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Politics, Economics, Cognitive Science and Ethics

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I’ve been thinking recently about relationship between politics and economic policies on the one hand, and what we know about human psychology and the causes of human behavior on the other. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the knowledge which we learn from research in the cognitive sciences is too often neglected, distorted, or used improperly in the political sphere. This is not something exclusive to one political party or ideology. One side might ignore research, while the other side simply embraces a scientific finding, committing what’s known as the naturalistic fallacy (that which is natural is good). Whatever the way in which the knowledge is used or neglected, the end result is that our society, and individuals within it suffer. The systems we put in place are necessarily deficient, with no good reason for why they should be so.

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I’m not going to venture too deeply into political philosophy here, as it’s not my area of expertise, and I have no interest in being lambasted for stepping into an argument I’m not qualified to take a part in. But I will point out some cursory aspects of different ideologies and how I think they’re relevant to the conversation. This post is less a political debate, and more a call for us to respect the knowledge we gain from the cognitive sciences. And further, to integrate that knowledge with a system of action, of ethics, that itself is grounded, that we can provide justification for. But I’ll get to that in a bit…

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It should be obvious that facts regarding human cognition are relevant to our political and social systems. Facts about how we learn. How we think. How we behave in various situations. How our decisions are made and what factors influence them.

On the conservative end, I too often see much of the data coming out of cognitive science in general, and behavioral economics in particular, ignored (not to mention the broader selective rejection of scientific theories). If conservative economic principles are based off of this idea of a rational decision making agent making free decisions, well…we can call into questions the assumptions these ideas are based on. What is a “free” decision? Does free will exist? What are circumstances and economic factors that influence so called free decisions, and to what degree are they relevant in economic policy? Are we really rational in our economic decisions? (Predictably Irrational by Dan Arielly is a great book that covers these very issues) What is the role that advertising plays in economic decision making? We know that radio advertising, and especially television advertising, when used effectively can short circuit our emotional areas of the brain. We are often influenced to buy not the best product, but buy the one that is most effective at taking advantage of are particular cognitive architecture. In the case of political advertising this type of advertising becomes the most sinister. Striking directly at our fear centers, voters often times vote for or against candidates not for logical/rational reasons, but for reasons based on fear as a result of this type of advertising. Why do you think political campaigns have started to bring in neuroscientists to help craft their campaign advertisements? (Al Gore addresses the neuroscience of politics in his great book The Assault on Reason) Should facts about the irrationality of our economic decisions and electoral decisions influence the safeguards we put in place to protect consumers and our electorate?

On the other end of the spectrum I often see liberals accept a finding from the cognitive sciences, only to push for programs that simply try to cover up for that finding. In a sense, putting a bandaid on a problem. Taking a pill to correct an issue rather than addressing the underlying factors that are the cause of that issue. This can be anything from facts we discover about general human psychology, or even be more specific to race, class, sex, etc…The decisions may come from a positive place of trying to help those that are less fortunate, but by crafting social programs whose goals are to alleviate suffering or raise the general welfare, we run the risk of throwing money at a problem that may only have short term benefits. Worse still from my perspective, is that it ignores the fact that human brains are incredibly plastic. Human behavior and psychology is very pliable. Recent research has shown that even the brains of the elderly can undergo significant neuroplasticity. Brains can change, behavior can change, and what cognitive science tells us about how our brains are and what the underlying causes of our behavior is, is only a first step to using that information in an effective manner. We shouldn’t accept a fact and then create systems that try to even things out given that fact, but think about what kind of systems we can create that help people overcome those facts.

Not only must we think about how this knowledge affects our political and economic systems, but we need to turn this knowledge back on ourselves, and think about how our own thought process works. How our thoughts and ideas are affected by our interaction with the world, and how research in the cognitive sciences can and should be incorporated into our thought process. But this brings us to a much deeper problem. How are we to use the information from the cognitive sciences effectively? To what ends is this information being used? This question can’t be answered without first determining what politics is for in the first place. What is the purpose and role of the government? Only then can we figure out how what we know about human cognition should be used in crafting laws and influencing public services. (though to a certain degree, it’s probably more of a back and forth feedback loop, than a one way exchange).

As I said, I won’t be defending or promoting any individual political theories here, but it’s worth at least pointing out a few major ways of thinking about the purpose of politics and government. Broadly speaking there are three ways of thinking about the role of government. One is that government should maximize the freedom and autonomy of its citizens. This is known as a libertarian philosophy (not to be confused with the libertarian party). Another is that the role of government is to maximize the welfare of its citizens. This dovetails relatively nicely with a utilitarian philosophy. A third is that the role of government is to maximize the virtue of its citizens, to make good citizens, good people. There may be others, and you might have your own thoughts on this as well (please share below!), but the three above mentioned philosophies, are the ones that I’ve found to be the most fleshed out political theories.

But here’s the question, whichever philosophy you subscribe to, what is your justification for doing so? The massive disagreement about what the purpose and role of the government is should imply that these truths are not so self evident. So what is your, or any of our, justifications for accepting one theory over any other? The most plausible answer is that what we feel the purpose of government is must be an extension of what we feel the purpose of life is. What the meaning of life is. And we believe that a government that promotes those principles is best. But this just begs the question…what is our justification for what we feel is our purpose here on earth?

I’ve discussed my problems with utilitarianism on this blog before, and I find the idea that our purpose in life is to maximize freedom an empty concept (though I understand that I have not defended this statement here), and so I throw my hat in the ring for the virtue theory of government. I won’t undertake a full defense of this statement here either, but for those who have been reading this blog, you’ll know that I talk about personal development a lot here (link1, link2). About consciousness and human cognition as an ongoing temporal process. Virtues are labels we give to manifestations of a more general underlying way of interacting in, and with, the world. In so far as we attempt to act “rightly” in the world, to act in ways which are not in error, virtues are the labels we give to those ways of acting. I argue that acting in ways that move us away from error are inherently more fulfilling based on our human biology, our neurophysiology, than other ways of being. And we should ideally be engaged in a process of becoming, of striving to be the person we’d like to be. This is not to say that freedom and welfare play no part in this, just to say that they themselves are each just one of many considerations we must take into account. In short, what I am saying is that what we call virtues are manifestations of ways of acting, of psychological and physiological processes that make up who we are. And that we should promote these ways of acting.

Those that know me, and even those that don’t, may be surprised by what seems to be a promotion of integrating morality with politics. For quite some time this has been the staple of the religious right, and is eschewed by liberals (an area of policy where libertarians and liberals make strange bedfellows). The role of the government should not be to legislate morality these groups say, and I wholeheartedly agree…when I disagree with the moral principles being promoted. But liberals are kidding themselves if they say they believe government should be out of the business of legislating morality, as is evidenced by many liberal economic policies, which are nothing if not trying to integrate some moral principles in the political sphere. Whether abortion should be legal, whether gays should have the right to marry, whether drugs should be legalized…these are not simply questions of government involvement in our lives, they are at root moral questions.

Every decision we make is influenced either explicitly, or implicitly, by our moral systems. By our disposition towards the world. It’s not practical to assume individuals in government, and government policies in general, can separate moral influence from policy. But unlike the religious right, I share a certain hesitancy with those that are uncomfortable with an individual’s personal moral principles being made into law. The question isn’t whether morality should be integrated with politics, or should influence our political discourse, but rather, to what degree we can be justified at any point in time in the moral systems we subscribe to, must be kept in mind when considering how much influence those systems should have on our politics. This justification is at least in part influenced by our factual understanding of the world. This includes fields far removed from cognitive science, but I’ll argue that the cognitive sciences are revealing facts about human behavior and well being that are more relevant to morality than most other subjects, and we do ourselves a disservice if we continue to integrate this knowledge in our political systems improperly.

*I know I’ve oversimplified and overgeneralized political positions and ideologies here, but hey, it’s a blog, not a book.

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