Drawing over-hasty conclusions

Here’s a new RSA animation in which Matthew Taylor, former head of the Institute for Public Policy Research and now chief executive of the RSA, sets out what he wants the Royal Society to do. It’s a great animation and lively talk, and he’s clearly very interested in the politics of well-being, and in what moral and political insights we can draw from new research in psychology and neuroscience. But he may be over-hasty in the policy conclusions that he draws. YouTube Preview Image

Taylor refers in the talk to “powerful new insights” from neuroscience, anthropology and psychology, particularly the idea, in the work of social and behavioural psychologists like John Bargh and Jonathan Haidt, that we are mainly automatic, irrational creatures, and we need to be aware of the limits of our rationality and free will, in order to become more self-aware and responsible people. (If you read the excellent www.edge.org, you’ll be familiar with a lot of this research.)

Taylor argues that this research provides a scientific ‘evidence base’ that takes us beyond individualism, and towards a more social and communitarian model of politics. In this, he is in the same camp as New Left thinkers like Richard Layard and Oliver James, who have tried to use insights from psychology to criticise neo-liberal individualism and justify a more social-communitarian model of society.

The main problem with this ‘natural communitarianism’ is that Taylor and the RSA are moving too rapidly from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’, when in fact the same scientific research can be used to justify quite different policy approaches.

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Beyond Liberalism

One way to understand the modern politics of wellbeing – by which I mean the introduction of policies by governments aimed at cultivating the ‘wellbeing’, ‘happiness’ or ‘resilience’ of their citizens – is as an attempt to move beyond the confines of liberalism, and to answer the question, ‘where next?’

The liberal state aims to safeguard the rights of the individual in their own private ‘pursuit of happiness’, but it does not go so far as to tell the individual where or how they should pursue it. Each individual in a liberal society has liberty of conscience, and liberty to pursue their happiness as they see fit, as long as they are not harming anyone else.

Modern liberal governments are, more or less, disestablished from religion – they do not try to promote one particular religion or spirituality, and maintain a careful neutrality in matters of private moral and spiritual beliefs.

Modern liberalism did once have a telos, or goal: the goal was the removal of all obstacles, prejudices and superstitions, so that each individual could freely pursue their own private happiness.

We have more or less reached that goal in western societies today, particularly with advances in minority rights since the 1960s, and in homosexual rights over the last decade. So the overarching telos of liberalism has been reached, and we are left with liberal society as an assortment of private teloi.

But this leads to an inevitable restlessness among philosophers and policy makers. Where now? Now the priests and monarchs have been defeated, and the old superstitions over-turned, now we are free to pursue our private inclinations…where next to steer the ship? Continue reading

On the web: the EU diplomatic service, reacting to terrorism, the state of liberalism, and fiscal cuts…

– Writing in E!Sharp magazine, David Charter examines some of the contentious debates surrounding the shaping of the new European External Action Service (EEAS). Jan Gaspers, meanwhile, suggests that the EEAS will mark the “real vanguard of a stronger EU in international affairs”, and given time could pose a significant challenge to national diplomacy.

– Bruce Schneier offers his take on the reaction to the attempted Christmas terror plot. “The problem”, Schneier argues, with the solutions being proposed (full-body scanners, passenger profiling, etc.):

“is that they’re only effective if we guess the plot correctly. Defending against a particular tactic or target makes sense if tactics and targets are few. But there are hundreds of tactics and millions of targets, so all these measures will do is force the terrorists to make a minor modification to their plot.”

[…]

“What we need is security that’s effective even if we can’t guess the next plot: intelligence, investigation and emergency response.”

– Elsewhere, Samuel Brittan, argues in favour of taking a “fresh look” at certain liberal values – “[h]owever difficult it is to define a liberal”, he suggests, “it is not hard to spot anti-liberals.” John Gray, meanwhile, explores the relationship between neoliberalism and state power, suggesting that “[t]he consequence of reshaping society on a market model has been to make the state omnipresent.”

– Finally, the FT’s Gillian Tett has an interesting piece on the potential social impact of fiscal cuts and the implications of this for bond markets and national standing over the next decade.