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Flawed humanity, flawed politics

Here’s a new, timely article by David W. Wood, Executive Director, Transpolita

Some interesting excerpts:

Four versions of tribalism

As I’ll list shortly, four of the most destructive tendencies in modern social life have their roots in our apprehension of “the other”. In each case, our social harmony is warped by ideologies that reinforce our innate tendency to fear those who seem different from ourselves. In each of the four cases, an ideology tells its adherents that there are deep reasons why the leopard cannot change its spots – why, that is, the outsiders are bound to keep on behaving in dangerous, destructive ways. So the ideology exacerbates the mistrust.

The first case is nationalism, or its variant, racism.

The second case is anti-capitalism. That’s a bit more sophisticated than nationalism, but not by much. This line of thinking goes as follows: some business owners are ruthless profit-seekers, therefore all business owners are ruthless profit-seekers. Anyone who claims to be a “conscious capitalist” or a “moral capitalist” is deluding themselves. Their prevailing culture – the system of shareholder contracts and imperatives to maximise profits – ensures that they cannot really change. Therefore the “decent, normal people” – the working class – need to seize power, seize the means of production, and (if need be) string up the recalcitrant capitalist class from the lampposts.

The third case is the widespread rigid displeasure at EU bureaucracy. Here’s the thinking: some EU bureaucrats are faceless self-serving empire-builders, therefore all EU bureaucrats are faceless self-serving empire-builders. As before, the argument runs from the specific to the general. A business leader finds his growth plans thwarted by ill-conceived regulations handed down imperiously from Brussels, therefore we have to take back control of all regulations handed down from Brussels. An innovative medical intervention is stymied by slow-moving EU healthcare review processes, therefore we have to take back control of all review processes from the EU. Perhaps we should even string up the leaders of that bureaucracy from the lampposts.

That takes me to the fourth case: rigid displeasure of government. It’s worth some extra attention.

What is the point of governments? Governments provide social coordination of a type that fails to arise by other means of human interaction, such as free markets.

Governments prevent all the value in a market from being extracted by forceful, well-connected minority interests, in ways that would leave the rest of society impoverished. They resist the power of “robber barons” who would impose numerous tolls and charges, stifling freer exchange of ideas, resources, and people. Therefore governments provide the context in which free markets can prosper (but which those free markets, by themselves, could not deliver)

Given the three risk factors I’ve just listed, various counter-measures ought to be clear:

  1. Action is required towards the concrete factors that generate a sense of alienation. Rather than the fruits of economic success being channelled to a small fraction of society, with growing inequalities, we need powerful steps for greater inclusion and wider participation.
  1. Language that encourages grievance must be rooted out. Whenever pundits present distorted stories about “the other”, these stories should be strongly challenged.
  2. Education is long overdue about the positive role of big government – as a kind of “visible hand” that complements the famous “invisible hand” of the free market.

On the third point, I particularly like the formulation of Hacker and Pierson that the mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the 20th century:

The mixed economy spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security.

As a transhumanist, I look forward to a time in the hopefully not-too-distant a future when we’ll be smarter, not only rationally, but also emotionally.

Whence comes this better emotional intelligence? That’s perhaps the biggest question of all. Smart drugs may contribute. So might improved meditation techniques, or digital nootropics (such as helmets that modulate the brain via electrical stimulation). Enhanced communities of emotional support are likely to play a key role too.

Some remarks and questions:

  1. It doesn’t necessarily pay to be nice within our current capitalist system. The systemic forces that aim at maximizing profit make it hard to maintain a high level of other qualities, including humaneness. This logic seems to be partially challenged by exceptional companies who do profit from being more ethical, self-organized, and purpose driven, but unless this advantage is sufficiently understood by most capitalists, it won’t change the current dynamics of the system sufficiently. Is it really the case that all companies can transition to a more benevolent business model, or is that simply another niche that can be occupied within contemporary capitalism while all other businesses need to continue their selfish rationalisation that disregards social and ethical considerations?
  2. Isn’t the EU close to the best form of transnational governance that can be currently implemented? I mean, it looks complicated, bureaucratic, and isn’t especially democratic, but perhaps any effective system that transcends national politics needs to have these characteristics until most people really transcend thinking and feeling on a merely national level. Anyway, what can be improved about the EU?
  3. Perhaps it might be worth analysing what kind of coordination problems cannot be effectively solved without the interference of a government. In other words: Why are governments actually and irreplacably necessary? Could scientific and technological innovations change the necessity of governments in certain areas?
  4. How can be problems of big governments be minimized while still maintaining their effectiveness?
  5. Communities of social support often provide that within the context of a relatively rigid ideology and culture. How can we create communities of social support without succumbing to that sort of rigidity? I haven’t found the social support within the transhumanist community to be especially functional. Community building and social support don’t come easily in a globally dispersed community of independent thinkers who are wary of most kinds of authority.

@dw2 @ReneMilan @Mark_Larkento @Deku_shrub @David_Pearce @zanthia

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Isn’t the EU close to the best form of transnational governance that can be currently implemented? I mean, it looks complicated, bureaucratic, and isn’t especially democratic, but perhaps any effective system that transcends national politics needs to have these characteristics until most people really transcend thinking and feeling on a merely national level. Anyway, what can be improved about the EU?

There’s a great deal that can and indeed must be improved within EU governance. I covered some of that in a previous article, “#BRITE – a new start for Britain in Europe” where I borrowed ideas from former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

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Perhaps it might be worth analysing what kind of coordination problems cannot be effectively solved without the interference of a government. In other words: Why are governments actually and irreplacably necessary?

That’s a great question. A good starting point for an answer in my view is the book I recommended in my article, “American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper”. It’s a big book, but worth reading all the way through. (It gets a bit slow around 60% of the way through, but don’t give up on it!)

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I haven’t found the social support within the transhumanist community to be especially functional.

That’s a very valid observation. And something that all transhumanists ought to reflect upon.

Indeed, in my H+Pedia article “Criticism of transhumanism”, the criticism that strikes me hardest is the last one on the list, “Dislike of association with transhumanists”

this article is nicely written and abitious. but it seems to base on the old premise: it is our biological heritage that we are flawed and we have to overcome this with rationality. and i could not share this premise after reading many psychology books. every new generation learns flawed behaviour.
so one of the best approaches i found to explain some of “the factors leading us to espouse various beliefs and ideologies” is “the mass psychology of fascism” by wilhelm reich. but it is only the start of a long journey to understand oneself and humanity.

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Ok, I’ve finally read your article now. As almost always, I find little to disagree with. All your points sound reasonable. Demanding more transparency within EU governance is certainly quite sensible. However, I wonder whether that would really be enough. As a first step it would be fine, but what final destination do we want to arrive at? Even optimising the EU won’t fix the problem that we lack a global governance structure that can tackle global problems effectively. The EU is an entity that sits uneasily between national states and a “whole Earth governance”. As much as I’d like a EU citizenship, I’d prefer an Earth citizenship, or even a cosmic citizenship.

My impression is that if we want to rethink the EU the right way, we should do that with global governance in mind. At the same time, any design for a reformed EU needs to be accepted by its member states. Already on their own, both requirements are very challenging to meet. Satisfying both requirements at the same time is a truly momentous challenge.

Perhaps this might be possible if we see the EU as precursor to a true European Federation (let me abbreviate that with EF) whose governance system was modelled after the Federal Republic of Germany. So, you’d need one European parliament with true EF parties that are voted directly by all EF citizens. And you’d need a house of locally democratically elected representatives of all member states. While the first develops EF policies, the latter had veto rights against adopting laws on an EF level – but essentially only with a majority of state representatives vetoing; individual states wouldn’t be allowed to opt out of EF laws. In some cases, the member states might still decide to adopt certain policies on their own, even if they aren’t implemented EF-wide.

On the surface of it, it might look as if an EF had even less of chance to persist than the EU, but that may not necessarily be the case. An EF would be more democratic than the EU. On the flipside, the EF would have more power over the member states that would be reduced to semi-self-governed regions. So, there would be huge resistance against joining an EF, at least in the beginning. Once a few European states do get together into a small initial EF, other states might see the benefit of that arrangement and might want to join, too. Well, isn’t that what already worked for the EU?

The same process could be repeated on a global scale to form a global federation constituted by membership federations, which are effectively states on a continental scale. I call that the federal approach to global governance. It’s certainly not without its problems, but at least it’s an approach that has empirically proven to be relatively feasible. Lacking other realistic positive scenarios, this might be our best strategy. The alternatives aren’t really appealing. Do we want national politics to get eventually dominated by a globally operating financial elite (no matter how the partition into national states and local federations looks like)? Such an elite would be hardly competent or even interested in solving global problems, because it would consist of a small number of individuals (or corporations) who mostly have their own personal advantages in mind. There are certainly exceptions, but those probably still only form a minority.

Even if the partition of the world into constituent states changed dramatically, for example into coalitions of city states, the federal approach would still be a viable option to arrive at a global governance structure in the end. In fact, there was a tentative discussion within the Transhuman Party Germany about restructuring the EU as union of city states, albeit only as rather imaginary radical scenario.

In any case, I see the Brexit as clear signal that the EU model we have today does not represent a sustainable approach.

I am going to eventually following your suggestion. This topic is certainly important enough. Aversion against governments has gone too far in recent times. I had hopes in certain forms of anarchism, but it’s effectively the flaws of humanity that make the prospect of a positive, functional, and sustainable large scale anarchist system very unlikely. Perhaps we wouldn’t need states if we were much saner, smarter, and had really good communication and coordination technology. So, let’s address this topic again after the Singularity! :wink:

I wonder whether that dislike is just like any other general dislike for deviant ideas and ideologies. If the main fault is that transhumanists deviate from contemporary thinking, then there’s not much we can do about it, and we actually should see our negative image as sign that we are the ones who actually can change the world to the better.

On the other hand, it may be that there are certain attributes (apart from ideological differences) of the generic (publicly visible) transhumanist that put most people off. If those attributes are something that are not vital to transhumanism itself, it may be worth working on them, so that we can improve our personal and collective charisma.

But at the moment I’m more interested in why transhumanists seem to have such a hard time cooperating even with their transhumanist peers. And that raises the question what the general preconditions for effective collaboration are. What really makes people want to work together to achieve a common goal?

Let me disentagle this. Actually, what you suppose are three partially connected hypotheses:

  1. Humans are flawed
  2. Our flaws stem from our biological heritage
  3. We can overcome our flaws with rationality

If #1 turns out to be false, then the other hypotheses are moot in any case. The alternative to being flawed would be to be perfect. Few people actually claim that humans are perfect. If nobody seriously defends the position that humans are perfect, that is not something we need to discuss, and we can assume that #1 is true.

While #2 and #3 depend on #1, both aren’t necessarily connected to one another. If we can overcome our flaws with rationality, then it doesn’t really matter where our flaws come from. Of course it would be better to know what causes our flaws, but if we have an intervention that fixed them, that is a sufficient solution to the problem.

Does education suffice to fix our flaws? No! I have gone through the process of education and it helped me a lot, but I still experience myself as seriously flawed being. The same goes for introspection and rational thinking: Both are quite useful, but insufficient to eliminate all relevant flaws. If someone granted me a technological solution to fix my remaining flaws, I would gratefully accept it. Actually there’s the possibility that we haven’t found the “right” education, introspection, and thinking techniques, yet. Well, even if we had better techniques, it would be quite unlikely that they would fix ageing. And ageing is a very serious human flaw, because it degrades most positive human qualities, and therefore creates or amplifies human flaws. To really fix all humans, at the very least we need to overcome ageing and other diseases. If we combine that with a culture of rationality, we will be on the best way to fix human flaws.

if you want to fix any problem you have to know the cause especially if you want to fix it with the method of rationality: it would be irrational to ignore causes. otherwise you could end up with insufficient trial and error and symptom treatment or worse: you replace one evil with another, even if you have good intentions. and when it comes to the ambition to fix humanity as such, we should be that thorough, especially because we already have all the knowledge and science.

few people actually claim that aging is an illness and that death is evitable, and if we look back deeper into the past, the fewer people we will find. what a majority believes or claims is no guarantee for truth.

There is something about statements like “humanity is flawed” that we have overlooked: It depends on what we see as flaws. And that depends on our picture of an ideally functioning human being. That picture in turn depends on our values. So, the statement “humanity is flawed” is not objective, but rather depends on the value system of the person who expresses it. Without mentioning the values one sees violated by the current conditio humana, such statements are incomplete.

No, that’s wrong! Simple example: Suppose there’s some strange problem with your PC that you have no clue what it’s caused by. It’s not unlikely that the problem will be fixed by rebooting your PC. The underlying problem is usually a sporadic bug in the software you use that appears when some program is in an atypical state. Sure, you could try to replicate the bug, and then search in the source code for it – if you have access to it. Thankfully, most people don’t need to bother with that, because rebooting is a very simple solution that often works quite sufficiently for such sporadic problems.

Humans, and humanity are terribly complex systems. Even implying that there is a single cause that causes all human flaws represents a level of thinking that’s way below the level necessary to address the core problems of humanity. You claim that we already have all the knowledge and science necessary to fix humanity? What is that knowledge and science supposed to be? Are you kidding? We probably don’t even have the necessary concepts to think about the most important factors that cause us to operate in dysfunctional ways.

i said: [quote=“zanthia, post:5, topic:1295”]
so one of the best approaches i found to explain some of “the factors leading us to espouse various beliefs and ideologies” is “the mass psychology of fascism” by wilhelm reich. but it is only the start of a long journey to understand oneself and humanity.
[/quote]
and what i meant with “knowledge and science” is psychology and brain research.

yes, this is the trial and error method many diagnostic procedures apply, no matter whether you go to the doctor or bring your car to a service station. there are empirical values to try first things first before the problem forces us to go deeper and look for causes. and i don´t want to state that “trial and error” is irrational. to ignore causes is irrational. maybe we can agree on, that you are right that there are rational methods to solve problems without knowing the causes, but that this experience is not sufficient enough to conclude that causes do not matter. [quote=“Radivis, post:11, topic:1295”]
So, the statement “humanity is flawed” is not objective, but rather depends on the value system of the person who expresses it. Without mentioning the values one sees violated by the current conditio humana, such statements are incomplete.
[/quote]

yes, you are right. but we could ask science many different questions. for example: are we happy (ok, happiness is a value, but…) with our lives, with the systems and collectives we built? …and look at the suicide rates, the increasing cases of depression, abuse of medicine and drugs, illnesses and increasing need for assistance within our society and violence and poverty all over the world. i would like to simplify the task. imagine you want to create the tastiest cake for yourself and collect the best ingredients you could imagine. when the cake is ready you find that it tastes awful. it would be rational to conclude that you made a mistake concerning your intial intention. and if aliens would ask us if humanity built exactly the system we intended and gained the outcome we wanted, we could not say “yes”. so i think it is appropriate to conclude, that something is flawed, because it does not function as intended.

but back to topic: the brexit is a traumatic experience. but to explain xenophobia with our genes is not up to date. and this quotation from the article :

And yet another example is our tribalism – our innate apprehension of “the other”. We learned to fear alien groups of people who were noticeably different from our closer circle, and who might be expected, given a chance, to double-cross us or stab us in the back.
Once upon a time, a rule of thumb “beware the outsider” was doubtless useful for survival. But in present times, that xenophobia can have all kinds of adverse consequences. Oops again.

contains truth as well as a contradiction. if we learned some feelings and behaviour or if this is “innate” are two contradictory sides. and i am on the side to explain things much more with psychology than biology. this is true: “We learned to fear alien groups of people who were noticeably different from our closer circle”. but how we learned and what this means in detail for the “programming” of our brain is a big complex topic.