Philosophy and General Reading

Review: Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’

In Praise of Idleness and Other EssaysIn Praise of Idleness and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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To some, or perhaps to many, it may seem a radical idea: idleness. But for the great British logician, mathematician, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, idleness is seen as a historically rooted concept which ties intimately together the bonds of labour, leisure, and the prospect of human rationality. Or, at least that is my reading of his famously titled composition, ‘In Praise of Idleness’.

So, what does Russell mean by ‘idleness’? In some sense, it infers a socially organised definition of time that is economically independent of professional labour, in which one may instead expend their energy to fulfil personally meaningful pursuits. This could be, for example, a time for a person to explore painting or to explore a scientific pursuit or any number of interests. In some bodies of literature, such projects are called ‘existential projects’ to convey the personalisation of their meaning in one’s life. One may also call them ‘special interests’. In this sense, one can think of idleness simply as being the economically independent pursuit of a subject, activity, or quality for no other reason than it evokes the state of personal interest. Study for study sake, or a painter to paint without the pressure of starving – these are the sorts of examples that Russell evokes.

Russell_In Praise of Idleness

Idleness should thus not infer or be confused with one’s being disinclined to work or with simplistic views pertaining to individual laziness. Idleness should also not be seen as ‘the root of all evil’, as the idiom would have it. If we are to follow Russell’s arguments, idleness has substantial roots in positive human traits, such as curiosity, exploration, and invention. We also read how the notion of idleness is based on ethical, moral and empirical economic arguments. For Russell, social consumption can mean something very different, both existentially and socially, and thus humanistically. He also speaks of economic production and the way in which work and leisure cycles could generally mean something altogether more philosophically transformed in conception, particularly in terms of the meaning of leisure and its tradition and practical cultural configuration.

It is interesting to consider, on that note, how for thousands of years human beings have established traditions of celebrating different sorts of festivals – Judeo-Christian, Pagan, and so on. Think, for instance, of midwinter festivals based on the solstice or on religious themes. With these traditions follows also a deep historical relation between festivity and work. The festival represents, to frame it in terms of economic history, an interruption of daily labour cycles, with its concept rooted primarily in principles of free time for enjoyment [1]. Thinking of this, it is also interesting to recall that, using Christmas as an example, it was during the Victorian era that a formal socioeconomic relation developed between festivity, worker rights, and the commercial profit motive, particularly as middle-class families were afforded time off work with the financial means for surplus consumption. But if festivity and leisure – or idleness – are intricately related with labour by their very definition, and thus with economics, Russell’s account would seem to carry a certain diametric opposition to work patterns that exhaust the possibility of what he describes as energetic leisure.

In this sense, I read Russell’s essay as having some classical enlightenment motivation. Thoughtfulness – indeed, the time to practice thought and to explore intellectually – this seems a theme to Russell’s social philosophical view of which an advanced and aspiring rational society should strive to achieve. In other words, if idleness is a positive human experience, one which supports or fosters the individual subject to flourish rationally and, perhaps, self-actualise existentially, Russell ties this concept with the possibility of continued self-education and self-betterment, among other things. At the same time, while he celebrates the concept and experience of idleness, he also laments the loss of its broader social-economic and cultural realisation. It is argued that leisure time is expunged of idleness much as in the present-day example of Christmas, which is hyper-commercialised and seemingly increasingly filled with passive entertainments, as active energies are instead exhausted by work, intensely driven consumer cycles, and various other contemporary social behavioural patterns rigidified in such a way to maintain systemic mores. Russell’s arguments are based on traditional views of social-economic class structures, and he seems to suggest that the logic of social economy has been skewed; contemporary societies have in some ways lost sight of the meaningful idea of social production and the social purpose of consumption that may foster a more enlightened and rational society.

For these reasons, we read how with more energetic and thoughtful leisure one would then be better able to enjoy pleasures in which it was possible to take an active part. The central thrust of Russell’s argument in this regard is not so different than in present-day concepts of economic democracy and automation, in which in advanced technological society it is argued individuals should be increasingly afforded the freedom from necessary labour in order to pursue the many positive possibilities that life has to offer, including education and learning.

Reading his essay, I was reminded of a few historical examples. Think, for instance, about the development and evolution of writing and of our early mathematical ideas – a history that is intimately entwined with the genesis of civilisation. A good example comes from the ancient Babylonians. To Russell’s larger point, the early development of mathematics, much like writing, can be seen to be owed to the economic development of agriculture; because with agriculture one result was increased freedom from the precariousness of sustenance living in which people were then allowed more free time, with greater access to resources. As new technologies were conceived, and human pursuit was increasingly freed from the limits of basic survival to expand beyond that which was unavailable to hunter-gathers, the time available to explore, experiment with, and create things like writing became possible. The study of mathematics could also be pursued and formalised.

Indeed, to offer another example, the entire history of physics is riddled with such stories, like Michael Faraday playing with his magnets on a park bench in London or Issac Newton watching apples fall from trees, contemplating the nature of gravity. To the point of anthropologists and biologists who study human play, as another example that we may interpret in the frame of idleness, there is an argument to be made that what Russell is describing is in fact a fundamental biological and cognitive feature of universal human experience that is very much tied to inventiveness.

At this point, we may enter into various complex social, economic, and political arguments. Instead, as there are already many terrific reviews of Russell’s essay, both positive and critical, to close this discussion I instead want to focus on two things that struck me when recently rereading ‘In Praise of Idleness’. One playful thought was the potentially interesting applications in relation to a physics of society and of human beings, particularly regarding energetics. This has to do with the study of energy under transformation, and one may think of such transformation particularly between the individual and their labour under the fairly universal economic notion of the work-leisure trade-off. For the author, he argues that there is a sort of fetishisation of labour, especially manual labour, and he seems to want to argue that how we use labour energy is not efficient or optimised in the best ways. From the standpoint of a physics of humans and of society, it would be fascinating to see if some of his ideas are quantitatively grounded.

There are also many interesting economic points of consideration. First, it is worth noting that the contents of ‘In Praise of Idleness’ remain quite relevant today, given the resurgence of the idea of a shortened work week, especially in the UK and Europe. Some would argue that there is empirical evidence and many qualitative arguments about why the current configuration of work hours is not optimised for the benefit of both productivity and well-being [3, 4], supporting his view. Take a quantitative and qualitative view: work hours, commuting time, modern pressures of digital communication in which it is well studied that people also now routinely answer work emails in their leisure time – all of this and more matches data that substantiates the claim of an emerging culture of longer working hours [5]. Are the effects, psychological or otherwise, just as Russell observed or predicted?

On the other hand, inasmuch that the philosophical idea of idleness is tied with the economic argument of a shortened work week, how economically substantiated and viable is his argument? Some examples are as follows. If as a general rule of labour economics working more hours correlates with higher hourly rates of pay, and if as a general rule from a behavioural perspective higher rates of pay are one motivation for people in their social and economic life, then one may ask whether an economic conception of idleness is realistic. For instance, if the introduction of a shortened work week were to correspond to a cut in pay, would people be dissuaded to pursue the possibility of increased free time for the benefit of obtaining greater earnings? As this is a question about human behaviour and behavioural regulators, and hence agency, it is not so easy to model. Having said that, we observed major strikes by German steel workers in 2018 that saw them secure the right to work less at the cost of a drop in weekly earnings – although this also came with flexibility where workers may work longer hours if they choose. Perhaps agency and choice matter in this discussion.

Another point one may consider is that some economists argue that a shortened work week will likely result in an increase in earnings differentials and inequality. If, in general, those who work longer hours have higher hourly earnings than those who work shorter hours, then one would expect increased disparity in the earnings structure. Additionally, in a UK study of the public sector, a shortened work week was approximated to cost upwards of £45 billion, depending on some modelling assumptions including no increase in productivity [6].

For these reasons, when it comes to recent debates in the UK, should a shortened work week be considered some studies have shown that this reduction in time would need to be matched with an increase in productivity during work hours. There are some empirical examples where businesses that trialled shortened work hours saw productivity remain as it was or effectively increase. Although the sample is small, the argument here is that work hours – maximal output of energy during those hours – is better optimised and maintained when shortened and focused. This ties into arguments about the inefficiency of work hours within the current model – that, in the sense of Russell’s energy economics, maximum productivity and the maximum time of energetic labour – i.e., maximum labour hours – do not contradict an increase in leisure. This is partly why I think a physical theory would be interesting, if we could even construct the appropriate Hamiltonian. In empirical sociology, observations of phenomena like ’empty labour’ may also serve as an illustration of what some interpret as the outdated nature of present economic values and of modern conceptions of work [7]. Do these types of studies offer clues or evidence as to how and why economy may be reconfigured in ways in which Russell seems to indicate? It would furthermore be interesting to learn, in using separation theorem or something similar in the study of labour economics [8], whether energetic leisure serves as a positive argument in the utility function of the individual.

The problem when it comes to these sorts of economic ideas and debates is that, in many cases, we require much more accurate modelling. Current mainstream economics is quite inept at understanding the reality of human behaviour. If one considers the likes of Paul Romer’s contentions on macroeconomics (as well as notable research by many other contemporary economists), it is not controversial to say that the current economic model and its established ideas may be challenged quantitatively and qualitatively [9]. From what I can see at the present time, some arguments are emerging about the need for an interdisciplinary theory. Much like a physics of society, in which it has been suggested that a physical theory of society will not achieve systematic and objective clarity without an interdisciplinary form of research [2], in economics agent-based models are issuing similar demands. If the challenge of an objective economics is to look for the cause of instabilities inside the system, some argue that this means that what one inevitably comes up against are the details of human decision making, which, in principle, drives one toward the randomisation of decisions based on both rational and irrational processes. I think, in certain respects, this takes us some way toward the message in Russell’s essay about realistic economic models.

Maybe, given such a theory, we would learn that idleness is indeed a virtue. Perhaps one would find that energetic leisure is an important feature of a healthy system and that reduced work hours means better productivity while also enabling increased free time. Or perhaps the opposite would prove true. In terms of Russell’s philosophical arguments, the benefits would be in reducing the social deficit of reason by maximising the subject’s energetic capabilities to reason, in which education may then be ‘carried farther than it usually is at present’, fostering the provision of ‘tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently’. As I read it, his argument implies the enlightenment ideal that the individual would be better scientifically informed (eg., against myths); they would potentially be better politically informed about policies, when fulfilling their democratic duties; they would make thoughtful economic decisions; and, perhaps ideally, they would approach social debates with greater consideration and in greater awareness of their own biases.

References

[1] Josef Pieper, 1999, ‘In tune with the world‘. St. Augustines Press.

[2] Guido Caldarelli, Sarah Wolf, Yamir Moreno, ‘Physics of humans, physics for society’. Nature Physics Volume 14, p. 870. DOI:10.1038/s41567-018-0266-x.

[3] Will Stronge and Aidan Harper (ed.), ‘Report: The Shorter Work Week’ [http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Shorter-working-week-final.pdf]

[4] Lord Skidelsky, ‘Report: How to achieve shorter working hours’ [https://progressiveeconomyforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/PEF_Skidelsky_How_to_achieve_shorter_working_hours.pdf]

[5] Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, ‘The Expanding Workweek? Understanding Trends in Long Work Hours among U.S. Men, 1979-2006’. Journal of Labor Economics, 26 (2) April 2008: 311-43.

[6] Centre for Policy Studies, ‘The Costs of a Four-Day Week to the Public Sector’ [https://www.cps.org.uk/research/the-costs-of-a-four-day-week-to-the-public-sector]

[7] Roland Paulsen, 2014, ‘Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance’. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, ‘Lectures in Labour Economics’ [https://economics.mit.edu/files/4689]

[9] Paul Romer, 2016, ‘The Trouble with Macroeconomics’. [paulromer.net/the-trouble-with-macro/].

**Cover image: ‘Woman Reading in a Landscape’ by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

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Philosophy and General Reading

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’: Epistemology, Feedback Loops and the Science of Bias and Human Irrationality

R.C. Smith

If we take as a stated assumption, based off the growing body of science, that prejudice is pervasive – that human irrationality is, to put it philosophically, a central theme in the human struggle toward a rational society – I think one of the lessons is epistemological in form. Its basic reduction is this: instead of approaching the world of phenomena, a priori, through the conscious endeavor to understand, which implies openness in the learning subject as a sort of constant and normative orientation process, the standard paradigm of irrational society is driven to approach the world a priori through hardened established frameworks. It is the practice of what some call dogmatic thinking. It is the philosophical account of being deeply consumed by paradigmatic emphasis on bias of opinion instead of an emphasis on fact.

I remain interested in the notion of social pathology, particularly in how through the notion of “social pathology” there exists the potential for a broader meta-analysis of human irrationality. Further, it is interesting to think about how human irrationality might become deeply normalized paradigmatically, in both thought and practice. One description or example is in the form of the increasing hostility and polarisation of political views, which has been observed or described also in terms of the hardening of attitudes (toward opposing views). The idea of pathology, in critical sociological terms, attempts to explain this (in part) through an account of positive and negative feedback loops. This concept is one that can be found in a number of areas, from science and engineering to social systems theory. But the idea, applied in the current context, is simple: the more divisive and polar people’s views, including also things like media consumption (which have become increasingly biased and tribalised on both sides of the spectrum), the more that creates a sort of echo chamber that basically serves only to reinforce the extremity of polar views. As the median of polarisation widens, into opposing extremes, the pathology of the cycle is such that it leads to increasing irrationality of views that no longer have any first order engagement with facts, unbiased researched, or constructive rational debate.

Another additional account of such pathological cycles or feedback loops can be found in a critique of the sociology of “worldviews”, in which these feedback loops essentially operate in terms of the solidification separate hardened and almost absolute views of reality. But the core detail, at least in how I’ve thought about it in the past, concerns how the feedback loop leads to or is an exemplification of increasingly extreme positioning of views that are no longer rational in epistemological engagement. The study of an issue or social phenomena, the engagement in debate about varying interpretations, is not based on an openness to learn or to arrive at a more accurate account – rather, the drive seems more to argue from the basis of one’s biases. This is not only generally counter-scientific, and also non-rational, it is very similar to the sort of patterned dogmatisms that was critiqued by certain enlightenment philosophers centuries ago.

Evidence of such trends can be found both in theoretical and empirical research, such as the widely cited study by Pew Research on Political Polarisation in the American Public.
But we can also deepen this discussion by noting that what one is also describing here is the implicit (and often explicit) presence of bias in people’s engagements, as well as what seems to have become the cultural acceptance of that bias on behalf of “politics”. This signals the magnitude of the problem of human self-ignorance, individually and culturally. I think it is an epistemological problem inasmuch as, in other studies, we understand such bias and prejudice and dogma as sociological, cultural, psychological and even bio-chemically driven. As an aid, what is required, to the best of my reading, is genuine critical thinking that challenges the very existence of the construction of these negative feedback loops and “worldviews” as well as, psychologically, the production increasingly hardened attitudes.

Psychology

But let’s pause a think a little bit about the psychology. This problem seems to be more than instinct versus rational cognition, though that is one reduction. The notion of a “gut feeling” – or an intuition or impulse based purely off experience (i.e., emotional history, past experiences, etc.), could be argued as being one distinct basis of the irrational process of belief formation. It is based on subconscious decision making processes, cognitive biases, memories and even bio-chemical reactions. There is a lot of incredibly interesting science in this area, especially in relation to survival training. One might think, too, of the psychology of self-affirmation theory, in which researcher describe how “much research suggests that people have a ‘‘psychological immune system’’ that initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived” (p. 184). Additionally, and interestingly, “At both the individual and collective levels, important domains of functioning—health, political decision-making, conflict, relationships, academic performance—call forth the motivation to defend the self. People defensively distort, deny, and misrepresent reality in a manner that protects self-integrity” (pp. 230-231).

Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence in psychology about how, when one perceives oneself to be under threat, one’s brain resorts to an evolved fight or flight reaction. This perceived threat can be immediately physical or cognitive. Under anxiety, the brain shuts down (for lack of a better description). This state is certainly not prone to rational deliberation, as areas of brain that govern working memory, the processing of new information, and so on are prohibited as adrenaline floods one’s bloodstream and the hormone cortisol is released. Working memory has also been shown to be impaired in response to increases in the hormone cortisol. In other words, the body switches into or turns to being reliant on instinctual mechanisms.

In these situations, and even those where one is faced with overwhelming or unclear information and uncertain decisions, studies have found the people tend to resort to cognitive shortcuts. In psychology such shortcuts are referred to as heuristics, which can be useful but also tend to lead to irrational decision-making processes. It’s an interesting concept, which refers back to the inhibiting of the brain and basic cognitive processes which might foster rational deliberation and consideration. Most recently I learned of a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, which furthered discussion on heuristics.

There is too much science to link in one essay. But one of the basic ideas across the literature seems to suggest that, in many situations, the cognitive status can be incredibly reactionary and certainly not logical. That some studies on heuristics, such as the one in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that it is not all emotion, but potentially also cognitive laziness, add even more intrigue to the total picture that researchers are slowly building.

From a behavioural perspective – and here I am thinking aloud in memory of passed resources I’ve studied over the years – it would seem that there are many instances in which one’s inclination is toward very instinctual pattern of thinking, designed similarly to the fight or flight reaction; though I don’t think it is necessarily deterministic, as survival studies show people can think rationally under threat or stress. And this makes sense in that, if my memory serves me correctly, the primitive part of the brain is understood to be the amygdala. Located deep within the medial temporal lobe, it is thought that this part of the brain is link to both fear and pleasure. Some describe it as the “danger detector”. But the amygdala has also been linked to cognitive bias and biased behaviour.

On an epistemological level, these fascination points of research remain me of the widely celebrated book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) by Daniel Kahneman. I discovered this book far beyond my particular period of interest and study that resulted in my thesis on social pathology, which is a shame as it would have significantly impacted my arguments and would have served as a key reference.

Additionally, this discussion brings to mind a study I recently read on the epistemology of bias, particularly in relation to conspircist ideation.

PLOS Study

The study, titled Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation, is interesting in that it studies prejudice, bias and conspiracist ideation in relation to epistemology. As an empirical reference, it seems to drill down a bit deeper into an incredibly fundamental issue: human irrationality.

In short,  the researchers found that “People who tend to trust their intuition or to believe that the facts they hear are politically biased are more likely to stand behind inaccurate beliefs. And those who rely on concrete evidence to form their beliefs are less likely to have misperceptions about high-profile scientific and political issues”.

As the lead researcher, Kelly Garret, commented in the article linked above:

“Scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today. The willingness of large minorities of Americans to embrace falsehoods and conspiracy theories poses a threat to society’s ability to make well-informed decisions about pressing matters […]. A lot of attention is paid to our political motivations, and while political bias is a reality, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that people have other kinds of biases too.”

In addition to the PLOS study, the book by Kahneman also serves to suggest, it seems, how there is potentially the question of an interesting connection between all the points discussed so far and the general cultural development of thinking fast as opposed to slow, rational thought and consideration. More than that, as the author’s of the PLOS article suggest: one counter to epistemic beliefs not based on evidence is premised on “emphasizing the importance of evidence, cautious use of feelings, and trust that rigorous assessment by knowledgeable specialists is an effective guard against political manipulation”. It echoes calls that what is needed – at the very roots of culture and society – is a more scientific mindset. Perhaps it also signals the need for a more slow, thoughtful and considerate culture? Perhaps, too, it signals the need for “critical thinking” and less political thinking?

All of these questions and many others encircle a deeper issue that seems to be subject of increasing empirical acknowledgement. But more concisely there is also the question as to whether – or to what extent – there is a social and structural component to the fostering or promoting of cultural groups based on misperception, bias and conspiracist ideation. It sort of ties-in to discourses on social pathology, in which there is a component of human stupidity and, thus, irrationality, understood to operate as a scar. It’s the idea of the frightened snail, as edges along with its tentacles extended, until, in fear, it recedes back into its shell. The analogy serves also as a description of the hardened subject, of which stupidity is, in a sense, a developmental and emotional scar. The key idea here concerns an enquiry into what role social, economic and broader environmental conditions play in fostering rational subjectivity, as opposed to irrational, fear-driven and hardened forms of subjectivity.

It is striking, too, in this age of post-modernism in which post-empirical, post-truth developments provide ripe soil for the growth of conspiricist ideation and non-scientific approaches, that such conspiracies as the earth being flat often also refer in some way to hidden forces. It’s almost like the myth of the devil all over again. But what I am really angling toward is the question of sociohistorical-cultural context in addition to psychological, emotional and cognitive development. A lot of conspiracy theories are premised, as the PLOS study alluded, on manufacturing what I would describe as a substitute reality. As such, many of them seem to perform the same operation as the myth of devil – and of religion writ large – insofar that they explain away, in a ‘just so’ sense, everything that the individual finds overwhelming or difficult in life and in the (real) social world. Unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job in one’s thirties? ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Illuminati or some hidden New World Order!’ These sorts of explanations or justification don’t seem uncommon – they indicate some belief that society is rigged, and that one’s struggle in life or in seeking personal success are the result of a massive hidden force, as opposed to one’s choices or concrete social issues like economic inequality. Conspiracies, in this sense, act as substitute realities to appease the psyche not only with respect empirical injustice, struggle and suffering – that is, concrete structural social, economic and political issues – they also seem on my observation to deflect from personal responsibility and the platitudes of existential angst common to human experience. These “worldviews” become so entrenched, even the concept of facts are rendered meaningless.

Thinking broadly – and perhaps searching philosophically

What I am mostly curious about at the current juncture is how all of this might link together, especially considering the PLOS study with respect to the formation of closed and prejudiced – or dogmatic – systems of belief. Philosophically speaking, it is interesting to think about how prejudiced systems of belief seem to operate according to established predictors of misperception. Indeed, that is something the PLOS study hints at.

Another interesting study from Stanford University was recently published. It seems to go with recent trends in terms of research findings and the slow piecing together of a much larger picture on human bias. It suggested that changing behaviors may be easier when people see norms changing. This raises a number of very interesting sociological questions.  One example cited, as summarised in the article linked above, concerns how “people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing”. One can think of a long list of examples that would seem to support, or be supported by, this research. Think of such a facile example as the changes in fashion trends, where majority of people will think a new fashion style looks ridiculous only for that same style to be normalized and supported by the majority five years later. One can draw examples of the same basic meaning from a number of areas.

More deeply, it is interesting to think of this research in relation to cognitive bias. Can it help explain why some norms, which may have become pathological or destructive, continue to be sustained? For example, think of the norms of gun culture in the U.S. in comparison to every other western society, particularly in relation to levels of gun violence. The data, at least when I last reviewed it, was striking. Moreover, in that studies of social pathology have a direct connection to the study of social norms, can it be said that there is link between this research on behaviour in relation to norms and social bias more generally? One can think of a number of different types of bias in this context, including Bayesian priors.

Ultimately, these questions should be saved for another time and after more thorough research and studies have been achieved. Indeed, a lot of the questions I am hinting at need to be weighed against the evidence. But this essay has, admittedly, aroused in me a deeper question about bias and what, in sociology, one might described as “systemic trends”. If bias is so widespread and prevalent, and if human beings are (or can be) incredibly irrational, what does this say in epistemological terms about us in our present history? Let me put it another way, what does it say about the current successes of the enlightenment project and how far do we still have to go to defeat the epistemologies of myth? Bias and prejudice are intimately linked to myth, which, itself, is perhaps the most pure case of human irrationality.

A fascinating example, which I’ll cite here to touch on the deeper point I seem to be encircling, refers to an anti-vaccination movement in the 1990s. I recently read about this in relation to the latest science which suggests, due a variety of factors (some cyclical, some in relation to climate change), that lyme disease is potentially about to explode among the populace. Currently, there is no vaccine, and lyme disease remains a very urgent problem. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a vaccine! Indeed, as Chelsea Whyte wrote, “We used to have one, but thanks to anti-vaccination activists, that is no longer the case”. What happened?

In the late 1990s, a race was on to make the first Lyme disease vaccine. By December 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the release of Lymerix, developed by SmithKline Beecham, now GSK. But the company voluntarily withdrew the drug after only four years.

This followed a series of lawsuits – including one where recipients claimed Lymerix caused chronic arthritis. Influenced by now-discredited research purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, activists raised the question of whether the Lyme disease vaccine could cause arthritis.

Media coverage and the anti-Lyme-vaccination groups gave a voice to those who believed their pain was due to the vaccine, and public support for the vaccine declined.

What is interesting about this example is because it is in no way uncommon, and it offers interesting angle of insight into a similar problem the PLOS study sought to investigate. A few years after the anti-vaccination movement won the media battle and persuaded public opinion, comprehensive research in a retrospective study showed “only 905 reports for 1.4 million doses”. “Still, wrties Whyte, “the damage was done, and the vaccine was benched”. And even though there is a vaccine currently in ear;y human trials, what is essentially myth – false or baseless knowledge thought of as true – remains insofar that it will be an uphill battle to fight anti-vacc. lobbyists and re-educate the public.

Why this example, among many others, stand out is because it seems to correlate not only with the PLOS study but also more broad studies on the development of post-factualist, post-empirical culture. And the deeper question of this essay asks: what, if at all, underlines such developments in thought, perception and in human behaviour?

Concluding reflections

To conclude: it will be fascinating to monitor the emerging research and growing body of evidence when it comes to understanding human bias. What direction it all goes, it is difficult to say. We know human beings can be deeply biased. Not only is this a problem is greater society, it is one we must also constantly fight against in the natural sciences. But in thinking about epistemology in relation to the PLOS study, I suppose what I find interesting is the question of whether, if bias can take different forms – from the construction of some sort of complete worldview (think of a highly politicized subject) to prejudiced belief about a particular topic (think of a generally pro-science politically left individual, who then is also anti-GMO in the face of scientific consensus) – perhaps the simple reduction is one of science or anti-science? When I think of anti-science, and anti-reason for that matter, which can actually sometimes operate under the guise of pro-science and pro-reason, I think of a closed, repressed, dogmatic form of thinking that possesses very particular epistemological characteristics. What does one call such thinking? I have no answer. I’ve seen accounts under numerous headings: “uncritical thought” (associated with the critical thinking movement), anti-enlightenment epistemology, ideological thought, the epistemology of cognitive bias, and so on.

It also serves to emphasize things like Bayesian reasoning, critical thinking and critical reading (and simply general cognitive and epistemological agility and openness to new evidence), which are incredibly important skills and analytical tools when it comes to academic study and even daily experience, forming a precursor to exercising to the fullest extent one’s capacity to reason and to engage with the world in a rational way. Critical thinking has a deep place in science, and is increasingly informed by advanced scientific research in learning, cognitive and neural systems, and so on. The definitions of all these terms are very well known, with students introduced to critical thinking and reading exercises at undergrad (or earlier).

Having said that, it is worthwhile noting that critical thinking is not necessarily a negative process, although some describe it this way. This is because the a priori aim of critical thinking and reading is not to find fault. Identifying, constructing and evaluating arguments is certainly one aspect of critical thinking, and this includes the ability to dissect arguments and locate underlying assumptions, and thus test those things for inconsistency. At its most basic however, critical thinking is a deeply rational process – to assess the strength and weakness of an argument, especially when weighed against the evidence and a fuller assessment of the phenomenon or issue in question from all points of study in its complexity. Thus, it refers to systematic evaluation and problem-solving, as well as normative consideration and reflection on the status of one’s own beliefs and values as a subject, so as to ensure openness against potentially creeping bias and prejudice.

In this sense, it may not be entirely accurate, but I often think of “critical thinking” in epistemological terms as systemic thinking in that one one component of it is to seek to understand not only  the local phenomenon but also the systems around it or within which that phenomenon (or issue) exists, and thus also the logical connections between concepts, ideas and the thing itself. It is about deep, multidimensional and open consideration inasmuch as it entails scrutinizing the work presented to see whether there are biases that one can detect which shape the author’s interpretation of any facts and ideas. But beyond that, to think critically does not necessarily mean to think “politically”. It is much closer, in epistemological terms, to thinking objectively, slowly and with great deliberation.

And so maybe one lesson here – in a consideration of deeply biased social world – is the need for more critical thinking, and less political thinking?

Perhaps another interesting questions concerns whether, if bias and prejudice are so widespread and prevalent, as emerging research on cognitive bias would seem to indicate, is the current trajectory of social culture not then heading in the opposite direction that it should? Contemporary social culture seems, in a more speculative tone, predicated on “fast thinking” (to borrow from Kahneman) and heuristics. There seems to be a lot of reactionary debates, instead of thoughtful, informed and considerate engagements. With an overwhelming and endless flow of information – which almost acts as a new form of censorship repressing genuine content, data and fundamental discussion – there seems to be a significant emphasis and discernible demand for immediate reaction, click-bait headlines, news spectacle and watered down literature, as opposed to thoughtful and well-informed and evidence-based deliberation that requires deep rational consideration. It leaves one to wonder,  would the general coordinates of a science-based society or science-inspired culture not be represented by a complete different vector?

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Philosophy and General Reading

Social Pathology, Philosophy of Reason and Bloom’s “Against Empathy” – On Science, Ethics, and Knowledge

R.C. Smith

To think of ethics is likely today to evoke the idea of empathy. Similarly, in the context of many mainstream discourses within social theory, to think of empathy is often to evoke philosophical consideration in the field of radical ethics. The same is true with the order of terms reversed. It is not uncommon for contemporary discourses around radical ethics to be situated very closely to the prevailing emphasis on empathy. But what is the social value of empathy? This question does not mean to incite a common definition, namely “the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state”. The target of my query is much more fundamental in the sense of a social value.

It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to unlocking morality once and for all. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window – the former understandably. Empathy is here to save the day. Like equality or democracy, it has become a social value that many are increasingly relying on philosophically as a source of ultimate and profound goodness. It has become a staple value for progressives. And it makes sense, because empathy suggests the broader horizon of a particular progressive social world conceived on the basis of social justice and non-violence and mutual recognition and all that other stuff. Within this mainstream and established discourse the problem, we learn, is that there’s just not enough empathy. But what I would like to do is take a moment to question this value or principle in its pure conceptual form. More concisely, I would like to ask: is empathy enough?

In beginning to approach this question, I offer two immediate points of clarity. In the past I have written about empathy as a key to a broader ethical theory. In a recent book on social pathology, which considers the deficit of reason in contemporary society from a number of angles, empathy was one of a number of normative values that was considered as an essential constituent of an integrative and progressive social philosophy. But there is a caveat, and it is an important one. Empathy was considered directly in relation to rationality. The same goes for past engagements with things like intersubjective theory, which I have argued toward within the field of interpersonal social ethics, but again with the caveat that social intersubjectivity is insubstantial without rationality. Perhaps, in the end, what all these debates come down to is a discourse on epistemology. But seeing how such a discussion extends beyond the remit of our current engagement, let’s continue down a more simple path that entertains a series of reflections on reason and empathy.

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Reason and empathy? Empathy and reason? In present popular discourses, the two are often perceived antinomically. Proponents of empathy argue away from reason and rationality. Extreme proponents on the other side, in terms of what some seem to describe in philosophy as a strict and immoderate rationalism within the field of social theory, which should in no way be conflated with a positive, moderate or sensible rationalism, will sometimes lose sight of the value or important role of empathy in interpersonal relations. The criticism here, from what I have gleaned, is that such a strict rationalism, which some seem to also associate with social positivist theory, is said to lose sight of how human emotion, for better or for worse, forms a part of basic human experience.

Admittedly, one might call me a rationalist. Those who know me personally will undoubtedly say that I even verge on the “extreme” end of rationalism, the definition of which I am not always sure. But I also understand that human reality is not so idealistic. Contemporary society is by no means rational, and I tend to think of its lack of rationality as a projection of the deficit of reason on a more macro level of general human experience. Quite frankly,  it is debatable whether human beings have ever known a rational society. But the critical normative value of reason persists, and within irrational society the voice of reason remains one of the only remaining spaces for hope. In any case, understanding and agreeing with the rationalist perspective that the primacy of reason is important, I think it is also upon us to recognize the complexity of everyday human experience (that which resides outside the scientific method), and how human motivation is multidimensional and includes a significant emotional component. On the note, perhaps proponents of empathy theory are not wrong to emphasize the place of human emotion within the context of human reality. But the main issue I have with empathy theory – that is, social theory principled on the primacy or fundamental value of empathy – is that while empathic experience is generally positive, it is also severely limited. More sharply, I would argue the rejection of reason on behalf of the primacy of human emotion is incredibly misguided if not ill-judged.

On this point I was pleased to discover a recent book by Paul Bloom titled Against Empathy (2016).

Putting aside the provocative title, which is custom to the landscape of popular literature, the author’s arguments are generally well laid out. Within we read not an argument against empathy (per se) as a positive value strictly placed on the level of interpersonal relations. Rather what we read is an argument against empathy in what I would describe as its overextended use in moral philosophy.

For Bloom, the notion of empathy that he is “most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel–experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the terms” (pp. 3-4). Picking up on how it is a popular trend these days to identify empathy as an ultimate philosophical value, a pure source of moral guidance, what we read in Bloom’s book is a counter-argument about how the value of empathy is insufficient on a much larger level. To put it tersely, empathy in the purely emotional sense of its definition is analytically weak. In my own words, it does not in and of itself serve the purpose of constructing a foundation for progressive social philosophy; and by no means does it by itself lead to supporting a more rational social world.

There are a number of ways to unpack these assertions. Bloom offers many illustrations in his book, including the example of charity. This is a good example to run with, because we can also deepen Bloom’s account of charity in the process of exploring some of the positive implications of his thesis. To start, an obvious question arises: what makes for an effective charity drive? Simply put, it is their emotive appeal and call for action. Charities often explicitly target message so as to ensure that their advertisements evoke an emotional response. People describe this as “pulling at the heartstrings”. This is because charities often depend on the human capacity to empathize – the emotional base of human empathy. Thus their campaigns and infomercials often explicitly aim to create or foster a moment of empathic experience – an emotionally charged response of action, often in the sense of contributing a donation or signing a petition.

The very same description can be applied to the ethical consumer movement, where at times the motivation seem much more emotional than rationally considerate. Think, for instance, of the push toward Biodynamic farming. This alternative agricultural technique is on the rise, energized in part by the ethical consumer movement; but it is not without valid concern. Indeed, there are many science-based questions about the legitimacy of biodynamic farming practices. Could it be that, underlying this issue, is another case of how consumers, including or perhaps especially conscious consumers, make emotion-based choices instead of science-based ones? Perhaps this tendency resides at the heart of the struggle to maintain a sense of lucidity within the conscious consumer movement. And this is one of many areas where Bloom’s book can be applied.

Moreover, and on the basis of my crude sketch, an interesting question arises pertaining to the rationale of the operation of charity within society. Again, to approach the matter in a very analytical way, charities of course do a lot of good. This statement is obvious. Charities and non-profit campaigns are generally well intentioned and can have a great effect on a local and national level. But let us for a moment consider the complexities of economic inequality as a focus of charity. Can it not also be said, in terms of a much more systemic and rational analysis, that the human goal should be the elimination of inequality at its roots, as opposed to relying on charitable initiatives for the purpose of generating financial aid to patch the deficits of modern political-economic system? Is this question not the obvious rational point of enquiry?

To approach it differently: does the reality of economic inequality not demand systemic solutions that target the roots of its causality?To Bloom’s point, empathy in and of itself is not analytically substantive or expansive enough to ask these questions. In other words, it does not signify ratiocinative qualities of unbiased critical thinking and rational and evidence-based analysis. It is not empirical, scientific or rationally substantive. Nor is empathic experience motivated by fact or systematic assessment of reality; thus in no way is it necessarily substantially considerate.

Allow me to ask the obvious question in another way: Without the fully realized ability to reason, to think critically, what effective purpose does empathy serve? Likewise, the argument goes, what purpose does charity really serve when it comes to particular issues like economic inequality? It may help ease the economic burdens of an individual or a family, and this can no doubt be lifesaving. To make it clear: I am in no way devaluing what positives charities contribute in this regard. But when it comes to the larger systemic picture, the entire dynamic existence of charity and the emotional basis on which it operates, is there not an argument toward the requirement of a much deeper analysis and line of consideration?.

I think this is an interesting point of thought, one that we could re-employ in the context of Bloom’s book. He does a terrific job at exploring the limits of empathy along similar lines, which leads him to make the case for a notion of “rational compassion”. I think this is an incredibly important concept, which resonates with my own thesis in Society and Social Pathology that was angling toward what I now consider to be a notion of cognitive empathy (which I basically take to mean the same thing).

Continuing to preserve the positive role empathic experience might play strictly on an interpersonal level, how I interpret Bloom’s book is that, empathy itself does not offer the necessary conceptual tools to think through, analyse and ultimately assess social issues in the detailed, evidenced-based and comprehensive manner required. Empathy is not necessarily critical or comprehensive in terms of a cognitive-rational process of assessment. Empathy does not imply rationally contemplative, critical or substantive consideration. As an emotional response it can have an incredibly narrow scope. Empathy can even also be prejudiced and it can be manipulated to serve other’s interests. Ultimately it is a weak guide in the face of complex moral dilemmas. What’s also interesting about this argument is how it may connect to a deeper philosophical analysis regarding the current deficit of social rationality. Indeed, I believe one can draw a direct connection between Bloom’s book and the more broad claims that what is also required today is a historical and cultural renewal of reason and rationality as core progressive social philosophical values. But I’ll save that for later.

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I would like to take a moment to expand on a few of my comments. It is not that empathy is useless or redundant. Likewise, it is not that empathy isn’t important or that it is not a key guiding value of progressive social philosophy. This essay is not meant to serve the suggestion that empathy doesn’t play a role in maintaining some semblance of sanity in human life. The fact of the matter remains that an overwhelming body of evidence and research confirms the importance of empathy on the level of interpersonal relations, from psychotherapy to medical practice to education and special needs. Even progressive values such as restorative justice or, perhaps more broadly, the very idea of democracy contains to whatever degree a notion of empathy in addition to a notion of compassion and rationality. On the basis of everything we currently know, from anthropology through to developmental psychology and beyond, it would seem fairly safe to suggest that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of social empathy. Contemporary proponents of empathy and its social importance do not appear wrong in this regard. It is only that, at least to my mind, empathy can become over-valued. Or, to put it another way, it is overextended beyond the effectiveness of its range. Thus in taking from Bloom, the argument put forth here is that while empathy has a very real social value, reason and the notion of rational compassion are also absolutely vital. Inasmuch that it may be safe to conclude that a healthy (or less pathological) society is one that fosters a high degree of social empathy, so too it would seem safe to conclude that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of individual and social rationality. In this sense what we’re talking about is very much a deep, integral, complex and many-sided developmental account.

I think most moderate and rationally sensible people would agree on the basis of evidence that progressive social philosophy, much like a progressive theory of ethics, is grounded to some degree in the social-culture promotion and fostering of empathic experience and intimate social relations. But empathy is not going to solve the many issues we face in relation to climate change. Empathy and its sociocultural increase is not going to solve potentially pending energy crises, systemic poverty, or the inequalities of health. It won’t serve to ensure humanities defense against a possible future asteroid, or put humans on mars, or help us identify the chemistry of sustainable materials or the cure for preventable diseases.

To this point, I like Bloom’s idea of rational compassion. Moral decisions are not purely empathic decisions. Inasmuch as they depend to a large degree on critical thinking and, impliedly, a form of meditating subjectivity, moral decisions should also necessarily be considered as rational, evidence-based and comprehensive systemic decisions in the sense of their relation to the larger social picture. Empathy, which, itself, on a policy level, can become a purely reactionary principle of moral action, lacks the necessary rational and critical normative basis of systemic or comprehensive evaluation. And this, in a very crude and summarized way, is one of the fundamental issues when it comes to contemporary theories that rely solely on empathy and empathetic experience as source of moral and ethical action, as Bloom notes.

Simply put, social theories of empathy become too one-dimensional, and they lack integration into a more coherent and complex view. And for these reasons, among others, my arguments in Society and Social Pathology could perhaps be considered somewhat akin to Bloom’s book: namely, that the practice of social empathy and reason should be considered in a very reticulate way. We may call this “rational compassion” or cognitive empathy or whatever; but the main point, for me, is the underlining basis that is the human capacity to reason. This is why, in my own study on social pathology, I spent a significant amount of time describing irrationality and the social deficit of reason, especially in relation to a form of social critique and within the frame of developmental psychology. But I think an even deeper point is that a less pathological society, one which reconciles the deficit of reason, is one that would evidence not just a high degree of cultural empathy but an even higher degree of social rationality. And in my book on pathology, this was described primary through the notion of the mediating subject.

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Having said all that, I think Bloom’s book could be expanded and deepened in several ways. My first point of reflection begins with consideration within the boundaries of philosophy of reason.

One senses that there are a number of moments of tension in the Bloom’s analysis. One reason for this, I think, has to do with how the social world isn’t quantifiable in the same way as nature, and for this reason it is easy to anticipate the criticism I’ve read of Against Empathy, namely that it verges on being what a section of philosophers describe as “positivist”. This is actually I term I tend to see a lot in social philosophy, and it is not always easy to understand what it means. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the complications associated with attempts to purely translate or reemploy the successes of natural science methodologies within the domain of social research and analysis. The difficulty, as I understand it, can perhaps be better expressed in methodological terms. “Positivism”, or “positivist epistemology”, which I would differentiate from positivist social theory, is a highly effective tool within the natural sciences. It is an important epistemology; but when utilized in the study of social phenomena and relations, including the study of human beings, this epistemology is criticized as being limited. The study of social phenomena, of the social world, is different than studying objects of nature. As a physics student, I often think for instance of the difference between the study of a natural phenomenon way out in the cosmos – or the study of the tangled web that is gravity – and the study of something like human migration and economy. Human beings have agency, society too, as one learns through a thorough study of sociology, is the product of a complex interplay of the relationship between structure-agency. A positivist epistemology, as I understand it within the frame of natural science practices, comes under criticism when, what is labelled as “positivist social theory” – that is, the translation of natural science methodology as the pure means of social research methodology – throws a rational blanket over everything, failing to grasp the complexity of human consciousness and the multidimensional realities behind human action and behaviour. Human beings, social phenomena, are said to be seen atomistically with little to no recognition of the realities of social construction. Social scientific practice in this sense can often become economically reductionist when applied within the particular dynamics of the social world.

From the books I’ve read, one way to describe the issue in methodological terms is how when trying to translate the undeniably successful methodologies and epistemologies withing the natural sciences into the domain of social research and study, it’s basically like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I don’t always know what to make of these debates. Being a science student and an individual committed to the natural sciences, as well as an individual widely read in social science, I would suggest in the very least that it would be beneficial to differentiate the useful and effective positivist epistemology we commonly use in the natural sciences, with “positivist social theory”. In critical theory and in critical sociology, the two tend to be conflated or confused and this, I think, is a mistake because what’s good about positivist epistemology gets lost.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, a critical reader of Bloom’s book will certainly raise concern about how certain moments of argumentation verge toward “positivist social views”.

To avoid the possibility of such charges in the future, perhaps it is useful on a methodological level to see the study of the social world and the study of the natural world as separate complex entities, however much they may also find points of interrelation. While quantifiable in certain ways, the social world has its own complexities and the underlying realities aren’t entirely appropriate for natural scientific methodology. Coming from the perspective of the natural sciences, when I read social philosophy and theory and the perspectives offered in relation to philosophy of science, I often read how scientific methodology easily becomes an ideological extension of society within the domain of social research; because “positivist epistemology” isn’t able to reflect on itself and the facts its social research discloses. In other words: there is a broad range of literature that argues how, the direct translation of natural scientific methodologies into the field of social scientific study, often becomes subservient or an extension of the social status quo. Many popular commentators have also pointed out how it often produces too much of a one-dimensional view of human society. We observe strange theories such as those based on the view of human beings a “rational maximizers”, which seems to neglect the fact that everyday human experience is much more convoluted and messy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wonderful line, which I interpret in a similar way: namely about why so many people seem to struggle with even basic mathematics, speculating that it is because human beings are not necessarily purely logical beings. It’s hard to argue against him. What else is modern history if not a simultaneous celebration of modern reason and the value of human rationality in addition to an ongoing struggle to understand the deficit of reason and the problem social irrationality?

It is interesting to reflect on these debates. I think one of the simple lessons within the history of social science, to use a very obvious example, is that when trying to understand the complexities of the social world, we cannot completely expunge human emotion from human life. If what people call “social positivist philosophy” becomes too hardened and one-dimensional in terms of a strictly behavioural view, perhaps what we lose sight of is the role human emotion plays in human experience and the complexities of impact and causality with regards to structure-agency. And this connection would make some sense. Behaviouralism, as a social philosophy, in the sense of its social philosophical designation, relates very much to a particular philosophical paradigm that attempts to translate the insights of natural science to an analysis of human social behaviour.

In physics, chemistry, and so on modern scientific knowledge is unparalleled. The scientific method is undoubtedly one of the great human epistemological accomplishments, which has resulted in an exponential increase in knowledge. But we if take seriously the idea that the study of the social world requires, however subtly, its own unique approach. Is this the same as saying that social research cannot learn from the natural sciences, preserving important concepts or values as objectivity and the generation of objective knowledge about social phenomena? Can it not also integrate natural science methodologies and epistemologies? If the ontology of the social world is different than the natural one, as are the basic dynamic-structures and systems. with issues of meta-theory, epistemology, aetiology, the role of theory, explanation and prediction – surely a progressive framework for social research would have at its foundation the lessons of natural science, the core value of empirical research and evidenced-based thought.

In this sense, if the social sciences are largely considered to be in state of disarray because its prevailing methodologies and frameworks have yet to grasp accurate methodologies, techniques, and certainly also a mature epistemology – perhaps an example of social science research can be found in what is called social systems theory and systems thinking. When analyzing the social world, as a good science-driven systems researcher would do, complexities involving structure-agency, subject-object, individual-collective, universal-particular, qualitative-quantitative, seem to take on a unique complexity. Scientifically driven, it is one example of what I would describe as good contemporary social science; but the problem is that it is few and far between, especially in mainstream social science, which is being increasingly overrun by poststructural and postmodern perspectives with their hypertheoretical, hyperspectulative and meaningless jargon.

With these considerations in mind, maybe what is left to be said is that philosophy of social science must also be adjusted. What doesn’t help, as alluded earlier, is that the social world is  drenched in emotion. It’s largely pathological, often irrational, and its history is almost constantly entrenched in ideology and the battle of “worldviews”. Additionally, even from the side of research practice and analysis, it is easier for the social scientist to become entwined in systems of power and political worldviews, for the concept of objectivity and truth seem to so easily erode within the social sciences. We see it all time, and often it is because the individual subject is more heavily mediated or invested in the social world and the social issues that constitute his or her sociohistorical-cultural context. The natural sciences doesn’t face the same degree of tension, even though it is not entirely free from or autonomous to sociohistorical-cultural contexts (a topic for discussion at a later time).

In the natural sciences I find that it is easier for us to preserve the primacy of reason, the parameters of rational analysis and debate, and the process by which the scientific community can reach consensus. Perhaps this is also because science often acts as a sort of corrective against human error, such as the creeping inclination for instance toward “confirmation bias” (a notion I’ll return to later). In the social world however, even concepts of reason and truth become so deeply socially mediated, that it is not uncommon for an irrational politician, an ideologue or dogmatist, to make claim to the voice of reason and rationality. What were originally progressive, critical and reasonable movements can easily become extremist, while extremist movements are at times seen as “reasonable”. The social world is one where people fight for values, and thus prejudice is freely and openly celebrated. An individual can take up the progressive cause to preserve a piece of natural landscape from exploitation by an oil corporation, standing for the need for the generation of clean energy and against extreme environmental degradation. But that person can also easily lose sight of rational debate and analysis. Instead their position can also become one between opposing forces reduced to political opinion and “difference of values”. Likewise, the same can be said for reactionary movements, which tend to be primarily based in ideology and operate within the realm of anti-reason. Here, the objective is to intentionally reduce debate to opinion, to prejudiced subjectivity, because more often than not reality and fact for reactionary movements – such as “climate deniers” – is an inconvenient truth. But ideology can be found throughout the whole of the social political world, and each scenario can be crossed to the other.

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In response to these problems, an intriguing alternative paradigm is presently emerging (especially in the UK) under the designation “critical realism”. I am by no means an expert reader, but from my understanding this emerging paradigm seeks to offer a considerable engagement with both a “positivist” and “critical approach” within the field of philosophy of social science. In postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social theoretical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason, something which I’ve discussed in other places.

To deepen our considerations: Critical realism, on my understanding, seems to want to take serious the reconciling of the extensive list of issues at the heart of philosophy of social science. Refreshingly, it doesn’t appear to be sociologically relativistic. Thus, one could perhaps see it as avoiding the traps discussed in relation to other books I’ve critique in recent time. Secondly, and in relation to a number of recent publications, including Bloom’s Against Empathy, on my reading critical realism appears to recognize a critique of positivist social theory without completely rejecting the value of positivist epistemology and, in turn, also accommodate a humanistic and integrative view of the total human subject. Likewise, too, it maintains the primacy of reason, even when opening discourse up to the notion of integration.

In addition to this last comment, note the use of the term “integration”, which connects to what was touched on earlier and what will be discussed a little later. This is something I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In a past essay concerning a different book I considered, for example, how it is not enough to posit a holistic and integrative view if that means the primacy of reason is rejected, because what happens is that one’s position eventually succumbs to a variant of sociological relativism (even in spite of aims to preserve universal normative values).

Having said that, I see critical realism as being limited purely to the domain of social research. And it is not entirely without its own cause for critique. For instance, there are subtleties about its position on epistemology that for me don’t quite capture a progressive enough argument.

“Due to CR ontology and epistemology, (there is a ‘real’ world and it is theory-laden, not theory-determined), all explanations of reality are treated as fallible (Bhaskar, 1979), including the explanations provided by research participants, theorists and scientists. This ontological departure of CR from interpretivism becomes particularly useful for […] research in which participants offering competing explanations of a phenomenon and some must be taken as more accurate than others. For the same reason, CR epistemology may also be seen as disempowering for participants (i.e., through the implication that the scientist knows best!). However, it should not be assume that scientific explanations are always more accurate than experiential explanations – indeed, all are potentially fallible, and participants experiences and explanations of a phenomenon may in fact prove most accurate in explaining the reality. In qualitative CR research, participants’ experiences and understandings can challenge existing scientific knowledge and theory (Redman-MacLaren & Mills, 2015).” (Fletcher, A.J. (2016). Applying critical realism in qualitative research: methodology meets method. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vo. 20, Issue 2, p. 188)

While it is not entirely inaccurate or unreasonable to suggest that all forms of knowledge and all forms of explanation may be fallible, and that even in certain situations existing scientific knowledge and theory may be challenged and proven incorrect when set against participants’ experiences and experiential understandings; there is a different way to express this whilst also ensuring the preservation of the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge. Having said that, it seems fairly clear that critical realism seeks to utilize “the ‘practice of rational judgement, wherein the researcher may need to elaborate upon (or deviate from) participants’ own interpretations in order to ‘provide fuller or more adequate interpretations’ of reality” (Parr, 2013, p.10; cited in Fletcher 2016, p.190). This suggests that the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge are in fact ultimately preserved, without the naivety of thinking that such forms of knowledge are absolute and free of the possibility of error.

With these considerations in mind, instead of devaluing positivist perspectives within the natural sciences, what the position in this essay offers in its reading of Against Empathy, is recognition of the success of positivist approaches within the natural sciences, with the caveat that attempts to directly and cleanly translate positivist approaches to social theory practice are problematic. In other words, this essay serves to speculate that perhaps the lesson to be learned is that a rationalist perspective, such as the one I often argue toward, has to be more subtle and integrative when applied within the domain of social theory and research.

Unlike positivist attempts at translating directly the success of the natural sciences to social studies, which fails to recognize social construction and the relationships between agency-structure (among other things), viewing individuals only as rational agents, critical realism could be seen to shed another light on the the struggle for a rational social world from within an integrative and holistic framework (as opposed to throwing a rational blanket over everything and pretending human beings are purely rational actors).

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Returning to Bloom’s book, I sense a bit of a tension, perhaps even naivety, behind certain passages of thought as a result of the above. His categories, his framing, does not allow for what I would describe as holistic or integrative perspective that would seem increasingly vital to social-based analysis and study. This notion of an integrative perspective takes inspiration partly from the humanist tradition, referring on one level to the view of the integrated human person. It goes back to the notion that the individual is not purely an economic means or a rational maximizer, but a complex subject in which emotion also plays a part, for better or for worse.

Such a form of rationalism, which preserves the primacy of reason and places it within a more integrative frame, serves as a reminder of the very real ongoing struggle for reason and social rationality. Reason and rationality are not taken for granted, and the human capacity to access reason is featured as a fundamentally important question.

 

To approach it differently: I think Bloom is right to make his critical intervention. But we can deepen it by recognizing that reason and social rationality – even rational compassion – very much also have a developmental component. To put it another way: the notion of rational compassion is predicated, I would argue, on the overlap between reason, rationality and the healthy status of the individual subject. Reason and social rationality are integral to progressive philosophy of the subject because they very much depend on a form of healthy subjectivity. Philosophy of reason is based, I would argue, in philosophy of the subject.

In Against Empathy there is a risk, in moments, where empathy, reason and compassion once again take on antinomical positions, when I think the progressive argument is much more advanced, subtle and perhaps imbricated.

This comes out in strange ways. For instance, I agree with other commentators that subtle moments, such as in Bloom’s use of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among a few others, as examples of “people of the heart”, as opposed to people of reason, is grossly inaccurate and simplistic. It comes, I think, from an underlying antinomical view. As one commentator put it, these individuals, particularly Gandhi and MLK, were actually very rational in their ethics.

Bloom also seems to make assertions about empathy on the level of feeling, without fully realizing that both empathy and rationality can have a common range: a deeply rational person can also be deeply empathic, in the emotional sense. The difference, and here I can only speak analytically and speculatively, would be in how emotionally defined or oriented empathy would percolate as cognitive empathy in a rational individual. If we consider the following axiom as true, namely that human emotion is integral to the human situation, perhaps the aspiration behind the social philosophical value of reason is not a complete repression of human emotion, which is arguably impossible anyway.

Rather, if there’s reason to suggest that the healthy, open, mediating subject – which I often liken to the scientific mind-set (think of the young discovering child, open and exploring) – is one that supports and fosters reason, this would suggest a more integrative perspective on human development. There is a reason why many leading psychological theories argue that the struggle for rational society is also the struggle for the healthy and reconciled subject. It is likely true that there can be rational people that are not necessarily the most emotionally developed, but there is a defined limit to this statement. Likewise, there can be people who pretend to be rational – one can think of many politicians – but are clearly biased ideologues. As a general philosophical rule, however, I think most rational, sensible and even scientifically-minded (or evidenced-based) people today that exemplify what might be described as a mediating form of subjectivity, possess, to whatever extent, an awareness of their own emotions. Awareness of one’s own emotions would seem to be important in order to rationally and objectively assess a situation or analyse a phenomenon, so as to ensure we keep a check on our own prejudices (social, theoretically, scientific or otherwise).

Following a similar logic to above. A high level of emotional empathy does not necessarily make one a good person. The same can be said in reverse. There are numerous disorders that reduce, neurologically speaking, an individual’s ability to empathize; and a low level of empathy in no way makes one a bad person or a person without progressive ethics. The point to take away from this is that the reality is much more nuanced. And really, what is required is again a deeply subtle and integrative approach.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the issue of (developmental) constitution. This was my argument in my book on pathology. What are the appropriate conditions that foster an openness and security in the individual to feel able to openly, rationally and critical enquire and engage with the world (as opposed to safeguarding “worldviews” or cognitive political ideological designations)?

In the cognitive sciences the notion of “confirmation bias” is incredibly insightful, highlighting the human tendency toward the familiar, to reject “otherwise” or any evidence that contradicts one’s established worldview. There are numerous studies in this area, and they are revealing as to how the human brain works, including in terms of the physiological effects of having one’s established views affirmed.

When reading many of the leading studies in this area, it is interesting to think more broadly in terms of societal functioning, such as in how confirmation bias seems evident in so much of general human behaviour. Think for instance of how the media functions. Black and white sensationalist statements confirming one view or another, the content of which often lacks nuance and thorough consideration of the many sides of an issue. It is opinion versus opinion, bias versus bias. It is hard to deny, especially in our present irrational social context, that confirmation bias doesn’t rule the day. Practically speaking, the difference between the positive feeling of having one’s views affirmed – and even the physiological effects of this experience – and the existential insecurity of having them challenged, is incredibly human.

But one of the issues I have with the assertions made by certain proponents of the confirmation bias thesis is how it can become reduced too much to a deterministic viewpoint. In other words, we have to keep aware of the tendency versus determinism relation. It would seem, on the basis of current evidence, that confirmation bias is a very real dimension of human experience. At the same time, it is one dimension. Another dimension is the possibility of reasoned and rational thought. While the inclination may be to reduce and absolutize the tendency toward confirmation bias and resolutely assert its reality within a deterministic frame, I think it is more accurate within the total human picture to balance this tendency with its opposite (which we can also observe, however fragile and fleeting).

There are so many wonderful examples within the sciences of individuals, even entire collectives of researchers, evidencing a very different type of subjectivity. It is a form of subjectivity, as already described – one that is open, searching, exploring, and willing to consider the possibility of “otherwise”. The excitement and anticipation of possibly discovering sometime new, this scientific experience goes against the tendency toward confirmation bias. In this sense, inasmuch that confirmation bias seem prevalent, there is also evidence of the opposite – people who are open to their own ideas being challenged, to being proven wrong, in their rational pursuit of knowledge.

Undoubtedly even the most rational person must constantly consciously remind oneself of the importance of maintaining normatively open, to thinking critically even when it comes to one’s own theories, ideas and views. The tendency toward confirmation bias seems to be always be creeping in the background. But how might we do justice to both sides, to two very different forms of experience, and two very different developmental mind-sets, and arrive closer to understanding this complex interplay of forces?

In psychology, many seem to argue that emotions play an incredibly important role in determining whether one is rationally engaged or closed, repressed and propelled by overbearing self-preservation drives. Additionally, there are some fascinating studies emerging within the neurosciences that touch on the deeper point being made here: the interrelations between psychological and biological development. What is the difference between the rational individual feeling secure in themselves to constantly challenge their own position, to consider “otherwise” and maintain an openness to the unknown, and the individual driven by the need for confirmation bias?

In engaging with the confirmation bias thesis, I would be inclined to suggest that it is important to remain nuanced and to maintain recognition of the developmental dimension of the irrational attitude and the biased-driven mind. It is possible that I am wrong in my suspicions, but if the inclination toward confirmation bias is one dimension of human experience, maintaining some space for the possibility for the realization of the free-flourishing subject and the flourishing of human reason would also seem vital.

In this age of “alternative facts”, the question begs to be asked: developmentally, what conditions would support or help foster more generally a rational subject who is open to the world and to the constant rational pursuit of knowledge? What are the appropriate social conditions that foster a more healthy, open, critical and rational subject? What are the appropriate social conditions to support and foster “rational compassion”, to use Bloom’s words, or cognitive empathy, which allows for principled, enlightened and evidence-based thought about nature, the social world, and the many complex systemic social issues we face?

To argue that there is a deficit of cognitive empathy – or “rational compassion” – is essentially to argue, by way of inference, that there is a deficit of reason. Holding on to this, it is then interesting to ask what proponents of empathy theory might be responding to in terms of our modern social reality. In asking this question their ideal seems to be a projection of something much more than purely empathic experience on an interpersonal level. A lot of the literature I have read seems to want to extract an entire social theory or foundational social philosophy. Empathy in this  philosophically ultimate sense is perhaps closer in its symbolic meaning to the notion of rational compassion. I say this in the sense that, philosophically, the social value of empathy seems to symbolize more than its strict definition: a certain sensitivity of experiential relations akin to what some philosophers describe as the subject-subject plane of experience. When framed in this way, perhaps there is some compromise as to what both sides seem to be hinting: I would synthesize this as an alternative or perhaps more reconciled mode of experience, which is phenomenologically sensitive, rationally considerate and investigative, fluidly shifting between the subject-subject and subject-object paradigms. As this is only speculation, I’ll leave the thought open for consideration.

As a whole, and in sum, in many popular books that treat empathy as a sort of pure source of moral goodness, one senses that what the respective authors are reacting to is the deficit of something vitally important to healthy societal functioning. There is a lack, a void – a deficit of compassionate, considerable thought as well as a lack of a certain sensitivity of experience and a sensitivity of astute observation and intimate relations (with all things) that very much comprises the idea of a lived ethics. There is a systemic deficit of moral thought and action, in addition to a prevailing hardened subject. The contemporary social world is one of largely irrational action, growing increasing defined by the prevalence of hardened social attitudes. And so the inclination is to identify a positive value, such as empathy, to fill the void. The point of critique, taken from Bloom, is that it is an error to fill this void with some emotional ideal. But in considering the above reflections, perhaps one way to reconcile the debates is through the notion of integration and an integrative philosophy of reason?

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With these contextual points in place, it is not insufficient to now state that my main complaint with Bloom’s book: the account of “reason” and “rationality” is in no way advanced enough. What I mean by this is that it struggles to reconcile or address the differences between the irrefutable success of the natural sciences and its methodologies with the unique dynamics and methodologies of social research. In this regard, Bloom’s book can be seen to serve too much as a useful target of critique for those weary of “positivist social philosophy”. In defending the primacy of reason this is something one must safeguard against.

The problem, to put it very simply, has to do with a lack of integration. Subtle instances of this lack appear in passing moments, such as in Bloom’s example of the starving child on p. 106, in which we read: “The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives”. It’s not fair to isolate this statement and draw conclusions or criticism – I’m simply suggesting that subtly, nuance and an integrated view are constantly required, and it is this more progressive epistemology about where methodology meets social research method that at times lacks in Against Empathy.

Additionally, and in passing, Bloom’s book also lacks reflection in relation to the notion of critical rationality. For instance, in the odd passing sentence in which Bloom will make a statement about morality, or “violence and cruelty”, his view seems to lack critical awareness. When reading Bloom’s book one is inclined to ask: morality for whom and for what end? The answer, for me, is critical: Morality like philosophy of history – the normative universal enlightenment values integral to modern (social) reason and the modern scientific project – are based on a progressive and transformative social philosophy. Reason, as an emancipatory social philosophical concept, is ultimately based on or inspires the struggle for a more humane, egalitarian world. I say this on the basis not because reason is biased or prejudiced toward a particular political agenda, but because, in being a reader of the enlightenment philosophes, reason and rationality are also indicative of the presence of critical thought.

To approach the matter in another way: according to what normative criteria is the telos of morality considered? Perhaps the answer is that it is a means itself, just as reason should be a means itself. Therefore, in making the important case for “rational compassion”, which, I take to be a vital concept positively set in direct opposition to pathological society, maybe the that end rational compassion serves is no end at all. Maybe it harks back to the enlightenment notion of “progress”, which is seen as critical and open-ended. I favour this view, inasmuch as that I favour the view that modern science is also a means itself, which ought to be free of any ideological bias or ends.

I think a progressive account is one that considers social reason, in the enlightenment sense, as a fundamentally critical operation. Today, though, it can easily become conformist, which serves as an important reminder for us all: is one’s notion of “reason” really “reason” at all? Is human rationality not, first and foremost, the capacity to think through a problem in all its complexity and dimensions, given whatever wealth of evidence currently available? And is this not, inherently, also a critical process, a means in itself? I am not necessarily challenging or criticizing Bloom here. But these questions and reflections serve as an important point of reflection. Just like empathy can be prejudiced or manipulated to serve biased or ideological interests, so too can an uncritical notion of reason.

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In closing, Bloom’s book offers an incredibly important contribution to contemporary debates. Reason, rationality, truly critical thinking – the current social deficit of these important values on behalf of totalized “worldviews” and dogmatic political and economic ideologies, is one of the basic characteristic of pathological thought. And that is because pathological thought, or subjectivity, is often closed, hardened and repressed. Cognitive empathy or “compassionate reason” implies the opposite: an open, free-flourishing, critical and rational subject akin to the scientific mind-set. Empathy has a place too in the more total picture. But empathy or compassion without analytics, without reason and rationality, and without critical evidenced-based thought offers nothing constructive in the grand scheme of things.

In other words: in entering the empathy debates, one can say that what gives reason its emphasis is that, without it, empathy means very little. If irrational, reactionary, and self-destructive patterns and trends are characteristic of much of the contemporary social world, as many argue, the deficit of reason and the lack of truly rational deliberation and discourse is without a doubt the fundamental matter at hand. This issues surrounding this deficit are complex, but the pathological lack of the daily capacities for rationality and compassion ultimately take precedence to a lack of empathy. One cannot have an empathic social world within an irrational societal context.

In this sense one could add in conclusion that the struggle for a more rational social world, a world that is compassionate in a truly considerate and constructively analytical sense – this is also the struggle for a healthy social world and a positive form of social development. Here, we should reintroduce the importance of humanistic philosophy, of which reason has long been an integral and leading member. There are aspects of Bloom’s book in which the internal logic of arguments seems to recognize this point. Concern for other’s welfare, which I agree is more of a mark of compassion than of empathy, is fundamentally indicative of reason and rationality in its social practice, and the entirety of such a social vision is ultimately a fundamental humanistic one (in a very direct enlightenment sense). And yet, to foster social conditions conducive for increasing social rationality, we learn when looking through the lens of social pathology that these conditions appeal to social dynamics that foster healthy, open and mediating subjectivity.

Thus, in the end, the struggle for a rational society raises deep searching questions regarding the status of the contemporary social world, its structures and systems and therefore also the general status of knowledge and subjectivity. It raises developmental questions about the effects of pathological society and about the health and status of the individual, and whether people generally feel secure enough in themselves to feel open to the world, and to the existential challenges of what it means to be rational in practice. When I think of a science inspired vision of society, I think of a form of social practical and debate that would be open and constantly surveying, rooted in evidence and deep consideration. Science inspires the idea of social engagement and deliberation based on facts, on evidence, and on the constant normative consideration and evaluation of phenomena – that is, a constant knowledge forming process. Modern science much like the enlightenment project in general – they inspire, at least for me, a vision based on a very real and materially substantive philosophy of the subject. And one can imagine how this subjectivity, this epistemology – this alternative way of experiencing the world, set against drives toward confirmation bias and the preservation of worldviews – could be the underpinning of an almost natural egalitarian, democratic process of social thought and deliberation. In many ways, this type of social philosophical vision, these basic normative values, represent the lasting legacy of the enlightenment. Long may that legacy continue to inspire, and long may modern science continue to invigorate the idea of a hopeful future.

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