Taking life philosophically.
22 May 2012
We now think that for something to be real to us its existence has to be verified digitally. Unless you are moving the cursor or typing text on the screen, you are not really working. Unless you take a picture of it with your phone, it did not really happen. Unless you “share your location” on Facebook, you did not really go to that bar with your friends. Unless it is digital it is not real.
This is understandable. When an event is documented, it becomes more real. Digital means of reproduction and verification are more persuasive than mere words. And because such means are now available to everyone, we have to use them if we expect others to believe that we are talking about something real. Thus, unless it is digital it is not real.
Unless it is digital it is not real. But even if it is digital, it is not necessarily real. I think this is where we trip up. Being digital may be a necessary condition for reality, but it is not a sufficient condition.
How many hours each day are spent on digital procrastination because having a computer on your lap makes it seem as if you are working? Did you even really go to that bar if you spent the whole night posting about it on Facebook—while not busy taking photos of yourself with your friends? Does the fact that you can tweet about your boredom really make it a topic for meaningful conversation?
The observations and the reasoning behind these ideas are nothing new. Go ask Plato. But the situation is new. Although digitalization has proceeded through various stages, I think mobile networking was required really to make the illusion convincing.
To be able to think that the computer is not just a gateway to reality but a source of reality you have to carry the computer with you physically at all times and know that everyone else is doing the same thing. Digitalizing your thoughts or experiences cannot be more laborious than using your mouth to talk about them. And in fact it is now less laborious.
22 November 2011
Is Barack Obama happy? Was Julius Caesar happy? It is not a common question to ask about the happiness of a political leader. It is more common to ask whether he is unjust or corrupt or power-hungry or evil (or even weird). Although everyone is expected to participate in the pursuit of happiness both individually and collectively, our leaders remain reduced to instruments of other people’s happiness. It does not matter if the leaders are happy because their only function is to enable other people’s happiness. When the fail to perform that function either by choice or by inability, they are removed from their position.
If happiness is not generally thought to be among the many advantages associated with leadership, Niccolò Machiavelli as a teacher of hardnosed political realism seems not to give much importance to the happiness of his ideal prince either. However, Wayne Rebhorn notes something that nicely aligns with my interpretation of certain difficult passages in Machiavelli: the idea of happiness, a personal a subjective goal behind all the political maneuvers of The Prince.
Machiavelli uses the word felice, happy, in different forms in the notoriously problematic 25th chapter of the book, and Rebhorn’s interpretation1 of this concentration of words seems to me plausible: “Although editors and translators want to turn felice into ‘prosperous’ and felicitare into something like ‘to prosper’ or ‘to succeed,’ the words have these senses only metaphorically.” Instead, Machiavelli simply means authentic happiness. The goal of the prince of The Prince is not to be a slave to the endless pursuit of success or power, but to pursue his own happiness (while hopefully working for the common good as well).
The standard interpretation is that fortune for Machiavelli in general means the capricious nature of the events of the world and the goddess Fortuna as the cause and the personification of these events. However, I believe that in the specific sense that fortune means fate it is not related only to the external world but also to the internal world, or the psychology, of the agent. Therefore Rebhorn’s “psychological” interpretation of felice and felicitare is another reason to believe my thesis is correct.
With the metaphor of fortune as (a) woman in chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli seems to hint that a virtuous man seems capable of dominating the feminine fortune. Although Machiavelli often says that we cannot oppose fortune, many people have thought that with the woman metaphor he ultimately rejects the idea of all-powerful fortune and instead believes that given the right tools and knowledge, we can largely control the events of the external world.
However, I think that when Machiavelli writes that there is no way we can oppose fortune, he really means it. But fortune’s power does not extend to all things, and more specifically it (or she) does not determine whether the prince (or anyone else for that matter) will be happy or not. While fortune as fate controls the events of the external world, it has no power over the way we decide to live through those events. We can take them with Stoic tranquillity, and our happiness depends on how good and how persistent we are at this.
22 July 2011
Like everyone knows, Adam Smith thought that by acting selfishly, people end up working for the common good. This is the famous idea of the invisible hand. The idea is commonly used to defend free markets and to justify selfishness.
In Finland — and as I assume, in other societies with a similar political culture — this idea has never been completely accepted. Even if the invisible hand mostly works, according to a Finn, it still needs a little help from the more visible hands of the government. Yet, it has become relatively acceptable to believe that selfishness is not always something totally immoral. This is why I was surprised to hear what the influential business coach Jari Sarasvuo said recently (article in Finnish).
Essentially, Sarasvuo believes that to keep Finland financially healthy, everyone needs to work more (even the children actually). Those who believe in the invisible hand would agree with him on this, and they would go on to say that people will work more once they are given enough selfish reasons to do so. However, Sarasvuo believes that selfishness itself is a part of the problem: he pinpoints the recent trend of “downshifting” as being nothing but selfishness.
It is important to keep things straight. Merely calling something selfish is not interesting, if it is not selfish in any interesting way. Sometimes selfishness is entirely justified. It depends both on the kind of selfishness it is and on the circumstances.
I believe that as a businessman, Sarasvuo has to be sympathetic to the idea of the invisible hand. Yet, he seems to make a significant qualification. Not any kind of selfishness is justified. According to him, the kind of selfishness we want is a kind of unselfish selfishness: we have a duty to be selfish to promote the common good. (Holy logical contradiction, Batman!) Downshifting is unacceptable because it is selfish selfishness, or being selfish for the wrong, selfish reasons, such as to spend more time with one’s family, on one’s hobbies or simply to relax.
I am guessing that the problem with selfishness was always that the competition between people would lead to strife. The invisible hand is a way to explain the fact that this is not always the case. However, with downshifting such fears are obviously not reasonable to begin with, as it can hardly lead to conflicts. Downshifters do not compete against each other for a limited resource; they merely take something that is already theirs — their time — and use it in the way they find the most meaningful.
In fact, if downshifting is motivated by selfishness, it is a kind of selfishness that is even easier to justify than the selfishness of the marketplace. It is selfishness aimed at understanding oneself, nurturing oneself, expressing oneself and connecting oneself with others. Without selfishness like this, even true, unselfish unselfishness is likely to be impossible.
23 April 2011
The True Finns’ (Perussuomalaiset in Finnish) victory in the Finnish parliamentary elections last week is clouded by hate in more than one sense. There are people who accuse the True Finns of advancing a politics of hate. These accusations are largely based on the idea of the True Finns’ views on immigration as being xenophobic.
On the other hand, the True Finns themselves appear to be the most hated party in the country: in a recent poll (in Finnish), 2000 voters were given the opportunity to vote not for but against a party, and the True Finns received the most negative votes.
Machiavelli famously wrote that it is better to be feared than loved; somewhat less famously he added that it is even more important not to be hated. In democratic politics fear can no longer be used like a Renaissance prince might have used it, because the democratic structures guarantee a high level of safety, but hate and love still play an important role in politics.
What would Machiavelli say about the hate the True Finns attract? First of all, he would point out how the party leader Timo Soini often wears the scarf of Millwall FC, the football team he supports. In their chant, Millwall fans openly proclaim that “no one likes us, we don’t care”. In reality they do care of course: they believe they are the nimble little David courageously facing the Goliath of the world’s injustices. If the world did not hate them, they would lack a suitable enemy. Undoubtedly Millwall’s underdog status is part of what appeals to Soini, and it is not difficult to see the True Finns themselves using the same kind of dynamic to their advantage.
Machiavelli would go on to say how the True Finns craft a coarse, unrefined image of themselves to trigger the hate of the sophisticated elites. He would perhaps say that even small details from the awkward language of their election manifesto to the clumsy graphical design of their website are all part of a deliberate strategy. Naturally everything about this happens on the level of appearances. Just like a Google search of “I hate Chelsea” gives fifteen times the results of that of “I hate Millwall”, the True Finns are not really all that hated either: they have just been successful in appearing to be hated, which at least in this case is even better than actually being hated. Soini’s brilliance is in that he has found a way to push the buttons of a vocal minority, while not actually offending the majority of the voters.
What would be Machiavelli’s rimedio against the strategy of becoming a David through being hated (or more accurately, through appearing to be hated)? Perhaps there is no single remedy. The strength of the strategy is that it makes use of a common gut reaction: an open-minded, educated person is easily offended by the crude simplifications of the populist. Therefore the populist will inevitably succeed in offending many people and getting angry reactions.
In retrospect, many of the True Finns’ opponents got caught up in opposing Soini’s populism instead of arguing for their own ideas. One experienced politician (in Finnish) even admitted that he decided to become a candidate just to offer a hand in the fight against the True Finns. The True Finns have also been successful (if that is the right word to use) in getting unsympathetic portrayals in the Finnish media, which has helped their message of fighting for the common man against not just the big political powers, but also against the biased journalists.
There are many people that could have kept their heads a bit cooler during the campaign, but these things are not under the control of any single person, even if he is a party leader. Still, a more constructive attitude towards the True Finns’ proposals might have led to a different outcome.
7 April 2011
It is sometimes said that Niccolò Machiavelli was not Machiavellian. The idea is that the concept of Machiavellianism now has a life of its own and is not even meant to describe what the Florentine author himself thought. Thus Machiavellianism is taken to mean manipulating other people for personal gain, while Machiavelli is seen as just a political realist or a republican who hoped to see Italy united.
This way of thinking is not completely mistaken. Machiavelli has indeed been demonized during the centuries. But if he was not the devil, he was not an angel either. He was often ambiguous. A deep interest in human nature and how people behave in social settings can be considered suspicious, although it might be completely innocent. My subject here is an example of Machiavelli’s interest in human nature.
As kids we all learn that one way to get something is to give something first. This works because when a person receives a favor, he normally feels obligated to return it. This sensation of obligation to reciprocate seems to be innate, and it is probably one of the first things a person learns about human nature. And once you know it, you are likely to rely on it in your social interaction.
However, Machiavelli knew that reciprocation is not everything. In Chapter 10 of The Prince he writes thus: “And the nature of men is to be obligated as much by benefits they give as by benefits they receive.” Thus he asserts that although doing favors generates a feeling of obligation in the recipient, receiving favors from people has the same effect.
This seems counterintuitive at first: why would doing you a favor once make me more willing to do you a favor another time? To answer the question it is necessary to understand something about consistency as a trait in human interaction.
An adult human being feels the need to be consistent in his choices. It is part of human nature. The choices you make have to be in harmony with the choices you have made in the past. If on Monday you say that the positive health effects of tea conclusively prove its superiority to coffee, you cannot say on Tuesday that coffee is obviously the better beverage, and the only thing that gets you started in the morning.
In logical terms, at the bottom of this there is the law of non-contradiction: if you say that p, you cannot say that not p. If you say that coffee is better than tea, you cannot say that it is not better than tea. However, it goes further than that.
Roughly speaking, the law only requires that you do not hold or express contradictory views at the same time. Yet, the feeling of need to be consistent applies to future and past events too. If at one moment you commit to something, you feel the need to respect that commitment in the future as well. The commitment can be to anything: a fact (the superiority or inferiority of coffee to tea), ideology, or a person, for example. (In Machiavelli’s example case, the people feel committed to defending the prince.) Essentially the point is that there is a stigma attached to changing your mind, all the more when you have committed to something publicly.
For my purposes here it is not important to know exactly how the feeling of having to be consistent has become part of human nature, although there are several factors involved. Consistency simplifies your choices and saves you time and trouble: you always choose the same thing. Being consistent makes you more respected by others as you appear to be a principled person. More could be added to this list, but the important thing here is that the feeling is real. And because it is real, the choices you make continue to affect your future choices, because you feel the need to be consistent with the earlier ones. This means that if I choose to do you a favor, I am more likely to do you another favor in the future just to avoid being inconsistent. And, if you choose to do so, you can exploit this weakness of mine.
In his excellent book Influence (on which I draw for my description of consistency as part of human nature), Robert Cialdini cites Ralph Waldo Emerson in the context of commitment and consistency. In Emerson’s words, a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. Emerson, however, lived and wrote in the 19th century, more than three hundred years after Machiavelli had written his most famous work in exile in the Tuscan countryside.