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Dave Snowden

of morality & metaphor

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I promised in my last post to pick up the question of ethics, and more specifically in the context of complexity theory. Interestingly I was talking about this with my daughter Ellie over the kitchen table earlier today and we were exploring the way in which aesthetics is an integral part of ethical discernment; more on that later. One of the points I made in my last post on meaning was the lack of a common reference base. A, shall we say, constraint of the last resort that allows a community to move forward. Ellie then sent me William Davies paper The Emerging Neocommutarianism (The Political Quarterly Vol 83 No 4, Oct-Dec 2012) which is a fascinating read. He makes the point that Hayek, the de-facto founder and high priest of neoliberal economics, ‘possessed a pragmatist (and pessimistic) sensibility, which assumed that principles, ethos and metaphysics were useless, possibly even meaningless, in the absence of concrete institutions and political instruments to give them a physical presence in everyday life’. Further, in respect off neoclassical economics Davies asserts that it is ‘predicated upon a subjectivist (indeed, relativist) theory of value, that the worth of any good is represented in the pleasure it provides to the person who consumes it. It adds to this a behaviourist theory of action, that those experiences of pleasure are adequately reflected in observable choices.’

Now some of the implications of this may not be immediately clear. A characteristic of the modern age is the idea that anything goes, a form of full on social constructivism in which anything you find useful is OK, or opinions are equally valuable and so on. In effect this subordinates ethics to economics and more specifically to transactional value. The idealists who want to be open may not realise the degree to which they have been suborned to neoliberal ideology but they have. Davies quotes Hayek: ‘the fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion’. At the extreme we get the Randinista assumption that the role of the state is solely to protect socially atomistic choice.

So where am I going with this? Well two main thrusts here, one relating to ontology influencing ethics and the second to the role of abstraction, which includes metaphor.

  1. We can take a view that neoliberalism assumes a chaotic ontology, independent action will result in the right sort of order. That works if constraints are not present, but they tend to naturally occur in social system.  In practice we can look at income disparity as a consequence of this with all the negative society implications that follow.  In contrast the planning assumption of socialism, both its social democratic and stalinist manifestations, fail in that they assume a causal model, instrumentalist intervention etc. etc.  Both models have been explicitly rejected by the anti-estalishment position that gave us Brexit, Trump and the rejection of the peace settlement in Colombia all of which I referenced in my earlier post on empathy.  Now complexity gives is a different perspective, it talks about a system in which there are context specific constraints.  Aside from the implications for economic theory it has profound implications for ethics.  The choice you make about the nature of the constraints and their enforcement are ethical statements – including the absence of any which are not market based.  But the big question is that of unintended consequences.  The one thing we know about a complex system is that anything you do will have unintended consequences, you are therefore morally responsible for them.  So the smaller the intervention ….
  2. Then we come to abstraction and its criticality to human intelligence.  Our language evolved from abstractions and art provides a means by which we see novel connections.  This is one of the arguments for the role of art in human evolution, it made us an adaptive species.  So remove art and you reduce intelligence.   However I think it is more than that, art allows for empathy, an ability to see things from a different perspective.  We use stories to create boundaries of acceptable behaviour.  Metaphors are powerful determinants of action.  Creating the right metaphor is a key part of oratory.  I’m working on one on sacred cows for a conference tomorrow morning.  So to understand constraints we need to understand street narrative, to see the ethical principles that will determine day to day practice we need to see behind explicit statements to underlying attitudes that emerge from day to day conversations and interactions.

Now I have a lot more to say about this, in particular the issue of developing critical capability which I see as key. But that is enough of a place holder for now. The reason for the Gaping Void cartoon is that we need passion, ethics is not a quiescence acceptance or what happens, but a desire to achieve change.

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