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The Possibility of Disinterested Action

August 18, 2013

Gloria Origgi in The Berlin Review of Books:

In one of his perfect narratives, Heinrich von Kleist tells the sad story of two secret lovers separated and condemned to death just before the earthquake that was to destroy Santiago de Chile in 1647. 684px-Belisaire_demandant_l'aumone_Jacques-Louis_DavidHaving miraculously survived, they enjoy for a few days the mercy of an enchanted social atmosphere. Their judges and executioners, transformed by the tragedy and the ensuing chaos, multiply gestures of altruism and generosity. The blissful mood persists for a short while, but soon the rules and norms of civil life are being reinstated and a Mass is celebrated during which the crime of the two poor lovers is denounced as the cause of all the evil. The lovers, unable to escape the fury of collective condemnation, are clubbed to death. The reciprocal altruism and the disinterested society that the cataclysm had spawned turns out to be ephemeral, unnatural, as if the ferocious end were a way to compensate for the uncanny sense of self that the people had experienced when acting in such a disinterested manner.

Jon Elster’s latest book, Le désintéressement, based on his Collège de France lectures in 2006-2007, discusses the very possibility of disinterested action. Is it possible for a human being to act in a truly disinterested manner? Do disinterested actions have a psychological unity or are they the mere product of circumstances? Is disinterestedness an individual or a collective phenomenon?

From a strictly rational point of view, that of utilitarian economic rationality, to the critique of which Elster had devoted an important part of his work, disinterestedness looks irrational. It violates the rules of maximisation of utility. As if human action without the kind of rational and interested motivation that optimise the individual utility was bereft of justification, irrational or at least arational. Elster’s aim, in this first volume of a trilogy that will be dedicated to the critique of the classical theory of Homo Economicus, is precisely to combine a critique of the motivational model of interest with a methodological individualistic approach, and not to go along with holistic explanations in terms of superstructure characteristic of other social science traditions such as Marxism and structuralism. Pierre Bourdieu for instance reduces the possibility of disinterested action to the social mechanics of distinction, assuming that it only occurs as a means of increasing one’s symbolic capital in an economy where not all exchanges are material. Elster, on the contrary, seeks individual motivations for disinterested acts, disinterested reasons to act that are moreover independent of the social superstructure.

There are two defining features of Homo Economicus that disinterested actions may undermine: rationality and interested motivation. Elster’s approach saves rationality at the expense of interested motivation. [More]

A Language of Solidarity

August 15, 2013

From the Archives of Commonweal Magazine – Robert Bellah:

imagesModern society replaces the older ideal of organic hierarchy with a new idea of functional differentiation of spheres of life. In this new society the central institution is no longer religion or even the political order but the economy. But because the economy lacks a telos of the sort that religion and politics had (the end of religion is salvation, of politics the common good), the economy does not replace them as a new kind of dominant hierarchical institution. Rather it radically undermines all older conceptions of ethical hierarchy and replaces them with functional or even technical utility instead. In so doing modern society produces a new worldview, one that reverses the traditional conception of higher and lower energies. The modern ideology is radically egalitarian and individualistic and hopes to create a good society through unleashing and manipulating egoistic and selfish desires. The new social philosophy, in the form of classical liberalism, replaces the older conception of ethical, political, practical reason, even in the political sphere. Even as early as Hobbes the problem of political leadership was replaced by the problem of regulation, of the management of human beings conceived as the material to be subjected to technical manipulation.

All of these changes were not without their precursors and accompaniments in the religious sphere, as we know from Max Weber. Yet as we also know from Weber, the increasing dominance of functional rationalization changes the place of religion as it was known in all previous societies. Religion is to be displaced from its role as guardian of the public worldview that gives human life its coherence (a role that it retained in early Protestant communities as well as in Catholic ones). Religion is now relegated to the purely private sphere where it is to be considered merely one of a variety of possible private options. [More]

Does European culture exist?

August 8, 2013

Enda O’Doherty in Eurozine:


The Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller, in a chapter she contributed to a book published in 1992, stated with some confidence her view that there was no such thing as European culture. There was certainly, she wrote, Italian and German music, and Florentine and Venetian painting, “but there is no European music and no European painting”.

It is true that the history of art and culture was not really Heller’s field, but it would seem that those who, in the same year as she wrote her essay, framed the Maastricht Treaty, signalling the transition from European Community to European Union, at least partially agreed with her. The treaty was the first time the community had taken for itself significant powers in the cultural field. European cultures (note the plural), the relevant article stated, were to be understood as requiring “respect” – by which one understands freedom from too much supranational interference (“The Community shall contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the member states, while respecting their national and regional diversity”). At the same time however, the Community was to be entrusted with the task of “[b]ringing the common cultural heritage to the fore”.

As with most negotiated texts, there is a compromise lurking here, or possibly a contradiction. First, cultures are to be understood as national (and grudgingly, just a little bit regional); they are even perhaps what define nations, the particular set of practices and inheritances which the Dutch, or the Germans, or the Portuguese have by virtue of their nationality, the thing that they have and no other nation has – that Dutch, that Portuguese thing. And yet it seems, according to Maastricht, that there is also a common cultural heritage which belongs equally to the Dutch and the Germans and the Portuguese. But what is this heritage? Is it something made up of a little bit of everywhere sort of tacked together (“the Europe of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe” perhaps, to which statesmen like to pay obeisance in their speeches before quickly passing on to more important matters)? Or could it be something more mysterious, something actually European?

Be this as it may, European culture certainly has deep historical roots. But these roots, of course, lie in something quite different from the geographical and political entity that we know as today’s Europe. Europa was first, in Greek mythology, a Phoenician woman abducted by the god Zeus, appearing in the form of a white bull. Then the word came to designate those lands on the western side of the Bosporus (the eastern side being Asia), corresponding to part of modern Bulgaria and “European Turkey”. The Roman world was partly European but also Asian and African, its centre of course being the Mediterranean, the great sea, mare nostrum. The Roman church derived its teachings from the east (Asia and Africa again) but later established its dominion chiefly in western and central Europe (…)

Peter Burke has shown to what degree the Renaissance was not just an Italian affair but a phenomenon whereby a certain style, which may have started in northern and central Italy, a way of painting, a way of building, a way of thinking, a way of running one’s household if possessed of some power and wealth, spread out dramatically, to France, to Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, England, Scotland. Such a dramatic propagation of ideas, objects and practices was facilitated (as Gothic architecture had also been a few centuries before) by a greatly enhanced mobility of craftsmen and artists. [More]

What Is the “Responsibility to Protect”?

July 29, 2013

Fred Dews, Brookings Institution:


Rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have executed and raped scores of women and children in the last few months. In Syria, as a result of the civil war, the UN says an average of 6,000 people per day are fleeing their homes, the worst refugee crisis in 20 years. South Sudan’s army has been accused of human rights violations as it wages a counter-insurgency campaign.

What responsibility do countries have to protect civilians from such human rights violations, and, indeed, what right does any country (or countries) have to intervene across another’s borders to protect rights? In 2005, world leaders unanimously affirmed the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), a set of principles designed to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and to provide norms to guide answers to these questions.

In a new report, “The United States and R2P: From Words to Action,” co-authors Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, and Richard Williamson, a Brookings nonresident scholar and former special envoy to Sudan, review implementation of the R2P norms and recommend a number of steps to strengthen them, including specific steps the U.S. government should take to provide global leadership. Despite universal agreement on the principles, they find significant problems in their realization:

But all too often, the promise of R2P has been more noteworthy in its breach than in the honoring of our commitments. Despite the lofty ambitions of its framers, the crimes R2P was intended to prevent have continued at a shocking pace in the last few years, not only in Syria but also in such diverse places as Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, the DRC, and Sudan. [More]


July 25, 2013

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Thomas Nagel: Thoughts are Real

July 21, 2013

Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

Brain antomy, 19th century artworkThe philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book, “Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,” restores the primal force of a great old philosophical word, “metaphysics.” He starts with a boldly discerning look at that strange creature, mankind, and comes to some remarkable speculations about who we are and what our place is in the universe. Incidentally (and seemingly unintentionally) he illuminates, along the way, some significant aspects of the cinema, and of art overall.

The book deals with science—specifically, Darwinian ideas regarding evolution and natural selection—and it’s filled with the quasi-scientific language and argumentation that characterizes much of Anglo-American analytical philosophy. This is unfortunate, because the ideas that Nagel unfolds ought to be discussed by non-specialists with an interest in the arts, politics, and—quite literally, in this context—the humanities.

Where the book has been discussed, it has stirred up controversy, largely of an implicitly political nature. Jennifer Schuessler reported in the Times, on the praise that it has elicited from creationists. Proponents of evolution have, in effect, responded to it with a concerted “Et tu, Nagel?”: having spent their careers fending off attacks on evolution from right-wing religious creationists, they now find themselves having to defend the idea on, so to speak, their left, hyper-rational flank. But as H. Allen Orr rightly notes in the New York Review of Books, there’s nothing in “Mind and Cosmos” that supports or sympathizes with the religious point of view. Rather, Nagel is seeking to improve science, even to expand it, not to repudiate it.

Physics is the question of what matter is. Metaphysics is the question of what exists. People of a rational, scientific bent tend to think that the two are coextensive—that everything is physical. Many who think differently are inspired by religion to posit the existence of God and souls; Nagel affirms that he’s an atheist, but he also asserts that there’s an entirely different realm of non-physical stuff that exists—namely, mental stuff. [More]

Human Emotions Explained

July 19, 2013

Tania Labronzo for NPR:


In some sense we’re all experts in emotion. We experience emotion every day, all the time. We constantly observe the emotional responses of others, and we often make decisions based on anticipated emotions: we pursue something because we think it will make us happy, or avoid something because we worry it will anger someone else.

Despite living intimately with emotion, there’s a lot we don’t know. Sometimes we’re baffled by our own emotional responses, or those of others. Sometimes we wish we could change our emotions, but don’t know how.

And then there are all the questions — beyond these — that occupy psychologists and other scientists. Are emotions universal, or do they vary across individuals and cultures? Do we have unconscious emotions? How do emotions affect judgment? How do emotions change throughout the lifespan?

Let’s face it, emotions are complex and the human mind and body don’t exactly come with an owner’s manual. That’s one reason people are often fascinated by the scientific study of emotion, and one motivation behind a new resource led by June Gruber, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University. The series, available on YouTube, offers over 60 interviews with leading experts in the field of emotion. I asked Gruber what prompted her to start the Experts in Emotion Series:

“Emotions affect us all, and touch our lives every single day. So we often wonder what are emotions, why do we have them in the first place, and how they shape other aspects of our mental lives. Scientists spend countless hours working on these same questions. Yet often there’s a gap between our everyday curiosities and the scientific inquiry about emotion. I wanted to find a way to close this gap – the series is meant to be a bridge between the public and the scientists behind the scenes, to hear not only what experts see as the most pressing questions they tackle in their work, but also where they see the future headed and what got them into doing what they study in the first place.” [More]

The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens

July 17, 2013

From RSAnimate:

Author and journalist Evgeny Morozov presents an alternative take on ‘cyber-utopianism’ – the seductive idea that the internet plays a largely emancipatory role in global politics.

A Tapestry of Pain

July 15, 2013

Chuanfei Chin in The Berlin Review of Books:


‘Without pain our life is unthinkable. With it, life is hardly to be endured’ (7). Most of us share the capacity to feel pain. We accept that having this general capacity is part of being human, yet we avoid specific experiences of pain. This is the first of our seemingly paradoxical attitudes to pain, with which Arne Johan Vetlesen, professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, opens his book. Secondly, we fear pain and condemn those who wantonly inflict it, though its forms and meanings fascinate us. It has a ‘Janus face’. Thirdly, we alone must endure the pain in our own bodies. Yet we readily observe pain in others and expect that they suffer from it as we do. What is privately suffered is assumed to be potentially shared. Such attitudes alert Vetlesen to the possibility that pain ‘contains something inherently desirable’. He is ‘prepared to be a spokesman for such an opposite view’ (10) – to decry a western culture that has developed ‘the most negative ever’ view of pain (8).

If his opening stance impresses, it has to be conceded that his defence of pain’s desirability disappoints. So far as I can tell, this is summed up later in an aside: Being susceptible to pain means being ‘sensitive’ and so ‘able to experience what is good’. It also makes us ‘want to enrich and expand ourselves through contact with the good’ and motivates us ‘to protect everything that is good’ (92). These ideas – that the capacity for suffering is constitutively and causally related to goodness – have been explored by many who wrestle with the problem of evil. Vetlesen echoes the ideas without responding to the challenges that have been posed to them. (…)

Vetlesen’s model leads to two insights when he adds a social dimension to his cultural criticism. Firstly, when a society suffers from ‘symbolic impoverishment’, its members stop processing their pain on the ‘inside’. Instead, they transport it automatically to the ‘outside’. Violence towards others becomes the ‘favoured answer’ to pain: it is ‘handed down from generation to generation’ as a social norm (115). The result, as observed by others, is a wider ‘culture of callousness’ (117). Secondly, it is not enough for a society to produce ‘good symbolic resources’ which can be used to transform pain. These resources must be distributed to reach those ‘groups’ which need them ‘most of all’ (125). [More]

Every Breath You Take

July 11, 2013

Mark P. Mills in City Journal:

mobile-phone-police-surveillance-feature-largeCovering everything that’s happening today with information technology in one book is a monumental challenge. As if to acknowledge that difficulty, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of Big Data, begin by describing the data’s magnitude. They note, for instance, that the amount of data now stored around the world is an estimated 1,200 exabytes (itself an already dated and debatable number), which can be expressed as an equally incomprehensible 1.2 zettabytes. “If it were all printed in books, they would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers thick.”

Big Data’s authors observe that humanity is marching into unfamiliar territory: “Ultimately big data marks the moment when the ‘information society’ finally fulfills the promise implied by its name. The data takes center stage. All those digital bits that we have gathered can now be harnessed in novel ways to serve new purposes and unlock new forms of value.” Put more simply, the emergence of “big data”—whatever we think we mean by that term—marks the pivot in history when computing will finally become useful for nearly everyone and everything. (…)

For science fiction aficionados, Isaac Asimov anticipated the idea of using massive data sets to predict human behavior, coining it “psychohistory” in his 1951 Foundation trilogy. The bigger the data set, Asimov said then, the more predictable the future. With big-data analytics, one can finally see the forest, instead of just the capillaries in the tree leaves….Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier begin their exploration of analytics with an oft-cited example: Google data about the location and frequency of searches for “the flu” are already more effective in tracking the rise and vector of an epidemic than anything the Centers for Disease Control can do.

The fascinating thing about the scale of massive data sets is that, as Asimov predicted, they can reveal trends, even behaviors, that tell us what will happen without the need to know the “why.” (That was the trope in the movie Minority Report, based on a 1956 story by another great sci-fi writer, Philip K. Dick.) With robust correlations, you don’t need a theory to predict; you just know….The “why” of many things that we observe, from entropy to evolution, has eluded physicists, philosophers, and theologians. What’s new about big data is the extension of our observational powers into so much, from the profound to the trivial.

There are important, even troublesome, public-policy and social implications. The ongoing controversy over government and NSA investigation methods using analytics is just one example: “In addition to challenging privacy, these uses of big data raise another unique and troubling concern: the risk that we may judge people not just for their actual behavior but for the propensities the data suggest they have.” [More]

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