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The principles of action

The principles of action that are needed to bring about this change are both simple to articulate and easy to understand. They will be challenging to put in to practice because we have to start over when it comes to telling the story of cooperation and collaboration. I hope I have demonstrated this is far from impossible and is our best chance of success, they rest on a minimal set of values, what we know about ourselves and long term utility.

So, having looked at the foundation and pillars on which action is to be taken, the essential principles that guide our choice of action come to this;

  • Freedom is limited
  • Citizenship is a birth-right
  • Means must be matched to ends
  • All people deserve respect

1 Freedom is limited - by its impact on the planet and others

This is not anti-freedom, it is merely an empirical observation. Freedom both personal and collective just is limited. Freedom is limited by our makeup, how much free will we have (if any), the mere existence of other people and how our actions impact on others.

Any way we look to the future, the fact is that we live on a crowded planet with finite resources, either we negotiate our way through the challenges we face or leave it to chance. We risk war, famine, pestilence and fire against the chance that it will all turn out OK. Whatever we do has the potential to impact others now and in future generations, therefore we will act in ways that allow our impacts to be moderated by open negotiation.

2 Citizenship is a birth-right – there must be equality of citizenship regardless of wealth

This is not an argument for total equality, which for a hierarchical social primate is likely a step too far, but is an observation of the human condition in which we all exist.

None of us asked to be here, and none of us is entirely responsible for our good or poor fortune, none of us can take anything with us. The majority of mankind lived off the land until as recently as 1600. We are social primates with different inheritances and although we will never be intellectually or materially equal, we are all citizens. As citizens we have shared civic duties and responsibilities which we expect to be observed and honoured by all.

3 Means must be matched to ends – if not the means reveal hypocrisy about the end

That the end justifies the means is perhaps one of the most damaging of our stories, more damaging than, say, thinking public good can come from private bad. It is clung to as dearly as some people cling to freedom or free will. It was, ultimately, the reason why the Bolsheviks thought that they could usher in communism using the vanguard party on behalf of a proletariat that had yet to be brought into existence. It is, ultimately the reason why The Inquisition could kill you to save your soul. It plays (with often disastrous consequences) to our natural altruism and empathy because when we see a wrong we want to do something about it and can justify all sort of lesser wrongs in the process. I did not come to this position easily myself.

If, as Freedman suggests (Freedman op.cit), there are truly only three generic strategies (violence, deception or co-operation) then despite our history of deception and violence we must learn to cooperate.  Deception and violence cause reactions that bring about war (at worst) or an impasse (at best). One might argue that running away is a fourth generic strategy, so giving - violence, deception, coercion and avoidance. However we have run out of space, the frontiers have long been occupied and refugees have limited options. Running away is no longer on offer (Scott op.cit.) you and the people you flee to end up having to use one of the other strategies.

On pragmatic grounds, only cooperation has sufficient utility to be the basis for a political settlement on a crowded planet. Remembering Machiavelli, however I will add that the use of force cannot be ruled out, but it can only be as a retaliation to establish reciprocity (that we are not a push over), with the intention of starting (or returning to) a willingness to cooperate.

4 All people deserve respect - upholding the golden rule

Another difficult call, I don’t advocate this because it is easy, it is actually very difficult.

It is impossible to sympathise with the cruel, the barbaric or the murderous, nor should we. But away from the extremes it is much too easy (and turbo-boosted by social media) to dismiss someone as a sleaze, cheat, or embodiment of evil. In politics our combative system encourages point scoring. It is easier than having to engage our reason (our power to do abstract rational thought). This, it seems to me, is the dealing with people, equivalent of what Daniel Kahneman described with the metaphor of System 1 and System 2 in the brain when it comes to decision making. System 1 allows us to make quick heuristic judgements. System 2 requires hard work. (Kahneman p19-97).

Non of use asked to be here and because all our actions cause reactions it is necessary that we act in an open, inclusive way seeking to persuade. In short we have to behave to others just the way we would wish to be treated ourselves. This requires us to engage our brains and do some hard thinking work and not just give in to emotional knee jerk reactions. For the hard work we have to use a due process. For understanding we have psychology and neuroscience; we should attempt to understand others because it is only through knowledge that we can hope to create societies and cultures that minimise bad behaviour (of all sorts). Yes we have come a long way by trial and error, but now we need to start making deliberate progress.

We have no other rational choice but to reject coercion and stop our reliance on (grudging) compliance because it lacks long-term utility. What we have to do is understand how we, emotional social primates, can construct a decent culture using our collective knowledge, by the application of a collective exercise of self-conscious thought.

If the votes for Brexit and Trump were indeed protests against the political elites that promised but never delivered trickle down, then the days of relying on grudging compliance may be over – what takes their place matters, existentially.