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Three Pillars; Values, Knowledge and Utility

The case for collaboration and cooperation is based on three pillars; values, knowledge and utility.

To my way of thinking it is what we know combined with utility that provide the clinching arguments. I think they are clinchers because not everyone will accept the values, or they may at the least be sceptical of them. They may be mindful of Machiavelli’s warning (which I quoted in On Power, what is power and where does it come from). But those who start off sceptical can be shown the knowledge, and with utility (because we will be building on the examples of what good looks like that already exist) they will come to see that the alternative works, they will gradually be persuaded.

I think of these three pillars as being built on the foundations of Human Activity, Our story and the Realistic Vision that can be developed 


The values I have tried to derive from first principles are modest enough (Vison, A vision for realists, Mind thought, culture and values) that they should appeal across many groups; they are simply the lowest common denominator of enlightened self-interest. This approach to values is based on the observation that the world is finite and crowded, we have a shared destiny whether we like it or not is beside the point. 


Just knowing that the world is finite and crowded does not take us very far, it may just spur us on to grab as much as we can for the short time we are here. There are some key pieces of knowledge which take us a lot further, I have attempted to round these up in the Parts 1 to 3, here are the key points:

  • Systems thinking and integrative knowledge allows us to join the dots, multidisciplinary approaches to problem solving works
  • The simple story of competition we use as a touch-stone in our political economy is just plain wrong, the amount of co-operation to be found within evolution is enormous
  • Our natures as social primates which, whilst requiring some hierarchy and competition, show very high levels of altruism, collective and cooperative action, joint endeavour, fairness and equity
  • Our culture is part of our environment, we make our culture. Our behaviour is partly and emergent property of the system we live in. If we want to see better behaviour we should look to change our culture (of course we so this now but we do it badly, 

We must give these all aspects of our existence equal treatment in the stories we tell ourselves and encourage them to become integral to our culture, here is why:

We know some other things.

  • Our behaviour is partly an emergent property of the system we live in 
  • Much of the system is fluid - our brains have plasticity, our knowledge is increasing
  • Our culture is part of the system we live in
  • When our culture changes our behaviour will change - look at the past and other at other cultures
  • Our culture is dynamic - do we leave it to chance or to the powerful or try and change it for the better?

Of course we try to change things for the better. My argument is we do it in ways that lack utility.


When it comes to the utility of action, we need to take a longer timescale than is usual in politics at the same time we need to be able to act faster. Politics is renowned for taking a short term view, as Harold Wilson famously said a week is a long time in politics. Politics is also renowned for avoiding difficult and controversial problems, typically in the UK these are given to commissions of enquiry.

When we settle for top down imposition of change with a parliamentary majority based on a minority support the best we can hope to achieve is compliance from everyone else. The reform lacks utility fails because the time and effort that are needed, and eventually expended, to maintain compliance is much greater than it would have been if we had spent the time and effort up from to work out what the problem was, build a consensus round it, implement it in stages with reviews and changes as learning took place. When it comes to imposition (say when we intervene militarily) this problem is thrown into high relief as the years pass on and the cost in blood and treasure mounts up. It is not worth it, not least because it is hopelessly inefficient. In the short term we ram in a sub-optimal solution (doing tit to people not with them), later its either reversed or altered by the next government, most often it just fails to deliver over the longer term. 

All this waste and futile expenditure of effort is at least as expensive as adopting learning, participation, facilitation and teamwork. The difference is that such an approach would have a much higher chance of working (it would have greater utility) and creating a lasting settlement. I am reminded of an old argument in favour of business spending on training, “if you think training is expensive, try ignorance” (Note: Civility Works)

To be very clear then, this is not just an argument against the use of force but also against using power without having gone through a vigorous, open and participatory process, like non-violence this is a strategic choice not a tactic. It must be insisted on and worked at and not be given up in the face of provocation or intransigence. The iron curtain did fall, apartheid did end.

Just because we have chosen to tell ourselves a story that emphasises competition over co-operation, and personal gain over public benefit does not make it right.(Note: and Never Did)

We like to think of ourselves as pragmatic but essentially we are not pragmatic enough, we are not applying what we know works.

It is on these pillars that the principle of action can be developed.