Monday, February 23, 2015

When empathy fails

Once I talked here about some negative effects of communicating via the Internet. Especially in the on line social media, direct physical contact is usually absent. We do not see each other; we do not hear each other. The only thing we do with the other is exchanging texts and often pictures, too. However, these pictures usually present a positive image of us. We don’t show what we don’t like. Moreover pictures are static. So, we don’t show facial expressions and emotions to our conversation partners, and we don’t see theirs. Let alone that we shake hands or hug. As a result we tend to become rude. “Happy slapping” is the most extreme form of it, but there are also more subtle forms of lack of manners. We don’t say “How are you?” any longer. When we meet someone for the first time and have a question, we don’t say “Excuse me. May I ask you ...”. No, we simply ask, although we never would get the idea to behave that way when we wanted to know something from a stranger. And we don’t say “Goodbye” or “See you later”, when we finish a conversation and want to go off line. Many people in social media do so. Politeness doesn’t seem to belong to the Internet manners for them. But is it something new?
I think there is at least one type of social situation that has a bit the same characteristics as the social world of the Internet and that is older: Traffic, and then especially modern traffic with cars. I think that modern traffic is a kind of predecessor of the Internet. Or rather some aspects of it are. I’ll stress here only those aspects and I’ll ignore the differences.
It’s true that when we drive, we see each other. But do we really do? We see other persons in the cars passing by but actually we hardly experience them as such for we are boxed up in a cage and most of the time we (and “they” as well) drive with such a speed that the other drivers are hardly more than flashes. Only when the cars go very slowly or have to stop, and especially when people in the cars are gesturing, they tend to become again like persons of flesh and blood, but only for a part for we still can’t hear them, closed off as we are in the cages of our cars. As Michel de Certeau might have said: The cage divides, on the one hand, the driver’s interiority and, on the other, the external world of the passing cars as objects without discourse. The consequence is that we tend to become rude. We tend to ignore traffic rules, especially speed limits; we tend to cut on other cars; we excuse ourselves less often for our mistakes than we would do in “normal” life; and who knows what more. In short, we tend to become assholes. When we get in our car and close the cage, we close our empathy, too. Much is new in the Internet but nothing comes out of the blue.
But is all this – I mean being closed off – only negative? Retire to your study, close the door, and think about this quote from de Certeau: “Glass and iron produce speculative thinkers and gnostics. This cutting-off is necessary for the birth, outside of these things but not without them, of unknown landscapes and the strange fables of our private stories”. So, driving a car can have positive effects for the mind as well. Nevertheless, I would rather speculate and bear thoughts in my study than in the cage of my car, for there it might end with a jolt.

Quote from Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press, 1984; p. 112.

Monday, February 16, 2015

On group responsibility

Group intention

In my last blog I concluded that what we do is not always what we want to do, even if we have a choice. In view of this we can say that a group can be responsible for what it does, while its members aren’t, or at least they are not liable for what the group does. In former blogs I have shown that Hannah Arendt talks here about a collective responsibility. I don’t want to repeat the discussion in my older blogs about it but throw some new lights on it.
The idea of group responsibility or collective responsibility is widely accepted. It has also a legal basis. It often happens that a company is fined while the managers aren’t, let alone the employees. Legally there is a difference. It also happens that a sports club is punished by the national association, while its members are free to do what they like, such as leaving the club for another one. This is generally accepted.
Nevertheless, when a group, company or other collectivity is punished, this often casts a shadow over its members. Moreover, it can happen that individual members are punished for what actually the group does. It points to the fact that a group is not independent of its individual members; that a group is not something that has emerged from the individual members and then leads a life of its own. In some way group intentions exist always in the heads of the members. “The mind is not only in the head”, as Andy Clark maintains and which I support. But this doesn’t involve that it is not also in the head. It’s the same for intentions: Groups intentions are always also in the heads of the group members, and groups without members who intend to perform the actions decided by the group will do nothing. In this sense, individual members are responsible for what the group does.
However, this is often a matter of degree. The power to influence group actions and to determine and steer its intentions varies a lot between its members, especially in larger groups, not to speak of nations. Some are not more than cogs in the machine and the machine will also work without them. Others can steer the machine or even start it up. There is a hierarchy that determines who can and will do what.
Other collectivities have more democratic structures. The members have a relatively equal power and there is a set of rules about how to decide on group intentions and actions and how to perform them. This can happen by a vote or election according to a one man one vote principle. Once a decision has been taken, every member accepts it.
Such differences in power between group members in the way they can influence group decisions make that their collective responsibilities can vary from full to (almost) none. Really not responsible can be only one who does not belong to the group concerned. But often there is no option. It is part of the human condition that one needs to belong to some groups, anyway, or one should leave life. But is that an option?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Group intentions (2)

Already several times in these blogs I have talked about group intentions. A group intention was seen as a kind of agreement of several persons about doing something together. We could call this a joint commitment, for instance as Margaret Gilbert does. In such a joint commitment we as individuals have the same intention as we have as a group. If we as a group want to walk together, usually it means that I want to walk with you and you want to walk with me (this case is often discussed by Gilbert). Or if we want to paint the house together, the normal sense is that I want to paint a part and you want to paint a part (a case discussed by Michael E. Bratman). However, does what we want to do as a group always correspond to what we want to do as individuals, or at least to what the majority of the group members wants to do? In discussing this question, again I make use of the argumentation of List and Pettit, just as I did in my last blog.
Last week we have seen that sometimes a government has to decide against what it has promised, simply because it didn’t get an unequivocal mandate from the electorate. Now I want to adapt the example I have used there and see what happens:
Tom, Dick and Harry are making a walk through the countryside and have to cross a pasture with cows. Then Tom says: “I think that we can better walk round the pasture for I see a bull over there.” Dick agrees, but then he says: “I cannot see it well, but I think that the bull is tied to a pole, so let’s cross the pasture anyway. I am tired and want to be home as soon as possible.” “You are wrong”, Tom replies, “and even if the bull is tied up, I don’t want to take the risk. What do you think, Harry?” Harry, a farmer, says: “As far as I can see, the bull runs free, but if we keep our distance, we don’t need to be afraid. Maybe the bull will look at us, but he will keep away. So, let’s take the shortest path and cross the pasture.” And so they do but is it really what they want to do? In order to find it out, let me present the conversation in a schematic way:

                        afraid for bulls                       bull is tied      wants to walk
                        wants to avoid the bull          to a pole          through the pasture

Tom                            yes                              no                    no

Dick                           yes                              yes                  yes

Harry                          no                               no                    yes

Majority                      yes                              no                    yes

In the case presented here, Tom and Dick have been reassured by Harry that nothing will happen, anyway. We can say then that they have changed their opinions and, even though they are still afraid of bulls, they see no need to avoid the bull in the pasture (as long as they don’t come too near to it). But what would Tom, Dick and Harry have decided if Tom and Dick hadn’t believed Harry that the bull would keep away from them? Of course, Harry could have said: If you are scared, we can better walk round the pasture. But suppose he hadn’t say that and he couldn’t convince the others that the bull wasn’t dangerous. In that case we see that the majority of this group of walkers thought that the bull was not tied to a pole and that the majority of the walkers wanted to avoid the bull in that case, so they did not want to walk through the pasture. Nevertheless the group as such did want to walk through the pasture, and so they would have decided if they had voted about the question or if a “common feeling” had said them that it was that what the group wanted.
The upshot is that it can happen – and I think it often happens – that “the group” intends and so decides what its individual members certainly do not want to do. What we do is not always what we want to do, even if we have a choice.
For this blog I have made use of Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 43-47.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Government dilemmas

Many readers of these blogs will have heard about the difficult economic situation of Greece. Most inhabitants of this country want to get rid of the austere measures taken for improving the economy and imposed by the countries of the euro zone and the International Monetary Fund. Therefore most Greeks have voted for parties that want to renegotiate the conditions for getting aid from these institutions. But what measures do the Greeks want to take themselves? Actually I don’t know so the case that I discuss here is pure fiction but it might be real.
Suppose that the Greek government wants to reform the budget and in order to balance the books it sees as options either increasing taxes or reducing spending.
To get enough support from the people, it will be up to them to decide what to do. So the government organises a referendum in which the voters can say what they prefer. A blank vote counts as a rejection of both options.
There is a hard campaign in which the government explicitly says that it will do what the majority of the voters prefer, while the opposition advises to cast a blank vote, because it wants to bring the government down, for it stands for nationalizing the most important companies and levelling the incomes. Then it is this what the voters prefer to do:

                                                       increase taxes             reduce spending

first third of the voters                      preferred                    dispreferred
second third of the voters                 dispreferred                preferred
remaining third of the voters            dispreferred                dispreferred  (blank votes)
result                                              dispreferred               dispreferred

It is clear from the referendum that two-thirds of the electorate support our fictive Greek government so it has no reason to resign. Nevertheless, whatever the government will do will be against the preference of the voters: Either when it increases the taxes or when it reduces the budget, it will be a decision that is opposed by a large majority of the people. In either case, the voters will say: The government doesn’t do what it has promised.
The case discussed is not exceptional. It’s an example of what can happen if people have to take decisions without having the opportunity to decide in consultation but when they have to cast votes as individuals. It’s a situation that often happens in politics. In this fictive Greek government case the best the government can do is increasing the taxes a bit and reducing the expenses a bit; so doing a bit of this and a bit of that. This is what we often see in the political arena.
Be it as it is, the upshot is that sometimes we have to decide to do what we explicitly have rejected.

Source: I have take the example and the main lines of my thought from Christian List and Philip Pettit, Group Agency. The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 46-47.