Who Deserves Their Freedom, Research Time, 06/05/2015

Sometimes, interesting books just fall into my lap. I’m not really sure what I’m ultimately going to do with the issue that I want to discuss today. I have a distinct feeling that it’s going to play some small role in the Utopias project, though I’m not sure exactly. This is an idea that’s come up a lot in culture today, at least among our jokes.

The issue is whether humanity has the collective intelligence to deserve the political freedom we give ourselves in the West. The original theorists and experimenters with democratic modes of governance in the modern era made the same presumption that humanity is a basically rational creature. We’ve done enough idiotic things, however, that this presumption doesn’t hold as much water as back in the days of John Locke.

He's an angry, angry old man.
But this isn’t one of those rambling pieces of Abraham Simpson wisdom, complaining that these kids today don’t know their writings and rithmatical calculons, too busy sexting selfies with their Tweetstagrams on MySpace. Or they’re Americans and all believe that the Pharisees rode dinosaurs to crucify Jesus with Barack Obama Sr. and give Mary Magdalene an abortion.*

* I hope everyone realizes how incredibly sarcastic that paragraph was supposed to be.

A few weeks ago, my friend Dreamboat lent me a book by Dan Ariely, a psychologist at Duke University. The book he got me, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, isn’t in my crosshairs just yet to yammer about on the blog, because I haven’t started reading it. But I was looking him up on the internet a while ago to see what his deal was, and what I found was pretty interesting.

The first book that broke Ariely into the popular public eye was Predictably Irrational in 2008, another book that I can’t speak too much about because I haven’t read it. But reading articles from around the time of its release, like this profile on him and Predictably Irrational from The New Yorker, discuss a set of problems that I found quite familiar.

Ariely’s first major book would seem to discuss a problem with humanity that I became familiar with thanks to Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0, the contention that humans are not rational enough to know or do what’s best for them. The idea that our cognitive instincts have been trained through eras of evolution to misunderstand probability catastrophically, choose immediate gain over long-term security, and make decisions without even an inkling of their proper context.

Heath’s solution was to expand the powers of the state to regulate and control so much of our environment that even minor consumer goods included subtle kluges to trick us out of our stupidity. An example that stuck out in my mind was laundry detergent caps.

The caps are designed so that the lines indicating how much you’re supposed to use are very subtle and difficult to see. I always look specifically for them, but apparently many folks just fill the cap to the brim. It means people go through detergent too fast, and they use so much that their clothes are damaged. So Heath’s answer was that the government would force laundry detergent manufacturers to make caps that clearly indicate how much detergent to use. The government would similarly be able to reach anywhere in our immediate environments to fine-tune our surroundings so that we don’t make stupid mistakes.

You can see how anti-democratic this idea is. It essentially says that humanity is too stupid to look after itself, so a technocratic government of experts is needed to control every aspect of our physical and cultural environments to make sure we don’t make the stupid mistakes we inevitably do. Now, I may not be a libertarian, but I sure don’t trust the state.

So I’m left with a psychological science that continually shows how dumb and short-sighted people can be, and how difficult it is to train your own behaviour out of short-sightedness. It’s an idea that offers a challenge to any utopian political vision, because central to the notion that we can make society a better place is the presumption that humanity can improve ourselves, cognitively and ethically.

The interviews I read with Ariely suggest that he has a more optimistic view of the problem of our dumb psychology. I wonder if he’ll find a less misanthropic view of the pessimistic territory that investigating everyday human psychology can often take you.

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