Saturday, February 12, 2005

My Position on Institutions

I have heard everything about my positions on future societies and on revolution: that I am a utopian dreamer, that my belief begins in and ends in institutions (or alternately that my socialism and anarchism tries to make the perfect man and, according to Rorty, that is what was the problem with the Soviet Union et al - not the explicit totalitarian system, just this particular myth that may or may not have been part of the history). Let me clarify my position.

People are incredibly complex and wondrous organisms. We have an innate human creativity that manifests in the very basic things of life: language, dreams, memory, etc., all of which make us computers of staggering capacity, computers so sufficient that something like what we term "free will" makes up part of our matrix: that is, we are capable (like other animals but even more starkly) to respond to external stimuli in a way that is at least partially original and unique to the situation at hand yet is not randomly generated. I am interested most primarily in what humans want and need, in limiting human suffering and pain and enhancing human fulfillment and pleasure, in creating a world where as few external barriers to spiritual progress are present. (Note that this above comment is simple scientific fact: Scientists know virtually nothing about people and their behavior and can scarcely predict the operation of worms, let alone people with billions of neurons).

People build institutions. People design and compose institutions. Therefore, institutions are malleable and can be changed by human hands. Insitutions, for the sake of discussion, are structures wherein people are put into recurrent roles in relation to each other. There are institutions of fluid power, such as racism and sexism; there are institutions of solid power, such as the state and corporations. Institutions include all of the above plus church groups, the Army, volunteer fire departments, food coops, the manor of a feudal lord, etc.

Institutions inherently delimit roles, order information, alter perceptions, assign privilege and incentives as well as punishment and disincentives. This is all fine and well. For example: A fire department has some people who are using the hose and others who are going into the building; a fire department will dispense information about burning houses that may not go to non-fire department members; a firewoman will have the perception thereof; and a fire department will reward good team members and punish those who slack off when the fire is burning. There's no necessary path to dominance here.

My point is that, since people want to interact in ways that are fairly stable and make sense (because we are inherently social or tribal animals), and people also want to have dignity and freedom, our institutions should propel the desires we hold dear: solidarity, diversity, liberty, freedom, equity, self-management, compassion, justice, etc. etc. We want our institutions to not only allow but encourage behavior that accomplishes these goals and makes people happy, and offers the necessary information and roles to do so.

To offer an example of institutional change: Slavery in the United States was once considered an acceptable institution that should be allowed and encouraged by the law; the inputs of the economy went into and out of slavery; and being a slave-owner was a sign of power and prestige. Nowadays, slavery is illegal and punished; the inputs of the economy overwhelmingly stay away from slavery (though capitalists do have sweatshops that are pretty much [wo]manned by slaves); and to own slaves is considered a sign of brutality and cruelty.

This does not mean that I support B.F. Skinner-style incentive/disincentive structures. I fundamentally believe that people have free will, dignity, freedom, and are not machines that can be simply tweaked by the conceit of a behavioral scientist. That having been said, I think that people will overwhelmingly choose to go along with incentives/disincentives, information structures, etc. that appeal to their greater interests, even if they may have occasional disagreements... So raising a child in a family is a hard thing, not easily solved by specious "science", but where the institutional structure will overwhelmingly make good, decent folk even if there are still some lingering hatreds and flaws.

3 Comments:

Blogger Jason said...

Actually, Christie, I disagree. Humans do not have an innate rational ability. In fact, humans are simplistic creatures who follows his emotional comfort. People are creatures entirely driven by emotion. Their intellect lies in their ability to aviod these emotional states. Think about it. When you raise a toddler, how does the toddler react to things? By their external feelings. As humans expierence more, they develop a more complex understanding of the world and thus learn better ways to react, thus gaining intelligence.

Secondly, people are social creatures. Their altruism lies in the amount of common understanding with another individual. That's way people are more likely to help a sibling than to help a homeless person on the street. However, if people are aware of the suffering of others, they are inclined to help them as well.

So the influence of these institutions depends on the interests of a particular group of people. Even if we base institutions on tolerance, the personal interest of people can cause them to abuse that purpose into doing something else.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

"Actually, Christie, I disagree. Humans do not have an innate rational ability. In fact, humans are simplistic creatures who follows his emotional comfort. People are creatures entirely driven by emotion. Their intellect lies in their ability to aviod these emotional states. Think about it. When you raise a toddler, how does the toddler react to things? By their external feelings. As humans expierence more, they develop a more complex understanding of the world and thus learn better ways to react, thus gaining intelligence."

This is silly. The very structure of language has incredible complexity. Consider: From incomplete samples (your parents), you were able to learn a complex tool that allows you to communicate abstract concepts ranging from gravitational singularities to political realities to your internal mental states. Further, it appears that every human being that has not suffered from negative mutation or physical violence has this capacity.

Now, people may, as David Hume argued, USE their rationality to satisfy emotional urges, ranging from love and anger. But you seem to be arguing that we miraculously become rational suddenly at X point based on external stimuli. It's like arguing that adolesence is caused by "external feeling". This is what I mean when I say basic assumptions: people argue things using rational concepts and blow them out of any reasonable relationship to reality. According to your idea of rationality, Einstein must have simply had different "external feelings" and more "experience", instead of an innate genetic gift that was then in turn given expression according to his internal drives and wishes.

"Secondly, people are social creatures. Their altruism lies in the amount of common understanding with another individual. That's way people are more likely to help a sibling than to help a homeless person on the street. However, if people are aware of the suffering of others, they are inclined to help them as well."

This I agree with, and something I neglected to mention and will add. People are social creatures; we simultaneously want some degree of privacy and freedom as well as some degree of interaction with people.

"So the influence of these institutions depends on the interests of a particular group of people. Even if we base institutions on tolerance, the personal interest of people can cause them to abuse that purpose into doing something else."

But if the institutions a) allow people to find personal fulfillment without harming others, b) overwhelmingly discourage antisocial behavior, c) don't even provide the roles for antisocial behavior (i.e. a balanced job complex is the only way to make legal money in a parecon, and a BJC is designed by definition to avoid antisociality), d) have so many actors and checks/balances that X or Y group can't achieve consistent roles of power, and e) are democratic and federated, I think you'll find that corruption and self-aggrandizement will virtually disappear: it will carry tremendous social cost, legal cost, and will be difficult to do anyways and will have very little payoff.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Frederic Christie said...

The example I offer is slavery: It used to be that being a slave-owner was considered a sign of power and culture, and the society allowed and even encouraged slaveholding. Nowadays, not only is it illegal and not only does the economy usually not provide the inputs for slavery, but it's considered vile and crass.

8:19 AM  

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