I. The Habits, Methodologies and Procedures Which Govern Our Existence
Political activism tends to focus on issues and candidates, advocating for particular positions on particular issues, which cluster into and are framed by competing ideologies, and campaigning for candidates who, by and large, represent those competing ideologies. This system is the product of an evolutionary process (discussed at more length in section II)), and is certainly more functional than many that have historically preceded it or exist elsewhere. But it is not a perfected system (no system is), and some portion of our advocacy efforts should be dedicated to the challenge of consciously refining it.
In some other facets of life, particularly scholarship and law, procedures and methodologies have evolved which increase the role of reason in human belief formation and decision-making. Scientific methodology is a discipline which reduces error and increases accuracy. It has proven to be an acceleratingly robust technique for exploring the nature of the world and universe around and within us. Legal procedure is a discipline which assesses the accuracy of alleged facts and applies complex decision-making rules to them. It has proven to be a more accurate tool for pursuing just outcomes than the less rationalized procedures which preceded it, such as “trial by ordeal” or the purely idiosyncratic judgment of rulers or magistrates.
One of the challenges facing humanity is to refine and extend such disciplines. Though our electoral system is an example of such continuing refinement and extension, the context of our electoral system still involves a competition of largely arbitrary and underexamined ideological convictions. The products of scientific and legal methodologies are brought in haphazardly, and with only marginal influence. Popular opinions are formed irrationally, and voting choices are manipulated by well-funded marketing techniques, turning politics into a competition of cynical strategies favoring concentrated capital interests, and leading to dysfunctional outcomes.
It is a well-known and well-evidenced conclusion of cognitive science that human beings are not, by and large, persuaded by logical arguments and reliable evidence as much as by emotionally appealing messages that resonate with their already internalized frames and narratives. Some people misinterpret this to conclude that it is impossible to increase the salience of reason in popular political decision-making. But history demonstrates the error of such a conclusion: Scientific methodology, legal procedure, and constitutional democratic forms of government have all developed and gained prominence in the modern era, despite human irrationality.
II. The Lathe On Which We Spin…
The explanation for this paradox can be found in John Maynard Keynes’ quip that people “will do the rational thing, but only after exploring all other alternatives.” The archetype of this dynamic can be found in nature, in biological and ecological evolution, where creatures large and small, few of which are generally considered to be “rational,” evolve in highly rational ways, embodying strategies for reproductive success (and survival in order to facilitate it) that we, for all of our impressive human consciousness, can only mimic and emulate in our own intentional social institutions and technologies.
In biological evolution, this occurs through genes, which reproduce, occasionally mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. In cultural evolution, this occurs through “memes” (cognitions), which reproduce (are communicated), frequently mutate (change in the process of communication by mixing with other memes to form new memes or being are refined or altered or misinterpreted by those to whom they are communicated), compete for reproductive success (compete with mutually exclusive beliefs, or compete with other technologies, or compete for limited cerebral capacity), and thus evolve. In both cases, packets of information reproduce, mutate, compete for reproductive success, and thus evolve. (For more in-depth explorations of this evolutionary ecology of human social institutional and technological systems, see, e.g., The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), plus several others in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).
Cultural evolution isn’t inherently benign. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically favor those memes most conducive to human happiness and welfare. More powerful weapons prevail over less powerful weapons; conquerors spread their memes more prolifically than pacifists; those who mine natural resources more rapidly (even if unsustainably rapidly) prevail more surely; aggressive, predatory societies overrun others that may be laden with beautiful and life affirming memes that simply don’t survive the brutality of our existence. One role for our conscious participation is to counterbalance these dysfunctional aspects of our underlying cultural evolutionary processes.
But neither is cultural evolution inherently malignant. Reproductive success doesn’t automatically disfavor those memes and paradigms most conducive to human happiness and welfare. A social entity characterized by strong internal cooperation will tend to prevail over a social entity characterized by weak internal cooperation. The robust production of prosperity tends to prevail over more sluggish economic systems. Broader and deeper systems of cooperation prevail over narrower and shallower systems of cooperation. Political and economic liberty, in which most or all people are robust participants in their own governance and in a production of wealth from which they benefit in proportion to the value of their contribution, tends to prevail over political and economic centralization, in which human energy and enterprise is less fully tapped and channeled.
This combined, almost paradoxical, evolutionarily favored status of both liberty and cooperation is precisely why the movement I am referring to is not just “the politics of reason,” but “the politics of reason and goodwill.” Decades ago, in an experiment by Robert Axelrod, competing computer programs using strategies of “cooperation” and “defection” in bilateral, repeated “prisoners’ dilemma” games (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems) demonstrated that the best strategy in a world in which cooperation yields collective benefits, but not cooperating is always better for the person who doesn’t cooperate, is first to cooperate (show goodwill), and then respond to the other in kind (continue to cooperate if they do, but not if they don’t). This is a mathematical demonstration of what we all intuitively know (or should know) to be true: Goodwill benefits us all.
That’s at least one reason why the evolutionary process I describe below, entering into the modern era, has produced notions of human rights and natural rights and individual rights, and notions of egalitarianism and fairness and mutual responsibility, that many of us treasure, and that all of us benefit from. The world is a better place not only when we are reasonable people, but also when we act with goodwill toward one another. And even if the distribution of individual reasonableness and goodwill is not something that is particularly tractable by organized efforts in social movements, the salience of reasonableness and goodwill might be (see below for an explanation of this distinction).
III. …And That We Ourselves Are Spinning.
Biological evolution is, in a sense, a passive process. The members of evolving species do not intentionally participate in the evolutionary process that creates them, identifying evolutionary goals and consciously pursuing them. They merely are more or less prolific reproducers, and so carry genes that are more or less well-represented in subsequent generations. But the human cultural echo of this evolutionary process plays out through our cognitions, which are the substance of our consciousness. It is the result of what we choose to believe, and the result of how successfully we advocate or promote or market our beliefs or innovations. We are active and conscious participants in our own cultural evolution.
The degree to which we consciously guide and channel this process in service to humanity is a function of how far-sighted we are in our goals, and how inclusive we are in our identifications. Genetic evolution occurs through the pursuit of very immediate, short-sighted goals: Surviving long enough to mate, mating, and ensuring in one way or another that some of your progeny survive to mate as well. Cultural evolution occurs through the pursuit of these as well (through the reproduction of memes that serve these goals), plus slightly less immediate and short-sighted goals, such as financial security or prosperity and satisfaction of various needs and desires, and conscious identification with genetically somewhat dissimilar others, such as co-members of a race, a tribe, a nation or a religious community. (Often, there is an element of marginal genetic similarity in these identifications, due to how they are historically produced.) Politics consists by and large of a struggle over how and if and how far to extend both our time horizon and our identification, and how ambitious or modest our collective goals should be.
This struggle occurs on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, framed by competing comprehensive ideologies. We tend to emphasize the particular battles, and “recognize” that it is futile to try to win an argument over “which” ideology is superior. (Even so, the most zealous among us –myself included, but in a modified way explained in this essay and others like it– engage ceaselessly in debates over the relative merits of competing ideologies.)
The tendency to “duke it out” on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis comes at the cost of shortening our time horizons and narrowing our identifications, because issues attract our attention in proportion to their urgency and immediacy, elections are immediate and urgent contests, identifications in these struggles focus on the coalition of factions advocating particular positions within it, and, most importantly, the logic of political competition drives the most politically active among us into an almost exclusive focus on political strategies and tactics. The last dynamic strongly favors appealing to our basest and least far-sighted and least-imaginative inclinations as a polity, because these are the easiest to appeal to, and the most successful fulcrums on which to ply our political efforts.
If our evolutionarily determined habit of focusing on immediate issues and immediate candidates in service to immediate concerns and immediate desires does not best serve the challenge of being more conscious and inclusive participants in our own cultural evolution; and if it is futile to try, instead, to move the struggle to the level of a national debate over which substantive comprehensive ideology to embrace; then what is the alternative?
The alternative is diverting some portion of our time and attention and resources from both the issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate political struggle, andthe futile substantive ideological debate that envelopes and undergirds it, to an effort to transcend both by developing and investing in methodologies which systematically favor reason and goodwill in our personal and popular political decision-making process. To accomplish this, we need to find a foundation on which to build such a methodology on which most people, across ideological lines, can agree to, and which appeals to most people’s underlying frames and narratives, as well as recognizes the limited degree to which most people are willing to invest time and energy in our political processes.
Extremists of all stripes will tend to reject any such foundation that is proposed, correctly certain that it would undermine their ideological convictions and goals. But, though extremists dominate message boards and public attention, most people are not extremists. Most people are relatively moderate and pragmatic people who just want to be able to participate marginally, without investing too much time and energy, in our self-governance in a way which is both gratifying and productive. Many, of course, don’t want to do more than vote, but even those form their political opinions and electoral choices by means of a diffuse engagement with others around them and with various media of communications.
The challenge is to find, rally, and motivate those who both are or wish to be highly politically engaged, and who are interested in exploring the possibility of doing fundamentally better than we are now in moving the state, nation, and world in the direction of ever-increasing salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of our public policies, and to mobilize these activists in the design and implementation of a movement which accomplishes that goal. Obviously, any success would be marginal, and the world would continue much as it has. But even just marginal success in such an endeavor could have truly revolutionary implications over the course of time.
IV. The Proposal
I have already outlined my proposal (which I call, alternatively, “The Politics of Reason and Goodwill,” or “Transcendental Politics,” or “Holistic Politics”) in several essays (see, e.g,. A Proposal, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world, and Transcendental Politics; plus dozens of others in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). I’ll just summarize it very briefly here.
The social movement I envision is, by necessity, a non-partisan social movement which emphasizes the procedures by which we arrive at our beliefs, conclusions, policy positions, and electoral choices (which I’ll refer to from here on out as “political memes”), rather than the specific, substantial political memes themselves. It is a movement that is dedicated to not advocating for progressive or conservative ideologies or policies or candidates, but rather for a commitment to reason and goodwill and to the development of procedures and methodologies which systematically favor them.
This may seem to run up against the cognitive science reality that people are not primarily persuaded by reason in the formation of their political memes, and certainly the most fanatical and extreme will not be amenable to any suggestion to make any movement of any kind in any direction. But this movement does not depend on people in general changing their habit of political meme formation. Rather, it depends, first, on a dedicated group of people implementing the three components summarized below (and elaborated on at length in the other essays I linked to), and, secondly, on a significant number of people agreeing in principal only to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill. That second requisite is not a change in how people form their cognitive landscapes, but rather an appeal to existing frames and narratives, since most Americans, I would argue, identify themselves as, and wish to be, reasonable people of goodwill.
It’s very important not to be excessively distracted by the highly visible and vocal minority who clearly are too committed to irrationality and belligerence to even contemplate making such a commitment. In the end, any social movement that aspires to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in the formation of public policy, while it might continue to try and hope to gradually convert some of them, has to focus more on simply marginalizing the most irrational and belligerent among us, and rendering them outnumbered and de-fanged by a movement that just leaves them behind (in terms of their political and cultural influence, not in terms of our shared commitment to their well-being and the facilitation of their productive participation in society).
This movement, which I’ll refer to here as “PRG” (short for “Politics of Reason and Goodwill”), requires two very difficult, interrelated steps for adherents (that is, activists working to advance this social movement) to commit to, in order to realize the social step forward that the movement aspires toward: 1) In the context of the movement (though not in political activities pursued outside of the movement), advocacy for specific substantive positions, specific ideological convictions, specific candidates, and, in general, specific substantive political memes, must be suspended. PRG advocates for a commitment to an ideal that transcends ideology and a procedure for realizing that ideal, sincerely and with assiduous integrity agreeing not to displace that ideal or that procedure with current substantive certainties held by any adherents. And, 2) The sincere humility to realize that a procedure which accomplishes this to any meaningful degree is preferable to such substantive certainties currently held, because our current substantive certainties may or may not be what reason and goodwill, assiduously adhered to, would actually have led to, and we should prefer what a disciplined process suggests is most in accord with reason and goodwill over what we more haphazardly assume is most in accord with reason and goodwill.
The core political meme of this movement, in fact, is the meme that we are better served by disciplines and processes which systematically favor reason and goodwill than by our current ideologies that assume they are most informed by reason and goodwill. And, just as those who have practiced and implicitly and explicitly advocated for scientific methodology, rule of law, and democratic and constitutional governmental processes have fought uphill battles to establish them as central features of our shared cognitive and institutional landscape, assisted by the evolutionarily favored utility of these disciplines, so too is this extension of that logic evolutionarily favored by its utility and implementable, over time, through our relentless and passionate advocacy and practice.
PRG consists of three components: 1) The creation of a comprehensive data base or web portal which makes easily accessible all arguments which purport to apply reason to evidence in service to human welfare, along with citations by which to verify the reliability or accuracy of the evidence utilized (see “Component 1″ of A Proposal for a more complete and extensive description); 2) The creation of an enterprise which disseminates the message, in emotionally appealing ways which communicate directly to existing frames and narratives, that we are better off, both individually and collectively, when we strive to be reasonable people of goodwill (see Component II of A Proposal and Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives for more complete and extensive descriptions), and 3) The establishment of a network of community organizations, which leverage existing community organizations (e.g., PTAs, HOAs, Kiwanis, Rotary Club, local churches and other religious institutions, park districts, etc.), to create a forum in which participants agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, to consider all points of view and arguments with an open mind, to be civil, and to improve the strength and solidarity of our local communities and of our nation (see Component III of A Proposal and Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN) for a more complete and extensive description).
The supposition is not that most people would avail themselves of the internet portal or spend significantly more time comparing arguments and counterarguments surrounding various policy issues, or that most people would attend the community meetings or participate on the on-line network, or that most people would change their habits in any visible or significant way. That would not be realistic. Rather, the hope is that this would create a new center of gravity, a new source of legitimacy for the concept of making decisions on the basis of reason and goodwill, a new nucleus from which a marginal increase in the number of people who take marginal steps in the direction of thinking and acting in accord with this ideal can form a source of information and inspiration for the many who make no change in their lives whatsoever. Few of us are scientists, but most of us rely in one way or another on science.
Think tanks and policy institutes are in some respects the prototype for Component I, but always lost their popular legitimacy by failing to be popularly accessible and popularly comprised institutions. All are seen, rightly or wrongly, as having been co-opted by a particular ideology. But, in PRG, the think tank is all of us, the arguments considered are all of them. And it does not stand alone, like an ivory tower out of reach, but in the center of a community, where it can be utilized and discussed by those ordinary people inclined to do so. Even if very few ever avail themselves of those resources (the portal and the community organizations), others (moderate others who are not lost to an impenetrable fanaticism) will be more inclined to look to those who do as relatively reliable sources of information. And those who do avail themselves of these recourses will be those who, both by predisposition and by the effects of utilizing these resources, will tend to have more moderate, better informed, better reasoned, more humane positions on social and political issues.
History is comprised of innovations, both humble and bold. Many such innovations are social institutional, and some have had enormous and lasting effects on our cultural evolution. The invention of money, of legal systems, of our own Constitution and national system of government, are all examples. Some technological innovations dovetail with these, or form the basis of social institutional innovations of their own: The computer, the internet, social media, have developed in ways which have created new opportunities and new dimensions of possibilities yet to be fully explored. PRG, or something similar to it, would be precisely the way to leverage these developments, and explore these possibilities.
I sincerely and fervantly believe that a dedicated cadre of people working dilligently to design and implement this plan, or a plan similar to it, can and almost inevitably would have a dramatic effect, over time, in moving our state, nation, and world gradually but significantly in the direction of reason and goodwill, in the direction of being wiser, more foresighted, more cooperative, more life-affirming, and more humane. I hope all who read this will join me in this effort, and will share it widely in the hope that others join us as well.