Sociotoma: Human Nature’s Blindspot to Human Nature

Sociotoma: Human Nature’s Blindspot to Human Nature

Philosophy January 08, 2015 / By Ben Irvine
Sociotoma: Human Nature’s Blindspot to Human Nature

When fear drives out mutual understanding, humanity takes a step backwards, with a disastrous impact on politics, communities, prosperity and democracy.

1. A cautionary tale

The phrase ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’ isn’t meant to imply that cruelty is always kindness – only that it sometimes is. A punishment, a cold shoulder, a withdrawal of material support, a restriction of freedom: these ‘cruel’ actions may kindly help a wayward person onto the straight and narrow. Less well known is the converse fact that kindness can sometimes be cruelty. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but sometimes the lack of self-awareness and external awareness shown by misfiring altruists entitles us to call into question their self-professed goodness.   

The appeal of the 1990 film Misery, directed by Rob Reiner, consists in the shock that comes from encountering a person who has delusions of benevolence. The film’s main protagonist is a novelist named Paul Sheldon, who crashes his car in a blizzard in Colorado, breaking both his legs. He is rescued by a local nurse, Annie Wilkes, who, by co-incidence, is a devoted fan of Sheldon’s series of romantic novels in which her favourite character, ‘Misery Chastain’, stars. Wilkes takes Sheldon to her remote home where she begins nursing him back to health. She buys a copy of his latest book, Misery’s Child, but, upon reaching the end of the book, discovers that Sheldon has killed off Misery. In a rage, Wilkes locks Sheldon in his room. She insists that he writes a new novel, to bring Misery back to life. Sheldon obliges, but when his mobility improves he tries to escape before the manuscript is complete. Wilkes captures him, drugs him, and straps him to the bed. When he wakes, she breaks his ankles with a mallet, and begins ‘caring’ for him again.  

Sheldon ultimately overpowers Wilkes and flees. But he is chastened by the experience. Later, in the film’s closing scene, when a waitress in a cafe declares that she is his ‘number one fan’, he winces. The kindness of strangers, he knows now, is not always what it seems.

2. Wilkesism

Many of today’s economic and social problems can be traced to the fact that a vast swathe of the Western population sees itself, like Annie Wilkes, as being quintessentially kind to strangers, while lacking in sufficient self-awareness and external awareness to appreciate how cruel such kindness can be. The hallmark of Wilkesism, as I will call it, is the portentous insistence that ‘society’ or ‘the government’ should do more – always more – to solve social problems and help the needy, and thereby reduce inequality. The Wilkesist contrasts his own approach with the alleged callousness of the businessperson, banker or entrepreneur, each of whom supposedly impoverishes the wider population by focusing solely on profit and self-advancement. Kindness, it follows, consists in expropriating power from the commercial sector and channelling society’s resources into collectivist, government-led programmes of social support, wealth redistribution and centralised – purportedly ‘fairer’ – economic planning.   

That this approach is often cruelty masquerading as kindness is evidenced by the negative impact Wilkesism tends to have on the very people it purports to help. When welfare support is bestowed solely on the basis of each recipient’s ‘need’, individuals whose problems are their own fault may become wedded to the lifestyle that led to their dependency in the first place, while individuals who are better behaved and have simply been unlucky in life may receive insufficient support or even be marginalised, since their predicament is likely to be less severe than that of self-destructive individuals. When criminals and delinquent schoolchildren are shown lenience, or even excused, in accordance with a government policy of raising ‘social inclusion’ (if the miscreants were punished this would supposedly only exacerbate their ‘social exclusion’), they are left mired in bad behaviour, which impacts upon themselves and, worse, upon innocent bystanders who happen to occupy the same underclass as the offenders. When malcontents of all stripes are inculcated with the notion that failure is wholly the result of social or economic forces, those people are demoralised further and discouraged from developing the self-determination essential to the improvement of their situation. When money is siphoned wastefully away from businesses, this causes the economy – that unparalleled engine of trust, innovation, co-operation and wealth-creation – to falter and stall, destroying jobs, driving up prices, and further swelling the underclass.  

Yet the most compelling evidence for the cruelty of Wilkeism consists in the dubious motives and comportment of its proponents. For a start, many of them are as invested in the suffering of the people they are supposed to be benefitting as Wilkes was in Sheldon’s ongoing dependency; employees of the welfare state, let us not forget, are remunerated handsomely. In the early twentieth century there was outrage when some investment banks paid their bosses as much as twenty times the wage of their lowest paid employees. Such wage differentials are not only commonplace now in the public sector, but are comparable to the divergent rewards allocated, respectively, to the administrators and recipients of welfare support. The executors of a system so configured can hardly be described as aiming at eradicating inequality.

Indeed, if people show their true colours when under pressure then I learned much about the ethics of local authority employees when I was working for a London borough shortly after the financial crash of 2008. Many of my colleagues were anxious about the inevitable government ‘cuts’ on council jobs and services – not without justification, since several members of our own team were subsequently laid off. When I suggested, on numerous occasions, that the impact of the cuts could be mitigated or avoided if all members of our team were willing to take a reduction in pay, the idea was invariably met with suspicion, evasion or awkward silence.

A further reason to doubt the authenticity of Wilkesists can be seen in their characteristic cynicism about any behaviour that actually merits the descriptor ‘prosocial’. Robert Putnam’s classic book Bowling Alone (2000) charted the benefits, and sadly the decline in the US, of citizens getting involved in their communities, whether through volunteering, campaigning, charity work, political or religious activities, joining a group, supporting the local school, or simply visiting the home of a friend or neighbour. Positive social interaction within communities, or ‘social capital’ as it is often called, leads to happier, healthier, richer and more egalitarian societies, and it is easy to see why. Any community typically encircles countless wise, generous and supportive words and actions, from which any of its members may benefit, not only because each will be on the receiving end of a good turn at one time or another, but because giving and receiving are both conducive to well-being. Moreover, through learning to rub along together, through countless little negotiations, community members develop benign traits such as respect, tolerance, patience and self-control – the building blocks of democracy and civilisation.

Of course, groups may sometimes denigrate out-groups, but when communities avoid making such unpleasantness their raison-d’être – as they almost always do, since groups don’t usually form unless their members have something better to do than dislike other groups – or, even better, when communities actively discourage such unpleasantness, the actual upsides of social capital far outweigh the potential downsides.   

Given its pricelessness, both literal and metaphorical, you would think that Wilkesists would place social capital on the pedestal it deserves. But recent events, at least in Britain, have revealed a different reaction. At the beginning of his first term in office, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was vigorously championing his ‘Big Society’ vision. His – credible – idea was that if communities took greater responsibility for their own affairs then the numerous social and political ills of ‘Broken Britain’ – educational failure, mental illness, obesity, teenage pregnancy, drug addiction, over-ripe inequality, and crippling public and private debt – could be mitigated. However, although Cameron’s coalition government did deliver on the Conservative manifesto’s promise to support community ventures such as social enterprises, co-operatives and free schools, the rhetoric of the Big Society was soon quietly shelved. It sounded too socialist to wash with Tory die-hards, and – of greater electoral significance – Wilkesists weren’t going for it either. The media was frothing with accusatory parodies that were ridiculous either because they utterly missed the point (‘Why should amateurs be expected to perform surgical procedures?’) or because they were so remote from commonsense (‘Why should parents be expected to get involved in the life of their children’s school?’).

The mindset of Wilkesism is, on the surface, arrestingly paradoxical. Why would someone who claims to care about other people’s welfare not only advocate undemocratic policies that exacerbate the worst social problems, but eschew and even derogate any local, tangible activity that might improve the poorest people’s lives? The question is urgent as well as academically interesting. The main causes of the social and financial problems of the West are still – indeed, increasingly – being touted as solutions. The economic movers and shakers are being wholly blamed for what are largely the failings of the blamers, yet, while the doers are being marginalised or neutralised, the blame directed at them is becoming more widespread and intense. Few people seem to be able to resist firing off the poisoned arrows of phoney altruism and righteous indignation. History tells a very unhappy tale about civilisations that descend into mass resentment of this kind.

3. Hidden Fear

The clue to understanding Wilkesism lies precisely in its advocates’ intransigence. If you enter into a political discussion with a Wilkesist you will typically find that as the conversation proceeds your interlocutor’s position is held more passionately and irrationally. You will encounter the usual strategies that are employed by any disputant who has too much at stake to lose an argument: changing the subject, answering different questions to those asked, sarcasm, outraged protest, stubbornly denying evidence, ad hominem attacks. Such machinations are underwritten, in large part, by fear. The normal, evolved human response to fear is to join with one’s fellows to address the external causes of the problem at issue. But for the Wilkesist the fear is so prevalent and diffuse it metastasises to the social level. There is a fear of strangers, with all their unknown motives and ways, which manifests itself as a characteristic aversion and disdain towards the demanding, but ultimately co-operative, negotiation-driven structure of commerce. There is fear of committing to one’s own community’s efforts to confront local problems. And there is a fear of losing esteem in the eyes of others. This last fear translates into the Wilkesist’s tendency to ‘protest too much’. Instead of confessing to inadequacy, Wilkesists relentlessly and angrily invoke the most powerful entity they can – the state – as a proxy for their personal benevolence. Handily, the state precludes personal engagement with social problems but emblematises conviction. Even more handily, the business-averse Wilkesist is likely to be employed and remunerated by the state, alongside millions of colleagues likewise engaged in the ghostly administration of collective failure.   

Like their namesake in Misery, Wilkesists are as lonely as they are fantastical in their self-deceptive quest to see everything turn out perfectly, obviating the compromises required by real life. Loneliness is both a result and a cause of their fear. Whatever a person may be scared of, a direct and habitual engagement with that object would soon spell the end of the fear, although of course the fear itself may discourage such an engagement, causing a positive feedback loop of fear. Likewise, properly engaging with a community, and the wider economy, would probably spell the end of the diffuse fear suffered by Wilkesists, but precisely because they forgo such engagement, they remain fearful. In turn, their isolation makes them lonely, and their loneliness exacerbates the fear which causes their loneliness, an additional positive feedback loop which makes for a particularly stubborn neurosis.

Even when Wilkesists do appear to be sociable and outward-looking, they are often, on closer inspection, fearfully retreating from society and reality, and from self-knowledge. Psychologists report that, in comparison to conservatives, opponents of conservatism display higher levels of both ‘openness to experience’ and drug usage – the two traits likely being connected, insofar as it is easier to ostensibly (and ostentatiously) embrace life and the whole of humanity when, through drugs (including alcohol), one is disburdened of inhibition and genuine responsibility.

4. Philosophical Hypochondria

In many people, this recurring Wilkesist pattern – in which seeming engagement obscures abdication from uncomfortable truths – not only has an emotional component, but also an intellectual basis, a philosophical emissary to the fear of responsibility. Through ‘philosophical hypochondria’, as I like to call it, the Wilkesist may spin his fear into a more pressing – and, allegedly, more socially important – theoretical inquiry concerning the very coherence and possibility of responsibility. The philosophical hypochondriac doesn’t explicitly call it a problem of responsibility; instead he relentlessly asks questions such as: How can an individual exist in an impersonal universe? How can reality generate freedom? How can we know what’s real? How can we be sure of anything, including the consequences of our actions? How can we know what’s right? But the net effect of such questioning is that the two essential aspects of responsibility – internal and external awareness, or freedom and reality – are deemed to be mutually problematic: you can’t logically ‘get’ from one to the other. This not only makes caring about the problem of responsibility seem more urgent than the responsibility of really caring about people, but affords philosophical hypochondriacs, whose enquiries are conducted high above the fray, a reputation for special insight and moral superiority.

Admittedly, philosophical hypochondriacs do sometimes offer solutions to the problem of responsibility, but their solutions are plausible neither in form nor in function. In form, they invariably involve dissolving the notion of responsibility into one or none of its aspects; for instance, reality is retained but not freedom, or freedom is retained but not reality, or a third thing is posited, such as a God, that allegedly exists beyond our ‘illusory’ inner and outer awareness. In function, these ‘solutions’ clearly don’t solve the problem of responsibility but rather seek to validate it as a problem. This can be seen in the fact that philosophical hypochondriacs invariably fail to move on from the problem even after claiming to have solved it. Just as a malingerer justifies his ongoing ‘illness’ by endlessly and ostentatiously administering some quack treatment or other, the philosophical hypochondriac repeats his favoured solution ad nauseum, or tweaks it following criticism from other philosophical hypochondriacs, whose own phoney solutions he critiques in turn, in a collective demonstration of the validity of the original problem. The charade is wreathed in impenetrable jargon which prevents the public from distinctly understanding, if not suspecting, the spuriousness of the philosophical hypochondriac’s excuse for inaction. As everyone else knows, responsibility is certainly possible and certainly exists. Inner and outer awareness, or freedom and reality, are clear and present to us all, as paradoxical as that fact is and must be. And there’s an end on’t.

Many philosophical hypochondriacs’ preferred phoney solution to the problem of responsibility consists in collectivising not just welfare but metaphysics. To the ‘postmodernist’, everything is society; freedom and reality are illusions that melt into a pervasive social ether, so that responsibility becomes always ours but never yours or mine. To solve social problems all we have to do, supposedly, is relinquish the spurious metaphysical idea of being individuals in an external world, and instead create culture, and therefore our own collective ‘reality’, anew – harmonious, fair, equal. Though many philosophical hypochondriacs scoff at postmodernism, preferring some alternative phoney solution or other, it is remarkable how quickly most invoke the social ether when subjected to the slightest moral pressure. As the cold light of day coaxes a rainbow from a prism, the mention of an underclass elicits a plume of collectivist metaphysics from philosophical hypochondriacs; they parrot the dogma that malcontents are blighted wholly by unfortunate social or economic circumstances, never by a bad character or a lack of self-awareness, sound choices or wisdom. Meanwhile, the philosophical hypochondriac’s failure to provide reminders of those perennial assets is reflected in his own chaotic and angst-ridden mental state, a kind of self-negligence that is characteristically displayed by all Wilkesists. The habit of vicariously blaming others traps in turmoil the blamers as well as those they seek to exonerate.    

5. Darwinophobia

The diffuse fear displayed by Wilkesists, and Wilkesist philosophical hypochondriacs, is exemplified in their shared aversion to Darwinism. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection inveighs against everything the Wilkesist cherishes. In explaining the differential survival and proliferation of species, natural selection draws our attention to the impositional core of reality. Anything that exists – organic or otherwise – does so only by successfully eventuating out of the past and carrying that trajectory into the future. Each thing imposes itself upon other things, existence upon existence, and, concomitantly, existence upon nothingness. In turn, existence imposes itself upon each of us, upon our freedom: our individual autonomy is unflaggingly confronted by the pressure of reality. The Wilkesist finds this thought – this antithesis to fantasy – abhorrent.  

Even more abhorrent to the Wilkesist is the thought that the imposition of reality extends into the human nervous system. Human nature has carried a trajectory not just through the tens of thousands of generations that separate us from our ape-like ancestors, but way back to life’s origins. At least some of the strategies that enabled our ancestors to successfully impose themselves upon reality, and upon each other, must remain in our modern behavioural repertoire. Understanding and exploring this fact requires both unflinching self-awareness and awareness of others, and Wilkesists are partial to neither. They confidently declare that accepting the truth of Darwinism would condemn us to Darwinian original sin – but in this flippant assumption they get things back to front. Rigorous, uncensored self-awareness enables us to minimise or marginalise our sins – whether through self-control or by manipulating our surroundings so as to inhibit certain behavioural responses. In contrast, the Wilkesist’s aversion to responsibility precludes this kind of constructive engagement of freedom with human nature.

Inevitably, those who neglect to understand their own nature also neglect to understand the nature of others. Fellow human beings become theoretical abstractions, idealisations, blanks – another failure of constructive engagement. Whereas traders fill each other’s minds with mutual understanding so as to create an agreeable deal – the psychological exchange preceding the financial one – and whereas sensible policy-makers factor in likely real outcomes based on a consideration of human nature, the typical strategy of a Wilkesist is to champion ill-thought-out government social-engineering policies based on assumptions of human potential that are confounded by the propensities of real people. The result is typically a waste of money, and a social mess.

6. Human nature and its limits

The Darwinian recognises that human nature is universal – that all human beings share general characteristics, despite showing individual differences in the way in which, and the extent to which, those characteristics are manifested. This viewpoint is often portrayed by Wilkesists as imperialist or racist – in that it imputes supposedly ‘Western’ traits to all cultures – but in fact it is humane. If all human beings are cut from the same cloth – as the anthropological and biological evidence abundantly suggests – then at the deepest level, beneath the idiosyncrasies of whichever culture we belong to, we all tend to have similar aspirations, needs and rights. Far more divisive is the Wilkesist dogma that we should respect ‘difference’ by recognising that, because each culture supposedly determines its own reality, all cultures are mutually incomprehensible.

This is not to deny that the Darwinian understanding of human nature recognises deep-seated differences in the way human beings relate to their own communities and to strangers. In the ‘ancestral’ environment in which the human mind is thought by evolutionary psychologists to have evolved, our ancestors lived as hunter gatherers, primarily in groups of tens or hundreds of people, comprising known acquaintances, allies and family members. Within those groups there was a mixture of co-operation and rivalry, but between groups the default, prevailing attitude was fear and hostility. Separate communities were trapped in a Hobbesian cycle of mutual incomprehension, distrust and violence. Only with the advent of a central state authority – or ‘Leviathan’ – with the power to extort resources and use them to curb unproductive cycles of inter-group violence was it possible for this warring ‘state of nature’ to subside.

The problem with the earliest forms of Leviathan is that the state was able to exercise its power excessively and arbitrarily, inflicting cruel punishments, torture or murder on the populace. Gradually, however, the peace that Leviathan created between groups fostered social and economic conditions that enabled the state to be brought to account. Strangers replaced mutual distrust with the mutual gains of trade, and as trade enriched both the population and Leviathan, laws were implemented – property rights, contracts, and so on – to safeguard those gains. The upshot was a democratic state whose powers were designed to serve and enrich rather than dominate the population. In turn, trading pacts and peace treaties, collectively backed through military alliance, soon replaced war as the default relationship between democracies, creating today’s international order in which a vast swathe of the globe reaps the benefits of secure mutual gains.

Despite the increasing globalisation of trade and politics, echoes of the ancestral mindset are not only discernible, but play a crucial role, within the new order. The capacity for trade notwithstanding, the cognitive mechanisms and emotions by which human beings today navigate the social world remain best adapted for life within groups of the small size occupied by our early human ancestors. This can be seen starkly in the way that human sympathy operates. Perversely – or, perhaps, mercifully – when encountering suffering we are more emotionally affected when the number of people afflicted is on the scale of individuals, or handfuls of people, rather than thousands or more. (As Bob Dylan replied when a journalist asked him whether he cared about people, ‘There are millions of persons out there; you can’t care about all of them’. Indeed, most journalists today know this, which is why news broadcasts always have a ‘human angle’.) This contrast is important because democracy thrives when the population feels happy and secure, and this feeling arises most readily at the group scale, where individuals’ regard for each other is at its most genuine. Similarly, moral behaviour can be cultivated best within communities. Learning to be a good person requires the kind of real-time, intimate feedback that only fellow group members, as opposed to abstract populations of people or bureaucratic processes, can supply. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt summarises, in his book The Righteous Mind: ‘We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups... If you destroy all groups... you destroy your moral capital. Conservatives understand this point.’

Implicit in Haidt’s point is also the observation that communities are a crucible for the kind of democratic citizenship a wider society requires. After all, a constructive relationship between groups still requires social capital within groups, because people who are expansive and cosmopolitan can only learn those virtues in a nurturing community. As Robert Putnam summarises, social capital ‘makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy’. Moreover, as Haidt notes, social capital (in what he calls ‘hives’) has a protective effect upon democracy: ‘a nation that is full of hives is a nation of happy and satisfied people. It’s not a very promising target for takeover by a demagogue offering people meaning in exchange for their souls.’

7. Darwinian democracy

An understanding of Darwinism furnishes us with a way to balance the old with the new, and teaches us the value of this balance by providing a theoretical basis and justification for democracy. Through understanding human nature, we learn that strangers are just like us, but we also learn that we cannot do without our local communities. We learn to sympathise enough with strangers to be able to trade with them, but we learn the importance of focusing our sympathies, where they work most powerfully, upon our neighbours. We learn how these two circles of human activity are mutually reinforcing – trade not only disrupts the cycle of intergroup violence but brings mutual gains to communities, while social capital promotes happy and expansive citizens who contribute to a wider economy. And we learn the importance of the democratic Leviathan – consensual law and order – that maintains the conditions in which trade and communities can flourish.    

As well as enlightening us about the basis of democracy, an understanding of Darwinism can shed some light on the basis of undemocratic sentiments, including those found within Wilkesism. In the ancestral environment the mutual distrust and disregard with which separate groups viewed each other was underpinned by what I term a ‘sociotoma’ in human cognition – the term being a blend of the root ‘socio-’ with ‘scotoma’, the medical term for a blindspot, in order to convey the notion of a social blindspot in regard to external groups. Just as the retina supplies detailed information about some parts of the visual field and not others, human social cognition in the ancestral environment supplied detailed information about some parts of the human race and not others. Specifically, human social cognition supplied a rich apparatus of mutual understanding within a group and a dearth of understanding of people beyond the group. This automatic lack of understanding was the basis for a lack of sympathy between groups, which in turn had a dehumanising effect, leading to mutual violence.  

With its scantily interconnected groups of human beings – resulting from the sparseness and linguistic fragmentation of the global population – the ancestral environment supplied conditions in which the sociotoma was adaptive. Natural selection favoured human beings who as a default treated out-groups not as fellow human beings but as dangerous wild animals who were potentially competing for the resources of the in-group. A profound consequence of this scenario is that human nature is – by default – opposed to the sort of species-wide mutual understanding that comes from accepting the existence of human nature. That is to say, human nature contains a sociotoma which blots out or corrodes our understanding of human nature. No wonder Darwinism has struggled for centuries to win acceptance. Humankind can neither bear much reality nor mutual understanding.  

8. Filling in the sociotoma

It is unlikely, however, that the ancestral environment comprised the last word in selective pressures relating to the sociotoma. With the advent of Leviathan, beginning with regional overlords who were then pacified by national and sometimes international rulers, there would likely have been a selection pressure to ‘fill in’ the sociotoma with a simple social algorithm: unless specifically instructed to, do not fight with out-groups, on pain of punishment. In the millennia during which supra-group authorities have been imposing peace upon large populations of humanity, sufficient generations have elapsed that the murder or incarceration of dissenters has favoured, and cultivated, in the rest of those populations an instinct for acquiescence to Leviathan. Evidence for this proposition may be found in the fact that, across multiple generations, groups previously cut off from centres of civilisation have, historically, had difficulty in adapting to the rule of Leviathan.       

The instructions of early Leviathan were simplistic and their enforcement often arbitrarily brutal, but with the inter-group peace which was thereby imposed, and which enabled inter-group trade and democracy to develop, the sociotoma was soon filled in further. Since the Enlightenment, when democracy really caught on, the hard-won intellectual understanding of human nature has added a positive dimension to the pacific relations holding between groups. Though we may not feel much sympathy for humanity at large, we understand in the abstract that we are all alike, and that working together through commerce and representative governance is preferable to sociotomatically fuelled mutual disorder. Perhaps this transition is not so surprising – our primitive intuition that out-groups are a threat contains at least a germ of empathy in recognising that they might want what we want. Be that as it may, one of the triumphs of modern humanity is that, for many people, the sociotoma has been filled in not only with an instinctive acquiescence to Leviathan, but with an ongoing intellectual and practical commitment to co-operatively shaping Leviathan, its laws and practices, in response to continually changing social and economic conditions.

Another way, hinted at above, to describe this trajectory is in terms of a change in humanity’s instinctive fear of strangers. Early Leviathan fed off our fear of strangers by parlaying it into a fear of a centralised authority, whereas democratic Leviathan diminishes both versions of this fear by replacing each with a respect for strangers and for the law, and with a sense of mutual opportunity.

9. The Wilkesist regression

At first sight, it may seem that Wilkesism continues this trajectory of filling in the sociotoma. Indeed, in a Wilkesist utopia the sociotoma would be maximally filled in. We would all care about all members of society – perhaps all human beings – as though they were fellow community members or family members. However, an obvious consideration inveighs against this notion of Wilkesist sociotomatic enlightenment. The Wilkesist’s stated ambition of dividing his sympathies and resources among all human beings is utterly impossible – and for that reason, no doubt, is abundantly at odds with the Wilkesist’s own behaviour. There are millions of persons out there; you can’t care about all of them. When the scale is anything like that of a large society you can’t even begin to make judgements about who needs and deserves what and when and why, or how to give it to them; the sociotoma exists for information processing reasons as much as anything else.

Nor can any government ever fill in the sociotoma to the required extent, even if the government comprises a politburo of very clever robots, as has been prognosticated by the ‘Zeitgeist’ movement in a contemporary twist on communism. Any honest attempt to imagine what a fully filled-in sociotoma would look like reveals that the information it would contain would be more akin to that which is distributed throughout a market economy than anything containable within the mind of any controller(s) of such an economy. That, of course, is precisely the point of a market economy. A market consists in collective wisdom about who needs and deserves what, and is backed up by such joint achievements as do lie within the abilities of human beings: limited governance, civil society, charitable support in hard times, and general moral principles.

Far from filling in the sociotoma, Wilkesism consists in a regression towards a pre-democratic level of human mutual understanding. In an undemocratic Leviathan, the population acquiesces to the rules of a central authority – just as democratic citizens do – but without committing to the arduous democratic process of shaping or enacting those rules, whether through civil society, trade or politics. One way therefore to assess which kind of acquiescence is involved in Wilkesism is to evaluate the nature of the Wilkesist’s commitment to the most fundamental of modern rules. Democracy’s fundamental triumph has been the realisation (in both senses) of the fact that a market economy is maximally productive for all when it is maximally inclusive. Wherever there is a division of labour, any individual can add value, and share in that value; by definition, there is always something that specialists cannot do or do not have time to do, and everyone is a specialist to some degree. Hence, democracy has evolved moral and legal principles that underpin equal rights for marginalised groups – a humane trajectory that is all-too-rarely attributed to capitalism. In Wilkesism, however, inclusivity is divorced from its democratic context. Rather than being a matter of fair access to civil society, laws and trade – and consequently, at least in part, a matter of our own conduct within those spheres – inclusivity becomes primarily about government power. If any group is marginalised then, according to Wilkesism, this is a matter for the state and its subventions; the state tells us that there must be inclusivity, therefore the state shall give us inclusivity. In this way, the principles that democratic societies struggled for – and, to a large extent, still, quietly, struggle for daily – become mere incantations in the mouths of a passive and fearful population. (There are, of course, politicians who believe in Wilkesism; they are the hypnotists who are voted for, and handed near-total responsibility, by Wilkesists.)

Worse than its impact on the very people it purports to help, the rise of Wilkesism signifies democracy hanging on by its fingertips; the principles of civilisation are touched upon while a mass of sociotomatic regression drags society downwards. Wilkesism is King Lear wandering in robes – deranged, irrational, fearful, blind, but still swathed in the accoutrements of decency.

Sooner or later, if unopposed, the charm of collectivism unleashes the snake of totalitarianism. Once a critical mass of the population has forsaken all the core requirements of democracy – social capital, civil society, trade, and consensually constructed and maintained law – in favour of an abstract ‘collective’ that is submitted to in awe and fear, Leviathan becomes controlling and out of control. It happened under Nazism, when Europe’s Jews bore the brunt of a Wilkesist disdain for commercial cosmopolitanism, and it happened under communism – in Russia, China and Cambodia – when Wilkesists attacked the middle classes and ripped the heart out of civil society. As those populations found out, authoritarianism demonstrates the value of social capital and of democratic citizenship all-too-belatedly, in ways that only the most broadminded and insightful individuals are able to foresee. Remarkably, Aristotle possessed the foresight more than two millennia ago:

What has already been mentioned is as conducive as anything can be to preserve a tyranny; namely, to keep down those who are of an aspiring disposition, to take off those who will not submit, to allow no public meals, no clubs, no education, nothing at all, but to guard against everything that gives rise to high spirits or mutual confidence; nor to suffer the learned meetings of those who are at leisure to hold conversation with each other; and to endeavour by every means possible to keep all the people strangers to each other.

10. Tragedies of the commons

How, then, shall we oppose Wilkesism? Rational argumentation is of limited value against fear – you can’t always, or even often, successfully engage rationally with the irrational. Nor, on pain of democratic principle, can Wilkesists be silenced through the exercise of violence. Somehow, their fear must be catalysed as little as possible. To do this, the origins of that fear must be understood.

Since Wilkesism largely involves a propensity, latent within us all, for sociotomatic fear, factors within the wider social milieu are likely to play a role in promoting or discouraging Wilkesist tendencies. One social factor that pushes people back from civilised mutual understanding into mutual fear can be found in democracy’s vulnerability to a range of ‘tragedies of the commons’. A tragedy of the commons occurs when competitors seek advantages over each other in such a way that all those competitors, through shared consequences, are left worse off than they would have been if they had not sought those particular advantages in the first place. A now-familiar example is that of mutual violence between groups. When a single group is unopposed in aggressive violence against another group, the aggressor group stands to gain; but when multiple groups engage in mutual aggressive violence the result is a trap of mutual destruction in which all the groups involved are worse off than if none of them had acted in aggression in the first place. Curbing inter-group violence is something at which democracies excel. But through fostering conditions of openness, freedom and trade, democracies are also prone to a range of less severe tragedies of the commons, and these aggregate to form a Wilkesist threat to democracy itself.     

Consider gun ownership in the US. The US constitution allows gun ownership on the grounds of upholding the liberty of the individual. But many Americans argue that gun availability prompts an arms race among citizens, leading to an increase in violence and a loss of mutual trust both within communities and wider society – in short, a tragedy of the commons. Americans who oppose gun ownership believe (rightly, in my opinion) that a small loss of liberty is a price worth paying to avert the downsides of widespread gun availability. There are other tragedies, however, that cannot so comfortably be traded off against liberty – and, as a result, these tragedies have a tendency, if unchecked by other means, to become rampant in the free world.

The following scenarios offer a few examples. Car-driving urbanites end up stuck in traffic jams that scare off pedestrians and cyclists, making our cities stressful, polluted, unpleasant places. A widespread culture of litigiousness and the ‘health and safety’ paranoia that ensues leaves us all frustrated, and out of pocket. Our obsession with fashion and celebrity turns us into indentured, insecure clones. The consumption of alcohol for purposes of social prowess renders us all equally intoxicated – and equally stupid, superficial and bullish. TVs, computer games and social networking websites promise us effortless stimulation but in fact make us lonely by separating us from each other – less entertained apart than together. The internet traps businesses in a margin-destroying race for digital supremacy, leading to an increase in profiteering and a decline in ethical business practices. Media sensationalism compromises the depth, originality and quality of society’s discourse. Marketers compete in the art of customer manipulation, making dupes of us all while running to stand still and draining society of creative talent. Irresponsible bankers ransack the nation’s reserves for a bigger bonus, while promoting unhealthy levels of indebtedness. Politicians forgo frankness and integrity – and ultimately the trust of the populace – in favour of soundbytes and populism. Government officials focus their efforts on appeasing their paymasters – including targets-obsessed, power-hungry senior managers, and Soviet-style ‘licensed trader’ corporate cronies – rather than genuinely increasing the convenience of the public.

In all of these tragedies, the agents who seek advantages over each other render all of us (themselves included) worse off. They do this by putting a strain on our relationships, within communities as well as within wider society. The tragedies separate us from each other either physically or – through making us irritable, angry, resentful, showy, impulsive and wary – psychologically. In turn, our increasing neuroticism catalyses each of the tragedies, causing a vicious cycle via which the tragedies coalesce into one super-tragedy. This tragedy could be summarised as involving non-violent competition of a form that is collectively harmful rather than helpful to its participants. Instead of seeking to impress and influence each other in ways that are inspiring (e.g. through creativity, benevolent leadership, or intellectual or moral enlightenment) or practically useful (e.g. through providing goods or services), the tragedy of modern capitalism is that we are, to an alarming degree, rubbing each other up the wrong way.

Like a fume-spouting engine, capitalism has unwanted side-effects. Our freedom to trade and to choose leaves us vulnerable to numerous mutually reinforcing tragedies that undermine social capital and wider civility. In this atmosphere of strained interpersonal relationships, sociotomatic fear grows, and, consequently, so too does the false allure of Wilkesism, inevitably threatening democracy. Like a cancer that destroys its host, Wilkesism itself can be considered a tragedy of the commons, in two senses. First, Wilkesists take the easy option of pandering to other citizens, by rubberstamping their ‘blame the state’ excuse for failing to take personal responsibility, an excuse which, when it is aggregated over the whole of society, results in apathy and incivility. Second, Wilkesism is tragic insofar as its own proponents’ duplicitous moral grandstanding is rewarded by kudos or by government-mediated employment, at the outweighing cost of social and economic decay, which afflicts us all. In blocking their senses (but not their bank accounts) to the wealth that capitalism brings, Wilkesists construe the modern world not so much as a fume-spouting engine, but as fumes through and through, which motivates the perverse idea of spending capitalism’s resources on extinguishing capitalism.

More perverse still, the effect of Wilkesism is a concentrating of the fumes, since, in an economy that is squeezed by the government, businesses have less elbow-room for civil-mindedness. Such is the inevitable result of scapegoating the commercial sector. Equally inevitable is the exquisitely frustrating sight of Wilkesists protesting more and more vehemently and self-deceptively against this scapegoated economy as it withers further and further in physical and moral stature. To oppose the spread of Wilkesism we need somehow to reduce capitalism’s fumes without killing capitalism, to give the doubters a clearer view of the peace and prosperity from which those fumes are emanating.

11. A bigger tragedy?

It is hard to raise the alarm about those metaphorical fumes, however, amid the current din about capitalism’s literal fumes. In the last few decades the environmentalist movement has moved from the margins of culture into the mainstream, presenting both an opportunity and a threat.

The threat exists insofar as environmentalism – of a certain kind – resonates with Wilkesism. Both are characterised by distrust of the motives of the wider population, scorn towards finance and commerce, fear of progress, cynicism about the value of communal efforts to improve the world, and, accordingly, a pre-democratic insistence that the state is the only path to societal salvation – because only less liberty, supposedly, can free us from our own misbehaviour.

This resonance arises from the manner in which many environmentalists describe their cause. Though most depredations of the environment involve a tragedy of the commons, not all descriptions of this tragedy are equally as illuminating; not all of them genuinely fill in the sociotoma. The Wilkesist brand of environmentalism sees humanity as a faceless, soulless, malevolent force that wreaks destruction as irrationally as a bull in a china shop. Trees are felled, oceans are spoiled, the atmosphere is polluted and species are devoured by a beastly human race that can only be restrained by the force of Leviathan. This curiously Aspergic description of, and corrective to, humanity’s planetary immoderation cannot be accused of failing to see the forest for the trees, but it can be accused of failing to see, as it were, the lumberjacks for the deforestation. In failing to focus on the fact that the planet is being harmed not by an abstract mass of humanity but by flesh-and-blood human beings, the Wilkesist environmentalist fails to consider how human nature can contribute to solving the problem.

Put another way, Wilkesist environmentalism comprises a sociotomatic failure to see that a million hectares of chopped-down forest could be avoided if a thousand communities in the locality of the destruction, or whose members are party to the destruction, tried to do something about it. Someone who has no understanding of human nature, and who instead regards all human beings as empty vessels adrift on a sea of arbitrary cultural forces, will simply be oblivious to the idea that most human beings are interested in the same kinds of problems and are capable of solving many of those problems within local communities. Such a person will also be oblivious to the fact that democracy is an aggregation of mutually understanding, trading communities that are reaping the gains of mutual trust. And, ultimately, such a person will be oblivious to the fact that the same inter-communal trust might help solve tragedies of the commons, including that of the environment. You could say that the ease with which human reason infers that lots of small effects add up to a big effect is content-dependent; thanks to the sociotoma, the idea that an abundance of likeminded communities can make efforts that add up to a solution is hard for human beings to compute. (From an evolutionary standpoint, this default lack of insight is unsurprising. The survival prospects would have been dim for any person in the ancestral environment who made personal sacrifices based on an assumption that strangers would do the same.)   

Indeed, Wilkesism’s failure to perceive a community-based solution to tragedies of the commons amounts to a failure to perceive the problem at all; too much error, as Donald Davidson points out, robs thoughts of their referents. You cannot perceive a large-scale tragedy of the commons whilst overlooking the fact that all members of the human species have aspirations in common, overlapping fates, and standard capacities for both gaining and losing, both of which are partly dependent on the actions of other people.

A tragedy-avoidance strategy based on an aggregation of communities not only fills in the sociotoma but is logical, for a number of reasons. First, and most generally, tragedies of the commons are easier to solve on a local scale, because a community can negotiate collective agreements amongst its members much more effectively than a large society (even a modern, hyper-networked one) can amongst its population. This is true both in the environmental case – the research of Elinor Ostrom shows that ecosystems tend to be better protected by local agreements than by the intervention of the state – and in the case of ameliorating the negative psychological outcomes wrought by the tragedies mentioned in the previous section. An irritable, angry, resentful, showy, impulsive and wary community can cajole itself into tolerance, calmness, respect, humility, self-control and openness far more easily than a large population can.

But of course the problem is, precisely, that many of modern life’s tragedies are caused predominantly by our interactions on a wider scale, especially when we are at work. Far from being an option, wholly retreating into our local communities would mean capitulating to the worst possible scenario, the ancestral tragedy of widespread mutual disorder in lieu of the mutual gains of capitalism. Is there a balance to be struck?

The notion of Darwinian democracy suggests that there is, not least because communities can catalyse wider civility. Local sensibilities and actions can reduce wider tragedies not only through replacing large-scale tragic behaviour with small-scale non-tragic behaviour, but also through making our behaviour less tragic at the large scale. In part, communities can achieve this result by resisting the tragic behaviour of outsiders, especially insofar as that behaviour might impact upon the local area; for instance, a community might resist the opening of an environmentally unfriendly business, or a yobbish new nightclub. But, more fundamentally, people who successfully avoid tragedies within a community acquire habits that are likely to influence their interactions with wider society. People who habitually relate to their own community in a way that is tolerant, calm, respectful, humble, self-controlled and open are more likely to relate similarly to the rest of society. (Putnam describes an intergroup – ‘bridging’ – version of social capital in addition to the intragroup – ‘bonding’ – version; I refer to the latter using the unqualified phrase, following Putnam’s own tendency to do the same). And people who are in the habit of looking after their local environment are less likely to trash the environment elsewhere, whether through business activities or irresponsible tourism.

Consider a community member who rides his bicycle to a meeting of a local association, solves disputes with his neighbours through sensible discussion, doesn’t bother with the latest fashionable clothes or accessories, chats to real people regularly rather than staring at a television or computer screen or social networking website, knows that an overly expensive online presence for the local association is not necessary, doesn’t make exaggerated claims or manipulate people, keeps the association accounts in order, communicates frankly and honestly, prioritises real people and tangible outcomes over red tape and politicking, and tries to keep the local area pleasant. This community member will plainly be less likely to contribute to the wider tragedies discussed above than someone uninvolved in a community. This is true not only because communities enable people to derive pleasure and a sense of purpose from lo-fi, intimate activities – a kickaround, a singalong, a local charity event, a committee meaning – that are neither environmentally damaging nor anti-social at any scale, but also because community members will be at pains to uphold a reputation for being a certain sort of person.

The default power of the sociotoma over human cognition means that any automatic spillover effect from community life to wider civility is likely to be limited. But the effect can be accentuated through a conscious recognition of the role of community life in supporting democracy and in reducing tragedies of the commons. That is to say, communities can self-consciously set themselves up as crucibles of wider civility, as living exemplars, both in terms of their internal and external conduct, of a form of life whose mass adoption would be beneficial to society at large. Communities can be crucibles of a democratic morality.

Whether this self-conscious form of democratic social capital entails a new kind of inscription upon the sociotoma, or merely a re-inking of what was already there, I am not sure. Perhaps for reasons of nostalgia, I am tempted to think that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were, much more than we are, explicitly aware that communities can and should mitigate capitalism’s fumes, its tragedies of non-violent competition.

Whatever the truth about that may be, the writing on the sociotoma is, for many people, patchier now than it could and should be. This is true even among some people who are not Wilkesists, including the traders whose (otherwise beneficent) economic activities contributed to the tragedies in the first place. By definition, no trader is so sociotomatically challenged as to have given up on commerce altogether (and, as we have seen, trade itself avoids at least one tragedy, namely that of violence between communities), and some traders are aware of the tragedies of non-violent competition but see no commercially viable option other than to contribute to them. Nor can traders be entirely blamed for tragedy-inducing decisions made by consumers. But it remains the case that too many traders in the modern world have inscribed upon their sociotomas no form of tragedy-avoidance other than trade itself, a shortfall that harms society.  

No doubt, the shortfall is partly due to the diffuse cultural influence of Wilkesism, which sees – and reports – no tragedies, only government failings. Further exacerbating the tragedies is a form of non-Wilkesist philosophical hypochondria that ‘solves’ the problem of responsibility by reducing society down to its individual members, that is, by claiming that citizens have no obligation towards anything or anyone outside of the existing law and their own private whims. This extreme kind of individualism, though not incompatible with trade and democracy, can be thought of as the other side of the coin of Wilkesism: selfishness and slavish conformity are, equally, reactions to fear. In contrast, solving tragedies through a democratic aggregation of communities is a sweetspot between political extremes.

The opportunity implicit in environmentalism is that many environmentalists correctly perceive the power of widespread social capital as a means to combat tragedies and to reduce the polarisation of the political landscape, and are taking active steps to engage with and change their communities in the service of the local area as well as the greater good. Of course, communities, even self-consciously civilised ones, cannot do it all. A society comprised of thriving communities cannot do more than minimise the work of government: governance is required where social capital leaves off. Some regulation may even be needed to solve some of the tragedies of non-violent competition, especially the tragedy of the environment. But conservatives can console themselves with the fact that better governance crystallises out of an aggregation of thriving communities – in other words, out of democracy – while environmentalists can console themselves with the fact that, in promoting growth and wealth, community-aggregated capitalism gives us the free time to care about higher goals such as protecting the environment, and gives us the financial and technological wherewithal to respond to environmental problems as and when they occur.

In contrast, when we spend our time protesting that humankind is a rampaging beast – especially when we do it online, our enthusiasm being sucked up as if by a giant sponge – we are only likely to ensure that humankind will act like a rampaging beast.

12. The tragedy of the intellectual commons

‘Give me a stick long enough and a pivot and I shall move the world’, said Archimedes. There is much talk today about moving the world – in the sense of moving the people of the world forwards, morally and materially. Would-be political revolutionaries want to usher people onwards by brandishing a big government-shaped stick. But bullying only ever brings muted success. A better way to move a great mass is to roll it on a thousand little sticks. Social progress can be wrought most effectively by an aggregation of communities whose social capital-rich members self-consciously promote wider civility and democracy.

However, tragedies of the commons are like black holes that suck people in. When caught in a void of collective mutual harm – that is, of withered communities and an economy addled by Wilkesism – non-tragic behaviour cannot escape, not without significant additional harm to the individual who absconds. Even when clearly perceived by those people who exercise their uniquely human capacity for insight into their own behaviour, the exit sign can be hard to reach. Like St Paul, we may see the good but be unable to live up to what we see. If only more people were like us, we sigh, we could propel each other away from here.

If individual insight and collective action are necessary conditions for escaping tragedies of the commons, then intellectuals en masse have a special responsibility for leading the way. They can make a difference both through using their published output to influence the tenor and content of wider society’s conversation, and through actively shaping a local community of their own – through being the change that they want to see, in Gandhi’s famous words. Through both methods, intellectuals can inspire the community-spirited democratic civility that puts a brake on tragic behaviour, and, ultimately, on Wilkesism.

Such an effort has already begun, with a wave of morally entrepreneurial intellectuals forming societies, campaigns, charities and social enterprises – such as Action for Happiness, the School of Life, and my own project the Journal of Modern Wisdom – all of which are expounding how and why the public should strive for well-being, mindfulness, wisdom, social-capital, and other civilly-positive forms of life. Even if not everyone in society is capable of fully understanding the bigger picture, of filling in their sociotomas with a holistic understanding of the logic of democracy, at least they might contribute positively to that bigger picture through the piecemeal, unconscious adoption of suitable norms and values, inspired by the teachings of intellectuals.      

Sadly, this wave of moral entrepreneurs is small in stature and remains a long way from the shore of mainstream culture. Among the most powerful section of the intelligentsia – the institutionalised humanities – Wilkesism holds sway. A vicious cycle obtains wherein academic funding is bestowed by government officials who are steeped in the Wilkesist doctrines that they were taught at university by academics clamouring for funding from Wilkesist officials. By this means, Wilkesism, and its associated form of philosophical hypochondria, has become entrenched on campuses, to disastrous effect.

Year after year, students are leaving university with none of the understanding necessary for combating tragedies of the commons. For a start, to those students the tragedies might as well not exist – they were not on the syllabus. But even if they were, the path to solving them would remain untravelled because the students have not acquired an understanding of human nature, hence they are blind to the long-distance outlook-sharing and the trust that mitigating a tragedy would require of human beings, and to the centrality of local communities to human well-being and democracy. Nor have the students acquired an understanding that reality is not always what it appears to be. According to philosophical hypochondria, there can be no reality behind appearances because there cannot be reality as well as appearances; so to many students the distinction between wise and unwise forms of living, between truly nourishing and falsely alluring external conditions, has no meaning. The same applies to the distinction between intentions and outcomes, a distinction whose absence blights decision-making in governance.

In turn, personal responsibility withers without the internal and external attention that sustains it, so students typically assume that collectivism must be the only available route to social progress; certainly, democratic capitalism is rarely considered an option. To students who have not been encouraged to learn practical or business skills or the art of negotiation, the commercial sector seems like a frightening melee from which no good can come. Even when such students do latterly enter the commercial sector they cannot perceive the difference between the munificent engine of capitalism and its fumes, so these reluctant workers grimly and hypocritically take their wage packet while hoping that someday a revolution will relieve them of a guilt that they don’t realise could be assuaged through more prosaic means, whether inside or outside the workplace.

Academia’s weddedness to Wilkesism is a tragedy of the commons – a tragedy which, in the modern world, is a powerful enabler of all the tragedies, starting with those of non-violent competition and sometimes (as history shows) leading all the way to authoritarianism or even violent anarchy. Academics and students are trapped in a cycle of dysfunctional living, the superficial advantages of which are freighted by disastrous wider social consequences that afflict the poorest people above all. Academics could change this situation, if they chose to collectively. Mostly, however, they choose self-deception. As Robert Trivers points out, intellectuals are surprisingly more prone to self-deception than non-intellectuals. Or perhaps that isn’t so surprising, at least in the case of Wilkesism. ‘Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it’, as Thomas Sowell has remarked.

Or perhaps self-deception itself holds the key to the enlightenment of academics. To deceive oneself, one must know the truth, deep down. The Wilkesist must at least glimpse the writing on the sociotoma before erasing it. I share the conviction, expressed by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), that reason matters, in persuasion, and, above all, in moral progress. Wilkesist intellectuals – surely sometimes – can be rationally persuaded of what they already know to be true.

But I also acknowledge, partly through my own personal experience of arguing with Wilkesists, that there are severe limits upon the capacity for reasoned debate to change anyone’s mind about anything. The intellect, Jonathan Haidt argues, is like a spin-doctor to the subconscious, or a rider on an elephant; to influence the direction of a person’s thought, according to this view, it is more effective to influence the elephant of their subconscious, through emotional persuasion. Is there any hope that the elephants of Wilkesism will soon be inspired to change direction? I believe there is.

Academics are furious at the bureaucratisation of their institutions, at the funding-led publishing pressure that is turning creative academic thinkers into rats running ever faster in wheels, and at the ensuing wisdom vacuum on campuses that is contributing to unprecedented levels of mental illness among students. Like stampeding elephants approaching the cliff of authoritarianism, many academics are still blaming ‘commercialism’ for their frustration. But they can’t lead the whole of society over the edge if enough people, especially intellectuals, especially academics, together decide to turn around, to cast off their fear of reality and human nature, to embrace democracy and commerce, to take part in and champion community life, to confront tragedies of the commons, and move once again in the direction of genuine progress.

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