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Democratic Reform Movement

Thomas Jefferson famously said that successful democracy requires a revolution in each generation,every generation needs a new revolution and many democratic theorists have supported his argument. Indeed Tocqueville said that in order to interest the apathetic, democracy requires drama. Throughout the twentieth century that drama came from a series of major threats posed to democracy, especially from authoritarianism, elitism, and non-democratic economic ideas. It was against the context of those threats that each generation really did see a revolution, and one that was fought either implicitly or explicitly, about democracy.

The twentieth century’s first revolution was the political emancipation of women. Its second revolution centred on the introduction of radical new ideas such as Socialism and Fascism into the political mainstream after WW1 and the Great Depression (termed by many as a “reverse wave” in the advance of democracy). Its third revolution followed in the wake of WW2, with the ensuing waves of national emancipation from colonial powers, radical…

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What is Maturity?

We are bombarded with more information today than ever before. And we are enduring a period of shock in numerous ways; societal and economic changes are affecting everyone. One of the results is diversity, and an increasing number of identities per person (take how people assume different identities online for example). Is another result immaturity? In order to answer this question we must first define maturity.

In terms of the science, the brain reaches 90% of its adult size by the age of 6. And a second wave takes place in the years before puberty. During this time grey matter (areas of the brain responsible for processing information and storing memories) increases in size, particularly in the frontal lobe of the brain – as a result of an increase in the number of synaptic connections between nerve cells. Also around puberty however, a process begins in which connections that are not used or reinforced begin to wither (hence the “use-it-or-lose-it” hypothesis). This pruning, which begins around age 11 in girls and 12 in boys, continues into the early or mid-20s, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with “higher” functions such as planning, reasoning, judgment, and impulse control. As Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health has said, the real cognitive advances come with paring down or reducing the number of synaptic connections. During adolescence, the amount of myelin, a fatty, insulating material that coats the axons of nerve cells—similar to the way insulation coats a wire—also increases, improving the nerve cells’ ability to conduct electrical signals and to function efficiently; this too continues into adulthood and occurs later in “higher” regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex.

MaturitySo this tells us why maturity is associated with puberty and adolescence. But of course we have all met immature adults. I’m not even going to claim to be particularly mature myself. I find the idea of permanent maturity to be closely associated with the word boring. Such a statement, you might think, could reflect the fact that maturity can only be judged subjectively, or relative to the society within which you live. Yet almost every major philosopher has had something to say about it, and in an objective way.

Cephalos, who discussed the ideas with Socrates, argued that decency and temperament are signs of maturity.

Kant argued that “laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance (natura-liter maiorennes), nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity, and why it is so easy for others to establish themselves as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all. I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.”

J.S.Mill argued that socio-economic traumas led to immaturity, which could perhaps explain the growing popularity of extremism in hard times. If a societal trauma led towards a lessened state of maturity, then to Mill the state would be justified in limiting liberties.

Neitzche argued that “a person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”

Freud argued that one’s maturities could be seen in their actions and fears, and as such said “a fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional maturity.”

Lord Brain argued that in the pursuit of maturity personal experiences far outweigh “any public account which science can give”.

Indeed these quotes are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of different ideas that people have about the concept. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about them however, is that everyone judges maturity to be desirable. Yet as hinted at by Mill, immaturity could be argued to be a psychological coping mechanism. Indeed we often associate Multiple Personality Disorder with the word illness. But why do we do this? It’s essentially because MPD makes it more difficult to fit into modern society, where you need to retain the stability to hold a job, and family relations. But our ability to supress overly traumatised parts of our mind, and create new personalities, is one of the most fascinating and amazing capabilities of human mind. If a person with MPD had several non-mature personalities, would you think this a bad thing?

There really are a thousand questions that I could ask on this topic. How do you define maturity? Is a mature person the one who best works out how to live with the hand that’s given to them? Is the mature person one whose understanding transcends that which they experience in their own personal lives? Is a mature person one who, as Mill said, can learn from discussions with others? Is a mature person a moral person?

I would love to hear your thoughts to any aspect of this subject. But most of all, how would you define maturity? And do you agree with Mill that your right to freedom should rest on your level of maturity?

What Freedoms Should We Be Allowed?

In ‘On Liberty’ J.S. Mill asserted that: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self- protection.” He used this statement to argue that power can only be exercised over another, if against that other’s will, in order to prevent harm to others. So in other words preservation/protection is the key to liberty.

JS MillOn the face of it this seems reasonable, and in fact most of this essay was spent logically and rationally explaining how we judge the difficult border cases i.e. because no priestly class can judge the ‘truth’ absolutely, how do we judge where and when the action of one person might harm another?

However preservation/protection is a questionable principle upon which to base all interventions, even despite the importance that we, collectively, place on self-preservation. The support for animal welfare in zoos pales in comparison to support for species protection. The right of someone who lives in constant agony, to die, is disputed based on the importance of survival. Talking about the plight of the homeless, the downtrodden, the depressed, and those living in extreme poverty, will often earn that person rolled eyes, a joke and a change of subject. But talk about those same people dying, and all of a sudden it’s a tragedy that the state should never have allowed. Which is the most desirable end? Survival? Or positive well-being? Would you rather live a long life with lots of pain, or a short and happy life?

Mill did recognise this difficulty, for he was himself a self professed Utilitarian. Indeed later on in the essay he tried to amalgamate the concept of happiness into his ideas. For instance he said that so long as there has been “some length of time and amount of experience, after which a moral or prudential truth may be regarded as established, and it is merely desired to prevent generation after generation from falling over the same precipice which has been fatal to their predecessors”, then individuality can be restricted. In other words he used collective Utilitarian tools to measure what protection of others actually involved. Thus the principle of protection upon which his ideas were based, is not as clear as would otherwise be imagined.

But the more contentious problem of Mill’s argument was the fact that it was all based on his personal view of truth. Just like Hegel and Marx, Mill saw the history of the world to be steadily progressing from lower to higher stages in our social evolution. This meant that for Mill a society had to be ready for representative democracy and liberty. And furthermore, individuals too had to be ready. Mill made the right to liberty dependent on our level of maturity (sanity and the above principle relating to protection were a part of this argument).

To explain further, Mill argued that liberty only applies to those “in the maturity of their faculties” i.e. excluding children, the insane, and generally those unable to learn and engage productively in a discussion. Ignoring the obvious implications here, by making such an exclusion Mill was in fact simply carving out the biggest weakness within his argument. Instead of ignoring this most difficult topic, the question should be raised: why do different rules apply to some? As a parent it is not possible to always explain your reasons when you tell your children to do something. It’s something we can try, but for example with my 20 month old son he simply doesn’t have a big enough grasp of vocabulary yet to understand all explanations – sometimes I’m not even sure if he understands when I say “No wires/sockets. Danger Danger!” Am I only limiting Owen’s liberty when his safety depends upon it? Not really, no. But there are still rules. And just because they don’t always tally with those who Mill defines as being able to engage productively in a discussion, it doesn’t mean they should be excluded from the analysis.

Furthermore, what does it mean to be mature? Mill speaks of those who can be excluded below:

“We may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. […] Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”

Mill believed in being as objective as possible in approach. And yet this argument here could not be more subjective. For following Mill’s argument, what would happen were we to contrast it to Herbert Marcuse’s ‘Repressive Tolerance’? Marcuse follows all of Mill’s conditions, but has a different opinion about how mature people are in civilised societies. In fact he claims that the modern system perpetrates a “systemic moronization of children and adults alike… the mature delinquency of a whole civilisation.” Continuing, Marcuse contended that “a false consciousness has become prevalent in national and popular behaviour. [Thus…] In a world in which the human faculties and needs are arrested and perverted, autonomous thinking leads into a ‘perverted world’ […] the pre-empting of the mind vitiates impartiality and objectivity.” Thus according to Marcuse the very freedoms that Mill advocated are at best fraudulent, and at worst, an instrument of indoctrination, manipulation and servitude in and of themselves.

FreedomWhat’s your take? What freedoms do you think we should be allowed? Are there any principles such as those discussed above, which explain how much liberty we should be allowed, and under what circumstances?

What do Management Consultants have to learn from Plato?

There are many Platos to be interpreted. There’s the Plato who advocated an elitist class of Guardians who dedicate Platotheir lives towards the craft of governance.

There’s the Plato who spoke of universals and Forms, arguing that followers need a kind of philosopher king who is able to ‘truly’ see their objective. He argued that every craft has an ultimate goal, and that for governance this is justice. Yet for Plato ideas such as justice were not subjectively held. To Plato ideals, in the shape of Forms, are more real than what we can sense and perceive. And as such the leader who can truly envisage what the ideal objective (Form) of the craft is, would be the ideal leader.

And then there’s the Plato from his post-Republic works, who implied that it may not be possible to find such a philosopher king. In these later works Plato was a little more practical. For example in ‘Laws’, Plato’s longest work, he argued that if it’s not possible to find a philosopher king who truly understands the form of justice, supported by a ruling class of elite guardians, then the next best thing would be to ensure the rule of law, to reason out fair rules, and ensure they apply universally.

These ideas can be simply applied to the management world. Using the concept of “Arete” (excellence) as a Form to be pursued, the American car industry looks like it has been steadily progressing. Prior to WWII engineers always rose to the top of car companies, and as such the engineering and manufacturing of cars gained primary focus. After the war designers began to make it to the top. Cars became flashier and better marketed, but America’s reputation for manufacturing and engineering worsened in comparison with its rivals. Next came the accountants and financiers, who focussed on balancing the books. And only from the 80s did they begin to employ generalists with an overview of all fields. GeneralistPlato would argue that this last step was significant because the generalist would be far more likely to see the Form of Arete (excellence), and be able to balance the needs of all areas in pursuit of the ideal goal of the craft.

Furthermore, as data from Jim Collin’s research into what makes successful companies confirmed, great leaders really do make a difference. Collins found that out of 1435 Fortune 500 companies only 11 managed to garner stock returns at least three times the market’s, and these all had a “level five leader” at the top.

Yet the question remains as to whether Collin’s research showed that pursuing Arete in all areas makes a great leader. These 11 leaders had two things in common: humility and a determined will/resolve. That second Generalist v Specialist 2component (fierce resolve) didn’t mean specialists like accountants for instance focussing on one area only. But neither did it mean generalists. It was about a focus on one or a few central idea(s), together with a dogged (you could even argue authoritarian in certain cases) determination to not let any amount of opposition prevent them getting there.

Is this a Platonic pursuit of Arete? Is it better to have generalists at the top? Can specialists perceive the Form of Arete just as easily? Or is it all relative? Perhaps there’s no such Form as Arete, or no such person who is able to perceive that Form. Perhaps specialists are just as able to maximise greater stock returns as are generalists.

What do you think?

Does Nothing Come From Nothing?

Nothing Worth Having Comes EasyThe idea that nothing comes from nothing has held interest for our culture for centuries. It was used in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, the film a Sound of Music, and is still frequently used today in funny comics and signs – often to express the more widely known derivative: “nothing worth having comes easy”.

It originated in the work of a 5th century BCE Greek philosopher named Parmenides (founder of the Eleatics school of philosophy, which rejected the validity of sense experience). Parmenides was questioning reality, and in his one surviving poem ‘On Nature’ he explored the difference between our objective and subjective views of what exists. He concluded that because nothing comes from nothing, then in a ‘true’ sense everything has always existed, and nothing can pop into our out of existence. Changes therefore, only run as deep as our perceptions, and thus truly exist in the subjective realm where falsehoods and misinterpretations are widely spread.

Generally speaking, most people have accepted this premise that nothing comes from nothing. Indeed the law of the conservation of energy says that the total energy of an isolated system cannot change, and this is a law of science. However some have come to challenge the view, based on a) philosophical reasoning (I’m not going to really address this here as it would make the post too long), and more recently b) on the teachings of quantum mechanics. My position is that these challenges rest solely on a misunderstanding of what the concept of ‘nothing’ really is.

The popular, linguistic, and even often philosophical conceptualisations of ‘nothing’ describe it as something which can exist within the dimensions of space and time. If I have no things in my hand, then I have nothing in my hand. No things = Nothing. The popular scientific conceptualisation of nothing goes a little further. For example Lawrence Krauss describes ‘nothing’ as an unstable quantum vacuum with no particles. Hence like the previous description it can exist within space and time. But you couldn’t say that there is nothing in your hand, because there will always be particles there.

Based on such a definition Krauss wrote the book ‘A Universe from Nothing’, in which he argued that something can come from nothing. The example used is a quantum vacuum. Sealed off at time 1 with no measurable particles, Krauss said that it would be possible to return to such a vacuum later, and find that there are in fact particles!

This argument was used by Krauss as a counter-argument to those who use the apparent contradiction between the idea that nothing can come from nothing, and that the universe began at a finite time, to argue for the necessity of a divine creator. And despite the fact that critics question the validity of his self-proclaimed “proof”, his argument is sound. For in the quantum world space is, as he puts it, a “boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that pop into and out of existence on timescales so short, you never see them”.

However, the possibility of particles springing into existence within the quantum vacuum is in fact perfectly plausible and logically consistent if the concept of nothing is properly understood. And this is best done with Maths, where nothing is differentiated from zero.

If you sit at a table with ten other people, and suddenly realise that you have zero dollars, then you can ask one of the others to lend you some. Does that turn nothing into something? NO, for your sum total is still zero. You gain ten dollars from a friend, which can be spent. But you also gain a liability of ten dollars i.e. you owe your friend ten dollars. So you have + 10 and –10, which together equal zero. Albeit put very simplistically, this is precisely what Krauss is actually describing. Within a quantum field you have zero particles, but also the potential for new positive particles, so long as new negative particles ensure that the sum total remains the same, and thus accords with the law of the conservation of energy.

In other words zero speaks of potential. It is quantifiable, and from it you can add and subtract. Nothing is described mathematically as an empty set. It is not quantifiable, and has no potential to be added to, or subtracted from. Thus where we have dimensions such as space and time, nothing cannot exist. It is therefore my contention that nothing does not exist within this universe.

What do you think? Can something come from nothing? Does nothing even exist? What is nothing as opposed to something anyway? After all, if as Descartes once said, we know we exist because we think, then thoughts must be real. Yet by that very argument thoughts can’t exist because they don’t think (I don’t actually think this by the way – it would just be one way of interpreting Descartes). And if thoughts don’t exist then how can we? And if we don’t exist then does anything? Maybe there is only nothing as opposed to only everything. What do you think? Can something come from nothing?

What’s the most difficult decision that we all have to take?

Philosophy could very well be the oldest subject known to mankind. It is in our nature to question, and seek understanding. Socrates summed this up well when he said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Given this inclination to philosophize, philosophy itself is a broad subject. Today, we often divide the subject between practical and theoretical philosophy, and the former, practical philosophy, seems to be growing in popularity lately. But what’s it all about?

Practical philosophy can be sub-divided into hundreds of different fields, including ethics, decision theories, legal philosophy, theology, aesthetics, feminist philosophy, value theories, reflective practice and philosophical counselling. It seeks to answer questions such as:

  • What is the nature of wisdom?
  • Who am I?
  • What is our state of awareness?
  • How can I be more mindful (present / on the ball)?
  • What does it mean to live justly?
  • How should I best use my energy and time?
  • How can reason enrich my life?
  • What is beauty?
  • How can understanding, and cohesion, be found amongst the diversity of life?
  • How can I find truth?

What’s significant about all these questions is that they are tools. Unlike theoretical philosophy, the focus is less on the learning itself, and more on how we can make use of philosophy in our day to day lives. decisionIn other words, how should philosophy inform and affect our decisions? Whether you treat decision making as computation, intuition, calculation, coherence, reasoned analysis, philosophy has a great deal to say about what decisions we should take. However, all too often there is an assumption made in these philosophies that the tough decisions are already known. Papers frequently begin with assumptions about the most difficult questions, like “whether you decide to get married, have children, get a job, go to university” blah blah blah. Are these the biggest, and most difficult decisions that we all have to make?

It is my opinion that the most difficult, and encompassing decision that we all have to make is one of how to achieve balance. The ancient Greeks understood that we all needed to strive towards a harmonious, balanced life. They had several words that sought to describe such a state: sophrosyne, isoropia, and others too. Today we often forget the need for such a balance, instead believing that we need to specialise as much as possible in order to “make our mark”. But nevertheless we do all strive for balance. balanceTake the marriage example for instance. Should a hypothetical person have been proposed to at the age of 18, he/she would be naturally inclined to wonder if marriage would stop him/her from pursuing things in other areas of his/her life e.g. a desire to travel the world, or to socialise every night while young. Deciding upon what the most desirable balance should be, is constantly at the back of everyone’s mind when taking decisions, and right from when we are young to when we are old.

Do you agree? What do you think is the most difficult decision that everyone has to make?

Does evil come from within, or without?

Adam Smith’s philosophy taught that those who always blame others, and are never able to accept moral responsibility, are morally deficient. In other words morality for Smith comes from an internal moral compass. To some extent the truth of this can be seen in primates. Although primates have no human moral conditioning, they do develop a sense of fairness, of right and wrong, of reward, and even of reciprocity. If morality (along with the concepts of right and wrong) was solely the product of nurture as opposed to nature i.e. if it came from culture and society, then how would it also exist outside of human culture and society?

Yet what Smith was saying wasn’t far from what had been taught in his Western Christian society for hundreds of years:

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”

St. Mark 7:21-23

good and evilMedieval Christendom was built not primarily on the philosophies of Jesus, but more on those of Augustine. And it was Augustine from whom we get the concepts: of original sin as inherited guilt, of hell as endless punishment, of divine grace as the necessary remedy for original sin, of the moral necessity of human free will, and of individual election to salvation by eternal predestination (some would say the latter is a contradiction of course; Calvin argued that if God had pre-destined eternity then so too must He have determined who receives eternal damnation and who receives eternal salvation). In other words Adam Smith’s teachings on morality are built onto the Augustinian premise that evil comes from within.

This thought was a huge one in the history of thought. It was one of the primary drivers behind the development of Western philosophy in the last thousand years. The question of whether or not human nature is evil started off the works of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke. Kant wrote that evil lies in “the wickedness of human nature or of the human heart”. And even modern day philosophers still base their work on the same assumptions. Maria Pia Lara for instance (author of Narrating Evil), who is dubbed a post-metaphysical theorist, agrees whole-heartedly with Kant’s above quote.

Yet what is evil? And would you say that Smith is still right today? If we go back to Socrates, he taught that no one acts with evil intentions. Aristotle took this further to suggest that in fact moral virtue was a guiding force for a great deal of human action. Therefore to Aristotle, ignorance was the guiding force behind evil. There was an extent to which Augustine’s thought was based on Aristotle’s however. Indeed I would perhaps go further and say that if Medieval Christendom was built on Augustinian thought, then Augustinian thought must have been built on Aristotelian thought; for Aristotle’s teachings are one of the pillars of Christendom. Aristotle assumed that evil people are driven by desires for domination and luxury, and although they are single-minded in their pursuit of these goals, they are also deeply divided. Their greed leaves them always dissatisfied, and ultimately Aristotle reasoned that the person who performed the evil deed would in time come to regret it, because it never fulfils their goals.

Thus where for Augustine and Smith, morality is internal, for Aristotle the morality of deed and person were in fact, to some extent, divorced from one another. And many philosophers have gone further than this. For example many Sophists argued that social custom was the chief source of moral values. And Protagoras, known as a moral sceptic, argued that: there is no universal moral truth; our individual moral views are equally true; the practical benefit of our moral values is more important than their truth; and that the practical benefit of moral values is a function of social custom rather than nature.

Adam SmithGoing back to the times of Smith, Thomas Reid criticised David Hume’s argument that:

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Both Hume and Smith argued that because emotions drive us, and develop the preferences and goals for our reason, then morality must be said to come from within. But whereas with Hume the central component of moral judgement/assessment involves the feelings of the moral spectator, for Reid true moral assessment is a rational judgment; our emotional reaction is almost like an afterthought.

What do you think? If evil exists, then does it come from within, or without?

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