10 May 2019

We Need to Talk About Reason

About a year ago, the Politico website noted a new phenomenon. Young male American conservatives have begun referring to themselves as "classical liberals". Many were aping a notorious academic turned lifestyle guru but, given how obviously illiberal their agenda seems to be, I wondered how they could identify with the term "liberal". It seemed doubly weird, given that conservative Americans are so openly hostile towards "liberals", and use the word as invective. My few interactions with people who claim to be classical liberals suggest that they don't know much, if anything, about classical liberalism. Most are just naively repeating slogans. 

Clearly, liberalism has delivered us many freedoms for which we may be grateful. It is also true that, had classical liberalism prevailed, these freedoms would have remained the preserve of the elite. While classical liberals wrested power from kings for the elite, it was the new liberals, the "bleeding heart liberals" who wrested power away from the classical liberal elite (the bourgeoisie), for the people, if only briefly. It was the new liberals who ended the slave trade, and slavery as an institution, for example. They were the first to see that if liberty were to have any meaning, then it had to apply to all. 

In the previous essay I covered the background to liberalism and the confusion between the different applications of the term. In this essay and several to follow I will pick apart some of the fundamental beliefs of liberalism and show that they are anachronistic, at best. I begin with the classical view of reason; thence to a discussion of the ideology of utilitarianism; through the negative impacts of neoclassical liberalism on democracy; and I will finish up with the most egregious products of liberalism, runaway global warming and mass extinction.

The ideas of reasoning and rational thought are central to the liberal conception of human beings. Arguably, then, to understand the liberal ideology we need to understand how they conceived of rationality. The problem is that we've known since the 1960s that the ideas of rationality they relied on were wrong. And I mean, obviously, comically wrong, like someone's idea of how we ought to be, without reference to any actual human beings. And if liberalism is based on a delusion, then what would it look like with a accurate theory of reasoning? 

The Classical Account of Reason

The sapiens in our Latin binomial classification, coined in 1758 by the Swedish taxonomer, Linnaeus, means "wise". It comes from the Latin sapientia "good taste, good sense, discernment; intelligence, wisdom." It refers to the Enlightenment belief that men were uniquely capable of reasoning. Again, "men" here accurately reflects the classical view that women were not capable of reasoning. This is not my view, but the fact that it was the classical liberal view is very important to keep in mind.  

Classically, reasoning is a specific conscious mental process by which we apply logic to problems and arrive at knowledge of the truth, which then guides our decisions. In this view, actions guided by truth are good, while actions guided by falsehood are evil. This view of reasoning is thus linked to  concerns of metaphysics (truth), epistemology (how we know things), and morality (good and evil)

For much of history, reason coexisted with faith, which supposedly revealed truths that were inaccessible to reason. Until the enlightenment, philosophers employed deductive logic to explain the existence of God, the problem of evil, and other religious ideas. However, deductive logic has a flaw; it tends to reproduce one's starting axioms, or the propositions that are held a priori to be unquestionably true. All of the unspoken beliefs of the thinker influence the selection of valid deductions. So, if a logician believes in God, then at some point they will unconsciously accept a deduction as valid based on this belief. This leads them to the "logical" conclusion that God exists. And they assert that their belief in God is based on reason. 

The initial contrast and demarcation between reason and faith become more of a conflict and contest until, during the Enlightenment, reason combined with empiricism became the weapon of choice for intellectuals to undermine and destroy faith. This was done in the name of liberating people from superstition and the oppressive rule of the Church. And of course liberty is the central theme in liberalism. In the Enlightenment, reason was virtually deified. Natural philosophers, soon to be re-christened as "scientists" were the priests of this new cult. This coincided with the peak of materialism: a reaction against the superstitions of religion, which brought everything down to earth. The contrast and conflict between faith and reason is still one of the defining issues of modernity. 

Reason was what separated man from the beasts. For classical liberals it also separated the elite from the common man, and men from women. The elite reasoned that only they were truly rational, and as they defined rationality as good, then it made sense to them that they, as the only people capable of goodness, should be in charge of everything and everyone. Indeed, had they not ruled, then the irrational masses might have fallen back into superstition and religion. Liberals knew that they had to rule in such a way as those capable of reason obtained the maximum liberty while those incapable were at least not able to harm the capable. It was a difficult job, but someone had to take it on and the classical liberal elite stepped up. Of course, it was only fair that they be well compensated for their efforts on our behalf. And of course it was tiresome having to deal with the lower classes, so the best of them were put in charge of the day to day business of telling the peasants what to do and reporting profits back to their masters. These middlemen were imaginatively called the middle classes. Thus began the era of what David Graeber has called "the bullshitization of work".

We can already begin to see how classical understanding of reasoning was flawed.

Free Will

This ability to reason, free from any non-conscious irrationality, is linked to free will and, in particular, what we call contra-causal free will; i.e., free will in which only reason is exercised and there is no influence from emotion, intuition, any unconscious process, or external influence such as peer pressure. Anyone with a modern view of the mind has to realise that contra-causal free will could simply never exist, because all of our thought processes are influenced by all of these other factors all of the time. Reason as classically defined never happens and we actually have proof of this, but let me continue for now on the theme of free will. 

Free will is, of course, closely tied to issues of morality. The Christian answer to the problem of evil is that God gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey, they disobeyed, evil got a foothold, and they were thus cast out of Eden to lead lives of suffering. Even though, as an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient supreme being, God created it all and could foresee all outcomes, Christians insist that it is not God's fault that we suffer. It is our fault. Buddhists also highlight the wilfulness (cetanā) of humanity as the cause of evil. 

As we have seen, most liberals also blamed humanity for the problem of evil and linked this to inherent flaws in the human character, or psyche. According to the classical liberals, humans are by nature variously bellicose, aggressive, competitive, acquisitive, and/or just plain selfish, although we are also supposed to be rational and the inherent antimony between selfishness and rationality seems to go unnoticed; i.e., it is not rational for a social species to be selfish because it will cause a break down in reciprocity and they will die out. 

In this view, therefore, morality is linked to reasoning. Only those who use reason to guide their actions can be moral. This is to say that, for classical liberals, morality is solely linked to reasoning and thus it becomes the province of rich European men. The bourgeoisie push out the church as arbiters of morality and temporal courts eventually gain jurisdiction even over the Church (thank God).

In reality, no one reasons in this way. Almost everything about this liberal discourse is wrong. The understanding of reasoning, of humanity as a social animal, of women, and of morality are all wrong. And these false ideas continue to dominate the thinking of the bourgeois elite. Before reviewing how we do reason, I want to sketch out some related ideas. 


Losing one's reason is seen with increasing alarm as the modern world emerges. Whereas the mad were largely harmless and left to themselves up to late medieval times, especially in Europe, madness gradually becomes a  moral issue, which at that time falls under the purview of the Church. Christians begin to see madness as a sign of sinfulness; the mad must be morally compromised or they would not be mad (deductive logic again). No distinctions are made in terms of the organic causes or etiology of madness until much later.

Michael Foucault notes that leprosy was not treated the same as madness. Of course, people were afraid of contagion (though they had no idea how leprosy spread). But they did not see lepers as morally compromised. Indeed, apart from fear of contagion, lepers were seen relatively positively: their suffering now would free them to go directly to heaven at death. Churchs would have places where lepers could observe services through a window, for example. 

According to Foucault, the confinement and punishment of the mad begins just as leprosy was disappearing from Europe, leaving the sanatoriums empty. The lazar houses where lepers has been quarantined soon became lunatic asylums. Since physicians ran the lazar houses they also inherited the care of lunatics.

Thereafter the loss of reason followed the trends of the medical profession. At first ithey treated madness an an imbalance of the humours. Melancholia, for example is an excess of black bile; whereas mania is an excess of blood. When doctors began to be interested in "psychology", treatment of madness moved from physical medicine to psychological medicine. The loss of reason was ascribed to repressed sexual urges or other psychological complexes. Then as antipsychotic drugs emerged, it was ascribed to chemical imbalance. And so on.

Throughout this period of change from, say, 1500 to 2000 the definitions of reasoning and rational hardly changed. Reasoning was an abstract ability possessed only by humans. It has to be exercised consciously. It is completely separate from and superior to other types of mental activity, excluding emotions in particular. It is almost synonymous with the use of logic. The rational human being is typified by the objective, emotionless man of science. They are contrasted with the hedonistic, irrational, emotional peasant man.  

Friedrich Nietzsche describes two opposing ideals in society: Apollonian, associated with logic, order, rules, rule following; and Dionysian with emotion, chaos, spontaneity, and creativity. Freud thought he saw similar tendencies fighting for dominance in the psyche of every man. This trope lives on in the pseudo-scientific description of the left-brain and right-brain in what are effectively Apollonian and Dionysian terms.

But we may say that the classical liberals saw themselves as rational. Despite the fact that they wrested power from traditional sources against the tide of conservatism, they invested it in certain, rational, individuals. And they were terrified of the great unwashed masses who might (and sort of did) do the same to them. Thus we see the double standards of the class system: freedom to the point of hedonism for the elite, combined with strict authoritarian rule and puritanism for the workers.

Thomas Jefferson rails against the institution of slavery throughout his political career, but continues to own hundreds of slaves the whole time because he feels he must take responsibility for them and that they cannot do so for themselves. The liberal elite decide what freedom is and who gets to enjoy it. Liberty for the few and slavery for the rest.


There was a significant rebellion against the materialist, rationalist, Apollonian view of humanity  that emerged from the Enlightenment and dominated European and colonial circles for a time. It gave rise to the Dionysian movement we call Romanticism. They turned materialism on its head: they valued emotion over reason, subjectivity over objectivity. And so on. However, materialists and romantics agreed one one thing: the primacy of the individual.

In England, romanticism resulted in an outpouring of emotional poetry from upper-class layabouts high on opium, but it also left a lasting sentimental imprint in attitudes to "nature". In Germany, things took a more philosophical turn, towards forms of Idealism that denied the very reality of the material world and posited that everything was simply one's own subjectivity.

Emerging from this German-speaking milieu was a new theory about madness in both its florid aspect of what we now call psychopathy (a disease of the psyche) and the more everyday irrationalities we call neurosis (an abnormal condition -osis of the nerves neuro). The new idea was that our conscious mind was only the tip of the iceberg and that lurking below the surface were many mental processes and "complexes" which could, and did, hijack our will. By far the most influential of these new doctors of the mind was Sigmund Freud. 

Freud's theory was that sexual urges were so strong that they governed every aspect of our lives, from birth to death. He was able to reinterpret everything in terms of sexual urges acted on or repressed. In this view, repressed sexual urges simply become acted on unconsciously, causing aberrant behaviour. Freud shared the generally dim view that classical liberals have of humanity:
"Man is revealed as 'a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.'" — cited in Rifkin, J. (2009) The Empathic Civilisation. Polity Press.
Freud's views on women were even more aggressively regressive than those of his English contemporaries. All these guys were certainly the products of their times, but there's only so much apologising for stupidity of people who are hailed as the leading intellectuals of their day. Freud was a fucking idiot whose puerile theories should have rung alarm bells for anyone paying the least bit of attention to humanity. But he lived in a time when abstract theories about people thrived in contradiction to the practice if empiricists observing nature.

Despite the obvious lunacy of his "theories", Freud and his followers became incredibly influential on modern society. The language of psychoanalysis and psychology was co-opted by popular culture so that we now glibly speak of ego, the subconscious, neurosis, Oedipus complexes, and so on. We have no problem imagining emotions having an agency all of their own, so that when repressed they behave like wayward pixies and make us do and say naughty things. 

The focus on subjectivity found a happy home in post-war France where philosophers also asserted the primacy of subjectivity and began an assault on all expressions of objectivity. This was not in the spirit of a scientific revolution, but more of a tearing down the idols of the bourgeoisie and destroying their authority. French philosophers attacked all forms of authority and all attempts to legitimate it. In some ways we can see this as a libertarian project with echos of the French Revolution, which saw the aristocracy guillotined in their hundreds. To the extent that it was a reaction to early 20th Century modernism, the new French movement could accurately be called "post-modern", though in my view this is something of a red herring. 

Summing up the ever more complex history of ideas across the European and colonial world over a few centuries in such a short essay is quixotic at best. I'm highlighting just a few of the major features on the map and suggesting connections that might not be entirely obvious to all. The result is a sketch of a terrain from which the reader, drawing on their own detailed knowledge of history and philosophy, can imagine the background against which I will now paint a contrasting figure. 

Modern Views on Reason

It has been clear for at least fifty years that this is not how humans make decisions, is not how we think, is not how we reason, and that this is not how reason works. I've written at length on this subject, drawing on work by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in particular, so I don't want to go over it all again in detail. However, having listened to Antonio Damasio's podcast discussion with Sean Carroll, I might need to modify my presentation of this material, but I want to get this out and so I'll have to review it in the future.

Suffice it to say that all liberals, espousing all forms of liberalism, have been completely wrong about the role that reason plays in our lives. Despite the classical view of reason being untenable, and widely known to be untenable, it is still the dominant view outside certain branches of academia. Economists, journalists, and activists all presume that humans are rational in their theories (and most add that we are self-interested, a stupid claim that I will deal with separately).

What we now know, and seems obvious in retrospect, is that humans are capable of using reason in narrowly defined situations that don't typically include making economic and moral choices. We do not use reasoning to make choices at all; rather, we use reasoning to justify choices in retrospect; i.e., to produce post hoc reasons. We make choices using unconscious processes of inference that in all cases involve felt responses to knowledge that we possess. Emotions play a pivotal role in how we assess the salience of any given fact. So, presented with the same facts, and both agreeing that they are true, two people may come to entirely different decisions based on what they perceive (through felt sensations) as most salient amongst the facts.

The other time we use reasoning is in social situations when we are assessing the ideas of others. When making decisions and presenting options to others in this situation we do not use reason, we use other inferential processes. In this social setting it pays for each proponent of an idea to present the best case possible, meaning that confirmation bias (which is virtually universal in such situations) is a feature, not a bug.  

Michael Taft has quipped that "beliefs are emotions about ideas". And as Cordelia Fine puts it, emotions are physiological arousal combined with emotional thoughts. In other words, what we believe, and most of us believe we are a little more rational than the people around us, is emotional.  Not in the Romantic sense, not elevating emotions to revealing the truth better than reason, but simply stating a fact. Emotions colour how we assess the salience of information, which we know from studying people with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex. When we are unable to link information with the feelings that tell us how salient the information is, then we lose ability to make decisions.

Free Will

In this view, we can see that an individual's decisions are still important. However, it is also clear that contra-causal free will is irrelevant. An individual human cannot be considered apart from their social context, because we are social primates who live a social lifestyle. In fact, isolation can make us mentally and physically ill. 

The question becomes, "Under what conditions to we have conscious choices and what is the extent of our ability to choose?" A social mammal cannot just decide, "Fuck it, I'm not sharing my food with anyone," because that isolates them and they die during the first general food shortage because no one will share with them. In a social group, refusal to share most likely brings immediate repercussions in the form of active punishment from the group. In chimps, for example, groups round on and beat up any member that displays overt selfishness. The selfish individual weakens the group.

As urbanised humans we have a problem in that in our set-up selfish people can rapidly become so rich and powerful that we cannot easily punish them. And enough other selfish individuals are normalising and rewarding this behaviour that our disapproval and anger as a group don't seem to matter much. Classical liberalism was always about preventing the group from punishing individuals who display sociopathic levels of selfishness. By the way, sociopathy is defined as a pervasive and pronounced pattern of disregard for and deliberate violation of the rights of other people (viz slavery, genocide, and expropriation). 

There are many different views on the question of free will in the light of modern science. Many argue that because determinism is seen to apply at some levels of reality it must apply at all. Determinists argue that there can be no freewill in any meaningful sense. Morality in this view is not even a subject because no one can be held culpable for actions they did not choose. Deterministas frequently cite experiments by Benjamin Libet, as I explained in Freewill is Back on the Menu (11 March 2016); Libet's interpretation of his results was questioned by his colleagues at the time and has been quite thoroughly debunked now. Psychologists don't cite Libet, but many physicists still do - because of confirmation bias.

Others, myself included, hold that while determinism does apply at some levels it does not apply at all and that this allows for some freedom of will for animals. This is called compatibilism.

There are a dozen more variations on this question, but all of them call into question basic assumptions made by Enlightenment thinkers and particularly by liberals. If we call into question the very notion of freedom, then the ideology that deals with liberty loses all traction. What can liberty mean if no one is truly free? 

In fact, I believe this issue is clouded by confusion surrounding the meaning of free will. Most people seem to take it to be synonymous with contra-causal free will. But we've already ruled out contra-causal free will as a useful idea. No one ever had contra-causal free will.

At the very least, we can say that we experience ourselves making decisions. When called upon we formulate reasons for our actions. People around us hold us accountable for the decisions and the reasons we give for those decisions. But we are social animals whose behaviour is strongly influenced by our social milieu. So is there a better framework to discuss this? I think there is, and it emerges from the world of primatologist Frans de Waal.

The Evolution of Morality

Growing up we absorb a worldview—a complex web of beliefs (i.e., emotions) about the world and people and ourselves. We unconsciously absorb, through empathy, how others feel about the topics they are discussing and also about topics that are taboo. Many of us never question the basic assumptions we make because when we hear statements that agree with our belief we feel good about it and about ourselves. This is how we navigate the moral landscape.

In the language of John Searle, rather than consciously following moral rules, we develop unconscious competencies that guide our actions to be within the rules most of the time. We have agency, but in a prosocial animal it is delimited by what contributes to the survival of the group because that is how social species survive. All social animals have a dual nature as individuals and members of groups. 

We also, mostly unconsciously, modify our behaviour all the time based on ongoing social feedback. As social animals we are attuned, through empathy, to the disposition of other members of our group. And we also keep track of the network reciprocity amongst our group. We know, and love to discuss, who is sleeping with whom, who is in debt, who likes/hates their job, who has kids and what they are doing. This all creates a sense of belonging which is essential to good mental health in social mammals. Of course the modern industrialised world has disrupted this pattern on an unprecedented scale and we're still not sure what the result of that will be. But we have a sneaking suspicion that it is tied to the rise in mental health problems we are seeing across the industrialised world. 

The combination of empathy and reciprocity, which comes from the work on chimps and bonobos by Frans de Waal and his group, gives us the basis for the evolution of morality. The social lifestyle puts us in a situation were we know how other members of our group feel and we know the extent of our interrelationship with them: we know the extent of our obligations. From obligations come the idea of rights and duties. Thus, morality evolved as a deontological dimension to social life. And from this we can derive notions of virtue; virtue is primarily fulfilling or going beyond the requirements of obligation. Similar consequentialist accounts rely on an understanding of the expectations that come with obligation. And outcome is not good if it harms others, but this assumes an obligation not to harm.

This framing of agency and decision making as part of being a social primate embedded in networks of mutual obligation gives us a much better sense of the kinds of decisions we have to make as social primates. Legacy concepts like free will and the classical view of reasoning seem to have little relevance here. We are both individuals and social. Choices are always emotional, always with reference to our milieu. We are not isolated, selfish, or rational. Indeed, "rational" really requires a completely new definition.

As organisms we aim for homeostasis; i.e., to maintain our bodies within the limits that make continued life possible. Societies also have something like homeostasis, a kind of dynamic equilibrium, or set of chaotic oscillations through a range of possibilities consistent with the continued existence of the group. But now we scale the group up to millions of people crammed into tiny spaces. And this defies our evolutionary adaptations, very often leaving us to navigate by our wits rather than relying on our natural sociability.

I want to finish this essay on reason with a word on those who seek to grab our attention and subvert our decision making processes.


Many political activists are still fixated on putting the facts before the people and letting rational self-interest do its work. They haven't realised how humans make decisions. I find it difficult myself. In trying to persuade people that liberalism has run its course and that we need a new socio-political paradigm based on mutual obligations, I'm mainly using facts. Of course I'm trying also to construct a narrative, but it's mainly for other people who do like facts and who might be persuaded by a factual narrative.

We already know that few liberals or neoliberals will be persuaded by the narrative I am relating here.  A proper cult does not crumble at the first hint of criticism and liberalism is a couple of centuries old now. I feel the frustration of this. I feel that I want to break out of the faux formalism of essay writing and get someone excited about a new world through some creative story writing. I write non-fiction because I find it valuable in many ways.

Those who have really internalised the reality that humans are not rational are the modern propaganda industries; i.e.. journalism, advertising, public relations; spin doctors, speech writers, press secretaries, copy writers, lobbyists, etc. These are the people who know how we really make decisions and how to exploit that for profit or to gain power.

This is why the UK is doing a volt-face on Europe: through a targeted campaign of disinformation; using millions of profiles illegally obtained from Facebook to create illegally-funded attack ads on Facebook, the radical British nationalists hijacked the referendum and then exploited a very narrow majority of voters on the day (actually just a third of the electorate) to force us out of our most important international relationship, with our biggest trading partner (and the biggest single export market), voiding trade deals with every major trading bloc, and all for what? So a few British sociopaths could tell the rest of us what to do without interference from the sociopaths in the EU.

And even with all of these facts in the public domain, the process carries on with, if anything, even greater momentum. It really is completely mad.

The modern propaganda machine was helped by the sideways shift that psychologists took from psychotherapy to mass manipulation. They were led by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew and student, who used knowledge gained from psychology to orchestrate a campaign of manipulation to break through the American taboo on women smoking in the 1920s. He thus doubled the profits of American tobacco and condemned millions of women to death from cancer, emphysema, and other diseases associated with smoking. 

Why do the activists advocating for action on global warming and mass extinction have such a hard time getting their message across? At least partly because they erroneously believe it is simply a matter of putting the facts before the people and waiting for them to do the rational thing. But this has never worked, because reason does not work like this. We believe in such strategies for purely ideological reasons.

Against us are massed the propaganda corps of a hundred industry groups who employ top psychology and business PhDs to work in think tanks and lobby groups to target law-makers with disinformation.

Because we are working on out-of-date information we are extremely vulnerable to propaganda. Whole generations are now growing up saturated with propaganda.


We know that the classical account of reason is wrong.  Evidence has been stacking up on this since the mid-1960s. I found reading Mercier and Sperber's The Enigma of Reason profoundly shifted my understanding of reasoning and rationality. But I don't think I've internalised it yet. 

The classical account of reason is hard to shift partly because of the ways in which it is wrong. It is persuasive precisely because the false impression it creates is one that we want to believe - we like thinking of ourselves that way. The truth is much less glamorous, but worse we also have negative narratives about the truth. We feel strongly about reason and the supposed role that reason plays in our lives. And, for many of us, our aspiration to a cool, unemotional rationality still defines our identity. Many people, for example, admire Jordan Peterson because he is never emotional when under attack and he knows how to provoke emotional responses in other people. And in the classical paradigm this means he is rational and his emotional opponents are irrational. And because rationality is explicitly linked to morality, he appears to have the moral high-ground. 

But look at this another way. Someone who is unemotional when attacked is generally speaking alienated from their emotions. If your train in martial arts you have to learn to suppress emotions in order to stay focussed and fight. Samurai undertook Zen meditation techniques the better stay calm in combat; to be more effective killers.

We evolved emotions and the ability to read emotions in others to help us deal with intra-group conflicts. To conceal your emotional state gives you an advantage in a conflict. Being able to easily manipulate other people into expressing emotions, makes for a strong contrast. One is saying, "I am in control of myself and that other person is not in control of themselves". The emotional person is under the control of hostile forces. 

In the classical view, reasoning, thoughts, are voluntary and under our control. We are free to the extent we can suppress our emotions and employ logic. Emotions by contrast are also called passions. A passion is something involuntary that overtakes you. Art depicting Jesus being crucified by the Romans, is often called "The Passion of Christ." In this view, allowing yourself to be overcome by emotion is a form of weakness. And part of this narrative, of course, is that women, who are freer with their emotional displays precisely because they do not view social interactions as combat, are weak. This is the patriarchal argument that is used to oppress women. 

I grew up hating soccer because of the emotional reactions of English players to scoring a goal - they would become visibly elated, hug each other, and run about wildly. In the 1970s, when the game was still played by amateurs, my heroes, the New Zealand rugby team, would never celebrate scoring against the opposition. The goal scorer would simply turn around and quietly walk back to their position, along with teammates. Scoring was a team effort and no individual could or would take credit. Showing off, let alone rubbing the opposing team's face in it, was deeply frowned on. That was my ideal. Soccer players seemed effete and lacked humility or dignity. The British do like to get in your face when they win. 

On the other hand, men's uncontrolled rage, often towards women, is justified as a form of righteousness. As a man, one may not lose control and cry, for example, but one may lose control and punch someone who has offended you. There is a trendy term for this dynamic, but I don't use it, because we have enough problems without the additional stigma of labels. 

Popular culture likes to imagine large external threats, be it aliens, zombies, gangs, or killer bees. And humans usually survive these potential catastrophes by combining our two strengths: individual genius and working together as a team. In the movies, someone figures out how to survive the crisis, they are charismatic enough to convince everyone to try it their way (perhaps after token resistance), and then everyone works together to implement the plan that liberates us from the threat. 

There is a reason for this trope. As smart social primates, this is how we survive: full stop. The smart ones amongst us come up with clever plans. The persuasive ones get everyone on board and organised. But then everyone pulls their weight. Except that in wild primates, the greater one's capacity as a leader, the more obligation one carries to the members who are led. 

However we came to the classical account of reason (and I suspect nefarious intent), we now know that is it wrong. A central pillar of liberalism is rotten and has to be replaced. Liberalism will have to change as a result. Liberty is certainly an admirable goal but is has been used to avoid obligations and responsibilities. For example, the narrative of liberty has been used to continue to pollute our air, water, and land because  environmental legislation has been treated as an unjustified infringement on the free enterprise system. And yet, clearly, to poison the air I breathe or the water I drink is to deprive me of liberty. 

The advisory body Public Health England told me in an email that they estimate between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution. Try to imagine that a group of insurgents are going around shooting 30,000 people per year and what the government response would be.  In 2018, 272 people were killed by assailants wielding knives and there is an ongoing public outcry. But 30,000 deaths from air pollution hardly raises an eyebrow. This has to change, too.

Humans are not rational. We are so not rational. And this has nothing to do with making good or bad decisions (or how we define good and bad). We all need to take this on board and start rethinking morality, society, politics, economics, and pretty much everything else. 


Related Posts with Thumbnails