Dagens ord

Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

16 jan. 2016

Steady state: Scientific republic or totalitarianism?

My previous post, The Bullerby Beef, was picked up over at Häggström hävdar (Thanks, Olle!) These are my initial thoughts. I look forward to an interesting discussion, here and there.

Raphael: School of Athens

First of all, I would like any readers of my previous blog post to know that I am acutely aware of the problems and dangers of moving towards a more authoritarian society. (It may not be obvious from that text.)

Nevertheless, my main motivations for advocating drastical restrictions to individual and corporate liberties, are (a) the unacceptable consequences for the environment and for human well-being * that will otherwise ensue; (b) the moral repugnance of laissez-faire and the injustices it engenders; and (c) the sheer needlessness of the uninhibited, pampered and childish behavior currently being encouraged in the West. We are letting ourselves be exploited by commercial brain-washing in what has become a self-enhancing loop.

To my mind, so called paternal libertarianism and ”nudging” - currently in vogue - is clearly insufficient. Laughable, even. It reminds me of Naomi Klein’s recent comment on the Paris climate agreement:

It’s like going: ‘I acknowledge that I will die of a heart attack if I don’t radically lower my blood pressure. I acknowledge that in order to do that I need to cut out alcohol, fatty foods and exercise everyday. I therefore will exercise once a week, eat four hamburgers instead of five and only binge drink twice a week and you have to call me a hero because I’ve never done this before and you have no idea how lazy I used to be.’

The road to Plato’s Republic is (often, but not always) paved with good intentions. Still, whether such a society (or something similar) could ever turn out to be palatable is a different matter. The answer depends on who you ask, and when. (See, e.g. Rebecca Goldstein’s book: Plato at the Googleplex.)

I often ask myself if I could live a good life in such a society; as a ruler, as a soldier, or as a craftsman. And, of course, if everyone else could - simultaneously - live good lives as well. And my tentative answer is: I think so. At least, I hope so. I, for one, would be just as happy with but a tiny fraction of the possibilities and luxuries I have access to today. Not because I am ascetic, but because, as it is, I am literally drowning in excess - along with many Westerners.

There is, of course, the inevitable problem of (1) knowing who knows best. There is also the practical problem that (2) power corrupts. And (3) what to do with those who will not play along. Contrary to popular opinion, I view the concern that (4) restricted liberties entail a diminished quality of life - subjectively or objectively - as a non-issue, for reasons given below.

When it comes to (1) I would say that we do have a pretty good answer. It’s not perfect, but let’s not make perfect the enemy of good. So who’s ”we”, and what is the answer? Bluntly: science and scientist. Yes, there are lots of complications, but comparing the current state of affairs to one in which science plays a more prominent role in politics, the path forward is clear enough. And yes, it is self-centered, exclusive and elitist. Well, let’s just get over ourselves and get on with it, shall we? (I highly recommend the writings of Danish philosopher Klemens Kappel et al, e.g., "The proper role of science in liberal democracy"; "Freedom of Expression, Diversity, and Truth” **)

As to (2) there are surely better alternatives than appointing a single autocrat to be commander-in-chief, and then sit idly by for decades as he or she grows increasingly heady on the power rush. (Well, this is how critics depict the only possible alternative to Western democracies, as implemented today.) Plato himself had some ideas. The founding fathers made an impressive attempt to build on the Roman lessons and strike a reasonable compromise, but in the end they opened up for a dog-eat-dog society governed by capitalist plutocrats assisted by manipulative sophists. During the last two centuries, too little constitutional and legislative progress has been made, in Europe as well as in the U.S. There are plenty of reasons for this, not least the rise of hyper-consumerism. But to declare the end of history is complacent - if not cynical or downright stupid.

Regarding (3) I would like to see something a little more ambitious (and strict) than resigning ourselves to letting the mavericks set the standards.

My dismissal of (4) concerns about diminished quality of life is based primarily on the phenomenon of shifting baselines ***. Basically, you don't miss what you don't know. Subjectively, you compare your situation to that of your peers. As long as the fundamentals are in place (roughly, the base of Maslow's pyramid), you're objectively OK. Your subjective well-being (the top) will sort itself. Given even a minimal set of opportunities, it will hit a ceiling-effect, beyond which further resources are wasted.

(*) This means the well-being of *every* human being.

(**) Forthcoming in Blackwell Companion to Applied Philosophy, (Eds. Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen, David Coady and Kimberley Brownlee)

(***) Status-quo effect, framing, anchoring, availability heuristic... the list goes on.

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