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]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC7ANGMy0yo[/youtube]

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.