Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Problem of Future Generations: Part 2

You probably recall that my previous blog entry ended with the seemingly bizzare suggestion that future generations are the "ultimate strangers." The common thread is that altruism between strangers is difficult to establish and that large-group cooperation based on a social contract must figure out how to convince strangers to cooperate. That claim is based on the two basic forms of altruism: kin altruism and reciprocal altruism. In order to make my "ultimate stranger" argument, I'll employ a simple case study. Suppose you are a morally competent person living in 2011 and you learn that scientists have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the earth will be uninhabitable in the year 3000 if our generation and all subsequent generations do not cut back on carbon pollution by 50%. Does that fact (is) imply an individual and collective moral obligation (ought) on our part to cut back our carbon-based energy pollution by 50%? Can future generations be included within a social contract framework? Does that future generation have a right to an inhabitable environment? Do we have a duty to sacrifice our individual interest and our generation's interest on their behalf? Do those intermediary future generations between us and 3000 also have that same duty?

Well, back to my initial claim. In what sense is that distant future generation populated by strangers? From the standpoint of kin-altruism, I may have absolutely no genetic stake in that 3000 generation. Why? Well, first of all my two sons are not even married yet, may never get married, and may never have children. None of my nieces have children yet either. So if my specific genetic lineage will end after their generation, why should I turn down my thermostat, buy a high mileage vehicle, and take other actions that benefit that 3000 generation? There goes my personal self-interested incentive. So much for kin-altruism. The only alternative would be to postulate a "general will" that includes future generations. But that would not be kin altruism.

What about reciprocal altruism? That 3000 generation can clearly benefit from John Rawls called our "just savings," but how can they reciprocate? We can scratch the back of future generations but they can't scratch ours. Barring the invention of a time machine (which would facilitate retribution between generations), about the only thing that the 3000 generation can do in retribution is praise or blame us. "Boy, that generation that lived in 2011 neglected to save us 50% of their pollution. What a self-centered, discriminatory generation! They preferred to serve the interest of their own generation at the expense of our generation. That's UNFAIR!" They violated the intergenerational social contract." If we had that time machine, we might leap forward and respond to that indictment as follows: "Heck, we didn't even know that your generation would ever exist? The human species might have been wiped out by a lethal epidemic of swine flu in the year 2999. Moreover, if we had chosen to "save" some clean air for your generation, how could we know if my sons' generation or their kids generation (and all subsequent generations) wouldn't default on that obligation and undo any good that our "savings" might have accomplished? In other words, what happens if those intermediary generations act as free riders and merely spend the "just savings" that my generation withheld on behalf of your 3000 generation?"

First of all, lets admit that there's no easy solution to the problem of future generations. Throughout human history present generations have routinely over-consumed and over-polluted at the expense of future generations. Rawls argued that distant future generations are indeed vulnerable and that we ought to save something for them. However, he also recognized that, in the real world, our incentive to feel a sense of moral obligation toward distant future generations is weak. Therefore, he suggested that we think of intergeneration justice within the bounds of kin altruism. If every generation "saves" enough back for their children and grandchildren, the interests of the 3000 generation would be taken care of over the long run. Unfortunately, that wouldn't work for the case study I proposed, unless near generations also require that 50% just savings. 

Now admittedly distant future generations are not the only candidates for the title of "ultimate strangers."  Historically, many groups of humans have also been excluded (racial and ethnic minorities, women, children, fetuses, serial killers, lepers, and AIDS patients). So any large-group social contract theory will have to contend with the question of whose interests (small groups or individuals) shall be included or excluded from the contract. We might argue that ugly and/or scary animals (snakes, spiders, bees, and snails) and plants are "strangers" in so far as we are not likely to include them within our anthropocentric social contract framework. Based on evolutionary theory, it is clear that the contract cannot grant priviliged status to humans over plants and animals. Thus, if evolution enlightens social contract theory at all, it is clear that the interests of distant future generations of humans are no more salient than the interests of future generations of plants and animals. In sum, the challenge for any social contract theory is how to overcome not only the "problem of future generations" but also its anthropocentric moorings, which have been empirically discredited by evolution.         

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Problem of Future Generations: Part I

Any attempt to establish a cooperative, inter-generational morality will have to contend with the vexing puzzle known as the "Problem of Future Generations." Although this is vexing for all moral perspectives, it is especially vexing for social contract theories. Let's take a quick look at social contract theory. There are several competing formulations of social contract theory; all of which are all descended from the original eighteenth-century contractarian philosophers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant. The eighteenth century social contract theorists were mostly concerned with the formation of national governments, however, social contract theory, if valid, ought to be equally applicable to the formation of non-governmental groups, especially businesses, military organizations, gangs, families, and sports teams. The two basic questions that face all social contract theories are: "Why join a community?" and "Why stay?" The answers to these questions are usually based on two competing theories (narratives) of human nature: communitarianism and individualism.

Communitarians since Aristotle have argued that human beings live in cooperative groups by nature. The underlying idea behind all social contract theories is that "society" is the product of deliberate cooperation. The rub here is what do we mean my "deliberate?" Back in the eighteenth century Rousseau, a communitarian, argued that human beings living "naturally" in groups develop a "general will" or, what we'd call a "mental mechanism" that predisposes us to act based on the interests of the group, even in opposition to their own self-interest. For now, let's call it altruism.  In other words, human beings living in a "state of nature" deliberately sacrifice their own self-interest for the group. Implicit in this approach is that individual contractors actually "know" specifically what those group interests entail. Here it is important to note that the social contract theorists are are profound philosophers and that their theories are enormously complex. One such complication is how to integrate social organization based on leadership and followership into their theory. In a short blog, I can't get into that right now. But I'll try to cover it later. Sorry. My friend Peter Corning, an excellent contemporary social contract theorist has written a book called The Fair Society that addresses many of the puzzles that confront communitarian social contract theory. I'll examine some of his arguments in a forthcoming entry for the APLS Blog.
Locke, an individualist, argued that the "state of nature" for humans is individual, and that human beings forge groups based on self-interest. Thus, communities that violate the interests of individual members tend to lose members. Why? Because there is no "general will" apart from the wills of the individuals that comprise those groups.  Hence, all "wills" are individual and all rights are individual rights. In other words, human beings "cooperate" with others and form "groups" because they deliberately and rationally conclude that at least sometimes, we are "better off" cooperating with some groups rather than others. Therefore, in the absence of a "general will" many communities simply employ coercive force to hold their community together.

Evolutionary ethicists observe that we are most likely to form groups based on "kin-altruism;" that is to say, we are genetically predisposed to cooperate with other human beings that are genetically related to us. Knowledge of genetic relatedness is less certain for males than females, therefore, males must often rely on other sensory cues, most obviously: "Does this other person(s) look enough like me to be my son, daughter, brother, sister, aunt, uncle etc? During the Pleistocene era hunters and gathers lived in small, genetically related kin groups that formed cooperative in-groups. The "general will" for kin-altruism is genetic. So how can the social contract extend beyond kin groups? Cooperative groups comprised of strangers require trust. When Pleistocene in-groups encountered neighboring out-groups that looked very different (call them strangers) they were more inclined to compete (kill them) than cooperate. Thus evolutionarily, one of the main problems for social contract theory is how to explain how strangers can ever become included within any contracting group. There are many possible explanations. One way is to follow Rousseau and postulate a complex "mental mechanism" or brain function that corresponds to a "general will."

Individualists argue that if there is a such thing as a "general will,' it would be revealed in democratic political processes. However, consensus in large groups of strangers is rarely achieved. If there is such a thing as a general will, it is more likely to emerge out of small homogenous groups than heterogenous groups comprised of multiple racial, religious, ethnic groups, or even age groups. Thus modern democratic nation states like the United States have a problem reconciling conflicting "general wills." Therefore, any large-group communitarian social contract theory will have to explain how to develop a national (or global) "general will" that trumps conflicting wills of constitutive small groups, or individuals. Peter covers this as well as any social contract theorist.

Now, back to the problem of future generations...Here's the basic problem. If there is a such thing as a "general will," how can it extend beyond the present generation? After all, future generations are, what I'd call, the ultimate strangers. They don't even exist yet! Does the present generation of contractors have duties toward  future generations of humans? Or, in other words, do future generations have rights? If so, what are those rights? We'll cover that in Part II.                                                

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Democrats, Republicans and their Narratives: The Tucson Shootings

The political landscape in the United States is dominated by two political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that embrace competing macro-narratives. Sometimes individuals and coalitions group members within the parties do not always embrace the "official" group narrative, sometimes party leaders change the macro-narrative in order to placate more powerful internal groups avoid extinction via the ballot. Both Republican and Democratic narratives have evolved over time based on internal and external pressures. Those narratives follow four dimensions: liberal-conservative, social-economic. Since the late 20th century, Democrats have been social liberals and economic liberals. Hence, Democrats generally did not try to employ the coercive power of government to regulate social morality on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, drugs etc, but did seek to regulate corporations. Republicans have been social conservatives and economic conservatives. Hence, they try to legislate morality on core issues like abortion, marriage, and drugs; but otherwise did not seek to regulate corporations.

Today the core beliefs of the Democratic Party reflect the interests of a coalition of interest groups that shape their narrative(s). Those groups include: the least advantaged and their advocates, African Americans, public and private labor unions, most college and university professors, and trial lawyers. Traditionally, many of us libertarians vote Democratic because the party has not sought to overtly control our personal lives. However, in recent years the social side of the Democratic narrative has become less liberal.

In the case of the Tucson shooter, the prevailing Democratic narrative might include include some of the following arguments. Since most Democrats today are large group communitarians, that narrative would blame our national social and political environment for the shooting. According to this narrative, Jared Lee Loughner was programmed by a national culture of violence, especially in states like Arizona where political discourse is volatile, guns are easily accessible and can be legally carried and concealed. Some Democrats might also attribute the mass shootings to the the lack of access to mental health services, Arizona's tightening of Medicaid eligibility, or poor mental health coverage offered by private health insurance companies. They may also blame individual Republican political leaders (Sarah Palin), the media (Glen Beck), and lobbying groups (National Rifle Association) for the Arizona shootings. At least some Democrats would hold Walmart International or at least the local Walmart franchise responsible for selling Loughner the ammunition. Most Democrats probably agree that, if we want to prevent terrible future shootings like this, the federal government must control inept, irresponsible state and local governments, gun manufacturers, retail stores, and the right wing media moguls, "for the good of the nation." In short, the social side of their narrative is becoming more conservative. 

The Republican narrative is also evolving under both internal and external pressures. The social side of their narrative remains conservative on most core issues however, on other social issues they tend to be more liberal, especially on gun rights and free speech. For Republicans, their most salient internal pressure is how to maintain a political coalition comprised of major corporate interests, evangelical religious groups, and an amorphous (and logically incoherent) body of Tea Partiers. External pressure comes from a growing number of Latin American immigrant voters, and public dissatisfaction with both parties, corporate welfare, and government in general. Republicans have recently adopted select portions of the libertarian individualist narrative, which which attracts corporate cronies, and some (but not all) Tea Partiers, but alienates evangelical protestants. Republicans claim that they are individualists or small group communitarians committed to a small (limited) federal government, and therefore prefer to let individual states, localities, and individuals take responsibility for their own problems. But they only do so as long as it doesn't interfere with their courtship of the lobbying groups that give them the most money: conservative evangelical Protestant groups, NRA, oil companies, and banks. Hence, the Republicans tend to be the main drug warriors. In other words, the Republican narrative is currently incoherent, waffling between social liberalism and social conservatism, and therefore will not have much of an interpretation of the shooting, other than defending gun rights and Walmart. Republicans might argue that the community college officials that expelled him should have notified the police of the shooter's bizarre behavior. His parents, and the school officials might deflect responsibility by saying that the mental health laws in Arizona (and federal guidelines), which were designed by socially liberal Democrats from the 1970s, make involuntary committment almost impossible.
Traditionally, the individualist libertarian narrative is based on social liberalism (toleration) and economic conservatism (free market). The libertarian narrative would avoid all forms of "collective responsibility" and hold Loughner responsible for the Arizona shooting, unless it can be shown that a "brain lesion" caused his aberrant behavior. If there is "shared responsibility" it would be among individuals (leaders and followers), but not abstract groups.

The genious of the U.S. constitution is that it provides a roadmap for principled interaction between competing narratives. In the upcoming months we can expect a barrage of competing narratives on the Arizona shootings. Small groups, large groups, and individuals will rally behind their respective narratives. These narratives will be replicated on media outlets, including radio, television, printed media, and the Internet. The problem for the United States is that we have a cacophony of small group narratives, but only two political parties. Neither of those official narratives resonate with most us. Both parties are currently more interested in defending the rights of internal lobbying groups (cronies) than the rights of individuals. Libertarians continue to embrace social liberalism and economic conservatism, but neither party really tells our story. Many, if not most, libertarians will not vote in the next election.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Narratives: The Story-Telling Instinct

Not only do human beings live in groups, but they tell stories, or "narratives" within and between those groups. World views, or what I call macro-narratives are grounded in a few "core beliefs," which undergo alternate periods of relative stability followed by gradual and/or revolutionary change. In short, macro narratives evolve over time based on variation and selection. Macro-narratives generate explanations for perplexing past events and serve as the basis for strategies to predict and control future events. Macro-narratives compete with other macro-narratives and micro-narratives. Some competing narratives come from individuals and coalitions of individuals within the group, some come from outside individuals and groups. We all believe that our own individual and group narrative is True and everyone else's is False. In the history of social and political philosophy there are three competing macro-narratives: large group communitarianism (LGC), small group communitarianism (SGC) and individualism. Let's explore these three narratives.

The central core of both LGC and SMC narratives is that individual human actions are described as the product of "social causation."  Communitarians embrace the core belief that "groups of individuals" are the basic unit of social analysis and that individuals are, at best, passive participants in group behavior. There is little (or no) accommodation for individual responsibility, only collective responsibility. The puzzle for LGC is that "large-groups" (with many members) are often comprised of "small groups" (with fewer members) that often tell micro-narratives that compete with the official macro-narratives embraced by large groups. The LGC narrative argues that the interests of large groups trump the interests of smaller sub-groups and individuals. How large is large? Some LGC are globalists and argue that morality is universal and therefore the narratives told by nation states, religions, and multi-national corporations are (or ought to be) trumped by narratives of the "global community" as represented by global groups.

Within the political sphere, some LGC are nationalists and argue that the national interests trump the global interests, and therefore they seek to "liberate" their nation from encroachment by the global community. In the United States, many small group communitarians seek to "liberate" individual states from encroachment by the federal government; and many local governments seek to be "liberated" from ever-expanding state and federal governments. Similarly, some private-groups such as corporations, religious groups, even families seek to limit encroachment by local, state, and federal government, and from other competing larger groups. Hence, even for communitarians the concept of "liberty" is central.

So far we've covered some of the various aspects of the communitarian macro-narratives. What about individualism? Individualism macro-narratives argue that individuals are real. Groups, they argue, have no objective "collective identity" apart from the "individual identities" of their particular leaders and followers. Hence, groups are manufactured by individuals. Thus individualism explains collective group behavior in terms of the actions of individual leaders and followers within groups.Individuals, they argue "ought" to be free from coercive power exercised by both large and small groups, unless those individuals harm others (or threaten to harm others). This narrative places the onus of moral responsibility on particular individuals and not on an amorphous concatenation of interacting groups.   

In the United States today, our national macro-narrative is in a state of flux. For better or worse, it is dominated by two competing political narratives (as opposed to scientific or religious narratives) in a media driven environment. In my next blog I will argue that our national narrative has been hyjacked by overly simplistic Republican and Democratic narratives.                

Monday, January 3, 2011

Trial and Error: the Quest for Cosmic Rationality

One of the wonders of life on planet Earth is the fact that it continues to thrive. Survival takes place at many different levels: genes, organisms, species, local ecosystems, and our global ecosystem. As scientists continue their quest for that elusive "Theory of Everything," (or TOE) let me offer my own TOE. I'll call it by its most familiar name: "Trial and Error," or TAE. There are two natural correlaries that follow from TAE: P1. "If it's broke, fix it." and P2."If it's not broke don't fix it." In a nutshell, this is how Mother Nature keeps the "ball of life rolling." Biologists call it "natural selection." It's also the basis for what I call cosmic rationality. Unfortunately, humans, both individually and collectively, routinely violate P1 and P2 and therefore undermine cosmic rationality. Here are a few examples.

We violate P1 when we know that "x is broken," we know how to fix it, it's not prohibitively expensive, and we just don't fix it. For example, I "know" that if I eat a lot of sweets, I gain weight fast, especially ice cream. I gained 3 pounds over the Christmas holiday, so how do I fix it? Well, if I'm rational I'll avoid eating sweets. That's the fix! But there are many hidden variables at work here. Suppose I keep eating a lot of sweets every day and don't look in the mirror, or step on the scales, and gain weight without realizing it? Then, another micro-fix is in order. Step on the scales once a week. But as Aristotle observed, we humans often "know the fix" but we unwilling or unable to actually "do the fix." Just because we know that "x is broken," and we know how to fix it, doesn't mean "we'll fix it." Nowadays, almost everything is broken and nothing is being fixed.

Now I know what you're thinking: "Well, Ron...what happens if we don't know how to fix it? My answer is simple: innovate. Try F1. If x "works perfectly" after trying F1, you've fixed it. Do not try F2, F3, F4, or F5 unless you have extra time, energy, and resources. If F1 works, but not very efficiently try F2, F3, F4, or F5. How many cookies a day can I eat before I start to gain weight? Or, how long will I have to walk to burn off those calories? If I discover, via trial and error, that I can eat 312 chocolate chip cookies every day, if and only if, I walk for 12 hours every day on a treadmill, then I'll have to decide whether those cookies are worth it? Or I may decide that I could eat 312 cookies one day a month if I exercise every day for 2 hours. Fortunately, I don't like to eat that many cookies in one sitting so that's not a problem.

So much for cosmic rationality at the individual level. How might it work at the collective, or communal level? We know, for example, that the city of Cincinnati is way over budget on it's public employee pension system. We also know why. Too many city employees (mostly policemen and firemen) pay too little into the system for too long and retired too early, pension administrators have done a poor job of investing funds, and politicians have been reluctant to raise taxes to pay for those cushy, early retirements. We also know the "micro-fixes." Make city employees pay more into their pensions, make them wait until they are 65 before they retire, hire competent pension administrators, and/or elect politicians that are willing to raise taxes on the rest of us, and/or execute a combination of these other micro-fixes. That a classic violation of P1 cosmic rationality.

The Cincinnati Bengals, obviously, need to be fixed again. Why because the "fix" that we tried a few years ago (building them a new stadium) didn't work. We'll be paying for that "non-fix" for a long time. In fact, the Bengals may be "unfixable." In a world ruled by cosmic rationality they would have been weeded out a long time ago by "creative destruction": the natural consequence of not fixing things! Five turnovers in yesterday's game! Of course you may ask, why did I watch to the game? I never said that I'm ALWAYS rational.

Now, back to the beginning. What about P2? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I like my teaching job. I get paid well enough, I like to teach, I like what I teach, I like my colleagues, I'm pretty good at it, I hate faculty meetings (but I don't go). Being an astute observor of cosmic rationality, I am not looking for another job. I don't even read the job listings in the Chronicle. Now that I'm back on my normal diet, my weight is going back down. It should level off at 173 by the end of next week. Henceforth, I won't eat a lot of sweets. Two cookies a day in the morning with two cups of coffee. That's about it. No ice cream. "If it ain't broke, I won't fix it." What about those city pensions? City counsel did not "fix" the system, therefore they continue to violate P1.

As for P2. I tried to find one thing that the city of Cincinnati does well enough that it ought not try to fix it. (I need help on that one!) Cincinnati does have several "fixes" in the works that address non-problems. Do we really need another transportation system downtown besides buses, taxis, automobiles, and foot. Do we really "need" an electric trolly car? Transportation is not broke, so don't fix it.

If the city of Cincinnati is a prolific source of P1 violations, the federal government is off the charts. Where do we begin: TSA, FDA, EPA, SEC, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the criminal justice system, infrastructure, schools? When everything is broke, and nothing is getting fixed, cosmic rationality goes on vacation, along with our diets.