainly a signal that the current politics is not sufficiently responsive to developments in society and does not pay attention to new values ​​and concerns.

Such a protest vote assumes that democracy is strong enough to undergo a populist scourge. Few will agree to an authoritarian regime and even much less people will pursue a totalitarian system. Their naivety can be explained. As long as the political leaders get the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult to expect the voter to recognize any anti-democratic tendencies. Calling someone a ‘fascist’ may not help much, but it also doesn’t help to make this a taboo. After all, democratic pluralism demands vigilance, benefits of the doubt will not do.

Further reading:

Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1959). Reflections on little rock. Dissent, 6(1), 45-56.

Arendt, H. (1973). The origins of totalitarianism: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in jerusalem: Penguin.

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Is moral change possible?

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Whether we can change morally is a question that is not asked often, but it is a relevant one. After all, if this was not the case, ethics would become a meaningless discipline. Of course, at first sight the question about moral change seems to be open door, but if moral change means that we not only can revise our opinions, but also our intuitions, this question becomes a difficult one. Here, I assume that our moral intuitions are ‘evaluative schemes’ formed within a social environment. If the values ​​within that environment change, for example because standards are adjusted or new laws are introduced, then evaluative schemes may change with them. I will also claim here that you can deliberately change your own intuitions by speaking to yourself from the viewpoint of somebody else or from a theoretical moral system.

A while ago I had a primary school reunion. What was striking was that the adults differed little from the children they once were. The same conduct, characteristics, concerns and reactions. People are surprisingly stable.

Characters hardly change, if at all. If you use the big five of our personality dimensions to categorize a toddler, you shouldn’t be surprised that the same person scores the same as an elderly person.

Another example. You feel the duty to correct a child if it doesn’t do what you think it should do. But that doesn’t make sense. The character of that child is already finished and a child simply responds the way it is grounded.

Not that all education is useless, certainly not. Because children receive values that ensure stability throughout their lives. These values ​​form a stable basis that is cherished and that we try to preserve as much as possible.

If our character and values ​​are constant, can we actually change morally? Also because our moral actions are primarily motivated by intuitions and emotions. Of course, we sometimes change our mind, but do we really change?

Earlier I argued that our moral judgments amount to sensory experiences: we instinctively use ‘evaluative schemes’ that organize the world into ‘good’ and ‘not good’. What is good gives us a pleasant or nice feeling, what is not good is unpleasant or dirty. These schedules are not innate, but they are formed over time. The stable values ​​that I have just mentioned are nothing more than those evaluative schemes, which are almost hard-wired in our brain.

But many of those schemes are not that nice. Psychological experiments show that we tend to be racists by instinct and have a general inclination to distrust strangers. Fortunately we have learned that we should not just follow those instincts, as these are undesirable. But that doesn’t change much about our gut feelings.

How have we learned that we should not always follow our instincts? By thinking, by talking to each other, by setting moral limits on what is desirable or undesirable. Even though we actually feel it differently.

The most salient manifestation of these limits are laws, which are rules about what is considered undesirable behavior and that are as such forbidden, like smoking in cafes. You may find such a rule nonsensical or patronizing, still you obey it.

But there are other moral boundaries that are gradually emerging, shifting or disappearing, namely the social norms that apply within a culture. Like changes in fashion, these norms are also volatile. What we once found to be completely normal, not at all that long ago, inequality of women, pedophilia, blackface, has now become unacceptable.

By adjusting our social norms and our laws, we create more civilization. But isn’t that just a thin layer of veneer? Will we become cavemen again once you scrape this off?

No, that’s nonsense. Civilization actually changes us morally. You only belief in the ‘veneer model’ if you think that values ​​are only a lubricant of social intercourse without having any further function. However, people are thoroughly social and moral beings, that is not just a layer, but the essence of what makes us human.

As stated above, the values ​​that guide us are taught by our social environment: our parents, friends, our community. We see what is considered important and adhere to it. That usually involves the unconscious imitation of others, while sometimes there is punishment, which can be a reminder or just a disapproving look. This may be enough to adjust our moral schemes.

According to Robert Solomon we strive for ‘maximizing our self-esteem’, which is revealed to us by our emotions. A punishment is a violation of self-esteem that is expressed, for example, in the form of shame or anger. These emotions motivate us to change, by becoming red or angry, but ultimately also by refining our moral schemes so that these emotions can be prevented in the future. We prefer to receive praise and be encouraged that we are on the right track, so we ensure that we achieve that approval by internalizing the norms that apply within a community.

It takes quite an investment to make all these social norms into our own and hence we do not just give up on them. That is why we want values to be stable.

Yet social norms are changing, slowly but surely. That often goes without us realizing it and without being part of a deliberate process. It just happens, in interaction with a changing world.

Changing laws is a deliberate process of course. But the law is not that emotionally charged. Rather, it is a theoretical construct that has been established on the basis of rational decision-making processes. In general, law does not affect us so deeply, even if it involves punishment. We comply with new laws, but that does not have to be based on an inner moral motivation. Sulkingly you accept the smoking ban, it is just what it is.

This does not necessarily mean that we follow the law for fear of punishment, but that our main moral motivation is that you simply have to follow laws in general, not a law in particular.

Of course, norms and laws are not necessarily separate worlds, they often merge into one another as norms become laws and laws become norms. People used to smoke everywhere at all times. It made most people feel happy and the others who did not, didn’t know any better. Nowadays, we all find it a disgusting habit, even the smokers among us. Our evaluative schedule has changed and considerably so.

Our standards and laws are changing and with that our evaluative schemes. So yes, we can change morally. But can we go further than that? If we really think moral change is so important, can we then consciously change our personal intuitions. In other words, can we civilize ourselves?

I think such a change is possible, although it takes quite some effort. In addition, I think the condition for this change can be found in our ability to talk to ourselves.

This ability is a fairly curious phenomenon. First of all, we have the nagging voice that seems to come from within. It is this little voice that comes closest to our intuitions. Unfortunately it is about intuitions of the worrying kind: can I still pay my rent, will I pass my exams, do they like me, what is that rash on my skin?

But no matter from how deep that voice seems to come and no matter how impossible it seems to stop it: we are not powerless. You can make the voice talk very slowly and low or very fast and high. If the little voice shouts that the plane will crash, it becomes a lot less stressful if this voice is that of one the chipmunks. I don’t know what the evolutionary added value of that could be, but that is how it works.

Also strange: sometimes you do not think by means of language at all. For example, when you’re struggling with a problem, and you stopped thinking about it for a while, the answer might pop up spontaneously and unexpectedly.

Fortunately your head more structured at other times. You can actively reflect on your own moral beliefs and that allows you to change yourself morally.

Reflection is nothing more than taking distance from yourself. Like the way you are looking at yourself in the mirror and you see your own face as that of someone else, but then you look at your own thinking as if you are somebody else.

That is possible because of the only thing that really makes us unique as a species: language. You can make your thoughts, feelings, and reactions into the subject of your own thinking by dedicating your inner dialogue to it. This is possible in two ways. You take the perspective of another, you speak to yourself as another speaks to you. Or you take an Archimedean perspective, something that is not tied to any person, but you think in terms of a theory, a formula, a rule.

These two ways correspond to the two aforementioned sources of moral change: social norms and laws. In the first case, you comment on yourself as someone else would (or as you think someone else would). You correct yourself If your primary response is one that you know is socially undesirable. Changing social norms involves an emotion that arises from confrontation with someone from your community. You mimic this process if you speak to yourself from someone else’s point of view.

In the second case you apply a rule based on a theoretical construct. Based on analysis, not on feelings. If you try to ascertain to what extent your ethical thinking corresponds to a theoretical system, you are actually mimicking something that most closely matches the way we follow laws. You believe or even know that you are doing the right thing, but it still doesn’t feel that way.

It takes effort to speak to yourself. You have to recognize a situation in which a certain rule applies and then point out to yourself that you should not follow your feelings, but your mind.

For example, you get angry with something or someone and you realize that this is wrong. You can decide that if you fall out again, you realize that you do. The emotion does not diminish, but you correct yourself. If you do that often enough, you will eventually become emotionally convinced about the morally correct reaction.

This is something else than a Calvinistic feeling of guilt, in which an urge is soon seen as a sign of moral weakness, in opposition to God’s command. Instead, the moral system that you try to internalize has come into being based on your autonomous thinking.

We can change, we can even change ourselves. Moral progress is possible both within a society and within an individual life.

This means that we should not automatically assume that the little voice in our head or that our social norms represent a higher moral order than rules that are created on the basis of dialogue and reflection. This is a tendency that we often have, especially derived from the romantic idea that what we feel deep down must be really true, while everything else is non-authentic rumbling.

But yes, I also really feel that I am going to win every time I buy a ticket. Just like all those others who buy a ticket. It just does not add up. Moreover, that feeling seems to be deep inside, but it will be clear by now that it is far from being unchangeable.

If we can change morally in a deliberate way  the duty arises that we have to change if we think it is necessary. That does not mean that we have to ignore our inner voice or that we have to give up our social norms just whenever it suits us. After all, these ensure stability and identity, so that we know who we are as individuals or as a community. In particular, it means that we must enter into a dialogue, with ourselves and with each other, to determine which evaluative schemes are the right ones and then adjust our own schemes accordingly.

Further reading:

Doris, J. M. (2015). Talking to our selves: Reflection, ignorance, and agency: OUP Oxford.

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

Strohminger, N., & Nichols, S. (2014). The essential moral self. Cognition, 131(1), 159-171.


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How do we settle the climate problem?

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The fundamental uncertainties that are the essence of the climate problem require new forms of politics. You could see the Paris agreement as such a new form. Maybe it is not ideal, but it’s a start. However, in the implementation of this agreement at national levels, ‘old politics’ seem to be taking over again, as a detailed technocratic approach become dominant. Such an approach fails to account for the character of the climate problem as a problem that concerns the justice of the burden being shared and the unpredictability of the technological system that will be leading in the end. It is therefore not surprising that this kind of policy is criticized, often this criticism is fierce, sometimes unsubstantiated and almost always incoherent – even if they make some sense. Likewise, the policy responses to this criticism are also not very constructive. In the end, it is important that the plurality of values and insights is taken into account in the debate on climate measures, while it is certainly not the case that international treaties stand in the way of such a debate.

A characteristic of the climate problem is that it is both a technical issue and a justice issue. It is technical because new technologies are needed to enable the energy transition that can reduce carbon emissions to an acceptable level. It is about justice because there is a loss of prosperity in the short term, which will most certainly not distributed evenly. At the same time there are fundamental uncertainties. Which technological system will eventually become the standard? How successful is that system? The costs of climate change will be much higher in the long term than the costs in the short term, but how much higher? Nobody knows.

Politics by treaty

In order to be able to conquer such problems, which are at the same time elusive and urgent, agreements are needed between many, many parties. A treaty can thereby provide a commitment for each party to tackle part of the larger problem. The prime example of this ‘political by treaty’ is the Paris agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions so that the global temperature rises by no more than two degrees Celsius.

The climate problem does is not an isolated case. In fact, you could see the Paris agreement as representative of how politics can deal with similar problems. Consider, for example, migration, also a case in which national borders have no control over socio-economic and technological developments.

Not that doing politics by treaty is ideal, especially when it comes to treaties between countries. Countries differ in geographical condition, commitment, implementation and enforcement. But sometimes it is not possible to choose the ideal.

In any case, problems such as the climate problem are characterized by uncertainties that cannot be dealt with within existing institutional frameworks. New ways are needed to deal with these situations in which nobody knows who will be the winners and losers.

What you can see in the case of Paris is that the result of the negotiations is a rather arbitrary one. A number that is nice and round: a temperature rise of no more than 2 degrees Celsius has been established as acceptable. Whether it would make a big difference whether 1.9 or 2.1 degrees had been chosen is doubtful, but it is simply necessary to draw such a hard line.

Then such a randomly chosen limit is given an absolute value. It is going to be the starting point of policy and above all it is about parties being able to hold each other liable for whether or not the agreements made are met. The stated commitment is not without obligation, the parties commit themselves (especially internally) to certain objectives. The essential thing here is that how this commitment is fulfilled is not specified, allowing room to maneuver for the parties.

Not only does such a boundary that is agreed upon have an arbitrary nature, also the required knowledge is uncertain. After all, it’s about the future and nothing is as unpredictable as the future. That the climate changes due to human actions is more than likely, but we could still be wrong. The best clue we have is the accumulation of weather records that we have had to deal with in recent years, but even those could be the result of accidental fluctuations. That has nothing to do with bad or biased science, but with the simple fact that science relies on the past to make statements about the future. To make the future is up to the politicians and to ourselves.

At the same time, the complexity of these kinds of problems is so immense that we need science. Without having the right knowledge, we would have had no idea of ​​a climate problem, no idea of ​​the dangers that it brings with it, and no idea of ​​possible solutions.

Old or new politics?

The Paris agreement is about agreements between countries. Within those countries, new agreements must be settled again, between companies and governments, between different layers of government or between companies. Just think of the climate tables in the Netherlands. But you can also think of the American cities that have started an initiative to combat climate change, despite the federal government stepping out of the Paris agreement (The American cities climate challenge).

Making treaties does not immediately give rise to a new situation. Certainly in the Netherlands it is customary to come to policy agreements through consultation. Moreover, since the 1990’s people have increasingly started to think in terms of ‘governance’ instead of government. Making collective arrangements (what we used to call ‘policy’) no longer is the exclusive right of the state, but it is the cooperation of a network of organizations from the public and private sectors and civil society.

And also this was not very novel. One may think about the so-called military-industrial complex or corruption as earlier forms of ‘public-private cooperation’.

Because making treaties is so similar to established practices of policy-making, you often see parties working on the basis of those ingrained practices. Gather in a room, do some exploration about what each other’s stakes are and then try to get as much out of the negotiations as possible. Once there is an agreement write everything down in detail as soon as possible, before anyone can change their mind.

But making agreements in this way is a misconception. It leads to a technocratic approach, whereby a clear solution to the problem is implemented. This is impossible in case of the climate problem, because nobody knows what the solution should be. We cannot pick the technology from the shelf and simply apply it.

Moreover, it is not at all clear what the stakes are, when it comes to agreements on climate policy. There are too many uncertainties and the situation is way too complex. What those interests are only becomes clear long after an agreement has been settled: when we know what the winning technology is and when it becomes clear who the winners and losers of the new situation are. This does not mean that existing interests are not included in the negotiations – all negotiations involve strategy – but that interests have a character that is diffuse and conditional.

All this makes the commitment mentioned above a new kind of commitment. The bottom line is that all parties more or less realize that climate change and the energy transition can have major and unpredictable consequences for everyone and that the agreements are ultimately aimed at making these consequences a little bit more manageable.

As said, this awareness seem to disappear once the parties are at the negotiating table. Being creatures of habit, we quickly fall back into conventional patterns and agreements are made about who should do what and who will be blamed if things go wrong. This requires extensive specification of tasks and functions. But such an approach does not work when it comes to a problem that revolves around choices that revolve around technology and justice. The old policy takes over, resulting in a policy that cannot help but miss its goal.

Old or new resistance?

Making policy is only one side of the coin. The other side is that of social resistance – and it is here that the shortcomings of conventional policy come to the fore most clearly. The core of democracy is that every decision can be challenged. Whether it concerns parliamentary opposition, strikes, demonstrations, letters to the newspaper, banners from the window. Resistance has been organized in all institutions and decisions can be challenged everywhere. That keeps administrators on their toes and ensures democratic legitimacy.

But how to argue against a treaty to which a state has committed itself that deals with a problem that exceeds any national boundary?

To begin with, there are opponents who think that we should not make such international treaties. The international nature of treaties is seen as a violation of national sovereignty. As if the climate problem stops at the border. Such criticism is difficult to take seriously, it assumes a world that no longer exists.

Another argument is that the contribution to the climate problem of a small country such as the Netherlands is so small that it makes no sense to do something about it as a country. Duh! That was the whole idea of ​​making an agreement to start with (the fact that sometimes it is not the most effective to make policies per country is another point, which is a serious shortcoming of most international treaties).

Then there are the climate deniers. Often people who, as can be deduced from what I have written above, either do not know how science works or do not know how politics works (or indeed they do and function as lobbyists for a very short-sighted business community).

But not all forms of resistance can be said to be fully nonsensical. Such legitimate forms of protest appears to be focus primarily on old politics in which agreements are worked out in much too detailed terms. One form of criticism is that this kind of agreements imposes a singular ‘truth’, which undermines the pluralism that is the essence of a democratic policy. In such a case, a dictatorship of expertise would arise, in which moral questions are answered in a technocratic way.

In line with this are the protests that turn against the measures that have been decided on the basis of such treaties. Wind farms that ruin the view, subsidies for electric cars, the obligation to use a new heating system and so on. Most rowdy are the yellow vests in France, which express their dissatisfaction with the increase in petrol prices. With the violent nature of their protest, the yellow vests cannot be seen as legitimate – violence is simply unacceptable within a democracy. But apart from the violence and the rudeness with which arguments are put forward, it is instructive to look at the underlying motivations of these protests.

First of all, they are about the justice of the decisions. What is the distribution of burdens, who is spared and who even benefits from these decisions? For someone with a good income, an increase in the gas price is not a big problem, but for a poor truck driver it is. For those who don’t have to look at a wind turbine, it is a wonderful source of green energy, for it is a different story for those who are confronted by the shadow and the buzz of the rotor blades.

Secondly, these protests concern new groups. It is no longer trade unions or NGOs taking the lead, but groups of activists that did not exist before and that organize their protest in new ways – via social media, temporary coalitions or global networks, for example. This makes it difficult for policy makers to anticipate their wishes or to consult them.

It is not easy retrieve such criticism though , because it is usually hidden between the forms of protest that I mentioned above. Much protest is inconsistent or reactionary, but that is beside the point that I want to make here: the value of a protest is not that a fully-fledged alternative is offered, but that new concerns, values, insights are brought in as part of the public debate about new policies.

It is not the case that these new points have to be straightforwardly taken on by policymakers. The point is that they should become part of the policy debate. Does that happen? Hardly. To start with, there is the mantra of more information, better knowledge that can be used to fight with fake news, conspiracy theories and climate skepticism.

A second reaction already has an equally high Pavlov content: if there is protest, there more support needs to be creation. Set up more consultation bodies, invite as many people as possible, and talk until everyone agrees.

But who speaks for the yellow vests? And could there not be other protest movements in the future? The green, blue, gray vests? How do you know that you have everyone sitting at the table? You don’t know that and you can’t know that. Democracy is a dynamic process in which new groups can always mobilize around new interests, insights or ideals. It is the core of democracy to be open to this.

The problem is that policymakers here too easily assume patterns that seemed to work at a time when society was stable, people felt presented by political parties, trade unions, or other organizations. But that is no longer the case, most people no longer recognize themselves in these types of organizations, even if they commit themselves to societal goals and concerns, they will not commit themselves permanently to a specific organization.

Just give in to the demands of the protestors? Out of fear of populism or out of political opportunism. Instead of expensive measures, take the route of the least resistance. That might help for a while. But it doesn’t solve the climate problem.

Ultimately, measures to reduce emissions will hurt. Some perhaps more than others. The question is what we consider to be a fair distribution of pain. This is what the debate should be about.

The essence of politics by per treaty is that a chosen starting point cannot be renegotiated. Those 2 degrees Celsius stand and will be maintained. But that does not necessarily mean that there is no room for raising new concerns, recognizing new interests, or investigating alternative justice claims.

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Moral senses of the individual and the social self

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Where do our moral intuitions and our moral emotions come from? What are these to us and how do they relate to our being as an individual and social being? Here, I will introduce ‘moral senses’ as a framework with which these questions can be answered. These senses give us the experience of having a body, a mind and a character. Not only as an individual, but also as a member of a community. The moral senses do so by constructing a narrative, in which the body, mind or character is assigned the role of protagonist. The senses thus create the possibility of actions that are understood as intentional.

There is already a moral senses theory in ethics, but this theory is weird. It seems to be based on the way people thought about senses in the seventeenth century, with a reality that is displayed one-on-one in our mind’s eye (or ear, nose, skin, tongue). If it was up to ethicists, surgeons would still dedicate themselves to the noble art of phlebotomy.
I will ignore that theory and come up with an alternative description of moral senses, one that fits a contemporary understanding of our sensory perception; senses do not just register external reality, no, they organize reality.

In the first place, I distinguish moral senses that create an ‘individual self’. The senses give a coherent image of our body, our mind and our character. They enable us to make choices that we think are ours. Secondly, there are senses that construct a ‘social self’. These senses allow us to be part of a community, based on our ability to sense what another person feels and on our need for ultimate explanations.

Senses of the individual self

Proprioception as a moral sense

The idea of moral senses comes from reflections about the phenomenon of ‘proprioception’, it ensures that we recognize our limbs as belonging to our bodies so that we can move those limbs in a controlled and coordinated way. Often proprioception is called the sixth sense, namely the sense with which we experience our body as a whole. This experience usually takes place unconsciously, which explains why there is hardly any attention in conventional descriptions of sensory perception.

If we see senses as ways in which our brain is able to understand the outside world, there seem to be no reason to introduce forms of perception? If it is so easy to talk about a sixth sense, then it might be reasonable to look further than the five functions introduced by Aristotle (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste).

What proprioception shows is that senses not only register the outside world, but that senses are functions of the brain. In the case of proprioception case, the brain provides a mental map of the body, so that the body is perceived as a coherent unit that can be centrally controlled and that can respond to circumstances outside the body.

Proprioception creates a mental map, which indicates that our senses give meanings to things around us. When it comes to physical senses, it concerns categories such as taste, color, tone, which are applied to classify reality. These classifications enable us to respond in the right way to external changes.

Unlike the five classical senses, proprioception can be said to be a moral sense (actually it is better to speak of a proto-moral sense). With this kind of senses, the meanings given to things are meanings that can be understood as either good or bad: something is tasty or dirty, ugly or beautiful, attractive or repulsive, nice or scary. In short, we order the experiences on the basis of normative schemes. The interpretation of our experiences results in emotions that encourage us to make a moral choice.

What is good or bad with proprioception? In my opinion, the moral role of this sense has to do with the way in which we understood cleanliness and dirtiness. In this, the boundary between the body and the external world is decisive for what we see as clean and dirty. Things that cross the boundary between the body and the external world are seen as dirty. Blood, sweat, sperm, snot and pus are generally considered to be taboo, they are dirty because they draw our attention to the fact that the border between ourselves and the world is not impenetrable.

The guarding of boundaries is an essential function of moral senses. It concerns the boundary between the ‘self’ and the rest of the world that is crucial to the idea of control (that idea is, as will be seen later, an illusion). So, body control comes down to the realization that all those limbs belong to you and that they do what you want. What does not belong to your body obeys to a much lesser extent.

Incidentally, sensing our body does not have to stop at the border of our skin. We have no problems experiencing clothing, cutlery, musical instruments or cars as extensions of our bodies.

A final point that is important in moral senses is that meaning in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ amounts to the construction of a storyline, an episode in which a protagonist encounters something that must be reacted by the protagonist. Proprioception ensures that the body becomes the protagonist in the story that acts as a unit.

The mind as a moral sense

If we can present the body as a protagonist, we can also see the mind as such a protagonist. According to Daniel Dennett, various information flows are brought together in the consciousness and they are transformed into a coherent story. This coherent story makes intentionality possible, the unity of our mind gives us the impression that our choices are deliberate choices and that our actions are deliberate actions. Of course, we do most things without giving these too much attention. We can breathe, eat, and walk without even noticing it. We can also do extremely complex activities such as driving a car or playing the piano without thinking about it. But also decisions that we believe have been made consciously of are in many cases the result of unconscious mental processes. Time and time again, psychological experiments have shown that we are not as rational as we think, and that the reasons that our consciousness think are real are nothing more than rationalizations, while the genuine motives are to be found elsewhere.

This does not mean that we do not have free will. It means that our free will does not take the form as it shows itself to our consciousness. The denial of free will or intentionality usually seems to be based on the rejection of the idea that our brain is being operated by a little man in the brain – the homunculus. But even philosophers see that such a little man does not exist (or can exist). The conscious mind appears as an ‘epiphenomenon’, it is the result of a collection of different information processing streams. Intentionality can best be seen as a narrative of the brain that turns our beings into protagonists of a story.

Moreover, there are also things done that are genuinely on purpose. For many activities we depend on our ability to make informed plans. Our large prefrontal cortex is not really as useless as a cecum or coccyx. Just try to divide 345 by 15 only you’re your gut feeling.

We can also reflect on our decisions and internalize those reflections. We retrieve a decision for our mind’s eye and see if we made right decision. If we find ourselves in a similar situation, we might just pay a little bit more attention. In this way, new patterns can be created, which means that new intuitive reactions emerge that actually are the result of the conscious work of our mind.

As with proprioception, the unity of the mind is based on maintaining a boundary, namely the boundary between processes that are deliberate and processes that are not. Just like the limits of the body, this limit is far from unambiguous. The brain can indeed fool itself and we can be taken over by processes far beyond the scope of intentionality, usually in the case of benign addictions and inconsistent habits.

Character as a moral sense

The mind creates a story of the now. Impressions are organized in such a way that the illusion of control is possible. We also create unity by reconstructing our entire life as a coherent story. Our character determines who we are here, we create a ‘biographical self’ that helps us to make the moral choices that we think are right because they suit us.

Losing such a biographical self, for example because of Alzheimer’s disease, affects the core of our being: without being able to act as part of a story that unfolds in the course of time, we lose our personality.

The biographical self provides a narrative, but it is a fictional story. The brain is constantly adjusting memories so that it does not conflict with the idea of our identity. In other words, the brain determines and guards the boundaries of the self: with each action and every normative assessment, it must be tested what belongs to the I that I am or to the I that I am not.

Senses of the social self

The three moral senses mentioned above are senses that enable us to be an individual self. But we are not only individuals, but also social animals. We experience that we are part of a community. The description of this experience in terms of moral senses allows a better understanding of ourselves as a social animal and of the moral implications that come with it.

In short, our moral senses not only provide an individual self, but also a social self. Below I explain that social self by means of the following senses: experiencing the group as a self, the symmetry of experience, and the experience of infinity.

Experiencing the group as a self

With the community that we think we are part of, we share pain and pleasure, but also our hatred and pride. In fact, the same senses play a role as at the level of an individual. Also in a group we experience a body, a mind and a character, even though these do not exist in reality.

Feeling what the group feels has strong moral consequences. We identify ourselves emotionally with the group, the standards of the group become our individual standards. We do this by making a mental map of the group we are part of, just like the brain constructs a mental map of the body.

The norms of the group form the basis of social interaction, allowing individuals to coordinate their activities as a collective. Norms allow individuals to align their actions with those of others, everyone knows what can be expected of her.

Durkheim’s ‘collective consciousness’ can be seen as a form of perception in which individuals have mastered the norms of the group. Individual moral orientations are to a large extent based on the identification with a community that exceeds the simple aggregation of individuals. You acquire such common norms through imitation and punishment. We see how other people do things and make their norms into our own ones. Sanctions often have an implicit character: an angry look can be taken as a sign that someone’s understanding of a norm does not match someone else’s. The hardly noticeable discomfort can be reason enough to adjust a norm.

Social collectives also have a ‘collective character’, a shared identity or a common biography that enables individuals to participate in joint actions and legitimizes the given social order. Such a social order can be seen as a belief system that contains myths and histories which gives the group an overarching identity and a common goal.

Also the construction of a collective identity is all about boundaries, namely those between those ‘us’ and ‘them’. The story we share as a collective is often based and strengthened by the construction of outsider groups that are seen as an existential threat to the identity of our own group. History shows how we protect the boundary between ourselves and the others, just as we protect the boundaries of our bodies, by excluding the others and seeing infiltrators as filth. Analogous to the body, boundaries between groups allow the perception of self-control and the capacity to act as a collective.

This moral sensory experience has undoubtedly been of use in our evolution within tribal structures, but that has changed. Traditional societies determined the personality of the individual. In modern societies it is often the other way around, one firstly is an individual and secondly a person defined by her community. The modern social order is both complex and ambiguous. Individuals are part of a heterogeneous network of coalitions, such as families, circle of friends, football clubs and companies.

Since the nineteenth century, the nation is often supposed to be a natural community. Culture, language and history are then seen as the qualities that turn us into us. The moral hazard of this is that it contributes to a discourse of ‘us’ against ‘them’, which is expressed in the call to defuse ‘intruders’ – language that we unfortunately still can recognize in contemporary politics.

But a nation is primarily an imagined community that consists of a group of people of whom we do not know the vast majority and whose only tangible common denominator seems to be that everyone has the same passport. Yet, we often have the feeling of belonging and having a shared destiny. Sometimes we share our pride, for example when the country gets a medal at the Olympic Games. But enemies in the stadium are often friends in a different setting. The experience of a community can no longer be equated with the imagined community of the nation (or any imagined community). The tendency to search for a group that determines our identity must be countered. Certainly in this case we have to distrust our instincts and look for a conditional and flexible idea of community.

The symmetry of experience

Our empathic abilities allow us to feel what others feel. Our mirror neurons make it possible not just to recognize the feelings of others, but also to actually experience them. When we see someone suffering pain, the brain lets us experience this pain – perhaps not in the same intensity, yet the brain receives the same stimuli it receives when your own body is in pain. The ability to feel the feelings of others actually creates a symmetry in physical experience.

The symmetry of experience goes further than just empathy. It is also about recognizing the wishes, needs and intentions of others. We are ‘mind readers’, we only have to look at someone else’s eyes to have an idea what someone thinks. It is not for nothing that we are the only primates with visible eye whites – that helps to read the thoughts of someone else.

Recognizing the intentions of others is an essential condition for collaboration: if you know what others are going to do, you can adjust your own actions. In short, recognizing emotions and intentions allows an individual to be part of a larger collective of individuals.
The ability to read thoughts is also reflected in the innate urge to help someone in need. Experiments show that this urge is already present in very small children. That requires quite something: before a child can help, it must recognize the situation, be aware that it can do something itself, recognize that the other person is in need, and internalize that need. Yet toddlers can do this even before they recognize their reflection as themselves.
We are good mind readers, but still we make mistakes. There would be far less #Metoo-affairs if that hadn’t been the case. We also try to project intentions on inanimate objects, sometimes we feel pain when a robot or a toy is violated, or are we afraid of the power lust of too clever artificial intelligence.

Empathy does not mean that we are naturally inclined to be kind to each other. Knowing what hurts is useful when you want to hurt someone; knowing how people are inclined to respond can invite strategic and sometimes even violent behavior. This is because people seek power, or in rare cases, have psychopathic tendencies. Moreover, we are empathetic to those whom we think are part of our social group. Our mirror neurons discriminate on the basis of who belongs to us and who does not. The ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others thus helps to maintain the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The experience of infinity

Descartes stated that people are able to experience ‘infinity’ . We are looking for ultimate explanations for the reality that we perceive and we seem to assume a transcendental order that gives such explanations.

Of the moral senses this is clearly the most enigmatic one. What we truly perceive as ‘infinity’ is not really clear, it is a feeling that is impossible to express. Also its evolutionary role is ambiguous, some would say it is a ‘spandrel’, an architectural decoration that has no function. Our idea of infinity would then be such a non-functional element that happened to arise during our evolutionary development. As Freud claimed, our great brain caused us to see that we were mortal, which led us to reflect on what lies behind reality. Other scientists argue that believing in a supernatural reality helps to keep a community intact. In any case, an outer-worldly order is the strongest legitimation of a social order.
Unlike it is the case with the other moral senses, the experience of infinity does not come with an innate story, instead such a story is constructed within a community in the form of myths and religions. Thus meanings are given to the empirical phenomena around us.

Most of the moral rules we employ are based on the statements of the worldly order in terms of non-secular statements, of myths and of divine intentions. Perhaps you can say that rationality has become the source of ultimate truth since Enlightenment. But rationality does not seem to meet the need for ultimate explanations. An inanimate physical universe is an ‘absurd’ universe. Apparently there is nothing that can direct our moral choices, there are only contingent social rules and individual preferences. Myths seem to be much more effective: shared stories show worldly things as a reflection of a divine order that is eternal and unchangeable. The eternal order is what is real, its earthly representation is only a replica.

This transcendental order gives us an idea of ‘purity’. The unpredictability, the imperfections and the conflicts that characterize our conventional social orders can be solved by following the right, unchangeable, rules. For example, in the case of nationalism, where faith in a ‘pure nation’ is seen as a viable future vision and encourages many zealous people to impose moral rules.

A metaphysical order is often used to legitimize a moral order. This is not the intention of Emmanuel Levinas. He also relies on the experience of infinity, but in his cases this is a worldly manifestation of that experience. According to Levinas, reality is an organic, seamless whole, in which language forces us to use categories and classifications. The experience of infinity manifests itself in a pre-linguistic (or pre-ontological) awareness of the arbitrariness of these categorizations. We feel that language is inadequate, but we can never express that, because that would only be possible through the language, which, as we know, falls short. For Levinas, it is the awareness of the inadequacy of language that forms the core of ethical behavior: we must be open to the experience of infinity and accept the arbitrariness of linguistic classifications. To this end, we can be stimulated by the confrontations with others: recognizing that other individuals are also struggling with the inadequacy of linguistic schemes, shows us how imperfect and vulnerable we are.

One problem is that the classifications no longer only concern language. It is not just about social and moral rules, it is often about overarching institutions that create their reality. For example, unitary states have organized themselves around the idea of nationality. However, large groups of people, such as immigrants, refugees, or ethical minorities, do not fit this classification. They end up ‘between’ the rules and are not only vulnerable because of the impossibility to find the language that fits the non-linguistic reality, they are especially vulnerable because they themselves do not fit anywhere and can be victims of institutional, political and social arbitrariness.

According to Levinas, ethics should not be about moral rules or metaphysical legitimacy, it is about increasing the awareness that such rules and legitimations only apply conditionally. Ethic should point towards the vulnerability that we share, no one is able to escape from weaknesses and unforeseen circumstances. In addition, I believe that based on this awareness of vulnerability, we have the duty to care for those who are even more vulnerable because they do not fit the institutionalized classifications.

The recognition of vulnerability, however, is not easy. Many people seem to have connected their identity with a specific social or transcendental order. Norms are quickly absolutized. Our moral senses can easily be tempted. It is important to see this as moral delusion and we must force ourselves to come to different insights through reflection and discussion. Insights that can ultimately lead to the reassessment of our intuitions, in such a way that our moral emotions and reactions fit the moral demands of our times.

Further reading:

Anderson, B. A. (1983). Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, New York, 15.
Bauman, Z. (2013). Modernity and the Holocaust: John Wiley & Sons.
Clark, A. (2001). Natural-born cyborgs? Cognitive technology: Instruments of mind, 17-24.
Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, rationality and the human brain. New York Putnam.
Dennett, D. C. (1996). Kinds of Minds: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness (Science Masters S.).
Dennett, D. C. (2017). Consciousness explained: Little, Brown.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and danger; an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. New York: Praeger.
Durkheim, E. (1973). Emile Durkheim on morality and society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Gallagher, S. (2000). Philosophical conceptions of the self: implications for cognitive science. Trends in cognitive sciences, 4(1), 14-21.
Gallese, V., & Goldman, A. (1998). Mirror neurons and the simulation theory of mind-reading. Trends in cognitive sciences, 2(12), 493-501.
Gintis, H., Van Schaik, C., Boehm, C., Chapais, B., Flack, J. C., Pagel, M., . . . Erdal, D. (2015). Zoon Politikon: The evolutionary origins of human political systems. Current Anthropology, 56(3), 340-341.
Goldstein, D. G., & Gigerenzer, G. (2002). Models of ecological rationality: the recognition heuristic. Psychological review, 109(1), 75.
Gould, S. J. (1991). Exaptation: A crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology. Journal of Social issues, 47(3), 43-65.
Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature, 450(7169), 557-559.
Levinas, E. (1996). Emmanuel Levinas: basic philosophical writings: Indiana University Press.
Pesch, U. (2019). Making Sense of the Self: An Integrative Framework for Moral Agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour.
Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., Willard, A. K., . . . Henrich, J. (2016). Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature.
Ramachandran, V. (1998). Consciousness and body image: lessons from phantom limbs, Capgras syndrome and pain asymbolia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 353(1377), 1851-1859.
Rosch, E. (1999). Principles of categorization. Concepts: core readings, 189-206.
Sacks, O. W. (1998). A leg to stand on: Simon and Schuster.
Solomon, R. C. (1993). The passions: Emotions and the meaning of life. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Vollmer, F. (2005). The narrative self. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 35(2), 189-205.
Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science, 311(5765), 1301-1303.
Wong, D. B. (1992). Coping with moral conflict and ambiguity. Ethics, 102(4), 763-784.
Zimbardo, P. G. (1992). Psychology and life: HarperCollins Publishers.

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Misunderstandings about the freedom of speech: About the rules for the public debate

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The public debate is one of the pillars of democracy. But not many people seem to know the rules of that debate, mostly it is propagated that you should be able to say everything – so to respect the freedom of expression. But participation in the public debate requires more than just freedom, it also requires empathy and resilience, it requires self-control, reflection and nuance. In addition to the persisting in the misunderstanding that everything can be said without contradiction, there are also other developments that affect the quality of the public debate: old media that tend to present a polarized debate instead of a plurality of perspectives view, new media that contribute to the privatization of the debate, and large groups of people that are excluded from the debate. In this paper, I describe the rules of the public debate, its threats and possible solutions.

We grow up with the idea that your own opinion is almost sacred. At school, we learn to emphasize the individuality of our opinion while presenting it in essays and group discussions. Also, if somebody says something bad or stupid in the media and is being held accountable for that mistake, then one may expect references that the right to free speech is obstructed. There should be no limits to our capacity to say everything we want. Or should there?

For a dogma that is found to be so important, it is actually surprising how poorly it is understood what the freedom of speech pertains to. Of course there are rules and restrictions within a public debate. These may not concern the content of an opinion, but they do involve the way in which we have to accept the consequences of expressing that opinion. The misunderstandings about the nature of the public debate and its rules are all the more damaging because the quality of this debate is being undermined by other developments as well. As such, it is high time to clarify these rules and the duties that come with them.

To begin with, it is important to recognize that having an opinion is not so special. Everyone has opinions, about everything. That is how our brain works. What we observe and experience is classified as good or not good. This enables you to make the right choice. In prehistoric times, these choices concerned fundamental questions: is the food safe and nutritious, is an animal threatening or not, is another person a friend or an enemy? Nowadays, they are mainly about matters of taste. You want to eat what you like, read a book from which you learn something, put on the music that you like. Your taste is by definition an individual matter, you can decide for yourself what you like or not.

However, not everything that we have an opinion about is an individual matter. One of the key assets of our society is that we also have an opinion about what that society should look like. That is an individual opinion, but it is one that is intended to contribute to the public opinion, an opinion that concerns matters that relate to society as a whole.

We usually do not realize how special it is to have a public debate about public opinion, but it requires quite some leaps of faith. First, members must recognize themselves as members of a society that is not the same as the political unity of the state. That society does not consist of laws or governments, but it only exists in the heads of the people who are part of it – it is an imaginary.

That imaginary society is given an opinion, meaning that people talk to each other in order to come to agreement about what that opinion should be. It is already difficult when you have to decide with your friends where to go on your next city trip, but that is easy if you compare it with the effort needed to come to a shared opinion about what is important for society as a whole. After all, we are talking about millions of people who do not know each other.

Obviously this is impossible. Also the pursued consensus is an imaginary one: we think that there is such a thing as a shared public opinion, and that representation makes it possible for us to talk about that opinion and act upon it.

To organize the conversation about public opinion, we need media. Once these included only newspapers. But nowadays we have radio, TV, and of course internet as means that enable us to take stock of the repertoire opinions and that enable us to express opinions ourselves. We read something, we talk about that something with friends and colleagues and when we feel the urge to do so we write a letter, give comments or likes, fill in a poll, or write a blog post. In this way we contribute to the further formation of the imaginary public opinion.

The public opinion must be able to give the idea that every individual can contribute to it in a meaningful way. Not that the public opinion is the sum of all those millions of opinions, but it is important that most people can recognize themselves in the opinions expressed in the public debate. This means that the debate must include a diversity of opinions so that we can take note of different visions, which helps us to develop our own ideas.

Nowadays that diversity has become limited to a binary repertoire of meanings that exists of either being in favor or against a certain position, a thumbs up or thumbs down. The aforementioned media strongly contribute to this, with the tendency to invite only supporters and opponents of a certain position in speak out on a public issue. Such a limitation is a serious threat of the quality of the public debate and must be counteracted by all means.

Above I stated that you can see society as separated from the political body of the state, but of course politics and society are intimately intertwined. You could see elections as one of the few moments when public opinion actually becomes concrete. For one day only we know where we stand. What the elected politicians subsequently discuss and decide can be seen as the counterpoint of the public debate. The letters in the newspaper, the conversations in the talk shows and the posts on Twitter are often about what politicians should do or should have done.

It is very important to emphasize the difference between taste and a contribution to the formation of public opinion. Taste is subjective. Whether you prefer pizza over pasta is up to you. It would be really strange if you like Justin Bieber more than The Beatles, but as long as you put headphones on, there is no problem.

Things change when it comes to matters that concern society as a whole. Obviously you can say that people who listen to Justin Bieber should be banned. But don’t be surprised if will become mad at you. Because this opinion concerns society as a whole, it means to be a subjective opinion, it is an opinion that relates to what we should all be able to agree upon. For such an opinion you can be held accountable.

Expressing such a general opinion implies that you open yourself up to criticism. When it comes to taste, someone else can agree or disagree with you, but that’s it. A discussion about public opinion, however, it is not about a personal opinion, it is about an opinion that could be shared. Such an opinion affects everyone and, hence, everyone can also criticize this.

Usually criticism concerns the argumentative logic with which opinion is expressed. In that case the assumptions used and/or the conclusions are challenged. Unsurprisingly, given the low level of opinions stated in newspapers and blogs.

What is not allowed in the public debate is self-interest. Of course your personal background influences your opinion, but that background may never fully determine your opinion. You have to be able to speak from a general point of view and you have to be able to show that you can look at things from different angles. This requires self-control and reflection. Criticasters are prone to show that someone has come to an opinion solely on the basis of self-interest, which can be enough reason to disqualify a person as a credible participant in the debate.

Only in an limited number of times, criticism concerns the content of that opinion. Usually that leads to consternation. ‘You have to be able to say what you think’, ‘don’t we live in a free country’, and other exclamations that suggest that there is censorship and the impairment of individual freedom. People will climb the barricades, exclaiming themselves as champions of the free word. But those are weird reactions: when it comes to an opinion that we should share, an opponent must be able to say that certain opinions are reprehensible. After all, that reaction can also be criticized, so it is premature to talk about censoring ideas.

In principle, everyone involved should be able to participate in such a public debate. But it does not work like that. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, women and workers were not allowed to participate. They were not rational enough or the lack of money compromised their ability to come to a rational decision. At least that was those were official reasons, but obviously this had to do with the power that the bourgeoisie did not want to give up.

Nowadays, children and tourists are still not allowed to participate. Sure, they may send a letter to the paper, but voting rights are out of reach. There are also more subtle forms of exclusion. For example, the nature of the public debate grants higher educated people easier access, they know the right sources and have the right words. People who do not have a good command of a language or have the required self-control will have difficulty participating in a debate.

One problem here is that politics is becoming increasingly technocratic, becoming too complex for many to contribute to a debate in a sensible way. It is certainly not the case that the so-called elite is appropriating the debate, but it is true that a debate that is conducted in technocratic terms excludes large groups of people – which brings about many negative consequences.

Another point here is that many current discussions are about immigrants and refugees. It is striking that these discussion usually exclude those people that are discussed, the immigrants and refugees themselves. There are many people who think that these newcomers should not be able participate, as they are considered not to belong to our society (and yes, that may be said, only one should not be surprised if that raises the objection that this is a morally reprehensible opinion). In addition, they often cannot participate, for reasons mentioned above.

The mechanisms of exclusion described above must be given careful attention, as they lead to inequality and to a failed public debate. Just like the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, many are unwilling to give up their position, but it is necessary for the quality and legitimacy of the public debate that this is organized as inclusively as possible.

You must be able to learn what it means to participate in democratic processes. In a public role, one must be able to reason from the general interest, an attitude that requires the necessary training. You practice yourself as a citizen when you discuss general issues such as art or football. Is Rembrandt a better painter than Van Gogh and who should be the striker of the national team? Irrelevant questions perhaps, but questions that compel you to take an objective and neutral position. You are trained in environments that are generally regarded as private, traditionally they were churches and freemason lodges, later they became coffee houses and football canteens.

But where does the real game start? When do you take a public role and when a private role, when is an occasion a public or a private setting? That is not always clear. Sexist or racist talk can be found acceptable within the private domain of a locker room or a bar. A bad joke on twitter or in a talk show, on the other hand, can lead to controversy. It is just not always clear whether an environment is public or private.

An additional problem is that many social media tend to ‘privatize’ the debate. The algorithms of Facebook and Youtube do not give rise to a diversity of opinions – on the contrary, they construct a proverbial ‘bubble’ which only mirrors and reinforces the opinion you already had. This is their business model, the number of clicks determines how much advertising revenue comes in. The perverse effect is that participants may think that they participate in a public debate and as such they make statements that should apply to society as a whole, and, in the absence of contradiction, they may end up with extremist statements.

What about Twitter? Although apart from Twitter itself nobody understands how Twitter works, it may be true that on this platform controversial claims will be noticed earlier. But as Sabrine van Rossum showed in her thesis, it does not lead to a public debate. Most tweets seem to come from bots and companies, both actors (if you can label them as such) who should not take part in a public debate. After all, their interests are exclusively self-interests. Also here, we are dealing with the privatization of the public debate.

It must be clear what the essence of the public debate is, so that we can understand and avoid the threats presented above. The development of the public debate is too important to be lost. But what can we do to improve the public debate?

First of all, there is a task for education, it is not just about learning how to express an opinion, but also about learning how to deal with criticism. This is not the only thing. It also requires more semi-public environments in which people can ‘train’ what it means to think in ‘general’ terms. Very old-fashioned, but that is primarily a call for the development of a stronger civil society. Associations, clubs, organizations where people can talk about what should apply to everyone. Even if it concerns the quality of the coffee, the minutes of the last meeting, or Justin Bieber.

It is essential for old media to counteract trends of polarization. The template of in favor-or-against is very clear and gives the image of neutrality, but is disastrous for the quality of the debate. Instead, media must strive for diversity and pluralism. That is much more important than the prevailing obsession with ‘fact-checking’. The idea that if people know which choice to make once they have the ‘correct’ information is a textbook example of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’, confusing fact that can be verified with opinions that can be debated.

The importance of having a normative diversity is of the utmost importance for involving excluded groups of people in the public debate. These groups must be informed about opinions in which they can recognize themselves, but also about alternative opinions that help them qualify their own opinions. This requires a broad pallet of possible visions and insights. Much more than is currently provided.

New media must be mistrusted as platforms for the public debate. These are meant to make money, not to organize the public debate. Countering ‘fake news’ and deploying algorithms that filter out unwanted opinions will not help – see my points above.

Finally, humility and forgiveness are of the utmost importance. It is not easy to participate in the public debate. It requires qualities that not everyone has. The rules and requirements are often difficult to master. It is often not clear whether someone is in a public or private setting. Errors will be made, just as bad jokes and improper remarks. It is all part of the deal. Of course, a person must be held accountable for making an error, but it is not necessary to persecute the person himself – after all, it is about the opinion that is expressed. In short, we must be able to learn what it means to be part of the public debate, which is not a question of good taste, but it is essential to maintain a democratic society.

Further reading:

Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social text(25/26), 56-80.

Habermas, J. (1999). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Borugeois Society. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Van Horn Melton, J. (2001). The rise of the public in Enlightenment Europe.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Rossum, S. (2018). Public opinion on Twitter: A case study on palm oil. Delft: TU Delft repository.


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Identity and discomfort

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Discussions about identity appear to be complicated, because it is not clear what is morally right: do we have to give up the values that we currently maintain, because they hurt the feelings of some people? Surely we don’t want to hurt other people, but is that reason enough to give up everything just like that? Or is it much more straightforward, as our liberal moral principles instruct us that we must counteract every social inequality. Here I will argue for that this is indeed the case. The fact that the liberal principles are intrinsically inconsistent does not change that.

Few debates are as frustrating as debates about identity and emancipation. Discussions about gender-neutral toilets, new letters added to the LHBT series, the heritage of slavery, women’s quota in politics and equal pay in business, and so on, they all seem to end in a deadlock of positions. Parties that pursue equality, parties that ridicule the politically correctness of it all, and other parties that feel that their own identity is threatened by all those progressive thoughts of marginal groups.

The frustrating thing is that everyone appeals to the justice of their own position (and thus to the injustice of the opponents’ positions), without having  clear way to cut this moral knot.

I will try to do so anyway (which is likely to lead to anger and disappointment among some readers). The moral starting point is that of liberal democracy, which assumes principles that are based on a division between a public and a private sphere. This division into spheres provides the freedom for individuals to decide for themselves how they want to live, but it also ensures tolerance for those who think differently.

In non-liberal societies, and that is the vast majority of all societies that have ever existed, a certain class, such as a caste, gets preferential treatment. Individuals are primarily members of their class, with the boundaries between those classes being stable and impenetrable. Liberal societies have reversed this order: egalitarian principles apply to society as a whole, without any individual having a higher or lower rank. It may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, but it is that emphasis on equality that makes produces the possibility of freedom – liberalism is not named liberalism by accident.

The trick is to have a sharp boundary between a public and private sphere. In the public sphere everyone is equal. In the private sphere you can choose what you find important, how you want to live, what you like, what you believe in, what you spend your money on, what sexual orientation you have, and so on.

In other words, our private spaces allow us to be ‘ourselves’, it is the atmosphere of the intimate, of the authentic. Here we are allowed to discriminate: we choose our loved ones, our friends, our club, our church, excluding others without any problems.

The public domain is characterized by general principles that are collectively agreed on. In this, it is above all the state that ensures that the equality of the public sphere by presenting neutral rules, laws and procedures.

But is the distinction between public and private really as sharp as we assume it is? Not really. We can oppose the sphere of intimate homeliness with the chilly sphere of the state, but that is by no means the only way to assign the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ to social spheres. For example, the not so warm sphere of the market is also considered to be private, while life on the streets can be seen as public. You could say that the notion of public can be used to describe everything that has something to do with things that are ‘open’ or ‘collective’, while you can use the notion of private to describe things that are ‘closed’ or ‘individual’.

So because we are all together, we can see ourselves as public’’, if something is not secret, then it is ‘public’ knowledge, but a store that is accessible to everyone is part of the ‘private’ sector, because it is not a provision of the state.

It is a terminological mess, which is rather unfortunate because to a large extent the categories public and private determine how we think about equality and inequality, about solidarity and freedom, about justice and honesty, about authenticity and fraternity.

The use of only two concepts for a multitude of social domains is not only confusing, it can also lead to exclusion and discrimination in ways that are sometimes barely visible.

Until recently, women had access only to the private sphere of the house, being excluded from any public sphere that could be considered as public, be it street life, the economy or politics. It is not surprising that the term ‘public woman’ was a euphemism for prostitution – if a woman had not been tucked away in the private domain, then it had to be a woman of low morality.

Labourers have had access to public life of the street or the economy, but they were excluded from a political role until voting rights were given to the entire male population. But though you could vote as a labourer, you belonged to a class that ultimately had politically and socially less worth than others.

If liberal society wants to do justice to its own principles, such forms of institutionalized inequality cannot be accepted. Groups must be able to rely on equal opportunities to enter any public domain, whether it is the street, the state or the market.

Exclusion is not just a thing of the past: homosexuals can still feel that they have to hide their sexual identity; ethnic minorities and immigrants may still feel that they have no equal access to society; disabled people can be denied access to institutions. In all, there are still emergent groups of people who realize that they do not have equal opportunities.

It is important that it is not only about the pursuit for equality, but also – and perhaps even more so – about the pursuit for freedom. If you have access to public space, it does not matter which identity you have as a private person, you can be free.

At the same time, it is important to realize that exclusion not only means that a member of a certain group does not have access to public domains, which allows that this person to decide for herself how she wants to live her life. It also means that this person must take up a role that comes with the membership of the group. Such a person is not an autonomous individual, but primarily a representative of a group. Perhaps not as stringently as it used to be, but as a woman you are often firstly a woman and as an immigrant you are often firstly an immigrant – only in second instance you can be an individual.

Identity, equality and freedom seem to be cross-linked in a paradoxical way. This leads to many issues that come to play a role in current discussions about emancipation.

Is the public debate about what is private?

Freedom is about the identity that you want to develop as an individual within a private environment. Nobody else needs to know what you do at home. That is also the starting point for emancipation, but it is only via a public debate about what can be considered private that such a freedom may be achieved. As a heterosexual, I can choose my partner, nobody will dispute that. Until recently it was totally different for a homosexual, the right to choose a partner freely had to be enforced via the public debate. For many, this right still does not come naturally.

How do you redistribute recognition instead of money?

Social inequality in liberal democracy has long been the domain of Marxist analysis, which understands exclusion mainly in socio-economic terms. In fact, the welfare state has been developed to facilitate socio-economic equality. This certainly has been a huge success. But today’s emancipation is not about money, but about recognition: it has to be admitted that groups of people have been given a role in the past that they have not been able to choose for themselves. This also involves the recognition of the historical injustice induced to minorities, the recognition that there are more gender identities than just male or female and the recognition that women still have to fight stereotypes. All this requires different redistribution methods than we are used to, it requires that people admit that they were wrong – and only few people are inclined to do so.

Is it about a group or about an individual?

Emancipatory movements focus on a certain characteristic, such as a belief, an economic class or gender. In this way, individuals inevitably become members of a collective, they become a representative of that specific characteristic. This makes it inevitable that the emancipation of an individual will take place through emancipation of the group.

How universal is the specific?

Liberalism is based on universal moral truths, which boil down to the fact that we are all equal and that we all have the inalienable right to freedom. For now and forever. Emancipatory claims appeal to these universal truths, but this is done by referring to very specific issues such as a history or culture of a certain group, or a very specific type of gender preference.

Do you want to emancipate or not?

Emancipation is a reaction to the way in which a group is excluded on the basis of a certain characteristic, a belief, an ethnicity, a sex. Usually these are not properties that someone chooses, but which are imposed externally. You do not aspire the emancipation of women in order to become a woman, but to break through a role pattern that is bestowed upon a woman. You do not opt ​​for an ethnicity, but you strive that an ethnicity should not be an obstacle to have access to the public domain. You want recognition for the characteristic that is the cause of exclusion and you also want the recognition that that identity is of no importance, as in many cases it is not something you have chosen for.

Who can actually change anything?

Emancipation always goes the expense of existing power positions and ways of thinking. At the same time, the situation can only change through the cooperation of parties that have the leverage to enforce these changes. With that, change is not in their interest, but can only be based on a moral demand.

No one has to worry about a little inconsistency. In fact, nobody can live with a consistent world view. What is important is that such inconsistencies become an easy target of criticism and ridicule. For those connected to the alt right movement, it becomes easy to doubt the integrity and reasonableness of parties and individuals that strive for equality. Any emancipatory claim can be reproached by pointing out the inferiority and hypocrisy of the underlying argumentation.

For example, you hear how men are threatened in their masculinity by feminism. Men no longer have the freedom to be men, but have to conform to imposed role patterns imposed by the politically-correct elite. This leads to the provocative question about whose freedom is most important.

That may sounds very relevant and well-considered, but the cherished masculinity has come at the expense of women’s freedom to gain access to the public domain for centuries. In fact, it suggests that freedom and equality are not the same for everyone and that those who have received it by chance do not have to change anything. The point is that no one’s freedom is more important than that of another. That is not politically correctness, but that is justice.

Many of the opposing voices in this debate are simply reactionary. Parties that feel threatened in their power position, revolt by pointing out the inevitable contradictions that come with emancipation.

But other opposing voices are not necessarily reactionary. Many people that feel attacked do not belong to groups of people who are threatened in their current position – because they hardly have such a position to begin with. This mainly concerns those who are the victims of globalization, who have now become surrounded by politically correct elites and large groups of immigrants.

Unlike reactionary comments, you must take these voices seriously. They refer to the vulnerability and the loss of stability, which both can be seen as a significant impairment of a person’s self-esteem. If you lose your job, it is not only annoying because you no longer have income, but also because it seems to say that all your previous efforts were useless. If you have went to a ladies’ or men’s room for all of your life, why would someone suddenly tell you that you should not do this any longer. Don’t you not have a right to a historically formed identity, to your own values ​​and experiences? Is the identity of other groups more important than that of your own group?

Certainly not. Also here is inequality and also here is are roles imposed upon people, this is the role of the ‘deplorables’, as coined by Hillary Clinton: those who cannot change and do not want to change. This is as unjust a label as any other stereotype. Everyone can and should be expected to reconsider positions and practices if a legitimate moral claim is made to equality – only then can we actually fulfil the liberal promises.

Further reading:

Fraser, N. (2000). Rethinking recognition. New left review, 3, 107.

Minogue, K. (1963). The moral character of liberalism: The Liberal Mind, Indianapolis, in: Liberty Fund.

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

Weintraub, J. (1997). The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction. In J. Weintraub & K. Kumar (Eds.), Public and Private in Thought and Practice. Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (pp. 1-42). Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Young, I. M. (1986). The ideal of community and the politics of difference. Social theory and practice, 12(1), 1-26.


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Democracy versus innovation: the need to look critically at technological promises

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While all kinds of new technologies will affect our future world to a great extent, there is no proper democratic discussion about the desirability of these new technologies. This is mainly because there is no good idea in the public debate about how technological development works and with that there is no notion of how technology could be steered. But we have to realize that innovation is always made by people, which compels us to think about how to influence the choices of the people that make technology. Important in this is the role of promises made by technology developers. These promises are aimed at acquiring the resources needed to further develop a technology. The credibility and desirability of such promises is almost never approached critically, while it is precisely such a critical approach that could make a democratic debate about innovation possible.

It often seems that the arrival of new technology is something inevitable. Crispr-Cas 9, smart algorithms, the self-driving car, robots, nanotechnology and so on, are all seen as inventions that cannot be controlled by society. Yes, society can shout out ‘no’, but that is again seen as backward or overly romantic, because who doesn’t want progress?

This way of looking at technology is both incorrect and frustrating. First, it simply does not match the facts, and, secondly, it prevents us from making technologies that are better.

Where does this false image come from? A first reason is the idea that technology is applied science. As if a scientific discovery is to be destined to become a new innovation. That is nonsense, there are countless discoveries that have never led to a new technology. First someone has to come to the idea of ​​whether such a discovery has an application somewhere – the step from quantum mechanics to CDs is not at all an obvious step. There are also many technologies based on phenomena that are not understood by anyone, but hey, if it works, it works.

(Between brackets, it is much more sensible to see science as applied technology. All those laboratory setups, those computer models, tele- and microscopes, it’s these instruments that bring us new insights. What we see with our naked eyes is not trustworthy enough to be turned into facts.)

A second reason why the false image of an inevitable technology is maintained is that it is easy. If something goes wrong, nobody has to take the blame. This is not only due to laziness or the neoliberal (and very malignant) mantra that legislation hampers innovation, it is also difficult to blame someone for the possible negative consequences of new technology: usually these are unintended and also the consequences of an innovation depend on so many factors that you cannot almost never only blame its developer. In short, because of the absence of bad intentions and the impossibility to estimate the eventual consequences, it is unfair to hold an individual innovator accountable for cases in which a technology goes wrong.

We need to develop a different image of innovation, a correct image that helps us to understand how technologies are developed so that the process of innovation can be democratized and that, moreover, enables us to hold technology developers responsible for their actions, at east to a certain extent.

This correct image is based on the simple fact that a technology is always the result of certain choices made by people – a technology does not make itself. To be specific, it is about the choice to allocate resources. One of the most important resources is time: someone must be crazy enough to develop a technology. In this, the inventor who works for decades on the umpteenth perpetuum mobile in his shed is not different from the nerd from Silicon Valley who comes with a new app. Another important resource is money. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about companies that have to make financial means available for R&D or about start-ups that need investors to develop their product further – they all need money. Another resource is knowledge. The fact that technology is not an applied science does not mean, that knowledge is not needed to make today’s technology. In fact, today’s technology only becomes more complex and therefore requires more and more knowledge, just like it requires more time and money. But there are more resources, such as the institutions that should make the further introduction of the new technology possible (or in any case should not resist it). Laws, policies, the rules of the market, networks of actors that support the success of your technology, social support and so on.

If you want to study technology development, you should mainly look at the resources that are being spent. What you also need to look at are the motivations of those who devote their scarce resources to a new technology form which you never know whether it will have any success. There is the faith of the lonely inventor and there is the wage of the professional who works at a R&D department of a company. But what is especially interesting is to look at how someone manages to sell this belief to others.

That means we have to look at the promises a technology developer makes to acquire the resources he needs to make his technology a success. A first type of promise is that a new technology will make an investor money or that it will solve a business problem. Here, you could think of a new product or a new administrative system. Another kind of promise, which plays a greater role in the more fundamental forms of technology development such as genetic modification or nanotechnology, is that a new technology will help to solve a major social problem. Genetic technology and nanotechnology are supported by the medical and social breakthroughs that they can bring about. The climate problem also lends itself to all kinds of technical solutions.

All too often you can hear promise makers cry out that there should be no ban on genetic modification, because you do want fight global hunger, right? Please, invest in nanotechnology because maybe that leads to the cure of cancer. And besides, if the West will not do it, then the Chinese will. So just put your trust in us.

What also works is referring to previous successes. I already mentioned that without quantum mechanics, we would not have CDs, a willingly expressed argument to legitimize new investments in fundamental physics. Because you never know which gadgets we will have in the future due to science.

Someone who has turned making promises into a business model is Elon Musk. One success, the Tesla, is used to convince investors to put money into a host of other technologies – even though most of these are rather silly. So there is a mission to Mars, which should be the solution to the climate problem on Earth, there is the improved brain, which should be a solution for our limited mind, there is the Hyperloop that is to counter congestion, but mostly looks like a sewer system that allows you to flush people.

Promises that create great expectations therefore are essential for acquiring the resources needed to turn a technology into something real. There is a cyclical dynamic in which promises can lead to the fulfillment of these promises, which can support the legitimacy of new promises. In cases that a technology is not successful, it is precisely the shortage of resources that gets the blame: too little money, too much legislation, society was not ready. Promise makers have little difficulty to express such arguments while their credibility remains unexamined.

But is it all that desirable not to question big technological promises? What promises should we actually find worth pursuing. And how credible are these promises? Are the problem definitions that are intrinsic to a promise correct and do they not exclude alternative definitions?

We can go to Mars, but is that the solution to the climate problem? I don’t think so. Even if we can manipulate the climate on Mars in such a way that people can live there, the climate on Earth will still be much more attractive, even with a sea level rise of a six meter. If not Mars, what about geo-engineering, a solution proposed by others? Is that a solution? Perhaps if you see climate change as the main problem, but is it not so that the real problem is that that we are polluting too much and is it not more sensible to find a solution to that problem?

Does a sewer system for people really mean that we will not be stuck in traffic jams any longer? If it concerns one Tesla, then that tube will solve congestion, but not much will be gained if we all go underground. Though what we will have are seismic risks, a good target for terrorists and an endless series of lawsuits about fundamental rights.

The problem is that we do have discussions about the desirability of technologies, but never about the desirability and credibility of technological promises – while exactly these seem to be decisive. If we really start thinking about a democratic debate about the sort of technology we want and about the responsibilities we want to designate to technology developers, then we should talk about the promises that are made, about the expectations that are being cultivated, about which social problems have to be solved and about the extent to which you can ask promise-makers to account for their promises.

Further reading:

Bijker, Wiebe E (1997) Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change: MIT press).

Borup, Mads, Nik Brown, Kornelia Konrad & Harro Van Lente (2006) ‘The sociology of expectations in science and technology’, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 18(3-4):285-98.

Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society: Harvard university press).

Rip, Arie & René Kemp (1998) ‘Technological change’, in S. Rayner & E.L. Malone (eds), Human Choice and Climate Change (Columbus: Battelle Press): 327-99.


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Our extended thinking

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How rational is our brain? Can our limited mind compete with computers? Questions that are easily posed, but which assume a wrong idea of ​​how human cognition works (or should work). Though our brain seems to make us think that there is some kind of processor in our heads that takes care of everything, this is just not the way it works. Our thinking is a rich and heterogeneous complex of ways to methods to external stimuli. Artificial intelligence is perhaps faster, but also many times poorer. To become smarter, it is necessary to increase our own collective cognitive capacity, especially by creating new knowledge by dialogue. Relying on the ever increasing computing power of digital systems only leads to the decline of this collective cognitive capacity.

Compared to the computer, our brain seems to be inferior thinking machine, with limited speed, a bad memory and prone to errors. A machine that is also distracted by emotions and impulses. If only we could think purely on the basis of universal calculation methods that are independent from any physical or other random circumstances. In that case, we would take the same kind of decision in all circumstances, able to process all information with a cool head. In short, the kind of thinking that we call ‘rational’.

No wonder that we like to look for artificial intelligence or medicines that ‘improve’ the brain. Just putting a plug into our heads so that we will never forget anything, concentrate better, be more productive. No wonder, too, that we are afraid of the computers that are getting smarter, are they perhaps even smarter than us?

The computer makes us jealous, because they think exactly as we would have liked to be thinking. After all, the computers that we know are about input, algorithmic processing and output. A clear and unambiguously structured process that is not be disturbed by anything.

That computers can do this so well is no miracle. After all, artificial thinking has been developed precisely on the assumption that the human brain works like this – and for a long time we thought we had the exclusive right to rationality. You see, hear, smell or feel what, the conscious brain thinks about that impression and determines what the optimal action is. Run away, say ‘ouch’ raise your ears, react with a sharp remark, build a pyramid, and so on. The quest of computer builders is to mechanically reproduce this process. Via punch card machines such as the pianola, eventually supercomputers have been created that can process incredibly large quantities of zeros and ones.

The desire to upgrade the brain and the fear for a computer that is smarter than ourselves are two sides of the same coin. Both attitudes are based on a completely false picture of our cognitive abilities. That brain of us does not work at all like a computer, just as there is no consciousness that acts as a director of our thinking and acting. It may seem like that, but not everything is what it seems.

The computer is a reconstruction of a flawed idea of ​​the human mind. Meanwhile we know that our brain is not so ‘rational’ at all, evolution has made the brain much smarter than that.

In the first place, human cognition to a large degree takes outside of the brain. For instance, the sum 323 divided by 17 is quite difficult to solve until you pick up pen and paper and make a simple tail division. You forget your groceries quickly, unless you write them down on a list. If a draftsman wants to draw something from the his memory, then there is almost never a drawing directly on paper. Instead, the draftsman first sketches something, he looks at his pencil marks to see what he remembers. His fingers holding the pen are in dialogue with the paper, a dialogue that shows his eyes what he remembers. In short, we do a lot of thinking with our hands and our eyes and with our technology, much more than we realize – we are natural-born cyborgs.

In this way, computers are no more than a further expansion of our brain. The brain does not need an upgrade, the computer already is the upgrade. You also do not have to worry that the computer is overtaking us in brainpower, no, that computer is our brainpower. (That fear is a bit strange to start with, also from the viewpoint of the classical brain-world dichotomy; in many things, computers are already far better thinkers than us, tail divisions that are so large that they do not fit on a wallpaper roll, are a piece of cake, even for the cheapest PC.)

Second, your consciousness is not the director of your decisions. Consciousness is a reconstruction of the brain. It is an illusion, a film that is displayed in our inner cinema. The idea that we are on top of everything enables us to respond quickly and adequately to external changes. That your consciousness communicates that your right leg is part of your body helps you to kick a ball. With that, physical reactions can be coordinated effectively. Your consciousness also enables you to learn things. By having previous experiences on display on your inner film screen and by thinking about them, you can improve yourself, just like the striker who has to take a penalty kick will check his memory how he can do it best.

Some neurologists think that it means that we are not making conscious decisions at all, if our consciousness is not what it seems. That is a silly thought, the football player who makes a goal by kicking the ball with his right leg, makes a conscious goal – even though invisible neurological processes have been taking place. There is no reason for him not to cheer.

What consciousness also does is to focus our attention onto something. Our thinking is not only extensive, but also targeted at a concrete situation. First our consciousness ‘places’ us in a certain situation and only then does it come to mind what the right thought is. By the way, situating that situation is closely related to the role of emotions: they prepare us to think by structuring the situation and then turn to action. In short, without emotion, no thinking and no action. In other words, the brain looks not at all like a box of algorithms that can do their work anywhere and anytime.

It is not only that we expand our thinking by using pens, paper and machines. It is an essence of human thinking that we do this together. This is possible thanks to the only feature that makes us truly unique: our command of language. Elephants and dolphins may have more brains, but we have a better larynx. Language allows us to store, collect and, above all, transfer information to others. Especially having the capacity to write it down, allows us to constantly expand our knowledge and our cognitive abilities. Just look at philosophy, in which we continue to build on what Plato and Aristotle have been writing 23 centuries ago.

We use language not only to communicate with each other and to learn from each other, but also to think about ourselves. Perhaps the football players who scores a goal does not have linguistic thoughts, but if you calculate a sum, it helps to start a dialogue with yourself. You will speak inside your head as if you are speaking to someone else, this gives you the ability to give possible answers, to test them and if necessary to correct them. Language allows you to take distance yourself from yourself, to see yourself as a consciously thinking being. This is really important: the idea that you see yourself as a conscious being makes you a conscious being. We pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair.

But still, wouldn’t you want to be able to think just a little bit faster. Play chess a little better, write more papers and what not. You could come a long way by using smart drugs. But accessing the internet with a plug in your head, as some techno enthusiasts claim, seems as likely as the belief that cryonism will bring people back to life. Brains and computers are, as mentioned, incompatible systems. Moreover, a better brain is especially better and faster compared to other people. This may yield more money or a greater reputation, but also structural inequality. Above all, longing to be smarter seems to be a matter of vanity.

To really think better, it is more effective to listen better, to talk, to read and to build devices that help us to think better. Talking about devices, it needs to be stressed that we may have to be afraid of the enormous computing power of all those knowledge systems. The machines that are made do not reinforce our dialogical capacities, but from their mono-dimensional rationality they mainly impose ways of thinking and doing in a one-sided and inevitable way.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I would also like to say that we have to keep our heads cool and that we should not be distracted by fear and hope. Let us make smart systems really smart by helping us in our thinking, so that we can extend our thinking even further.

Further reading:

Clark, Andy. “Natural-Born Cyborgs?”. Cognitive technology: Instruments of mind  (2001): 17-24.

Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Rationality and the Human Brain. New York Putnam, 1994.

Dennett, Daniel C. Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown, 2017.

———. From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. WW Norton & Company, 2017.

Dreyfus, Hubert L. What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. Vol. 1972: Harper & Row New York, 1979.

Schirrmacher, Frank. Ego: Das Spiel Des Lebens. Karl Blessing Verlag, 2013.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, 2008.

———. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. Yale University Press, 2012.

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What is good: About why we think something ought to be

[Klik hier voor de Nederlandse versie van deze post]

We people are a judgmental lot. Opinions conduct, art, politics, about others and about ourselves, they are quickly formed, we have an idea of ​​what should be and we like to speak out on these ideas. We are eager to discuss how true or false such judgments are, but how judgment actually works seems to be an open question. In this paper I will be looking for an answer to this question. I will do so in four parts. First of all, I show that our judgments relate to different practices that are connected to a specific idea of ​​what is good. Subsequently I will argue that these ideas are developed from the experiences one has within such a practice, which creates expectations about what is good and less good. In the third part, I will emphasize that these expectations are not so much individual traits, but rather that they are entertained within a community. By sharing expectations, we can coordinate our behaviour. In this paper will I mainly give examples about  music, because an art form such as music is pre-eminently the domain in which judgment plays a role. In the final part I will give more detail on how art works, but this is primarily a step towards explaining the role of politics, because it will be held that a well-functioning democracy offers the opportunity to collectively agree on what we think what is good and about how conflicting judgments are to be resolved. With that we can be more than just a judgmental species, but we can determine for ourselves what the value of our opinions is.


  1. Practices

Michelangelo’s claim that he only had to cut away the surplus stone to make the sculpture of an angel is of course a big cliché. But it is a cliché that indicates that a work of art sparks the flame of eternity. A sculpture, a painting, or pieces of music strive for timelessness. In a sense, the genius of the artist actually comes down to her ability to achieve a platonic ideal.

It is not only in art that we seem to have a clear idea of ​​what is right. In everyday life we ​​are constantly confronted with situations in which we know how ‘it should be’. This can be explained by stating that daily life consists of countless practices. Sometimes these are large, sometimes these are small, and often they run into each other. In each of these practices we have an idea of ​​what should be, an idea of ​​what is good or beautiful, what is important and what values ​​matter in a particular context.

When you enter into a conversation with someone, you choose the appropriate words and the right intonation depending on the context and the nature of the conversation. It makes a lot of difference whether you talk to a cashier at the supermarket or to a good friend. You know what words mean, how you should pronounce them and in which order these words should be uttered. Although some are more gifted in this than others, of course.

Another example. As a musician you know when you play a note correctly, and as a listener you know how a note should sound. But you also know where a melody should go and which harmonic transitions sound good. You also recognize genres, the instrumentation, the melodies, the intonation within a song refer to a larger collection of songs. Try to pay attention when you listen to a song, where have you heard the sounds, harmonies, instruments, etc. before, how have they developed into the norm of a certain genre? Or take a look at a movie and look for the way in which the visual language refers to earlier films.

All these practices are nested layers of ideas about ‘how it should be’. The tone played by a musician is part of a chord, which, in turn, is part of a series of chords and so on. A practice is usually a very complex set of sub-practices that are brought together harmoniously.

In this paper, I will be on the lookout for the question how our judgment is formed and how it is applied. I mainly take examples from the music, because as an art form, music is pre-eminently the domain where judgment plays a role. But at the conclusion, I will also discuss the role of politics, because that domain allows the collective agreement on what we think ‘what is good’ and it allows the resolution of conflicting judgments.


  1. Categories and hypotheses

The fact that we have a fairly well-defined idea of ​‘what is good’ does not mean that there is some Platonic world that provides a kind of library in which all those values ​​that belong to all those practices can be taken from the shelf. Such an idea stems from the way in which our brain interacts with social interactions. What we see and what we hear are turned into categories, which are more or less fixed images that are used to test new impressions. In short, our impressions are organized in such a way that we can process future impressions in an efficient way. As a discussion partner, musician or listener you have experience based on previous, comparable situations which are transformed over time into a practice, including associated values.

For example, in Western culture we use a system of twelve tones (or rather eleven intervals) and frequencies that fall outside are called false. Intervals that form chords have been based on triads since Pythagoras. Other chords are called dissonant. As early as in our fourth year, these patterns have become so ingrained that most of us have difficultly listening to other types of music.

Music genres are already quite volatile. Carrie Underwood sounds very different as Tammy Wynette, although they are both recognizable as country. Black Sabbath sounds very different as Sepultura, while both are metal bands. Through the course of time, such genres develop, sub-genres sometimes arise. You could speak of an evolutionary process in which new subcategories and categories gradually emerge, so new practices with new ideas about what should be.

Experiences within practices lead to the development of a repertoire of expectations that makes it possible to anticipate what someone or something is going to do, what word someone says or what chord follows. People formulate hypotheses that are constantly being tested, they are adjusted when they are falsified, but upon confirmation these hypotheses become stronger and stronger, so much so that they become unshakeable at a given moment. In short, ideas about what is good is not to be based on an extra-worldly reality, but are formed by expectations about what is to come. That game of expectations makes human interaction very efficient. We do not have to explain again in every situation what we mean or what we want to achieve. We know the practice with the associated rules and we know what we want from each other.


  1. Intersubjective reality

In short, experience is our ideas about ‘what is good’. The formation of categories is the outcome of social interactions. Two or more individual voices come to a shared understanding of a certain situation and thereby bring a social practice to life. Such social practices can be seen as implicit – and every now and then also explicit – agreements that come about through our exposure to previous practices: we gradually learn what counts as ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ and adapt our behavior accordingly.

Such ideas form an intersubjective reality, they come about through interactions between individuals within the context of certain practices. This creates ‘social facts’, a reality that is shared by a group of people and that also depends on those people for its survival. Language is the best example of this. A language is not an objective reality as long as it is not spoken by people. A language is also meaningless if it is only spoken by one person, it is not dependent on an individual, but on a group. Language is therefore not subjective, but it is something that exists between subjects.

That practices refer to an intersubjective reality does not mean that we do not play a role as individuals and that our motivations and convictions do not matter. As mentioned, a practice requires experience and as experience increases, the skill to recognize ‘what should be’ grows, and especially what it means to pursue these norms in concrete actions. People differ in skills, not necessarily from their lack of experience, but especially from their innate qualities. Some people are better speakers or listeners and for some, learning to master a musical instrument simply costs less effort than others.

I mentioned earlier the creation of sub-genres within music. This evolution of categories shows that ideas about ‘what should be’ change over time. Such changes are the result of the activities of people. New words or phrases are sometimes the result of creative language innovators. But mostly it is about creeping processes of which hardly anyone is aware. Changes then emerge as a dialogical process, in which several individuals come together and come together to create something new: a sharpening or adaptation of an existing practice.


  1. Social domains

We have divided our social life into different ‘social domains’ within which a collection of practices is brought together. Art, politics, economics, science, religion, sports and so on. Those domains are limited and have their own rules about ‘what should be’. Moreover, these domains have their own rules about how changes in judgments take place.

In this way, art is, above all, the pursuit of an aesthetic ideal. As can be deduced from what I have written above, this aesthetic ideal is actually formed by the expectations that have been formed by the countless experiences with earlier artistic expression. The package of expectations includes that art must be something new, the expression of an individual fantasy and the ability to concretize that fantasy in the form of a work of art.

However, not all art influences the aesthetic experience. Every work of art is an attempt by the artist to satisfy the tension between existing expectations and surprise. If a work of art only tries to evoke aesthetic pleasure, it quickly becomes kitsch, if art only tries to surprise it will be quickly misunderstood. Interestingly, art has evolved into a collection of practices that play a game around expectations about art itself.

We have an idea of ​​what turns art into art and based on that idea we will assess art. Some art deals with the idea of ​​art itself, avant-garde art tries to consciously probe the boundaries of our expectations – especially since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal a hundred years ago. The funny thing is that we have accepted this as a form of art that is indeed part of the art. Art has therefore become a reflexive social domain.

Another social domain that can be said to be reflexive is that of democratic politics. This form of politics aims to come to collective agreements about what expectations we have of each other. A such, politics as the domain in which we consciously and explicitly reach agreement about what we share, what we find valuable, which practices we want to change and which practices which we want to keep.

Politics is not only the domain of agreement, but also of the conflict. Our expectations about ‘what should be’ are not always corresponding, and to allow living together it is necessary that such conflicts can be settled by applying generally applicable rules. These two characteristics of politics ensure that it has a special, overarching position within our social system. Ultimately, it is here that we can consciously and autonomously deliberate not only about what is good, but also on what should be considered good, a reflexive feature which allows us to rise above ourselves.

Of course, this definition of politics is somewhat naïve when you look at everyday political machinations which have little to do with the collective pursuit of shared values. It should be primarily seen as a guiding image about how to think about the organization of a political system, not a blueprint. The state is only a means, not an end in itself.

In conclusion, there is one more point that I want to make here. Politics as described above is all-encompassing, since it is there where we agreed what we think should be heard. But, paradoxically, these agreements mean that politics should not interfere with all aspects of life. There are matters that belong to the private sphere, which offers the possibility to individuals, smaller groups or other social domains to make their own arrangements about ‘what should be’. You may follow your own religious rules, start a sect, or decide for yourself which art you like. In short, there are boundaries that need to be respected, and of course these boundaries are themselves categories that are susceptible to revision. It is important to note that boundaries are not determined by reasoning from the core of a social domain, but by starting from the fact that there are given boundaries it is determined which practice belongs to which domain. This leads to tensions because of the paradox that politics is both all-embracing and bounded. For example, with every Olympic Games or at every World Cup that is held in a non-democratic country, there is a discussion as to whether that should be allowed. This discussion is dismissed by stating that sport and politics must be separate. The same applies to protest songs or engaged art. Is that any good?

Yes, it is good. It is the great achievement of modernity that we have managed to organize our social world in such a way that we can decide for ourselves ‘what should be’. In fact, we have given ourselves the freedom to create new values ​​and categories against the background of historically developed values ​​and categories that hand over meaning and stability. This may sound paradoxical and in any case it is extremely difficult, because some people like to change while others are more conservative. At no moment in time, everybody will be satisfied, but, as said, politics is also the domain that helps to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way – and that really is good.

Further reading:

Benhabib, Seyla. “I. Judgment and the Moral Foundations of Politics in Arendt’s Thought.” Political theory 16, no. 1 (1988): 29-51.

Dewey, John. The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought. SIU Press, 2007.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “Wahrheit Und Methode: Grundzüge Einer Philosophischen Hermeneutik.” Gesammelte Werke J 5 (1960).

Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Penguin, 2006.

Rosch, Eleanor. “Principles of Categorization.” Concepts: core readings  (1999): 189-206.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. Vintage Canada, 2010.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press, 2008.


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