Paradigms of Social Justice and Obligation

by Kyle Davenport

    In our ever changing society, beliefs, customs, institutions, and society's members continuously evolve. Everyone's day brings new problems, ideas, and innovation. How does one person's very palpable and immediate change scale up to many people over the long-term? Popular views of the "large scale" favor vast conflicts between conservative and liberal, rich and poor, capitalist and socialist, good and evil, and other abstracted dichotomies. Apparently popular views of the "long scale" favor Progress, Democracy, and Information and other properly capitalized illusions. The analyses of experts or literati come in many shades and flavors. While they are clearly acceptable in their particular domain, they are therefore eventually trivializing and superficial. Major factors which now need to be addressed include the intrinsic nature of delusion and deception, dynamic theories of complexity, conscious and subconscious motivation.

    What might be a more satisfying conception of social dynamics? In principle, it might be patterned after the system theories and physics of complexity. Quantifiable "expectation values" might be the output of dynamic, mathematical models. Inertia, force, energy, perturbation, etc. could all be well-defined physical correlates. But that would get boring. The utility of a theory is its relevence, which has precious little to do with mathematical and academic satisfaction. Here we will get a glimpse of possibilities. This outline of such a theory will list plausible factors, document system trends, and suggest what dynamic mechanisms might be involved.

    All possible factors in social dynamics can be placed in three broad categories: old beliefs, human nature, and current context. Beliefs and context are familiar factors, but human nature? Any social analysis must recognise the "elements" of society - its people - as cause and not just effect. Popular analyses sadly ignore the findings of psychology, ethology, and sociobiology about human nature and its social expression. The sociobiologist, for instance, recognizes that social behavior is largely a manifestation of genetic programming, so-called fitness strategies. On one level of abstraction, this usefully defines a research program; on deeper levels, any behavior is a balance of competing neural systems, which are responsible for perception, selective attention, motivation, etc - an approach which awaits the maturity of neurobiology. From a different perspective, the psychologist describes genetic programming as various subconscious influences. Consciousness itself is another one of these neural systems important for anticipating the future, reflection upon other neural systems, analysis of behavioral success, modeling other human behavior...

    The objectivist approach, so described, has disturbing, even abhorent, implications to many accustomed to ideational worldviews. Our environment seems to consist of ideas and culture; our values and selves are noumenal or spiritual; we seem to direct our actions and thoughts from moment to moment. The argument would have to be pretty good that contradicted a lifetime of personal experience. The unreformed sociobiologist responds that the increased mental capacities of primates require correspondingly greater genetic control or "hardwiring" to guarantee biologically appropriate behavior. Consciousness developed to reinforce advantageous behavior in the face of more sophisticated adaptation. In the symbolic realm, consciousness provides ever more sophisticated and compelling delusion. The more complete social analysis will have to look beyond an often overrated consciousness and ideational worldview.

The Subconscious Hypothesis - most behavior originates subconsciously, and beliefs or justifications follow.
    Cognitive research has been accumulating evidence on the great extent of subconscious mental activity. [see for example, Langer on mindlessness, split-brain studies by Gazzaniga, Hilgard on multiple consciousness, and various demonstrations of subliminal perception] Mental processing begins at the "lowliest" sensory neuron and is the very mechanism of sensory integration and systemic response. But our decisions to act are supposedly above all that. Daniel Goleman has elaborated upon how much these decisions are themselves subconscious [1985]. Even very complicated habits can be performed without being conscious of all the mental activity involved. But habits might simply be internalized decisions which were originally conscious - as in Freudian theories. Not just decisions but also goals may be set subconsciously. [Weiss] Seemingly conscious decisions could really be based on subconscious goals and priorities. Most could adduce some incident involving an intuition, insight, or resolution that just occurred to them, ready-made. So subconscious decisions are clearly possible. Just how often do they represent the motivation behind behavior from moment to moment? Well, those statistics have not been done yet.

Elements of the Subconcious

    The reality of beliefs and feelings is ambiguous insubstantiality; they are popular abstractions of deep brain structure and unknown dynamics. As contextual expressions of - mostly unrecognized - sociobiological motivations, they are flimsy, ephemeral, and expedient. Yet they are the currency of every human being - who is of necessity an expert in the human calculus of understanding and predicting behavior in terms of belief, feeling, and rhetoric. As an ad hoc, subjective, restrictive, and eventually frustrating exercise, human calculus is not enough. Greater insight is possible. Proximately, humans eat for taste, but ultimately, they eat for food energy and survival. Any particular belief develops from both chance and necessity - drawn from a lottery of local, acceptable beliefs as necessary or appropriate. And, the local stock of beliefs is full of accepted rationalizations, cliches, and meaningless delusions. Beliefs often directly contradict the behavior they allegedly justify. Then they serve as distraction and delusion.

The Subconscious Hypothesis, whatever its merits as a belief itself, effectively expands inquiry and explanation. By contrast, the traditional psychologies and sociologies often distract from the quest to understand by their belief in beliefs, which sets up a barrier to further inquiry. Accepting beliefs as explanations of behavior is precisely the intent of belief invention, alias rationalization, in the first place. Rationalizations are constructed to distract from "deeper reasons or intentions". In the broadest application of the hypothesis, few if any beliefs are not really in some sense rationalizations. Just as the hypothesis is essential to understanding individual behavior, so is it central to social analysis. It is at least a first stop on the road to understanding behavior, which continues past context and mental state on to life history, ontogeny, our genes and their "coevolutionary" origins. [Wilson & Lumsden]

    I will refer to beliefs in my exposition because they are convenient and familiar. They are reflections or symptoms of the real dynamics of behavior, if only as heuristic discourse. They are of necessity the atoms of consciousness with which we reason. To describe the global changes in society, the accompanying or symptomatic beliefs will be used here. To the degree familiar beliefs are expressions of subconscious influences, the hypothesis will be demonstrated at the same time.

    Of all the conceivable factors frequently described as our modern context, I propose that these five have a major influence:

  • technology, complexity and their growing rate of change
  • anonymity, crowding, heterogeneity, globalism
  • dangerous environment, poor diet and health
  • poverty and inequality of wealth and opportunity
  • corporate statism and resultant "distractive" economics
  •     These factors are substantial and conceivably quantifiable, and individuals will be affected, more and less, regardless of perspective. Any of these factors would have a significant impact on subconscious motivations, regardless of current beliefs or attempts to influence beliefs. An example: anomie is the state of society in which norms weakly affect belief and behavior - a frequently made observation of our society, in various fashions. Old beliefs in family, community, honor and respect are being outdated by anonymous, centralized power and ruthless greed. Few are likely to admit a desire for authoritarianism, and few have not urged a return to traditional values. But the trend continues anyway. Historically, these changes are typical of western civilization, and have been growing, discontinuously, over the past two millenia.

        I have come to view many of the latest developments in our society as aspects of a few generalizations. What follows here will elaborate upon those generalizations with especially adverse consequences. Whatever positive trends exist already have enough publicity. Spanning these new developments seems to be a loss of personal choice and control. Certainly, modern life provides greater choice in many ways, as in diet, religion, consumer goods, information... But at what price? These choices weigh light in the balance with the trends to follow. Cognitive research shows that psychological reactions to loss of control are anxiety, neurosis, and apathy - which speak strongly of our time. This century marks ever increasing change and crisis. No sooner do we enter a "new age" when another comes to overshadow it. Is this the nuclear age, the space age, the information age, or what? What most alarms us is not just change, but the rate of change, and accelerating variables tend to blow up.

      I. The Protection Rackets, Security, & Risk-Avoidance
      II. Presumptive criminalization
      III. Criminals lose all rights
      IV. Uncommon or disapproved behavior as mental sickness/disease
      V. Institutionalization of inequality
      VI. Public vs. private good (& bad)
      VII. Extra-territorial lawlessness ("end" justifies means)
      VIII Legislating morality
      IX. Informing and other violations of social contract
      X. Meta-trends
      References and Reading List