The Art of Peace

Johnnie Moore raises an interesting question in a couple of recent posts.

How are we doing as collaborators?

In a
post Saturday, he suggests that there is evidence:

that humans are biologically programmed to collaborate, tending to undermine the ravings of "Social Realists" who think the only way to get economic man to do things is to bribe or cajole him.

Johnnie quotes Dr. John H Clippinger, who, writing about about Human Nature and Social Networks (.pdf), believes that a scientific understanding of how "people think, feel, interact, and conduct themselves as social beings" is near.

Not only will scientific knowledge replace speculation and superstition, but new forms of intervention—genetic, cognitive, pharmaceutical, and social technological—will greatly enhance our abilities to create more effective social organizations and institutions.

And, finally, linking this week to another work by Clippinger, he says these discoveries mean we can "transcend selfish thinking," which might move us beyond the social glue - such as it is - of the market.

There are a number of thick issues related to language, free will and governance that resist definitive answers (and I won't be offering any here). For example, philosophers like David Chalmers, who are first rate rationalists, might suggest that an imminent understanding of consciousness - our social minds - is a bit oversold. It's phenomenal nature just isn't as amenable to scientific probing as we'd like to believe.

On the other hand, behavior economics does uncover our irrationality when it comes to economic decision making. We are not logical.

Clippinger's distinction between "higher" and "lower" registers is useful. But even though it is very effective at signaling something deep and enabling collaboration, high, or precise, language doesn't scale well. Can it do comedy or find meaning in tautologies? Shakespeare could evoke scenes of incomparable beauty with words. And acting companies can bring that beauty to life in a collaborative effort.

But the problem of setting the conditions - speaking the language - that evoke a cooperative response, isn't I think, a scientific one. And mapping it to society as a whole is problematic. As a base language (in a couple of senses), markets signal something to potential collaborators who are separated by what phenomenologists would call the
intentional gap: "What does she mean by that?" followed by "Should I cooperate?"

They filter all the cognitive biases - "I think he's full of it." - "I won't cooperate!" - to arrive at something approximating the most good for the most people - though I hasten to add,
clearly not all people. Markets-as-crowd wisdom work precisely due to the different ways in which we filter data. And when markets fail - and in their imprecision, fail they do - individuals "transcending selfishness" are left to fill the gap.

Markets limit what can be said with certainty, but skeptic in me is a bit more concerned with suggested remedies for its - and my - shortcomings. It's not the descriptions but the prescriptions that give me pause.

Mark me down as a hopeful realist.


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