Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cats are people too

F.H. Bradley, the idealist philosopher, used to shoot cats (at night, in the grounds of Merton College, Oxford). Bradley was a dog man.

In a footnote in chapter XXVI of his magnum opus, Appearance and reality, in a section dealing with the human desire for life after death and the inconsistencies of the standard (Christian) view, he writes:

No one can have been so fortunate as never to have felt the grief of parting, or so inhuman as not to have longed for another meeting after death... One feels that a personal immortality would not be very personal, if it implied a mutilation of our affections. There are those too who would not sit down among the angels, till they had recovered their dog.

The only pet I've ever owned (apart from animals that were family responsibilities) was a cat, and I know the strange chemistry which sometimes links humans and animals of other species. I wouldn't want to make too much of it, but there was a kind of recognition there, a kind of bond, albeit tenuous and uncertain. Intimate may not be too strong a word.

A while ago, I saw on a lamppost a small, monochrome poster. Just a stylized cat's face and the sentence: Cats are people too. I have some sympathy with the people who bothered to design and print and paste up these posters, with their quirky and lighthearted campaign in defense of a currently very unpopular animal.

But I don't believe that animals have rights, or that we humans should be seen as more or less on a par with chimpanzees. The attempt by intellectuals and activists to raise the status and moral profile of animals has succeeded only in distorting reality and weakening moral thinking in general. By virtue of language and our relatively advanced brains we inhabit a vast new world from which all other animals are excluded.

The burdens of this world of human consciousness are such, however, that the pre-human world of our distant ancestors - of which we remain obscurely aware - can be seen as a kind of paradise from which we have been cast out. This may explain in part the mystique that animals have for many.

What animals see in us is an altogether more difficult question.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Do genetic and environmental factors determine political orientation?

So often we see the truth of something, even talk or write about it, but don't fully realize the implications. And for me the implications of an idea which I have accepted for quite some time are finally, I think, sinking in. I'm talking about the idea that our - for want of a better word - ideological propensities (and perhaps values in general) are in large part determined by genetic and environmental factors.

Late last year and earlier this year there was a lot of publicity about a particular study (associated with the actor Colin Firth) concerning correlations between brain structure and political orientation. A paper detailing the results was published in April 2011 in Current Biology, and I had been meaning to have a close look at it, and perhaps to trace reactions and interpretations with a view to forming my own opinion on what it all might mean.

The study found that the gray matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex was generally greater amongst university students identifying as liberal or left wing, while the right amygdala was larger in those who identified as conservative or right wing.

Predictably, a lot of nonsense was written by journalists and bloggers on the significance and implications of this piece of research - much of it along the lines that conservatives are less evolved!

It goes without saying that our knowledge of how brain structure and brain activity relate to thought and behavior is very limited. Research into these areas is at a very early stage and this study is a small piece of a very large and largely incomplete jigsaw puzzle. What the study does do, however, is to provide evidence that our political propensities are correlated to brain structures, which in itself is a profoundly important result. What it does not do is to validate value judgements about specific political propensities.

As the authors of the study point out, their research extends previous findings which related certain kinds of brain activity to political attitudes. Reference is also made to a study of twins which indicates that genetics plays a significant role in determining political views, and to other studies which have focused on the interaction between genetics and the social environment. "For example," the authors write, "political orientation in early adulthood is influenced by an interaction between a variant of a dopamine receptor gene linked with novelty seeking and an environmental factor of friendship."

Though not mentioned by the authors, research on birth order has thrown significant light on these issues. As I noted in a post last year, first-borns have been found to score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation; later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. But, apparently, this pattern holds only within (rather than across) families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects.

All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that genetic and environmental factors play a big role in determining an individual's political orientation - and this is a hugely significant fact. When we engage in political (or similar kinds of) discussion and debate, we can no longer assume that we are dealing with people who - at least potentially - think like us. We all know from experience that such debate is usually (always?) futile, and at last, perhaps, we are beginning to understand why.

It is all very depressing for anyone who has been committed to the value of discussion and debate about values and politics. I want to face the implications of these findings head on. What consequences flow from them? Is ideological discussion a waste of time?

I'm still thinking about it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hayek and Hobbes

I recently expressed an affinity for the social views of F.A. Hayek, noting that this position might appear to be difficult to reconcile with my fondness for the writings of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

Hobbes is most famous for his contention that without a strong central authority societies disintegrate into conflict:

[D]uring the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war, as is of every man against everyman ... In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan (Basil Blackwell, 1960), p. 82.]

The common power of which Hobbes speaks is conceived as a sovereign individual or group of individuals which is granted supreme power to act 'in those things which concern the common peace and safety.' The sovereign - so conceived - is the source of all law, and rights are a matter of legal definition.

There are obviously conflicts here with the views of Hayek. Hobbes had a major influence on the 19th and 20th-century tradition of legal positivism and the command theory of law, a tradition of thought to which Hayek was steadfastly opposed. Hayek accepted that the idea of law as a command is appropriate in systems of regulation applied to administrators and government officials, but if it is applied to the population at large then everyone is reduced to the status of unpaid servant of the state.

Hayek felt that healthy ideas of the rule of law were undermined in the later 19th century by proponents of legal positivism. The dangerous idea that whatever the government does is right and legal led to the perversion of the Rechtsstaat into the Kulturstaat and to various forms of totalitarianism. It also led to the acceptance of ideas of 'social justice' (involving, amongst other things, the redistribution of private wealth). Hayek believed that laws should not involve arbitrary elements and should be process-based and not directed at particular individuals or towards particular ends. His purpose was to delineate a private sphere where individuals are free to act without fear of coercion by government.

Fundamental to Hayek's position is his rejection of the view that order needs to be created by a sovereign authority. For order arises spontaneously, and any imposed order will - because no central orderer can ever have or process the required information - necessarily be inefficient and oppressive. But I think it's fair to say that Hayek also had a strong belief in individual freedom as a value in itself.

The major threats to individual freedom in Hayek's day were secular totalitarian ideologies (and social democracy which had - as he saw it - a tendency to drift in a totalitarian direction). For Hobbes, however, the main threat was social chaos, but also religious ideologies. Hobbes' sovereign (unlike religious authorities) was not concerned with the private lives of its subjects. Secular totalitarian threats were just not there in 17th-century England, and it is a mistake to see Hobbes as some kind of proto-fascist. Arguably he was just as concerned to protect human freedom as Hayek - and he was certainly opposed to totalitarianism.

Strangely, the tenor of Hobbes' thinking seems quite close to that which led to the development of game theory, one of the most significant new tools of 20th-century economics (and pioneered by Hayek's friend Oskar Morgenstern). Hobbes' suggestion that the individual should first seek peace, but, if betrayed and attacked, is justified in availing himself of 'all helps and advantages of war' to defend himself, approximates to the famous 'tit-for-tat' strategy which generally outperforms other strategies in the 'prisoner's dilemma' game. In one-off versions of the game, the outcome Hobbes predicted occurs and everybody loses (though tit-for-tatters lose less badly than others). But in iterated versions of the game, where artificial agents interact (in what could be seen as a model of society), pockets of spontaneous order and cooperation develop and thrive (providing evidence to support a Hayekian view).

I recognize the reality of spontaneous social order, though I suspect it is not quite so robust as Hayek assumes. As Hobbes (and Hayek in fact) knew from first-hand experience, civil disorder and war are real dangers, and something like Hobbes' sovereign, with strong and undisputed power, may be a necessary condition for peace in many contexts. Certain societies, especially highly cohesive ones with strong systems of morality in place, may be able to exist for long periods without the need for such an authority but history shows that civil conflict can erupt unexpectedly.

Both Hobbes and Hayek saw themselves as men of science, but appreciated also the other dimensions of human culture and the contingency of history. Both men were responding in their work to what they saw as the key social problems of their times in a rational, unsentimental and entirely secular manner. Hobbes' outlook is less colored by religious or metaphysical ideas than that of most of his contemporaries; and, of all the European neo-liberals, Hayek was probably the closest in spirit to logical empiricism, the anti-metaphysical and rigorously secular movement - exemplified in the Vienna Circle - which sought to replace obscurantist philosophies and religions with a view of the world based on science and a new understanding of logic and language.

Who cares about the compatibility or incompatibility of the thought of these two men? Why is the issue even worth raising? Because, I suggest, their differences bring to the fore very important questions about might and right, pragmatism and morality, ends and means.

I have the sense that - for better or for worse - Hayek's thinking retained traces of philosophical idealism, and this may have been what drove him to attempt to justify (certain types of) law on non-legal grounds and to place such an emphasis on human freedom. But the important questions are not what Hayek (or Hobbes) thought about this or that, but rather about what is, and what is not, the case.

Facts and values are intertwined in all discussions of social philosophy, and, if any progress is to be made, they must - no easy task! - be disentangled. The factual questions may be resolved through empirical research and reason, but questions of value will, I suspect, always remain contentious.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Little yellow men

Parking spaces are at a premium in my part of town. The old 'no parking' sign has been replaced by complex permit zones and new technologies to detect and fine cheaters. Every afternoon the clearways are cleared and giant trucks carrying delinquent vehicles speed off to some outer-suburban destination. It's like a long, drawn out and slowly escalating war between motorists on the one side and the authorities and property owners on the other.

These little yellow men are survivors from a different age, an earlier and gentler stage of the war. One has the sense that they were designed with a sense of pride and a sense of humor.