Monday, September 28, 2015

The strings that bind people together

Many years ago I have written my PhD thesis about the question how to explain human actions. At the end of my thesis I thought: this is all about individuals but how about groups? Can we explain what groups do from a kind of group intentions just as we can understand individual actions with the help of the agent’s individual intentions (plus his or her beliefs)? In my thesis I wanted to dedicate a chapter to the problem but I dropped it. Nevertheless it stayed in my mind. Actually, I was not the only philosopher who found the issue intriguing. Twenty years ago the theme was rather new, but since then more and more philosophers in the field of analytical philosophy have got their teeth into it, like Raimo Tuomela, Margaret Gilbert, Michael E. Bratman, John R. Searle and Seumas Miller, to mention a few names. One of the most important contributors to this subject is Bratman.
According to Bratman, just as an individual agent has intentions that guides his or her actions, also group behaviour is led by a kind of common intentionality – at least if we talk about small groups. He calls this common intentionality “shared intention”. Say, so Bratman, you and I are painting a house together. It’s not just that each of us is painting on his own, but we coordinate our painting in some way. You scrape the old paint and I paint what you have scraped. You buy the brushes and I buy the paint. We check what the other has promised to do; etc. If this is the case, we have a shared intention, namely in the sense that each of us has the appropriate attitude and that these attitudes and the way they are put into practice are interrelated. We can compare this with the way an individual coordinates what she does over time, for instance when she would paint her house alone: “Thus does our shared intention help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in ways to some extent analogous to the ways in which the intentions of an individual organize and unify her individual agency over time.” (Bratman, 1999: 110-111; quotation on p. 111). Elsewhere Bratman says it this way: “... shared intention ... involves intentions of the individuals whose contents appeal to the group activity” (2014, p. 12). We can compare this sharing an intention with the case that my neighbour and I are painting our houses – we have two semi-detached houses –, but we haven’t consulted on the matter. Then, in my words, my neighbour and I have the same intention but we do not have a shared intention.
However, do we really need a shared intention in order to explain what two people do that are painting a house together in the way described by Bratman? The problem is that Bratman doesn’t say who you and I in his sample are, which suggests that his analysis applies to every two (or maybe three or four) people who form a painting group or another task group doing a job together.
So, let’s say that I want to paint my house, but it is too much work for me. Therefore I hire a hand in order to help me. Together we paint the house, exactly in the way described by Bratman. Then we have a painting group in the sense of Bratman, but does this group and do the people making up the group have a shared intention? On the face of it the shared intention is “painting the house”, and indeed, what I do can be understood in this way:

(1) I have the intention to paint the house.
(2) I think that I can paint the house only, if I hire a hand to help me.
(3) Therefore I hire a hand who helps me painting the house.
(4) Together we paint the house.

Does the hand share my intention to paint the house? I think that what he does can be better understood in this way:

(1) The hand has the intention to earn money [since to hire himself out as a hand is his work].
(2) The hand thinks that he can earn money by helping me painting the house.
(3) Therefore the hand hires himself out to me for this reason.
(4) Together we paint the house.

What this example shows is that for me – the owner of the house – the supposed shared intention is what I want to bring about but for the hand it is a means for another intention, namely earning money. In a certain sense we can call a means also an intention (at least often we can), and then we could say that hiring himself out contains the intention to paint the house, but even if we accept this, we must admit that for the hand this intention is on another explanatory level than it is for me. Therefore I think that my counter-example contains the case of a group of two people who cooperate and act together but who don’t share an intention in the way conceived by Bratman. The upshot is that it is not a shared intention that explains what a group does. The problem here is not finding a common goal that binds the members of a group together but to unravel why these members let themselves bind.

References: Bratman, Michael E., “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999: 109-129; Bratman, Michael E., Shared Agency. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Monday, September 21, 2015

On refugees (2)

“... and suddenly I discovered Descartes among a group of refugees and quickly I took a snap shot ....”

I finished my last blog remarking that there might be a Descartes among the refugees who look for a better life in Europe. I didn’t mention the name of Descartes without reason, for 22 years old Descartes left his native country France, afraid that he could be arrested because of his ideas. He went to the Netherlands, where he stayed twenty years, till he left for Sweden, where he died.
It’s not exceptional that philosophers and others have to leave the places where they live because of their ideas. Also in the Netherlands in the days of Descartes it could be dangerous to have unusual ideas, although the country had the reputation to be tolerant. Especially it could be dangerous to have ideas that conflicted with the reigning religion. Spinoza, excluded because of his atheistic views by the Jewish community of his home town Amsterdam, first felt forced to leave for the nearby Ouderkerk. Although he returned to Amsterdam after some time, soon he preferred to leave the town permanently and finally he established himself in The Hague.
I’ll walk with seven-league strides through history till I arrive in the twentieth century. So, for instance, I’ll not talk about Rousseau, who fled France in 1762 persecuted because of his ideas, or about Voltaire who had taken up his residence in Switzerland just a few years before Rousseau went to live there, also for avoiding arrest by the French authorities.
In the twentieth century it was especially for political reasons that philosophers had to flee. They were victims of the reigning ideology, be it communism or nazism. In the latter case philosophers (and many others) didn’t only have to flee because of their ideas, but also if they belonged to the “wrong race”: They were Jews or of Jewish descent. Most members of the Vienna Circle – a kind of philosophical debating club – fled from the Nazis to the USA (like Carnap, Feigl and Gödel), or sometimes to Britain (Neurath) or New Zealand (Popper). Wittgenstein, who was already in England, did not return to Austria. The members of the Frankfurt School – a sociological current centred around the Institute for Sociology in Frankfurt, Germany – fled via Geneva and Paris also to the USA, although most of them returned to Europe after the fall of Nazism. This was, for instance what the philosophers-sociologists Adorno and Horkheimer did. Their colleague Walter Benjamin found himself forced to commit suicide during his flight (in 1940 from France, occupied by the Nazis). An outstanding philosopher who fled communism was Kolakowski from Poland. Kolakowski had developed a kind of revisionist Marxism, which was rejected by the communist leaders, who deprived him of his academic functions. In the end Kolakowski went to the West.
Most philosophers mentioned here were welcomed in their new fatherlands, or at least they were treated in a decent way. That needed not always be so. Montaigne was not a political refugee, but once he had to leave his castle because the plague reigned in the region where he lived. Travelling around with his family (and some servants, I suppose) he could not find a refuge, although he was already a well-known man. In his Essays (Book III-12) Montaigne tells us that
“I myself, who am so hospitable, was in very great distress for a retreat for my family; a distracted family, frightful both to its friends and itself, and filling every place with horror where it attempted to settle, having to shift its abode so soon as any one's finger began but to ache; all diseases are then concluded to be the plague, and people do not stay to examine whether they are so or no.”
In need and no longer being the lord of his castle when he was on the run, Montaigne was considered as vermin and bringer of the plague, and not as a man respected by his environment. His social network collapsed as soon as he had to flee and no longer counted who he was, despite his past.
Actually this is the situation many refugees are in. Most are not welcomed but feared because they might bring misery, even if a few weeks ago they lived yet in their own country as well respected citizens. In this case the misery is not a contagious disease but the fear of social unrest and instability and the fear that the refugees “pick our houses and jobs”. So you don’t handover to them the food parcels they need – containing only bread and water –, but you throw them in the mob, as I have recently seen on TV in a report about a reception camp for refugees in Hungary (as if they are animals in a zoo).
This is how Montaigne continued his story:
“And the mischief on’t is that, according to the rules of art, in every danger that a man comes near, he must undergo a quarantine in fear of the evil, your imagination all the while tormenting you at pleasure, and turning even your health itself into a fever.”
A parallel with a refugee camp is easily drawn. The Latin proverb “Homo homine lupus est” (Man is a wolf to another man) has got man interpretations, but there seems to be a kernel of truth in all of them.

Monday, September 14, 2015

On refugees


Now streams of refugees from the Middle East are arriving in Europe – and many migrants from Africa as well, but in this blog I’ll ignore this, although the question is the same in many respects –. The first problem is, of course, how to receive them and how to take care of them. This logistic problem is immense and must not be underrated, also because some countries in Eastern Europe would like to get rid of the refugees rather yesterday than tomorrow. Have they forgotten that before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 many people from there has fled to the West and that they were always most welcome? They should remember the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America: “The happy and powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune.”
Once the refugees have arrived in their country of destination and have become settled a bit, another problem arises: integration. This seems to be the more difficult since many of the newly arrived have a different religion and social and cultural background than most of the inhabitants of their new fatherlands. On purpose I speak of “new fatherlands”, for in view of the present situation in the Middle East it is not likely that the refugees can soon go back home again; at least not in the years to come.
Integration is often difficult to realize, especially if it doesn’t regard just a few individuals or families but such quantities of people that come to Europe today, moreover almost within a short period. Integration is not an automatic process. One has to work on it. Many people think that it cannot and will not be successful. Is it true? It’s a never ending discussion, also in Germany, a country with many refugees and migrants, which was recently yet in the news because of protests against the arrival of new refugees. Happily, many Germans think differently about it and recently refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East were welcomed with applause and presents in Munich when they left the train. Will they succeed to integrate? As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas underlined in an article a few years ago, problems of integration must not be denied but generally integration is successful. The problem is not so much the integration as such but those who  are afraid that traditional values will be undermined by the arrival of newcomers (see for the article). I don’t want to play down the problem of integrating people from other cultural backgrounds (and that’s much more than only different religious backgrounds). However, I just finished reading a book about the “fin de siècle” – the period around the year 1900 – in the Netherlands. In those days the towns had been overflowed with migrants from the countryside, like all countries in Europe then. Many people saw their traditional ideas undermined because of that. Also the introduction of many technological innovations at that time had this effect. People were on the move; ideas and values were changing. Later, during the famous 1960s we see a movement towards democratization and against the authoritarian structure of society. Many new ideas developed then are still practiced and honoured today. In the 1960s they were seen as an attack on everything “we” stood for. Now, fifty years later we live through new social changes caused by the introduction of the computer, the Internet, the smart phone, and so on, as a consequence of the digitalization of society. The way we get along with each other has changed, too, and also, for instance, the concept of friendship must be given an new interpretation (for many people today a “friend” has become someone who is on your friendship list on Facebook, even if it is no more than that and even if you never talk with him or her). Be it as it may, the best solution of the present problem of refugees would be, of course, an end to the wars in Syria and the Middle East. But how to do that?
What most people do not realize is that many states have been built on migration. Go back into history and see how people always have been looking for new places to live. Also during the past hundred years many people in Europe have moved and migrated and they settled elsewhere as a consequence of two world wars or simply looking for work.
I want to finish by quoting a few words by Max Frisch and then change them. Somewhere he said: “We asked for workers. We got people instead.” I want to make it this way: “We expected refugees. We got people instead”. Fugitives are seen as people in miserable circumstances that need help, but they bring also a lot with them. There are also philosophers among them; maybe a Descartes.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Can we measure the value of life?

Two years ago I have read The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer and I have written a few blogs about it, too. Then I put the book in my bookcase and I never read it again, for actually it is not my type of philosophy. Therefore, what I remember from this book is not much and it can actually be summed up in a few words: To live is to suffer. This seems to be Schopenhauer’s idea of life. Leafing through the book today, I saw a passage that I had underlined and that expresses this idea, too: “... so the view forces itself on us that life is a business and that the gains of this business are by far not enough to cover its costs”: In other words, life is an unhappy affair, if we could make a cost-benefit analysis. But would this really be possible? For how should we calculate the value of happy and unhappy episodes in life? How much happiness balances how much suffering? I suspect that it is an impossible task.
I think that there is at least one philosopher who would disagree with Schopenhauer, if he could – if he could: for he lived before Schopenhauer – : Michel de Montaigne. Despite his own sufferings – he lost his best friend Étienne de La Boétie, which determined the course of the rest of his life; he had kidney stones for many years and he died of it – Montaigne had a positive outlook on life. He knew how to live. And although he knew that a life could be happy or unhappy in its totality, he didn’t want to pass a judgement before it had ended.
In his essay “That men are not to judge of our happiness till after death” (Essays, Book I, Ch. XVIII) Montaigne defends the thesis that an event at the end of someone’s life can push the final verdict in the opposite direction. Someone’s life looked happy, but he has been murdered in a cruel way. Therefore, we must judge his life as a whole as unhappy, Montaigne seems to defend in this essay. Or, to take an example by him, “I have seen many by their death give a good or an ill repute to their whole life. Scipio, the father-in-law of Pompey, in dying, well removed the ill opinion that till then every one had conceived of him.” Montaigne says in this essay that the last act a person does in his life, especially if he died during this act, can shape a reputation of this person that comprises his whole life and give it a positive or negative turn: “Wherefore, at this last, all the other actions of our life ought to be tried and sifted: ‘tis the master-day, ‘tis the day that is judge of all the rest, " ‘tis the day," says one of the ancients,—[Seneca ...]— "that must be judge of all my foregoing years." ”
Well, I have my doubts. It’s not that I think that someone’s last act cannot influence the judgment on this person’s life, or that it cannot have even a strong influence, but a life lasts many years. Some people are criminals during their younger years and become saints during their last years. Do then only the last years count? I think that it would be better to say that we have here, for instance, the case of a person who has seen the light, or, if a life develops in the opposite direction, the case of a person who got into low water. Summarizing a life in this way gives a better look on the phases a person lived through than just saying that someone’s life was good or bad as a whole – or happy or unhappy. But what remains is: How to measure happiness or goodness? Or how to balance one phase of life against another phase, like a happy event at the end of your life against a very unhappy youth fifty years ago (or the other way round)? Actually it implies the question what the influence of the time perspective must be on your judgment and also the question whether one can compare time as a moment (the final act of your life) against time as a process (the flow of actions that made up your life). I think that seen this way we compare incomparable variables, if we ignore the ups and downs and want to press a whole life in one word.